Archive for the 'Science/Technology' Category

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.

Fuzzy mice

I recall an article in Byte magazine (I think) by Jerry Pournelle (perhaps) back in the mid 1980’s about his adventure when his son lost the IBM mouse ball at the mall. Back then, there was no internet, few electronics stores, and even Computer Shopper was a thin monthly magazine with few aftermarket parts. So he finally got a replacement mouse from IBM, because no one could be found to provide a simple rubber ball of just the right size and weight.

Anyway, I thought of it when my current mouse, a 13 year old Logitech Mx510 optical mouse, lost the ability to wheel down. Back in the ball-mouse days, one had to clean the rollers regularly. But the optical mouse is nearly sealed, and has few moving parts. But Google agreed that the likely problem was dirt.  In over a decade, enough dust (crumbs, skin) did filter in through the wheel-side slots to block the sensor.

So here is today’s Object at Hand, the fuzzy internal workings of the scroll wheel.


Light passes through the spokes (when clean) and tells the processor which way and how far it turns. There are several loose parts in this assembly, and it took me a little while to get them back in the right order after I pulled the tiny carpets of fuzz from many tight internal surfaces.

But back together it went.


And back to work.


Faith in Photons

I often argue that science is based on trust, while religion is based on faith. The difference is simple; trust is the positive feeling you have about something that reliably performs, while Faith is the positive feeling you have about something in spite of how it performs. But when one learns enough about the detailed underlying principles of the physical universe, things get a little fuzzy. I am not saying that science requires faith, except in that we believe that all observable effects have detectable causes, and that it is (or eventually will be) possible to mathematically model everything (within limits as we learn of them, such as Gödel, Heisenberg, etc).

But then we take a look at a photon. Most people learn in school that light is made up of particles called photons that act like waves. With a good teacher, you may learn that all exchanges of energy (except possibly for gravity) involve swapping photons. But after you have some years of calculus and a foundation in quantum theory, you can prove two mutually exclusive truths:

  1. Everything you can ever sense, think, or perceive is because of photons, and
  2. Photons don’t really exist.

Let’s start with point one: All your senses depend on photons.

To start with, everything you are and sense and think is because of chemical reactions. And all chemical reactions happen because electrons are swapping photons to move atoms from place to place. So internally, all you are depends on photons. But now to the actual proverbial Five Senses:

  • Vision: Light is made up of these quanta of energy, so seeing is clearly based on detecting photons.
  • Touch: This one is less obvious. All interactions between charged particles, like electrons and protons, are carried by photons. When you touch something, what you are sensing is physical contact. Physical contact is the electric field on the surface of one object repelling the electric field on the surface of another object down at the molecular scale. What feels hard on the scale of a finger is really squishy down on the atomic level, but this is such a small distance that it feels like an instant stop, a touch.
  • Hearing: Sound is waves in a gas is really patterns of molecules bouncing off of each others electric fields. Photons are doing that.
  • Taste: This is a chemical reaction allowing you to detect certain complex molecules by exchanging ions; charged parts of molecules. And recent research actually proved that quantum effects more subtle than those of bulk chemistry are involved in how taste buds work. But again, any interaction of charges (like chemical reactions) is carried by photons.
  • Smell: See taste. Basically, smell is sensing molecules wafting in the air, as opposed to already in solution (juice) or being dissolved (crackers). In fact, smell requires your nose to dissolve the molecules before you can sense them. So smell is the same sense as taste, but in a different location in your face.

Now as to why this essential particle does not actually exist:

A photon is a convenience, a mathematical abstraction (like the square root of minus one) that has many real world repercussions, and thus really exists. But at the same time, it does not stand on its own.

A photon is a virtual particle. This squiggle below is a Feynman Diagram, invented by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman during the Manhattan Project to help understand what is going on in quantum reactions. This simple and unclear one may be illustrating two particles colliding elastically, like billiard balls (but more likely electrons or protons). Time moves downward, as the particles approach, exchange a photon, and then retreat.


Later in his career, Feynman hypothesized about (and got his Nobel Prize for) Quantum Electrodynamics (his “popular” book is actually readable by lay-people). QED (as it is abbreviated) proves that a photon (or even electron) does not actually travel in a single path, but in all possible paths. What we can measure is its most likely path. This is why they seem to act like waves; a photon spreads like ripples in water from its source, and coalesces at its destination.

So what we think of as the definition of a straight line, or the line of sight, or an Einsteinian Geodesic (for the truly pretentious), is just the most likely path (the shortest time or least energy) for a photon to take! But in reality the models that best describe all we observe show that a photon takes every possible path between here and there. Given that it is everywhere, a photon does not actually exists in any particular place in between its beginning and end.

This infinitely wide photon path is true whether the apparent distance is adjacent atoms in the crystal (less than an attosecond apart at the speed of light), or the 13.4 billion year trip from galaxy UDFj-39546284 to a telescope near you.

