Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wednesday Words Mailstrom edition

Dear Concerned Citizen

An introductory paragraph, introducing a poster child for the cause.  The poster child (who may be an adult suffering from a disease, or a member of a socioeconomic group afflicted by a political situation, or a tree—or a child) is in a most lamentable circumstance.  This circumstance may be unpleasant, but wait—it gets worse.

The details of this circumstance are spelled out in vivid detail in a paragraph in bold.  This “punches up” the story, and makes you, the concerned citizen, care even more about the poster child’s story.  Sometimes there is even a picture:


It doesn’t have to be this way.  There is a simple solution, one that concerned people are struggling to enact.  The Charitable Organization is hard at work providing this solution.  The Charitable Organization was founded by concerned citizens like you, or by a saintly Nobel Prize Winner, to help Poster Child.  Since a reasonable date, Charitable Organization has helped hundreds of cases just like Poster Child.  Charitable organization has been a prime mover behind…

*This famous project, to which we assume you are sympathetic.

*This project, which we also assume aligns with your interests.

However, it takes money to do Charitable Organization’s work—a seemingly small amount per day.  Yet even this is hard to obtain.  Concerned citizen, have you considered what your small amount per day could do for Poster Child?

Your small amount per day could:

*Do this good thing for Poster Child

*Do another good thing for Poster Child

*Prevent this bad thing from happening to Poster Child

*Do this other good thing for Poster Child

But the effect of your small amount of money has an effect far beyond Poster Child.  Your generous gift would enable Poster Child’s community/environment to blossom and thrive for generations to come.  All this, for less than you spend on coffee/toilet paper/newspapers.  Won’t you consider joining Famous Person, Other Famous Person, and Another Famous Person in supporting Charitable Organization? 

Together, we can prevent BAD THING from happening.  With your generous gift, Poster Child will never have to bad thing again, and GOOD THING will happen for years to come.  We hope you will give generously to Charitable Organization, and accept this bumpersticker/notepad/sheet of address stickers as a gift from Poster Child and Charitable Organization. 
YES!  I want to save Poster Child from Bad Thing!  I stand with Famous Person for Good Thing!  And, if you act now, we will thank you for your generous gift with a tote bag or trivial doodad emblazoned with the logo of CHARITABLE ORGANIZATION. 

I will make a gift of

$ money  
$ incrementally more     
$ twice as much
$ a largeish, but not too intimidating, amount

(Over 16% of your donation goes directly to Charitable Organization’s activities.)


In the old days, my parents would occasionally make donations to Save the Redwoods or the like.  As it is said, no good deed goes unpunished, so one organization or another sold its mailing list to other charities, and then they got sold again, and again.  In the old days, this wasn’t too much of a problem.

As has been noted, my Dad has an advanced case of Alzheimer’s Disease, and my Mom is following him into the foggy, forbidding land of senile dementia.  After my Dad lost his facilities, my Mom reluctantly assumed control of their finances; over the last year, as she’s been losing her short-term memory, this has devolved onto the shoulders of me and my brothers.  So, we’ve made arrangements to have bank statements, bills, and the like delivered to us, to spare her confusion.  When a bill does come to her, I can expect a 45 minute phone conversation about the bill; the dialog will be extremely recursive, confusing, and culminate with twenty minutes of me guiding her through writing a check and putting it in an envelope. 

Bills, thankfully, are rare.  What’s not rare is appeals from charitable organizations.  My Mom gets a couple every day, and she doesn’t know what to do with them.  She suspects that they’re not bills.  However, they do have her name and money amounts on them.  So, she scrawls on the envelope “What is this?” or “Save for L” or “Don’t think we do this” or “????”, and puts it in the flat-rate mailing box addressed to me.  When it’s full (which takes less than two months), she sends the box to me.  Then I get on the phone, asking these worthy organizations to stop sending my parents any mail, ever.  This time, there were over 40 different organizations appealing for money, and it took me over six hours of phone time.  I am feeling somewhat uncharitable at the moment. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tuesday Tool Body Modification edition

The Real Doctor and I spent a chunk of yesterday giving some of our newer animals unique identifiers.  The lambs got their ears pierced for a fashionable plastic earring; it carries info about our farm and a name and number specific to the sheep.  The marks of these beasts are duly noted by the feds, who have an interest in keeping track of scrapie and such diseases.

The tool of the day, though, is the Ketchum Revolving Head Ear Tattoo Pliers.  (Pictures from the Nasco catalog, for all your farm and ranch needs.) 

The holes in the jaws of the pliers hold individual letters.  For example, this is the letter "A", upside down.

