Archive for the 'Useful' Category

Gating My Neighbor

The title is a pun, for those who know English Country Dancing of the kinds we do in the three linked venues in this sentence. It is a move in which one person pulls another one gently around them by the hand, much like a swinging gate.

Old GateAnyway, I was finally motivated to fix an alley gate in the rear of the property next to the one in which I reside. Back when the tech bubble burst, I built a new gate for a neighbor when I was considering non-computer remunerable activities (“jobs”). But other less sweaty forms of enterprise soon came my way. So it has been a dozen years since I have built a gate from scratch.

This old gate had twice required repair already this very year. But the quarter century old treated and mistreated lumber was no longer holding screws reliably. Also, the gate had design flaws from the beginning: It was designed and built by the architect from whom I bought the building in 1986. As I have seen in many cases, architects are generally design artists, not students of engineering or livability.

So I decided to engineer a new gate. I used modern treated wood, allowed it to age and dry for a while in the garage. Then gave each piece a good soaking with oil based penetrating redwood stain (a mix of red and yellow pigments, both of which retard biological growth (ie: algae, lichen, other rots).

Gate skeletonFirst, I had to reinforce the hinge side of the fence with a new upper stringer and a new fence board to support the hinges. Then I measured several times and cut only once per piece, working in the relatively cool shade of the garage this July 4th holiday weekend. I lined up the stringer boards parallel across saw horses. Then measured some more and put in the end fence boards cantilevered out to cover the jamb just the right amount. More careful measuring, and cut the diagonal tension web board to support the gate and prevent it from sagging over the next couple of decades.

This web board is actually the missing board from the first picture. It was in good enough shape to be reused. Then I fit in the other fence boards by eye, and screwed everything up. Intentional cross-the-pond implied pun.

New GateThat is, I attached all the parts with deck screws. Unfortunately, my screws of different lengths had different head types. Back around Y2K, square drive heads replaced the old Phillips heads. Now, those have been supplanted by Torx star drive heads. So I had to change my driver bit way too often, as I refuse to discard perfectly good weatherized screws just because they have been on my shelf for a decade.

Anyway, the gate is now finished. My neighbors no longer have to wrestle with the gate to take out their recycling or trash. Sure, I used salvaged hinges probably from the early 1900’s, and the latch is one I bought at Central Hardware in the 1980’s. But those old parts can be expected to last out the life of this gate, and probably the next.

So the Object At Hand here is the gate I built. Or the idea of a gate. Or even the use of the English Country Dance term to sucker unlikely people into reading this post.

Here is a video that I put together of an English Country Dance performance for one of the three groups linked above. Yes, I appear briefly in it.

Bursting to Tell Me

I was in the middle of a run of not-too-intense web page code, when I hear a shout. “Dan!” floating down the hall from the far end of the house.

I replied, “WHAT?” without looking up, and returned my attention to the code. Yes, this script wants a semi-colon there.

After a pause my monosyllabic monicker again rang out. Nothing more. No indication for what my attention was needed.

Oh, well. I mentally book marked my code and pulled myself out of my office, and down the dark, twisting back stairs. I met Karen in the kitchen, and said, “Yes?”

“Water is pouring into the basement at the back door!”

As I dashed down the basement stairs I wondered why that little tidbit hadn’t been broadcast in the first place. Oh well. My first guess — that the 22 year old water heater had finally failed — was wrong. The water was coming in from outside.

Hose Extension Epiphany! The old hose segment that I’d been using to run the water from the outside tap through a water timer and to a convenient hose reel, must have failed. I ran back upstairs and opened the kitchen door to find the doorway and landing awash as the rent in the hose gushed right at the back door, and thus down the back stairs to the basement.

So I sloshed out and shut off the tap. The next day I replaced the hose on the hose reel, just because it was no longer as kink-resistant as it was when I first got it. And thus could cut a new section from the old hose to run across the back of the house.

Holed hose

So the Object at Hand is the now-demised hose segment.

