Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A tale of two cars

Here’s a picture of my odometer after I finished driving today:

I’ve owned my 1986 Nissan pick-up for something like 12 years and well over 100,000 miles. The mechanic who changes its oil says that the owners of this model usually get sick of them long before the trucks actually die. Mine runs fine with a minimum of fuss. OK, it’s really grotty, the grille is held on with zip ties, the exhaust system makes unnerving clunking noises because it’s held in place with a bent coathanger, the radio had to be replaced when it would only tune into a Spanish-language evangelical station, the windscreen has a couple of rock impacts, the belts squeal when it starts, the rear bumper is bent from when someone tried towing something that was too heavy, the screens in the topper were slashed by a bear in Yosemite, it goes really slow up hills, the door of the topper won’t stay open or lock, and earlier this week when I slammed the door shut the mirror on the driver side just fell off and shattered, reminding me of the last 10 seconds of this. But it runs great, gets 24 miles per gallon, and shows no sign of quitting.

The trip which took it over 200,000 miles was down to Burlingame and back. I was driving my brother home, having picked him up from Manteca, California, yesterday afternoon. He was stranded there when his car, a similarly aged Honda civic, experienced a catastrophic radiator/engine failure on a nice 110 degree summer day. He thinks it’s probably time to get a new car.

Monday, June 28, 2010


There’s a definite overlap between the worlds of molecular biology and lutherie, and that has to do with tools—and no, it’s not that a luthier’s knives are sharp enough to reliably cut DNA. One of the frustrations of molecular biology is the amount of time required for tool building. Your observations give you a brilliant idea, but testing that idea requires a few things—you’ll probably need to build a couple of new plasmids, which takes a few days of cutting and pasting DNA; the result must be verified, which takes a couple more days; you need to modify a few bacterial cells or cell lines, which can take days or weeks; you may need to get some new hardware for testing, or new enzymes, or learn new techniques, or borrow them from another lab—and so on. It all adds up, so that it seems as if you spend less time doing science than you do building the tools to do it. There were times at the violin-building workshop when I felt the same way, as an afternoon of tool-building gave me an hour of woodwork.

The experienced luthier has a selection of tools that he or she knows well—in many cases, the luthier made the tools, shaping them to specific tasks. The tools are kept sharp, and experience and practice have made the luthier adept at sharpening them. A beginning luthier faces a double frustration. My beginner’s toolkit is in a constant state of flux since everyone swears a different set of tools is perfect. Myself, I spend a lot of time trying to accomplish a specific task and cycling through this gouge and that plane until I get the right thing; clearly, some selection must happen. Worse, new tools are never usable “out of the box.” Planes must have their soles flattened, and their blades shaped and ground; a new block plane took me an entire day to make ready for use. Gouges, which are bought with a straight edge, need to be rounded; if the tool is made of good hard steel, then this can take me most of a morning—and it will still require sharpening. And knives? We bought a bunch—but there’s a problem.

The frugal luthier doesn’t buy many knives. They may be made of dubious steel, and cost a lot, and have uncomfortable handles. I now know that the trick is to buy a Starrett “Red Stripe” brand power hacksaw blade for twenty bucks. (Before this class, I was serenely unaware of power hacksaws. They look like so:

And I can only imagine what a nightmare they are at work.) The blade is monstrous, almost two inches wide, a tenth of an inch thick, and twenty inches long. However, it is made through and through of top quality high-speed steel, as hard as you can get and capable of holding an edge for darn near ever. The big blade can be sliced up with a cutaway wheel into blanks for smaller blades—a noisy, time consuming process that produces so much iron dust that your snot turns black. Rather than cut all the way through, which takes the patience of Job, you cut halfway and then break the steel, which is hard but brittle--occasionally, as happened here, one of the blanks you hoped for snaps in half.

The blanks can be roughly shaped on a belt sander or high speed wheel (huge thanks to Jim!), but it’s necessary to guard against overheating the steel. So, the finer shaping that gives you a finished blade must be done on a low-speed wheel. The same hardness that makes this steel so good for a blade makes it very hard to shape, so it took me an entire afternoon of the constant rrrr-rrrrr-rrrrr-rrrrr-rrrrr of the hand wheel to produce a couple of blades. This gives you a lot of time to think--about how much I'd rather do the “real” work of violin-building, about how much worse the process would be if I lived in 17th century Cremona, about how annoying the minimalist music I was making must be for everybody else in the room. Eventually, though, you get a blade:

I still have to make the handle--another afternoon of toolbuilding!

