Knife-trinket du jour

Boker credit-card knife

There's this little folding knife, made by Boker, called the "Boker Plus Credit Card Knife". Its unique selling point is that if you remove its pocket clip and fold the knife up, it'll fit in a credit-card pocket in your wallet.

The Credit Card Knife has a gratuitous titanium handle, lightening cut-outs and some other silly bullet-point features, and its street price is about $US20. Opinions concerning it are mixed, though, chiefly because it uses a modern blade-safety idea, but not very well.

The blade of a normal folding knife folds into a slot in the handle. The Credit Card Knife's handle is just one flat piece of metal, next to rather than around the blade, but the the blade is chisel-ground - one side has an edge ground on it, and the other side is flat. When closed, the blade's flat side lies flush against the handle, so it can't cut anything.

Peculiar-knife megabrand Columbia River Knife and Tool use this design on their popular, and excellent, "K.I.S.S." and "P.E.C.K." lines. It works really well, as long as the blade lies perfectly flush with the handle.

The design of the Boker knife means the edge doesn't actually lie quite flat on the handle. There's a gap, of maybe half a millimetre at best, but that's enough for the blade to retain some wood-plane-like cutting power. The knife is still fine to keep in a wallet, but not great to have bouncing around in your pocket, and if you run your finger down the edge when it's folded, you can give yourself a shallow cut.

The Boker's list price is a bit steep, too; it's $US34.95. You can get one for $US21.66 ex delivery on Amazon, or for $US21-ish delivered on eBay.

When you buy cheap major-brand knives cheap on eBay, though, there's a significant chance you're getting a Chinese knockoff (as opposed to the genuine article, often also made in China...). The quality of knockoffs can be very good; many Chinese factories sneakily make extra units of whatever they're contracted to make when the company that contracted them isn't looking, or similarly sneakily sell on units that failed quality-control testing, possibly only for cosmetic reasons.

Other Chinese knockoffs, though, are obvious, because they're only broadly similar to the item they're copying.

Card knife open

Which is the case here.

This knife (which carries the "Columbia" pseudo-brand, entirely unassociated with Columbia River) is a shameless, but far from identical, copy of the Boker. It has the same blade-gap problem, but it lacks the gratuitous titanium handle and other fripperies, and it's substantially cheaper.

As I write this, eBay Buy It Now prices for this knockoff are up around $US11, or you can lowball various auctions [UPDATE: I've improved that eBay search to find this knife under some more names] until you get one much cheaper. My 1337 eBay sniping skillz got me this one for $AU2.75 delivered, at which price I think a knife is good value even if it opens in your pocket and stabs you in the femoral artery and your lifeless body is later found in the middle of a huge congealing pool of blood.

Card knife closed

Folded up, the knockoff knife is about 66mm wide by 33mm high (2.6 by 1.3 inches), by 3mm thick if you only count the blade and the handle. Or about 7mm thick at the hinge pin, which is a simple button-head hex screw instead of the show-off hollow pin of the Boker original. Or about 9mm thick, if you include the hinge pin on one side and the removable pocket clip on the other.

It weighs about 36 grams (1.3 ounces) with the pocket clip, about 33 grams (1.2 oz) without. The Boker original is 1.1 ounces, about 31 grams, with pocket clip. Yep, that titanium handle's totally worth the extra money!

A standard credit card has a much larger footprint - about 86 by 54mm - but is much thinner, only about 0.7mm overall or about 1mm if you include raised lettering. But because this knife's height-by-width footprint is so small, it still fits OK in a credit-card wallet pocket, despite being at least three times as thick as a card.

I'm still not totally sold on the keeping-it-in-your-wallet idea, though, especially if you're one of those strangely numerous weirdos who put their wallet in a back pocket and sit on it all the time. Do that, and the little knife will try pretty hard to snap any credit cards it's being forcibly stacked up next to.

You could tuck the folded knife at one end end of a zip-up back-of-wallet pocket, though; it's also just about perfect for the little "Zippo pocket" in a pair of jeans. Many, many other possible locations suggest themselves, for such a tiny knife. The miscellaneous side pocket of your camera bag. Stuck to some other steel object with a magnet. Your car glovebox. You get the idea.

Card knife open, back

If you want to clip the knife onto a pocket, though, you're probably going to have to fiddle with it a bit. The clip on the knife I got was way too springy, requiring a ridiculous amount of pants-mangling effort to jam it onto anything. When I bent the clip back a bit, though, it worked.

The preferable way to bend the clip is by removing its three retaining screws with a little #8 Torx driver or similarly tiny Allen key, and then bending the clip in a vise. Just jamming a chunky flat screwdriver under the clip and levering will probably work too. From past experience I expected the clip to just snap when I tried to bend it, because "$2.75 Chinese folding knife" and "meticulous heat-treating of springy components" are terms not often found near each other. But it actually worked fine, on my knife's clip at least.

The knife is easiest to use without the clip on it at all. The handle is of course very thin - about 1.3mm - so it's not comfortable to use for long periods of time. But the little finger scallops on the edge of the handle actually give you quite a good index-and-middle-finger grip; it's not an instant ticket to repetitive strain injury like a P-38 can opener.

My $2.75 knife had some other flaws, too. As is usually the case for cheap Chinese knives, the machine-ground blade wasn't sharp all the way to the tip, so I had to touch that up. The rest of the edge is very sharp, though, and the super-shallow chisel grind makes this little knife a surprisingly excellent slicer and whittler, right out of the box.

Fit and finish overall is OK. The shiny metal showing through the cheap black coating on the built-up corner piece of my knife, for instance, is there because I filed that corner down to get the screw-heads flush with the surface. But, much more importantly, the blade's frame lock (an evolution of the liner lock) works well, with almost no play and no desire to close on your hand even if you rap the back of the blade on a table.

(As a general rule, you should be suspicious of cheap liner-lock knives; a poorly-implemented liner lock can and will close on your hand. Get a back-lock, or "lockback", knife instead; they're harder for sloppy manufacturers to get wrong. Or, of course, get a "fixed blade" knife, that doesn't fold at all.)

