Tuesday, September 4, 2012

An experience at the drink machine

My co-worker stood there in front of the drink machine with a determined expression.  The fluid yet mechanical way she grasped the upside-down foam cup from its tower of duplicates and lifted, inverting and cutting its calculated path in the air, showed a patience in practice reminiscent of Olympic balance beams and console-game tournaments.

Her first selection, Dr. Pepper, had been the reigning office favorite for years.  The nozzle had been replaced four times, by her six years' reckoning.  The others, never.  A light touch on its button with a perfectly vertical finger--her trademark--activated a foamy, splattering double-click.  The stream had stopped almost as soon as it started.

She swished the tablespoon of soda in the cup twice and flipped the cup over the drain grate in a motion so surprising that I cannot remember the mechanics of it.  How did her wrist turn?  How much of it emptied out?  I couldn't remember seeing it, but I do remember what happened next.

She placed the cup right-side up on the grate, applying her vertical finger again, this time to the Diet Dr. Pepper button.  Its red light glowed for the seven seconds it took to fill her Styrofoam tumbler, as the dark caramel-colored liquid confectionery whirlpool swirled, then ceased, then fizzed, then stilled.

She had pretended not to notice me, but now turned with perfect cognizance to look me square in the eye and explain, glee suppressed by a serious face, "I mix a very dry Dr. Pepper."

Thursday, April 12, 2012


The last board in town finally went under, so he cracked and installed that netscape program everyone had been talking about. 28.8 kbps delivered his blissful, custom initialization string, tweaked at least a hundred times over its two component-boosting decades. But this time an unfamiliar aria followed. After a lot of lolwut and some fourteen failed Quicktime installations, he almost poured a pot of coffee across his whole rig in disgust at the Yahoo! News comments section, but on the same day he discovered Tumblr. Uncounted days later a formerly dominant portion of his brain twitched to warn him, too late, that he had just forwarded a roflcopter anigif. But the doorbell rang. It was Fedex with his new dual core Dell and a Century Link DSL self-install kit.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Dear Scale,

Thank you for always being honest with me, especially after the cruise. It is rare to find one who will be so frank but with never a glare or even a hint of disgust. You have guided me to good choices through that virtue of honesty with inspiring consistency. In that spirit of honesty, I hope to make myself understood. Please, be patient with me. While honesty is my modus operandi, there are difficult matters at hand.

Scale, I would apologize for a terrible infraction accomplished only last night. I was hungry, owing partially to having had no dinner, and (it’s embarrassing, but) partially to having expanded my stomach at the office pizza-karaoke lunch party on the same day. It was late evening; the children were gone to sleep, and I was in the kitchen alone. It is a terrible excuse, but both the chicken and the bacon were on the day of their expiry, and as a man of poor youth, I cannot bear to waste. Even worse an excuse is how tired I was. But nothing can excuse the incomparable irresponsibility of… I daren’t write it, but I must: frying the chicken in the bacon grease.

My embarrassment is superlative. I cannot imagine what I was thinking. I can only suppose I was not thinking. To be sure, there was no benefit by it to the flavor. The chicken-bacon-ranch sandwich with tomatoes was delightfully hot and cold, salty and sour, soft and crispy. But on such a caloric day as yesterday, I should have eaten a head of lettuce and thrown the meat away.
It is for this transgression that I write to beg your forgiveness. It is a difficult thing to do. Certainly you owe me nothing of mercy. No, the equity I’ve built in your sight is of an entirely different sort. As I stood at sundry times after parties, vacations, births and birthdays, receiving your righteous judgment in analog or digital and returning nothing, I regret that I have never found a way to give back, nor even tried. But you have been generous in the utmost.

Even so, I move to abandon my dependence on you. I’ve allowed myself to fear you and therefore to hate you, even if just a little bit. But how can I do this? I can look down at the depth of my belly button. I can try on my old clothes. I can try to hide beneath my children’s beds and notice whether my belly scrapes against the rail. I can gauge my profile in the mirror. I can count the notches remaining on my belt. In short, I don’t want to need you and I don’t need to need you.