As with most things, practice makes better. I should spend a bunch of time just sharpening all the tools we’ve bought, and "scary sharp" should become routine rather than a happy accident. But, just like lab work, if you want the exact right tool, you have to make it yourself. So, I have another Starrett blade awaiting my attention.

Monday Musical non-offering

Unfortunately, no music this Monday. I barely practiced at all during the violin-building workshop, so my fingers and brain are empty. Hopefully back next week with some Dvorak.

Friday, June 25, 2010

World Cup Fever

I like soccer better than American football, but I also like 3-day-old oatmeal better than American football. That said, I really like to say the word "vuvuzela," the official noisemaker of the world cup.

What's better than saying "vuvuzela"? Hearing starchy Germans say "vuvuzela."

What's better than Germans saying "vuvuzela"? The Germans playing Ravel's Bolero on the vuvuzela. I may actually cheer for the Germans if the Americans are eliminated.

Friday Flora

Clarkia painting the hillsides purple--The Grapevine on the way south out of the central valley and over Tejon Pass. It's hard to find a more appropriate flower than Farewell-to-Spring for the first week of summer and of summer session. This picture was taken about three weeks ago, heading down to the violin building workshop; on my way back, the flowers were all done.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why build violins (IV)

I’ll start with this. It’s timely, as the obit for the woman in the photo was published today, and there is a connection with building violins.

I don’t know Doc well enough to give you the whole story, but he seems like a guy who has put in some effort and had some luck. Life has rewarded him with enough happiness that he can share it with others. Doc’s a pretty good amateur violinist, and grew up around violins and violin makers. At a point in their careers where they could make such investments, Doc and his friend David Fulton purchased some fine violins. Doc ended up with a very good Stradivarius (the Leonore Jackson) and a Guraneri Del Gesu and a case full of great bows.

If you had a garage with a Rolls Royce and a Lamborghini in it, what would compel you to try to make your own car from scratch? There is no good reason. So, you’d have to have a bad reason. From eating fifty hard-boiled eggs to riding down a steep hill in a shopping cart, there is no worse reason to do anything than a dare (well, there’s one worse reason, but we’ll get to that). What I gather is that, basically, Doc’s violin-building friends challenged him to build a fiddle. So he did. It’s really good and he’s justifiably proud of it. He’s honest about how it was made: “Come to this workshop, do exactly every single thing that Michael Darnton tells you to do, and you will end up with this.” Now Doc is working on his second violin. He’s still learning how to do it, functioning somewhat more on his own and less as a strictly controlled automaton, and enjoying the heck out of it.

I mentioned that there is a worse reason than a dare to do something foolish, and that’s the reason P.T. is building a violin. P.T. is a slightly older friend of Doc’s. They live near each other, go on hikes together and such. Before he retired he worked as a teacher of visual arts in many media—wood, animation, you name it. He’s good with his hands. His buddy, Doc, was building a violin, so for the worst of reasons, peer pressure, P.T. began building a violin. Mind you, P.T. had never played violin and didn’t know much about violins, and it’s crazily difficult to build anything if you don’t have clear picture of what you’re aiming for. So, it has come along slowly with a few goofs along the way, but it’s very nearly done. Of course, P.T. is already thinking about the next one. (Come to think of it, between a peer pressure and a dare there’s not much difference—it’s really only whether or not you have company as you go jumping off the bridge.)

Why the epic Times Square VJ-Day smooch? P.T. was there, on leave from his hospital ship which was berthed in New York getting fitted to go out to the Pacific Theater and the invasion of Japan. As he told me (his voice reminds me of a slightly less exuberant Joe Carcione), “Dat coulda been me in that picture. It was crazy. So happy”

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Vaccinate, dammit!

So, now there's this cheerful news:

Whooping Cough Kills 5 in California; State Declares an Epidemic
(NY Times)

Given the demographics, it seems that the problem is a lack of "herd immunity." If a high enough percentage of people in a population are immunized, then it's very unlikely that one sick individual will meet a susceptible individual. This is how you getting your shots protects a newborn infant whose immune system is not yet sufficiently developed to get vaccine. However, given that we have a large migrant population that many voters are opposed to giving any health care, we've significantly increased the odds that any sick individual will meet susceptible, unvaccinated people, including infants.

Whooping Cough really should be extinct. There's a good vaccine (which needs to be retaken every decade--ask your doctor!), and if we could get it to everybody, Pertussis would follow smallpox into oblivion. But, like polio, we (as a species) seem to be unwilling to make the effort save ourselves. As long as these diseases are confined to the far-away or the poor, it's no big deal. However, it has become fashionable in some quarters to not vaccinate one's children (based largely on unsubstantiated fears of autism). When the toddler of some wealthy, trendy suburban family starts making noises like this, something might happen.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why no, there's no pressure on me about grades. None at all.

