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|Wednesday, May 15th, 2013|
|A More or Less Edible Laser
I recently found Stephen Wilk’s article “Edible Lasers: What’s the Next Course?” (which appeared in Optics & Photonics Magazine
) and got into email correspondence with him about it, during the course of which I realized that I couldn’t actually recall having lased a dye that was dissolved in glycerol. (I probably did
lase Rhodamine B in glycerol a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; but that was then and this is now, and that effort, if it did indeed occur, has long since faded from my memory.)
Accordingly, on Tuesday evening I set up a homebrew cuvette, and lased Rhodamine B in glycerol with longitudinal pumping from a nitrogen laser, something I think I’ve only done once or twice before. Almost nobody ever bothers to pump a dye laser longitudinally with the output of a nitrogen laser. There are several reasons for this, one of which is that half of the output from the dye goes back into the nitrogen laser and is lost unless you take steps to prevent that from happening, which is itself a nontrivial exercise. I didn’t take photos on Tuesday, but what I saw was interesting enough that I returned on Wednesday afternoon and did it again; see below.
I used Rhodamine B because it has an intriguing character: the efficiency of its fluorescence emission is directly proportional to the viscosity of the solvent that it is dissolved in. If you put RhB in methanol, the quantum efficiency is only about 0.43; by the time you get to glycerol it is more like 0.96, which is excellent that’s comparable to the efficiency of Rhodamine 6G or Fluorescein, both of which are extremely good laser dyes. RhB absorbs very little at the wavelength that the nitrogen laser provides, so the increased efficiency is extremely helpful. I could have added a second dye to absorb the UV and convert it to a wavelength range that RhB absorbs better (I have done this in the past to assist several dyes that don’t absorb much at 337 nm, as have various other folks), but that would involve extra tweaking, and I wanted to do this expeditiously. In addition, most laser dyes are toxic, and that’s not what I’m trying for here.
After the longitudinal pumping test succeeded I added more RhB, and lased the solution with transverse pumping. Here are two photos. The first shows the setup, and the second shows the output on a piece of paper. The solution was probably inadequately mixed; in addition, the glycerol has been heated unevenly by waste energy from previous pumping pulses, and it has almost certainly developed Schlieren, which interfere with the optical path and cause the beam to spread out. (Schlieren are irregularities in refractive index; think about the “wiggles” you see on the pavement when the sun shines down through the exhaust from a bus or truck, or what happens when you mix two liquids that have significantly different refractive indices, for example water and isopropyl alcohol or even isopropyl alcohol and ethanol.)
[There is a PRA LN-1000 TEA Nitrogen laser
just outside of the picture, at right. It puts out pulses of ultraviolet light with wavelength of about 337.1 nm; the pulses last a little less than 1 nanosecond. The beam from the nitrogen laser goes through a cylindrical lens (visible at the right edge of the “setup” photo), and then through an ordinary achromat (which fluoresces in the “lasing” photo, clearly indicating that it is absorbing some of the UV from the LN-1000, grump). These two lenses focus the pump beam to a narrow line across the front of the dye solution in the cuvette, which you can’t see because the fluorescence of the dye is so bright. This is the usual way of pumping a dye laser with a nitrogen laser, though people typically use only a single cylindrical lens; I added the second lens to get a more compact setup.]
I like Rhodamine B, and it is less toxic than Rhodamine 6G; but you still wouldn’t want to drink it, so I redid the demonstration with Fluorescein:
I’m sure this solution would taste nasty, but you could certainly drink a small amount of it without hurting yourself, so it qualifies as edible. I didn’t even have to add any dish detergent to it. (The original edible laser was a slight cheat they were
obliged to add a few drops of detergent to their material. In fact, I have heard Ted Hänsch say, concerning that particular issue, “At that point, Art stopped insisting on eating the experimental subjects.” Ahem. ;o)
[T. A. Hänsch, M. Pernier, and A. L. Schawlow, “Laser Action of Dyes in Gelatin
”, IEEE Journal of Quantum Electronics, Volume QE-7 (January 1971), page 47. Also see http://histsoc.stanford.edu/pdfmem/Schawlow_Arthur.pdf
, though this and other texts I find on the Web contain an apparent inaccuracy: AFAIK, they did not
put Fluorescein into Jell-O™. They put it into unflavored gelatin and, as I mention above, it did not immediately work; like RhB, Fluorescein does not absorb well at 337 nm, on top of which gelatin is not as transparent as glycerol. They had to put so much dye into the gelatin that they got concentration quenching, which interfered with the fluorescence enough to prevent lasing. The detergent helps prevent this problem.]
Serendipity Strikes Again
As I mention above, I returned this afternoon to see whether I could get a photo of the results with longitudinal pumping. I removed the cylindrical lens, leaving the ordinary lens, and this is what I saw on the paper viewing screen with the cuvette of dye moved to the side:
This is a fine image of the inside of the laser head, showing the electrodes and the discharge. When I put the cuvette back in position, I was surprised to discover that I was getting lasing on both axes at once:
(Lasing on more than one axis at a time is far from unheard-of; but it’s not common, and this is certainly the first time I’ve done it or seen it with nitrogen-pumped dye I just happen to have chosen a dye concentration that supports it under my conditions, and a lens with appropriate focal length.)
Here are separate photos of the two outputs, for a bit more detail:
What I find particularly spiffy and interesting is the fact that the longitudinal lasing output from the dye cuvette is still an image of the inside of the nitrogen laser head (!). Notice that the L output is yellowish, while the T output is green. My belief is that this is because the L output has to travel through a lot more unexcited dye solution before it gets out of the cuvette, and the dye absorbs the short-wavelength tail of the emission. (This is a well-known and well-understood issue, very common with fluorescent dyes.)
Note: I took these photos with my iPhone. If anyone reading this has a strong need for higher resolution images, please contact me via email.
|Tuesday, May 7th, 2013|
|Baby-Steps in Welding: My First Actual Project
Every week, Chas. Colburn (3D Metal Parts
) runs an open house that he calls “Maker-Tech Tuesday”. Chas. has been doing welding for at least 35 years, and it is something he is happy to teach people. I’ve been wanting to learn to weld for even longer than that, so even though I didn’t have any applications in mind I jumped at the chance. (The fact that he is a superb teacher didn’t hurt.)
I have now had three lessons, and I intend to make my first three sets of baby-steps into a sculpture at some point, but that hasn’t happened yet. What did happen is that I realized that I do
have a project: I like to run my potter’s wheel as a standup wheel (to help avoid back trouble), and once I get to the point where I’m at least half-decent at welding I will be able to make a stand for it instead of just putting it up on cinderblocks again.
Something else, however, has taken precedence: the storm door at the house I’m moving to was not in great shape, and after it took additional damage from the wind a few weeks ago I removed it. My landlord, who is a friend and who is as good as they get, was kind enough to give me another storm door, which I managed to put in place by changing out the left edge of the frame and doing a bit of minor surgery so it would fit in the available space. (The tall brown stripe at the left edge of the new door is the frame piece that came attached to it; it was originally about half an inch too tall.)
Unfortunately, when I tried to close the storm door after I attached it, I discovered that there was a problem:
The handle is at just about the same height as the doorknob, and it protrudes far enough out that the storm door can’t close all the way if the house door is shut. (The dent in the doorknob, partly visible behind the handle, is a pre-existing issue.)
I thought about various ways to deal with this problem, and on Monday afternoon I ended up buying a nice matched bottle opener and drink sifter at a thrift store. My initial attempt at attaching the bottle opener to the shaft of the handle mechanism, last night, was unsuccessful, and this afternoon I took the various pieces to Maker-Tech Tuesday, figuring that I would cut some pieces of square steel bar stock and bolt them to the opener so I could attach it securely to the shaft. Chas., however, took one look and suggested that I just turn the opener around and weld the butt end of its handle to the side of the shaft. (The outer handle is held on with a setscrew and is easy to remove, so attaching the inner handle permanently would not prevent me from putting the door back together.) For a few moments I was reluctant, but it was clearly so much easier and less involved than what I’d previously had in mind that I gave in very quickly. Beside, it would constitute an actual Welding Project.
These particular bar implements are made of stainless steel, which generally has a reputation for being difficult to work with, but Chas. has some welding rods that have nickel in them and can be used with stainless, and he thought I’d be able to deal.
The original shaft from the door looked like it might possibly be aluminum, but that didn't really make sense to us, as ordinary aluminum is not all that strong or durable, and is not well suited to this type of application, so we figured it was more likely to be stainless. We were, however, giving too much credit to the manufacturers of the door: it was, indeed, aluminum, and when I attempted to weld the bottle opener to it the results were pretty silly. (I may show a photo here at some point.)
Chas. and I looked for an appropriate piece of steel bar stock so I could make a replacement shaft, but we didn’t find any, so I told him I’d go to the hardware store and try to buy some. He suggested that I try Fasteners, Inc. [4817 Lydell Rd, Hyattsville, MD 20781], one of his regular suppliers. Sure enough, they had 5/16" steel key stock in 1-foot lengths. I bought two pieces plated with zinc and two plain ones, to be sure that Chas. would have some if anybody needed it for a project. (In general, we are expected to provide our own materials; but extra is always appreciated, the more so because some people may not always be able to bring what they need.)
The butt end of the bottle opener being somewhat funky at this point, I removed the paddle from the drink-sifter, chopped an appropriate length off one of the zinc-plated key stock pieces, and welded the butt end of the sifter to it, angling the handle slightly outward in case it might otherwise be too close to the door for easy operation. Here’s what the assembly looks like, with the outside handle loosely in place:
When I got home this evening I reinstalled it:
It now clears the knob of the front door, though it’s hard to tell from this photo:
(It originally cleared by only a millimeter or so, which is how it was when I took the photo, but my landlord found the rest of the frame that came with the new door, and brought it over yesterday morning. The new door is very slightly narrower than the old one was, and I had to shim the frame about half an inch so the latches would engage, but that was easy I had appropriate pieces of wood on hand. The new frame seems to hold the storm door slightly farther out than the old frame did, and the new handle now clears the knob of the regular door by about a centimeter. Still not even remotely enough room for the original handle, though.)
The weld isn’t exactly pretty, but it is certainly GEFWIF:
[GEFWIF is something I got from Chas., who is more fiendish than I am: I would use it to mean “Good Enough For What It’s For”; he uses it to mean “Good Enough For Who It’s For”. Maybe not grammatically correct, but clear enough.]
|Thursday, May 2nd, 2013|
...is a form of photochromism that occurs in a few minerals; the ones I’m aware of are forms of Sodalite. The piece I show here is Hackmanite, which is probably the best known, and was the first type I learned about.
[[I must note that the first and last photos are identical. I don’t have a photo of the piece in its fully bleached condition because I showed the phenomenon to some friends before it occurred to me to write this, and my “Before” photo from this set (which, in any case, is nearly identical to the photo here) is blurred. Grump.]]
Here’s what a piece of Hackmanite looks like when it is mostly bleached, which is its normal condition:
I illuminated the piece with longwave UV (provided by a 4-Watt BLB fluorescent tube) for about 2 minutes. It doesn’t take that long if I put the bulb right on top of the piece, but I wanted to show you the fluorescence, so I moved the lamp a few cm away.