The smallness of the knife does make it a little dicey to open and close, safety-wise, but the basic stolen Boker design is sound.

For twenty bucks, even the fancy Boker version of this thing is not a tremendously attractive product. This knockoff for ten bucks is decent. For five bucks or less via an auction, it's really nice, and works surprisingly well.

Card knife dragon

Plus, there is a dragon embossed on it.

A frickin' dragon, dude!

If you just search eBay for credit-card knives, you'll currently find a lot of these "survival tools" (I bought one; it's about as convenient to use as you'd think, but it is indeed small and any tool is better than no tool), and also a lot of knockoffs of the Ian Sinclair CardSharp. The CardSharp and its copies have the dimensions of a normal credit card, with a blade in the middle; the rest of the thing cunningly folds around the blade to make a handle. I don't know if the CardSharp knockoffs are any good, but they sure are cheap, so I bought one and will write about it when it arrives.

Another bug hunt

I have watched Starship Troopers: Invasion, yours in high definition for twenty bucks.

Trooper vs bug

In one sentence, it's the best ninety-minute video game cutscene I've seen this week.

This movie's a bit of an odd duck. It's a CGI cartoon, which nowadays pretty much guarantees that the general look of the thing will be fantastic...

Pretty ship

...(seriously, the ships in this thing are to die for), but that all of the people...

Sexy times

...will be wooden, and/or deep in the uncanny valley.

The humans in Starship Troopers: Invasion look great when they've got their bulky armour on, if a little overly fluid and dancer-ish in their movements. The bugs are excellent too, and yes, so is the power armour that does eventually show up. But when the humans are socialising, they're clearly not actually human. They're simultaneously sort of... imprecise... in their movements, and too smooth. Everybody's hair flowing like a waterfall doesn't help.

This situation is not improved by the leaden voice acting, which is at times even worse than the acting in Act Of Valor. There must be something really difficult about voice acting that I cannot grasp, because it's so often strangely terrible, as if actors lose the ability to act when they're in civvies looking at a microphone, rather than playing Let's Pretend in full costume and makeup.

At least this film doesn't have big-name Hollywood stars doing the sucky voice acting. That happens very often, too, in animated movies and in video games (I'm looking at you, Liam Neeson), and I find it even weirder.

You may or may not be pleased to learn, however, that the perviness of Paul Verhoeven's original movie survives in this one. This cartoon is rated R for violence, language and nudity. The girls have armour that looks pretty much like the boys', but they're 100% Stripperiffic when not suited for battle.

And yes, there's a shower scene, and yes, the virtual camera lingers more than long enough to demonstrate that modern CGI is entirely up to the job of creating a realistic, if largely expressionless, Interchangeable Porn Girl.

Pew pew, bitches!

There's a lot more shooting than stripping, though.

Nobody having anything to do with the previous movies had much to do with this one. Edward Neumeier and Casper Van Dien are "Executive producers", but they didn't write or act, or execute anything noticeable. Invasion was written by a guy with some... unusual... previous credits, and the production company doesn't have a fantastic résumé either. (Actually, there are two production companies, but the second one has apparently only done this film.)

Something to do with this, and the Japanese director, has given the movie a bit of an anime feel, but perhaps I'm only thinking that because of the bad acting and surprisingly frequent misspellings. (Who builds a heavily armed orbital base and misspells the word "satellite" in 40-foot-high letters on the outside of it?)

This film also contains the Worst Downgrade of a Neil Patrick Harris Character Ever. Io9 somehow got it into their heads that NPH was voicing Carl Jenkins, his character from the first film, but he isn't. Instead, the writer and a different actor conspire to bring us a stock unbalanced creepy necessary-evil scientist dude, instead of NPH's glorious leather-clad psychic alien-molester.

And, again, there is power armour, but not very much of it. The power armour is so well done, though, that I officially exclude it from my general rejection of skating mecha.

(With regard to the undersupply of power armour, which was one of the principal elements of Heinlein's original book, see also Starship Troopers 3. Or don't. It's better than Starship Troopers 2, but so is dysentery.)

Also, you'll be better off if you don't ask why anything happens in this movie. The beginning and the end actually pretty much make sense, but in the middle, minor things like the passage of time and the location of large space vessels become highly uncertain, in the service of Drama.

The actual firefights, of which there are a lot, don't make a lot of sense either. OK, maybe you don't send huge power-armour suits to board a spaceship, because they won't fit through the doors. But if you can make FTL spacecraft, you can probably make little robot drones to send into dark places possibly filled with terrifying aliens, rather than leading with your expensively-trained grunts.

Those grunts also, on top of the space-marine genre's traditionally indefinite amount of ammunition, have the remarkable ability to fight in a staggered line, firing on full auto and waving their guns from side to side, without ever hitting each other by mistake. Perhaps they have a sort of interrupter mechanism.

There are other significant points in this film's favour, though.

In your typical action movie, for instance, the big-name star will do ridiculously heroic things that implausibly snatch victory. In this movie, the heroic soldier usually just gets hideously murdered. Or they actually achieve their goal, but it turns out to make no real difference to anything.

(This film also contains a quite memorable invocation of Everyone Knows Morse.)

I'm nitpicking because that's what I do, but I actually did like this film. I gave it seven out of ten on IMDB, versus the 5.8 average of everyone else's votes.

I don't think I'd buy the Blu-Ray, but if screaming aliens and pew-pew spaceships appeal to you, it's definitely worth renting.

15.16 thousand megabytes per dollar

I don't really have a "when I were a lad, ten megabytes cost a million dollars" storage-price story. (I was even more Four Yorkshiremen-y...

...because I had t'cram a whole boot environment into two heavily compressed double-density Amiga floppies.)

The first hard drive I ever bought was a SCSI unit with a capacity of (slightly-less-than) one gigabyte.

It cost about a thousand Australian dollars.

Seagate external hard drive

This drive, which comes in a USB enclosure, has a capacity of three thousand hard-drive-manufacturers' gigabytes, which adds up to an NTFS-formatted capacity of 2.72 terabytes (or tebibytes).