Presented without comment, but you can probably guess how I feel about it:

In Law Schools, Grades Go Up, Just Like That (NY Times, 21 June 2010).

The secret garden, or Who's zoomin' who?

"All that is very well," answered Candide, "but let us cultivate our garden."--Voltaire.

It’s probably pretty evident that I like my garden. I spend a fair amount of time on it; I enrich the soil with chicken poop and organics and adjust our cranky old watering system to favor the plants that I like. I spend a lot of time weeding and mulching to eradicate the plants I don’t like. I will even resort to biological and chemical warfare—iron phosphate, BT, copper strips and savage chickens—to discourage snails. All this is to make conditions just right for the relatively few species that I desire, which feed me and enrich my senses.

My plants think I am a sucker. I think I’m cultivating them so that I can use them. But they, to turn over a new leaf, think that they have got me very well trained to ensure the survival of their genomes. Really, since the meaning of life from a biological point of view is to make sure that your genes make it to the next generation, I am a thrall to my plants. However, just as I work to cultivate my plants, they work to cultivate me. They use sun, air, and their considerable chemical skill to make the sugars and flavones and pigments I crave. By doing this, they guarantee their survival instead of the triumph of the weeds. This isn’t really a new perspective—Michael Pollan wrote a book about it called “The Botany of Desire,” and the idea predates him by a long time. My garden reminds me that it’s possible for each partner in a relationship to be utterly selfish, and yet both will win.

All of us, from nomadic herders to suburban gardeners to skyscraper-dwelling urbanites, cultivate a secret, inner garden, and our relationship with its flora is even more complicated, beneficial, and dominated by selfishness than my personal relationship with sugar snap peas. Our gardens are what physicians call the “intestinal flora,” the squillions of microbes that live in our gut. We’re just now beginning to appreciate some of the complexity of this relationship, but it’s clear that each of us—microbe and human—is cultivating the other for our own selfish ends.

The simplest aspect of this relationship is digestive. We feed the microbes in our gut lots of polysaccharides (complex chains of simple sugars) and other stuff. Every different polysaccharide requires a unique enzyme to break it down, and we simply don’t have a big enough toolbox of enzymes to cope with all that we eat. But the microbes in our gut have thousands more such enzymes, and they can trim pretty much any polysaccharide into simple sugars; they then ferment these sugars, and get enough energy to live. They win. But we win too—the end products of these fermentations are things like alcohol and acetic acid, stuff that our cells are really good at using for fuel. So, we win. Or, as Reuben Bolling has it:

When I cultivate my plants, I cause the plants that benefit me to grow more healthily, and reduce the fitness of those I don’t want. Specific bacteria also cultivate us; those individual mammals (the experiment has only been done on mice, for ethical reasons) who are not hospitable to certain bacteria are noticeably unhealthy. So, it could be argued that the Bacteria are cultivating—causing to grow more healthily—only those mammals that benefit them.

We are very picky about the types of microbes that we cultivate—not just any bug will do. The wrong bacteria in your gut (or not enough of the right bacteria), is far worse for your health than too many dandelions in the garden. Most of the trillions of Bacterial cells in our intestines are of a handful of types in a well-regulated ratio, and a recent study by Andrew Gerwitz at Emory University suggests a mechanism by which we cultivate the right Bacteria.

Humans are increasingly plagued by “diseases of affluence” such as metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a constellation of woes including type II diabetes, obesity, colon inflammation, hyperglycemia, irritable bowel syndrome, and on and on. Some of this is obviously due to lifestyle. However, genetics plays a role, as it is possible to find mice that are genetically predisposed to something that looks an awful lot like metabolic syndrome. These unfortunate mice are obese, hyperglycemic, hypertensive, insulin-resistant, given to overeating, and prone to all manner of inflammatory diseases. Not to be gross, but they are really different looking inside. The one on the right, with visibly more fat and inflamed colon and liver, is the mutant mouse:

It is not certain that these mice have the exact same thing as human metabolic syndrome, but it has all the hallmarks. As with humans, you can even make them much healthier by putting them on a restricted diet.

All the differences visible in the picture there, plus hypertension, insulin resistance and more are due to a single genetic defect. They are missing one gene, called TLR 5. So, how can the loss of one gene cause such multifarious misery? The TLR 5 gene encodes a protein that sits on the surface of the cells that line our intestines. This protein is similar to a class of proteins that are receptors for specific bacterial proteins—that is, they grab onto these proteins (which are presumably attached to bacteria), and hold on to them tightly. It made sense, then, for Gerwitz’s co-workers to look for differences in the intestinal flora between mice that had the TLR 5 gene and those that lacked it.

