Monkeys, cucumbers, habaneros, and me.

There’s this experiment:

In this experiment:

  1. Monkey#1 completes a task, gets a cucumber slice.
  2. Monkey#2 completes a task, gets a sweet sweet GRAPE!  Importantly, Monkey#1 SEES this deal with Monkey#2 and the grape.
  3. Now Monkey#1 completes the task again, and gets a dull old cucumber slice again — NOT a tasty grape!  Aaaaand to no one’s surprise, Monkey#1 now HURLS the cucumber slice back at the experimenter.

One can say a lot about this experiment, and how this monkey business is paralleled in human nature, etc., and a lot of people are saying a lot of things here and there.  Whatever.

For me, there’s a personal lesson here, and it goes something like this: the path to happiness lies in enjoying the slice of cool fresh cucumber that I’ve got right here.  Fixating on what other people have that I do not, instead of focusing on the small happinesses right in front of me makes me an awfully dumb monkey.

Other people have more money, more prestige, more friends, more patents, more love, more chocolate, more LEDs, more time with their kids, more travel stamps in their passport, more habaneros in their garden.  If I fixate on that, all it does is sour my feelings for the good and marvelous things that I do have.  I’ve harvested a whopping six tiny little  habanero peppers from my plant this year, and I’m so proud of them you wouldn’t believe it.

Thinking further: I’m doubly dumb if I do what the first monkey did: throw away the cucumber that I have just because I didn’t get a grape!   If my neighbor harvests nine habaneros from her pepper plant, should I bitterly throw away the six I got from mine?  How does that make my life better in any way at all?  (Hint: It doesn’t.)  Can you imagine: you just won $1,000.  But then when you find out that your neighbor won $2,000, you turn around and tear up your $1,000 check. That’s of absolutely no benefit to you, no matter how envious you might feel of the extra money.

Now it is true that if I see my neighbor’s chili plant producing more than mine, I might ask her for tips, or I might wonder if she’s using the same sun that I’m using, or I might solemnly vow to treat my pepper plant better next season.  So there can be some good motivational value in seeing what I could do better next time.  But cursing out my neighbor for her success, or throwing out my own six perfectly awesome little chili peppers?  That’s behavior befitting a creature with a brain the size of a peach pit, a dumb little monkey.  But me?  I can do better. I bet you can do better, too. We all can.  We’re not mere monkeys.  We’re awesome people.

For the record, my garden this year has not only produced six habaneros, but also exactly one (1) cucumber, and I plan to enjoy that one little cucumber like crazy.

Update: the garden also produced one awesome tiny watermelon.


Travel Tips for Venturing OUT of Black Rock City

So! You’ve decided to take a trip away from Black Rock City!  Here are some tips to keep in mind when traveling away from Home:

Clothing: Make sure to bring enough clothes so that everyone in your group can have some. Among other things, will save you all time later since you won’t have to keep switching.

Stormy Bedroom Eyes

Travel:  A note of caution here! Some vehicles that appear to have extra room for more people may not be giving rides!  We’re not sure exactly why this is, but we’ve had several reports of this.  Always ask for explicit permission before getting into someone else’s vehicle — a friendly “Hi!” and a wave as you climb in may not be enough!  Use your judgement.  Also note that some vehicles may travel faster than 5 M.P.H.

Make sure you are at Burning Man...

Money: Do you remember when you were a child, collecting bits of money here and there, slowly saving up for that one thing you really wanted? Well, money here works the same way, except that you may have to break open your piggy bank a little bit more often.  If it helps, think of every shop, store, restaurant, gas station, bar, and mall that you see as if they were “Arctica”, and what they’re all selling is basically just ice: cool, and maybe useful, but ultimately fleeting and ephemeral. ‘Nuff said.

be 100% happy or receive 100% money back.*

Fire: Make sure to establish a safe perimeter around any burn events that you create.  This goes double for large-scale burns; many people you meet may be new to this form of expression and will greatly benefit from your love and guidance as they participate in the burning of any large-scale structures.  Also, you might want to ask permission from the structure’s owner beforehand, if you can find them easily.

And finally... The Man burns... and we are done.

Bacon: BACON IS EXACTLY THE SAME EVERYWHERE, THANK $%!*&@# GOD.

Returning Home After Your Trip: After you’ve had an exciting jaunt out and about, it’s always good to come back Home, to be with your family and your loved ones.  Have a wonderful trip, and we’ll see you when you get Home again.

Mighty Trojan Warriors!