It's on special at m'verygoodfriends Aus PC Market for $AU188.10, including Australian delivery.

Their cheapest bare 3.5-inch SATA "3Tb" drive is as I write this this one, for $AU192.50.

So the USB box around this 3.5-inch SATA drive, and the power adapter, and the USB 3 cable (which works fine with older USB ports), cost... negative four point four dollars.

This isn't really a review of this drive, which even its manufacturers couldn't get excited enough about to give it a snappy name. Current Seagate external drives are just called "Expansion Desktop" for these larger, less shock-tolerant 3.5-inch units, and "Expansion Portable" for the smaller 2.5-inch models.

Rather than a review, this post is really just a statement of mild incredulity at this thing's very existence, for this price. Come back in a few years and 2.7 terabytes for the thick end of $200 will sound like a ridiculous rip-off, but I'm not ashamed to say that right now, I'm impressed.

There's not a lot to review here anyway, of course.

The drive's compatible with USB 3...

Seagate Expansion drive connectors

...which explains the funny "USB 3.0 Micro-B" socket on the back.

USB 3 has its own version of the square-ish Type B plug and receptacle found on older USB peripherals, and old-style USB Type B plugs work in USB 3 Type B sockets, though only at USB 2 speed, of course. But USB 3 Type B plugs do not work in older Type B receptacles. Presumably Seagate used the micro-plug on this drive to avoid, or at least reduce, confusion.

USB 3 speed means that as long as you have a USB 3 controller in your computer, you won't have to spend forever and a day to fill this enormous drive. Hell, you could run applications from it, as long as you've never tasted the cursed fruit of SSDs and can no longer tolerate waiting more than six-tenths of a second for anything.

From USB 2 you can't expect to copy data to this drive at more than about 30 megabytes per second, which means about 1.1 days to fill the whole disk. USB 2'll be fine for backups and media playback, though. Even if you put Blu-Ray images on a drive connected via USB 2, you should be able to play them. (The maximum possible bit rate of a Blu-Ray movie is 54 megabits, 6.75 megabytes, per second. The most outrageously huge pirated 1080p movies seldom crack two megabytes per second.)

Oh, and apart from the USB connector and the power socket on the back of the drive, there is also a small rectangular hole. Presumably this same casing is used for USB 2 or FireWire drives, or just something with a power switch, which this drive lacks.

It lacks a power switch because it doesn't really need one; instead, it has some kind of sleep-mode thing, which is nice. It won't spin up at all if its USB cable isn't plugged into an active socket, and I have faith that it goes to sleep when unused too, though I haven't timed it.

UPDATE: I knew commenters would tell me to actually test the sleep function. Curse you all.

The drive definitely goes to sleep shortly after unplugging it from a computer. It didn't go to sleep after 35 minutes of inaction while plugged in, when I first tested it. But something might have tickled it during that time and reset its sleep timer. I don't have any indexing-service things running, and my online-backup utility isn't set to back up the Seagate drive, but this is Windows 7, there are about a thousand other possible drive-ticklers in there.

Seagate Drive Settings

So I downloaded the "Seagate Drive Settings" utility from here; it's available for Windows XP through 7, but for no other operating systems, because screw you.

(They also have some kind of S.M.A.R.T. monitor thing, which may or may not be any use.)

Seagate Drive Settings says the default sleep time for the drive is 15 minutes, but I only got that number by clicking the "Default" button; it initially said "never", so perhaps out of the box the drive has no sleep-timer setting at all, which would explain my initial results. Anyway, Drive Settings allows you to set the sleep time as low as three minutes, so I did that.

Then I unplugged and powered down the drive, then powered it back up and plugged it in, and waited for Windows to detect it. I then did absolutely nothing with it, and the drive it kept spinning for about four and a half minutes, then went to sleep.

So either the timer's not accurate, or Windows decided to tickle the drive 90 seconds after initially detecting it. But yes, the thing does go to sleep when plugged into a computer, though you may need to tell it to do so with that Windows-only utility. And yes, you can set the sleep timeout to only a few minutes, if you want.

With regard to cooling, the drive has some minimalist vent holes on the bottom, but no real provision for convection cooling, and no fan. Modern consumer hard drives can run surprisingly hot without becoming unhappy; just standing this one on its side so the standard slots provide a little convection may actually be enough, even in warm climates. But if you're using the drive a lot, you might indeed want to give it some more air flow.

Since the drive runs from 12 volts and has a simple figure-8 power wire, what I'd do is splice a low-powered 80mm fan onto the power cord in parallel, and then either just park that fan so it blows over the drive, or cut up the casing and put the fan over the hole.

[end of update]

The Seagate Expansion drives also come with some proprietary Seagate backup software, but I don't care.

Rock-bottom price on eBay for a bare 3Tb drive, as I write this, seems to be hovering around $AU170 for drives deliverable to me here in Australia, or about $US155 (about $AU150, as I write this), for drives deliverable to the USA. There are a few of these same "3Tb" Seagate Expansion units down around that price, too.

So Australian buyers can save ten to twenty bucks over the discounted Aus PC Market price if they buy on eBay. Any warranty issues will probably be a smoother ride with Aus PC, but that's not a very big deal; the valuable thing about a drive is usually the data you put on it, which a new warranty-replacement drive will not contain.

Oh, and the very cheapest eBay Completed Listings for auctioned, as opposed to Buy It Now-ed, drives of this capacity are way cheaper. Occasionally under $AU100 in Australia, and under $US50 in the States, for drives which are alleged to work. If those listings are actually kosher, then lowballing bids with the sniping software of your choice - I use JBidwatcher - could get you a ton of storage so cheaply that this thing looks like a rip-off. Eventually. Perhaps.

I reckon a few more bucks to get the product from a long-established dealer with an address that isn't a post-office box and courier delivery, especially for an impact-sensitive device like this, is worth it. But Aus PC Market are m'verygoodfriends, so I would say that, wouldn't I?