As my regular readers know, I am a scavenger. I hate to see anything go to waste. Some decades ago a neighbor threw away a high quality hose, just because the dog had chewed up about ten feet of it about a third of the way along its length. I had to save the poor thing.

After chopping out the punctured and chawed part, I had a newish 70′ hose and a couple of good short segments. Hose ends are inexpensive and simple to replace. By now, this ten foot section had been under full pressure (and exposed to regular intense pressure pulses each time the timer clicks off) and lying in full sun for about 18 years. It had a good life since I Lazarused it in 1991.

I thank the daemons of probability that it failed less than an hour before we noticed it. We could have been away for hours, days, or weeks when it happened. Then it would have been a real mess.

A Dryer for Moister Air

One of the least “Green” appliances ever created is the clothes dryer. It does the same job as hanging clothes out on a line, but consumes a lot of energy. I’ll forgo the rant about zoning laws that even prohibit hanging out the wash, and tell you about a slightly greener way to live with one, at least during the cold months when you really don’t want to go outside to hang the wash.

Bag plugged dryer duct

In the winter, I pull the duct from the dryer to the wall vent and plug the outside vent with a grocery bag stuffed with rumpled grocery bags (seen at the top). The outer bag only lasts one season, but meanwhile has a more virtuous life as an energy saving insulator. Surely the whole stuffed bag saves more oil than was used to originally produce the bags that had already been used for their original purpose.

Dryer Setup But the real money is that the pipe rising from the dryer goes into a filter box. Shown here is my temporary prototype that I made from salvaged cardboard as a first try about fifteen years ago (and still in use today). I used a 20″ square filter because I had those sitting around from the use described in my post Fantastic Filter Idea.

You see, like any appliance, the dryer converts electricity into heat. It heats up already-warm house air to pull the moisture from the clothes, and then dumps it outside! It pumps warm air outside! And we pay to heat it even more in the process. So I figure that we may as well heat and humidify the air in the house during the months where that is desirable.

As to the filters: A dryer pummels your clothes to soften them as a substitute for letting them waft in a breeze. This abuse tears loose many small fibers; dust. Sure, the dryer has a lint trap. But anyone who has looked at their dryer exhaust duct knows that some fraction of the lint gets through.

Prototype filter boxSo my filter box holds a cheap, blue, loose-weave filter that slides in through a slot on the side. This filter can be taken out and beaten clean outside every month or so. After a couple of years, I realized how much of even smaller dust was still getting through. So I first set up the hanging fan shown in Fantastic Filter Idea , and then chose to add a pleated filter to the prototype. The inner filter gets most of the lint, and the outer one catches most of what is left. The separate one on the ceiling catches still more. My tools across the room no longer get so dusty. Nor do my lungs.

The whole house then benefits from the heat and humidity that wafts up the basement stairwell, because warm air rises, and the ceiling-mounted box fan pushes the air toward the stairs.

Fantastic Filter Idea

I live in an old house with radiators and seasonal window air conditioners. This is more energy efficient than a central forced air system. However, one issue with this set up is that dust tends to accumulate on everything at a rate not known by people with central heating and cooling systems that filter the air all the time. One answer is to buy expensive air filtering systems. Some work well, and others not so much. And the custom replacement filters for those are ridiculously profitable; much like printer ink.

Anyway, today’s object at hand is a way to cheap out on clean air. Window box fans are cheap. Generic 20″ x 20″ furnace filters are cheap. So here we have a simple, quiet, affordable solution.

Basement Air Filter

I happened to be near the one in my basement work area when I thought of writing this, so here is a less typical placement for my cheap-fan-cheap-filter solution to keep my tools cleaner. This fan is attached to the light circuit, so it pulls in dust and circulates air whenever someone is down there.

It also shares the room with the clothes dryer, the reason for which will become apparent in my next post, A Dryer for Moister Air.