Yours in flame-
-Mark


Boost your air conditioner’s cooling power by blocking “heat leaks”

A basic “5,000 BTU” air conditioner can pump about 1,500 Watts of heat out of a room every hour.  To get more bang for your A/C buck, find the big ‘heat leaks’ in your room — and block them.

Your air conditioner is a pump, and what it pumps is an invisible liquid called ‘heat’.  (OK, not really, but this is a useful way to think about it.)  Your A/C unit scoops up the ‘heat liquid’ from inside the room, pumps it out through the window, and dumps it outside.  As the ‘heat liquid’ is slowly drained out of your room, the room gets cooler, you get happier, and civilized indoor life can continue.

To boost the cooling power of your A/C unit, find out what’s letting heat leak into your room, and you block the leaks.  If your room is constantly filling up with ‘heat liquid’, the pump (A/C) spends a lot more energy just keeping up with the leaks, and less energy dropping the temperature for you.  Luckily, there are (at least!) three easy things you can do:

  1. Block the daytime sunlight.  Sun flooding in through the windows also brings a flood of heat into the room.  Close the blinds, pull the drapes.  Congratulations, you’ve just closed a big, gaping hole that was pouring heat in to the room.
  2. Turn off every light you can — and replace others with LED or CFL bulbs.  If you’re running three 60-Watt lightbulbs in the same room as a basic 5,000 BTU window A/C unit, you’re using 12% of your A/C’s cooling power just to pump out the heat that the lightbulbs are bringing in! Turn off the ones you don’t need, and replace the others with modern high-efficiency LED or CFL bulbs.  Good job: you’ve just blocked another source of heat sneaking in.
  3. Unplug those electronic gizmos — or at least move the chargers to another room. Nearly everything plugged into a wall socket is leaking heat into your room.  Put your hand on each ‘wall wart’ transformer, and if any of them feel warm, you’ve found another leak through which heat is sneaking into your room!  When you unplug the gizmo, you plug another heat leak.

It’s common to find 20% or more of an A/C unit’s cooling power being used up needlessly, pumping out heat that you can easily block before it gets in.  Block that heat before it gets in, and presto: 20% boost in A/C cooling power.

 


“Five Elements” light sculpture

After months of work, “Five Elements”, my first full light sculpture debuted this weekend at a private event.  This quick video shows a short clip of each ‘element’; the actual five-element cycle is 12 minutes long, repeating each of the five elements five times each hour.  As with any “version 1.0”, I have a dozen ways I’d like to polish and keep improving it, but I’m happy with it as is, too.

It’s illuminated by 150 RGB LEDs and controlled by an Arduino Uno using the FastSPI_LED library and my own custom code.
The installation at the debut event used a very different diffuser which made the LEDs more visible.  While both were good, I think I prefer this diffuser overall.


Small Scale Solar power presentation

I gave a “learning lunch” presentation on Small Scale Solar power today.  We had a great audience, got great questions, and had fun doing it — despite the definite lack of sunshine to play with today.

The Short Version is this:

  1. Hook a solar panel to a charge controller to a battery.  (There are starter kits with everything.)
  2. Presto: 12 Volt DC power!
  3. Use your newfound power as-is, or step down to 5v USB, or up to 120VAC using an inverter.

60 Watts of solar panels

The slides don’t tell the whole story by themselves; that requires my own personal song and dance routine.  Nevertheless, here they are, with “lite” graphics for fast download: PDF.


Ice cream no longer requires adult supervision

On the sunny afternoon of Sunday, April 29, 2012, Eleanor, Abby, and a friend, all age 9, walked half a mile to The Chilly Cow for ice cream, and then back again (with a stop at the library, of course) without adult supervision or accompaniment. Total round-trip time was slightly more than an hour, well under the contractually pre-negotiated 90 minutes.

The adventurers’ parents spent the intervening time in various degrees of distraction, ranging from mindful confidence to … less meditative states.  Overall the experience was deemed a great success all around, and at least two of the parents in question got a little choked up for a moment over the “our kids are growing up” factor.

The trip itself was a little less than a half-mile each way, as the crow walks. If you’re a grownup, or driving, or both, you might think of this particular half-mile trip something sort of like this:

Chilly Cow by car

But if you’re walking, it’s more like this (please do click the image to get the full experience) :

Chill Cow on foot

But actually, I think that if you’re 9 years old, and you’re doing this by yourself for the very first time ever, it has nothing to do with time, or space, or distance, or any kind of map at all.  It’s just pure, undiluted awesome.  And that is exactly how it was reported afterwards.


Rejuvenating solar garden lights — with nail polish!