$AU188.10 delivered from them while the special offer lasts. A bit less from eBay.

However you get it, you'll still feel as if you're Living In The Future.

Stab your steak!

"And now, Mister Bond..."

Meat tenderiser blades

Yes, these are ranks of little pointy blades with angled chisel tips.

Blade-type meat tenderiser

They're all about five centimetres long, and when you use the implement of which they are a part they protrude about 19mm (3/4 of an inch) into some flesh.

Which you later eat.

I don't like cooking. But I can cook a steak. High heat, short time, remember to turn off the smoke detector nearest the kitchen, job done. The less you muck around with it, the better.

(Actually, those annoying scientific-cooking people suggest that frequent turning of a steak is desirable. A religious war will clearly result. The losers get eaten.)

I'm not made of money, though. So the cheaper my steak-meat can be, the better.

I can get a kilo of thick-cut boneless chuck from the local Aldi for eight bucks Australian. That's good for two large steak dinners, or four more reasonable ones. And there's nothing wrong with the flavour of chuck, or what's locally known as "gravy beef" (boned shin), or any number of other cuts from less fashionable parts of the cow. The problem, of course, is that they're full of gristle and connective tissue.

It's surprising how tender even cheap steak can be if you don't overcook it, but the really cheap stuff goes way over the "just needs a lot of chewing" line up into the unacceptable realm where it seems that no amount of chewing is sufficient to actually disintegrate the stuff.

The traditional solution to this problem is, of course, the tenderiser. Which, according to most people, is some kind of mallet, generally resembling a miniaturised version of Kannuki the Giant's signature weapon.

Beating a steak senseless will indeed make it much less chewy, but squashing is not actually a very good way of breaking up gristle; it can take a surprisingly long time, and invariably leaves you with a mutilated beef pancake. That's perfectly acceptable for some dishes, but pulverised beef is pretty close to just being mincemeat ("ground beef", in US parlance). You might as well buy mince in the first place and make meatloaf or rissoles or something, if you ask me.

You can also tenderise meat chemically, with an enzyme or just by letting it go a bit rotten. I haven't tried enzyme tenderisation, but dry-aging my own beef and then shaving off the mould isn't my idea of an appetising activity.

A while ago, though, this Cool Tools post alerted me to the existence of tenderisers that use blades, instead of brute force.

Intrigued by the idea, I tried just laying a cheap steak out on a cutting board and stabbing the hell out of it, all over on both sides, with a couple of little paring knives.

I highly recommend any penny-pinching carnivore try this. It doesn't take very long, and the results are excellent. The meat looks, and cooks, much the same as it did before, but all the stringy stuff has been pre-separated into short pieces. And if you want to marinate your steak in something, the stab-wounds get a lot more flavour into the meat. (I also tried pouring marinade on the steak and then stabbing it, which worked even better but was somewhat messy.)

Satisfied that the technique worked, it was clearly time for me to purchase a kitchen gadget that does the stabbing in a more organised way. The Cool Tools post recommends a "Jaccard SuperTendermatic", with 48 blades in three ranks of 16, which lists on Amazon for $US23.76 ex delivery (cheap to free within the USA, expensive everywhere else), at time of writing.

I'll betcha one of the swish shops in the next suburb over from me has name-brand blade tenderisers too, and I'll also betcha they charge at least a hundred bucks for one.

Instead, I hit eBay and bought a brandless 48-blade unit for a princely $AU17.98 including delivery to Australia, from a Hong Kong eBay seller. That was almost two years ago now; I didn't want to write anything about it before I was sure that the cheap brandless version wouldn't fall apart, maim the user, commit the signature kitchen-gadget failure of being impossible to clean, et cetera.

It doesn't, and I can't imagine that the more expensive brand-name ones work any better.

The current eBay going rate for 48-blade units is less than $AU20 delivered (about $US20 or £13).

(That eBay search doesn't seem to be geo-targeting very well for me here in Australia; here's one that ought to only turn up items that can be shipped here.)

UPDATE: As mentioned in the comments below, there are rotary blade tenderisers as well, that roll like a pizza cutter. Here's a search that I think finds them a bit more effectively than the above searches.

UPDATE 2: Renowned crapvendors DealExtreme also now have 48-blade tenderisers similar to the one I've got. There's a black one and a white one, each for $US17.40 including delivery to anywhere, which I think undercuts the eBay dealers by a little.

It's easy enough to use a blade tenderiser: You just put it on the meat and press down. The blades slide out of slots in a guard on the bottom, and when you release the pressure springs retract the blades again.

The tougher the gristle you're tenderising, the harder it'll grip the blades and resist them retracting. Basically, the more resistance to the blades a given location on the meat has, and the more impressive the crunching sound when you stab it, the more times that area should be stabbed.

The springs are the only weak point of this design, I think. The standard springs in the tenderiser I got were very stiff and heavily pre-loaded, which meant they retracted the blades out of the meat very well, but forced you to push down on top of the meat too hard in the first place, squashing the steak.

I removed the blades and took the handle apart (four simple screws), removed the standard internal springs, and added the natty external coil-over replacements you see in the picture:

Blade-type meat tenderiser

They're shock springs for a model car, and they aren't strong enough to retract the blades by themselves, so I have to push the guard and handle apart a bit myself, but the steak is minimally squashed. I think that's a good trade-off.

The very cheapest blade tenderisers found by that eBay search have only 16 blades, and the spring setup might be better for those. The standard springs don't totally squish the life out of the meat, either; I am unsure how much of my motivation to modify the thing came from an actual need to do so and how much was just my desire to tinker with things.

Apart from that, though, I've had no problems with this thing at all. It works, and it keeps working. I've deliberately bought the toughest cuts of beef I can find - even when they're not actually any cheaper than a slab of chuck - and it's worked, quite quickly, on all of them.

Blade meat tenderiser components

The blade cartridge is removable for cleaning. You push the blue button on the handle to one side and press the tenderiser down on a breadboard, and the blade cartridge pops out the top. The guard at the bottom slides out for cleaning, too. Both of these parts can go in the dishwasher.