Mice, like humans, are born with a clean slate as far as intestinal flora are concerned. We both are rapidly colonized by a diverse array of bacteria and other microbes off of our mothers’ skin (and all the other stuff any baby will put in its mouth. I once made the mistake of talking about this with the mother of a newborn. It was not something she wished to think about.). So, a lot of what defines the cast of characters in our intestinal flora is what is in our environment.

But genetics matters too. Gerwitz used an embryo transplantation to put both fetal mice with TLR 5 and fetal mice without TLR 5 in the same mama mouse. The normal and mutant mice were born and raised together, with the normal mice turning out normal and the mutant mice looking like the stereotypical ugly American. Comparison of the bacteria living in their guts showed that the main difference was not what types of bacteria were present, but that some were much more prevalent in one or the other. The obese mice were especially lacking in some of the Bacteroides, the same ones that are helping to save Billy Dare. What’s worse, Gerwitz found that he could mostly sterilize the intestines of a normal mouse with antibiotics, then re-colonize it with bacteria from one of the mutant mice (I won’t go into methods here, but if you’ve seen the movie Pink Flamingos, you’ll know how it was done). The genetically normal mice with the altered gut bacteria developed all the ills of their mutant littermates. So not only was there a correlation between altered intestinal flora and metabolic syndrome, there is pretty clear causation.

We still don’t know the exact mechanism by which the wrong intestinal flora leads to metabolic syndrome, or indeed whether exactly the same thing happens in humans with this disease. However, it is known that many of the “good” intestinal bacteria produce a variety of chemicals that, in effect, soothe a rowdy immune system. Without this check, our immune system can attack our own cells, causing inflammation in the gut and killing cells that should be responding to insulin—both features if metabolic syndrome. It appears that mice have the gene TLR 5 mainly so that they can keep the “good” intestinal bacteria around—in effect, cultivating the right cells in their intestinal flora, and suppressing autoimmune reactions. A mutation eliminating TLR 5 means that the “good” bacteria are eliminated, and others take their place. These bacteria can’t pacify the immune system, and autoimmune attacks lead to metabolic syndrome.

All animals evolved in a world dominated by microbes—they are, and always have been, as much a part of the environment as air and water. From an evolutionary point of view, it is impossible to say just who is cultivating whom, and this study makes it clear that the answer ultimately doesn’t really matter. We mammals go to the trouble of having and expressing specific genes such as TLR 5 so that we may cultivate certain species of Bacteria. We do this, because if we did not, we would be unhealthy. Conversely, Bacteroides goes to the trouble of having and expressing specific genes so that it may improve the health of its mammalian host. It does this, because if it did not, it would be kicked off the gravy train flowing through our gut. Like me and my heirloom purple pole beans, it’s a relationship in which we both win by being selfish.

Matam Vijay-Kumar, Jesse D. Aitken, Frederic A. Carvalho, Tyler C. Cullender, Simon Mwangi, Shanthi Srinivasan, Shanthi V. Sitaraman, Rob Knight, Ruth E. Ley, Andrew T. Gewirtz (2010). Metabolic Syndrome and AlteredGut Microbiota in Mice Lacking Toll-Like Receptor. Science 328, 228-231.

Monday, June 21, 2010

From the first day of class

Today was the opening lecture of introductory biology. The point of this lecture was defining biology--which means defining life, and defining science. Unfortunately, it is impossible to define either of those terms satisfactorily. However, there are some things that most of those who study life seriously can agree upon. One of these is that "vitalism," or "Elan vitale" is a hypothesis that has been repeatedly shown to be false. Another of these is the role of falsifiability in constructing and testing hypotheses.

I was reminded by both of these by a collection of commentary that V. sent me in response to the news of Synthia, Craig Venter's synthetic life form. One of the contributors to this feature in the journal Nature wrote the following:

Arthur Caplan
Professor of bioethics, University of Pennsylvania

Venter and his colleagues have shown that the material world can be manipulated to produce what we recognize as life. In doing so they bring to an end a debate about the nature of life that has lasted thousands of years. Their achievement undermines a fundamental belief about the nature of life that is likely to prove as momentous to our view of ourselves and our place in the Universe as the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein.

