Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mad Science Corner

The following is an excerpt from one of several conversations I had with mad scientist and creator Tom Sepe. Always a fascinating chap, we uncorked a bottle or two and tried to come to grips with the future of Steampunk and smashing things.
( As you may know, Tom ( was the artist and inventor of the SteamPunk motorcycle at the Makers Faire. He also was one of the artists behind Burning Man's 2006 SteamPunk Treehouse (, and recently the Raygun Gothic spaceship. He's an inventor and artist who's work encompasses SteamPunk and Mad Science.

Tom Sepe, although born in paradisical New Jersey in 1971, was transplanted to the bleak and depressing West Coast in 1976. He grew up in the hustle and bustle of Moraga, California where he began tinkering at an early age.

"I remember Legos and my chemistry set as being fundamental to my early development, as well as fixing and modifying BMX bikes. I was also a voracious bookworm - loving science fiction, such as Isaac Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy", and fantasy novels like "Lord of the Rings." Then there were the numerous plastic model sets that my friends and I would meticulously build and paint and systematically blow up with firecrakers and M-80's."

He also took to the stage in community theater productions at the age of 5. The intersection of arts and science have been a major avenue of exploration his whole life).

He's done lots of other things. It's crazy.

(Q= questioner, or inquistor, if you prefer. TS= Tom Sepe, and not T.S. Elliot. Although that would make a great interview, as well. Not terribly likely, though. Alas).

Q: Jake Von Slatt, SteamPunk's rather eloquent spokesperson, has called SteamPunk the marriage of technology and romance. I think that puts a pretty good handle on the thing, don't you?

TS: Yes. Except that I have a problem with "romance", just like I have a problem with "nostalgia".

Q: In that it could be viewed as "escapist"?

TS: It's less that. Take nostalgia: it's very dangerous. Sometimes I find myself getting nostalgic for a period in my life and think, "if I only had this", or "if only it was like that" and it's terrible. It's dangerous in that it draws us away from the present. It's not being present.

Romance, of course, is a different thing than nostalgia. A much better thing. But it, too, has a similar draw.

Q: I also suspect that it used to mean something else. Before there was Science Fiction there were the "Scientific Romances".

TS: Oh, yeah...

Q: And, of course, they would appear in nasty Penny Dreadfuls. They would invariably feature stories of miraculous steam engines built by boy geniuses roaming and destroying little bits of the American prarie-side.

TS: But let us address the critiques of SteamPunk. Not that I would even necessarily know exactly what they are. I'm by no means an expert. No one is.its not about that. It's a movement of people, each attacking form their own perspective. so when people say, "what is SteamPunk?" .... it's not any one thing. There's variations on the theme. There's people bringing their own ideas to it. so in some regards. to have someone throw a bunch of critique at SteamPunk is a little unfair. It's not like a hard party line; it's a bunch of people defining it for themselves.

Q: But as an interesting mental exercise, I have a feeling that the one person who might be able to take a shot at it might be you.

TS: I really just sort of wanted to open up the can of worms...

Q: Well... "escapist" is the foremost thing I would imagine being leveled at us.

TS: Or nostalgia, as I brought up earlier. For some bygone era were things were better than they are now, and people were better to each other than they are now, and things were simpler than they are now, la, la, la.... But that would be Neo-Victorianism. SteamPunk is not looking into the past, but the future. It's a contemporary idea.

Mostly, I've seen some backlash, largely due to there being some idea about "the SteamPunk lifestyle", that takes it into the realm of being a facade or pretension, or to where there's a sense of some kind of falsity. Even of classicism.

Q: You mean my fake English accent?

TS: (pointedly) Or, say... dressing like a dandy.

Q: (cough!)

TS: So there's that critique. That it might feel too high-society. And I think that comes from a perceived exclusivity when people feel left out. It might not even be the case. You might just have someone who doesn't feel good about themselves saying, "here's somebody who has actually taken the time to make an outfit, and do something create, and reinvent their lives, and I'm not doing that, so that makes it bad." And so many begrudge or even attack others simply for being empowered. So fine. Bring it on. The people in the SteamPunk genre are empowering themselves.

And it's a DIY culture. There's nothing about the genre that says: you can't do this, or I'm withholding information from you. On the contrary, you can go to all these websites, all these blogs, and you can find out anything. Go to my website, I posted all of the pictures on how to build my bike for anyone to use or reproduce, should they choose to.

