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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Jon Singer's LiveJournal:

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    Tuesday, April 8th, 2014
    4:28 pm
    Lamb, Methi, Spices; also March (okay, April) of the Fakeleles, Part IV
    Before I begin, I would like to issue a cautionary statement:

    Words from the VoE: It is inadvisable for the unwary innocent to eat “Masala Chakri” murukku while driving.

    (I now have a Twitter account [@_jonsinger_], and I very nearly used that as my first tweet, but I think I will do something a bit more significant or important instead.)

    The deal with these particular murukku is that the masala seems to consist entirely of hot chillis. Murukku invariably release a bit of dust when you bite them or chew them, and at least one particle of that dust will find its way into your windpipe, where the chilli content will cause you to cough a bit. It doesn’t take much of that to drive a quantity of the dust up the back of your nose, and mere moments later your vision will tend to be, shall we say, clouded. (I presume that it is fairly obvious that “VoE” = “Voice of Experience”. Ahem. Yes. Well.)

    ...To return to the issue[s] at hand:

    Various Indian markets carry this pleasant item:

    (The folks at Deep also produce at least one other chopped green veg in little frozen cubes; it seems to be spinach amaranth or tindaljo, and it also has other names. The cubes are really handy.)

    I had some frozen ground lamb, and decided to cook it for dinner last night. [personal profile] lisajulie suggested the methi cubes and some spices, which seemed like a fine notion; I ended up using caraway, fennel seed, cumin seed, grains of paradise, dried ginger, and some really nice Syrian 7-spice mixture that I believe I got at Mediterranean Bakery, 352 S Pickett St, Alexandria, VA 22304. If you don’t have ready access to Syrian 7-spice mix, you could probably just bump up the quantities to suit your taste and add a modest amount of cinnamon and perhaps bits of allspice and cloves and turmeric. That, however, is a guess; please don’t hold me to it. Besides, you’ll notice that I didn’t specify my original amounts; for about 1 lb of lamb and one bag of methi cubes, I probably used about a tsp of each of the seeds (give or take a bit), and probably more fennel and caraway than G of P or cumin); also maybe half a tsp of ground ginger. Again, though, I don’t measure, so you can and should take it with a grain or two of salt. Speaking of which, I forgot to add any salt when I was cooking, and you may want to correct that omission if you try it. I salted it afterward. [Note: I powdered the seeds in a coffee grinder. The G of P seem to be tougher than the others, so you may want to start with those and get them mostly ground before you add the rest. There is also the eternal question: Dry roast the spices, or toss them straight into the oil/ghee? I put them in the oil, but the bottom line is that it’s your choice.]

    I got the lamb and spices mostly cooked, then added the methi and continued stirring until it was well mixed in. I am pleased to note that the result, which was seriously edible, was equally pleasant this morning when I put some of the leftovers —

    — into a sada dosa. (Please forgive the horrendo white-balance; I took this photo with my phone, under fluorescent lights. The dish is far more appealing to the eye than you would guess from this, and it is pleasing to the nose as well.)


    On an entirely different front...

    At Boskone, a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of helping the Estimable and Excellent [profile] beamjockey [who seems to be only on LJ, not on DW] with a ukulele that he’d been lent because he didn’t have one with him. The saddle from its bridge had gone off to wherever ukulele saddles go; I told him that I generally use popsicle sticks to ameliorate that kind of issue, and we set off in search of one. That didn’t take long: the people at Kids’ Programming were happy to provide a couple from their stash of hundreds (or possibly thousands; it was a capacious bag). We cut one down to a reasonable width and added a folded bit of cardboard to wedge it into the bridge, because the channel was a bit too wide to hold it snugly in place. [Thanks to the other person who was involved, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, for this idea.] After that all the instrument needed was strings, and Bill had a set with him for this express purpose. Q. E. D.

    Almost needless to say, this incident remained fairly fresh in my mind. I found myself noticing small guitars at thrift stores, with the vague purpose of having a really portable instrument. I finally pounced yesterday, and the result is Fakelele #4. Here’s an overview:

    The overall length is just about 30", which probably makes this the smallest one I’ve modded to date. If I can find a carry-bag or case of appropriate size it should be quite portable.