Solar LED garden lights are everywhere these days, and by ‘everywhere’ I mean ‘in our yard.’  We’ve had some for a few years now, and simply through exposure to the elements, the plastic that covers the solar cells becomes so opaque that only a small amount of light gets to them any more.  With the solar cells deprived of even that meager light that we get in Massachusetts in the winter, the solar cells don’t recharge the battery, the battery doesn’t power the LED, the LED doesn’t light up, and our yard has a serious bling deficiency.  Eleanor and I took our solar garden lights inside to see if we could make them bright again somehow.

My first thought when confronting the frosted-over plastic was to try to ‘polish’ it with a fine-grit sandpaper.  I had 400-grit handy and tried it on one cell, the bottom one in this picture.  The top shows how weathered the cells were to start.

Solar garden lights, all 'frosted' over

The sanding helped a little.  Then I rinsed the sanded plastic dust off with water in the sink, and while it was wet it looked great, but as it dried it became frosted and opaque again.  Thinking that perhaps we could use a mild plastic solvent to ‘polish’ the rough surface, I dabbed the solar cells with acetone, but again, as soon as it dried, the surface went from clear to cloudy again.  “We need some way to keep it ‘looking wet’ even when it’s dry,” I mused.  Eleanor got a wide-eyed LIGHTBULB! look in her eyes, and grabbed a bottle of clear nail polish!  She applied a few test swatches.

Nail polish on solar cells?

The nail polish made the weathered old solar cells crystal clear again!  I held the lights while Eleanor applied an even coat of nail polish to all the solar cells.  It really didn’t matter whether the cells had been sanded or not, so we didn’t bother.

Using nail polish to rejuvinate solar cells

A few minutes later, the polish was dry, and we planted the lights outside again.  You can see how completely clear the solar cells are.  Our only concern was that the nail polish might block the UV light that provides a good portion of the solar energy to the cells.

Rejuvinated solar cells soaking up sunlight

We waited for twilight to fall, and when we checked the lights: success!

Fully-recharged solar light glowing brightly!

Even though it was mid-February the solar cells were now getting enough light to make the LEDs glow brightly!  The solar cell rejuvenation project was a total success, and once we figured out how to make the cells ‘clear’ again, it was a quick and easy.

So what did we learn? We learned that ‘frosted’ plastic reflects precious light away from the solar cells; clean, clear solar cells can capture much more light.  Clear nail polish is perfect for rejuvenating plastic-covered solar cells that have become weathered and dull. Some of the solar garden lights they sell have glass covers, and we speculated that they probably (1) are much more resistant to weathering, and (2) probably should be ‘cleaned’ differently from the plastic ones.  Sometimes you need to try one thing to find out what you need to try next.  Sometimes restating the problem out loud to someone else can give them new ideas.  During the dim, dark Massachusetts winter, having bright, cheery little lights in the yard is great.


Remixed cookie cutters

This past weekend E and I went out to the Berkshires to visit some longtime friends.  Since St. Patrick’s Day fell on Saturday, E suggested that we all make St. Patrick’s Day cookies, and decorate them.

While the dough was being assembled, we started looking through the house cookie cutter collection for  shamrocks or four-leaf clovers, but no luck.  There were all kinds of other shapes, though, and twenty minutes and a pair of needle-nose pliers later, I had remixed one small cookie cutter into a shamrock, and one large cookie cutter into a four-leaf clover.

When the dough was ready, I cut a test cookie

Looking good (enough!), we baked and then decorated the cookies.  The shamrock was a little bit on the small side, but the four-leaf clover came out respectably well!

That totally worked!

So What Did We Learn? We learned that metal cookie cutters can remixed and remade into new shapes.  We learned that the best overall shape for a cookie is “blob”, and that “blob with minor details” is the second best shape.  Fine detail doesn’t work, and remember: you’re not making stamps that will be inked and pressed onto paper: spindly tendrils of design – skinny peninsulas- don’t work.  Filigree is right out.  If you’re going to make a new shape out of an old one, pick an old one with roughly the same length perimeter.  Small old cookie cutters make for (too) small new cookie shapes.  When you start with an old cookie cutter, bend it out into a flat circle first, then work into the desired target shape.  Cookies are dangerously tasty.

-Mark


Jerk Chicken, Sugar Reef Style++

This extremely tasty jerk chicken recipe comes from the awesome and sadly now-defunct Caribbean restaurant in New York City called Sugar Reef.  It appeared in the sadly now-out-of-print Sugar Reef Caribbean Cookbook. Despite all the sadness, this recipe still makes people very happy.

