Archive for the 'Science/Technology' Category

Chemicals are Missing

I happened to look at a tube of sunscreen slash bug repellent sitting on a windowsill in my home, and the absurdity of its claims have promoted it to today’s Object at Hand.


The front proclaims, “Chemical Free!” This baffles me. If the constituents of the contents are found on the periodic table, it has chemicals in it. Outside of brief existences in high energy locations, like the Large Hadron Collider impact zone, everything on Earth is chemicals. Even the dissociated plasma in arc lamps is chemical in nature.

But maybe they consider “chemicals” to be things with known chemistry, as opposed to the generally unknown complex chemistry of plant products. But there on the back is a typical list of somewhat unpronounceable, organic and inorganic, mostly synthesized, molecules. Chemicals.

I am sure we paid for this stuff, so they were not free. I am sure that the tube and everything inside is made of chemicals, so “free” could not mean “absent.”

It also says it is the #1 Natural Choice. As opposed to, a super-natural one? Anything found in the known universe is a part of nature, “natural”. We’ve even discovered natural nuclear reactors, and any chemical that can be synthesized in a lab can be found somewhere in nature. Turns out, space is full of wacky, complex organic molecules. So, on what scale do they order how “natural” a product is?

To complete the absurdity, it has a banner: “Quantum.” That word means, the smallest divisible unit. Generally, something so small that it requires great sophistication to detect the thing or the difference. Is this referring to the smallest tube they sell?

And after all that, the package doesn’t even clearly state what it does, for how long, or how it is supposed to work. A trite triumph of marketing form over functional content.

In the Thick of it

Embossed Card

How many of you remember those old, carbon-paper credit card receipt machines? Revel in the solid “Ka-chunk chunk” sound as the cashier strained to run the slider back and forth, and the waste can full of booklets of carbon paper pulled from the right side of the sandwich of receipts. As a kid I was allowed to take some of those carbons home from stores, to play with fingerprints, and to use for stenciling. Back then, folks didn’t worry so much about identity theft.

But have you even seen one of those machines in the last decade?

Today’s Object at Hand is a new debit card, complete not only with a magnetic strip (tech from the 1970’s) but also a somewhat secure chip (based on the late 1990’s tech now considered obsolete in Europe). And, what is this? It still has the 1950’s legacy support of embossed information! Why, you may well ask, do I make a point of this?

I like a thin wallet. The embossing increases the thickness of each card by 50%, and the friction to drag it out of a wallet pocket by noticeably more than that. It wears out the pocket or adjacent cards faster, as well as frustrating the user when too many get packed in there. And it serves no (expletive) purpose. Well, little potential purpose.

Had I a flat card, and needed to purchase from some Luddite (who also does not take cash, or checks, and has neither the free stripe reader or the cheap chip reader available to anyone with a smart phone), they would be forced to hand write my name and card number on their multi-part receipt form. I’d happily do it for them.

Fortunately, I could walk in to my bank and get a flat version of the card this morning. All the same information at 66% of the thickness. Happy ending 🙂

Socket To Me

Or: All Your Base Are Belong to Edison

As I was putting up lights for the Solstice/Yule/Christmas season this year, I found that my porch light would not work right. I had unscrewed the bulb to screw in an outlet to power the porch-hung wreath, and could not make it work. I had replaced a (CFL) bulb a month earlier, and suspected that the fixture rather than the bulb was at fault. Now, I was sure of it. So I used an alternate source for the season.

P1060115But then we had a warm day in January, so I set up a ladder and took down the light. Yes, I first identified the right breaker (that took a few tries) and shut off the power.

The fixture seems to be from the 1940’s or 50’s.

IMG_0649I had put a dusk-to-dawn sensor on it in 1990. Birds had nested upon it, and insects apparently made themselves at home behind it.

So down it came, and I worked out how to disassemble it. The screws were rusty, but functional. It needed a good cleaning.

But as I took it apart, it became apparent that the problem was not the wobbly nature of the light socket, but rather that a tubular rivet in the interior of the socket had fatigued away, failed. This was the critical problem. Here you can see the two rivet positions for the Edison base shell, one without a rivet. The missing side is the one to which the neutral power line connects. So the light worked if I pushed it in to touch the rivet, and only then.


So what to do? I hate to replace something that can be fixed. Fortunately, I am a bit of a hoarder. I had saved the light fixtures from a burned out, water damaged ceiling fan a decade ago. I found this remnant and pulled out its socket. See what the rivets are supposed to look like:


The iffy news is that the wires on the “new” 1980’s socket are a bit corroded. But my experience as a tinker and my degree in electrical engineering led me to think this was not a real issue. With CFL’s and LED’s it will never be carrying as much power as it was designed to.

The good news is that the holes, indents, and threads of the 1980’s socket matched the mid-century light fixture. A perfect fit.


So the true Object at Hand is the late 1800’s designed electrical screw-socket to mount light bulbs (generically known as an Edison Base) that are still made from ceramic and brass.

As Ice Balls Age

Last winter I had a whim and a handful of cheap balloons, so I made a set of colorful ice balls. This post does show how to make them, and what mistakes I’d made. But unlike other posts you’ll find on making ice balls, I show the odd thing that happens as they age. So read to the bottom.

First, wear gloves if you don’t want colorful hands for a week or so.

Then make sure that you have a place to put them to freeze. I chose to do them naturally outdoors, and will explain what I did wrong there below.