Actually, you can put the handle assembly, or the whole assembled tenderiser, in the dishwasher if you like. If you do, though, water will get into the handle, and not want to come out.

The only parts that contact the meat are the blades, the slotted guard and the edge of the guard-holding frame, though, so you can dishwash the removable parts and quickly scrub the frame by hand. As I said in my old review of the AeroPress coffee maker, "impossible to clean" is right up there with "does not actually work" in the list of Mortal Kitchen-Gadget Sins. My blade tenderiser does not have that problem.

Even if you don't have any trouble affording fancy naturally-tender steak, a blade tenderiser could come in handy to make meat more marinatable, or any other time you need a lot of little slits cut in something or someone.

If your grocery budget is tighter, though, one of these things can pay for itself the first time you use it for a family meal. You can even use it after you cook a steak, if there's a gristly bit you missed.

At not much more than twenty bucks delivered for the brand-name one in the States, or for only about twenty bucks delivered on eBay, it comes highly recommended from me.


Among the greatest of the problems facing modern humanity is, I scarcely need say, the fact that there is no satisfactory way to make a Lego Dalek.

Well, not a little one, anyway.

Large Lego Dalek
Source: Flickr user Oblong

This fellow is quite magnificent, but...

Large Lego Dalek
Source: Flickr user lloydi

...I think something in excess of half-scale.

This smaller one's not bad either...

Medium-sized Lego Dalek
Source: Flickr user Neil Crosby

...(you'd want it to be good, since it's at Legoland), but the approximations are already creeping in.

Get just a little smaller and you're reduced to something like this...

Small Lego Dalek
Source: Flickr user pasukaru76

...of which the most one can say is that it's identifiable as a Dalek, if you squint.

If you want a Dalek roughly to scale with Lego minifigs, you're reduced to something more like...

Small Lego Dalek
Source: Flickr user Kaptain Kobold


I don't care how many of those you've got...

Small Lego Daleks
Source: Flickr user LostCarPark

...they're just silly.

Although I do give Kaptain Kobold credit for this one.

Lego Dalek and Lego Katy Manning
Source: Flickr user Kaptain Kobold

(Safe for work. NOT safe for work.)


Small Lego Daleks
Source: Flickr user LostCarPark

...are silly too.

Small Lego Daleks
Source: Flickr user jjackowski


Tiny Lego Dalek
Source: Flickr user pasukaru76

And this is a nice bit of microscale minimalism, but still not what you'd call faithful to the source material.

But, gentle reader, there is a solution. Though it carries a price - a price you may adjudge too high.

If you want a minifig-scale Dalek that actually looks like a Dalek, you can have it. All you must do is... I fear even to say it... is buy off-brand Lego.

Character Building Lego-compatible Daleks

I feel so dirty.

But just look at these little buggers.

Character Building Lego-compatible Daleks

Daleks! Made out of Lego-compatible blocks! Properly built up out of pieces, too, not just single-piece lumps!

Each Dalek breaks down into six major pieces and three minor ones. The baseplate, the skirt, the sucker-and-gun section, the shoulders, the neck and the head are all separate and about as Lego-compatible as it's possible for them to be, given their shape. The minor parts are the sucker, gun and eyestalk, all of which fit in holes too small for any other Lego piece or sub-component I can think of right now. The three minor pieces all have to point straight out, not swivel, but the head turns. (So do the shoulder and neck pieces, but not the sucker-and-gun section, which was never able to turn on-screen either, until 2005.)

Thanks to all of those pieces, if you want to make a Special Weapons or Emperor Dalek, it's no problem. The skirts also, of course, provide the perfect plinth for the Lego Davros torso of your choice.

(You can also just stick the head piece on top of a minifig's head and get something that doesn't really look like, but is no more ridiculous than, those preposterous helmets worn by the Daleks' human underlings in Resurrection of the Daleks.)

These not-actually-Lego Daleks are made by Character Options, who make various other licensed action figures and playsets and such. (All eleven Doctors? Fifty quid as action figures, twenty quid as pseudo-Lego.) Their "Character Building" brand has a variety of Lego-compatible Doctor Who sets, mostly just minifig-scale Doctors and companions and monsters. I bought the "Dalek Army Builder Pack", which gives you five red Daleks and nothing else. There are yellow and white Daleks in other sets, and Character Building also has one of those gashapon deals going where you can spend two pounds on a minifig from, thus far, two series, but not know what one you're going to get. You can get a blue Dalek that way if fortune favours you; any other colours, you're thus far going to have to paint yourself.

(You're also going to have to break out the paint if you want the Dalek bumps on the skirts to be a different colour from the skirts. In this scale the bumps are only about four millimetres in diameter, so it's not surprising that Character Options, um, opted, to leave them the same colour as the skirt.)

The Character Options sites lists the Army Builder Pack for £9.99, which is around $16 Australian or US, as I write this. I got mine on eBay for only £10.70 including delivery to Australia from this UK seller (here on eBay US, here on eBay Australia), but they don't have any more for sale as I write this.

There are plenty of other eBay sellers who do have stock, though; this search ought to find them all. The cheapest ones are all selling one individual Dalek parted out from a kit; the cheapest Army Builder set as I write this is £7.99 plus postage. There are plenty of sellers on Amazon, too.

The Character Building Daleks do have one flaw, though, which may be even more of a problem than the fake-Lego problem:

They look a little like Teletubby Daleks.

The Teletubby, a.k.a. Power Ranger, Daleks are the ones last seen on TV in 2010's Victory of the Daleks, when the Doctor was, for once, conclusively outmaneuvered by his enemy, and tricked into reincarnating these purestrain "New Dalek Paradigm" monsters.

(And, incidentally, there were also Spitfires in space.)

I thought Victory was a good episode (and quite funny, which counts for a lot), except for some industrial-grade schmaltz involving an android. But the new colour-coded Daleks at the end, each with their own more or less peculiar name, were not well received by the fans. Especially the... really enthusiastic fans.