Moving on to "Disaster Testing":

TS: The bike (Steam Whirlygig), while it could be brought into some sort of compliance to make it street-legal, is not currently registered with the DMV. That's not to say I couldn't get away with riding it for a good long time before that might be made an issue.

Q: Can they even press that issue? Don't their rules pertain to gasoline-powered vehicles?

TS: No, their laws govern electrically or alternately powered vehicles, too. They do it by category of speed. Something under 25 MPH, for instance, might not even be considered a moped, but fall under the classification of "bicycle".

Q: But there do seem to be some loopholes to exploit left, yes? I think about the ultra-lite, or, more infamously, the "pago-jet" (a para-sail with a strap-on blower)...

TS: Those are small aircraft, or in the latter case, the pilot IS the aircraft, so the rules are blurrier. But both, minus windspeed, are only capable of 25 knots maximum, I would point out.

Q: Let's turn then, to your latest foray into Mad Science, the WhirlyGig!

TS: The chassis of my bike was originally a 1967 'tote-goat", one of the first off-road motorcycles, apparently. Gasoline powered Briggs and Stratton Engine with a pull stroke motor. Like a lawnmower... pull it to start it... and it had some kind of centrifugal pulley, so that when you revved the engine there were counter-weights inside the pulley that flew out as it would spin faster and that would grab the belt and make it go.

So I had the original chassis, and I was donated two other motorcycles at the time, one was another similar off road tote-goat sort of thing, and the other was a 1964 Honda off-road bike. So at the time I started, I had 3 motorcycles, and of them the one that became the WhirlyGig had the least promise. And yet that was the one I first did something with, because at the time, in 2006, a friend and I started to experiment with the idea of an electric motor. So I took that frame, and some electric motor we had laying around the house, or warehouse I should say, and we set it up with a glorified set of wires that acted as the switch. It was very primitive. And we did some disaster testing.

Q: Disaster testing?

TS: You crash it into things. And figure out why you had to crash.

Q: (laughs) Because you're doing Disaster Testing!

TS: It was "oh, we didn't put brakes on it," or "we crashed because the on/off switch welded shut and we couldn't turn it off,". Which actually did happen. I very quickly gained a great respect for electric vehicles, as they are incredibly powerful. The advantage of an electric engine is that it has the most torque at the starting line. When you first gun it; the pick-up and immediate acceleration is tremendous. The range, obviously, is limited. But, unlike gasoline you don't have these gears and all these other inefficiencies and so you can simple gun it and it goes very fast.

Q: It would seem better than gas then, for "start-and-stop" driving, like in the city?

TS: Yes. Especially if you have regenerative braking.

Q: Degenerative what?

TS: Regenerative braking involves harnessing the vehicles inertia. Regenerative brakes reduce a vehicle's speed by converting some of its kinetic energy into another useful form of energy. This energy is either sent back to the battery, or stored in a capacitor. So the Toyota Prius, for example, or any smart electric vehicle of an appreciable weight and size is going to have regenerative braking. A) it saves on your brakepads, and B) you get something, not a lot, but something, back. My bike doesn't have regenerative braking, mostly because we were building what we were building with no budget from scrap materials. So we were given a motor-controller (the motor controller mitigates how much electricity is sent to the motor through the control of the throttle), that we were able to fix, and that was enough for us. You got to make do with what you've got.

Q: DIY, indeed!

Next Time: Shannon O'Hare, Neverwas Haul creator

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Going to Hell With the Hibernian Hellfire Club

The Reed House

It was at this point that we were moved to a "safe house" (pictured) Built for Henry W. and Florence B. Reed in 1891. Over the years, it had fallen into disrepair and even ruin. The new owners, the fabulous Diana and Miranda, had done an amazing job of not only restoring the place, but appointing it in a much grander way than even a Victorian would have thought possible. It is truly a work of dedication, love and art: ( )

The Keffel family, who also occupied the house

We spent the night in luxurious accommodation. Deciding to truly delve as deeply as we could in the psyche of Victorian times, (particularly madness. Almost inevitable madness seems to creep up in Victorian building dwellers), Deborah and I set out to visit that other famously vast and insane Victorian , that hulking ghost, that monument to agoraphobia, the Winchester House. Also know as the Winchester Mystery House (just who Mr. Mystery was has since been lost to history).

gingerbread, anyone?

