December 2014, by PNH

Breadfruit of the Evening, Beautiful Breadfruit

After the recent snowstorm [see news reports of “Snowzilla”] had subsided and the cars were dug out, I trundled over to H-Mart because we’d cooked essentially all of the available protein and a good chunk of everything else. Most of the parking lot was an unblemished expanse of whiteness, but they’d plowed a few areas (the resulting piles of glop were about 12 feet tall), and they were open. In addition to all of the usual happy things inside (H-Mart is pretty cool), I was unexpectedly greeted by a bin of smiling little breadfruits, begging to be taken home by someone. They seemed to be at just the right degree of ripeness, and I was not about to resist. Here is the one I bought, sitting in a baking pan:

(For scale, that pan is just about 9" across inside, rim to rim. As breadfruits go, these really were rather small.)

FYI, the unprotected baking pan was a slight tactical error. Latex oozes out of the fruit, and even though there wasn’t very much, it took me a while to get the cooked result off the surface. It is wisest to protect the pan from this, unless perhaps it is your regular breadfruit-baking pan and is already liberally coated with the stuff, or for some other reason you don’t care. (If you weren’t already aware of this issue, please take notice and file for future reference.)

It did not seem practical to build a fire in the snow, so I did something I’ve never done before: chucked the thing into a 300° [Fahrenheit] oven. Then I accidentally forgot it for more than 2 hours, until the happy aroma caught up with me. I’d say “oops”, as I was afraid it would be burnt to a crisp, but it turned out just fine. Here it is after I cut it in two, before I chopped out the stem, which is rubbery and not nice to eat:

Although it lacks the toasty flavor you get if you cook it in a bed of coals, baked breadfruit is just fine with me.
December 2014, by PNH

The moon was almost full.


— jon

[iPhone 5 photo, thumbnail 225 x 300 px, 90% JPEG. The larger version is scaled down to 1080 x 1440 px, as close to full quality as a JPEG gets. I probably should have used Camera+ to take this, so I could save it in TIFF format; but I only just got their most recent update a few days ago, and didn’t remember to try it. That said, I would probably have put it on the server in JPEG format in any case.]

I've been pretty happy with the camera in the 5, btw, but it looks like the camera in the iPhone 6 Plus is significantly better, and I look forward to getting one at some point.
December 2014, by PNH

At the Supermarket

Went to the market this afternoon while running various errands. As we were on our way out I noticed a coin changer machine, one of the big tall ones. The door was open and there was an apparent field service guy standing partly inside the thing, talking on an old-style telephone that was clearly built into the device. I made some remark about strange phonebooths, and [personal profile] lisajulie asked what kind of superhero might come out of such a thing. I thought about that for a moment, imagined someone in a shiny metallic costume, and said,

“Coin Man.”

Without missing a beat, she said,

“An Agent for Change.”
December 2014, by PNH

Two Views into the Future of the Windows® Operating System, with Sidebar

1: Rather Unlikely

Having, some time since, gotten past various tiffs, Apple and Microsoft get together around 2016, conclude an operating agreement, and produce a conjoint operating system. (“If ya can’t lick ’em, join ’em.”) Even before the first release it becomes known to geeks as WacOS, and soon nobody remembers its real name. Immediately after it hits the streets, VAPID [Vicious Adolescents Primarily Interested [in] Damage] proceed to issue unauthorized revisions; these give rise to an even better acronym. At a later point the leaders of the SoftApple combine decide, in an almost unheard-of display of generosity, to open-source it, thus legitimizing and encouraging the WHackOS. This action is followed by an expectably heated (and expectably boring) exchange of kudos and condemnations, albeit with a few well-placed remarks from our favorite epigraphers.

Whilst everyone is busy having a hissy-fit a few years hence, let us step aside for a moment and examine another issue.


Sidebar: Developments in Computing Physics

During the period in which the items above and below are occurring, the search for the semi-legendary Higgins OSon continues. The Higgins is a fundamental particle of computing that is understood to cause operating systems and even hardware to increase in capability and complexity over time. Despite minor disagreements about details, all models agree in that the Breidbart parameter (the ratio of the exponent of the complexity-related term to that of the capability-related term, minus 1) is modestly positive.