The fluorescence shifts toward the red during the UV exposure, as the sample darkens. It is actually brighter than it appears here; the camera picked up enough UV to dominate the photo.
Here’s what the piece looks like afterward:
This is a nice deep color change; some samples are not as good, some are even better.
It usually takes a while (days to weeks, IIRC) for the color to fade if you leave the sample in the dark or in sunlight; but it occurred to me that I might be able to speed up the process. Here’s what happens when I shine a rather bright white LED flashlight on the sample for a minute or two:
...And here, again, is what it looks like afterward:
Other tenebrescent minerals can exhibit different colors Tugtupite, for example, at least in the photos I’ve seen, goes to cherry red.
|Saturday, February 9th, 2013|
|Duck and Hubbard; Let's Hear It for Latvian Rye
A while ago I bought a small Hubbard squash. With Hubbards (and various other kinds of winter squash, if I understand that term correctly) “small” is a relative term. This particular critter probably weighed less than 10 lbs, so it really was quite modest, as such things go. lisajulie
was kind enough to bake it for me (I didn’t have access to a decent oven at the time) and put it into some zip-closure bags and freeze it.
Last night I found chicken broth at MOM’s
that didn’t have any onions or yeast in it (I’m allergic to both). Only one brand & type out of perhaps 8 or 10 that they carry, but one is enough.
It was clearly time to make some duck soup.
As usual, I can’t give you a fully formal recipe with precise amounts. I only ever do that with ceramic glaze recipes, and even then it isn’t viable to follow them precisely: YMWV (not just “May”, Will
), and you have to be willing to perform a bunch of testing. With food, it’s even less possible to provide fully predictable results. You may dislike an ingredient I use, or you may not be able to eat it for one reason or another, or whatever; but if you are willing to tweak your way around it, you can probably get to something that satisfies you. The other side of this is that I never measure anything anyway when I’m cooking, so there never is a precise recipe. [Yes, I bake without measuring things. Yes, the results of my baking are highly variable, and occasionally even silly; I live with it. OTOH, I can tell you that The Sam’l Taylor Coleridge Memorial Poppy-Seed Cake (with Optional Blindworm’s Sting)
is incredibly forgiving; I have yet to experience a failure with it despite the fact that I don’t use regular [wheat] flour; use substitutes for the milk item[s] it calls for; putz around freely with the amount of oil I put in it; etc., etc.]
Be that as it may, let’s get back to the soup.
Ingredients here are 1 box of broth (I think it’s about a liter); a pound or two of mostly-cooked winter squash (I would actually opt for ‘Marina di Chioggia’ if I could find or grow it, as it is very smooth and creamy; Hubbard is rather more fibrous, and you may want to purée it before you add it); 1 duck breast; a bunch of dried barberries (try a Persian market for these); some summer savory; some ground coriander seed (I know one person who is viciously allergic, and if I were making this for her I would probably substitute a small amount of ground-up dried citrus peel; you can find dried tangerine peel at Chinese markets); a light sprinkle of cinnamon; and whatever other herbs and spices suit your fancy. (I had intended to put some fresh ginger in it, but I forgot. I was also going to marinate the duck before cooking it, with grains of paradise and cinnamon and maybe allspice, but I didn’t have time.)
Method: I put everything except the duck into an appropriate cooking pot, and started it heating. Then I sliced the duck as thin as I could, and pan-fried it; tossed it into the nascent soup, which was at the boil by that point. Done deal. (What, you wanted it to be more difficult? I’m sure we can come up with some Advanced Variations that are sweetly complex. Besides, if you can’t find a Persian market and you aren’t adept at shopping online, you’re going to have to come up with a substitute for dried barberries.)
I tried this soup over rice, and then I tried it plain. The flavors were a lot more evident without the rice, and I think I prefer it that way. (The loss of flavor may seem reasonable to some of you, but it surprised me I eat lots of things over rice, and I don’t recall losing flavors out of them.) The barberries add little tart accents, which I think is more interesting than the more even tartness that I would have gotten with vinegar or lemon juice, or by puréeing the finished soup. (This is why I suggested smoothing out the squash before you add it.) OTOH, if you want the tartness spread evenly you can easily achieve that.
A few weeks ago I was prowling around at the aforementioned MOM’s (it used to be “My Organic Market”, abbreviated MOM, but the obvious change occurred), and I noticed something new among the breads. There were these restrained-but-fancy labels that said “STORYE”
on them. Primarily out of curiosity, but also on the off chance that I might be able to eat the stuff, I looked at the ingredients. They clearly stated that the rye they use is yeast-free, so I decided to give it a whirl.
They happened to be doing a tasting that included my usual brand of fake butter, and I agreed that I was going to buy the bread one way or the other, so I was able to taste the “Classic” version right there in the store. Even with fake
butter it was outstanding: tart, nice deep flavor, plenty of caraway. (If you don’t like kimmel, they also have a version with carrots.)
Later, when I read the label more carefully, I discovered that the bread is actually made in Latvia. (Welcome to The Future, in which you can get a truly astonishing profusion of foods from faraway places!)
I will note, in this connection, the fact that I have a strong fundamental disagreement with the people who say we should buy only things that are made or grown locally. We are all in this together; everybody on the planet deserves to have a right to live and eat and get an education and earn a decent living wage if they’re working, and I think it’s horribly shortsighted and counterproductive (not to say vicious) to deliberately withhold that from someone just because they happen to live in some other country. Yes, massive transportation of goods contributes to global pollution; but I’m not convinced that this has to be a show-stopper, particularly in the long term. I think we can (and must) find ways to make transport a lot less polluting. Besides, I have a strong suspicion that there are lots of other, larger contributors to pollution. Refusing to buy cars or television sets or food products [etc.] that are made overseas (or, for that matter, overland) just doesn’t seem likely to ameliorate the larger set of problems.
|Tuesday, January 8th, 2013|
|More Moving Experience[s]
For those in the general area around Washington, DC who may want to lend a helping hand: it looks like we will be doing another move of technical gear (and possibly supplies) on Saturday. If you are interested, please get in touch with me. Text is good (my phone number is at the foot of many of the pages at my archive of the Joss Research site
including the one at the other end of that link), or email (my “work” address is loosely encrypted on the same pages) between now and perhaps Friday evening. (Texts will reach me on Saturday morning, but email may or may not.)
I couldn’t very well put up just that one paragraph, so here are some Little Things I did with the Kaleido app on my telephone. There is a certain sameness to them, largely occasioned by the fact that I generally like one of the available modes better than the other three.
I have lots more where those came from, but there is such a thing as excess.
|Friday, December 21st, 2012|
|The Baktun Has Ended; Welcome the New Baktun
There has been a lot of silliness about the Mayan calendar lately. Supposedly it ends today, and some people thought that would (magically) cause the world to end with it. Just like all the other times the world has ended, right?
I have a nifty application on my telephone. It is called MayanTime, and it’s from SwampBits
. It tells me that today is 22.214.171.124.0, and it explains the units of the calendar. That “13” is the Baktun, each of which lasts 144,000 days.
So much for the end. Welcome to the beginning.
|Wednesday, December 19th, 2012|
|I Ate Date Palm Flowers for Lunch
There is, in Laurel (Maryland), a stretch of Route 198 that is hard on restaurants. It is one of those dead zones where drivers may see things on either side, but they tend not to stop. Even the 7-11 moved, though I think that may have been to get a larger parking lot and/or a larger building.
Be that as it may, between 8th Street and 7th Street, on the eastbound side (Route 198 is divided at that point), we now find La Muterita
#2, which is a Guatemalan restaurant. (711 Gorman Ave.; 301 497 6171; open 8:30 AM to 8 or 9 PM every day except Sunday: they don’t open until 9 AM on Sundays.) I thought it might be interesting to try, as I had never had Guatemalan food. Granted, I didn’t necessarily expect it to be all that different from, say, Salvadoran food, which is abundant in the area.
I was, in a word, wrong.
Guatemalan food is varied (the menu is long and enticing), tropical, and splendid. I ate date palm flowers for lunch (!)
(It didn’t occur to me to take the photo until after I had started in on the salad, so one of the tomato slices is missing.) This usually has grated cheese sprinkled over the sauce, and comes with rice and beans rather than rice and salad; but they were happy to accommodate my food allergies, which is obviously a matter of some importance to me. Speaking of which, I was actually able to drink the horchata, because they make theirs without milk.lisajulie
noticed and had to try a slush drink with lime juice and salt and ground-up pumpkinseeds and chile:
It’s probably better in the summer than now, but it was nonetheless amazing. (I would probably want it without the salt, as the lime juice is sour enough for me on its own; but again, in the summer the salt is probably helpful.)
The atol platano, which I tried when we went back with janetmk
, is hot and sweet and expectably splendid.
Bottom line: we are extremely pleased to have found this place, and we are happy to recommend it to anyone who likes mesoamerican food and lives [or happens to be] in the area.
|Wednesday, December 12th, 2012|
|Setting Up Multiple Static IP Addresses with Verizon FIOS (A Brief How-To)
I am moving. I’ll post about that later; right now I want to do a wee bit of a public service announcement.
As part of getting my new place set up, I ordered a Verizon FIOS line and 5 static IP addresses. (This is, perforce, a business line; they don’t really have a category for “geek with home server”. ;o) I will say, btw, that the sales person I spoke with was knowledgeable, forthright, and very easy to deal with.
There was already a FIOS line to the house, per their records, though it wasn’t active; but when the tech arrived and looked around, he said, “Well, this
isn’t going to work any time soon. The line has been cut.”
He was, however, superbly efficient and effective, and within about 90 minutes I was looking at the final activation screen on a Web browser. (Their info claims that a normal install takes 2½ to 3 hours. I am seriously impressed with this guy and with his work, which I observed at close range except when he was up on ladders.)
[[Verizon gets a double thumbs-up on this one. I have heard other stories that were not so happy, but I appear to have dodged that bullet.]]
Once I had completed the activation, I plugged my server into the Verizon router and tried to get it connected to the second IP address in the set (the router, a nice new Actiontec M1424WR
, has the first IP) ...and failed. The server box couldn’t see the Net, and the Net couldn’t see it. I tried looking on the Web for information about setting up multiple static IP addresses on this type of line, but that also failed. There were forums where people gave various advice, but some of it was out of date, and some of it didn’t seem to apply. (Thank you so
much, Google, for “helping”... grrrrr. In one small corner of my CST I am looking into other search engines. [[CST <> Copious Spare Time]])
On two forums, the advisors didn’t seem to understand what a static IP address is; they talked about how to set an unchanging nonpublished IP, which is just DHCP with manual addressing. Brank.
I suspect that there actually is
a way to get the router to pass along the packets for other static IP addresses (perhaps some sort of bridging thing?), but that’s not the course I chose to take. Instead, I brought a plain old 8-port dumb hub over to the house. I connected the hub to the FIOS box, and then I plugged both the Verizon router and my server into it. My server is now on the Net, and I can put other server boxes on the other IP addresses by plugging them into other ports on the hub. (My desktop Mac is on via DHCP, plugged into the router.) Q. E. D.
Seems to me that this is a lot easier than messing with the configuration of the router, especially for those who are moderately but not outstandingly geeky. (I am not about to claim to be outstandingly geeky myself, at least in terms of understanding all of the magic that goes on inside a smart router.)