    This is (sigh) definitely something of a beater —

    — but it wasn’t nearly as badly damaged as #3 (which I wrote up a while back), and I only paid 10 bucks for it, which seems only mildly extravagant. (I haven’t bothered to check, but I think these things go for at least $25 new.) The intonation seemed more or less okay as far as I could tell from the three more-or-less-playable strings that were on it, and although I forgot to peer down the edge of the neck, it turns out to be more than straight enough for folk music.

    I decided to position the strings at 1, 2&2/3, 4&1/3, and 6; that gives me the widest possible separation between them, which is important because I have moderately large fingers. I should probably note that I much prefer the bridge structure of Fakelele #3, which is much easier to modify; when the bridge is firmly attached to the front panel of the instrument several inches away from the edge, and you need to create holes in it that are perhaps 1 mm diameter, approximately parallel to the face of the instrument, and only a few millimeters up from the deck, you need to find a way to accomplish that. On #3 I used a long awl that appears to have been made from a piece of piano wire, dismounting it from its handle and chucking it into the Dremel®. That worked quite well. I’m away from home and didn’t have access to all of my tools when I acquired this instrument, but I was able to drill the two new holes in the bridge with a piece that I cut from a thin wire coathanger. As before, this is accomplished by friction rather than cutting, and it released a certain amount of woodsmoke; I kept switching back and forth from one hole to the other to minimize the issue. It took perhaps 10 minutes to do both of them.

    In this connection I must issue another caution from the VoE: because pieces of coathanger wire are not very straight, and because they are not as stiff as piano wire, you need to keep the “drill” under tight control whenever it is rotating. You also need to be careful not to bump it or otherwise bend it accidentally. I happened to let go at an unfortunate moment, and when the wire pretzeled it banged into the front of the instrument, damaging the finish:

    [I will also suggest that you want to avoid attempting to control the wire with your bare hands; thin gloves with a thin coating of some sort of oil or grease would appear to be A Good Idea. I’m pretty careful, and I did it barehanded, but there were moments when I noticed a finger or two beginning to get warm.]

    The nut at the top of the fingerboard had come loose, which was quite convenient because I had to create two new slots in it. This, no surprise, is another thing the Dremel does nicely. After I cut the slots I centered the nut and glued it back into place with CA. Notice that although this instrument is probably little more than a toy, it actually has a top fret.

    The action was low, so I used a long toothpick to raise the saddle height:

    Note, added a day or two later: The intonation was a bit off, so I revised the saddle:

    The two high strings are fluorocarbon; the others are wrapped nylon. They are sized for a baritone uke, and I have tuned them accordingly. The instrument sounds moderately okay as far as I can tell. All things considered, this is not too bad for an evening’s constructive amusement and about 16 bucks, including the strings.
    Saturday, November 30th, 2013
    2:44 pm
    A [Thanksgiving] Day in the Life of a (sorta) Mad Scientist
    [[I think I’ve already addressed the fact that I woke up with a migraine on the day after Thanksgiving, 5 years in a row, after which I tried a fancy organic turkey and did not have any trouble with it, so that’s what I buy now. Lately I’ve been getting them from Maple Lawn Farms, and they’ve been just fine.]]

    I brined the turkey, as I have done for lo, these many y’ars. (Well, okay, perhaps 5 or 6 times. Before that I had no idea about brining. Then I was fed a brined chicken, and everything changed.) I have found that if I use the amount of salt that is usually called for, the drippings from the bird are too salty to use as gravy. This is deprecated, so I now keep it down to a dull roar, perhaps half the suggested amount. (I say “perhaps” because I almost never measure anything when I’m cooking.) The brine still works, although it is probably slower to penetrate, and if time & tide permit I let it go longer.

    This time it was: salt, acacia honey, tarragon, cinnamon, a few bay leaves, and lots and lots of caraway seeds. I grew up with caraway seeds on rye bread and in Cabbage Noodles, and I really love them. (If you look at Eastern European cookbooks, you may have to go through 6 or 8 recipes for Cabbage Noodles before you find one that calls for kimmel. I have no idea why this should be.)

    I only had time to let it go overnight in the fridge, less than 24 hours, but it worked well anyway.