The search is conducted primarily at the LHC (“Large Higgins Computer”). Properly speaking, this is actually the Johnson-Higgins Advanced Computing Operations Facility [and] Associated Library/Laboratory, Triply Redundant Architecture Distributed Entirely Stochastically (“JHACOFALLTRADES”), but let us not fret too much over it.

I confess that I could be somewhat envious of the Fellow who has the Grand Central Console on his desk, and is the Functional Director of the facility, though I’m sure his work keeps him extremely busy.


2. Far more unlikely in the near term, but possibly more interesting in the long run

In recent years it has been discovered that there are many instances in which foreign DNA has become integrated into the genetic material of plants and animals. (I believe I have read, for example, that one chunk of retroviral DNA is required in order for the human placenta to implant properly. Go figure.) This leads straightforwardly to the notion of a parabiological approach to the problem of malware, and a group at Microsoft Advanced Technology Headquarters begins, around 2018, to develop something informally known as “BioWin” that is initially more resilient and tolerant of malware, and soon becomes capable of actively engulfing, subverting, and incorporating it. (“If ya can’t lick ’em, suck ’em.”) [En Français, “BioWin” becomes “Fenetres Bios”, though some people, particularly those who are opposed to GMOs, refer to it as “Ténèbres Bios”. Ahem.]

Even in our time, Microsoft is famous for what can only, in this light, be referred to as Capture Events; these can, of course, be expected to continue. With very small OSes they typically lead, after sufficient pummeling, to larger easily-detected features known as “Arduosos” and occasional smaller ghost or shadow particles called “Virtuinos”.

Early stages on the parabiological path are described as procodiotic. In parallel with bacteria, which exchange plasmids, procodiotic Windows versions exchange Snippets of Actively Recycled Code (“SARCasmids”). Somewhat later, eucodiotic forms arise. These can actually have sex (or at least some sort of advanced intercourse) with each other. The resulting hybrids, perhaps fortunately, are almost all STERILE (“Some Things Extend [to] Ridiculous, Inane Levels [of] Extrapolation”)...

...and so it goes.

December 2014, by PNH

Further Maunderings of a Dumpster Luthier

(Thanks to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, of Whisperado and Making Light, who described me that way a few days ago. It isn’t entirely accurate, as I actually get these things from thrift stores, not from dumpsters, but I like it a lot.)

Several weeks ago I saw another First Act “discovery” guitar at a thrift store. As you can tell from the photo, it’s not exactly easy to miss; but although the date on the pricetag was February 26th, and I keep my eyes open for these things, I hadn’t previously seen it. Odd, that.

The nut was missing, the saddle was loose and ready to fall out of its slot in the bridge, and the price was 18 dollars, which was too much.

[[For those not familiar with the construction of this sort of stringed instrument: the bridge holds the bottom ends of the strings, provides a platform for the saddle, and conducts the vibrations of the strings to the body. The saddle sets the height of the action. The nut and the bridge set the separations between strings, and the nut (or the “zeroth” fret if there is one, as there is on this instrument) and the saddle together set their active lengths. This becomes important for intonation, as you will see in the photo of the 12-string guitar bridge, below, but let’s not attempt to explain the ins and outs here and now.]]

At some point after I left the store I realized that I might have been able to get them to cut the price down a bit because of the missing nut; but I was already on my way home, and there was no guarantee that they’d be willing, so I let it go. I continued to think about it, though, and I went back first thing the next morning, but I couldn’t find it. The people at the counter said they had sold two guitars the previous day, so I thought it was gone.

That was around the middle of April...

Last week I went in again, and there it was on the shelf. I knew it was the same guitar because the nut was still missing and the pricetag still said February 26th. By that point, expectably, the saddle was also gone. I expressed surprise at seeing it there, and the store folks told me that sometimes people hide things, presumably so that other people won’t buy them. (They must be pretty ingenious about their hiding places. I had looked through the store fairly thoroughly once or twice, without finding it.) It was Wednesday, which is their half price day, so they wanted nine bucks for it; that was good enough for me, and I bought it.