Anyway, there it is, in case anybody wants to know.
|Saturday, November 3rd, 2012|
|Followup to Murphy: some success, some Murphy.
Yesterday I fired several glaze tests, one of which ends up being a mildly silly story: there is a potter in England named John Harlow. He has a Rutile Blue glaze that he calls Opal Blue, and he provides a recipe on his page of glazes.
Unfortunately, it calls for “Wood Ash” which would be wildly unspecified even if he said whether he washes it; “China Clay”, which probably means something fairly clean, as for example Grolleg Kaolin, though there’s no way to be sure without asking him, which I haven’t done yet; and Hymod AT Ball Clay, which is probably quite nice but is not easily available in the US, at least as far as I know.
“Well,” sez I, “I can finesse that.”
First, I just copied the recipe. Tony Hansen provides an analysis of Hymod AT at digitalfire.com, so although I had to use Insight’s generic Kaolin analysis and one of its wood ash analyses (Applewood Ash), I was able to get moderately close to an analysis of Harlow’s original glaze. It was slightly off, but there’s only 3% ash in the recipe in any case, so the difference probably wouldn’t have been profound. (Besides, the wood ash that I have is mostly oak, and is probably different from both apple and whatever Harlow uses.) Then I rewrote the recipe, using OM-4 Ball Clay and Sapphire Kaolin instead of the English ball clay and who-knows-what kaolin. At this point I should have adjusted the amounts of the various materials to get as close to the original as I could.
I am, however, a tweak.
Not only am I a tweak, I have a porcelain-person’s uneasiness about sodium, so I rarely use Nepheline Syenite, which is the Feldspar-equivalent material in the original recipe. I rewrote the recipe to use G200HP Feldspar, which is my regular Spar these days. That obliged me to rebalance things a bit, and I ended up without any Kaolin at all. I also ended up using Bone Ash (we get synthetic stuff these days, so it is fairly uniform) instead of Wood Ash. At that point I had, almost needless to say, deviated significantly from the analysis of the original, so I wasn’t really sure what I would get, but I was on a roll, so I mixed up a small batch and fired a test tile on Thursday. It came out looking like this:
Although this is not exactly a Rutile Blue, I think it’s a keeper. It is probably too plain to use all by itself, but perhaps with some iron or cobalt brushwork (which I will have to learn to do, but that’s how it goes).
Murphy hit: this afternoon I fired the kiln again. During the firing, a glaze test fell over against an otherwise rather nice Rutile Blue teacup, sticking to it and ruining it. After I knocked the glaze test off the cup I ground down the sharp junk it left behind, and someone at the party here this evening asked for the cup before I could even get a chance to photograph it. (I would not have taken it to Toronto anyway, as I can only bring a few pieces, and I don’t really want too many of them to be examples of badness.)
Meanwhile: on Thursday I had fired another Rutile Blue test in addition to the creamy thing I show above. This one was a followon to one of my own, from a series I was working with a few years ago; I changed two or three of the materials in it, and I expected to get something fairly reasonable, but instead it fired out “Southwest Red’, just as FOB12 did a few weeks ago. (See “...In Which We Learn by Resounding Failure”, posted on September 20th.) I thought about that a bit, added one gram of Rutile, and dipped a second test tile, which I fired this afternoon. Here they are:
(Some of you will notice the fact that I have run out of test tiles, and am using broken pieces of teacup from recent failed bisque firings. Argh.)
The one with extra Rutile appears to be a keeper, and if it does not exhibit any wretched surprise behaviors it will probably replace my recent batch of Rutile Blue, which is better than the mess that preceded it, but has not been quite as well-behaved as I’d like. Speaking of which, I still haven’t managed to get a recipe to fire out like the dark blue mixture of two recipes that I posted a while ago
and I am somewhat peeved about that. At this point I’m not even sure I would get this result if I mixed new batches of the two parent glazes and poured them together again; I will have to try that as time and tide permit, but it probably won’t happen for a while.
I am also having some trouble with the copper red glaze, but it is still a deep rich red even though there is only 0.1% copper oxide in the recipe. (I will grant that I am using red copper oxide, which has more copper in it than black copper oxide, but still, 0.1% is not a whole lot.) When it is behaving itself, that glaze looks about like this:
I am still hoping to bring a piece with this glaze (or a close variant) to Toronto, but as I say I’ve been having some bad behavior from various versions that I’ve fired recently; we’ll have to see how it goes.
|Monday, October 29th, 2012|
|[Briefly] Evolution of a shape on the wheel
A few days ago I threw a teacup. After I undercut the base a bit (doing this allows the piece to come loose from the batt a little sooner, and also makes it slightly easier to trim) it looked like this:
After I took that photo I noticed that there was a certain amount of difference between what I was seeing with my eyes and what I was seeing in the photo. Much of that, I think, was the “big nose” distortion that is typical of a wide-angle image when the subject is close to the camera; but even so I decided to do some tweaking. I reshaped the upper part of the cup a little, then expanded and reshaped the lower part, and finally reworked the rim.
I present the photos here because the changes, though they were fairly small, made a huge difference in how I felt about this cup, and that seems important to me as a maker of things.
[I think the first photo in the sequence shows the same stage as the photo above, though obviously from a different angle.]
[Between the previous photo and the next photo, you can see a change in the balance between the upper part and the lower part; I widened the lower part because the cup seemed top-heavy.]
Here is the trimmed cup:
The rim is dark because it is still wet I trim pieces by sticking them to the batt with slip [thinned wet clay]. That flattens the rim a little, so after I finish trimming I run a sponge over it to restore the smoothly rounded shape I want, unless of course I actually want or need a flat rim.
The shape is a bit tubby (though not so much so as it appears in the photo, for reasons I mention above), but I don’t much mind that; it feels good in the hand, and I think that’s more important for a fully functional piece.
This piece did not survive bisque firing, but I am making a few more, and we’ll see how those do.
|Wednesday, October 24th, 2012|
|Once More, with Feeling. ...Oops. Make That Twice More.
(This one is not
my fault, as far as I can tell.)
I ordered and received a nice new thermocouple protection tube. (Let’s hear it for The Kiln Doctor
: the tube arrived the day after I called them to order it.)
I have a box that was labelled “High Temp Fiber Blanket”; the blanket is 2 feet wide, and too thick for what I’m doing, but it divides nicely to half-thickness, so I cut a piece that was 18" wide and gently pulled it in half, to go around the walls. I also took a half-thickness, about 18" square, to serve as the bottom. I installed these...
...and sprayed them with a splendid material called ITC-100HT, which reflects heat: it is a high-emissivity coating. I have to mill it a bit in order to get it to go through my little spraygun, and although the inventor furrowed his brow and expressed doubt when I told him about that, it seems to work just fine.
I dried everything by heating the interior of the kiln to a few hundred C with a propane torch. (I was reluctant to apply a lot of heat very quickly because of the fresh patch material in the bottom and the inlet port, some of which is rather thick.) I allowed it to cool somewhat, and then I cured it by taking it up to about 1100° C. At that point I left it to cool again while I ate dinner.
In the evening I prepared some test tiles and cones, and did a cone 10 reduction firing. Here is a photo of the flame on top of the chimney, with the temperature inside the kiln at about 1203° C, shortly before the end of reduction:
[As you can see, I protected the lid from direct contact with the flame by interposing a piece of fiber blanket.]
A few seconds after I took that photo there was a loud bang as the steel band around the lid parted. It was under a certain amount of tension, and as the lid expanded with the heat the tension increased. Ordinarily this should not be a problem, but the tiny pop-rivets holding the hose-clamp pieces had rusted, and they came undone. As the band fell, it broke my lovely Type S thermocouple. (Platinum vs
platinum-rhodium alloy wires, about as thick as a human hair.) Grrr. Fortunately, it did not break the new protection tube.
I guessed at a good time to take the kiln out of reduction, and ran the rest of the firing by watching the cones, which is one reason why we use them. It was a very clean cone 10 firing, but there was one problem...
This is actually mid
-temp blanket, and it was unable to deal. (I have relabelled the box.)
I removed the hearthplate, which is probably ruined, and most of the remains of the blanket; but the layer on the floor of the kiln had melted rather thoroughly. Sigh. I sprayed the interior of the kiln with ITC-100, hoping that when it got hot it would react with the glop on the floor and the glop I was unable to remove from the walls, and that this would minimize the chance of further damage.
Fortunately, I was able to find a roll of blanket that is rated to handle 2700° F, which is more than good enough for what I’m doing. Moreover, the information is printed on the box, not handwritten. (I thought this box had already been taken away, else I’d have used it in the first place.) This blanket is 4 feet wide and 2" thick, so I took a piece about 17" wide and about 1/4 of the thickness, which was more than enough to line the walls. I also took a piece about 17" square, likewise about 1/4 of the thickness, for the floor. I put these into the kiln and sprayed them with ITC-100. Then I sprayed and installed a new hearthplate with some supports underneath it, and touched up the ITC where I had scraped it putting the hearthplate in. As you can see, it just barely fits:
I used the torch to bring the interior up to a little over 400° C to stabilize the coating, and left it to cool while I ate dinner. Then I put a set of cones and test tiles into the kiln, gritted my teeth, and fired again, using the Type K thermocouple that is ordinarily on my electric kiln. Once again, the temperature went up like a rocket, but it began to slow down after about 1150° C, and although it jumped a bit after I took the kiln out of reduction, which is usual, it seemed to stall around 1270. This was not a good sign; it is clear that this kiln is [literally] coming apart at the seams, and it leaks more heat than I would like. (If I can get a good photo that shows the orange glow from the seams between the bricks, I will add it.) It seemed to take a very long time before cone 10 started to bend, but once that happened the firing went to completion at a very reasonable pace.
Here’s what the kiln looked like, the following morning:
Cone 11 has just started to bend, so this is about cone 10¼. All three of the Rutile Blue tiles are badly pinholed, and I am beginning to have an idea about that; but I haven’t had a chance to test it yet. They were also significantly paler than I had expected, and I may add a small amount of iron to them for a retest. The Copper Red test, which is a slightly unusual recipe, is a little darker than it appears in this photo, and is closer to purple than I would actually expect at cone 10. (They get darker and more purply as they get hotter.) That’s fine with me, as it is pleasant and appears to be well-behaved:
I will be playing with this glaze a bit more, and with some luck I will have at least one piece at SFContario. That, however, may depend on whether I can get a few more firings out of the kiln before it actually falls apart.
Addendum, per comment:gilraen2
raises the possibility of making things and putting glazes on them, which is A Notion of More-Than-Oriental Splendour, so I thought I should provide an example. As I write this, there are 12 pieces of greenware warming up in the bisque kiln I like to be certain that they are entirely dry before I risk taking them above 100°C. This is one of them, returned for a brief moment to the wheel to have its portrait taken:
It’s a slightly unusual shape for me: I usually prefer to have the sides convex; but I looked at this as I was throwing it, and changed course. Mud is convenient that way. I don’t know whether the piece will be successful, but I guess I’ll find out.
|Saturday, October 13th, 2012|
|Followup to Stupidity: Astounding Confounding Resounding Failure, now with Remediation
This one, I regret to say, is largely my own doing, and I am unhappily embarrassed about it; I grit my teeth. It started off, however, innocently enough: I worked up another attempt at a single recipe to get the dark blue Rutile Blue, so I won’t have to mix up two separate batches and pour them in order to have a bucket of the stuff. I dipped test tiles in this new version, with different thicknesses of glaze to see what effect that would have. I also dipped two tiles in related glazes to serve as comparison pieces fired under the same conditions. I had worked up another attempt at a clear glaze for the translucent porcelain, so I mixed that up and dipped two tiles in it. I took the tiles and a set of cones out back and put them in the little gas kiln, figuring that I would do a cone 11 reduction firing.