More than 100 years ago, the French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson claimed that life could never be explained simply mechanistically. Nor could it be artificially created by synthesizing molecules. There was, he argued, an “élan vital” — a vital force that was the ineffable current distinguishing the living from the inorganic. No manipulations of the inorganic would permit the creation of any living thing.

This ‘vitalist’ view has come in many forms over the centuries. Galen wrote of the ‘vital spirit’ in the second century; Louis Pasteur in 1862 looked to ‘vital action’ to explain how life exists; and the biologist Hans Driesch posited an ‘entelechy’ or essential force as a requisite for life as recently as 1894. The molecular-biology revolution notwithstanding, science has continued to struggle with the reducibility of life to the material. Meanwhile, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, among other religions, have maintained that a soul constitutes the explanatory essence of at least human life.

All of these deeply entrenched metaphysical views are cast into doubt by the demonstration that life can be created from non-living parts, albeit those harvested from a cell [italics mine]. Venter’s achievement would seem to extinguish the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist. In my view, this makes it one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind.
I think he completely misses; I think he shoulda sat in on my class today. First, vitalism has been decidedly the opposite of vital for over a century; Wohler's synthesis of urea in 1828 was the first nail in the coffin, and synthesis-from-scratch of biomolecules and even intact, biologically active viruses have been bolting down the lid and sealing the sarcophagus ever since. Perhaps this can be let slide, as the author's expertise is mainly in the ethics of organ transplantation.

The other thing is that Venter's work does not refute vitalism; it does not adequately test or falsify the hypothesis that there's something special about "living" chemicals. A critical step, essential to the success of the experiment, was for the artifical, synthetic DNA to be passed through and replicated in a living cell. This DNA, which I could argue had picked up some of that je ne sais quoi of elan vitale, was then used to reboot a previously living cell that had its DNA removed; said cell could also be argued to be full to the gills of vital essence. Far from falsifying vitalism, it could be argued that this experiment actually strengthens the case. (George Church correctly argues in the same publication that the creation of Synthia does "not really...test vitalism.")

I'm not sure what my point is; ever since it ran a cover article about homeopathy in 1988, we have known to take the journal Nature with a grain of salt. Personal experience suggests the risks of trusting anybody just because they have a Ph.D. Personal experience also suggests that between 5 and 20 percent of students will sleep through or text or play video games through any given college lecture. I just hope that my students do better than this guy.

Monday Musical Offering

I just noticed that last week's MMO was listed as "private," so wasn't viewable--sort of like running a radio station with the microphone off. It's been fixed, and now I know one more thing to watch out for. So, here's the rest of Chopin's Opus 24.

For further perspective, my mom refers to these not as movies of me playing the piano; they are movies of Opal.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Back to Reality

Like UC Davis, most universities that have programs to study single-celled life have a Department of Microbiology. My graduate program was one of the only ones in the country in a Department of Bacteriology. While I was there, a package arrived for one of the professors that had been addressed by somebody who must have been hard of hearing; it was addressed to the "Department of Back to Reality."

Well, it's the Department of Back to Reality here. Ending a vacation reminds me of entering a glacier-fed alpine lake. There's no graceful way to end a vacation--a slow careful return with a couple of days to readjust, like inching into ever deeper water, seems to prolong the agony, while diving right in seems too awful to contemplate. I am taking the latter course; I arrived home late today, and my class starts tomorrow morning. There's a pile of laundry to do, and before night fell I had to get out the lawn mower and get rid of two weeks' worth of growth. The bean seeds that I planted in early June had just started bulging up through the soil when I left; they have grown like Topsy and are now almost a foot tall. The bad news is that all the dandelions and purslane and grasses have done the same, and I have a long week of weeding ahead of me.

We'll see how the first day of class goes. I think everything is ready, and I've mentally rehearsed what I want to say, so the potential is there for things to work. Of course, there is always the potential for things to go wrong, especially since I'm in a hall that I don't particularly like.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why build violins (III)

For this one, I'll defer to Stanley Potts*. Go and read, now.

I can't say that this is the reason I'm working on my Stainer model. My family is generally unsentimental to a point that might appear callous to outsiders. However, I just found out that my Aunt L. died earlier this week. I wasn't especially close to her, but I find myself seeing a parallel to her in the Stainer--a bit old fashioned and formal, precise, polite, and nice. She had a good, full life, and I hope that this fiddle can be as good to its players as she was to her family and friends.

I left the violin workshop this morning, and the quarter starts at full speed on Monday. I will be going from being a student at maximum intensity to being a teacher at maximum intensity. I still have a lot in mind from the workshop, and I'm hoping that the rush of summer sessions will not crowd out the memories. While progress on the violin will undoubtedly slow, I will keep posting--this record has still not caught up with current events.