As insane buildings go, Mrs. Winchester's does not disappoint. There's madness in spades. And it's even worse than it sounds. When the 1906 earthquake shook things up here in northern California, tiny Mrs. Winchester was trapped in her bedroom when a wall cracked and wedged her door shut. In the hours she spent there, she had visions. Ghosts reproached her for spending so much time on the front of the house. Her logical next step? After escaping the room she had the front 33 rooms boarded up, with all their lavish furnishings, never to see the light of day again (until after she died, that is).

One has to wonder at the personality that has over 100 guest rooms built in their house, and then never has a solitary guest to the house. Ever. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt, then president of the United States, tried to visit, but was sent away to the rear of the compound, where the local rabble could apply for servant's positions. Although not usually put off easily, Theodore felt this an icy reception, and decided to leave the famously reclusive widow to her own company.

What's so refreshing is the lack of ostentation!

A Fortune Teller machine in the lobby. Creepy enough?

don't let the Old Gal catch you poking around!

Not that she was shy with the servants. Rather, she would spy on them and micromanage their duties, firing on the spot for minor infractions of her wishes. She would hold seances, some say nightly. Everything in the place has been converted to have 13 elements when possible: window panes, gas lamps, you name it. You can almost feel the crazy seeping out of the walls.

Our heads swimming from all this, we returned to the Reed House and set to work to accommodate the guests arriving that night for the NeverWas Haul ( fundraiser, the Hellfire Club meeting.

BabaLou, the Prof, and Liz

The brave crew pulled together and set about their duties like the well-oiled machine they are. BabaLou and Lady Lizadeth prepared a 5-star culinary tour de force, including Yorkshire pudding, which is one of my very favorites. David Apocalypse set up his museum of oddities. Lady Impetuous set up a Tarot room, replete with a Ouija-based drinking game. The Professor went about his mixology. Catherine the Great and Sam ran things smoothly. Kimric set up his grammaphone DJ gear. We were joined by amazing musicians, amongst them Squeezebox Goddess Renee De La Prade ( and the delightfully anomalous Amberlee Baker ( Leaving me, famous for my love of vice, to host the hookah lounge upstairs.

Catherine "The Great" Becvar!

Shannon O'Hare, the great inventor and builder of the NeverWas Haul, as well as a million other equally inspiredly mad steampunk works of art, was to make his appearance as the Devil just before dinner. arrived suddenly in a puff of smoke in a chair that was empty a second ago, (a trick chair he had built. Hard to describe... a really good illusion). We scurried off to wait on the guests with appetizers while Satan made the rounds.

What occurred after dinner I can only recount through a lens of rum and other filters, so it's difficult to say what did and did not happen. I think I can rule out the H.P. Lovecraftian-creature summoning memories of that night. But I do confirm the flaming Zeppelin, the free flow of absinthe, Vitorola DJ'ing, and a den of ill refute that I briefly called home.

The Devil dances with this unidentified hellraiser!

David Apocalypse, Master of the Weird

Professor Birdbath, Apothecary and Mixologist

The Lovely Miss Rene De La Prade in the Hookah Lounge

Amberlee and Renee

Kimric Smythe: a man so far ahead of his time that it looks like he's going backwards!

The Hookah Lounge

Did we learn anything from this? Is there a cathartic message and/or morale to all of this? Hell, no. But we feel it was a rousing success, and, perhaps most importantly, a hell of a good time.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

But First A Message From Our Overlords

I must pause in this narrative, right on the cusp of delving into the Hellfire Club proceedings, to bring you a word about Daleks. Yes, those Destroyers of Worlds. Those mischeivous, scooting Banes to Humanity. Everyone across the board, from steampunks to dieselpunks to WonderCon fans all want to invite them to their island-paradise themed parties. How difficult it has been in the past to invite them to Tiki mixers, as they're usually so awkward and standoffish!

Well, no more! Meet the new breed of Dalek. Affable, laid back, and slightly tipsy. A Blue Hawaii in its suction-cupped grabber.

These two gentlemen pictured were kind enough to bring this fellow to the Nova Albion. Is it truly Steampunk? Is it retrofit post modern scifi? Spongebob meets Dr. Who? Whatever the answer, it's inspired and ridiculous enough to make the blog!

