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My race to space in the Axe Apollo Contest is finally over, after 167 days with the space suit. It will likely require fumigation at this point. The results aren’t in yet, but they’ll be announced on www.facebook.com/axecanada. There are way too many people to thank for their support, both in spirit and in practical matters like pie organization, but I’ll try here:

Debbie Ha for relentless support throughout the entire campaign. She’s the person not shown in almost every single picture and video. My family for rooting for me, recognizing the toll the campaign took on me, and supporting me in everything I do. Glen LaValley for his magnificent balloon art. Tyler Collins, Thanh, Linh, Jordana, for the balloon alien video. Tyler especially for his voice acting and sound editing skills (takes way longer than you can imagine). Michelle Lam for her inspiring Project 365 which sparked the idea in me. Kaitlyn Slump whose photography skills produced the featured Astro-Hal image at the end of every video (and at the beginning of this post). Jonny & J’Lyn at 92.5 Fresh FM for inviting me in for an interview. Ryan Jespersen for inviting me into an impromptu Breakfast TV appearance. Jason Halbauer for inviting me out for a subsequent later interview with the fabulous Bridget. Jordana Archer for taking pics of Astro-Hal throughout Europe, and for putting me in touch with the right people in Prince George. The folks at the TNRD in Kamloops for giving me such a warm welcome. Jennifer Stahn from InfoTel in Kamloops for a fantastic interview and article. Brittany (Zumba by Brittany) and many dancers who let me film a zumba class in an astro suit. Parson’s Shoe ReNu in Vancouver for fixing my astro boots, making them the closest to legitimate they’ll ever come. Edmonton Skydive for not only doing the skydive video, but putting me in touch with CTV afterward (Joey, you’re awesome!). Jesse Beyer for a fun interview on CTV morning, and Amanda for helping me get set up properly. My colleagues at work, especially Brian McPherson and his family. His daughter was probably tied for number one fan with my niece. Nick Rogers for donning the suit for a doppleganger shot. Jim Bauer and Dave Mailhot for doing a quadcopter scene. CFIS FM for a great interview long enough for me to really reflect on the journey. West Edmonton Mall for kicking me out before I got to walk anywhere in my space suit and space buggy (again made by the amazing Glen LaValley, who stayed up almost all night putting it together). City councellor Linda Sloan for being game to take a photo and video. Thomas McIntyre for showing up to countless events in support, including skydiving with Tyler, Natasha, and Laurelle. Brad OH Inc. (www.bradohinc.com) and Joe Wimberly for organizing the Bus Hijinx and Pie Hijnx, both of which were hilarious and awesome. The epic BBQ after the pie hijinx was a great time. Thanks to Kylie, the only person brave enough to be pied by an astronaut. The writing community in Edmonton for putting up with me and supporting me relentlessly, even when I show up at book launches unrelated to space in any way whatsoever : Billie Mulholland, Barb Galler-Smith, Eileen Bell, and all of the members of the Edmonton Writers Group. My favourite author, Robert J. Sawyer, for sharing and showing his support. EVERYONE who shared content and showed their support, for I’m sure I annoyed the news feeds of everyone within 3 or 4 degrees of separation. Thanks to @ReinventingBrad on Twitter, whom I never met but supported me nonetheless. Thanks to the lovely person who left me a note on my car saying “YOU ROCK!” Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who was willing to take a photo with a wacko in a space suit with a dream.

And thank you to the guy on Whyte Ave who called me Superman after I changed out of my suit in a public phone booth.

For your enjoyment, here are all the video adventures from the journey. And if you’ve forgotten where the campaign website is, check it out here: The infamous spaceman


Yes. You can. Here’s how I did it:

1. Find one on Kijiji. 

The one I got was a Free Spirit 302001, about 7-8 years old. Free Spirit is a good company for value treadmills without a lot of frills, and some other ones to keep in mind are True, Life Fitness, Pace Master, and Lifespan. I saw some Nordictrack treadmills in the $300 price range and most were willing to part with it for $250, but I’ve heard mixed reviews on their quality. I got mine for $180.

I ended up using angle brackets at the base for stability. Miraculously, it was level!

I ended up using angle brackets at the base for stability. Miraculously, it was level!