*A regular contributor to the Strad. He is a curmudgeonly, semi-retired luthier with a fondness for Stradivari, Gilbert & Sullivan, and single-malt Scotch. Toby is is former assistant, and current boss; Bianca is an apprentice, and like Toby, an obsessive fan of Guarneri del Gesu.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Flora: Fanatical Fiddle Fabrication Festival edition

The Pomona Colleges, home of the Southern California Violin Builders' Workshop, has the most beautiful grounds. Nice architecture, good public art, and gorgeous gardens. When we got here, the Jacaranda trees were in full bloom. Two weeks later, they are tapering off a bit, but they are still a treat to look at. I really like jacarandas, as long as they are somebody else's concern; after they're done with their display, they make a mess.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why build violins (II)

The violin is loaded with mystique. If you want to write a romance, you’ll get more readers with “The Red Violin” than with “The Red Trombone.” It’s understandable, then, why people can be seduced or possessed by violins. This seems to have happened to more than one participant in the Southern California Violin Builders’ Workshop. L., who had no musical background, had an intensely vivid dream in which she could play the violin. She started taking lessons, and before long became seized by the idea of building a fiddle. J also had an epiphany. Having raised and homeschooled her children, she was at a point where she was at a loss for what to do—she didn’t call it a midlife crisis, but it sounded sort of like Dante’s mezzo cammin. One day she visited a luthier’s shop, and it just hit her that this is what she must do. For her, the atmosphere of the shop combined with the aura of the product proved overwhelming.

L. and J. are here at the workshop. L. is in a constant state of amazement; before her dream, she knew little of tools and woodworking, let alone violin building. She’s definitely happy on her quest, though, moving slowly, cheerfully receiving lots of help, and making great strides. J. is working on her eighth violin. She’s still learning, but works in a professional manner (though she occasionally gets vocally frustrated with a recalcitrant piece of wood).

Passion will take you odd and interesting places. When it comes as a bolt from the blue, it can make your life jump sideways. I’d be willing to bet that before their epiphanies, both L. and J. had absolutely no idea where they would be now; I also think that they’re pretty happy with it. I know that when I met the love of my life, things moved in different and unexpected directions—heck, here I am building a violin, and that certainly wasn’t in the long-term vision statement back in 1990. But, I’m happy with it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Setting the purfling

With the purfling channel cut, the time has come to actually put in the purfling. It is trimmed to length, and bent on the bending iron. It's super-easy to bend, with the only problem being that it can delaminate if too much steam is used. Fortunately, when you are sold one violin's worth of purfling, you usually get enough for a violin and a half.

Most of the inlay is very easy; the only tricky part is the corners, where the goal is to have no gaps. Beyond this basic level, one can add style points by making a "bee sting." This is an extra little bit of black on the outside that protrudes ever so slightly from the corner. So, it's necessary to fuss around for a bit to get the corners just right. As always, dry-fitting precedes gluing.

Once the glue is hot, it's time to actually set in the purfling. A small amount of glue is placed in the channel, which immediately makes life difficult. The glue cools quickly, becoming more and more viscous, and the wood absorbs water from the glue and swells, making the channel narrower. Generally, some vigorous tapping with a hammer is necessary to drive the purfling home and distribute the glue throughout the channel. Here's the result--not my best corner.

After the glue has dried, the purfling is made flush with the rest of the plate with thumb planes. This always makes it look better, and it gives you pretty shavings.

Cutting the Purfling Channel

Purfling sounds like a quaint English game involving a grassy field, mallets, and furry animals, but it's actually the strips of veneer that go around the edges of the top and bottom of a violin. The purfling can be plain or quite ornate, bought or made by hand out of veneers of mahogany and pear and maple.

We've opted for plain, store-bought purfling. No matter what pattern or style, the purfling is inlaid into the wood, so a trench about 1.3 mm wide and 2 mm deep needs to be dug all around the top and bottom. The old-fashioned way to do this is with knives to cut the channel, then wee chisels and picks to empty it; a skilled builder like Anya at our workshop can do a single plate in about 2 hours. The simpler way to do it is to use a machine tool such as a Fordham flex-shaft, with a special jig to hold the bit at the proper depth and distance from the edge. At this workshop, I've seen several variations on this, but my favorite is the one made by Tom Croen.

