January 2013


A couple of days ago I read this web comic on the Internet. In the comic (for those of you who opted to not click the link), a kid blows a bubble in the freezing cold Saskatchewan winter, it freezes, falls to the ground and shatters.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I reasoned that freezing would not alter its mass or volume, so it shouldn’t fall to the ground and shatter. But if it were cold enough, it would have to freeze, right? Or maybe the warm air inside it (from the inflation process) would cause it to expand and burst?

Luckily, it was cold enough today to consider some experimentation (it was about 1 degree F outside). I found a two gallon jug of bubbles under the kitchen sink and hauled it out. I bet the kids didn’t even know those were there.

To avoid the hot lung-sourced air, I decided to try waving the wand first. I couldn’t make any bubbles that way. I don’t know if it was because of the cold or not. David wanted to give it a try, and he reasoned that if he inhaled a lot of cold air and blew it out before it warmed up too much, maybe that would work. And it kind of did. He blew several bubbles. Some floated across the yard and into the woods. I didn’t chase after them, but I never saw any fall out of the air and shatter. He got too cold and came back in. Then I went out and gave it a whirl.

On my first attempt, I dipped the wand in the solution, pulled it out, inhaled deeply, and then blew into an ice-coated bubble wand. I dipped it in again and gave it another go. I blew several bubbles, but the wind was blowing, and they all escaped.

Then the wind died. I blew several more. The first one I tried to catch with the wand popped immediately, but I kept trying. Then I caught one. I tried to set the wand down on top of the bubble jug, but as soon as I did, the bubble popped. I tried again, eventually catching another. I set it down, dashed in the house, and grabbed the camera.

Frozen Bubble

Frozen Bubble


By the time I got back outside, the bubble had frozen. I touched it to see if it was like glass. Nothing seemed to happen. It didn’t pop. I touched it again. When I pulled back, I saw that my finger had melted a hole in the side of the bubble.
Holy frozen bubble, Batman!

Holy frozen bubble, Batman!


If you look closely, you can see the hole.

That is, in every sense of the word, a very cool bubble.

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A couple of years ago I found myself thinking about Sting, the sword Bilbo Baggins acquired in the Hobbit and bequeathed to his nephew Frodo. As anyone who had watched the movies (or read the books) knows, the important feature of this sword was that it would glow blue when orcs were around. Some say it worked by Elvish Magic. Arthur C Clark said,

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

From this we can conclude that it was not Elvish Magic, but rather, Elvish Technology. In this day and age, we should be able to figure out just exactly how that would have worked. Orcs must have all carried cell phones, and Sting was able to detect their signals. Ever since I came to this conclusion, I have wanted to build a cell phone detecting Sting. This week I got a little closer to that goal.

With the release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit on film, a plethora of movie-related products were foisted upon the marketplace, including a plastic replica of sting which would glow blue when you pressed a button. Pretty useless for detecting orcs, but the basics were there. I looked into buying a cell phone detector, but that did three things: a) it showed me that such devices do indeed exist on the consumer market; b) such devices are not very cheap; and c) if you search for one of them on Amazon, Amazon will think you are interested in looking for ghosts. Apparently either ghosts emit some sort of electrical field similar to a cell phone’s beacon, or ghosts carry cell phones. Or there are a lot of crackpots out there. I deleted the cell phone detector from my search history and turned to plan B.

Orcs like their Internets wireless.

Wifi detectors are a lot cheaper than cell phone detectors. I found a wifi-detecting keychain for something like $5.00. That’s more in my price range. I bought one, as well as a Sting replica.

Elvish Technology

Sting and a wifi-detecting keychain.

The next step was to take them apart without destroying them. The keychain was easy. It just snapped apart. It is a well-built piece of gear too. It was impressive, especially considering how little it cost.

Orc detector innards

Orc detector innards

Sting was a more difficult nut to crack. It took me almost an hour of prying and peering into it to discover that I had to drill out part of the handle that covered the screws. I took this photo before drilling out the last screw cover.

Chinese Technology

Un-drilled screw hole is on the right side of the hilt next to the drill.

Once I got that apart, I was able to probe the switch in the handle and determine that the grey and green wires are connected when the button is pressed. I also figured out which two leads of the switch in the wifi detector connect when its button is pressed. All I had to do was connect Sting’s switch in parallel with the orc-detector’s switch.

I also was delighted to learn that both devices operated on 3 volts. Sting used a pair of AA batteries in series (3V), and the orc-detector used a pair of button cells in parallel (also 3V). All I had to do was connect Sting’s battery leads to the orc detector.

The only electronic part of this project that was left was to connect the two LEDs in Sting’s blade to the LEDs on the orc detector. There was a small snag there. Sting’s two LEDs had a common cathode, while the orc detector LED’s all had common anodes. The easy solution was to remove the LEDs and install them backwards. Then I connected them to the orc-detector.

I also used some hot melt glue to affix the orc detector into the sword handle, and another spot of hot melt to hold the wires in place and prevent them from stressing the solder joints.