I hope you won’t take it personally that I would consider it a dire failure if I make my way back to you in the future. There is no malice in this pronouncement. I must love myself more than I fear you. You must understand that. As I have entered and exited Certain Ranges Of Ten, I have learned a great many things, and I have all the knowledge and, hopefully, willpower required to untie myself from you. My dear cousin Stephanie, who I know holds your highest esteem, has been speaking much of late regarding one of your nemeses, “Paleo.” I have tried this Paleo for a week of lunches and found it to be completely viable as long as there is enough oil in the food. So, with a can of cashews and a cellophane bag of vegetables, I bid you a farewell I hope with all my strength is permanent. If you see me again, it will be in the gym. I’ve seen you waiting there. Don’t be waiting for me.

No Longer Yours.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How I would build a solar forge using an enormous Fresnel lens

The Short Version:
You can carve a fresnel lens pattern into a piece of plexiglass with a pattern-scraping, radial cutting arm you build yourself.

The Long Version:
A fresnel lens is a lens that has been cut down to size. If you take a full-size, spherical lens and chop it into concentric circles, then cut the cylindrical portion of every piece off, you'd still have almost the same magnification power of the full-size lens from only a fraction of the material, be it glass, plastic, or crystal. That is a Fresnel lens. Pretty clever stuff. Like this:

A Fresnel lens of about one square meter has been demonstrated on other blogs to generate about 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. That's not enough to do much steelsmithing, but it's a start. If I had one that was four square meters, that would really be something.

And it could be done cheap. With...

Five pieces of lumber
Four sheets of plexiglass (one square meter each)
Three bowsaw blades (totalling about 1.4 one meters in length; two may suffice)
Two strong cross-braces
And a brass dowel just for pretty. (1/4" is good)

Okay, there are a couple more things, but nothing else to buy assuming you have a flat work surface, tools, etc.

Using these, I could make a Fresnel lens for a huge solar forge.

Here's what you do: Draw an arc on a large sheet of graph paper with a radius of about two meters or whatever you want the focal length of the lens to be (For reasons I won't explain, the minimum distance, or focal length, from your lens to your work is the square root of three times the radius of your lens, so about 1.7m for me, but I'm doing 2 for smiplicity). You don't need to draw a whole circle, just the first 45 degrees or so. The graph below uses the first 1.4 horizontal meters.

Then, you'll cut that paper into strips. Your strips will each have a little segment of the arc on them. Each strip's arc segment must be of equal height--a height less than the thickness of your plexiglass. I'll be using 1/4" plexiglass, so my arc heights will likely be 3/16" tall. (I may have to adjust that after producing the first prototype, provided I ever get around to making this.)

They'll make a toothy pattern like this...

...but with a lot more teeth. Scores of them. This series of arcs (plus the vertical lines that connect them) is a tooth pattern you will carve into the backs of the sawblades, which you will use to scrape a fresnel pattern into your plexiglass sheets. Take utmost care that the tops of the red arc segments line up perfectly. The power of this lens is dependent on your accurate of reproduction of this arc tooth pattern.

You turn this pattern into a circular inscription on your plexiglass by scraping it in with metal scrapers you make out of the sawblades. Clear-tape that tooth-pattern template onto your sawblades--however many sawblades it takes to equal the length of the pattern. Use something that can cut steel, like a triangle file (hard way) or a dremel (easy way), to cut your jagged line into the toothless back of the sawblades. (You could use the toothy side of the blades, but you'd have to cut off all the teeth first and then file the blade edge flat!) You will also need to cut the ends off of the sawblades shere they mount to a saw. Choose a spot where they don't interrupt your arc pattern and make sure they're flush, butting up against each other. Now you have a line of two or three scrapers that will cut your plexiglass into three, quarter-circle Fresnel lenses. Next, you'll mount them on a beam we will call a "scraper arm."