Presbyopia is a Pain in the Neck

At the age of fifty-one my eyesight is still 20/20. As long as you stay at least four feet away. To see closer than that, I have been stashing reading glasses everywhere, and even carrying them with me, as I mention in Outta Sight. But I finally have given in and decided that it is time to invest in bifocals, today’s Object at Hand.

Stylin’ the Progressive lenses for my Droid cam

I decided to go directly to the lineless style, not because of vanity, but because this gives me a range of focal distances. Little did I know what a trip this journey into glasses-land would be. When I first put them on, I did expect the world to get a bit absurd. Things seemed to swoop around me to the sides. But I trusted that my mind would figure out how to deal with this in a few days of continuous wear. I danced that night, enjoying the extra dizziness and in a woozy sort of way. And also the next dance that weekend.

I was thrilled that I could actually read my phone, my little Droid. It was nice to be able to focus on the faces of the women in my arms and still be able to see the room swirling around us. But as the first few days passed, my giddy sense of discovery waned. I became very aware of how blurry most of my field of view has become. I can only see about a 20 degree cone of sharpness, from the horizon up, and ten degrees to the left and right. I have to move my head around instead of just shifting my eyes. To see my feet, I have to press my chin to my chest. So now I have quite a sore neck.

I also have to sweep my head from side to side and up and down to read a magazine or my main computer screen. Even a paperback page blurs toward the edges. I realize that eventually my mind will learn that I can still read those fuzzy edges, and will stop insisting on wagging my head.

How bad is it? Here are views of graph paper and my garden, so you can see how weird my world now looks:

After two weeks, my eyes still tire early, but my neck is stronger.

Certain experiences were notably weird:

  • The first dance in a crowded room
  • The first bike ride
  • Walking through an aisle in a store
  • Walking down stairs
  • Driving at night (internal reflections in the lenses)
  • Gardening, as my sweat drips into my lenses, and sprinklers spot them on the outside.

I also still have not shaken the habit of taking my glasses off after reading or using the computer. On! I tell myself, “Glasses now are kept on my nose.”


Sometimes “Some Assembly Required” is Scary

My 2005 Systemax Pentium-D desktop is getting old. I had quadrupled the original RAM (to the max) and upgraded the hard drive a few times (to ½TB = 500,000 MB). But I’ve had people tell me that the hamsters running in the squirrel cages of my CPU were getting tired. I’ve watched how-to videos where the presenter apologized for having a too slow a machine, with twice the cores, three times the RAM, faster chips, and other specs way beyond mine as I was trying to run the same programs. It was seeming to be time for me to buy a new machine.

So I did some shopping. The local MicroCenter had a pretty good deal on a Core i5-2300 with 6GB and 1TB. But I was sure I’d see a slightly better deal at TigerDirect. So I did some shopping there. But I hesitated to buy that day. The very next morning, I received an email from Tiger offering a machine with comparable specs for $120 less! The gods had spoken: It was time.

Why was it cheaper? It is a gaming machine. That is, the power of an executive desktop, but with extra twiddling lights and configured to be for media consumers rather than content creators. But I knew that I’d have approximately equal battles setting up either an executive or a gamer machine. Because this is after the back-to-school sales and before the holiday spike, I got a bargain. My previous machine was over a kilobuck. Actually, every machine from the $2,500 64k no-hard-drive Apple ][ forward was over a grand. Well, my first laptop, the 1983 TRS-80 Model 100 was only down to $400 when I bought it in 1986. But it wasn’t a serious computer.

So I placed the order on Friday and this box, this Object at Hand, arrived on Monday.

There it sat. And I began to feel a touch of dread, as this is a version of “Some Assembly Required” that can intimidate me. I had said earlier that “Some Assembly Required” Doesn’t Scare Me in regard to a mere mechanical tandem bicycle. But this innocent box, packaged ready so that a first-time user could pretty much be up and running in minutes, poses a herculean task for an old-timer like me.