Next: The Hellfire Club (really!)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Steam and Hellfire, part one

Dear Reader, some 3 days have passed, and it is only now that I have recuperated sufficiently to tell you the story. As more details come to light, they will be brought forward into the harsh light of scrutiny, you may rest assured.

all in the name of Science!

I had travelled due South, to Santa Clara, with the brave crew of the NeverWas Haul ( (pictured, courtesy of the astonishing Michael Rauner) for the recent Nova Albion 2011 Steampunk Exhibition, subtitled "The Wild, Wild East".

the Major narrowly averts disaster

I simply won't kid you. There were times it was touch-and-go. There were harsh words. There were tears. And that was only over the cucumber sandwiches at teatime! Finally, we found the 2-story Steampunk village of sorts and set up our informational outreach table for wayward gear monkeys, (as seen here)

Deborah Sciales, Steampunk coutier

The event itself was a rousing success, exhibiting

real growth... not just in DIY merchandise, but in innovative and, at times, hilarious sculpture, gadgetry, and costumery. All while maintaining a feeling of a distinct culture, especially in terms of speech and manners that is hopefully clever enough to outpace and defy a rapaciously hungry Mainstream.

although ray-guns have quickly become a SteamPunk staple, I find

the ingenious variation in design and detail enheartening

not advisable over 40 kph

this skull lit up, swiveled in two axises on a gimble, and sang Teahouse Swing

Had this been the entire contents of the weekend it would have sufficed nicely. But the NeverWas crew was hosting a party that very night in a secret location they had secured through secret means. And this very secret party was being held by the secret-y and mysterious league of shadowy figures that calls itself...

The Hellfire Club! (Chapter Two) which I am subject and witness to astonishing and unspeakable rites!

Absinthe! Dens of Vice! Blasphemy! Accordians! And, not the least of it...

Yorkshire Pudding!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Meeting of The Hellfire Club

Of course, you're probably aware of the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition going on March 12-14 in Emeryville, CA ( It's quite a show. I'll be there with the dauntless crew of the NeverWas Haul, the jewel in the crown of steam vehicles.
Even more exciting, however, is the convening of the Hibernian Hellfire Club on Saturday 26th night (6pm - 11:30pm)! No-host absinthe bar. Hookah lounge (which I'll be running. Ahem!). Kimric Smythe's plush monkey gun, a flaming Zeppelin, a handcrancked Victrola DJ, Mr. David Apocalypse's Museum of Shocking Oddities, lots of girls with accordians, the flame-throwing couch, and generally mad science gone off the rails in the biggest way possible! It all happens at a secret location in San Jose, CA. Those wishing to attend have various tools at their disposal to penetrate the cloud of secrecy, either by seeking out "Hibernian Hellfire Club" on Facebook or praying to Cthulu.

The Shroud of Secrecy Lifted! Not Dead!

Not a lot has happened vis a vis this blog lately, leading to speculation as to my demise. It was only after my premature burial at the hands of well-meaning colleagues that this reality really set in.
So why the silence? Why the incommunicato?
There certainly hasn't been a dearth of things to talk about.
The truth is that the Book of Steam, so long worked at and so long-derailed, is again in the works. RE:search has released the book to its parent, Mondo Publications.
That, and my timely release from captivity, this time at the hands of a Boilerplate robot society situated underground, allows me to at last poke my head above ground and breathe in the only-slightly radioactive air.
So the first thing I did, you ask, after 2 years of internment? Right, of course.... design costumes for the String Cheese Incident's Winter Carnival!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lapse of Absentia

You'll hopefully excuse my absence as of late. The book I have been writing and compiling is, at last, almost complete!
 My unflinching and often wrenching research has brought through every twist and turn in every avenue of the SteamPunk world.
 And so I can say without reseervation that those of you who were not at the Crucible's Fire Arts Fest, which is always fantastic anyway, missed a particularly SteamPunk event.
 The irrepressible genii of Kinetic Steam Works were there in force, including Steam Wizard Dick Vennerbeck (pictured). 
 (I'm the chap in the background warily eyeing the boiler!)
 The  SteamPunk Treehouse from Burning Man was, for me, the star attraction, making for a surreal, very playa-like experience. Great fun was had by all, and no one lost an eye!
 (Thanks to my friend Michael Rauner for the photograph!)