This is the business end of it, upside down from the way it would be used. The cutter head sticks out between two legs; these ride on the top of the board, and set the depth of the channel. The fence is on a threaded post, so it sets the distance of the channel from the edge. The cutter head moves through hard wood like a hot, rapidly spinning knife through butter. It can get a rank amateur like myself through a plate in a matter of minutes.
However, it is a power tool, so it can also get a rank amateur like myself into deep, deep doo-doo in a matter of milliseconds.

Roughing out the plates

With the inside curves more or less in place, the next thing to do is to get rid of all of the wood on the outside that isn't part of the violin. A ledge is put in around the edges of the plates; this can be done by hand, or very easily using an abrasive bit on a drill press (Yay power tools!)
This ledge will be where the purfling--the black-and-white-strips of inlaid wood--will be placed. It also helps to set a limit on how far the wood should be removed. With the ledge in place, it's time to get out the big gouges and the flex-shaft tool with the kutzall bit, and just get rid of wood.
The closer to finished you get, the more delicate tools you must use: from kutzall to big gouge to small gouge to thumb planes.

From this, the next step is purfling, which is very, very exciting.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Violin workshop

The lunatic lutherie learnin' vacation is keeping us very busy. It's only barely an overstatement to say that it's 24/7 violin building. There is little structure to the workshop, with a couple of short lectures each week, and a certain amount of scheduled one-on-one time with the instructor. Mainly, though, it's just everybody beavering away at their particular project or talking about violin building. The shop opens at 8 and closes at 11, and the whole time it sounds like a combination of the woodworking section of Santa's workshop and a kaffeeklatsch.

We have joined right in to the mania. We both know that we should go out and get some exercise, or eat, or sleep, or write postcards, but dang it--the fiddle isn't done yet. Lutherie is a good exercise for obsessives, since it encourages fussing over tenths of millimeters. As beginners in the hobby, it is interesting to plunge into such a crowd of maniacs; it reminds me of visiting a lunatic asylum, and feeling as if you could fit right in. It's starting to creep into my dreams as well: after working during the day on cutting out the F-holes on my fiddle while somebody mentioned the album "This Year's Model," last night I dreamt that I got into fisticuffs with Elvis Costello over the subject of F-hole placement.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Monday Musical Offering

Some Chopin. The book I'm using belonged to my grandmother.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Friday Flora

Triteleia, formerly known as Brodiea. Gift of my mom. A few weeks ago, on a hillside with lots of the normal blue Triteleia, we saw one plant that was pure white. Probably a sport.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Why build violins (I)

We're in day two of the California Violin Makers' Workshop. A big part of the workshop scene is comparing tools. Everybody with violin-building experience has some device they have discovered, modified, or built from scratch that makes some task so much easier, and everybody who has such a tool wants to show it off. We have only been building for a couple of months, and we have been in the workshop for only one day, and we have already done this. My neighbor, Ray Lee, is an accomplished young violin builder from Hong Kong. He builds violins with a largely Oriental set of tools. Of course, most of the builders are interested in seeing what he has and how he uses it.

Ray is particularly fond of Japanese tools. For Ray they have the best steel, hold the best edges, cut the quickest. Japanese steel is hard, especially if it’s old. American steel is soft, German steel is softer, Swiss steel is like putty. Diamond sharpening stones are all very well and good for rough shaping, but if you want a sharp edge, get Japanese stones, preferably natural stones. Ray was showing me his prize Japanese saw. “It best steel,” he said. “Hit it, it go ‘ping,’ not ‘wawawaw’ like western saw. It…handmade. Very expensive, two hundred fifty dollar. It why I make violin. I want tools, so I must sell violin to get money to buy tools to make violin. This violin,” he said, holding up a Del Gesu “Ole Bull” replica, “I sell, get natural sharpening stone.”

Monday, June 7, 2010

Gouging out the plates

I am using an "inside-out" method for shaping the top and bottom of the violin. Drilling that hole established the maximum depth of the hollowing in the plate. The curvature of the plates is established by using a chain to make a catenary curve along two lines intersecting at the hole:
Once those depths are established, catenary curves across the plate are used to make latitudinal arching, and the shape of the interior of the violin is established.
This whole process makes piles and piles of wood shavings. I think of the inside of the violin as being like a very small concert hall, and the shape of the hall has an effect on the sound.

Then, it's time to take the hollowed-out plate over to the bandsaw and cut it out.

Onwards to roughing out the outsides!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Monday Musical Offering

The second half of the French Suite.

We made it to Claremont in one piece. I'm dog tired (see 6:20-6:30); hopefully, more tomorrow.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Failure to Launch

Today was the first day of the lunatic lutherie learnin' vacation--two (or three) weeks of violin-building workshop in Claremont, California under the tutelage of a couple of really good builders. I am becoming more and more aware of just how complicated a thing violin-building is--a myriad of minute details, and the closer they all come to perfect, the better the odds of having a good violin.