The funny business started when I went to set the lid back down on the kiln: it did something that I would, in computing terms, describe as deprecated:
The joints between the firebricks had aged out, and the bricks themselves (modern IFB [“Insulating Fire Brick”], which is soft and porous) had cracked. In addition, the steel band that the handles are attached to (it also helped to hold the lid together) had rusted out, and it parted. I couldn’t say what went first, and it doesn’t matter: the lid broke. When I went to remove the pieces they came apart even more, and many of them fell into the kiln, where they knocked everything about, doing a bit of damage to the glaze coats on some of the test tiles in the process. Argh.
[This kiln is quite old, and has seen very heavy use, so the loss of the lid was not entirely unexpectable; I just didn’t expect it to happen today. This initial mess, however, was not my doing: I disclaim all responsibility except for having fired the kiln lots of times.]
I picked the pieces of firebrick out of the kiln, put the cones and test tiles back in place, and thought about what I could do. As I write this I have a pretty good idea of what I should
have done, but it didn’t occur to me at the time. First mistake; if I hadn’t been all stressed out and in a hurry I probably would have done The Right Thing, and about now I would be firing the next set of test tiles.
I initially tried building a makeshift lid from some pieces of high-temp fiberboard that are heaped up behind the kiln. They mostly aren’t very square, and that lid would have leaked like a sieve, but it gave me an idea. I went inside and looked for some intact boards. There were four, just as I wanted, sitting on two cartons of type “M” high-temperature boards, on top of a cabinet. I went and got a stepstool and took them down. (“M” board is only rated for 2300° F / 1260° C, and I was planning on taking the kiln somewhat higher; but a single brief overtemp is not necessarily a big deal.) I should have dragged down one of the boxes of high-temp boards and made a comparison, to be sure that was what I had, but I didn’t. Bad move.
[[Cue the sinister organ music so you’ll know that the horrible kiln-eating monster is hiding behind the door. Don’t let those poor innocent test tiles go in there! Nooooo! Don’t ...aaagghhhh.]]
I am not ordinarily quite so stupid, and I even had a vague feeling that I was looking for trouble; but I was stressed and rushed and a little bit out of sorts. (I am having a mild reaction to something, perhaps the ’flu shot I got yesterday or maybe something I ate.) I took the boards outside and built a temporary lid for the kiln from them. These boards are only a foot wide, and the kiln is about 17" across, so I used a pair, and put the other pair crosswise on top of them. Because there were seams between them, for a bit more stability, and also to provide more insulation, I put some of the pieces of high-temperature board on top of this assembly. So far, so good, ...or so I thought. In consideration of the lowish rating that I thought I was dealing with I decided not to push things too hard I figured I would go for cone 10 instead of cone 11. (I didn’t want to go any lower than 10 because the glazes were designed for the 10-11 range.)
After one false start caused by something being out of position, the firing began quite well. As usual, when the temperature reached about 750° C I put the kiln into reduction. (Long explanation omitted here. If you really wanna know, please either comment or send email.) The new boards had not previously been used, and as they got hot the binder in them burned off, releasing plumes of delicately colored smoke that would not have been out of place in a Jack Vance story. [Phandaar slowly turned to face the intruder. His carefully manicured hands were clasped together, Mazriel’s Tinted Effluvium wafting out from between the fingers. Clune, instantly convulsed in agony, fought to reach the door.
] Needless to say, the only photo I got that shows the colors reasonably well is totally out of focus; it was that sort of day. Here’s one that’s in focus, and shows at least a wee bit of color:
As the kiln started to get fairly hot I began to see orange glow between some of the extra pieces of board, so I took it out of reduction at about 1216° C instead of waiting for it to reach 1220. It usually takes off quite nicely when I do this, but today it responded sluggishly, and it never got any hotter than 1226°. When it got back down to 1214 I declared the firing to be a failure, and turned off the gas. (Less than an hour later it was already below 750°, which should probably have suggested that things had gone rather far astray.)
After I gave it more time to cool I went to take the test tiles out of the kiln so I could reserve them to be refired elsewhere it is likely that the largest difference would be a much slower cooldown than I get in my little kiln, and that would provide a good comparison. When I removed the extra pieces of high-temp board from the new boards, however, this is what I found:
There is no way that could be “M” board. It is, rather, almost assuredly a type of “backup board” that is rated for use only up to 1900° F, which is less than 1040° C, ...and I had exposed it to more than 1220° C, whereupon it did about what you’d expect. Sigh. Not exactly what I wanted, and it will be a real bear to clean up.
I managed to remove most of the test tiles from the kiln. Here are some of them:
The odd thing is that I got a little bit of usable information out of a couple of them, but I will have to redo the firing to be sure I can trust it. Before I can do that, I get to remove everything from inside the kiln and replace it, which is annoying and time-consuming. This kiln is on its last legs in any case, and I’m not sure how many more firings I will be able to get from it, so I am not sure whether it’s really worth the effort. OTOH, I desperately need to fire more things in order to get ready for SFContario
, so I may not have the choice.
I also have to borrow a lid from one of the other kilns here if I can find one that isn’t too large and heavy, which is what I should probably have done in the first place. (I think I have one that will do. If not, I'll have to find or buy a bunch of IFB and make one, which will delay me even more. Sigh.)
I really hate being a moron, and in case it isn’t entirely obvious I also hate admitting when I've been a moron; but if I can provide a cautionary tale that helps prevent someone else from committing a similar piece of idiocy, maybe it’s worth the pain. Maybe. Still hurts, though.
(15 October, 2012, evening)
I removed the hearthplate, the shields that stand in front of the outlet port to control the flow of the flame, and the stand for the cones ...all of which have become a single unified object:
Then I removed nearly all of the high-temp fiber blanket lining that I had put in place when I first converted the kiln from electric to gas. (The kiln was rated only for cone 8, and I knew I’d be getting it hotter, so I was prudent. This now turns out to have been The Right Stuff, as the blanket caught quite a bit of the melted board and prevented it from getting on the walls.)
There was still an unhappy amount of glop on the floor, some of which had actually melted into the blanket badly enough that I had to chip a bunch of it out (doing some damage to the bricks in the process), but I did eventually get just about all of it out. Mirabile dictu
, there was very little actually stuck to the walls, and almost none on top of the wall where the lid sits. The one bad issue is that there’s a nasty drip stuck to the ceramic tube that holds and protects the thermocouple. With some luck I should be able to grind it off, so I can continue to use that tube. If not, I will have to get a new tube and cut it down to the correct length, which will take a while. Fingers crossed.
I vacuumed out the remaining debris, and put some ITC-200 patch material into the larger divots and also into the inlet port where it has taken damage over the years...
(16 October, 2012)
I applied more of the patch material today, and I removed the thermocouple with its protection tube. I attempted to grind the melted glop off the tube, but the vibration was more than it could handle, and it broke. I will have to acquire a new one, which will take a few days. In the meanwhile I can probably borrow the Type K tc that is normally on the big electric kiln, though it is going to be squirrely: Type K is known to be nonlinear above about 1150° C, and I have been firing this kiln to about 1305 C lately. This is yet another reason to be assiduous about using cones. (The main reason is that they provide information about the actual amount of heatwork that has been done on the pieces in the kiln, not just the temperature.)
I also found enough IFB to make a new lid. Haven’t put them together yet, but it isn’t particularly difficult.
I still need to make a new fiber blanket liner and install a new hearthplate (I believe I have a spare), and we’ll see whether I can get some more mileage out of this kiln before it finally gives up the ghost. [I will probably add more photos as things begin to take shape.]
|Saturday, September 22nd, 2012|
|Followup to Resounding Failure: Potential Success
I’ve done some work on the problematic Rutile Blue glaze that I wrote about a few days ago, and I thought I should provide a bit of an update. As background, here are photos of test tiles from the first and second firings of the problem glaze, so you don’t have to go back to the other posting to see them:
These are the same glaze, fired in the same kiln under similar conditions, and I’m still not entirely sure what made the difference here; but either way it is clear that the CTE (Coefficient of Thermal Expansion) of the glaze is too low. I like the look of that first tile, though, so I decided to see whether I could achieve a glaze with similar appearance, but without the bad behavior. There was no guarantee that this would be possible, but I thought I had a fair chance: I’ve made other glazes that were along these lines. In fact, I have fired over a hundred Rutile Blue tests during the past ~16 years, and I have lots of test tiles (and recipes), with varied characters. I looked through them and decided that this one
would be a good candidate to combine with the problem glaze. There is some blue in it, and although it slid a little on the tile, which indicates a melt with low viscosity, it is neither badly pinholed nor crazed.
I wrote out two new recipes. Version 0.2 is 2 parts of the problem glaze to 1 part of this slightly older glaze, and v0.3 is 3:1. The pure averages were a bit messy, so I tweaked them until they felt right (I think I’m not going to try to explain that here and now), and then I mixed up a test batch of each. Here they are, after a firing to cone 10.5 or so in the gas kiln, the night before last:
[The color balance is a bit off here; the background should be almost a neutral gray, and the glazes perhaps a bit more purply.]
Version 0.2 [2:1] is just beginning to slide where I double-dipped it, and is badly pinholed (this is a common problem with glazes that contain Rutile), but otherwise I like the way it looks. Version 0.3 [3:1] is quite acceptable, though perhaps a bit less exciting. I averaged the two recipes and tweaked the average to increase its thermal expansion just a bit more; I will fire a test when time & tide permit. Once I’m sure I have a recipe that is good, I will convert the existing bucket of v0.1 into a larger batch of the improved version. With any luck, I will have an example in the Art Show at SFContario, in November.
|Thursday, September 20th, 2012|
|...In Which We Learn by Resounding Failure
One of the facts of life that I face as a glaze developer is the possibility that a new glaze may appear to be just fine on a test tile, and then reveal some novel and unexpected bad behavior when I put it on an actual piece. Largely because of this, my boss (Doug Humphrey) came up with a wonderful idea that he calls “Teacups for Research”, or TFR. The idea is that before I risk a nice piece on a glaze that is only partly tested, I try it on something that is either slightly flawed in some way or is a shape that I’m not fully satisfied with, rather than something that is cracked or otherwise trashy (which is what I would ordinarily use). I can sell these if they turn out well, and all of the proceeds go to support the nonprofit that I work for. [Further developments about that will appear in a future posting.]
My usual test batch size is 100 grams. That's enough for several test tiles, so I can (for example) check a glaze in both oxidation and reduction, or in several different kilns. When I get something I like, I mix up a smallish “bucket” batch, perhaps 2,000 grams, and I dip a TFR piece in it, along with at least one test tile so I will have a tangible record of what it’s like.
The bucket of the Rutile Blue recipe that I’ve been using for a while is now running low, and the pieces I’ve dipped into it recently have not looked quite right. This happens sometimes; imperfect mixing can cause changes in the composition of a bucket of glaze as dipped pieces remove unequal amounts of the various ingredients, and some glazes just change over time. A few days ago I decided to revamp the formula instead of just mixing up more of the same stuff. (There is nothing wrong with it, but I’m a tweak.) I came up with a number of alternatives, which I tested.