Wired up and ready to detect wifi-bearing orcs.

Wired up and ready to detect wifi-bearing orcs.

Then I snapped the handle back together, and noted with some dismay that doing so caused the sword to continually detect wifi-bearing orcs. I took it apart and found a little plastic nubbin in the sword handle that was pressing the wifi-detector’s built-in button. I shaved that nubbin into oblivion, snapped the whole thing back together, and voila!

Wifi-connected orcs must be near!

Wifi-connected orcs must be near!

Let’s hunt some orc.

Yesterday morning I noticed that our water was a lot hotter than it normally is. I really like to take long, hot showers, so I popped in and indulged myself. I could take them all the time, but I don’t want to waste the energy keeping our water that hot, so I keep it turned it down to something more reasonable. I made a mental note to look into this extra-hot water though.

Today I noticed that the water was hardly hot at all. I went down to the basement and opened up the water heater (don’t ever call it a “hot” water heater in front of my Dad – that’s one of his pet peeves). I took a photo of the upper thermostat so I could read the number on it.

Water heater thermostat.

Water heater thermostat.


I also pressed that red button (it’s a circuit breaker), and it went “click!” so I knew that it had experienced some over-current. I figured I should replace the heating elements too, because there’s nothing else in the circuit other than heating elements and a thermostat.

After two trips to Tilton to Bryant & Lawrence Hardware (one of my favorite stores anywhere), I had the parts I needed (a lower thermostat and a heating element). To make a long story shorter… we now have “normal” hot water again.

On to another topic.

Last week Va asked me what we should do with a couple of left-over packages of candy canes. I hate to throw that kind of thing out, even though they are very inexpensive. So I told her I would find a use for them. My first stab was to Google “leftover candy canes,” which garners 130,000 hits. I didn’t read them all, but I read enough of them to know I wasn’t going to try any of those things. Valentine hearts with candy canes? Really?

David pointed out that getting 130,000 hits on that phrase was an indictment of candy canes. Outside of the Christmas season, they are just not very popular, and there’s a reason for that. They are more for decoration than for eating.
You never hear people ask what they should do with leftover “good” candy, like Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups. That’s because there’s never any of that left over.

I came up with my own idea for the candy canes. I got all my blackberries out of the freezer to try a new invention – Blackberry Candy Cane Jam. Hopefully this will go better than the chocolate soup experiment. Candy canes are little more than sugar and flavoring. You already need sugar to make jam, and I thought peppermint might make an interesting addition to the blackberry flavor.

But there was also an important thing I wanted to subtract – blackberry seeds! I had read you could use a jelly bag to filter them out, but I don’t have one of those, and I have never used one or even seen one being used. But I figured… how hard could that be? Famous last words.

Novice at work

Novice at work


I squished the blackberries through my chinois, and then bundled them into a piece of cloth, twisted the top together, and then began squeezing the juice through the cloth. It didn’t want to come out, so I upped the pressure. That’s when the pressure in the improvised jelly bag exceeded the pressure asserted by my grip on the top of the bag. A nice little spout opened up, and you can see the results.

And just so you know, blackberries do stain painted drywall.

Sigh. I cleaned that off the wall as best I could and continued my efforts. I finally got 90% of the seeds (and probably 50% of the juice and pulp) removed. Then I broke up the candy canes, added some sugar & pectin, and boiled it for… I don’t know how long. It was long enough to dissolve the candy canes.

Don't look at the trivet!

Don’t look at the trivet!


Just try to remember that I don’t really know what I’m doing. They say to boil jam until it runs off the spoon “in sheets”. I don’t think I ever got it to that stage, even after an hour of boiling. Maybe I needed more sugar. Maybe I should have measured the blackberries and the sugar (I think you need equal amounts). But it looked like it was getting close to “sheets” so I called it good enough and poured it into some jars. I got two and a half pints. I cleaned my big pot (to some extent) with a slice of bread. I can say that it tasted pretty interesting, and not at all bad.

And now I have a big mess to clean up. Turns out bread doesn’t do a great job on a big jam-covered pot.

Sorry I haven’t posted anything here in a while. I just checked and saw that I hadn’t written anything since I went for a hike on New Year’s Day. Time flies by when you’re having fun!

I’ve spent a lot of my time this week working on one of the cedar strip canoes I bought on behalf of the Pathfinder Club back in August. This one will be named “Miss Nancy” after Nancy Nichols, a much-loved member of our church who died a couple of years ago. The other three will be named “Miss Emma” (after Emma Haggett), “Miss Sally” (after Sally Machia), and “Miss Margaret” after Margaret Meyers. All of these women are deceased members of our church, and all were connected with the Pathfinder Club to some extent or another. I like having them named this way.