It is not because I am old, although I do have certain ways that I like to do things. The problem is that a fully loaded new computer means

  1. All new supplied programs are subtly different from their familiar predecessors, and
  2. It won’t be loaded with any programs that do most of what I need to do, and
  3. It will have much installed that needs to be purged. Helpful things that circumvent what I try to do. Friendly things that insist on telling me how to do things I’ve been doing for decades. Happy things trying to sell me on even more products for which I know better and cheaper alternatives.

So I unpack it, plug in wires for everything necessary, turn it on, and then a few days of “fun” begins.

Note: Each task is an installation and/or configuration task. The links should all open in a new tab/window.

taskFirst it wants me to answer some questions. No problem. I get it up and running, and am online in under a half hour, ready to do anything I want in the cloud.

taskThen it offers to “simply” copy my preferences and data from my old machine. In the many upgrades I’ve survived since the mid 1980’s, I have sometimes chosen to let it do this, and other times did it the bad, old way. I’m not sure which is less painful. But I gave it a chance, installed the copier, and let it run. It took 9 hours at 100MB/s to do the copying. Mostly video files and pictures.

taskAfter that was done, I began by installing FireFox 6.0. I do need to test my web pages in Chrome as well as IE and FireFox. The computer came with IE and Chrome installed, and I would have installed them had they not come on this computer. But IMHO 😈 FireFox is better for development because of its configurability and libraries of Add-Ons (or Apps in smartphone-speak).

tasktasktasktaskThen FireFox needed a few necessary-to-me add ons like FireFTP (for uploading files), HtmlValidator (to make sure my web pages meet standards), Make Link (to copy encoded hypertext links for posting in blog comments), and NoScript (to block unwanted ads, twiddles, and hacks).

tasktasktaskThen Flash, Acrobat, and Quicktime had to be downloaded and installed so that all web pages would work. I have a license for QuickTime Pro, and created my first few simple videos with it. So I had to install and up-register it.

taskI tried to find new drivers for my fancy 2003 ergonomic Logitech 8 button optical mouse. But Windows 7 is not supported! The main function that I want is remapping the wheel button to double-click. This saves a lot of frustration, and who ever uses the default wheel-lock function? So I spent some time searching and found XButtonMouse, a simple to use 64/32 bit mouse driver modifier. Now I have the middle-double-click that I’ve been using since Windows 3.11.

taskI cannot live without Notepad++, a free and universal text and programming editor. This is what I use to create my web pages since SideKick, Notepad, and KEdit.

taskOne very important thing was to “differently able” the capslock key. I wrote about this in my post Die, Caps Lock, Die! a couple of years ago, and so was able to easily find the script to kill capslock and let the Scroll Lock key be useful for that rarely needed and often mis-tapped function. If anyone has ever had a use for Scroll Lock, please describe it in a comment.

tasktaskConnecting and installing my laser and ink jet printers went pretty well. I was surprised that it went as easily as the instructions would have me believe. That hardly ever happens! But this is the first computer I have owned that does not have a Centronics parallel printer port. USB2 is almost as fast, and uses less space.

taskThen I had to install and upgrade Quicken to continue keeping track of where it all goes.

taskAnd I need The Gimp (an open source PhotoShop). This time I am planning to let ThumbsPlus fall by the wayside

taskAnd then we get to OpenOffice, because if I tried to edit a document of pretty much any type, this system wanted me to buy Microsoft Office. I detest The Ribbon, and don’t plan to use Office. Thanks to SourceForge for this ever more capable and permanently free and perpetually updated suite.

taskI did download and install Microsoft Live Mail, as the heir apparent to Outlook Express that I’d used since the late 1990’s. And spent considerable time trying to get it to do some things, and researching it. But in my household this won’t work, mainly because it does not allow multiple mail log-ins under the same Windows User. There is another paragraph later about the multiple task of importing two separate sets of email across three programs and two computers.

taskFinally, it was time to download my Video Editor, the purchase of which actually convinced me to buy this new machine. I’d spent some time fighting with a few free editors, and I already had a library of videos composed on MoviePlus 5.0 and then X3. So now I upgraded to MoviePlus X5. Another several hour download. This will probably get installed last.

tasktasktaskMeanwhile, I managed to get some old games copied over. It had to be done in stages, but now the classics Doom2/ZDoom (with hundreds of levels downloaded over the years), Pinball, and the original Snood are on our new Win7 machine. Doom2 and Snood I’d bought long ago, and Pinball came with WinXP and Win98 and Win95), for which I retain a slightly dingy license by keeping original disks.