One of them showed a typical problem, which I refer to as “Southwest Red”. It looks about like this:
Not exactly bad, but certainly not blue. Experience suggests that this effect is caused by insufficient Rutile in the recipe; but because Rutile Blue is a complex set of issues it isn’t just a matter of having some particular weight percentage, and it isn’t even just a matter of the mole percentage of TiO2 in the fired glaze. Sometimes they work the first time, and sometimes they don’t. I have had successful Rutile Blues with a little over 4% Rutile in them, and others that needed about 7%. One of the most famous published ones, “Woo Blue” has only 3.6% Rutile, if you include the colorants in the recipe. (If you look at the published recipe, you’ll find that it lists 4% Rutile and 4% Red Iron Oxide; but these are added to the other ingredients, which already total up to 100%. Long story, having to do with the history of ceramic glazes.)
[[If you are a potter, btw, Do Not
go by the recipe in John Britt’s book; it has little or nothing to do with Woo Blue, and has no business bearing that name.]]
The borderline between “SW Red” and Rutile Blue for a given recipe can be surprisingly abrupt, btw, which is one of the interesting characters of these glazes for those potters who take the trouble to develop them.
I tried adding another half-percent or so of Rutile to the test batch, but all it did was darken the color a little. I will add yet more, and fire another test.
The real star of the set, however, was this:
It was obviously a keeper, so last night I mixed up 2,000 grams and dipped a test tile and a TFR bowl. I also dipped a second test tile in the original 100-gram batch, as a comparison to reveal any possible mixing errors in the new batch, and also to reveal any potential sensitivity to changes in the firing conditions. (It is difficult to be too careful or rigorous in the pursuit of righteous glazes.) I fired the kiln in the evening, and took the test tiles out late at night, leaving the TFR bowl to cool more slowly. Here is the bowl as it came out of the kiln this morning:
This is so ridiculous that I had to laugh. (“Bad glaze; no donut!”) I’ve never ever
had anything dunt like this, despite the fact that I routinely develop glazes that have far lower thermal expansion coefficients than those of most potters. In fact, I’ve only ever had one other piece dunt, as far as I can recall. That one came apart in many small chunks while I was carrying it away from the kiln; but I think the problem with it was related to the body clay rather than the glaze. This one is clearly and obviously caused by the glaze. [Apologies, btw, for the lousy color balance; I took the photo with my phone, under fluorescent lights.]
Interestingly enough, the test tiles have the same creamy look as the glaze on the bowl, and during the night some of the glaze spalled off the tile from the original 100-gram batch (though not until after I dropped and broke it). None of the glaze has spalled off the test tile from the “bucket” batch yet, but I’m not betting on it remaining intact.
I have revised the recipe to increase the thermal expansion a bit, and will be testing one or two new versions as time and tide permit. We’ll see whether they’re worth posting about.
|Tuesday, September 4th, 2012|
|Bless You, Amanda Palmer. Curse You, Amanda Palmer.
Last fall, I was privileged to see Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman perform in San Francisco. As part of that performance Amanda sang her Ukulele Anthem, which was serious and funny and silly and generally wonderful. (Amanda being the brilliant wacko that she is, this should not be surprising.)
A couple months back I found myself thinking about the song again, so I went and listened to the studio version on YouTube. In it, she says it takes about an hour to teach someone to play the ukulele. This is manifestly poetic license. In an hour, you can probably teach someone to play a 3-chord song; but they won’t be able to play much of anything else, and they probably won’t even be able to tune the instrument.
[Speaking of which, I want to thank Patrick Nielsen Hayden for turning me on to Guitar Toolkit for the iPhone, which includes a very good tuner. ...But I’m getting ahead of myself.]
Although you obviously can’t learn to play an instrument of any complexity in an hour, the ukulele is widely regarded as about the easiest [stringed] instrument to learn, and it seemed like fun. In the song, Amanda claims that a ukulele costs $19.95. This turns out to be true if you get it at the right place, but at that point I didn’t know where to go. I took a look on eBay just in case, but with the shipping all or nearly all of them seemed to be more than twenty bucks. Then I went off to a thrift store. I like thrift stores. No ukulele. Went to another thrift store. None there, either. After about 7 thrift stores and zero ukuleles I concluded that ukuleles were not in season, so the next day I returned to a store where I had seen some things with strings, and found a pink plastic FirstAct “discovery” guitar that seemed more or less intact. It was priced at about ten bucks, but there was a discount, so it actually cost me $7.50 plus tax. The size seemed like it could be an advantage: I figured I would tune it an octave lower than a regular uke, and it would match my voice better. (I’m a bass-baritone.)
We are about to enter into a dank morass of technoid scunge here, so if you don’t want to know about hacking upon small guitars to turn them into ukuleles (or at least into things that bear a generic resemblance to ukuleles), you can simply take it from me that there is some kind of weird magic involved in mixing engineering with learning to play, and you can let this one go. If, instead, you choose to continue reading, do not claim that I failed to caution you; doing so shall avail you not. See also, naught.
I needed strings, and when I went up on the Web to find them I was somewhat surprised to discover that I could get them at Toys “R” Us. I was even able to pay for them online and have the store hold them for pickup the next day. Very handy.
I have fairly large hands, so instead of just omitting the edges and putting the strings into existing positions 2, 3, 4, and 5, I decided to locate them at positions 1, 2&1/3, 3&2/3, and 5. This meant that I had to dig two new grooves in the nut, and make two new holes in the bridge. (I did not contrive to put the 4th string at position 6 because there is damage to several of the frets at that edge of the fingerboard.)
Both nut and bridge turned out to be hollow. This was annoying in that when I dug the new grooves in the nut, the bottoms were empty air. (The nut was not glued properly into place, so I was able to take it off and add some filler to the underside, for strength, before regluing it.) The bridge is hollow, just like the nut, only in this case that’s a convenience. Dig in from the front, dig in from the back, clean up the edges of the resulting holes, and you’re there.
That guitar became “fakelele” number 1. It looked like this:
[You may notice that I have replaced the original plastic saddle with a slice that I cut from a popsicle stick, in order to raise the action a little.]
Sometimes this instrument buzzed when I played it. When I looked inside I noticed that the internal bracing is molded into the plastic halves, and the front is merely touching the back here and there; they are not actually glued to each other. If the front and back are pushed together firmly enough the contact is improved, and it doesn’t buzz; but the tension on the strings does not provide enough pressure in the right place.
I played with the plastic fakelele for a day or two, starting to teach myself with help from ukeschool.com
[It is, btw, a damn good thing that I have a fairly solid understanding of the importance of baby steps. Otherwise I would have given up on the spot when I found Jake Shimabukuro on YouTube.]
I also began to write a thankyou song for Amanda, which I have not sent to her yet. This is partly because it doesn’t fully match her meter [though that’s a rationalization; she takes liberties with her meter in any case, and it is almost certainly impossible to match precisely] and partly because I worry that too much of it is about the pink plastic device and not enough of it is about thanking her. I may eventually change my mind and send it, or I may tweak it and send it, or maybe not. We’ll see.
After two or three days I decided that I didn’t particularly need to put up with plastic frets and plastic buzzing (I could have dribbled glue into it, but that wouldn’t have done anything about the frets), so I went back to the thrift store where I had acquired it and found a wooden FirstAct discovery guitar with metal frets, for which I paid the princely sum of $6.46 plus tax. (There is no accounting for thrift store pricing; within the past few days I have seen two guitars of this sort, both of which were priced at about 20 bucks.)
This time, though, the strings were somewhat more expensive: lisajulie
and I went to the Toys “R” Us store, where we located the musical-instrument section and I got a set of plum-colored strings and a set of green ones. Toys “R” Us turns out to be one place where you really can get a ukulele for $19.95: they had several. I was tempted, but it would have distracted me from the geekery already at hand. Besides, it was twenty bucks, and the strings were only six bucks a set.
was quite taken aback, btw, at how strongly gendered the entire place and its contents are; I had begun to notice this (the strings are divided into Boy colors and Girl colors), but I was so intent on my primary mission that it hadn’t made quite as heavy an impact on me as it did on her. Once she pointed it out, though, it became entirely obvious and rather oppressive.
I decided to position the strings of #2 at 1, 2.5, 4, and 5.5, so I’d have a little more room for my fingers. In the course of making the new slots in the nut I discovered that it is solid, which is helpful. I then discovered that the bridge is likewise solid, and is made of extremely tough wood, which is strong but not helpful. How do you drill two little holes through at least half an inch of really hard wood, about 3/16" up off a broad wooden deck that you don’t want to damage? The trusty Dremel obviously wasn’t going to fit; even the flexible shaft extension for it didn’t fit. Not even close. This is not a trivial exercise.
I started the holes by wiggling the point of an X-Acto®
knife in the correct locations, and then I tried various ways of extending them. I could probably have done it in a mere day or two by using my fingers to rotate a drillbit in each hole, but that was obviously not viable. Grasping the bit with a pair of pliers and pushing it into the hole while rotating it a small fraction of a turn at a time was likewise not going to work out well. I did make a bit of headway by running a screw a short distance into the hole and then cleaning up the debris with the drillbit, but I was afraid of splitting the wood, so I didn’t go very far with that. It would have taken hours and hours in any case. I already had nearly an hour into the effort by that point, and I wanted to do something better. I am not very patient when I can smell the results I want and it’s apparent that they are just a short distance outside the bars of the cage.
Pause for contemplation. What I want here is a 1/16" drillbit that’s about a foot long, neh? Too bad, because that
assuredly isn’t going to happen. ...So I started digging around in my toolboxes, including two that I had recently acquired when chakaal
emptied the basement of a house she was moving out of, and in one of those I found (mirabile dictu
) a substantial handle with what amounts to a collet on the business end of it, in which was held a piece of ~1/16" thick piano wire about 10" long, with a pointed end. That seemed like it might be just the thing. It was even the right diameter. The point was dull, so I sharpened it, pushed it into one of the holes, and tried rotating it. This wasn’t going to accomplish much, even in combination with the screw and the drillbit, but then it was time for the day’s eureka moment as I realized that it was more than long enough. I removed it from the collet/handle, chucked it into the Dremel, and burned
both holes in about 5 minutes, with accompanying outpourings of smoke and blackened wood dust. No actual flames, but it was close. [Let us have a moment of silence in memory of Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford.]
One of the holes ended up attempting to go through the edge of a screw that holds the bridge down, so it is out of position, but only a wee bit. I was not about to complain.
I put plum and green strings on fakelele #2 and continued to teach myself to play. The steel strings hurt the crap out of my fingers, so I went to the House of Musical Traditions
and got some nylon ones. These, despite being of quite decent quality (as I would expect from HMT, which is a fine place), sounded terrible. Perhaps I didn’t choose the right gauges, or maybe this particular axe just isn’t well suited to nylon strings; I dunno. What I do know is that I reverted to the steel ones, and gritted my teeth a bunch.