The New Paradigm Daleks are big and shiny and brightly coloured, and have a great hunchbacked extension on the rear of their bodies, which gave me the impression that the props had for some reason been designed to have two human operators inside. I'm sure that isn't actually the case - these were Daleks in 2010, not Jabba the Hutt in 1983 - but there the huge lump is, or at least was.

Perhaps the Teletubbies are never coming back. Perhaps they're coming back but along with the older kinds. Who knows. (Free plot idea: The new ones are fat because they are pregnant with a much better design of Dalek.)

Anyway, these little Lego-ish ones do look a bit like them. But they're clearly not the same. The hump is less pronounced, the head isn't positioned way forward on the shoulders, the weapon-and-sucker section doesn't bulge out from almost vertical sides, and they've got that odd zipper-like grille thing on the back, but who cares.

I don't think they quite match any Dalek that's ever been seen on screen, but the Dalek props have, over the years, also failed to match each other in various ways, even if you've managed to erase the Peter Cushing Dalekmania movies and their Daleks armed with fire extinguishers from your mind.

(The New Paradigm Daleks stand significantly taller than the old ones, too; the Character Building ones are about a head taller than a standard minifig with no hat on, but are I think about the same height as the Character Building pseudo-minifigs.)

So if your interest in the racial purity of Daleks is only exceeded by their own, then you may consider these ones unacceptable. But they're really not very Teletubby-ish.

And, c'mon. Lego-compatible Dalek parts!

Haven't you always wanted the Doctor and a companion to be desperately hiding as the sound, tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic, of robotic spider-legs approaches, and stops, and then a spray of baleful blue eye-lights spotlight them and the Mark V Travel Machine rears up, twenty feet high, dozens of its blackly shining sense globes irising open to extrude claws and tentacles and saws and injectors and suction feeders and flensers and écraseurs and deglovers, even as its battery of far-too-merciful gunsticks retract, and in a voice that breaks windows it SHRIEKS-

...well, actually these things probably won't greatly help you make that.

But if you let your kid at 'em, imagination ought to fill the gaps.

Tiny computer or huge PDA: $25!

Alphasmart Dana

The Alphasmart Dana, which I've written about in the past, is about ten years old now. But it's still quite a brilliant little machine.

Alphasmart are in the portable-word-processor business. Every portable word processor back to the legendary portable TRS-80 has looked much the same; full-size keyboard, letterbox-slot monochrome LCD screen, and power usually from AA batteries, which last a startlingly long time.

Alphasmart Dana diagram

Most of these things run some sort of proprietary operating system and only have a few built-in programs that you can't change. The Dana is different, though, because it's actually a Palm III with a keyboard and a wide touchscreen. The screen is only 160 pixels high, like those old Palms, but it's 560 pixels wide. (It also has the standard Palm green electroluminescent backlight, which works well enough but eats batteries.)

Anything that'll run on a Palm III (or IIIx) will run on a Dana, but only specially tweaked programs will use anything but the 160-by-160 middle of the screen. The built-in word processor does, of course, use the whole screen, and makes a dandy note-taker.

Alphasmart made a Dana with Wi-Fi, but mine is the version that lacks it; it has IrDA, though, for what little that's worth. Transferring text to a normal computer really couldn't be easier, though. You can save files to an SD card and plug that into a PC reader, but all you actually need to do to shift plain text is plug the Dana into a computer via USB, whereupon it reports itself as a USB keyboard (like that footswitch thing). Then just make sure you're in some text-edity sort of program on the computer, and press the Dana's "Send" button, and it'll "type" out the contents of your document. No special software needed.

The "typing" isn't terribly fast, so this isn't very practical for transferring a large document. But for everyday note-taking and journalism and such, it's great.

[Update: If you've got a Dana but no software for it, I mirrored a few files, including the stock software bundle.]

Oh, and the Dana also charges through the USB cable. Danas come from the factory with a plugpack charger as well, but if you're often near a normal computer you won't need one. (Note that the Dana won't charge from a power-only USB socket, like you get on those gizmoes that convert mains power or a car cigarette-lighter socket into USB power.)

I was moved to write this post by three things. One, the Dana deserves to be more widely known. Two, there are currently quite a lot of affordable Danas on eBay, as we'll see in a moment. And three, I am avaricious. I'm signed up for eBay's Partner Network now, and so can get a few pennies when people click on my links to said Danas.

Here's an eBay search that finds, as I write this, fifteen Dana auctions, some of which have several units available. (The search is supposed to "geotarget" to international eBay sites, but doesn't seem to be doing it for me here in Australia, so here's the same search on eBay Australia, here on eBay Canada, here on eBay UK.)

This seller is probably the one you want. They currently have two multi-item Dana auctions running. This one has six units, without batteries or a stylus, for only $US19.99 each; international shipping would more than double this, but it's still a bargain. And this auction is for "more than 10" Danas, this time with a stylus but still without batteries, for only $US24.99 each. Presuming these Danas do actually work, you really can't go wrong for that price.

The lack of a battery is a bit of a nuisance. When new, you see, the Dana came with a rechargeable battery pack which sits in the AA-cell battery bay but connects with a little two-pin plug, not the contacts on either end of the battery bay. These used Danas don't come with that battery pack (because it's no doubt long since worn out), so the easiest way to power them is with three alkaline AA batteries.

You can run a Dana from rechargeable AAs as well, but it won't charge them if they're not connected like the original battery was. And, just as with the Palm III, taking the batteries out of a Dana for more than 30 seconds will cause the internal memory to go blank. (This isn't actually a big deal unless you've installed your own applications or saved stuff in the internal memory, as opposed to an SD card.)

I made a new battery pack for my Dana by soldering up three low-self-discharge NiMH AAs, and stuffing them into the battery bay. My three AAs with soldered-on tabs connecting them together are bit longer than the original battery, and wouldn't fit in the bay, so I did a bit of butchering that has made my Dana unable to run from normal AAs any more. (There is a better way I could have done this.)

But my Dana does charge via USB, which, I repeat, is really neat. As is just about everything else about this thing. And if you don't want to monkey around with battery-pack building, you can just chuck some alkalines in it and go.