Getting late on the second night since the machine arrived.

taskSo the third day was mostly spent on getting email moved over. Why such a big deal? Two work-from-home professionals with multiple businesses and interests who need separate email log-ins, but like to share a desktop. Altogether, thousands of old emails that might still be relevant.  I had done Windows Live Mail before, and found it wanting. So I installed and researched Mozilla Thunderbird. But it took a bit more research to figure out how to cleanly set Thunderbird up in a manner functionally like how we’d been using Outlook Express since the 1990’s. My foray into the Microsoft offering turned out to not be of any use, except to educate me on how competing products extract information from the legacy apps.

tasktaskSo I moved the monitor cord back to the old machine, and reconfigured Outlook Express to default to the email folders and accounts of my spouse, to collect her data. Then I installed Mozilla Thunderbird on the old machine and imported the many folders of email and addresses and so forth. The I had to spent some time rearranging stuff and testing. One problem was that many emails were redundantly downloading. Aarghhh! Not a surprise, but certainly a nuisance. But, wait! ThunderBird is open source! When there is a problem, someone fixes it. I looked, and there was an add-on to remove duplicate messages from a folder, with all sorts of checks and safeguards. Yay!

tasktaskNow to get the old data for the new program from the old to the new machine. Again, the free software community to the rescue. MozBackup is not by Mozilla, but another freeware provider. But it allows each person’s email log in identity (called a Profile in Thunderbird) to be separately exported and/or imported. So I installed it and used it on the old machine. Moved the cables, and then installed Thunderbird and MozBackup on the new machine, and only had a half hour of tweaking to get the new machine to do what the old one did, as far as spouse data goes. Then I imported my own 7 email accounts and 15 folders into my own login. It would be so much simpler, if only I didn’t know from experience that access to orders, or ideas, or causes, etc from several years ago is very useful.

taskThen I realized that I had to install more stuff to do web site development on this machine. I put in Active Perl so that I can develop and test cgi pages. I will also have to rewrite certain VB utilities I’ve been using in Perl. I could use Java, but I don’t have the time right now to teach it to myself. Perl will require a certain amount of configuration before I install a web server to use it.

taskAnd I had to find and install MoveIt Freely, because the Windows FTP command line utility does not handle secure nor the passive mode, required by Google for MrTitanium to upload his items. Plus there was the minor chore of rewriting my script files to use this command for the aid of myself and my clients.

taskAfter a little searching, I found that Win7 Home Premium comes with a web server. But IIS7 comes neither installed nor exactly easy to find. But a little Google led me to the right corner of the advanced settings, and I should be able to test my websites locally. Should. It turns out that the sites I inherited from earlier developers use what is now considered a denigrated scripting system, Classic ASP. It took some tweaking to get the new server to run the older style pages. Then a series of unfortunate events, each requiring some tweaking before I could get my normal working environment working.

Now it is the third sunset since I got the box.

taskSo on day 4, after some more adjustments to email filters and such, I finally install MoviePlus X5. It installed just fine, and looks as good as earlier version. But it runs so much more smoothly on this new box.

However, the reason I got on this ride is because the earlier MoviePlus version couldn’t update an earlier video I’d developed on X3 because of a new conflict with QuickTime, the format of raw video coming off of some of my cameras. The new version does run QuickTime again. However, not in old movie edit files. I would have to re-edit in every piece of QuickTime video, when I just wanted to fix one letter in one caption.

Yes, all this started with a typo!