One of your five pieces of lumber should be a very strong piece of hardwood if you can afford it, but don't break the bank. This piece must be a few inches longer than the sawblades combined. Flatten one of the long, narrow edges of this piece of lumber as perfectly as you can. I reccomend using a jointer, but whatever floats your boat. That flat edge will be the downward-facing edge of your scraper arm and will be nearest the plexiglass.

Mount the scrapers contiguously, centered in the middle of your piece of lumber, on one of the faces of the board adjacent to the flat edge, nice and tight, like this:

You definitely need to make sure the nadirs of the valleys between the teeth (which should all form a straight line) match up with the flat edge of the lumber.

And you can't have those scrapers wiggling or moving about or you'll spoil the whole thing! You can drill holes in them and screw them right onto the wood, but I would use some kind of bracket--you need to be sure they're straightly mounted or you will lose lens power, and (unless you're so clever with a countersink that you can line the hole up perfectly) that means you'll want to mount them with something that's very, very strong but still adjustable. Now your scraping arm is complete!

To mount the scraper arm properly in your plexiglass for scraping purposes, you'll need to drill a 1/4" hole in it near one of the corners. Make that hole equidistant (maybe 1") from each edge to save facepalming later, like this black dot:

(Those gray arcs represent the grooves you'll be scraping into the plexiglass with the scraper arm.)

Next, you need to place the 1/4" brass rod in the scraper arm at the inside end (the end nearer the center of the circle--the one with the wider teeth), pointing down so you can plunk it down into the hole in the plexiglass. In order to do this, you'll have to add a sufficient block of wood to the saw-blade-mounted face of the scraper arm. Otherwise you'd only get half a hole. Also, you'll have to cut 1/8" off the inside end of the blade so that the center of the brass rod is truly the center of the radius of your fresnel cutting pattern. Secrure the brass rod any way you like so that it won't wiggle out or fall through. You could use a bolt for the rod to begin with, I guess. Heck, it doesn't really have to be brass. Brass just looks awesome. Go ahead and use a bolt; that way, it will have a head on it and won't fall through. :-)

Then you mount the "brass rod" in that hole in one sheet of plexiglass and scrape away in a radial fashion. This may take hours, but elbow grease is free. Don't exert more cutting pressure in the center than you do at the radial end, but it's okay to exert more pressure at the radial end than at the center. Best is to apply even pressure, but that's how to err on the side of caution.

So you scrape and scrape until you have four plexiglass panels that have become quarter-circles forming a huge Fresnel lens. YAY! Then you use your other four pieces of wood and the two cross-braces to build a frame. Don't worry, the wood won't burn unless it's near the focus of the lens. So you can have the frame near or touching the lens without danger, and even obscuring part of it is fine--you'll only lose lens power proportional to the surface area of the lens covered. So if you need to make a framework that has a window-frame pattern, that's a-okay.

You'll need to polish this thing so it's bright and clear. You can either scrub with a cotton ball for six weeks or use a cotton buffing wheel and a power drill. Whatever floats your boat.

Now you have an enormous, silent engine of destruction that turns the sun into your own Hephaestean flame. Get it high enough off the ground, point it at the sun (Fresnel teeth facing the sun) and burn, baby burn! Note: it will oxidize steel more than a blacksmith's forge because no methane will be protecting your work.

This is a good way to go because once you have that scraper arm, you basically have a factory for building these beasts! It's also a scalable model. You could make a two-by-two-meter one like this, or a five-by-five with the same principles. You'll have to re-do the math yourself, though.

And you're more than welcome to buy a refocusing lens and turn that solar power into a light beam instead of letting it dissipate back into space. It's the next best thing to a laser, and actually much hotter. But I'll let you figure that one out yourself.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Testing the waves

Miodrag is a Serbian wave tester from "the lab." Perhaps I should have put wave tester in quotes as well, since that's his layman's term for whatever it is he does. He says he tests waves for consistency.

When he was explaining this, I asked, "like a reuben"?

He had never had a reuben, so I had to do some explaining of my own. I said, "When you eat a reuben sandwich, you don't want a mouthful of sauerkraut--you've got to have a consistent meat-to-cabbage ratio in every bite or it can be a frightfully unpleasant experience."