The revolving head is nice, because you can load up the tattoo for the left and right ears at the same time.  While the poor, innocent little goat is restrained, you can smear the ears with green ink (which gets all over the place; annoyingly, the little tube is packaged under pressure so that when you open it, five mls of gooey green blorts out over everything), and wham! wham! before the poor, innocent little goat knows what hit her, she's got the baddest tattoos this side of Mike Tyson:

Monday, May 27, 2013

Monday Musical Offering Frontiers in Lutherie Edition

I played a good Stradivari violin once, just for a few minutes. I’m a lousy violinist, but it was an amazing experience.  On the same occasion, I played a good Guarneri “del Gesu,” and it was equally amazing.  Now, every other violin is just not so good. 

This is one of the great problems of the violin-building world.  There are maybe a thousand or so of these exceptional old violins out there.  Their number can only decrease; they are getting more and more expensive (one recently sold for north of $18 million; the New York Times had to correct its initial report that it had sold for $18 billion).  There are some excellent modern makers out there, making some excellent violins for a fraction of that price, but if they are honest, they’ll concede that they are still chasing the old Cremonese makers.  Meanwhile, anyone owning one of these treasures gets increasingly nervous whenever they enter a taxi or relinquish their instruments to the TSA. 

Modern luthiers have tried all manner of tricks to match the old masters.  Some claim to divine mathematical and geometrical formulae from the shapes of the old violins.  Some “tune” their fiddles by watching the patterned dance of iron filings as they blast the wood with amplified sound.  Some find markings in the wood of these old fiddles and from these scratches extrapolate whole systems of woodworking. Several Cremonese fiddles have been so thoroughly studied, by CT scans, X-rays, UV imaging, density mapping, frequency mapping, dynamic FLIR, HPLC analysis—as to become open books. 

Then there are the dilettantes, techies with their particular tools.  Every year, like clockwork, one solves the “Secret of Stradivari.” It’s propolis in the varnish!  It’s wood soaked in the river Po! It’s fungus! It’s pollen in the varnish!  It’s wood from trees grown during the “little ice age”! Strangely, these discoveries have done nothing to change the status quo: Strads are still Strads, and everything else is still everything else. 

I write this as an introduction to an enlightening and confounding conversation I had, which I attempt to document here.  The Real Doctor and I attended a performance by the Miskatonic Pro(-Am) Musica.  The program was conventional, and the performance was what might be expected from a mixture of professionals and enthusiastic amateurs.  One of those amateurs is Dr. D. Avril Poisson, a biologist of some note.  Dr. Poisson’s fiddle was extremely unusual, and as the Real Doctor and I are students of lutherie, we sought her out after the performance, and she graciously talked with us (she apparently is aware of my having provided her with some favorable publicity). 

In its form, Dr. Poisson’s fiddle was classic—the front had deep arching and a well-formed recurve, very much in the earlier Cremonese style; the outline, scroll, and f-holes also were suggestive of the Brescian school.  The most obvious thing about the fiddle, though, was its color.  Except for the strings, pegs, and bridge, it was a pale, semi-translucent milky hue, made of some well-polished plastic shot through with fine blue streaks.

“You may not believe it,” Dr. Poisson said, “but this is”—she emphasized the word to prevent any argument—“a 1709 Rogeri, the ‘Miskatonic.’”  She played on it a bit (with a wooden bow), and it sounded fantastic. 

I would no more ask a performer if I could borrow their fiddle for a moment than I would ask to borrow their spouse for a romantic tryst—but she insisted that both the Real Doctor and I play it, and we both found it to be an amazing instrument.  I’ve never played a Rogeri before, and maybe I didn’t then, but I did play an instrument that was fully the equal of the great old fiddles I’d sampled. 

While both the Real Doctor and I were dumbfoundedly playing her fiddle, Dr. Poisson was smiling like—well, the best reference I can think of is the Man in Black during the swordfight in The Princess Bride.  She opened up a double case, revealing another milky, blue-streaked fiddle.  “This is also the 1709 Rogeri,” she said, and urged us both to play it.  The feeling was uncanny.  It was like meeting a person so remarkable that they must be unique in all the world—then being introduced to their identical (and identically remarkable) twin.  “There are three more 1709 Rogeris back at Miskatonic that play exactly like these, and we’re making one every three weeks.”

Neither the Real Doctor nor I said much that was coherent, just a string of fragmentary questions, while Dr. Poisson beamed.  “This is actually the debut concert for this fiddle, which is odd given that it’s 1709.  It hasn’t been officially revealed, but I suppose now that you’ve seen it you’ll blog about it, and I want to make sure the story is straight.  First, you’ve got to give most of the credit to Dr. Barry O. Lodge of the Materials Science department at Miskatonic University.  I am, if you will, second to last author, and there are a dozen or more engineering students in front of me.”