At that point, #2 looked about like this:
As I continued to go through lessons and try to learn songs I noticed that even when the tuner in my telephone indicated that the strings were tuned correctly, if I played certain chords the instrument sounded like it was out of tune. I tried changing it from ordinary tenor ukulele tuning (an octave lower than standard uke tuning but otherwise the same: G - C - E - A, with the G higher than the C) to linear tuning, in which the G is lower than the C; but although I liked the sound with the low G, it didn’t change the “off” character.
A week or two later I took #2 up to Montréal, where I mentioned the chord-weirdness issue to Patrick. He played a few riffs on the instrument and said that it was an intonation problem, the sort of thing a luthier could deal with, for a price. I thought about that for perhaps 3 milliseconds and concluded that if I showed up with a mangled 6-dollar guitar, any luthier worthy of the name would either A) spit on my shoe and throw me out, or B) be obliged to charge more than the instrument is worth because of the time it would take them to perform the repair. This seemed counterproductive, not to mention the fact that getting spat upon is deprecated, so instead I went up on the Web and looked for information about guitar intonation.
Most of what I found was about the nicely adjustable bridges on electric guitars, which made me envious, but I did find the key piece of information that lets you figure out the adjustment you need to make. Having tuned a string, you play the 12th fret harmonic (2X the tuned frequency, give or take a bit). Then you fret the string, also at 12, and compare the two frequencies. If they are not the same, you take appropriate action; the mnemonic here is Fretted Flat? Forward!
That is, if the fretted note is at a lower frequency than the harmonic, the saddle for that string needs to move closer to the nut, which shortens the string. I had (and continue to have) some concern about how this might interact with the locations of the frets, but I guess that as long as you are near the head end of the fingerboard it shouldn’t usually be much of an issue.
I also found a nice video from Sullivan Guitars
, in which the luthier fixes an intonation problem on one string of an acoustic guitar. Although he is working at the nut end rather than the saddle end, it seemed sufficiently straightforward to be encouraging.
[Well, hey. I bet I can do something like that. What the hell, if I wreck the thing I’m out a whole six and a half bucks, right? Granted, the strings count for something too; but I could probably reuse them.]
Armed with these invigorating thoughts, I took a bag-closure tag like this one
chopped a few bits off it, and glued them into position on the saddle with cyanoacrylate adhesive. (“Crazy Glue”, “CA”, etc.) After a couple iterations the intonation was noticeably improved, and the saddle looked about like this:
I suppose I should note right here that I am doing these things in order to be able to make a joyful noise, and not as a fashion statement. I’m a geek, a maker, a tweak; and this is partly an engineering project. In fact:
There Is Some Kind of Magic...
...inherent in simultaneously hacking/tweaking on a device to improve its functionality, and teaching oneself (or being taught) to use it. I’m not really sure precisely what that magic is, mind you, but it is clear that Something Special is going on, at least for me. It’s also something of a stretch, which I like. Helps maintain whatever agility I may have.
My fingers were still hurting, but #2 sounded better, and I continued to work through various lessons. I found Brett McQueen’s “Ukulele Tricks” site, which includes a nice chord library.
(Choose one from Column A and one from Column B; then click the “Go” button to get a diagram of the chord. After that, you can select variations if you want them.)
It was about at that point, I think, that my friend David Casseres (who is a truly outstanding food fan and cook, and who has considerable experience playing guitars) started sending me email messages that contained little red guys with horns and pointy tails. The little red guys sat on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, suggesting that I get an actual commercial manufactured ukulele. At the risk of letting myself in for a case of what elisem
refers to as UAS [Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome] I eventually did that; but the result is more or less orthogonal to this post, and I will leave it for another time. Suffice it to say that although the fingerboard is a bit narrow, the commercial tenor ukulele I bought is fun to play; it has nylon (actually Aquila Nylgut®) strings, which means that I can play barre chords on it; and it is smaller, lighter, and more portable than any of my fakeleles. These are very handy attributes.
I will also note that David has been providing mentorship about stringed instruments and how they work, and useful ways of thinking about how one plays them. I deeply appreciate this, the more so because he has been very kind about my pissing and moaning over various issues including the fact that I am having large amounts of trouble trying to figure out what chords to play for a song if I can’t find them listed on the Web.
That’s where things stood for a little while. I was learning a song or three, doing little fingerpicking exercises I found on the Web and making up a few of my own, and generally having a pleasant time of it. Soon, however, I found myself looking for small guitars at thrift stores, and occasionally even having them bring down a mid-size guitar from the shelf where they keep the expensive things. I didn’t ask to look at anything that was over 30 bucks, but it was still a worrisome sign.
About a week ago I saw a damaged mid-size guitar at a thrift. Someone had tightened the strings far too much, as a result of which the front of the instrument was warped and the bridge had started to pull up. Just not good. I loosened the strings to a reasonable level, even though it was far too late. By that time, though, I was on track, and later that day I managed to find a mid-sized guitar that had a fairly straight fretboard and a flat front face. It was also badly damaged, but the first major issue that I noticed was one that I don’t care about: the knob and shaft were broken off one of the tuners. I only need four tuners, and the broken one was at the top end, so it was ignorable except as an indication that the instrument had been mistreated, an issue to which we shall be obliged to return.
This guitar was marked $14.91, but everything is 25% off on Monday, so the price was actually $11 and change... I asked the attendant to bring it down for a bit. I looked it over and tuned the three strings that I could adjust, so they’d sound right with the string that was on the broken tuner. The tone was okay. No, the tone was more than okay: it was surprisingly resonant and full for what had obviously been a very inexpensive instrument even when it was new. At that point I gave in and bought it.
There is part of a label on the back of the headstock, which says "MADE IN K...", presumably Korea; it also says "STEEL REINFOR...", which is a pleasant sign about the quality of the neck. The rosette around the soundhole is certainly made of ink and not of wood, and is probably a decal. The label inside has "Model No." printed on it in script, below which is a line on which is stamped G100; even though the first character is nearly illegible, I know that it is G rather than something else because I have found another such guitar on an [expired] auction page from Goodwill Industries, in East Peoria, Illinois. That machine had a legible serial number on its label; mine has only traces, though I think the number may be 147375. There is no sign of a manufacturer’s name, and none is mentioned on the Goodwill page.
This instrument has a singular advantage: instead of having an integrated saddle and bridge like the others do, it has (as you can see in the photo) a metal tailstock that holds the bottom ends of the strings, and a separate saddle that was originally glued to the front plate. When I took the old strings off, I found that the saddle had come loose. That made adjusting the intonation considerably easier.
This time I positioned the strings at 1.5, 3, 4.5, and 6. There was no need to keep them at the low edge of the fingerboard, and this way I don’t have to push my pinky all the way across when I need it on the lowest string. The strings, btw, are Aquila “Nylgut”, intended for a baritone uke; I’ve mistuned them, but they don’t seem to mind. This instrument is effectively a 4-string guitar; it will never sound like a ukulele, and perhaps I shouldn’t be referring to it the way I do, but them’s life. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fakelele #3. Here it is, next to #2:
While I was tweaking the intonation I noticed some buzzing. It sounded like it was coming from the metal tailstock, but that was an illusion; I eventually tracked it down to a badly broken internal brace. Fortunately, that brace is on the underside of the faceplate very close to the soundhole, and I was able to glue and clamp it without removing the strings, though I did have to loosen the lowest one.
Then there was this:
As you can see, the edge of the front panel was badly mashed in this area, and the wood was starting to fall apart. I concluded that I had no choice but to commit luthiery in order to prevent the damage from getting worse, so I went to the hobby shop and got a piece of 3/32" model aircraft plywood. I originally intended to make an attempt to match the color, but the stain I got (which claimed to be something on the order of “Golden Oak”) was greenish brown and far too dark, so I let go of that notion. I enlarged the damaged area to take care of the buckled region that you can see to the left in the photo, chiseled down the level of the wood so the patch I made would fit correctly, added some splinters (I had plenty of those) to the area with the worst damage in order to increase its density a little, put some diluted glue into that area for additional stability, and glued the patch in place ...badly tilted. (Almost needless to say, about 12 hours later I figured out a better way to position the patch for gluing and a better way to hold it in position without so much tilt. Gargh.) I hope no real luthier ever has to see this repair, as I hate to see grown people weep and rend their garments; but the damage is now contained and the tone seems to be unaffected. Here’s the patch:
After I glued the fix into place I noticed a slight buzzing on the lowest two strings, and for a while I thought it was another broken internal brace. That, fortunately, turned out not to be the problem. The intonation fix on the upper two strings had moved them up away from the fingerboard a little, and I wanted to match that change in the action for the lower pair, so the first thing I did was to add a piece of ABS angle to the saddle. Then I figured out that there was some glue residue under the saddle, so I took it off, scraped it clean, repositioned it, added an intonation tweak to the lowest string, and tacked it down with tiny dots of CA. The sound is pretty decent now, and the buzz is gone. Here’s the saddle in its current state:
(Since I took this photo I have cleaned up the ends of the wound strings so they won’t unwind any further. Live and learn.)
For anyone who is interested, and with the caution that these are assuredly baby-steps, here is a little chord progression on the commercial tenor ukulele,
first fingernail-strummed twice and then finger-strummed twice; and here is the same thing on fakelele 3.
You will notice a pronounced difference in tone, and you may notice that there is a one-note difference, something I could only hear when I did it on f3, so I didn’t bother to do it when I recorded the commercial axe. You will also notice that I don’t have very good control of the instrument[s] yet, but I presume that will come with practice. (I don’t know how to make a streaming connection, so these are plain downloads of the files. I’ve ripped them to MP3, so they aren’t very large. I should probably mention the fact that I made the original recordings with a Tascam iM2 on my iPhone, and that there was traffic outside at the time, so you are likely to hear a certain amount of background noise.)
The saddle makes me uneasy, and I cannot easily lower the action, which I may want to do, so I went up on eBay and looked at bridges for electric guitars. (Figured it would come to this, didn’t you?) Bass guitar bridges accommodate 4 strings, but the standard separation on a bass is 19 or 20 millimeters, while the separation at the bridge of fakelele #3 is only about 14 mm, so that doesn’t seem particularly viable. I could, however, take a standard 6-string bridge, remove the two sliders I’m not going to use, drill two holes in it to reposition two of the remaining sliders (or three holes, if the existing spacing really doesn’t match), and add notches at the new string positions. The bridges I saw that seem most likely to fit into the available space are Fender Jaguar/Jazzmasters, which look about like this:
They are usually too expensive, but somebody had an older one up for grabs, it didn’t attract much attention, and I got it for 14 bucks plus shipping. It should be here in a day or two, and once it gets here and I get it tweaked and installed and adjusted I will probably be the only research potter in the world with a Fender Fakelele. Ahem.
(06 and early 07 September)
[[Earlier this evening, in the basement of the Indonesian Embassy, I played music that has two scales, no keys, no chords, no downbeat... it is something of a headmelt to go from that to this.]]
This afternoon (yesterday afternoon, as I write this), I received the Fender saddle. I have tweaked [fairly heavily], tested, and installed it. I ended up drilling four new holes, on the opposite side from the 6 that it already had. That let me position them (the holes) more easily where I wanted them. I tried putting the saddle on top of a piece of wood 1/8" thick, but that seemed to be excessive, so I switched to a piece of 1/16"-thick wood. I also went to the hobby shop and got four socket-head cap screws to replace the original phillips-head adjustment screws, which were not going to be viable in the available space.