    Then I overcooked it. This is annoying, on several counts. For one thing, it’s not the first time. For another, although I was running the oven a little hotter than 325, I did check it more than an hour before I thought it would be finished. By that point, however, it was already badly overdone. Sigh. (You would think that I’d have a firm protocol in place after even a single experience of this sort, but no. However, there is now an Event in my calendar, on a certain Thursday in November of 2014, cautioning me to check the temperature of the turkey at the [expected] midpoint of the roasting process.) It tastes about as good as it can, though, considering. In addition, the drippings are pleasant enough that I’ve been using them as gravy without adding anything to them or even bothering to thicken them. (I added some water to the roaster when I covered it, and apparently used just about the right amount. Too bad I didn’t think to check the temperature inside the bird right then.)

    I made a stuffing/dressing [some in the bird, some in a separate pan] from medium-width (about 1 cm) rice noodles (hydrated in lukewarm water until they were soft), 4 Chinese sweet sausages (sliced, precooked for 48 seconds in the microwave oven, and squeezed in paper towels to get rid of some of the grease), a quince that I sliced and partly precooked (also in the microwave oven), a bunch of dried barberries, tarragon, cinnamon, a little dried ginger, and lots of caraway seeds. It’s rather pleasant, but the noodles have a tendency to dry out if they are exposed to the air, and some of them ended up being inedibly crunchy. Next time I will use a pan with a lid that can be put in the oven. I should have been on top of this, but as you will see in a bit I was distracted by other events.

    My usual cranberry glop is not cooked; after I sort the berries the usual way in cold water, I run them through the blender with some [fresh] satsuma mikan, a little honey, and what Rafih Benjelloun calls “a maizy pinch” of salt. I usually add frozen raspberries, but I didn’t happen to have any on hand this time, and forgot to acquire them on Wednesday.

    I think I want to put in a word here, in favor of “biologique” cranberries: near as I can recall, this was the first time I have ever failed to find a single bad berry in a container’s worth. No sinkers, no squishies.

    The real fun [ahem] began somewhere in the middle of the day...

    The kitchen sink has not drained properly since I moved into this place. I tried infusions of hot washing soda solution (originally suggested by the late and deeply lamented Scott Scidmore) and drain cleaners, but nothing made a dent in it, which should have told me something...

    It seemed to be taking essentially forever to empty while I was cooking, and I finally got to the point where I was not going to put up with it any longer. Not the greatest timing, but it was making an already complex day significantly more difficult. I ended up taking out all of the removable sections of pipe from the cabinet under the sinks [it’s a dual] and clearing those; clearing the pipes that come down from the sinks to those removable sections; and even clearing about a foot of the pipe that goes back into the wall. (If anyone is nuts enough to want to see that, I have a single blurry photo of the end of the pipe.) In all, there must have been at least 3 feet of total blockage (!). None of it was particularly difficult to remove, mind you, but I was more than a little surprised to encounter that much of it. In fact, I cleared what I thought was the blockage and reassembled the piping at least twice, before I got the message.

    The sink drains beautifully now, and I have even seen the vortex that develops when the outflow is rapid.


    Eine Kleine verrückte Wissenschaftler musik, as it were

    During the evening I went downstairs to play with the violet laser diode in the basement, which I am hoping to use for holography,...

    ...and with the new pulser for the blue laser diode, which goes into a different project. While I was tweaking on the violet laser, the furnace [which is in an alcove, next to my chair] started to turn on. It spooled up its first fan, which draws air through the combustion chamber, and then lit its igniter after a suitable delay. Then there was a longer pause than usual, after which it started the flow of gas through the burners, ...and mere moments later, just as the gas ignited, it turned off the fan. The flames promptly stopped going into the combustor and wandered out to play. Oopsie! There are, fortunately, several thermal cutout switches just above the burners (hmmm!), one or another of which shut the system down quite promptly.

    I tried the reset switch a few times, in case the controller was merely a bit confused; but the cycle proceeded to repeat, with minor variations — sometimes the fan would stay on for a few tantalizing seconds after the flames appeared. Once it even ran long enough for the main air-circulation fan to start, but then it turned off. Feh.

    Welcome to the Diagnosis and Repair section of the evening... It Wasn’t What We Had In Mind, But We Didn’t Seem To Have Much Choice.


    The furnace crapped out last March, with somewhat different (but related) symptoms: it was okay through the initial parts of the cycle, but the gas never began to flow, so it timed out. Lather, rinse, repeat. When I opened up the enclosure and looked at the control board, I noticed an electrolytic capacitor with one “lead” that was a little pile of brown dust (it’s the dusty purplish cylindrical object toward the upper right in the photo):

    I cleaned the board a bit and replaced the capacitor, and the problem resolved — it seems that the cap is part of the timing circuit for one of the relays, and without it the relay doesn’t do much of anything. I’m not sure why they used an ordinary electrolytic for this purpose, but presumably they had their reasons.