2. Buy wood & hardware. 

I bought:

-one 2 X 12 (for main support of monitor) : $20

-two 1 X 6s (for keyboard mount and platforms) : $10

-8 feet of corner trim (for the adjustable keyboard slots) : $10

-screws and nails: $5

-4 metal angle brackets: $12

-particle board for keyboard tray: $5

In total, I spent about $250. Assuming you have access to drills and saws, the rest is just putting in the time.

3. Construction.

I built the monitor holder first, and decided to make it slightly shorter, since I could always pile up a few books to raise the monitor height but I’d have a hard time bringing it down. The height for my treadmill was 1.5 m. The width was 0.75 m. IMG_20130320_235407

The basic idea was a shelf with some support in the middle–you might have to modify depending on the shape of your treadmill.

For the keyboard tray, I drilled 2 holes into each arm of the treadmill, and bolted my pre-assembled 1X6s to the sides. Using that slightly-expensive corner trim (with small nails to avoid splitting) enabled me to make a keyboard tray suitable for a variety of heights!


It took a few nights and part of a weekend to finish, but now I write this post on my treadmill desk! So far I’ve only been able to go about 2.25 kph (1.5 mph) before I get too distracted by the movement to do anything productive. Hopefully that’ll get better in time.

Fun Facts about Treadmill Desks

Apparently people are 16% less productive (typing speed and accuracy) on treadmill desks, but that doesn’t necessarily take into account the increased levels of energy. Google, Microsoft and Evernote are some companies that are already using them in the workplace, although more in common areas that employees can use for a while before going back to their regular workstations. Apparently when employees were offered bikes as an alternative to desk chairs, only 19% kept using them after four weeks. We’ll see how I fare.

This week’s “What-if” post was a bit closer to reality than normal, but next week I should be up to my regular hijinks.

"You must be [mad], or you wouldn't have come here."

“You must be [mad], or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Does believing in the disappearing cat from Alice in Wonderland qualify you as a crazy-cat-person? Let’s take a gander through the looking glass and find out.

Vexing Riddles & Mannerisms

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

The Cheshire cat speaks in riddles, making him nearly unintelligible despite the fact that he can speak. There are two possibilities that need to be investigated:

1. You’re being hypnotized or mad as a hatter.

2. There are developmental reasons why the cat can’t say much of use.

Possibility 1: Hypnotization.

After some searching it would appear that Sarah Hartwell is the Internet’s foremost cat expert, and most of what I’m about to say is straight from her thorough research.

There have been suggestions that cats can call birds to them by chattering their teeth, inducing a form of hypnosis through the high-frequency jitter. It’s possible that this sound could make prey–which would normally avoid the cat–overcome caution for curiosity.

These teeth are better than any opiate.

These teeth are better than any opiate.

There are a great many curious things in Wonderland, and the Cheshire cat appears to have a tremendously large set of teeth. It might be reasonable to conclude that the purpose of his large set of fangs is solely to hypnotize and induce drug-like hallucinatory effects, which could explain a lot of what occurs in Alice in Wonderland (and despite rumours to the contrary, Lewis Carroll was not on drugs when he recorded the events).

Unfortunately there are few other easy ways to prove whether or not Alice was hallucinating during or after her encounter with the Cheshire Cat, so we shall just have to accept the possibility of madness or hallucination and keep tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Possibility 2: Cat Development.

It’s been said that dogs speak only in consonants, whereas cats make use of vowels (or vice versa, depending on who you ask). In fact, the extent to which cats seem to be able to give more nuance to their utterances prompted Alphonse Leon Grimaldi, in 1895, to declare the discovery of cat language. He made reference to 63 different notes, while others made different categorizations to try and better understand their feline companions. Some have declared there to be 19 different meows. Despite the lack of agreement there seems to be a common theme that cats have much richer inner lives than they might otherwise let on. Some have suggested that were the speech of cats studied as rigorously as birdsong, we would recognize the depth to which it really goes.

Theories abound, but little remains proven. There is anecdotal evidence that numerous cats have been reported speaking to their owners in either Turkish, Mandarin or Cantonese, but unfortunately there is a strong correlation between the number of these claims and the number of crazy cat persons.

What has been observed, however, is that cats get positive feedback from sounds. They learn that a certain sound can invoke a given behaviour in their owner, and so development continues in this vein, progressing from simple tonal indications of pleasure or displeasure, all the way to near-conversation. That’s right–cats can mimic patterns of noise and pauses, so that if you were to muffle the sound, the overall impression would be that of two people talking. And this ability seems to get better with age.