MVI_7642bSo, take a balloon and put a few drops of food coloring in it. Then fill it with water, somehow. Caution, if the balloon pops, you may get sprayed with permanent dye. Wear an apron, or clothes that you don’t care about.


Gently place the jiggly ball of dye in a cold place. Below 25ºF is best. If you use a freezer, put them in a bowl or something that will catch the liquid if the balloon fails. I put them on a stoop in the snow. Unfortunately, the warm balls melted the snow and they rested on the warmer concrete. IMG_7645So they froze unevenly, and I tried to move some of them too soon. Next time, I will place them on a chair or bench or anything allowing an air gap between their resting surface and the ground.

But most were solid enough for me to pop and remove the balloons. The blue one up close ruptured and leaked, but the other blue one bounced to the bottom of the stairs without losing its cool.


But I did get a nice set of balls to stack as a decorative accent. They got snowed in, and the snow faded and stuck to them over the course of a few weeks.


But note this weird thing! When the temperature got up close to freezing and then cooled at night for a few days, the dye settled within the solid ice!IMG_7752You can see the distilled, purer water ice at the top, and the more concentrated color collecting lower down.


So The Object at Hand today is either the literal ice balls, or the lesson in physics showing how simple natural processes can cause dye to un-mix from frozen water; an apparent reversal of entropy.

This process is similar to Zone Melting, by which silicon is ulta-purified to make semiconducting wafers to make the chips that make it possible for you to read this.

Procrastinated Antenna

In 2008 we had to convert to digital television. I have avoided cable and satellite to try to reduce my temptation to watch so much TV. So when we got the converter box for our old analog set, I had to use an antenna better suited to digital. Because digital TV uses part of the old UHF band, an old UHF bow tie antenna should work. I clipped one to our old rabbit ears, and it did work.

But we gave in and got a discount flat screen TV in 2011, and I had to rearrange things to fit it somewhere. The antenna didn’t work that well right at TV level, so I put it on a paint roller extension pole and slid it up near the ceiling. This helped some. But it was unsightly.

Also, the many layers of plaster in our house, and several houses of thick brick walls between the antenna and transmitter meant unreliable digital reception. Passing trucks and SUV’s would cause regular drop-outs on several channels, and we live on a busy street.

Bow Tie Antenna

Also, Around that time, and loathe to spend a lot of money, I soldered together an HDTV antenna from wire clothes hangers and scrap wood. I had intended to put the ugly kludged HDTV antenna up in the attic above the street trouble. But at the time I didn’t have the impetus to run the wire; the bow tie still mostly worked.

Last year, I did run a salvaged length of 70 ohm coax from the attic down the pipe chase, across the basement, and back up. And there it sat, unused, because I worried about the long run and needing an amplifier at the antenna.

Until today! On impulse I finally hooked the long cable to the attic antenna to the TV. Up above the thick brick walls we get much better reception, despite the long run of cable. So today I finally acknowledge, use, and celebrate the now-rusty Object at Hand: Repurposed wire clothes hangers, roughly cut and bent,  soldered together, mounted to scrap wood, and hung from a rafter by a rusty nail.

Zero cost HDTV Antenna

If you are interested, you can Google how to make your own. Note, there is an air gap between the vertical wires that apparently cross. This is better insulation than the tape most instructables show.

Disturbing Tofu

Weird Tofu SizeI’m a guy who likes math. I also like sociology (and have a degree in psychology) so I know that people like round numbers. So when I find myself unloading groceries and see some weird number as a package size, it disturbs me.

So the point of today’s Object at Hand is not that I find Tofu more disturbing than chicken or pork when I make a vindaloo, but that the package size is weird.

12.3 ounces, or 349 grams? Who would choose this size? I expect a size to match a nice, round number in one way of measuring or another.

But then I considered: This is a rectangular block of food-like material. Maybe it is not based on the package weight, but the measured size.

This curd is 7% heavier than water, so the block should measure 327cc from its weight. A rough exterior measure gave me 4.5×7.5×10 cm (using the nearest half less than the exterior) which is 337.5cc. That’s pretty close.

Still, none of these numbers are round. Converting to the old British Imperial units (inches are still used in 3 countries on Earth) gives even weirder measures.

I found running these numbers soothing enough that I don’t mind them being weird any more.

Paper Springs

Napkin Trash

Today’s object is one I compulsively make and leave behind in restaurants. I fold those paper napkin wrappers into these square paper springs out of old habit.

I learned how to fold these from construction paper in third or fourth grade, as a device to make greeting cards more dimensional, to elevate a cut-out shape above the field.

Tractor FeedBut it became a fidget-habit when I started working in the real world. We had dot matrix computer printers back then. They were noisy, and the folded continuous paper had to be fed from a box using perforations designed to fit tractor cogs on the printer, usually on micro-perforated separable strips. So after printing what had to be printed, we would remove that side strip with the holes.

I am a fidgetor. My hands are rarely at rest when my mind is moving. So given this bounty of paper strips, I would fold them into long paper springs and leave them everywhere.

I remember one meeting in the start-up robotics company for which I was working in the 1980’s. One of the members brought in her little girl. The wean picked up one of my foot-long springs and was happily playing with it. This was memorable to me as the first time I’d seen anyone but myself derive pleasure from my little compulsion. The mother told her that she should put “that man’s” paper down. I assured them that I was happy to let her have that one.

Three decades later, when these tractor feed strips are rare, I find myself folding napkin wrappers into these springs, and now admitting my bad habit. I secretly hope that some server or bus-person notices the odd nature of this minimalist origami as art, rather than just another piece of trash. But I am not holding my breath.