(If you'd like to know more about the Dana, you can download the PDF manual from Alphasmart here.)

Mythos-ed it by a mile

The Spiraling Worm, a collection of connected Cthulhu-mythos short stories by David Conyers and John Sunseri, has a rating of 4.5 stars on

For the life of me, I don't know why. I bought it, and I did actually read the whole thing, but I'm now kind of wishing I'd just given up, for two reasons.

The book made a good first impression.

The Spiraling Worm

That cover looks like a role-playing game box from 1982. Brilliant. To me, it said "don't expect Great Literature, but this'll be a lot of fun".

But then I started reading, and started seeing the mistakes. Oh, God, the mistakes.

The whole of The Spiraling Worm reads as if the authors took their first speedy drafts, ran spellcheck over them taking the first recommendation every time, and sent the result off to be printed.

In dashed-off e-mails or, I must say preemptively, a blog post, one may be forgiven for dropping a few clangers. Doing it all the bleeding time in something printed and bound is less forgivable.

I can't say I wasn't warned, in the first few pages. It's not a good sign when, in the introduction to a book, someone who's supposed to be a professional writer misuses the word "literally" (apparently Lovecraft "literally blew the doors off..." a genre). Perhaps I'm being excessively peevish about the inexorably shifting meaning of "literally", but the book also contains more than one use of the words "discreet" and "discreetly", and every damn time they spell it "discrete". These guys also do not miss a chance to say something "teamed with life" when they mean "teemed".

I've spent too long proofreading my own and other peoples' writing to be able to ignore these sorts of silly errors, but I can entirely forgive them when the story is good. Take the excellent comic series Powers, for instance. It has marvellously real-sounding dialogue that manages to avoid covering the whole page with speech balloons, so it's no big deal that that dialogue has spelling and punctuation errors well beyond those you can charitably ascribe to deliberate realism, as when someone refers to a "mulantov cocktail".

On page 16 of the first Powers annual, a District Attorney in court says "Objection, heresy!", which would be fine if it were that kind of court, but it isn't. On page 19 a witness in the trial refers to thwarting a "convenient store" robbery. On page 38, "counsel" is spelled "council". (Perhaps that court just needs to hire a better stenographer.)

Returning to books with no pictures, Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim is a fantastic yarn, but the hardcover edition I've got has a lot more errors than I'm used to seeing in a professionally-produced book. It's usually single-character mistakes - there's an "old school king fu fight" on page 100, for instance. But more unsettlingly, on page 191 a major character leaves to go and get lunch, then 40 seconds of dialogue later rematerialises to deliver one line. This is the sort of thing that could actually happen in the Sandman Slim universe, but it wasn't meant to.

Getting back to The Spiraling Worm, the whole damn book's full of grammatical messes which, like dangling modifiers, bring your reading to a halt while you attempt to determine what the authors were trying to say.

The authors at one point mean to say "under the metal roof" or "under the tin roof" or maybe even "inside the tin shed". They get a bit confused and it comes out "under the metal tin".

And how about "...the assassin slipped back into the spaces between the old walls from where he came, pulled back the painting which covered his exit hole he had cut to gain entry, and disappeared"?

I've got a better one. "If anyone can find a loophole that's even more than extremely obvious to why we shouldn't keep this thing alive, it's going to be you."

In a story in which two human bodies have turned to liquid at a touch, which is the sort of thing you can jolly well expect to happen if you start hanging around Lovecraftian beasties, we encounter "the crumbled body of a sentry". Except that body's only meant to be "crumpled". It don't half knock you out of the plot while you figure that out.

Oh, and someone else in that story is neither crumpled nor crumbled, but does suffer a dislocated nose. I'm pretty sure that's not a real thing.

And the authors apparently think the C-130 Hercules is a helicopter, which given that there's another helicopter in the same story is very confusing. They successfully describe the aircraft as a "C-130 Hercules transport" early on, but then it mutates into a "bomber helicopter".

My main complaint about the actual stories in The Spiraling Worm is that they're far too upbeat. Humans, without superpowers or the protection of a deity, keep somehow having a chance against unnamable Lovecraftian abominations. The series of stories has more than one protagonist who survives more or less undamaged from beginning to end.

This is, to some extent, a refreshing change from the classic Lovecraftian protagonist who, at the end of the story, goes out still scribbling down his impressions of the sound being made by the Thing coming up the stairs to do something much, much worse than eat him alive. But I still can't get behind the notion of the military organisations in The Spiraling Worm ever achieving any noteworthy success against Mythos entities, let alone any individual personnel surviving multiple encounters without, at the very least, ending up straitjacketed in a sanatorium.

The Spiraling Worm stories are set in the present day, but if you reckon the King in Yellow is in any way impressed by nukes, chainguns and aircraft carriers, I would venture that you are mistaken. Alien races able to travel through time and/or between stars casually, on a whim, without even using a spaceship, couldn't defeat Elder Gods. But apparently a race that's only had aeroplanes for 100 years, and does not have a BPRD, has a real fighting chance.

Oh, and don't read the blurb on the back of the The Spiraling Worm, because it gives away the climax of the main story.

Right then, Negative Nelly. Book bad, do not buy. Got it. Buy what book instead?

Well, at the end of The Spiraling Worm those strangely durable humans are all "yaaay, we're making an anti-Cthulhu Squad!" But Charles Stross already did modern-human-government-employees-versus-Cthulhu, much better, in his Laundry stories. The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue and The Fuller Memorandum are the books; you can also read the stories Down on the Farm and Overtime for free online.

Stross can do Cthulhu Mythos better than The Spiraling Worm when he's joking - see A Boy and his God. See also Neil Gaiman's A Study in Emerald, PDF here; Stross and Gaiman do a similar sort of gleeful dance through Lovecraft mash-ups that knock The Spiraling Worm into a cocked hat.

(To be fair, that Web version of A Boy and his God contains three uses of the word "orifices", and spells it "orofices" every time. I think you'll forgive it. And while I'm parenthesising, Peter Watts' The Things is very well worth reading, too, provided you've seen John Carpenter's The Thing.)