I had parts of two paint stirring sticks, left over from the aeroponics project; I glued them together for thickness and strength (the wood is rather soft), marked the size and shape I wanted —

— and cut out the rough shape with a thin abrasive wheel on the Dremel®. (I didn’t have my coping saw or jeweler’s saw handy.) I filed and sanded it to clean it up, cut four slots in it, and soaked some CA glue into it to harden and strengthen it. The result looks about like this:

Not very fancy, but definitely serviceable.

In order to convert the instrument from 6 strings to 4, it is necessary to make two new holes in the bridge. I was very careful when I did that, and this time I managed to avoid damaging the finish. (See the two immediately previous postings for a bit more information about this.)

At that point it was about ready for an initial test. The store was out of baritone ukulele strings, so I gritted my teeth and got a set of guitar strings as a temporary substitute. (Standard baritone uke tuning is the same as the 4 high strings of a guitar in its most common tuning: DGBE.) I cut the 4 strings down to reasonable lengths — this instrument is intended for kids, and is only 33" long overall — and installed them. I also cut a short piece of insulated 12-gauge solid copper household wire to use as a temporary saddle. (Why not? It was sitting right there on the floor of the bedroom under a chair, twiddling its thumbs, and it looked like it would sit nicely on top of the slot in the bridge, which in fact it did. See photo...)

The wire worked so well that I almost left it in place, but after 2 or 3 days the little voices in my head got the better of me, and I went and bought some craft sticks. The ones I chose are rather like popsicle sticks (which are my standard for this application, as I mentioned a posting or two back) but they are shorter and narrower and a bit thicker, and they are made of much harder wood. They just barely fit into the slot in the bridge:

The guitar strings were on the heavy side, and they did not provide a particularly bright sound, so I have replaced them with a set of Baritone uke strings. Fakeleles don’t sound like real ukuleles, but they can sound pretty reasonable, and this one isn’t bad at all.


Speaking of bright: I really like the sound of a 12-string guitar, and I decided to try putting two more strings on Fakelele 5 to find out what that would be like. Because the two new string positions are at about 2&2/3 and 4&1/3, they can easily be paired with strings at the original 3rd and 4th positions. I bought a set of soprano uke strings, took the two highest ones, installed them that way, and set them an octave high. That unfortunately involved a bit too much tension, and the one at position 4 soon snapped. I really liked the sound, though, even with only 5 strings. It soon turned out that the string at position 3 had gotten itself wound up along the axle of the tuner far enough that it was mashed against the wood, which frayed it, and it also broke. Sigh. Being the fixiteer that I am, I cut the torn end off the highest string (the one that had been at position 4); that made it too short to use, so I cut a clean piece from the one that had been at position 3 and tied them together (about 18 times — this stuff is really slippery!) with a square knot, which I locked with a drop of CA glue when I was finally able to hang on to it for long enough. Then I reinstalled the string at position 3. A bit later I lined up the ends and glued them to the main line, both for extra strength and to prevent them from getting caught on things:

The reconstructed string has held nicely for several days now, and it can stay in place until it breaks or wears out.

[[Yeah, I know, you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) do this. Tough bananas. I was not gonna blow 5 more bucks and about an hour on the road for yet another set of soprano uke strings when I only needed one. (This was before the conversation about banjo strings that I mention immediately below.)]]

With the high G added to it this instrument has a significantly brighter sound than it did before, and I’m really pleased. Meanwhile, my friend Anne has told me that she uses nylon fishing line for the strings on her banjo, and I will be looking out for some at thrift stores.

Ukuleles being what they are, btw, a soprano uke string is only just barely long enough to fit on a guitar of this size; I couldn’t even use the regular knot on the bottom end, so instead I tied it around two very small washers and held it with a drop of CA. Looks about like this:

(The piece of toothpick on the right side is there to adjust the intonations of the two high strings.)