Anyhow, here’s what I found when I stripped the glass off Miss Nancy’s stem:

Miss Nancy's Stem

Miss Nancy’s Stem


She was a mess! I wiggled the stem to see how sound it was, and snapped off a six inch section. I will have to fashion a new one. It might be tricky getting it installed, as that normally happens before the planking goes on (the planks are attached to the stem). But I think I can manage. I’m going to try to heat it up to get the rotted stem out. I’ve already traced the shape onto a piece of cardboard which I will transfer to a piece of particle board. The new stem will be formed around that. Then I’ll have to add a rolling bevel. I’m going to also make an outstem while I’m at it, so this canoe will have a proper and complete stem!

Shaving the hull.

Doesn’t that look so much better?

Once the glass was off, I still had lots and lots of epoxy on the hull. I’ve been working on getting that off too. If it were just a light layer of epoxy, I’d leave it alone, but it’s a quarter inch thick in places! So off it comes. My preferred tool for that is a spokeshave, and that will be followed by a random orbit sander. Unfortunately, the velcro on my sander’s foot pad has lost its grab, so a disc stays on for about a minute. I have ordered a replacement part.

The problem I had with using the spokeshave is that this canoe is unsupported. Thus, when I apply pressure to the spokeshave, the canoe gives, so I can’t really press the blade into the wood without just pushing the wood out of the way. Normally when smoothing (or fairing) the hull, the canoe is still on the form so it doesn’t do this. But I don’t have a form for this one. But I do have my own canoe, and since Miss Nancy has her seats, gunwales, thwarts, and decks removed, she fits nicely inside mine. So I lowered mine from my garage ceiling and found that it made a pretty decent mold. By doing this I was able to spokeshave off a lot of epoxy (and smooth the planks so they are no longer offset from one another).

I have to be careful in doing this, because a spokeshave is a lot like a hand plane, and a sharp, well-tuned hand plane is my favorite tool. When I built my canoe I enjoyed the planing a little too much, doing so with what Alan Greenspan at the time would have called “irrational exuberance”. The net effect was that I reduced the thickness of the hull to zero in one spot. I ended up replacing that plank, but the lesson was learned – don’t overdo it on the planing!

I got my car back from the shop on Monday. It’s nice to have it back, but somebody put a canoe in its parking place! Since I’m waiting for a part for my sander, I decided to just hoist Miss Nancy and my own canoe up to my canoe’s regular parking spot.

My canoe embraces Miss Nancy

My canoe embraces Miss Nancy

Now I won’t have to scrape the frost on my windshield in the morning. Speaking of which, at least until my employment situation changes, I will be teaching computers (and programming) to the grade 6-8 students at our school starting tomorrow. This is a volunteer position.

I guess I need to prepare a lesson!

Today I took Penny for a walk in the snow. It was (barely) deep enough to justify snowshoes, so I brought those along too. I didn’t put them on right away, as it’s not a great idea to wear them on a plowed road, and I had plenty of that between me and my destination. We first turned into the ex-forest.

Penny found a stick for me to throw

Penny found a stick for me to throw


We crossed that parcel of land and then walked towards Sandogardy Pond, though I didn’t actually go to the pond itself. Instead, we took the trail to the railroad tracks.
Snowshoe Alley

Snowshoe Alley


These tracks are used by trains during the warmer months, and by snowmobiles during the colder months. They are open to snowshoeing during the winter too. We walked south along the tracks and continued until we reached what was once a train depot.
Northfield Station

Northfield Station


About once per month when we drive by this old train station, I trick Beth into letting me tell her that this house used to be a train station. Usually I say something like, “Oh yeah! I forgot to tell you something important.” She’ll usually (but not always) take the bait, saying “What?” That’s when I spring it on her. “This house used to be a train station!” It elicits deep groans every time. When I got back from my hike today she asked me if I’d play Uno with her, and I took the opportunity to do this again. I had my laptop on my lap after just having downloaded the day’s photo haul. The photo above was on the screen. I said, “OK, but first I need to show you something on the computer.” She came and sat down beside me and I sprung the dreadful phrase once again. “This house used to be a train station.” “DADDY!” Ha ha. Then we played Uno for half an hour or so. But back to the hike.

Near the train station is a nice red barn with a nice red house (or is that the other way around?) I think that if the house didn’t have a barn, it would not be painted red, so I like to think of the barn having the house.

Red barn and its house

Red barn and its house

That was about as far from home as my hike led me today. I headed back home down the road so I could pass the Union Church.

Northfield Union Church

Northfield Union Church


Like the train station, it looks best in snowy weather. I took the snowshoes off again as we were once again hiking along the road. We took a shortcut on a short unplowed section of road when I notice our shadows.
Self portrait

Self portrait


I couldn’t capture exactly what I saw though, as I needed to hold my snowshoes over me shoulder using the same hand with which I held Penny’s leash, so my right hand could work the shutter button. But it’s not far off. I tried to tuck my camera arm in so it wouldn’t look like I was taking my picture, even though the leash leads the eye right to the camera operator.

That was a good walk. The thing I like best about snowshoeing with Penny is that she has to work a lot harder than I do to make progress. This tires her out more than it tires me out, and that is something she very much needs.

Maybe there will be more of this in the near future.