I have decreased the height of the action considerably and also evened it out from string to string. Being able to do that is very pleasing. I think the intonation is now nearly as good as it can get with this instrument.
The installed saddle looks about like this:
There is one buzz problem, related to the extreme intonation setting that is required for the E string; it’s quite minor, but I’m peevish about it anyway, and I’m thinking about ways to deal. OTOH, at this point I’m not even hearing it, so perhaps it’s ignorable.
There are also some rather peculiar issues that I do not entirely understand. For example, the frets look straight enough, but one of the strings is consistently flat on several of them even though it is correctly tuned and has reasonable intonation. If all of the strings were flat on those frets, I might understand it... but they aren’t, and I don’t.
I can now play the little chord progression a whole lot faster than I could when I recorded it last night.
The one thing I worry about is what will happen when I run out of engineering to perform on this instrument; if I start looking around for another axe to hack upon, I’m in trouble. I am not a professional uke player, and I don’t need to have an entire rank of the things for different circumstances. I’m also not a luthier. I am already beginning to suspect that I have at least a mild case of FCS: Fakelele Constructor Syndrome.
I have to thank brooksmoses
, who was visiting the area recently, and brought me some special acrylic stain. The patch on F3 now matches the color of the original wood much more closely:
Meanwhile, things have gotten slightly out of hand. Just for yucks I converted F2 back into a guitar (by the simple expedient of swapping the strings that were on it for a set of 6 nylon ones), and found that my fingers didn’t fit on the fretboard. No surprise there, so I went to the thrift store where I had acquired F3, looked at and listened to a few things, and bought a ~¾-size guitar. I should have been more attentive; when I put strings on it, I was shocked to discover that the spacing between them was essentially identical to the spacing on F2. (This was not entirely wasted effort, as I was able to give that instrument to someone who wants to learn to play and is not particularly in a position to afford things. I also let go of the former F2, which went to the children of a friend.)
Then I went up on eBay and looked for wide-neck guitars. The only obvious candidate was something that had a price in excess of $1600, and I wasn’t about to go there, so I grepped around the Web and found a forum on which a middle-aged guy with moderately large fingers was inquiring what he could do. The forum expert pointed out that a 12-string has a wider fretboard, and that probably the easiest way to deal would be to get one and put 6 strings on it. I thought that was a rather interesting idea, so I went over to The House of Musical Traditions
again, to see what they had. I was somewhat surprised to discover, in one of the rooms, four guitars with wider fretboards. When I inquired, they told me that those were classical guitars, and that the wider fretboard is standard. They were lovely, but still a bit too expensive. I then went up on eBay and put a bid on a classical guitar, and later on a 12-string, figuring that I would be outbid on both. (I was.)
A few days later lisajulie
and I were in Rockville on an errand; we took the opportunity to stop in at Guitar Center
, and I asked one of the sales people for some information about 12-string guitars: what makes for a good one, what can make them bad, and so on. I cautioned him that this was extremely unlikely to result in a sale, but he wasn’t busy at the time, and he gave us a brilliant set of demos on four instruments, with commentary about songs that work well and songs that don’t; the wearing-in and aging process; wood types & construction details; and so on. One way I could tell that he is a ripping good guitarist is that he tuned the instruments by ear, and it didn’t take him very long. [It is not easy to tune a 12-string at all, and I have a decent enough ear that I could tell he was getting it right.] I desperately wanted the Taylor that he used for part of the demo, but it was a thousand bucks. Besides, it had 12 steel strings on it, which would have shredded my fingers in a matter of seconds, and I would never have been able to play barre chords on it. (Sigh.) It was, as I say, a superb set of demo-and-explication, and we continued to fizz for some time afterward.
Some hours later, when I was on my way home, I realized that I was going to stop at the thrift store where I had bought F3 and the guitar with the neck that was too narrow, to get a 12-string guitar. I didn’t remember the last time I’d seen a 12-string there, and I almost talked myself out of going on what was essentially guaranteed to be a wild-goose chase, but I went anyway ...and bought the 12-string. [[This is a classic example of what I am reduced to calling “Thrift Magic”, as I have no other reasonable way to describe it. It’s not an isolated instance, either I have had at least 4 such.]] Here’s an overview:
As you can see, this instrument has a saddle-and-tailstock structure that is similar to that of F3, though on a slightly larger scale, and the saddle is screwed in place, not glued on. The saddle height is adjustable, but one of the screws is broken. (To make a long story short: I eventually loosened the strings, reached in through the soundhole and unscrewed the broken screw, cleaned up the threads a bit where it had been sheared off, and screwed it back in upside-down. It would be mildly annoying to adjust, but I seem to have gotten it about right for the strings that are currently on the instrument. If I had access to a machine shop I could fabricate another one, and when TechShop
opens near here I will do that; it’s just an 8-32 with a shoulder cut in it below the head.)
Adjustable saddles have a bad reputation for dulling the sound; but even with 6 nylon strings on it instead of 12 steel ones this instrument has more than enough volume for my needs. It also seems to have its frets in about the right locations, so it sounds less funky than any of the others I’ve messed with during this escapade, and the tone is decidedly better than I could expect for the fifty bucks it cost me. It’s a no-name, with no indication of where it was built, and it is clearly a beater, but it has suffered far less damage than F3. Aside from the business with the saddle adjustment, and replacing the missing strap button at the bottom end, about all I really had to do was put lithium grease on the tuners, several of which were horribly stiff, and piddle with the intonation. The neck, fortunately, is rather straight. We won’t talk about what has been done to a lot of the frets; there are some things you just get to live with. It’s a more-than-adequate student instrument, and I’m very pleased to have it.
I was worried that the ukulele experience (which, btw, continues, though at a slightly reduced pace) would interfere with learning guitar, but instead I went through a “quick-start” set of beginner lessons
at guitarlessons.com in about an hour and a half.
...And so it goes. We live and learn.
|Wednesday, June 6th, 2012|
|The Transit of Venus
Along with many other folks, I saw at least part of the Transit yesterday, some of it from large telescopes via
the Intertubes, and some a bit more up-close-and-personal (as it were). Also along with many other folks, I want to share some of that experience.
Because of the weather, which was very cloudy, I had thought about just watching on the Net, but I ended up going to the Advanced Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University
, where the Astronomy Club
and the Space Department got together to provide several large screens with streaming coverage, a lecture to let people know what was going on and the history behind it, and a bunch of viewers and telescopes through which quite a few people were able to see things when the clouds finally parted a few times. Kudos and thanks!
These are about the best of the photos I was able to take with my iPhone, by holding it close to the eyepieces of a couple telescopes. (It is just an i4, not even a 4S, a fact I mention because the 4S has a significantly better camera.) The first two photos were taken through a small (probably 3.5") Meade scope, very likely a Maksutov or similar configuration; the other two were taken through a little refractor that I didn’t quite get the name of, but as you can probably tell from the rich red color it had a nice Hα filter on it. (The filter is built in, and the scope is specifically intended for looking at the sun.)
You have my apologies for the various problems, among them chromatic aberration in the first photo, motion blur in the second, and artifacts in the third; it was difficult to take these. You can barely see Venus in the final image, but the prominences at bottom and lower left show up fairly well. I will not apologize for the clouds; I think they are reasonably pretty, and except for hiding Venus in the last photo they do not particularly detract from the images.
I particularly want to thank Bokunenjin
, who alerted the HacDC
mailinglist to the existence of this venue, which is how I found out about it.
|Wednesday, May 30th, 2012|
|Another Little Variorum of Joys and Pleasantries...
Hi. This is partly an experiment, to see whether crossposting is working correctly.
1) As far as I’m aware, there is one (count it, 1) US grower of Australian finger limes [Microcitrus australasica or Citrus australasica; I can’t recall which name is current and which is out of date], Shanley Farms. They are out of season now, but will return in the fall. Germination of seeds is reported to be erratic and unreliable, but I got two seedlings from the three seeds I planted:
Spiky little critters, but you expect that with citrus.
2) I have my hands in mud again, which makes me very happy.
2A) I am working on reproducing several Song dynasty glaze effects, which is a ton of fun. I am not generally interested in directly copying the work, but if I can get lovely glazes I will be happy to use them. Here is a photo of a bowl with a particularly lovely oilspot glaze, which is currently on display at the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian:
It is easy to make an oilspot glaze; it is not easy to make one like this. Working on it.
Here is a photo of a different Song dynasty glaze pattern, something called Tortoiseshell. (This is from Alain Truong’s old blog, Eloge de l’Art.) Tortoiseshell varies all the way from quite pale, sometimes with flamy blue bits, to the golden orange you see in Alain Truong photo, to peculiar things like this [caution: large file].
There are other variants of Tortoiseshell, including some where they clearly laid down little papercuts, sprayed the wash over them instead of dripping or painting it on, and then removed the paper before firing the piece.
Perhaps fortunately, Tortoiseshell is relatively easy to do, so rather than struggling to achieve it at all I’m struggling to get versions I particularly like. This is very different from something called Yohen (sometimes Youhen) or Inaba Tenmoku, which is extremely difficult. There are only three Song dynasty examples, all of which are National Treasures in museums in Japan and cannot be messed with or analyzed, and nobody knows precisely how they were made. Here is a photo of the interior of the best one.
Several people over there are doing modern equivalents, some of which are really lovely (albeit somewhat over the top). The odd thing is that no two of these folks are doing work that is precisely alike, and nobody seems to be doing anything that is quite the same as the Song dynasty originals. I think this set of photos is of a bowl by a fellow named Hayashi.
This variety of results appears to be an example of something I was discussing with Bill Phillips and Stephen Granade at BaltiCon this past weekend (see #3): if you know that something can be done, you probably have a fair shot at doing it; but if you don’t know how it was done you may come up with a novel method.
A few weeks ago, a potter in Denmark named Lauge Brixvold sent me some information about how the people in Japan are creating these effects, which has me extremely excited. I have been firing glaze tests, and although I’m not even close yet, I am definitely seeing some suggestive things. We’ll see how far I get.
3) Within the past few weeks I have been privileged to meet several remarkable people.
3A) I encountered Josh Simpson and his brother [or cousin?] Kim at the Smithsonian Crafts Show, where I also saw various friends including Olen Hsu, Eric Serritella, and Hideaki Miyamura. Josh does amazing work with glass, and we got into the expectable Vulcan Mind-Meld about colloidal colorants. Kim is a potter, and I expect to be having a protracted conversation with both of them. It turns out that Josh is married to Cady Coleman, who had recently returned from 3 months on the ISS, which leads me to the fact that a few weeks later I went to small bits of the recent Nebula Awards weekend, where I met Mike Fincke. When I asked him if he knew Cady Coleman, he said "We're buddies! I've been in space with her!" The world is a very tiny place, simultaneously shrinking and expanding at large rates.
3B) This past weekend I attended BaltiCon, one of the local science-fiction conventions, where I saw many friends, and where I got to meet their Music Guests, Heather Dale and Ben Deschamps (who are very cool), and their Science Guest, a friendly fellow named Bill Phillips who does ultralow-temperature work at NIST. This is exceedingly geeky and quantum-mechanical; it involves rather special lasers, and dilute gases that are composed (at least typically) of alkali-metal atoms, things like sodium and rubidium. He also gives insanely great lecture-demos. Among folks who do advanced work there are not all that many who can bring the joys of physics and engineering to a relatively nontechnical audience, and particularly to kids. Bill Phillips is especially good. (He also happens to have a Nobel Prize, about which he is extremely modest.) One afternoon he was interviewed by Stephen Granade and John Ashmead, who did a fine job of it, and I am becoming acquainted with them, too.