Because I am not about to attempt to play a steel-string guitar, double-especially not one with a dozen strings, I have put nylon strings on the 12. This, it turns out, is not something people do, and it sounds rather strange; but at least I can deal with it, to the extent that I can play the thing at all (which I will freely admit ain’t much). It takes a lot of strings: one set of 6 as the basis, the high 4 from a second set as the [high-octave] low 4, and the high 2 from a third set as the [same-octave] high 2. This combination was suggested to me by one of the counter people at Sam Ash, who seemed a bit nonplused that I would want to do such a thing, but who definitely had a viable idea about how to accomplish it.

The head of one of the adjustment screws for the saddle of the 12-string was broken off by the time I acquired the instrument. I flipped it upside down and ran it in from below on a temporary basis. It held up its end of the saddle, but I could only adjust it with the strings either slack or absent, and that was clearly not going to be viable in the long term. A modest search did not, unfortunately, reveal any source for a replacement.

I now have a Unimat®, which is a truly marvelous thing, and a few days ago it occurred to me that I could use it to make a new adjustment screw. I put a nice stainless-steel 8-32 machine screw into the chuck, cut the head down to a reasonable size, and then used the aforementioned thin abrasive wheel on the Dremel to grind a section of the shaft just below the head down to an appropriate diameter. (I actually had to do all of this twice, because I wasn’t satisfied with the first one, but I have plenty of 8-32 machine screws, and the practice was definitely worthwhile.) When I tried to install it, however, it was no go: wrong thread. Up to that point I had thought that the original was 8-32, as it went into an 8-32 nut just fine, but no: it seems to be some wacko nonstandard Metric thing, apparently M4 x 0.8 mm. (The usual M4 has 0.7 mm thread pitch.) I became so peeved at it that I took an 8-32 tap and rethreaded the hole, rather than wait I-don’t-know-how-long for Bolts from the Bizarro World. The saddle is now appropriately adjustable.

(The new screw is the one at the top in this photo.)

The little wood-chip structures that you see in this photo are adjustments to the intonation. It’s a tweaky business, but the instrument sounds significantly better with them than without them. (Yeah, I know, it sounds screwy anyway. Still, better to have the intonation more or less properly set.)

More as time and tide permit...
December 2014, by PNH

DIY Dosas // Also, "Stop me before I make another Fakelele!" (Well, not really.)

I really like dosas. It is easy to get commercial dosa batter in many places, but with Persons of My Stripe there is always something of a “How does this actually work?” issue, so I trust it will come as no surprise that I decided to see what it takes to do it yourself.

One of the things it often takes to make dosa batter is a dedicated grinder. I was not about to go that route (they’re a bit pricy, and I haven’t seen any at thrift stores), so I used a blender.

Ordinary sada dosas are customarily made from urad dal and rice. (We will not be doing rava dosas here until I cease to be allergic to gluten.) Here is a [slightly loose] method that seems to have worked for me; no guarantee on it, as I’ve only done it once successfully so far, but that’s life.

0: It is probably a good idea to avoid using chlorinated tap water for this, as it may interfere with the souring of the urad. I used [bottled] spring water.

1: In a suitable container (I used a translucent plastic quart container of the sort that restaurants often provide if you want to take home some soup), put 2 or 3 Tbs of split hulled urad. If there are any small stones or other unwanted items, remove them. Rinse the urad.

2: Add enough water to cover them and provide 1/4" to perhaps 3/8" [roughly 6-9 mm] of water on top of them. They will absorb some of this, expanding somewhat in the process, and you want them to be covered after they do that.

2A: Add some salt. (I believe I used a little less than 1 tsp, and that seems to have been about right.) Stir until you are reasonably certain that all of the salt has dissolved.

3: I had some commercial dosa batter on hand, and I added a very small amount of it as an inoculant. This probably isn’t necessary, but having already had one failure I was not looking to have another one. (I actually think the first failure was an issue of insufficient salt. That batch of batter became foamy and yeasty.)

4: Allow the urad to sour at room temperature for a day or so. (I actually ignored them for about 3 days, and the resulting batter produces dosas that are somewhat more sour than the ones I’ve had in restaurants. That’s fine with me, but I suspect that most people would want them milder.)

