Monday, January 29, 2007

Feed Her Some Hungry Reggae

The weather has turned bitter cold, here in New Jersey.

Last Thursday, Julie took the truck out for an errand, and reported that the instrument lights were flickering and dying. The rheostat that controlled intensity didn't seem to work any more.

Friday morning, they blazed furiously for a few seconds, then died completely. I thought that the lamp burned out, it blew a fuse, or the knob finally gave it up.

This is one more petty annoyance to fulfill a month of petty annoyances.

The truck was collecting a number of odd failures. The CD changer behind my seat had stopped broadcasting in autumn, the motorized baffles in the climate control had stopped working (luckily stopping in a mode that was compatible with winter), and the service engine soon light was popping on.

I'm also thinking about new tires.

(Petty annoyances come in cycles, and they sum up.)

Drove to work without instrument lights. I've driven my little pickup for a couple of years now, so I wasn't too concerned about it. I stayed with the flow of traffic, and listened to the engine as I drove.

Everything seemed happy.

I was mainly worried about a meeting at work, so my mind was sort of occupied. I'd flick the headlights off at stoplights to see what time it was on the clock. The dimmer only controls the digital clock intensity when the headlights are on.

I ended up opening my door out of sequence when I got to work. There was a beeping noise from the instrument panel, which I somehow decided was because the keys were still in the ignition. I grabbed the keys and went.

I had lunch with a friend. She drove. I hate driving, because I don't get to talk as much if I want to avoid an accident. I'm funny that way.

Got out to the car that evening, and discovered that I had left the lights on all day.

The battery was dead, dead, dead. Not a sound when I tried to start the engine, not the clock coming on. Nothing.

I got a jump from a passing engineer. We had to hook his jumper cables to my car, and sit for fifteen minutes before the car would even feebly crank. Ten minutes later, it started right up.

I drove home via the 295. Its a bit longer, and can be brutal if there is any traffic, rather than the back roads that I usually take, but I wanted to run the engine as long as I could before turning it off.


I didn't drive the car on Saturday. I had a bit of a cough, and tried to stay inside as much as possible (with one excursion to sell Girl Scout Cookies at a local Acme market with Steph. Sold something like four boxes).

Sunday I decided to take the truck for an errand. If it wouldn't start, but there was power in the battery, I could bump start it down our steep and icy driveway (WAHOO!), or jump it off Julie's minivan if the battery was totally dead. I'd run and get the battery tested, and maybe buy a new one.

Luckily, it started right up, and didn't give me any trouble.

The clock would have to be reset at some point, and none of the presets worked on the radio. I had to dial in the NPR station.

So, this morning, I'm driving to work. I'm fiddling with the rheostat for the instrument lights, because I can't believe that the freakin' rheostat has suddenly decided to fail. I notice that, if I move it real fast, the instrument lights flicker on for a brief instant, then go out.

Sort of like a video game.

Its now a challenge.

I spend ten minutes of my morning commute flicking the knob back and forth, trying to stop it when the lights are on. Halfway to work, it happens: the instrument lights are functioning again.

I make a mental note to NEVER TOUCH THE KNOB AGAIN.

I have a pretty good day at work. One of my friends had to join my former team temporarily, and a spare chair in my office was a convenient spot for her to park for the day. It was nice to have a little company, and we got to chat a couple of times when we were both free.

Much work was done, and after too many hours at work, I got to go home.

Driving home in the truck. Decided to take the freeway. On a traffic free day, I can sail home on the freeway in less time then the back roads I usually drive, but its a little longer distance-wise.

I'm dialing in music stations, since W was getting a long interview on NPR. Couldn't find what I wanted, so my finger shot out to the instrument panel, beneath the lights, and turned on the CD changer.

The one that hasn't worked since fall.

Reflex. Go figure.

I realized what I had done, and watched as a CD loaded. Nothing too tricky, the player had always seemed to work, it just didn't seem to broadcast to the radio like it was supposed to.

Reached out to the radio, and started crawling across the dial.

Stopped when I heard the song.

Steely Dan, loud and clear. "FM".


Had a great drive home.


I think that the death of the battery had saved the CD changer (at some point in the near future, I had planned to replace it). When I was an undergrad, studying chip design, there was the concept of an 'unused state' in a circuit, that if your design tripped into it, couldn't get out unless the circuit was designed to get out.