See if you can spot it:

“Some Assembly Required” Doesn’t Scare Me

I recently bought a new tandem bicycle. No, I didn’t drive a long distance and finally find a shop that had one for around what my car is worth. I bought it on eBay. And about a week later, this Object came to Hand:

Hmmm. I needed a couple of open-end wrenches, screw drivers, Allen wrenches, and some patience. You cannot clearly tell from this picture, but the rear fender was bent into uselessness. After I got the front wheel and handlebars and pedals on, and the rear seat and handlebars, I had to remove the fender and use my metal-smithing wiles on it.But it was not worth keeping. The steel fender weighed more than the carry rack I put in its place. A few hours of inexperienced labor later, it was essentially ready to ride.

Then this bike needed a bit of adjusting. You get what you pay for, and I didn’t pay for assembly, tuning, and testing. I had to modify a couple of parts — like the front chain idler that refused to hold the chain — before it worked reliably. And of course it needed bottle holders, carry rack, paniers, more reflectors, bell, speedometer, and different saddles. But now it works quite well.

Unlike my other tandem, this one folds to fit on a standard trunk rack. That’s actually why I bought it:

As of now, I am still making regular adjustments. It is not that the ride makes it wonky, but that it isn’t yet completely tuned up. I am, after all, but a dedicated dilettante in regards to cycling. One can tell that from my earlier post: Unsafe Safety Signs.

Unsafe Safety Signs

I am a regular bicyclist. I ride to stores, to doctor appointments, to social meetings, and to pretty much any other short commute in clement weather that doesn’t require carrying more than half my weight or volume in cargo. So it generally lightens my heart to see the increasing frequency of bicycle reminders on or around roadways. This bit of road paint, today’s Object at Hand, is on the street near my house.

But the more of these signs I see, the more I am realizing how they actually pose a threat to bikers.

Why? The problem is in the way our minds work. For those who haven’t studied psychology and perception, or neurology, nor read geeky mainstream books such as “Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention“, let me present a couple of things have been proven, that you can research for yourself later:

  • At the primitive levels of our mind, we can only see what we have learned to see.
  • Dissimilar images that evoke a shared idea require more cognitional effort to relate than do similar images. For example, it takes a slower and higher part of the brain to associate the relationship between a penny and a twenty than to recognize two different coins both as valuta.

Given these points, can you see the problem? How about if I show you the driver’s perspective of a bicyclist?

Do you see it, now? This is what almost every bicyclist looks like to a driver. Bikers of both motorized and pedaled two wheelers are always complaining that cars don’t see them.

The problem is that drivers are always shown a particular image of what to expect, and it bears no resemblance to what a bicyclist looks like. It is this basic cognitive problem rather than the relative narrowness of two wheeled vehicles that poses the greatest threat to us. But almost every bicycle warning sign uses the same basic profile image, repeatedly retraining drivers in what to look out for. Here is a sampling from around the world.

Try Googling for bicycle signs, yourself! One motorcyclist friend who has repeatedly been reminded how invisible we are even wears a special shirt to try to draw attention to his invisible presence:

I would like to get a campaign going to make bicycling safer by deploying and requiring signs to look more like this crude mock-up I created. Note how much more like an actual bicyclist it looks, and think about what it tells you to look out for.

For comparison, what sign seems a better warning/reminder of what to look for?


I enjoy funny words, like “spinthariscope.” It sounds like it should be a fancy and complex Steam Punk gizmo for watching rapidly rotating things, like a centrifuge or gyroscope. But Crookes coined the word as an Anglicization of the Greek-rooted word Scintillate for his invention to view nuclear decays. It provided one of the first direct proofs that Curie radiations were discrete, quantized events and not a continuous field.

Spintahriscope in place over the isotope holder in a smoke detector

After writing my post “Not All Natural” about the nuclear waste found in my house, I decided to buy a spinthariscope and see some nuclear radiation as directly as possible. This cheap one just looks like a strip of paper with a round window of simple translucent film. But it works like a charm.