“You know the Betts Project?” she asked.  (This is an effort by a well-known group of luthiers to use the latest technology to make a perfect replica of the Library of Congress’ 1704 “Betts” Stradivarius.  High-precision CT scans of the instrument are used to make a stereolithographic computer image of the violin, and this is fed into a CNC wood carving machine, producing a precise replica down to fractions of tenths of millimeters.  “That’s just cargo-cult lutherie—they think that if they replicate the form, they’ll replicate the magic, just like some stone-age Polynesians making detailed replicas of landing strips and hoping some airplanes full of goodies will arrive.  If they don’t capture that magic, it’s because they’ve failed to copy the form precisely enough.  Well, those cargo-cultists at Oberlin have made an agreeable violin, but it’s not the Betts.”

“See, they’ve got the shape as close as can be, but they don’t have the exact same piece of wood, with the exact same grain and imperfections and density and hardness variations, and they’re using some modern varnish that has its own differences in hardness and whatnot.  It’s the way the sound energy travels through the wood that makes the Betts what it is.  I’ve no doubt that the masters of Cremona were sensitive—maybe on some subconscious level, maybe as the result of years of experience with wood—to those subtleties, and this stupid Betts Project just ignores it.  I mean, they try to match the wood’s appearance, but really, they just have a Betts-shaped box, and it’s not like it’s any more affordable for a promising young student.

“So, Barry O. Lodge was working on extending the abilities of 3D printing, and he’d found that the community had basically run into the same wall as the Betts people—extraordinarily high fidelity replication of shape, complete ignorance of micro-scale variation in mechanical properties.  It’s funny, the Betts people got there reductively, by milling away wood, the 3DP people got there additively, by cementing together microscopic particles of resin.  Anyway, he has discovered a way to accurately measure mechanical properties like hardness, density, sound velocity, and so on at a 10th of a millimeter scale.  Scanning takes forever, and the files are huge, but you really have the soul of the thing.

“If the soul is in the mechanical properties, I suppose,” interjected the Real Doctor, “but…”

Dr. Poisson pointed at the “Rogeri” in the Real Doctor’s hands. “That is an instrument,” she said, “a tool for making art.  Its soul is its unique voice, its ability to produce music, at which it has few equals.” 

I was examining the other “Rogeri.”  The purfling was a faint line of light grey around the edges.  Inside, there was a slight elevation where the label would be, as if a slip of parchment had been embalmed in resin.  The visual effect left me feeling very uneasy.  Wood was once alive, and bears time’s traces on a growing tree; the parchment in a fiddle is signed by the hand of the maker.  The visual impact of this instrument, which sounded so lovely and lively, gave me the creeps—a dead thing, mummified in plastic.  I handed it back to Dr. Poisson with some relief.  “So, from file to fiddle?” I asked.

“3D printing taken to a new level.  It’s all wrapped up in engineering and patents.  I don’t understand most of it, and what I might understand, I’m not allowed to know for legal reasons.  The chemistry is appealing, doping the resin with aligned, tuned nanotubes and other super-secret stuff to give it exactly the right mechanical properties on a micrometer-by-micrometer scale.  The resin is proprietary, but it’s the reason for the sickly color, and some of the dopants are blue, so that’s why the streakiness.  I really don’t love the visuals, but we can’t fix it yet.  The printer has replicated the mechanical properties of the varnish exactly, and adding any tint will screw up everything.  So I play with my eyes closed, and I’m playing the Rogeri.”  Which she did for us, again, and it still sounded wonderful—but I had to close my eyes. 

When she had stopped, I asked,  “Dr. Lodge wasn’t working on all this for lutherie, was he?”

“Goodness no,” she answered   "He’s an engineer, so he was doing this because it seemed hard but possible.  He presented a summary of this work at a symposium, and was looking for ideas.  He was thinking of tools and ornithopter drones, but I suggested fiddles would be a real test.”

The Real Doctor had been studying the “Rogeri” with her usual intensity, and didn’t break her gaze on the instrument when she asked, “The soundpost—is it of one piece with the instrument?  And, how does it sound side by side with the real Rogeri?”

Dr. Poisson smiled, and corrected the Real Doctor.  “This is the real Rogeri, and so is that one there.  It’s one piece, everything printed in one go but the fittings.

“Of course, the Rogeri wasn’t the first thing Barry and I tried.  We wanted to prove the concept on a more modest scale, so we chose a couple of modest student-level instruments—ones that had noticeable character, though not always good.  I played on them, day in and day out, for a couple of months.  The sacrifices we make for science!  I didn’t like them, but I could recognize each of them easily, even in a crowd.  Barry scanned and printed them, and we had the luthier string them up, and they were perfect clones—every annoying flaw and shortcoming, and even the few nice things, had been replicated.  Can you imagine what a boon it will be, when every student of the violin can play a really good fiddle—this, or the “Vieuxtemps” or the “Viotti” or their like—instead of fighting against some atrocious Chinese factory box?”