5: Because I don’t have a dedicated grinder, I opted for poha instead of plain rice. [If you are not already familiar with it, poha is rice that has been squashed flat. I don’t think it has been cooked, just rolled.] You apparently want 3 to perhaps 4 times as much poha as urad. This may be partly a matter of taste. (I must confess that I don’t know for certain, because I haven’t researched the subject as fully as I probably should have.) I used thick poha, but I presume that thin poha will work just as well. Sort through the poha, and remove any you don’t like the look of. Put the poha in a suitable container, and add a fair amount of water.

5A: Ignore the poha for perhaps an hour while you get out your blender, clean it, make sure that the impeller rotates freely, and perform Step 6:

6: Grind the urad in the blender until it is a smooth paste. If you need to add a little water, that’s fine, but don’t make it soupy.

7: Add the poha and just enough water to allow you to continue; grind until the batter is smooth and creamy. (I had to add water several times in order to do this, because I didn’t put enough into the poha when I soaked them. That, however, is probably better than having too much water.)

8: Return the batter to a container of suitable size. Assuming that it makes dosas that taste the way you like them, keep it refrigerated. Again, I will confess that I am new enough to this that I don’t really know whether it’s okay to leave it out for any length of time; I have avoided doing that.

Now a word about making dosas, from an amateur dosa maker: I find that I need to have the pan oiled well enough that the dosa doesn’t stick to it [I am not using a nonstick pan]. On my mom’s electric stove, I set the large burner to 6. (Her stove does not go to 11. Ahem.) I pour the batter in, using a circular motion, and let it bubble until the bottom is golden. Then I flip it and let it go until it is done. This does not (not) produce a dosa of the sort you would get in a restaurant, but it is certainly close enough for folk music of an unpractised DIY sort, and the flavor of my current batch is more than satisfactory.

I have, btw, vaguely looked for a wider pan so I can make larger dosas, but it would have to have a very good heat spreader on it in order to work well. I&rsqsuo;m thinking about a DIY approach to that, as well, but it will be a while if I can do it at all.


Fakelele #5

Although I have been enjoying #4 [see previous posting], it is not without its faults. There is also the fact that I seem to be on a roll at the moment. When I encountered this —

— at a thrift store for $14.99, I was happy to nab it. The reason for the low price was obvious, as the instrument was out of the box when I found it:

(Some poor fool had put heavy guitar strings on it. This is not viable.) The damage was, of course, a huge advantage for me: it greatly simplified the process of drilling the two new holes in the bridge. (I used a very short piece of wire coathanger, and the entire process couldn’t have taken as long as 5 minutes, perhaps 10 if you include preparing the “drill”.) OTOH, the nut at the top of the fingerboard was firmly attached, and the two new slots I made in it are wider than they really should be. Eventually I will do something about that, but for now they’ll do.

This instrument is of higher quality than the previous one. It has a curved fretboard, and it is fancier in other ways, though many of them are decorative rather than substantial. In addition, it has not been banged around anywhere near as much.

The bridge was glued and screwed into place when the guitar was made; here is the area of the front plate where it had been located:

I sanded that area a little, sanded the underside of the bridge, glued pieces of toothpick into the holes so that the screws would have something to bite into and so that the bridge would be approximately in its original location, and put it back together. Unfortunately, both ends of the bridge are warped upward. Here’s a look at one of them:

This decrease in glued area did not allow the bridge to pull out again, but I put more glue under the ends anyway, partly so they wouldn’t buzz. Something else, however, does buzz, intermittently. (Grrr! Intermittents are hell.) In an effort to see what was causing the problem, I constructed a rude periscope by chopping up a little plastic mirror and gluing pieces to part of a wire coathanger:

That allowed me to view the screws on the underside of the front plate, and to notice that they do not go into the adjacent cross-brace, the way I would have expected them to. I have no idea whether that’s deliberate, or a manufacturing (or design) defect. I was not, however, able to see what is buzzing. From other evidence I have concluded that the cross-brace was probably torn loose during the cataclysm, and I am going to try getting some glue into that area. I will add a report if there is anything worth noting, most particularly if the buzzing is eliminated by this maneuver. (See below.)