    To return to the evening at hand:

    I decided that I could reasonably regard both problems as timing issues. There are several relays on the board, and (as you can see in the photo above) there was a second electrolytic capacitor just below the one I swapped last time, somewhat suggestive. Resistors are fairly stable, and can last for a very long time. Relays, if they are properly designed and built, and if they are not abused, can last quite a while. Electrolytic capacitors, on the other hand, are known to have degradation mechanisms that cause them to fail over time, and I think they fail faster when they aren’t in use. All of these factors pointed to the cap as a likely candidate, and even though it looked okay I decided to replace it. As with the other one it had a common value but at a relatively uncommon voltage rating, so I was obliged, once again, to do something rather ungainly; the controller is even more of a Frankenboard now. It worked like a charm, though: when I powered up the system again the house came right back up to temperature, and I was able to go back to messing with my little laser projects...

    The pulser I’ve been working on runs a 1.4-Watt blue laser diode, for perhaps 275 nanoseconds at a time:

    [[For those who care, this trace shows the voltage at the top of the laser diode. It is nice and clean, with no strange ripples and only modest droop. The scope is set to 5V/div vertical and 100nsec/div horizontal. I think the peculiar “1 120” number on the readout may refer to the delay time, which I’m not actually using at the moment. I fretted about it, though, because I really don’t want to be running the laser diode for more than about 300 nsec, so I checked the sweep speed against a 30.000 MHz oscillator (made by Ecliptek, the usual little 5V device in a little rectangular can); the scope is less than 2% off.]]

    The repetition rate of the pulser is adjustable; I think I have it set to about 8500 pulses per second at the moment. Although the circuit puts more than the maximum rated power through the laser diode, it does so for such a short time, and so seldom, that the chip doesn’t have a chance to overheat. In fact, the average power dissipation is so low that I don’t even need to put a heatsink on the laser. (This is a known technique that I found in the literature a few years back, when it occurred to me to wonder whether it might be possible. It is.)

    Until yesterday, this laser was making a pair of beams, so:

    I would expect to get an odd number of beams from a multimode laser diode of this sort, but for some reason both of the blue laser diodes that I have operated in pulsed mode produced this 2-stripe pattern, consistently,... until last night. I continued to fuss with the driver, and this laser is now putting out three beams:

    I have a vague notion as to what may have made the difference, but I am far from certain. Not that it matters much — for my purposes a strong central beam is better than a pair of stripes even though I lose some power into the two satellite beams, and I’m not complaining.

    That photo, btw, does not do justice to the brightness: I had the phone set its exposure from the hottest part of the image so that the beam structure would show up well. Visually, it looks a bit more like this:


    We’ll see how I do with these projects as time goes on. If I actually succeed in making any holograms with the violet laser I’ll post photos of them here, but don’t expect anything fancy, especially at the outset. The first ones are going to be quite trashy. That’s how it is at first; takes a while to get all the parameters nailed down. As to the pulsed blue laser, that project is somewhat more involved, and will probably take a bit longer. If I get it to fly, though, I will have things to say about it.
    Monday, September 9th, 2013
    5:06 pm
    There are some things you do...
    ...just because. (Besides, I hate almost anything disposable, and I really like fixing things. Also, see the Sept 12/13 addendum.)

    Here is the cap of an old Platignum that I used to do a bunch of calligraphy with, years and years ago. As you can see, it cracked and I was obliged to repair it...

    I haven’t used this pen in a very long time. It has been sitting around, and every once in a while I notice it. I noticed it again yesterday, and for no particular reason I decided to give it a try; filled it with ink and started messing with the configuration, as the slant was greater than I’m currently using. Things did not go quite the way I expected, and I eventually figured out that the nib has some serious problems (you can ignore the bit of dirt near the end)...