Miodrag said he's sure it must be something like that.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Haunted, Sort Of

Datesh says he's being haunted, but I'm not sure I buy it. You know how you give your friends the benefit of the doubt, you take their side, defend them. But there comes a point when you wonder: Am I being taken advantage of? (And is that even good English?)

The thing is, this haunting isn't like the hauntings you'd hear about in European-influenced literature or stories from your superstitious Anglo-Saxon grandmother. This is an Indian-style haunting that has temporal alteration or something. It's hard to explain. Datesh says when he's haunted, he can see the ghost but others can't, but also, others can't see him interacting with the ghost. And the strangest thing is, this isn't an Indian spirit, either. He's a Vietnamese named Nguyen. Who knows; maybe this is a Vietnamese-style haunting.

I'm sorry; I've interrupted the flow of the story with a not-yet-relevant point. Back to temporality: When Datesh interacts with the ghost, it appears to take no time. Nguyen isn't always around, but when he is, Datesh can talk to him, but I never see Datesh say a word. I'll say something like, "So, Datesh, can you ask Nguyen how long ago he died?" Datesh answers immediately, "He says he doesn't know." Datesh has explained that in between the time I ask him and he responds--literally a period of one second--he has asked Nguyen and received a response. It seems that any amount of time could elapse Nguyen-time, but it doesn't cause real time to progress at all.

So, I'm wondering how I can test this, or if I even should. I don't really doubt that Datesh is being haunted. I have no motivation to question this as long as he doesn't ask me any strange favors based on his condition.

I'm also wondering whether there's any way Datesh or I could exploit this opportunity. If there were a great store of knowledge Datesh and I could gain outside of real time, I'd say that's an incredible opportunity. But Nguyen doesn't seem to remember anything. It's kind of a drag. If Nguyen had some great, verifiable insight into the Vietnam War or some patent ideas or something we could use... He doesn't know how long he lived or even where. Based on European theories of haunting, Nguyen must have died nearby, but he appears (according to Datesh) to be in his prime. So we're concerned that either Nguyen didn't live long, or he's trying to resolve something that happened when he was in his prime, or that perhaps we're just making foolish assumptions based on our Euro-American notions of spirit behavior.

So without any latent benefits to Datesh's condition (I can't classify it as a predicament however much I want to because it really doesn't seem to bother Datesh; in fact, he finds it hilarious and intriguing) I also have no motivation to believe Datesh beyond humoring him. But I do believe him beyond humoring... just not as far as real confidence. I tried to find a word for that, but I couldn't.

I think I need to ask what Datesh sees when he's interacting with Nguyen. Am I frozen in time? Do I fade out of the picture? Do I behave the way Datesh would imagine I'd behave if I were conscious of Nguyen's response? That last one would be the most confusing from Datesh's perspective, I would imagine. It would be like waking up from a dream several times a day.

One last thing: Nguyen appears to Datesh in all his dreams, which (as we all know) also seem to exist outside of real time. It's good that he's not a frightening specter. Well, not beyond the fact that he is a specter.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cowbird Tail

I was speaking to a congressman from a neighboring state after he visited the office next to mine for some title-related business in a real estate sale. We were talking on the patio at my 9am break about a few of the bird species native to both our states when he pointed to one bird and said, "You see that one? That's a brown-faced cowbird. The guy next to him is following me."

"How can you tell it's a male?" I asked, expecting a Groucho Marx-like response.
The representative caught my joke invitation and responded with only a smirk.

"Everyone has a spy, a tail. It's Washington."

It wasn't Washington, but I got the picture. I also got the impression he didn't want me to ask why he was being followed. I ran the scenarios in my head: if he's being followed for a legitimate reason, he certainly wouldn't want me to know about it; if he's being followed for an illegitimate reason, he wouldn't have much, if anything, to tell me. There's always the off chance that he would give me a response like "they think I'm..." but the expression on his face was not especially encouraging.