The original recipe called for half the quantities of dry spices (except salt) as these, and included the note to double them for a more authentic flavor. These quantities have already been doubled (except the salt), and it’s delicious and spicy.  If you wish, you can cut the dry ingredients (except salt) in half for a more mild flavor, but if you’re looking for a more mild flavor, then what the heck are you doing cooking jerk chicken?

I’d note that the heat of peppers can vary almost as much as peoples heat tolerances; carefully taste-test your peppers and adjust the quantity accordingly.

Dry Ingredients

  • 2T ground allspice
  • 2T ground thyme
  • 3t cayenne pepper
  • 3t ground black pepper
  • 3t ground sage
  • 1.5t ground nutmeg
  • 1.5t ground cinnamon
  • 2T salt
  • 4T garlic powder
  • 2T sugar

Liquid Ingredients

  • 0.25c olive oil
  • 0.25c soy sauce
  • 0.75c white vinegar
  • 0.5c orange juice
  • juice of one lime

Chunky Ingredients

  • 1c chopped white onion
  • 3 green onions, finely chopped
  • 1 scotch bonnet, habanero, or other very hot pepper, de-seeded and finely chopped.  I’ve used more when the peppers have been too tame for my taste, and on at least one occasion, it still wasn’t enough for me.  But maybe that’s my problem.

Chicken

  • 4 chicken breasts, trimmed; 6-to-8oz ea, or at least that’s what the recipe said in the cookbook, and that’s what they served in the restaurant.  I’ve used boneless chicken thighs and been at least as happy, if not happier, with them.

Directions

  • In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients.
  • With a wire whisk, add the liquids.
  • Add the chunky ingredients and mix well.
  • Add the chicken breasts, cover, and marinate for at least one hour, longer if possible.
  • Preheat outdoor grill.
  • Grill chicken breasts for 6 minutes each side or until fully cooked. While grilling, baste with marinade.

Alternatively, instead of grilling the breasts (or thighs) whole, you can cut the chicken into large chunks, and grill it on skewers, turning them every couple of minutes.

The original recipe ended with “Heat the leftover marinade and serve on the side for dipping,” and while I’m skeptical about serving goo that’s had raw chicken sitting in it, I think if you “heat” it all the way to a boil first, it’s probably fine.

They also say that this recipe “serves 4”, but I’ve found that if you make up the specified amount of jerk marinade, you can easily marinate twice as much chicken in it.  Put the marinade and the chicken in a heavy-duty zip-lock bag for efficient marinating.

Enjoy!

-Mark


Glowing bubbles?! Yes! …but no.

The other day I was in the store and my attention was caught by “Super Miracle Bubbles® GLOW FUSION™ Bubble Solution” — bubble soap that claimed that it made bubbles that glowed.  These were not bubbles that glowed-under-black-light (fluorescent), not bubbles that glowed-in-the-dark (phosphorescent), but actually bubbles that glowed-of-their-own-accord (chemiluminescent), or so the package claimed.  $3.99 later, I was the proud owner of a bottle of this magic elixir.

Later that night, well after dark, Rosa and I carefully followed the instructions, adding the two included packets of “activator A” and “activator B” to the bubble soap, and stirring (not shaking!) for a minute.  Lo and behold, the little bottle began to glow bright orange, like the innards of a glow stick!

Excited, we dipped the wand in the glowing solution, and blew some bubbles!  In the cold, dark, winter night, they looked like this:

…nothing.  Blackness.

We tried and tried, and sure enough, after a while from the right angle, for a fleeting second, you could see that the bubbles had a tiny glim of light.  But in practice, the drips of bubble solution that fell on the ground far outshone the bubbles themselves, and the full bottle itself was the brightest thing around.  There was no hope of getting enough light out of it to photograph them.

The directions (inside the package!) point all this out.  They tell you to cover the (clear) bottle with black tape or a black bag, and to let your eyes fully adjust to the dark to see the glowing bubbles.  Any other nearby light will drown out the few photons escaping from the bubbles themselves.  Also of note: the instructions repeat several times that these are for outdoor use only.

So, do they glow?  Technically, yes.  Practically, no.  You cannot get a good, satisfying, “glowing bubble” from this bubble solution.  On the other hand, it is pretty nifty to have a bottle of bubble solution that’s glowing in your hand while you’re blowing bubbles.  Fun?  Kinda.  Worth $3.99?  Not for regular use.  Worth trying once?  Yep, and I’m glad we did.

-Mark

Updated April 4, 2012: Here’s a video of some Occupy folks experimenting with adding the contents of a chemical glow stick to some bubble soap.  They got more or less the same results I did, but by a different route.  Clearly, we need some SUPER glow chemicals…