Meanwhile, buzzing aside, the tone of #5 is rather different from the tone of #4. This is expectable, though some of the details are not. For one thing, #4 is significantly louder. For another, #4 is more forgiving. I can’t get as sloppy with #5. Here it is, before I adjusted the intonation:

The initial intonation adjustment was fairly minimal:

The piece of toothpick is not glued down, but it seems to stay in place.

Note, added late that night [24 April, 2014]: I diluted some wood glue about half-and-half with water, used a piece of polyethylene tubing from the hardware store (it comes off the spool with appropriate curvature) as a straw to suck up some of the diluted glue, cautiously put the end of the tubing into the soundhole between the strings, flipped the instrument over so the soundhole was facing down, and deposited the glue between the apparently-detached truss and the foot of the box. (This maneuver was somewhat fraught because the diameter of the tubing is a bit too large [it was what they had], and I knew, having tested with water, that the glue would fall out as soon as the end pointed down instead of up.)

Then I pulled the straw out, tilted the head end down to get at least some of the glue over to the stiffening bar that supports the bridge, and pressed on the faceplate a number of times, hoping to get the glue into the space where I presumed that the bar had detached from the front plate. It continued to make a tiny click every time I pressed on it [I had first noted this sound during the afternoon, and found it a helpful diagnostic point, albeit somewhat unnerving], and I was worried that I might have misdiagnosed and/or mistreated the problem, but at that point alea jacta erat... (I don’t remember the Latin for “had been”, so I think we’ll stick with “was”, assuming I’ve remembered even that form correctly. Latin was not my forte in high school, and I’m afraid it has been rather a while since then.)

I put it face down on the carpet, put a weight on the back, and let the glue set for about three hours. (The label instructions state that the pieces should be clamped for one hour, but these were unusual circumstances.) Upon initial [gentle] testing it doesn’t buzz, and there is no longer any clicking when I press on the front plate next to the bridge, so I think we’ve won this one. I just hope it proves to be stable.

There does seem to be an intonation issue with one of the two low strings, but I should be able to deal with that. I am more concerned with the fact that one of the frets appears to be slightly mispositioned. This is an issue that is far less easily ameliorated, and I’m thinking about ways to deal with it. I don't really want to buy fret wire, attempt to remove the existing fret, move the slot a fraction of a millimeter, and put a new fret in... that would be far too large a project, and it is also an easy way to damage the fretboard, making the project even larger. OTOH, attaching some wire of appropriate composition (bronze?) to the edge of the existing fret and doing some filing to move the peak is, itself, nontrivial. WSSWWSS. [“We Shall See What We Shall See,” as my father would have said.]
December 2014, by PNH

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.)

[[Note, added later: Well, maybe not; I have a lousy bilingual punful notion, and I may tweet that.]]

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 makes this the smallest one I’ve redone 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 at least 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 obviously can’t use any ordinary drill. 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 now, though, 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 and avoid any actual flames. 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 even further:

[I will also suggest that you 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 with an abrasive wheel 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. Good sign.

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

The intonation was still a bit off, so a day or two later 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.

Addendum, 19 April:

Yesterday I succumbed to temptation and made another change to the intonation:

Last night I visited Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, and took the fakelele along. I handed it to Patrick, who played a few riffs on it and commented that he has played guitars with worse intonation. Patrick is a ripping good player and has a really good ear, and I am extremely pleased with his reaction. (Mind you, he was kind enough not to say anything about the tone; the thing is, after all, not exactly the high-priced spread. OTOH, I don’t think I’ll have to be ashamed if I show up with it at a music circle at a Science Fiction convention. OTTH, I really do seem to have much more of my guts in making and fixing things than in actually using them, and besides, I don’t know how to play stringed instruments. I can barely strum little chord riffs on it, and it will be a while before I can play any actual songs.)
December 2014, by PNH

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.
December 2014, by PNH

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.]
December 2014, by PNH

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.)