The Spiraling Worm would have been so much better if all the stories had just been uploaded in their printed form to something like the SCP wiki, where Ideas Men can sketch in v1.0 Alpha of a story and others can tidy up the execution. (It'd be great, actually, if random-access text collections like the SCP wiki started to eat into the market for "normal" books. There's a lot of very entertaining reading to be had there.)

Without an intrepid editor to bleach, slice and burn the bad bits out of The Spiraling Worm, though, it gets two stars out of five from me.

One and a half, if you don't count the picture on the cover.

Don't buy "BTY" batteries!

I needed six rechargeable AA cells for an old Hanimex potato-masher flash, which I bought cheap the other day to do some Strobist experimenting. I've only been buying low self-discharge ("LSD"!) NiMH cells for a while now, but I don't have six identical AA LSD cells spare at the moment, and I didn't want to drop the substantial extra amount of money to buy six more LSD cells for a flash that I'm not necessarily even going to use much.

So I hit eBay, looking for the finest, cheapest NiMH AAs in the world. And I won an auction for twelve allegedly-2500mAh "BTY"-branded NiMH AAs, for 5.5 UK pounds (about $US8.30 or $AU9.30, as I write this).

Fake BTY NiMH AA cells

That one on the right didn't explode; I ripped it apart to see what, if anything, was inside. 'Cos it sure wasn't a 2500mAh NiMH cell.

I didn't, to be fair, actually expect these AAs to really have a capacity of 2500 milliamp-hours. Capacity inflation is rampant in the rechargeable-battery market. Even the big brands often seem to pump up the capacity numbers a bit, and it's perfectly normal for an off-brand "2500mAh" cell to have a real capacity of only 1500mAh or so.

That was fine with me, though, especially for less than ten bucks delivered.

(I think you even get the "off-brand PC power supply" situation, in which some dealers sell a range of cells specified from 2000mAh all the way to a truly audacious 3000mAh, but all of them actually have the same 1500mAh-ish cells inside the wrapper. DealExtreme, for instance, sell "2000mAh", "2300mAh", "2500mAh", "2800mAh" and, yes, "3000mAh" "Maxuss"-branded AAs, with the allegedly-higher-capacity ones priced accordingly. The user reviews suggest to me that you might as well just buy the cheapest ones. If there's a difference besides price and the printing on the label, it doesn't appear to be a large one.)

These BTY cells were much worse than I expected, though. I knew something was up as soon as I opened the package; the BTY cells are way too light. They weigh about 18 grams each, versus 29 grams for an old Sanyo 2500mAh cell, and 30 grams for a Sanyo Eneloop LSD AA. They're substantially lighter than the old worn-out 1650mAh off-brand cells still mouldering in the bottom of my Battery Drawer.

My Maha C-808M charger (yours, Australian shoppers, for $AU183.15 delivered from Servaas Products) didn't like the look of the BTYs, either. It did charge them, but flashed its "battery fault" error at the end, possibly because the charge cycle was over so quickly.

To their credit, the BTYs did run my flash. But not for very long. When I charged them again and hooked one up to a 0.9-ohm resistance (a horrifying load for an alkaline cell, no big deal for a rechargeable), I got a useful run time...

BTY AA NiMH discharge graph

...of about 25 minutes, for a total capacity of maybe 350 milliamp-hours, with a following wind. (The terminal voltage also dropped to less than 0.8V immediately, even into this modest-for-a-NiMH-cell load.)

It was at this point that I disembowelled one of the BTYs. I was half-expecting to find a fractional-AA or AAA, or something, in there, but the casing was actually full of the normal Swiss-roll sandwich of metallic electrode and noxious-electrolyte-soaked separator. I'm not sure whether the BTYs are actually nickel-metal-hydride or mere nickel-cadmium cells; I don't think you can really tell just by looking. They certainly only have the capacity of the ultra-cheap NiCds you get in bargain-store solar garden lights, though.

(There are honest dealers that sell these sorts of cells, by the way. Here's an eBay search that finds one current dealer's particular description of them. I have no experience of that particular dealer, but they'd have to be pretty perverse to misdescribe low-capacity NiCds. Note that you still don't necessarily want these cells, even if you only need low capacity, because NiCds contain highly poisonous cadmium, and remain a serious disposal problem.)

Aaaanyway, I filed a PayPal dispute over this, and anticipated a long and painful experience. So when I got an e-mail from PayPal the next day saying the dispute had been closed, I of course assumed that someone at eBay had decided I was ineligible for a refund because it had been three months since the dispute was filed on the 35th of Octember and I still hadn't had the batteries X-rayed by a fully licensed Federal Hat Inspector while I whistled Dixie and a five-legged elephant painted my naked body with the full ceremonial vestments of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

But the dispute was actually closed because the seller had instantly knuckled under, and given me a full refund.

If there's one thing I've learned from reading The Consumerist, it's that whenever you complain about some crazy fee and they instantly reduce or waive it, you're always looking at a scam. (Well, almost always.)

And lo, searching for other people's experiences of "BTY" batteries turned up a number of reports astonishingly similar to, though blessedly less long-winded than, my own.

This guy tested a range of cells and found BTYs ranked equal worst. There are people complaining about them on DealExtreme (or, at least, giving them one-star ratings). Heck, there's even a Guide post on eBay itself that warns about them.

So, on balance, I'm not sure that I actually deserved to get my money back.

There are plenty of eBay dealers, including the one I bought from, who are still selling "BTY" cells. Some of them have taken the advanced camouflage measure of calling the cells "BT" instead of "BTY", but my advanced h4XX0ring skillz can still find them.)

Don't buy those batteries.

Oh, and how did I solve my flash-powering problem? Well, the awful BTY batteries do actually power it for a little while; for longer run time, I just yanked the six-cell NiCd pack from a giant robot bug I'm not currently using and hacked up a lead to connect it to the flash's external-power-input pins.

Ridiculous camera rig

So now I can make a camera rig that looks even stupider than this!