    I went looking for replacements, and found some on eBay, but they all seemed to cost more than 10 bucks, and of course it would take several days for any of them to get here, so I thought about how I might fix this one. It’s definitely not a flex nib, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to add further stiffness. I was originally going to use small pieces of piano wire if I could locate any, but when I went downstairs I found the second hand and alarm hand that I had removed from an old alarm clock in the process of converting it for use as a timer. The metal is thin and not horrendously strong, but it seemed likely to be adequate to the task at hand. I may eventually have to epoxy the pieces on, but for now I have attached them with CA:

    It is, I realize, entirely ridiculous to put any actual effort into repairing anything of this sort, but I just couldn’t resist, and the pen works now. Here’s a writing example. It’s a bit shaky, but that’s life. As it says in the photo...

    [Note, added some hours later: I will definitely have to try again with epoxy; CA seems to be unsuitable for this application. Fortunately, when the reinforcements came off I didn’t lose them.]

    Addendum, a day or so later: once again, J-B Weld is my friend.

    The CA parted from the steel, but not from the reinforcements. I had to scrape them to remove it, which probably cleaned and roughened them for good adhesion. Likewise, I rinsed the nib and dried it, after which I roughened the surface of the steel with an abrasive pad, both to remove any kind of slippery cruft that might be on them (epoxy does not adhere to oil or grease, big surprise) and to give the surface a bit of “tooth” for the epoxy to grab. Almost needless to say, I got some epoxy into the ink channel while positioning the reinforcements (argh); scraped it out very cautiously with the point of a safety pin. Here is what the nib looks like with the reinforcements epoxied on:

    You can see the epoxy in the channel. I checked as soon as it had stiffened enough, and was relieved to find that the two sides were not stuck together. Then I gritted my teeth and put the pen away for about 12 hours to let the stuff cure properly.

    Early indications are that this is a viable repair, though there may be a bit of strangeness with ink flow. I also don’t know for certain whether the epoxy will last longer than the CA did, but I have my bets on that: proper surface preparation and quality epoxy spell goodness.

    Further addendum, 12/13 September, 2013:

    As to why I bothered with this repair in the first place, this nib happens to have particularly good performance. One of my big criteria for these pens is the aspect ratio — the difference between the thin line and the thick line. Here is a set of examples:

    From left to right:

    (The first 4 are all Parker Vectors.)

    1) The broadest nib I currently I am currently using; it is more than 1 mm wide, probably not quite as broad as the narrowest size of Pilot Parallel Pen. [If you are not familiar with the Parallel Pen, it is well worth looking into.] This nib has an extremely good aspect ratio, but you expect that with broad nibs.

    2) The 2nd broadest nib I’m currently using. The aspect ratio is still quite good, but you’ll notice that the thin line is perhaps a bit wider than it is on #1, while the thick line is not as wide.

    3) A relatively broad nib. The aspect ratio is still decent, though not extraordinary. (Again, this is expectable.)

    4) My usual nib width. I have several of these, all roughly equivalent; you can see three of them in the other examples that I link to, below. Notice that the aspect ratio is a lot smaller here; it is difficult to get these to have a good narrow line.

    5) The repaired Platignum. Notice how crisp it is, in comparison with #4. That’s a big part of the reason why I thought it would be worth repairing.

    6) Hero 329, one of a batch of 10 that I got on eBay, a couple years ago. Until last night, this was the narrowest nib I currently had. (I had a better one, but a while back it fell straight down onto a ceramic tile floor, point down. The point did not even bend — the fall was so cleanly vertical that it was driven back under the hood. I have not yet been able to get it out... sigh.)

    7) Hero 329, from the same batch. As of last night, this is the narrowest nib I currently have. Note the splendid aspect ratio, despite the fineness; for some reason, these pens (when they work well) seem to shape up nicely. This one is probably almost the equal of the one that fell.

    I like having a variety of widths and colors, and I particularly appreciate being able to write a nice crisp line. If there is insufficient difference between thick and thin the writing is not as attractive, and I tend to get sloppy.

    If anyone is interested, btw, you can see examples on two other kinds of paper here [quite a bit more absorbent than the drawing paper] and here [somewhat more absorbent than the drawing paper]. (The stack in the middle of each of these shows 3 of the nominal Parker Vectors.) Notice the difference in the example just to the right of the Platignum, which I believe is the same Hero 329 that’s next to last in the photo above. On the drawing paper this pen has very good aspect ratio, but not on paper that is more absorbent. The Platignum, however, provides good results on all three — even on the really absorbent paper the line from it widens only a little bit.

