Archive Page 3

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.

Lucky Letter Opener

Today’s object gets a nod because of a recent unintended doubly-off-label usage. A few years ago I ordered some furnace igniters online. Within the package, they had included this promotional wine bottle opener, today’s Object at Hand.

Bottle Opener

Wine and furnace repair seemed an odd non-sequitur, but I found a use for it: This bottle opener has sat on my counter as a fine and efficient  letter opener for years.

But a few weeks ago, I knocked it off the counter and it stuck vertically into the wooden floor right by my foot. You can picture the sound of it quivering there. I felt lucky that it had missed my foot. The same physics of angular momentum that causes toast to land butter side down gives this device good odds of sticking the floor.

Then a few days ago, I was setting a package on the counter in the dark and I heard a “thunk,” and felt a pain in my toe. I looked down. The letter opener lay innocently on the floor next to it. There was a small red spot, growing larger, near the center front of my sock. Yeah, in the winter I wear socks in the house.

I pulled off the sock, and noticed that the blood was coming from the middle of my medial toenail. I soaked up a few minutes of bleeding with tissues, then put on a band-aid. My coagulation is good; it stopped bleeding in minutes.

Here is what it looks like a few days later; pretty neat as punctures go. Not the best of pedicures, either.

Owie toe

This reminds me, I’m due for a TDaP, or DTaP, or whatever they are calling the standard 10 year vaccination nowadays.

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.

Looking Back

Rear View Mirror

On reflection, today’s object is an intro to one of my hobbies.

I was slowly walking home from breakfast at the corner when I spied today’s Object at Hand in the street. A plastic rear view mirror from some toy vehicle that had come loose and been run over a time or two.

I was walking slowly because of a lingering disease. Adult onset mono that had been misdiagnosed by a series of doctors who never considered that an old dude like me would come down with such a stereotypical adolescent ailment. Anyway, a couple of months after the symptoms got acute, I could walk to the corner.

As soon as I saw this bit of plastic with its evocative printed decal, I flashed on a lifetime of travels. I began a travel blog back before most people knew the word “blog,” and wrote the code using Notepad. Before the blog, I would send emails to a list of friends with daily reports. Here is My Travel Page.

I didn’t always love travel. As a child, I was always car sick. Back then we didn’t have air conditioning. During my tween and teen years, we didn’t even have rear windows in the car! So it was an ordeal for myself and my parents to go on the few road trips they dared: Once to Orlando (not including Disney, but backstage at Cape Kennedy as Apollo 13 was on the pad) and once up to Michigan to visit a great aunt. Plus an annual jaunt of 8 hours (back in those pre-interstate days) down to the Ozarks. Specifically Bull Shoals Lake just over the Arkansas border. Nope, not Silver Dollar City. I didn’t get to an amusement park until I was in my 30’s.

But once I had a car of my own, we did drive. In our current sedan we have recreationally visited every contiguous state except Rhode Island and Wisconsin. We often travel the lesser roads, state and local highways. It takes longer to get to our nominal destination, but we really get to see America.

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.

IMG_7524

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.

IMG_7526

And back to work.

IMG_7530

Dough hook Doh!

dough hooks

For those of you who don’t bake, a dough hook is a mixer attachment for kneading dough. As I don’t make bread, mine sat idle for decades until I had this thought, which I present as a recipe on the thin premise of dough hooks as today’s Object at Hand.

I began making meatloaf when I was a college student. I lived in apartments and didn’t have a meal plan or a budget to support eating out, so perforce learned to cook. Every month or so, I’d mix up a meatloaf and eat it for a couple of dinners and several lunches.

Anyway, I recently began cooking again and decided to re-think how I made a meatloaf. The part I disliked was getting my hands cold and slimy by kneading everything together. So in my fifties, I finally thought to try doing the mixing with the dough hooks on my little Krups consumer grade mixer. The title “Doh!” is about it taking me so many decades to figure this out.

  • I begin by tearing up a couple of bread heels (from Ezekiel bread, but that isn’t important) and throwing the pieces into the mixing bowl.
  • I break in a couple of eggs, and let the mixer run on medium to soften the heels while I
    mince a medium onion  and a
    couple of cloves of garlic and add those to the mixing.
  • Those flavors meld as I chop up a can of mushroom stems and pieces and then add those, followed by
    about a cup of rolled oats (not steel cut nor quick).
  • I pulled the leafy core from a bunch of celery and chopped that to add in, more for a flavor note than vegetable value.
  • I finally add a pound of ground beef (85% lean from Trader Joe’s). By now I had to turn the mixer up to high to massage the tough, fibrous blend.
  • I have always felt that a meatloaf should stand alone as a meal, so I added about a half cup (3/4c?) of frozen peas (not actually measured) on impulse and let those get well distributed. These could have been
  • Then I turned off my electrical slave and scooped the mixture into a large bread pan, pushing down the center and leaving a raised lip  around the edges, because we like the crispy bits.
  • Another innovation is that I then add a handful of shredded whole wheat and bran cereal as an insulating layer on the recessed portion, and
    cover that with crosswise half-overlapped bacon. The cereal allows the bacon to get good and crispy while absorbing some of the yummy fats.
  • So I place the pan in 350°F for an hour, then boost to 400 for another quarter or so to brown the bacon.
  • Finally, I take it out and set it on an metal pan spanning plates below the ceiling fan (much like the heat sink on your CPU) to cool it more evenly, an allow it to firm up.
Topping the Meatloaf

Toppings

Meatloaf done

Out of the oven

Cooling from the bottom, too

Cooling from the bottom, too

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.

800px-Feynman-Diagram.svg

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.

IMG_1586a

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

United Past

The Object at Hand for today caught my imagination at a moving sale, as a perfect hook to write about a few things. I present for for your amusement (or at least my own), a common corporate giveaway item  from the 1960’s: A United Airlines pocket knife.

United Knife

United Knife UnfoldsNow in the post-911 world of confiscating suspicious nail clippers, examining everyone’s shoes, and forbidding shampoo bottles, it seems hilarious that airlines once armed its passengers in this way. The blade in this is just 1½ inches in length, and was considered safe enough for airlines to distribute to passengers during the frequent hijacking era of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

I dated the knife by the logo: United changed its letterhead regularly. This knife had to be produced between 1961 and 1974.

History of United Logos

History of United Logos

Possession of knives was so casual in 1970 (when I was nine) that two aunts each gave me pocket knives for Christmas, at my grandmother’s house in Berlin. We then flew to Tel Aviv to visit my other grandmother, where I lost one of my new knives in the sand at the beach. No one thought anything about those 3″ blades in my carry on bag during any of the seven air legs of that trip.

Aside: I remember lugging my carry on up those rolling stairways into a variety of planes on that trip: 727’s between Germany, Israel, and Greece, and JFK to StL; 707’s across the Atlantic; and the short steps up into a DC-3 from Eilat on the Red Sea back to Tel Aviv. There was a caged chicken in the overhead rack next to the barely caged fan on the DC-3 flight. We’d taken the bus down, to tour the sea of Galilee, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and a few other sites for separating tourists from dollars.

In that more innocent era, there were no metal detectors or enclosed jet ways, and family greeted us right at the plane in Israel, and at the gates in Berlin. In New York I recall a cheerful porter racing us through JFK from international to a United gate to barely catch our flight, because the scheduled 3 hour layover became 15 minutes due to traffic control issues in those days before weather satellites, computer flight tracking, and automated approach beacons.

All these glancing observations evoked by spotting this little knife in a pile of cast off minutia at a moving sale.