People wonder why I always choose not to get stoned. If you don’t occasionally have to say, “Oh, wow!” about the actual workaday world, the base, material universe that we all we live in, you just don’t know enough about it.

Meskin Chiskin: Summertime Cooking is a Crock

Today, the Object at Hand, is my energy efficient crock pot and its summer use outdoors to produce “Meskin Chiskin.” Or Mexican Chicken, should you prefer to eschew cutesy neologisms.

One room in which keeping cool really matters is the kitchen. I don’t have central air. I grew up in a 1920’s house with window units in the bedrooms. I had no air conditioning at all in any of my college apartments where I cooked my own meals. And now in my 1890’s house, I again just have a few strategic window units. This situation helps keep me aware of how much it costs to keep cool; both in dollars and carbon. A refrigerator pumps out quite a bit of heat on its own. So in the summertime, we spend much less time and energy cooking indoors.

But first, some exposition about heat and efficiency:

In the air conditioning season, there is a particular penalty for using appliances. Every watt you use indoors (lights, TV, toasters, microwave, fridge, etc.) produces 3.4 BTU’s per hour. Then you burn another half watt or more to remove that heat via the air conditioner. So if you want to slow cook a meal with a 250 watt crock pot for five hours, you spend the 1.25 kilowatt-hours for the cooking, plus another 0.6 kilowatt hours to remove the heat. That’s assuming a high efficiency, properly cleaned and maintained A/C. Plus, it heats up the kitchen until the heat can get pumped back out.

Raw ChickenSo I decided to put out the crock. Yes, I fill it in the kitchen, then fire it up outside, where it bleeds its waste heat into the already sultry air.

To start:

  • Five small chicken leg quarters, skin and fat removed,
  • Two large onions, peeled and chopped into big chunks
  • A few cloves of garlic, peeled and broken.
  • Two cans of chopped tomatoes,
  • One can of mixed chiles and tomatoes
  • Three seeded hot jalapeño peppers (from a friend’s garden)
  • Cayenne, cumin, and pepper flakes to taste

And later added:

  • 1 cup brown rice
  • 12 oz chicken broth (should have had this up front)

Cooked ChickenSo I throw the first list in the crock and set it outdoors for five hours, giving it a quick stir every hour or so,

After 5 hours, I pulled out the bones, from which the meat has fallen, and added the rice and preheated chicken broth (because it didn’t have enough free liquid left for the rice). Another hour or two later, we have something like a risotto, but with a southwestern flavor.

And all those cooking BTU’s did not fill the house, nor require that much more energy to remove them.

Char Without Coal

As I mentioned in my previous post about an improved way to use newspaper to get a grill going, Today’s Object at Hand is a particular type of charcoal.

Grill Starting Supplies

Notice that the bag says “Lump” instead of “Briquette.” This indicates a significant difference in terms of ingredients. Henry Ford’s invention of the briquette revolutionized home grilling by standardizing the size and behavior of charcoal. It also created a market for his production scraps.

The down side is that the shape is maintained by adding coal tar or oil residue.
Here’s the How It’s Made short on charcoal briquettes:

Anyway, it is possible to find locally sourced non-petrochemical charcoal, as shown in my picture. This bag claims to come from a cabinet shop. But the telltale shapes amuse me. And truth be told, this amusement factor is more important to me than the actual absence of tar and oil in my grill. But both are good reasons to look for it.

Ready to Light

Stand by for a third entry in this series.

Letting Code Go

FolkFireCalendarI have written about letting go of old industrial code in the past. But today I have decided that it is time to discard a vestigial part of my first website, something where the code is still in use. Barely. Today’s Object at Hand is the old FolkFire calendar.

I started writing the FolkFire web site in early 1995, using my $25 copy of Netscape Navigator 2.0, and writing my code in Notepad for the proposed HTML 2.0 standard. I bought a book on HTML and taught myself as I coded. I had to manually install a TCPIP socket (“winsock”) on my DOS/Windows 3.11 machine in order to connect even to my local server. Sorry about the “Back when I was a kid…”

In 1996 I added an events calendar, written in Perl using another book to learn as I went. This was back before Google, before Yahoo, and before local newspapers, TV stations, etc. had sites with calendars of events. We consolidated events from all over the region, to make it easier for both people and groups to do their planning.

Over the next few years, this calendar evolved a bit. I put in hundreds of volunteer hours just for the calendar. By Y2K it was pretty much in its current format (click on the image to see it as it was, via the Wayback Machine Web Archive). It leveled off at about 1,200 lines of original code, because I am always careful to remove what is no longer needed. Sometimes adding a feature resulted in shorter code.

But since the millennium I have been trying to divest myself of this web site. There has been a Help Wanted banner on the FolkFire home page for 13 years!

Then I noticed that for the last several years, no one even submits events to our calendar any more. Long ago I lost the eager drive to chase after groups and beg them for their information so that we can give them free promotion. So it is time to put this piece of my history to bed. If a FolkFire calendar is to rise again, whoever does it can use the Google calendar engine.