    [Note: I have not attempted to correct the white-balance of any of these. They were all taken with my telephone, under CFL illumination, and all of the pen and nib images were taken with the pen sitting on some ivory-tinted drawing paper, which I also used for the writing sample and the first aspect-ratio example. The other two aspect-ratio examples were also illuminated by CFL; they are on paper that although it appears ivory here is nominally white.]
    Friday, August 30th, 2013
    12:19 am
    Return of the Jack-o'-Lanterns; also, Chicken of the Woods
    A year or two back I noticed some orange mushrooms under a tree, not far from where I was living. I picked one up as a specimen, and on the off chance that it might be a jack-o’-lantern mushroom I examined it in the dark. It was, but not a very bright one, and my attempts to photograph the glow were pretty miserable. I posted them anyway, as glowing mushrooms are not exactly something I run into every day, and I think they’re extremely spiffy. (Not, mind you, edible — in fact, jack-o’-lanterns contain at least one fairly nasty toxin. If you’re looking for edible, that’s down at the bottom of this entry.)

    Earlier today I noticed orange mushrooms again in the same area, and picked up a couple of them. This time I used a different camera, a Canon G-11. I set it to the highest ISO on the dial [3200], opened the lens as wide as it would go [f/2.8], and ran the shutter timing all the way up [15 seconds]. Even so, I had to use The GIMP to bring up the brightness and contrast to the point where the results were more or less viewable. The photo on the left includes some leakage from the little LEDs that are used as indicator lights on the camera, but the color is not far off: it’s a very orange mushroom...


    There are mushrooms that glow much brighter than these, but I haven’t had the pleasure of encountering any of them yet. (Strictly speaking, that isn’t entirely accurate — I saw a culture of one in a jar once; but I didn’t see any fruiting bodies.)

    These turn out to be fluorescent under longwave UV, but the color is not the green I would have expected. I also checked with a shortwave lamp, but they did very little. Here is one of them (and an edge of the other), illuminated by a 4-Watt “BLB” blacklight fluorescent tube:

    (That’s as taken; I didn’t do anything to the image except scale it. I did run the camera at ISO 800, though, and it opened its shutter for a full second.)


    Speaking of orange [or yellow, or sometimes sorta pink] mushrooms: if anyone sees a good specimen of “chicken of the woods” [Laetiporus sulphureus] in the region around Washington, DC, I would appreciate hearing about it as long as it is not in a protected or posted area. We do not remove things (other than the dirt on the soles of our shoes, and any burrs or leaves [etc.] that may stick to us unnoticed) from Parks except when specifically permitted to do so, and we ask permission of homeowners before desecrating the fruiting bodies of their revered & venerated [I wish] fungi. If you do not know L. sulphureus, btw, you may want to do a Websearch and check some of the images; it is usually very easy to recognize, except for a couple closely related species that are found in the western part of North America, have about the same appearance, and are known to cause gastric distress in some people... don’t say you weren’t cautioned.

    Here is a poster, which unfortunately includes a photo of a specimen that I’m not entirely certain is L. sulphureus — it is a polypore, and it’s a reasonable color, albeit perhaps a bit more orange than usual, but it is not quite the usual form. (I have another version of this poster, with a splendid picture of a considerably nicer and more regular specimen; but the photo isn’t mine, and I haven’t yet asked the photographer [Axie Breen] whether I can have permission to use it.)

    Saturday, June 1st, 2013
    2:10 pm
    Fun with passwords; also a bit of a peeve...
    Let me get my [very brief] peeve about an annoyance out of the way first:

    I find, on several sites, a claim that the dielectric constant of water is 80, and the dielectric strength is zero. This is a crock. At low frequencies the dielectric constant of water is maybe 4.3, and the dielectric strength is minimal; but at high frequencies the dielectric constant of [very pure] water is about 79 at room temperature, and the dielectric strength is on the order of 1 gigavolt per meter (!). Water is extensively used in capacitors and transmission lines for pulsed high-voltage applications. Here’s a reference, for anyone who doubts this, or who is intrigued by the idea of using water as an insulator or a dielectric material.

    So. On to the main subject of this posting:

    Here is my protocol for making up passwords, which I hope will at least amuse, and perhaps even prove useful. After I list the steps, I’ll provide a few examples.

