Archive for the 'Whimsy' Category

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. (Here’s my video that these pix came from)


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.

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.

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.

Bowled Over

A woman at a rummage sale handed me this item because she thought that I looked like I would like it. No charge. My first glance did not win me over, but as soon as it hit my hand, the feel sure did. At first touch I knew it would sound with a deep and full-bodied ring; like a bell.

So today’s Object at Hand is an aluminum bowl. I could use this Indian import to make a case for vanishing American industry, or to get into the fascinating subject of where aluminum comes from and what unexpected things it can be used for, or to get nerdy about acoustics and neurology of sound and pleasure.

But today I feel like presenting an object just because I like it for itself.

Aluminum bowl

You can see at a glance that it has thick walls, and that It suffers visually from having been used to hold wet stuff, as the interior is etched with parallel rings from the air-liquid boundary. What is not visible is the mechanical tension that it holds from being cold-pressed into shape. This tension is what gives it such a nice tone. I usually leave it on the kitchen counter because a) it looks nice enough there and b) I can strike it with a knuckle as I pass to hear it sing whenever I pass by.

Perhaps I am too easy to amuse. I do try to limit the ringing when my spouse is around, not just because it is wise to avoid annoying those who handle your food and regularly see you unconscious.

But what prompted my post today is that picked-ripe produce is now coming in from friends. On a whim, I dropped a few items into the bowl, saw the reflections, and just had to snap a picture.


And, yes, it makes the same rich sound with these items sitting on the bottom. A feast for all the senses.

Comic Coffee Kamikaze

This post relates obliquely to the comic strip FoxTrot, where one recurring theme involved the trials of the father, Roger, in obtaining his morning coffee. It embodied the idea that it is nigh impossible to perform the coffee making procedure until one has had his coffee. A quick Google Image Search will give you an idea.

Anyway, the Object at Hand today is a coffee grinder that we got at a yBurr Grinderard sale some years ago. It was actually free, because the seller sheepishly admitted that it did not work reliably. I’m up for a challenge at that price.

Once I got it home, I spent a while checking out the various likely failure places; mostly the safety interlocks that prevent it from running if everything is not in place and closed. Kind of like how we got a free microwave. One of the sensor switches fell short, so I beefed it up with a dab of epoxy. After that, the burr grinder did its duty with aplomb.

However, it had a tendency to wander on the counter top as it grinds; usually toward the edge. But after many carefully watched sessions I learned to trust that it never actually reached the edge, no matter how close it started.

Suicidal grinderUntil today. I started the grinder and blithely turned to start the kettle.

“Whirrrr…Thump! Crack! Swish!”

You may note in the upper picture that the grounds cup already had several cracks in it. Those are from earlier events of just dropping the cup itself, and have been repaired. This time the cup survived, as did the mechanism. But my coffee was everywhere! And I had to clean it up before I could make the coffee I needed to be alert enough to clean it up.

My finely honed forensic senses told me that the rubber feet were dusty, allowing the device to wander over the precipice instead of bogging down at the subtle rise of the edge.

So now I check to see that the feet are clean, as well as that the dial is set correctly, and that there is coffee in the feeder before I push the button.

Maybe the comic Too Much Coffee Man is more to the point.


Loose Screen? You Got Some Splinin’ to Do!

Splining ToolMy apologies to those who may note that this is the second pun title in a week. Also, my apologies to those who, on reading this title in puzzlement, simply missed the 1950’s cultural reference.

Anyway, I found myself holding today’s Object in hand, and the phrase crossed my mind. But I got busy with the project, and then other projects. So now here it is 13 months later and I stumbled across the snapshots I took when I first had the thought.

I had a 26 year old storm door in which cats and weather and the vicissitudes of normal use had demolished the original aluminum screen. It was in tatters. So I finally bought a roll of nylon screen, and it came with the necessary rubber spline cord material and this literally groovy insertion tool.

Splining the screenOne of the wheels has a groove to better grip the rubber spline. The other is convex, to let you push it “home.” Anyway, I just had to pull out the old spline and screen, line up the screen material and hold it up in place with some tape. Then press the new spline in over the screen and groove so that friction holds and stretches the screen into place. As you go around the opening, the screen is pulled tight. Easy peasy.

The final step is to cut away the excess. I used a box cutter, of which I have accumulated several styles over the decades of handiwork.

It is fun being relatively handy, and easy to amuse.

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.

Object of Improbable Geometric Ancestry

One item we regularly enjoy at our favorite buffet in the City of Saint Louis is the dessert Crème brûlée. Until recently, it was served in tiny ceramic bowls. They were not exactly regulation ramekins, but clearly more durable and stackable. But the last time we visited the River City Casino Great Food Exposition, the still-credible delectable was served in disposable (ideally recyclable) aluminum cups.

Crème brûlée
After I finished the contents, I stared into the empty cup and a memory surfaced from decades ago: Back in my college daze, I would meet a friend in one of the student lounges a couple of times a week. Back then smoking was still common, so they had disposable aluminum ash trays on every table. When I got a clean one, I exercised my nervous fingers by reproducing a shape that I’d learned to make in silversmithing classes.

I’d studied directly under Heikki Seppa and under some of his students.HPX One of his masters level exercises was to make what he called an “HPX” or Hyperbolic Paraboloid Extension. One that the master himself made is in the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, shown to the right. It is an object of pure anti-clastic curves, where perpendicular lines on the surface curve away from each other, like a saddle or the McDonnell Planetarium. The opposite kind of surface is called synclastic, like a ball or bowl.

Working with a disc of silver or copper, one hammers and folds it to gradually compress the metal in the center in the hardest possible direction, so that the center thickens and the edges curve over. You end up with a fairly unusual shape of no practical utility at all, but fun to fiddle with.

So I wiped off most of the remaining custard and began to play, encouraging edges around and surfaces to collapse. I was surprised how quickly I got the shape to form, given the 30 years since my last attempt. Anyway, this is how I made today’s Object at Hand, seen below. Feel free to try it yourself, the next time you find yourself with a foil dish, bowl, or cup.
HPX 2013

I incorporated a copper HPX as part of a sculpture that won First Prize in a Science Fiction convention art show way back when. My title is probably what they truly were awarding, “Creature of Improbable Genetic Ancestry Examining Object of Improbable Geometric Ancestry.” Thus the title of this post.

“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.

AARP, gulp.

A little while back I discussed my reaching Half a Century old in terms of my early papers, and some of the changes to our world in my lifetime. But the Object at Hand today is my legitimately obtained copy of AARP magazine.

A Typical AARP Reader?

I had tossed it aside and apparently my housemate Friedrich picked it up. Now, this seemed eerily evocative of the way youngsters (such as I still feel myself to be) perceive people who read this magazine.

The word “Retired” comprises the ahr  in their acronym. But most people at the AARP age minimum are nowhere near retired. Especially in the early 21st century economy when an American household apparently needs two wage earners till they are seventy to meet basic expenses.

So AARP reaches out to those who are of an age to barely see the light of retirement at the end of the tunnel of their useful life. That is a mere dozen years before one currently can start reclaiming some of his Social Security money. So AARP provides articles on planning for retirement, and investment advice, and more such for we wee ones.

As for me, among those abruptly dropped from the ranks of the median family income earners back when the tech bubble burst, I cannot decide whether I am semi-employed, or semi-retired.

Perhaps I will be able to make that determination before I look like old Friedrich here.