“Yeah, we’re facing the same thing right now with our nephews,” answered the Real Doctor.  She was starting to look a little worried, and looked at the “Rogeri” as if it might bite her.  “But how does this” she said, giving the grey-blue fiddle back to Dr. Poisson “sound side-by-side with the real Rogeri?”

Dr. Poisson’s dislike of the emphasis on “real” was visible, but, with a shrug, she put her fiddle back in the double case next to its twin.  “Well,” she said, “you can try for yourself.  We still haven’t told the regents of the university, who own the original.  I told them with perfect honesty that I am traveling with the ‘Miskatonic’ Rogeri.”  She rummaged through a travel case, and pulled out a Mason jar, three-quarters full of very fine, wood-brown dust, and offered it to the Real Doctor along with a bow.  “The scanning process is pretty hard on the original, but to me and Barry, that seems a fair price.”

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Wednesday Words Tactful Edition...

...or, "Things you can say about a very pregnant sheep, whose udder is rapidly expanding prior to giving birth, that you can't say about an aspiring supermodel who is undergoing a similar expansion due to plastic surgery:"
"Ah-yup.  She's really bagging up nicely."

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

a proposal about the consequences of proposals...

I ran into an acquaintance, C., the other day; she's a part of our sheep-and-goat circle of friends, and the breeder of a couple of our sheep.  She was about as happy--and frantic--as could be.  She's extra busy at her job, which is growing in both duties and rewards; she's moving, having bought a farm that, while it is much better suited to her needs, needs new fences; and, she's getting married.

Talking with her, it seemed that the one raincloud on her horizon was the need to get rid of a lot of stuff (because her new house is somewhat smaller than her current house) and to get rid of yet more stuff (because both she and her sweetie have separate, complete households and they only need one).  Added to this, people seem to want to give her even more stuff because she's getting married, and working from a registry and giving newlyweds stuff is what we do in this society.

After discussing the issue for a bit, we may have hit upon a solution.  It won't require much additional work from C. or anybody else, it will clear some clutter, and it should allow people to satisfy their social urges to pile up fancily-wrapped boxes on a table at the wedding reception.

Here's the scheme.  C. takes a picture of every thing she would be rid of--a stack of bowls, a set of china, the toaster, a chair, tchotchkes, and so on.  She can figure out a price for each thing, probably steeply discounted.  She also makes rough measurements of the item, and if feeling moved, writes a brief description in her finest catalog-ese (e.g. "This handsome, smaller-than-life ceramic dog was hand-crafted by skilled artisans in Mexico; his slightly skewed grin will remind you of carefree nights in the tropics, while his significant heft will guarantee that papers placed under him will never blow away.  He may not fetch, but he sure can collect dust.")  She then dodges past Bloomingdale's and Nieman-Marcus and Cabela's, and makes her own registry for wedding invitees to look at.  She then forgets about it, and returns to fretting about her wedding dress or whatever brides do (C. is more likely to work on fences for her new property). 

The lucky people who get an invite to C.'s wedding also get a link to her registry, where they see what they'd see at any registry: a list of items with associated prices.  They choose something--first come, first served, so don't delay!--and the item is no longer in the registry.  They receive an automatic email that informs them of the size box needed to hold the item, and a chit that they will put in the box.  They also put the suggested price of the item--or less, if they're poor, or more, if generous--in the box, preferably in a red envelope.  Their job, then, is to wrap the box (like they would for any wedding gift) and bring it to the reception.

Ah, the blessed wedding day!  Look at the radiant bride and the grinning groom!  Look at the buffet!  Look at the stack of presents they got--wowza!  In the traditional scheme, bride and groom spend the better part of a subsequent day opening boxes and trying to make sure that the card stays with the item, or noting which uncle gave the day-of-the-week tablecloth collection.  In the new scheme, C. and her sweetie spend the day opening boxes, happily collecting the contents of red envelopes.  Even more happily they read the chits and fill the boxes with no-longer-needed household goods, and thanks to the registry, they have a complete record of who is connected to what.

The filled boxes become the responsibility of the wedding invitees; they have to pick them up, or arrange for their pickup, whether by UPS, Goodwill, or buddy with a pickup truck.  Given enough technical savvy, I'm sure that some system could be arranged on the registry to make the chit a pre-paid shipping label.  Recipients of the boxes don't have to keep the "gifts"--they can donate them to whatever charity they wish, or burn them.  Whatever happens, they are no longer C.'s problem.  As I figure it, making problems disappear--and cash in a red envelope--are about the best gifts you can give newlyweds. 

Despite its logic and practicality, there is something about human nature that makes me doubt this scheme will catch on.  Oh well.  It's out there, and it just needs a snappy name (deregistry?  leave suggestions in the comments) and maybe it can go viral.