Or someone hit the big reset button.

Let me try to explain:

Imagine that there are a series of states that a circuit could be in, and that they are all related to each other. There are rules for how and when to go from state to state. Imagine the circuit is in state A, which transitions to B, then goes to C, then back to A. You design the thing to cycle between these three happy states. Think of the states as things like 'loading a CD', 'playing a CD', and 'unloading a CD'.

Now imagine that something weird happens, and the system ends up in state NARWAHL. Now, there are no specific rules for ever transitioning out of state NARWAHL, so the circuit kind of sits there. Think of this state as 'look like everything works, but don't broadcast any music', since the rule to send out the music is only part of state C.

Old digital watches used to have this problem, when you would change the battery. The calender would get lost, since there was no rule on how many days were in the twenty-ninth month. There was usually a way to reset the IC in the watch to a known state, one of the correct states, and then things would work again.

I think that having the battery dead for a few hours caused the CD changer to fall back into a known state.


Good fortune comes in cycles, and it sums up.

I have to remember to check and see if the climate control is working in the morning.

Maybe I'll have new tires, too...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Public Face/Private Face

I'm a fan of the space elevator.

I wear a lanyard around my neck at work, from the Space Elevator 3rd International Conference. Its starting to wear out, and at some point, I will need to replace it with a new lanyard. I think I have three or four left from the conference, since Julie and I were the ones that made the lanyards, pens, and notebooks for the conference.

A couple of noteworthy types from the space elevator community have started a new company, Black Line Ascension. Hooray for them. I found out about it almost a week ago, from The Space Eleavator Blog.

One of my new co-workers for my new position at work noticed my lanyard, since, he too, is a fan of the project. We started talking, and I promised to send him a few interesting links to further his interests.

Black Line Ascension was one of the links that I sent him. I remembered that the url was their company name, but couldn't remember what the name of the company was, so went back to Space Elevator Blog to find it. They have a copy of the logo for Black Line Ascension, so I banged in the name, and discovered something interesting:

Black Line Ascension has two 'N's, not one, like their logo says.

The web site is the public face of Black Line Ascension, and they can't even spell their own name.

I've sent a couple of emails, with no response.

Bugs the heck out of me.

I baked a pecan pie tonight, from Pamela Z. Asquith's pie book. Three cups of pecans, dark brown sugar, light and dark corn syrup, a half cup of eggs, and a half stick of butter. It makes a very nutty, non-sweet pie.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Back from Arisia

We have returned from Arisia.

We had one theft during the art show, but sold one of my ray guns (The Cinco de Mayo) and a number of Julie's polymer dragons.

Julie had me write up little stories for each of my pieces before the show, that we put on the back of the bid sheets. The one for Cinco de Mayo read:

"Cinco de Mayo - Mixed Media Ray Gun by Tom Kastan
Two lovers, one stranger. When honor has been challenged, satisfaction must be found. The Cinco de Mayo is a non-working replica ray gun, commemorating the duel that will take place on the 5th of May, 2117, at dusk, on the sandy beach of La Paz, Baja California. Refreshments will be served."

The gentleman who bought the piece (in a nice, black velvet lined display case), has a persona named "Flamingo Montoya", who is apparently a decendent of Inigo Montoya from _The Princess Bride_, and was very happy to purchase the piece. His last words to me, while holding the ray gun to my head, was "Make more!".

Sunday, January 07, 2007

So...... How Was Your Day?

I awoke early this morning, to run errands. I've been working a lot of overtime at work, with a new assignment, so haven't had time for much of anything. I had to fill a propane tank, drop a couple of books off at the library, pick up some empty paint cans, and also stopped by Target for some sundries.

The plan was to re-fire a few of our pieces that we were not satisfied with, and to fire the one rocket that I have made in the last month or so. Julie had one of her vases with a dragon emerging from it, and I had several of my rockets. Some of the pieces we added more glaze to; primarily Seth's Luster, but also there was a dark patch on the body of one of my rockets that needed to be coated with two layers of white underglaze and a thin layer of clear crackle. We sat around the kitchen table, brushing on extra layers of glaze. Raku ware is non-vitreous, so the pieces were still able to absorb the water from the glaze, which is what helps bind the glaze to the piece. We got together enough pieces to do two firings, with each of us pulling two pieces from the kiln.