    1. Think of a phrase (or a word, if it’s long enough) that you like, and that you can easily remember. Ommatidium (not long enough by itself, but there are things one can do about that). Hippopotamonstrosesquipedalian (rather too long for most sites, but one can always use part of a long word). Kartoffelpuffer (gesundheit). Shou Wu Chih. “Not with a bang, but a whimper.” “Vaster than Empires, and more slow.” Ambystoma maculatum ...Whatever, just so it works for you.

    2. Think of an easy way to remember it: a mnemonic of some sort. I often come up with a mnemonic first, and have to fit a password to it. (Notice that the quotations above are better suited to being mnemonics than passwords.) Again, this is about whatever works for you.

    3. Write down the mnemonic. At this stage, you can even write down the word/phrase/whatever that is going to become the password, provided you can erase it very thoroughly.

    4. Modify the protopassword until it is suitable for use. (See the Ars Technica article [link, below] before you decide what constitutes a suitable pw!) Do NOT write it down. Anywhere. (I probably don’t have to say that, but better safe than sorry.) If you don’t have a good memory, repeat it and rehearse it, along with the mnemonic, until they both stick firmly in your mind, and they are tied firmly to each other.

    5. Maintain a list of the mnemonics, and review it often enough that you continue to remember the passwords they refer to.

    (I will confess that I don’t review my own list quite often enough, and that I have lost a few, some of which I’ve recovered and some of which I haven’t. A bit further down the page I will tell you one of them.)

    NOTE: Do NOT (!) use any of the passwords that I have generated as examples for this posting! They are right there, in cleartext, for any cracker to copy and add to a wordlist, and are therefore worse than useless.

    Also note: Kathy Forer, in a comment elsewhere, has suggested this article, which is seriously worth reading. (Thanks for the pointer, Kathy!) I begin to suspect that I need to refine the method as I have presented it here, even though it seems to produce slightly better passwords than most of the ones the article mentions.

    In any case, on to...

    An example:

    The General Prolog to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales begins with the words “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote...” The word “prolog” isn’t long enough, but if we fall back to Greek we get prolegomenon, which is a dozen characters, and is similar. (I haven’t checked, but I suspect that it even has essentially the same meaning.)

    Just for yucks, let’s start by turning it around backwards: nonemogelorp. That isn’t nearly enough of a change, so I will pretend that the “L” is a capital letter, and reverse it to make “J”. Similarly, the “p” at the end can become a “q”: nonemogejorq. At this point it can’t be cracked by a dictionary search, even with the letters in reverse order, but that’s only a start.

    Now we change some letters into numbers or symbols, and capitalize a few things. This results in n0n3M*G3j0rq, which is probably a viable password as it stands, but further tweaking is always possible and occasionally necessary. If a site won’t let you use an asterisk, you can always change it to a hyphen or an underscore or a period, depending. (I have encountered a few sites that insist on alphanumeric-only, in which case it reverts to a zero or an “O”, either lowercase or capitalized.) If you need or want more characters, you can put other things, preferably symbols, around or into it: n0n3%M*G%j0rq, for example.

    Notice that the tweaked version looks like the kind of randomoid glop that a password-generation program might give you, but in fact it is nothing of the sort. That’s because humans are greatly nonrandom. Also, you will have come up with it yourself, which should, we hope, help you remember it (or maybe reconstruct it) when you need to. (Ahem. See below for a counterexample.) In any case, please remember that just using a word, or even more than one word, without doing some pretty serious mangling to it/them, is not going to get you anything viable.

    Somewhere in here you need to come up with a mnemonic if you haven’t already done so. For this particular pw I probably wouldn’t use anything quite as direct as “Consider the General Prolog to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales” although that’s not actually unreasonable. As it happens, though, I take a certain amount of delight in obfuscating these things by at least one more level, so I might use something on the order of “Get Thee to a Chaucery; to a Chaucery, go!”, or “April may be the cruelest month, but it’s also the softest” [or perhaps the sweetest; I’ve seen soote rendered as “sweet”, though that seems rather odd to me] — the idea is that you need to be able to associate the mnemonic with the password, and you get to do that any way you care to. If you don’t want or need additional obfuscation (if it makes the password harder to remember instead of easier, for example), don’t bother with it. The mnemonic is for you, and you need it to work. Just be sure that nobody else is going to figure it out.