4) As I understand it, a little over a year ago Bapak Salman al-Farisi, who was then Deputy Chief of Mission at the Indonesian Embassy, seems to have concluded that the Embassy’s Central Javanese Gamelan ensemble needed to be replaced. This was accurate; the old set has some serious problems. Bapak Salman set in motion some diplomatic machinery that resulted in the Embassy asking Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X of Jogjakarta whether he might be willing to donate a new set of instruments. The Sultan said yes, and the new gamelan arrived about two months ago. It is larger and more thoroughly instrumented than the old set, and it has very fine tone.
Here is a photo of the new set. A few of the instruments are not really visible here, but at least you can get a sense of what a Central Javanese gamelan looks like. I hope I’ll eventually be able to give you a sense of what it sounds like, which is somewhat more important.
(The instruments at the lower left corner and the ones sitting in the windows at the rear are from the old set.)
At this point we need to recruit a bunch more people who want to play or to learn to play, because we were already short-handed, and now we have even more instruments. If you are in the general vicinity of Washington DC and you are interested in playing Javanese gamelan, or if you know (or know of) someone in the DC area who is interested in playing Javanese gamelan, please (!) contact me. Gamelan, in all its variations (of which there are quite a few), is quite different from Western music; but at the beginner level this music is fairly easy to pick up, and although we don’t have a specific beginner class we can assist new people in getting started.
5) I hope to issue, eventually, a video about one of the room-pressure nitrogen lasers I’ve been working on, with some demos showing things you can do with such a device. The video is nearly complete; I’m working on the voiceover. Unfortunately, this has been taking me a lot longer than I wanted. (Sigh.) When it’s done I will put it up on YouTube, and I will post a loud squeal of relief here.
|Monday, October 10th, 2011|
|Salad, with accompaniments [including a bit of technoid scunge]
GREEN bus, YELLOW sign...
Clearly, it’s the PURPLE line!
Ahem. Yes. Well. [Some of us are easily amused. I count myself fortunate in this regard.]
I had an obscure hankering for a Waldorf Salad. (It boots not to ask why; I do not claim to control, predict, or understand these things. I merely count myself fortunate that nearly all of my hankerings are easily met.) I faunched, anyway, after a nice turkey Waldorf until I decided to do something about It. I’m going to describe version 2 of the result, which I am eating even as I type this. Version 1 was very similar, though maybe a bit too rich, so I used a bit less mayo this time.
Those of you who are familiar with my cooking style will find none of what follows the least bit surprising. A little of it was necessitated by food allergies (I do not mess with raisins, because I am allergic to yeast), but I’m fairly sure that most of it was driven by whim except the fennel. That was suggested by lisajulie. It was obviously The Right Stuff, and I was happy to accept the suggestion.
2 duck breasts [the package said net weight 12 oz]
1 midsize to large fennel bulb [see notes]
2 midsize to large apples [see notes]
pecans [I didn’t feel like walnuts. You want walnuts? Use walnuts. You want hazelnuts? Use hazelnuts. If you are completely insane you can use macadamia nuts, but don’t blame me if the result is too rich to eat.]
dried cherries [see above, about yeast; you can use whatever dried fruits you like]
calamansi juice [see notes]
caraway seeds [optional]
mayonnaise [preferably homemade, or at least of high quality]
Slice the duck very thin, and marinate it in the calamansi juice for a while. I think I left it for about half an hour.
Mince the fennel and cook it until it has softened enough that you are comfortable eating it. I used the microwave for this.
Sauté the duck. You can reduce the resulting liquid a little, but you will need it, so don’t evaporate all of it.
Mince the apples. Mince the dried cherries. If the nuts are not already chopped, chop them.
Mix everything in a large bowl, being careful not to add too much mayonnaise. (If you think you will be wanting rather a lot of mayo, you may want to remove the skin from the pieces of duck before you put them in.)
This should be enough for approximately four normal adult humans, two very hungry people, or one teenager. If the latter, have some dessert ready; the teenager will express much fullness after finishing the salad, but will probably want a little something about 25 minutes later. [I know, anyone who has a teenager in the house doesn’t need to be told that. I included it for the sake of completeness.]
Here is a largish serving:
1) I am still seeing Florence [bulbing] fennel [finocchio in Italian] mislabelled as “anise” in supermarkets. This plant has very little to do with anise, other than a distantly reminiscent flavor and the fact that they are both members of a botanical grouping [Umbelliferae] that includes carrots, dill, caraway, cumin, ajouan, and various other things, many of them fragrant.
2) I used ‘Gingergold’ apples the first time; one ‘Honeycrisp’ and one ‘Mutsu’ this time. It’s all according to your taste, and what’s available. If I’d been able to get my hands on ‘Karmijn de Sonnaville’ fresh off the tree, or ‘Belle de Boskoop’, either would have been my hands-down first choice; but nobody seems to grow them commercially in this area. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Karmijn in a market. I would have been happy to mix in a few ‘Dolgo’ crabapples as well, though that would have necessitated a bit more sweetness somewhere in the mix: they have a lovely rosy fragrance, but they are very tart. If you are familiar with ‘Dolgo’, you will get an index of my sourness tolerance from the fact that I eat them out of hand.
3) I get Manila Gold fresh-frozen calamansi juice, which is packaged in little plastic packets in a resealable bag. Nothing has been added to it no sugar, no preservatives. It is sour as hell, and it is absolutely lovely. I used two of the packets each time I made this salad, and that was about the right amount for my taste. You do not, btw, want to use sweetened forms of calamansi (of which there are several) in this recipe/method unless you are having the salad for dessert. ...Well, okay, you may be able to get away with sweetened calamansi juice if you are using only ‘Dolgo’ or similarly tart crabapples.
Picklemasters, Bless ’em
lisajulie and I went through one of the local Korean markets a while ago, and (as usual) made a pass through the magic pickle section, where we discovered that they had pickled Japanese ume [crab-apricots, Prunus mume]. I couldn’t resist getting some of these, and I am happy to report that they are the usual Korean pickle excellence: tart, sweet, hot. Yum!
[[Aside: Don’t let anybody hand you any crap about ume being “Japanese plums”. A plum is not fuzzy like a peach, and a plum does not taste like an apricot. (If you don’t think an ume is an apricot, you haven’t tried eating a ripe one off the tree. Very different from the usual umeboshi, which are pickled when they are green.) Besides, the Japanese have plums, and they are ...plums.]]
Concerning the Improbability of Banana Ketchup Operators
I used to like banana ketchup a lot, but when I read the label on the usual commercial versions I find onions (which I like, but to which I allerge) and artificial coloring (which I don’t much like, and to which I object), so I decided to make my own. Unfortunately, the recipes on the Web all seem to involve not only onions, but also raisins (yeast, feh) and things like cider or malt vinegar (more yeast!). [I react far more vigorously to yeast than I do to onions.]
I am clearly going to have to wing it, at least partially.
Banana ketchup involves bananas (which I have acquired for the purpose, though they don’t appear to be quite ripe enough yet); “spices” (this appears to cover things like cinnamon and allspice and maybe a clove or two, though in some recipes it also seems to mean black pepper and nutmeg, and I found at least one that calls for ginger...); something sour (I will probably use either Japanese rice vinegar, which is made by the Koji ferment rather than the yeast ferment used in the West, or distilled white vinegar); and, if necessary, something sweet (kinda depends on the bananas, and on the aesthetic of the maker). Some people add tomato products, some don’t. Some add chiles, and a few add a little ripe bell pepper. Some add a tot of rum, preferably dark.
[[Followup: I made two batches. The first one accidentally got an excess of cloves dropped into it, and was not entirely successful. The second, however, isn’t bad at all.]]
Chapter 39B, part VI:
In Which I Resort to the Abuse of Fundamental Constants
I wanted to know how accurate the timebase on our old Tektronix 7104 oscilloscope is, and as I do not have ready access to NIST (they are some miles from here, and I’m sure they have better things to do than calibrate my antique 7B15 timebase for me), I decided to fall back upon fundamentals. I have a nice room-pressure nitrogen laser here that I built a while ago:
(Yeah, I know, it looks like a pile of bricks. The fact that very little of it is tied into place makes it easier to tweak, and also easier to fix when it craps out, which it did a bunch of times when it was newly constructed. Once I got it stabilized it didn’t crap out for many weeks, but that is not necessarily an adequate predictor when high voltages and thin plastic sheets are involved.)
A TEA (Transversely Excited, Atmospheric [pressure]) nitrogen laser puts out a pulse that is approximately 1 billionth of a second long. I ran one of the output beams (if there are no mirrors at the ends, this type of laser emits two beams) into a structure rather like a Michelson interferometer, but with unequal pathlengths, which I built on top of the oscilloscope because the cable on the photodetector is short...
(Sorry about the view angle!)
Please to note the carefully chosen “close-in” reflector. I couldn’t use a real mirror, because it would have swamped the detector, so I picked a piece of hardware that’s a vaguely specular reflector but not a very good one, and lucked out it worked quite nicely. Note also the beamsplitter, which is a sapphire sewer-camera window. Again, I didn’t have a proper UV beamsplitter, so I made do with what I did have.
The pathlength difference here is 38 cm, but we have to double that because the light goes off to the mirror and then returns. The speed of light is now defined as 299,792,458 meters per second (a wee bit less in air, not that it makes any difference to me for this measurement), so it takes just over 2.5 nanoseconds for the light to traverse the path. [Note: if you measure the speed of light and you get a number other than the one I’ve given here, your ruler or your clock or both are out of calibration.]
Here’s what the scope gave me, after I got everything aligned and applied a bit of optical attenuation at the far-end mirror:
I’ve marked the peaks; the scope indicates that they are just over 2.8 nsec apart, which means that my timebase is about +10% off calibration when it is displaying 2 nsec per division on the screen. [There is an adjustment for this, but I already have it at one end of its range, so the actual cal error is even worse.] Such is life; at least now I know how large and in what direction the error is.
|Tuesday, September 27th, 2011|
Any of you who knew Scott Scidmore will be distressed to hear that he died (in his sleep, apparently from a heart attack) on Saturday. If you want any further info, please email me.
I don’t have any words right now.
|Sunday, May 1st, 2011|
It seems that the FDA is seriously considering making it illegal for us to have access to our own DNA information unless we go through a health professional. I do not entirely understand this, but they appear to be afraid that people will have a greater propensity to do precipitous and stupid things if they have direct access to the information. There is an article in WIRED, however, which claims that there does not appear to be any evidence to support this notion. It also discusses the issue in far more detail than I can manage here & now.
(...Besides, they think that people will refrain from doing precipitous and stupid things just because a doctor tells them about the information?? I mean, really...)
In any case, to whatever extent I understand this, I am not exactly amused.
It further seems that the window for public comment had closed or would have closed, but they have extended it a bit; the window, however, ends either tonight or tomorrow (I’m hazy on this), so if you are reading this on the evening of Sunday, May 1, 2011, you may want to comment. Here is a direct link to the submission page.
Good luck to all of us...