To actually see the radiation from my smoke detector, I had to dark-adapt for a full half hour in my darkest room. Then I could see the glow of alpha particles striking the scope. With a magnifier, one can see each individual particle die. The source produces about 17,000 particles a second spread over 2π steradians, so the dark circle seen at the lower right of the viewer area was alive with about 2,000 green speckles a second.

But, wait, you may well say. Everyone knows  😉 that it takes a minimum of seven photons to trigger a response in the most sensitive rods in a human retina. How can the single quantum event, an alpha particle collision,  produce more than a single photon?

To start with, an alpha particle is a fully ionized helium nucleus, and therefore will collect two electrons from the first atoms it can approach. That’s a minimum of two photons, as any change in electron state releases (or absorbs) a photon. But then the atoms from which it stole the electrons will also be ionized, and claim electrons from others. This can go on for a while (nanoseconds) till some free electrons are found to fill the gap. But this is still only a small number of photons. Additionally, the alpha particle can only grab those electrons once it is moving at less than the speed of light.

Wait. How can an alpha particle go faster than the speed of light? Well, it cannot in free space. But the speed of light in a material medium is lower than the speed of light in a vacuum. Remember your lessons in refraction, of how lenses work. Those alpha particles leave their nuclei of origin at quite a clip, faster than the speed limit in any solid. So when alphas start passing other atoms at this illegal speed, they exert a force to slow them down. Any quantum force implies a quantum of energy, = photons. This is Cherenkov radiation, the light given off when particles go faster than the speed of light in a medium. This is what causes that eerie blue glow one sees near the core of nuclear reactors.

So the spinthariscope works by having a coating of a special crystal, like silver-activated zinc-sulfide, that is transparent to visible light, converts high energy photons (gamma through ultra-violet) down to visible light, and provides a medium of low light speed (high refractive index) to maximize the Cherenkov glow. So each alpha particle creates a shower of thousands of photons, enough to see as a tiny flash of color in a very dark room.

It is mesmerizing to watch this surreal, silent circle of ever changing speckles and to understand this miracle of helium being born. I’m sorry that I don’t have equipment to try to show you a video of the glow on today’s Object at Hand. But even if I did, it would be sort of like showing pictures of the Grand Canyon. Until you’ve seen it live, you can’t get the feel of it.

Poor Dead Penny

With luck, you are following up on my previous post about penny sorting. If not, you may want to check it out.

So I ended with suggesting there is a fun way to dispose of the new, copper-plated zinc pennies. Sure, we were all taught as children that mutilating money is wrong. But the point of that is to not damage money that will be circulated. There is no law against permanently taking money out of circulation; that is just a permanent loan to the treasury.

So my playful and don’t-try-this-at-home method of eliminating plated pennies is fun with chemistry. You see,  zinc reacts energetically with muriatic acid (HCl), the stuff you buy by the gallon to etch concrete or stabilize the pH of your pool. But copper is effectively untouched by this synthetic form of stomach acid.

So if you scratch through the copper plating on the edge of the new pennies, and drop them in the acid, the result is fizzing hydrogen gas (danger) mixed with a vapor of the strongest common acid (danger) and eventually leaves behind a depleted solution of acid with zinc chloride and little perfect penny foils. When the reaction is done,  carefully decant and rinse the foils. Make sure you store or properly neutralize and discard the remaining acid.

Ready to Start the etch

For a hollow penny just scratch a hole in the side. This may take a while to etch, as the hydrogen bubbles have to get out for the acid to do its work. I like to grind away the whole edge to make separate delicate head and tail foils. This etch still takes a few hours.

So the Object at Hand is this set of penny foils, showing odd points of view of our most diminutive denomination of cash.

The inside of a penny, looking up

HCl ate the brown oxide, leaving a foil too thin to hold its shape in this 1982 zinc penny

This penny plating was so thin that the acid let the light through where the die cut deepest