Yesterday was the first launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9, a privately-funded two stage liquid fuel rocket. Having a successful rocket launch is an extremely unlikely event. Every single thing has to go right. I once heard an engineer explain that a part that is 99% reliable simply won't cut it for space flight--there are a few thousand parts on a rocket like the Falcon 9, and if each has a reliability of 99%, then you can calculate the likelihood of the rocket working--and a rocket either works, because everything functioned as it was supposed to, or it completely fails, because one thing didn't work. A probability of 0.99 times itself a thousand times is 0.00004--not a good bet for success.

The engineers at SpaceX got it right. After a delay because of a last-second engine shut-down, they had a successful launch:

Throughout the launch video, you can hear the engineers saying that such-and-such function is "nominal," functioning as specified.

Well, our launch didn't go so smoothly. We had a couple of delays getting off the launch pad: stuff to get packed, bills that needed paying, plants that needed to get tucked in, stuff that needed to get washed (including the dog). By the time we were finallllllly ready to launch on our 6-hour drive to SoCal, it was 5:00. Well, SpaceX had a delayed launch, and so did we. We drove our cars down I-5 towards Stockton, chatting between cars on the walkie-talkie:

"Air Temperature?"


"Fuel levels?"


"Dog condition?"


"Gravy Pressure?"


Well, in Stockton, we experienced what the rocketeers call an anomaly. Duva's right rear tire blew in spectacular fashion. She managed to get the car over to the left shoulder, and I stopped about half a mile ahead. The tire was absolutely shredded, with the tread intact but completely divorced from the rim. While she phoned AAA, I nervously drove in reverse to get back to her. After about 15 minutes, the road service van drove up. The driver was the model of cheerful efficiency, with a monster jack and a pneumatic wrench and armfuls of tattoos and a crooked smile. He suggested that we might, maybe, possibly find a place to get a tire in nearby Tracy, but in Stockton? No.

So, we drove to Tracy, keeping below the 60 mph limit of the spare tire. We had good luck, finding a Sears that was just 15 minutes from closing and had the tire we needed. But, it was 8:15 PM, and L.A. was still five hours away. So, we decided to head back home.

We'll try again tomorrow; the launch window starts at 6:00, dictated by the opening of the local coffee shop.

Starting the arching

I haven't posted about the violin building in a while, having been very distracted by the garden. However, the next couple of weeks will see a lot of violin work--we are going to attend a workshop on the subject, so it will be 24/7 lutherie.

These photos are old, but I have to get up to date...Having gotten the plates glued together and flattened, the first thing to do is to trace the garland onto the top plate. A washer is used to make another line about 3 mm wider than the garland; this will be the final outline of the plate.
I'm using an "inside-out" technique; I am hollowing out the inside of the violin, then carving the outside. This technique starts with drilling a hole at the deepest point of the plate, which is the intersection of two lines drawn from the upper and lower corners of the violin.
I have to say that this step made me plenty nervous; the ramifications of drilling just a little too far are pretty dire. It went OK, so now the task was to hollow out the plates so that the drill hole was the deepest part of the depression. Ideally, the hollowing should follow specific curves--the subject for the next installment.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Friday Flora

Alstroemeria hybrid.
The seeds for this came from my mother's garden. I planted them several years ago, they sprouted, and the sprouts were eaten by the chickens. I gave up on them, tilled the ground, planted it with other stuff, and then--surprise--they came up again a couple of years ago.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Only a day old...

And already thinking of murder.
(oxalis leaf = about 15 mm)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A spreading plague?

Thanks to a public service announcement from California senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina, we now know our state faces a severe threat from Demon Sheep:

You might well imagine that we were all in a tizzy about this. So we were on our guard when we went for a ride on the bike trail, fully expecting to see the local deer in the thrall of Satan. Thankfully, we didn't, though we did see this fine hen turkey crossing the path:
Wait a sec--blow that up, will you?
OK, larger--I want to see the eyes.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Monday Musical Offering

My piano teacher, Tom, suggests that people won't check out a musical offering unless there is video. My publicist, who is (unlike Tom) an imaginary entity, suggests that people won't check out a video unless there is something visually arresting. My image consultant, who is my publicist's identical twin, suggests that it would be imprudent for a college lecturer to dress like Elton John. My dog, Opal, suggests that she would provide that Xavier Cugat touch that will make this video irresistible.

My pollster suggests taking a wait and see attitude.