Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Better Mouse Trap

When I recall my youth, I remember a number of activities that foretold my career as an engineer, including the time that I tried to make a better mouse trap.

We sometimes had mice (I remember Mom catching one with a broom and a dustpan), so we also had mousetraps. I noticed that mice could sometimes nibble the cheese gently enough to avoid getting caught, so I concluded that the triggering lever wasn’t sensitive enough. The big strong lever for catching the mouse was held by a second lever, which in turn was held by a third triggering lever that held the cheese.

I figured out that the purpose of the second lever was to reduce the force at the triggering lever. But the problem was that the triggering force was not reduced enough. So I built a mouse trap with more levers. As best as I can recall, the improved design was something like this:

A triggering lever made of a length of horse-hair held a stouter lever made of a broom-straw, which held a lever made of a tooth-pick, which held a lever made of a Popsicle stick, which held the strong capturing lever. The horse-hair didn’t need to hold the cheese, because the mouse’s whiskers would spring the trap if he just got close enough to sniff the cheese.

To test the trap, I set it up on the stairs that went from the kitchen up to the boys’ bedroom. (My three brothers and I shared one big bedroom.)

Now you must understand that one could not tip-toe up these stairs without most of the steps creaking. (This was advantageous to us boys when our parents could hear mischievous noise coming from the bedroom, and one of them tried to sneak up the stairs to find out who was doing what. But that’s another story.) But actually you could sneak up the stairs noiselessly if you knew the secret sequence: step over the first three steps, landing on the far left side of the fourth step, then go to the far right of the sixth step. etc.

Because the trap was essentially a vibration sensor, I thought that by setting it up near the top of the stairs, one of my brothers would walk up the stairs, would creak a step near the trap, and then be surprised by the trap snapping.

So I set up the mouse trap on the stairs – easy to say, but tedious to do. First, pull back the big spring lever, then get the Popsicle stick to hold it down, then set the tooth-pick to hold the Popsicle stick, then set the broom-straw to hold the tooth-pick, then set the horse-hair to hold the broom-straw. The process got more and more delicate.

That done, I next had to retreat, navigating the secret sequence in reverse. I tip-toed down nearly to the bottom when I miscalculated, a step creaked, and ten steps above me, the trap snapped shut.

That was the end of the experiment. I concluded that the trap was a bit too sensitive.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Nine-Bite Sandwich

The Nine-Bite Sandwich was one of my early, unpatented inventions, before I entered the field of electrical engineering. It may have had its origins in some earlier, secret culinary experiments conducted in the kitchen when nobody else, especially not my mother, was in the house. Those experiments turned out rather badly — so distasteful, in fact, that I'd rather not remind myself any further about them. The Nine-Bite Sandwich, however, was successful enough that I shared it with the rest of the family. As a father, I have explained it to my children, and now I document it for further generations.

The Nine-Bite Sandwich is a Construction process followed by an Eating process, which I will explain with patent-style drawings. Since it is not patented
, I hereby put it into the Public Domain.


The ingredients are two slices of bread and four different spreads of your choice. For the bread, use sandwich bread — the real kind, not that so-called 'Wonder bread' ("I wonder why they call it bread", I always say) that sticks to your gums and palate. For the spreads, I will illustrate with peanut butter (PB), margarine (M), blueberry jam (BB) and strawberry preserves (SB); but you can choose your own.

The Construction Process

As shown in Figure 1, lay the slices of bread (S1 and S2) down in a symmetrical position. This is needed so that the slices will fit neatly when one slice is turned over onto the other slice.

Figure 1

As shown in Figure 2, spread margarine (M) on the left half of slice S1, and spread peanut butter (PB) on the right half of slice S1. Also, spread blueberry jam (BB) on the top half of slice S2, and spread strawberry preserves (SB) on the bottom half of slice S2.

Figure 2

As shown in Figure 3, turn slice S1 (the one on the left) onto slice S2. Notice that this instantly creates four flavor combinations as shown.

Figure 3
The Eating Process

As shown in Figure 4, take the first four bites from the corners of the sandwich as shown. You can peek first, to anticipate each flavor combination, or you can surprise yourself by flipping or rotating the sandwich a few times first.

Figure 4

As shown in Figure 5, take the next four bites from the 'arms' of the cross shape left by the first four bites. Notice that these bites are three-flavor combinations — a more complex flavor experience.

Figure 5
The remaining center is the last, ninth bite. It combines the flavors of all four spreads. This sandwich is fun to make and eat because each bite is a different flavor combination. Yet the sandwich is really quite easy to make.