Even if the Cheshire Cat weren’t speaking originally in English, it’s possible that he has a cat-speech interpreting device that tries to make sense of his larynx output. And if he had learned to mimic conversation by tonal patterns and pauses, it’s very possible that the speechbot’s output would be exactly what was observed…


“Haste makes waste, so I rarely hurry. But if a ferret were about to dart up my dress, I’d run.”


Bending light completely around an object is no longer the realm of fiction. Metamaterials research is an intensely interesting field of research right now, and the concept of cloaking is pretty simple. We can see things because of light scattering off them. Metamaterials suppress this scatter, and bend the light in such a way as though nothing were ever there in the first place.

How is this done? The advance of nanotechnology has allowed us to create patterns on such a small scale that we really can fine-tune how all of the normally scattered waves combine. We can make them cancel out, add up, in almost anyway imaginable because of the degree to which we can now control structure. One of the major hurdles, however, is the fact that this process is colour-sensitive, so that a material can be designed to perfectly cloak one colour. However, that means we can still see it in the rest of the visible spectrum. The road toward a perfect cloak will require a lot of work getting metamaterials that work for a broad spectrum of colours, and that’ll take a lot of computing. We might have time for a few catnaps between now and then, unless we can snatch the Cheshire Cat and figure out his secret.

Perpetual, huge smile

The cats of Cheshire England could potentially have a genetic adaptation in their jaws for hypnotizing their prey, in which case the large set of teeth makes sense, and we probably have long ago stopped making sense to those around us. Another possibility, however, is the fact that the Cheshire Cat has to have a way to observe the world around him, while still perhaps remaining cloaked. That means that he must have a way of selectively letting light pass through an aperture in his metamaterial cloak.

To maximize his field of view from a small aperture, a fisheye lens could be the cat’s best bet (although he might be sorely disappointed it tastes nothing like the real organism). You might already be familiar with some of the distortion effects a fisheye lens has on an object. Now if I were to apply this effect on our cat, and suggest that perhaps the lens is a trifle wider than it is tall to account for the cat’s binocular vision, we get the following result:

He could very well have a normal smile...

He could very well have a normal smile…

Fisheye Distortion might be responsible for the Cheshire Cat's signature sneer.

… with a bit of Fisheye Distortion to give the Cheshire Cat’s signature sneer.

Fur Colour

Apparently a cat’s fur can change colour based on temperature, sun, nutrition, and age. It is hard to imagine how such a vivid colour could be created through these factors alone, and let us assume that the Cheshire Cat’s owner is not drinking the Kool-Aid, or rather, not pouring it on his poor pussycat.

Another explanation, more in line with the above arguments, is that the metamaterial cloak the Cheshire Cat uses is imperfect, and less effective for shorter wavelengths (i.e. blue and purple!). All the colours of the rainbow go gliding on by, except the famously bright hues shown above.

It’s clear the Cheshire Cat has achieved complete invisibility, even if he selectively chooses to leave his fisheye lens aperture open to interact with the world. Therefore, a further explanation is that he has a secondary device which he switches on or off, working primarily on his signature blues and purples. The primary metamaterial cloak he keeps on all the time, rendering him mostly invisible if only us pesky humans couldn’t see purple.

The Verdict

The Cheshire Cat could be a normal cat, with the following devices:

1. A cat-speech interpreter that reflects the limits of cat language mimicry.

2. A primary metamaterial invisibility cloak that doesn’t work so well on shorter wavelengths (blues and purples).

3. A secondary, switch-activated cloak that renders him completely invisible; and

4. An apertured fisheye lens near his mouth that distorts his teeth in such a way as to make his grin appear larger than it really is.

In short, the Cheshire Cat is real, and he’s out there. Right now.

The cat behind the cloak.

The cat behind the cloak.

Be sure to check back next week for the next “What if” segment. Have suggestions for the next article? Post them in the comments or e-mail hal.friesen@gmail.com.

Could this be the Cheshire cat's preliminary cloaking enclosure?

Could this be the Cheshire cat’s preliminary cloaking enclosure?


It's as hot inside as it is out.

(The campaign is now officially over — thank you everyone for your support!)

Wearing  a space suit everyday, reaching out to the community. Check out the Astro-HAL site for much more!

