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It’s “Failures!” month here at Make: Online. Throughout February, we’re going to be celebrating the flip side of making, doing, and risking: Sometimes things don’t work out as we plan.

On the other hand, sometimes things work out exactly as we plan, but when the passion of inspiration is gone and we look back in the cold, sober light of morning we come to a painful realization: I just made a giant piece of crap.

Thus it is that I hereby inaugurate a limited weekly series of posts called “What Was I Thinking?” in which I will be publicly cringing to recall celebrating some of my own more humbling morning-after moments. And possibly those of others. If I can get them to agree to submit to outright public mockery.

Which is why you’re looking at a picture of a goldfish in a light fixture.

Or “light fishture,” which is such a bad pun that I was already apologizing for it when I first posted this project on my old personal homepage back in 2005. Let me set the scene for you…It was a long, slow weekend after finals during the second year of my undergraduate chemistry studies. All my tests were done, but my vacation plans weren’t kicking in for another three days. Most of my friends had already gone home to stress out over the winter holiday with their families, and I was alone and bored. And, as all healthy people do in those circumstances, I was drinking heavily.

I think it was a Friday night. I was sitting out on my tiny apartment balcony finishing my third Guinness. OK, OK, it was a Heineken. A Pabst Blue Ribbon. Leave me alone. I looked up at the frosted glass globe over my porch light and had an insight that will no doubt be carved into a monument someday: “That looks like a fish bowl.”

My next thought, even better: “For the sake of authenticity, I should use a real goldfish.”

But I was young and idealistic, then, and not yet so drunk or depraved that I was willing to sacrifice a real living creature for my, um, art. It just so happened that I had recently used up the last of a container of liquid hand soap which, in accordance with ancient Celtic tradition, included a plastic goldfish, a plastic plant, and a few rocks inside. It was a gift, if that makes it any better. Which it doesn’t, because I requested it.

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Anyway, long story short, I decided to stick the one in the other. First problem: the globe on my porch light was frosted and I sure wasn’t going to spend good money to buy a clear one. Clever solution: Etch the frosting off the globe I had using 50% concentrated hydrochloric acid. It worked great! And generated only 1000 mL of toxic chemical waste!

Next problem: I didn’t want to use actual water in the globe. This was an electrical device, after all, and as Newton’s Third Law teaches us, water + electricity = bad. So I settled on mineral oil. Which is, you know, flammable and stuff, but, hey, at least it wouldn’t short anything out or cause rusting. I glued the fish and the plant to some rocks, arranged them tastefully in the bottom of the globe, and poured in the mineral oil.

Which led pretty much directly to the project’s final challenge: The globe was now mostly full of mineral oil. This, as I probably should have anticipated, left little room for a light bulb. A proper bulb would have generated way too much heat, anyway, which I figured was counterindicated in the presence of flammable hydrocarbons and meltable plastic tchotchkes. So I downgraded to a 7.5W sign bulb. It worked great! True, a bioluminescent mushroom would’ve given more light, but just look: A light fixture with a goldfish inside! Totally worth it!

In my defense, when I finally realized the magnitude of my mistake, I stepped up and did the responsible thing: I left my “light fishture” on the wall where I installed it and moved out of that apartment.

Tune in next Wednesday for another humiliating thrilling installment of “What Was I Thinking?” Thanks for reading!

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.


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