    Sometimes I modify the mnemonic to remind myself that I have added extra characters; sometimes I don’t Sometimes I modify the mnemonic even though I haven’t done that. A bit of extra obscuration is entirely appropriate for anything you expect to put where other people will see it. Also, I sometimes include a hint if I think I may have trouble remembering later on: “He will see you now. [think: I was behind the beaded curtain at the time]” With sufficient repetition, however, the need for hints tends to decrease or evaporate, and I restrict most of them to my master list.

    [I tend, when presented with one of my mnemonics, to remember some early or intermediate stage in the construction of the actual pw; then I remember where I went with it. That seems reasonable and even expectable, but who is to say whether other people run their heads the same way I run mine?]

    Another example:

    I was driving one day, and found myself behind a car with a specialized license plate. The car was owned by a fraternity member, and it had the Greek characters Ω Ψ Φ on it. I took one glance and said, “Geez; that would mean the end of science fiction as we know it!”

    I would, once again, reverse this, so it becomes ihPisPagemO; and again, I would toy with it. It would end up being something on the order of !Hp1sP8G3m0!, and the mnemonic doesn’t really have to be much more complex than “the end of science fiction as we know it’, though if I were actually planning on using this pw it probably would be.

    I mentioned, above, the fact that I occasionally lose one of these, and this is the example I was hinking of. I looked at my list of potential and actual passwords one day, and could not remember what had led me to the end of SF; many months later I found myself stopped in traffic behind the same or another car with that same fraternity name on its license plate, and said the same sentence to myself, followed immediately by something I will approximate as “@#)*$#@$!!”

    A third example:

    I happen to be a Richard Thompson fan. One evening, a bunch of years back, I saw him perform with Danny Thompson [not related] at the Folklife Festival, in Seattle. At one point during the performance he said words to the effect of “Now I shall perform a medley of my hit, Due Piedi Sinistri.” He then played [no surprise] “Two Left Feet”. This is entirely straightforward; the Italian very easily goes to 1rtz1N!Z!b32q3Ub or some variant thereof, and the obvious mnemonic (a bit too obvious, actually) is “Now I shall perform a medley of my hit.” Not, mind you, that anyone who hasn’t been a member of an appropriate Richard Thompson audience would ever twig to the meaning, and not that they’d be likely to get from there to the actual password; but it pays to be extra-careful about these things, and this one is not quite obscure enough to suit me, which is why I’m willing to reveal it: I am not about to use any of these examples, and I’m not from Crete.

    Mnemonics: A Challenge

    I defy anyone to figure out my password from any of the following mnemonics. If you can do so I will happily hand you a hundred bucks, which I cannot afford. [No fair if you’ve watched me type it, and memorized the keystrokes. In fact, if you did that you should be ashamed of yourself for watching — the only time you should ever watch anyone type a password is if they have asked you to, or conceivably if they are breaking the law and you will need to do something about it. Also no fair if I’ve told it to you, though I don’t think I’ve done that with any of these.]

    • The NetGrrl takes her little pooch for a walk, around and around and around the block.

    • John Dickson Carr liked well-buttressed suspension bridges with a little extra.

    • My vote for Roger Lee.

    • Frank’s little sister went into the pool with nary a splash.

    • The Enzyme

    (I will confess that the last of those is something I came up with very early on, and I would not use it today without performing serious modifications to it. Even so, it isn’t going to be easy to figure out. The password itself, however, would be trivially easy for a good program to crack, at least in its current form.)

    I should note, btw, that my source for hippopotamonstrosesquipedalian is a delightful little book called Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary.
    Wednesday, May 15th, 2013
    10:48 am
    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 , 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
    11:49 pm
    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
    12:46 pm
    Tenebrescence... 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
    8:45 am
    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. [personal profile] 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.

    Obligatory caveat: 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
    9:36 pm
    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.)

    Modest Amusement

    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
    10:13 am
    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, 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
    8:18 am
    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.

    [personal profile] 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 [profile] 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
    10:02 am
    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.

    Cheers —
    Saturday, November 3rd, 2012
    11:49 pm
    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, 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
    12:36 pm
    [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
    9:59 pm
    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:

    [profile] 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
    8:44 pm
    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
    10:22 am
    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
    10:09 am
    ...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
    12:26 am
    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.)


    NB: 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

    [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: [personal profile] 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.


    [personal profile] lisajulie 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 [profile] 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 [personal profile] 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.



    Further Update

    (29 September)

    I have to thank [personal profile] 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 [personal profile] 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 in about an hour and a half.

    ...And so it goes. We live and learn.
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