Community outreach is a huge part of being an astronaut, because astronauts are inspirational figures who show us the impossible is possible, that it’s not too far out of reach. Which is why, from this day forward until the end of the Apollo contest, I will be wearing an astronaut costume to capture one photograph with a new person every day. I will volunteer in various organizations and wear the suit where appropriate. I want to proveto the world that I care enough about humanity that you should care to send me into space. I hope to earn a bit of your trust, faith, and hopefully spark a little inspiration along the ride.


Trouble voting? Make sure you have a Facebook account, then hover your mouse just below the rank number on the Axe page. You’ll have to grant the Axe Apollo app permission in order to vote.

2013-04-17 09.17.58

Pineapple PossibilityI probably don’t need to tell you who lives in a pineapple under the sea, but for those interested in selecting the ideal underwater dwelling, I’ve put together this helpful flow chart to get you on the right track. And here are some good reasons why you’d want to live under the sea. For the record, yes, this flowchart implies that Aqua Man would live in an aquarium.

Okay, so maybe you’re not a sponge, and maybe your pants don’t happen to be square (or rectangular, as the case may be). But you still want to live in a pineapple. Under the sea. Can you do it?

Simplifying aqueous realty since 1985.

Simplifying aqueous realty since 1985.

First of all, there is evidence that the plucky yellow sponge does not, in fact, live in a real pineapple under the sea, since his house displays bilateral symmetry which no natural pineapple would ever exhibit. It just so happens that, looking from the top of the fruit, the number of clockwise spirals and counter-clockwise spirals have totals that are two consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. (The Fibonacci sequence is a collection of numbers formed by adding the two preceding values, starting with 0,1, followed by 1,2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.). As pointed out by Vi Hart, SpongeBob’s pineapple does not exhibit this beautiful display of math in nature.

But I digress. It is clear that the show is a fictionalized account of a heroic sponge living on the frontier of the ocean floor, and some dramatization may have misrepresented certain details. On to the more pressing matters.

The Pressure

Any diver can testify to the tremendous water pressure at very large depths. Pressurized suits (with or without squirrel) are needed beyond a certain point. Can a pineapple handle it?

The first thing the pineapple has on its side is shape. It turns out that one of the best ways to withstand the tremendous fluid pressures is with a cylindrical tower or sphere. I think our oblate tower of citrus counts.

Scientific PineappleWhat about overall compressive strength? A study in Guangdong, China, was done with the aim of making robotic pineapple pickers, who obviously do not want to rupture the fruit. It turns out that between 0.146 – 0.243 MPa is the compression limit for fresh Bali pineapple. This is about 2.4 atmospheres of pressure, and corresponds to a maximum ocean depth of 14 m. One can hardly say that qualifies as “under the sea”. We could conduct a more in-depth study ourselves on other varieties of pineapple, but that would probably involve using a penetrometer, which doesn’t sound like any fun at all. I wish I were joking.

Continually hoping robotic fruit pickers are never given penetrometers.

Continually hoping robotic fruit pickers are never given penetrometers.

Is there a way around this limit? In canning and preservation processes, structural rigidity can be increased by bathing fruit in calcium salts, which forms hard calcium pectates. It is hard to imagine that such a controlled environment could improve the compressive strength by more than double, which still only brings us down a few dozen meters. Botanists can’t solve our pineapple fever.

Maybe structural engineers can. It seems like there is a metal lining in parts (if not all) of SpongeBob’s home. Concrete compressive strength is about 50 MPa,  whilst steel is about 200 MPa (corresponding to 5000 m and 20,000 m, respectively). Mariana’s Trench (the deepest known part of the ocean) has a maximum depth of 10.9 km, so somewhere in between steel and concrete would do just fine for our fruit housing needs.

There have been demonstrable improvements to asphalt concrete by replacing the coarse aggregate with palm kernel shells. Maybe we could do the same with pineapple?

You can certainly make delicious foam with it, but that’s not of the construction variety. You can cook in it, make drinks in it, salad decorations, compile a detailed list of associated crafts on which to use its various parts, eat the shell, and even make paper out of it. But can you make a concrete composite out of it?

It seems that, generically, organic materials can be made into composites and other nifty things for construction. Even here in Edmonton, Alberta, a huge portion of the city’s waste is recycled into fuels, construction materials, quite literally using the garbage to pick up the garbage. It’s remarkable how far humanity has come in this regard. However, pineapple shell is not listed on Mother Nature’s building materials, nor is it on California’s approved green materials list. No! How has the pineapple been exempt from such fame? Surely, someone, somewhere must have realized the fruit’s potential and reused pineapple for construction?

Indeed someone has: a form of rubber with pineapple fiber and clay composites. Unfortunately I didn’t have access to the exact numbers, but if we take rubber as our baseline, then we get a compressive strength of 30 MPa, which is about 3 km underwater. Not quite the bottom of the sea, but definitely a lot closer.


I’m going to assume at this point that you don’t have a natural mechanism to extract oxygen from water. Or that if you do, you’ll share it with me. This means that your pineapple home has to be water tight, and ideally even exchange gases with the outside environment.

PineApple_underwater_bubbles_freshFortunately, all plants have protective tissue in the form of specialised parenchyma cells pressed together to make a skin that can pass water and gas. Surface cells secrete a waxy cutin that forms a water impermeable membrane. For some reason describing it that way makes it somewhat grotesque, but in this case it’s a good kind of grotesque. It means we can have a water-free environment in our pineapple.

If the pineapple were somehow kept alive, then it could even produce 22 mL/kg/hr of CO2, providing oxygen for us. As long as there is chlorophyll in the shell, ethylene would be produced too, which could perhaps be collected and used for heating.

Our permeation problems are not completely solved, however. Pineapple flesh is translucent, and with such fruits there is an increased risk of injury and disease. If handled improperly, internal bruising could start to rot the pineapple from the inside out, gradually increasing porosity and losing the glorious gas exchange on which we depend. As a botanist would say, peduncle leakage would end our dreams of stewardship in a citrus sea. Penicillium bacteria would grow in any cracks and spread until the whole thing was nothing more than a flimsy window viewing the end of our world.

Oh, and no, a peduncle is not your Dad’s brother who rides his bike a lot.


The translucency of the pineapple’s flesh brings up another issue: temperature. Below 10-12 C, the pineapple experiences “chilling injury”, which means physiological breakdown, black-heart and internal browning. Again, our home would rot from the inside out if we go below this temperature, which means our home couldn’t be any deeper than about 500 m.


Sea sponges can range from a few cm to a few metres tall, which means that no matter what our pineapple has to be a lot bigger to accomodate 3 floors and a mezzanine library.

It seems we have to turn to genetically modified pineapple, of which the only focuses so far have been for preservation and making coconut-tasting varieties.

sandy pineapple 066

Who trapped me in this tiny pineapple under the sea?

However, if we take a look at the tomato and compare it to its ancestor, we can see that it is possible to obtain a 1000-fold increase in weight through genetic engineering and domestication. If we take a base of a pineapple to be an average of 13 cm (5 inches) diameter and 20 cm (8 inches) tall, then a 1000-fold increase in weight (and thus volume) could be 1.3 m (50 inches, 4 feet) diameter and 2 m (80 inches, almost 7 feet) tall . That would be about the size of a closet, which is liveable but not quite what you might’ve hoped for.

The Verdict

Using a regular pineapple, even genetically modified, appears to limit the depth of a pineapple closet to about 30 m, assuming roughly double the compressive capacity through calcium strengthening. If we reinforce the walls, then temperature limits the depth to about 500 m, which is still far away from being totally “under the sea”. As for the size, well, unless something drastic occurs in genetic engineering, you’d be living in a pineapple closet in perpetual fear of peduncle leakage.


Dole’s monument to the pineapple.


It’s not all bad. Let’s give the pineapple some more credit. You can replant the stems and watch your pineapple grow to fruition (pun intended). There are recipes for eco-friendly liquid plumber using pineapple juice. Leave a pineapple in your vehicle and let it work its magic as an air-freshener. Use it to prevent browning in bananas. Enhance your beauty with what I’m going to casually call a super fruit. Let the pineapple’s sweetness pass into all your bodily fluids.

Still need a food-based solution for your underwater home? A coconut husk might be another alternative worthy of investigation, since it can be used even for gas masks.


The Russian hotel coming soon under an island near you.

If you’re a scientist, another option would be to work in the world’s only underwater lab. Or, if you’re rich and needing an underwater adventure in a luxurious, non-closet-sized hotel, and aren’t too picky about the pineapple part of this quest, then you might want to check out the space-age Ark Hotel.

I think they could easily make it look like a pineapple.

Be sure to check back next week for the next “What if” segment. Have suggestions for the next article? Post them in the comments or e-mail hal.friesen@gmail.com.