When I unwrapped the kiln, the base seemed really damp. Julie and I pulled out the burner, reduction chambers, tongs and gloves from the garage. I also turned on the water to the hose bib for the back of the house. It usually freezes by this time of year in New Jersey, so the hose bibs need to be turned off and drained to keep the pipes from cracking.

After attaching the burner to the newly filled tank, we loaded the first four pieces into the kiln (two refired rockets, one refired dragon, one new rocket), and lit things up.

Billows of steam rose from the kiln. At first, it rose from the central vent hole in the lid of the kiln. The pyrometer showed that the temperature rose to four hundred and fifty degrees, then stopped. There was so much energy being used to convert the water trapped in the soft brick of the kiln to steam that we couldn't get the temperature to go up. I finally throttled the kiln back to about quarter power, and decided to wait things out.

Steam started to come out of every opening of the kiln. There are cracks between kiln bricks, narrow holes that once carried power to the kiln elements, and gaps around four peep holes that I had plugged with hand whittled pieces of kiln brick. The steam would condense back to water on the the stainless steel casing around the kiln. The pressure gauge on the propane tank read about four and a half pounds.

An hour later, the pyrometer still read four hundred and fifty degrees. Steam was still pouring off the kiln, and could be seen rising from any exposed brick surface. Julie and I kept peeking in through the vent in the lid, to see how our pieces were doing, afraid that the glaze would be 'steam cleaned' off of the pieces. The propane tank was cold to the touch, and water was condensing onto its walls.

At about an hour an a half, the steam rising from the vent hole dropped considerably, and the temperature slowly started to rise. Frost and frozen water droplets covered the propane tank by now, and the pressure was starting to drop. By the time we reached a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, the pressure was down to two pounds and was dropping rapidly. The kiln was stalling. Killing the gas, we swapped out the propane tank for a half full one on our grill, re-lit the burner, and continued firing.

As we cleared fifteen hundred degrees, Julie and I would take turns going out every five minutes to see how the firing was commencing. We were also watching the Eagles game, and were a bit distracted. I went out for what I expected to be the last time, after we had cleared seventeen hundred degrees, and discovered that a spot weld holding the metal strap to the stainless steel sheath on the outside of the kiln had failed. The superheated kiln brick, lacking any external support, was opening like a flower.

I shouted for Julie, and then ran for the garage to try find something to hold the kiln together. I worked sixteen hours of overtime this week, and have been mentally preparing myself for a meeting on this coming Tuesday for the last four days, so I had a little bit of trouble identifying what I could use.

Julie donned her kiln gloves, and carefully pushed the kiln bricks back together. She then turned down the burner, since we had reached temperature.

I finally ran back outside with a spool of electrical wire and a pair of cutters. Donning my kiln gloves, I started stitching lengths of wire through the holes along the edge of the stainless steel sheath, while Julie held the steel back into position. We placed two heavy wires in place, figuring that we could add more once the kiln cooled.

Killing the gas, we grabbed our tongs, and working together, used them to open the lid of the kiln. We alternately pulled pieces from the kiln, each piece glowing a cheery orange hot, and some of the molten glaze mirror smooth, and placed them into individual reduction chambers, then sealed the lids. Two of the pieces had Seth's, so had to be 'flashed', which allows air back into the chamber, and the greasy yellow smoke from the burning newspaper inside 'woofs' into a ball of flame before the lid is slapped back down.

We placed the second load on top of the kiln to allow the pieces to start warming up (two rockets, one wide bowl). Julie opened up the reduction chamber with her dragon vase, and was very pleased with the results of the re-fire. There was lots of copper-penny on the piece, and some patches of blues, magenta, +and purples.

My smallest rocket, which was a re-fire reducing in an unused paint can, also turned out very nice, with similar colors as Julie's dragon, but with a shiny instead of a matte glaze. The previous firing had left the piece an unattractive, blotchy green, but now it looks much better.

The new rocket is dark red with matte black fins. The three engine bells start off copper around the base then transition to a metallic green near the mouth of the bell. The rocket has little canard fins in the mid-body. Its very striking.

The final rocket turned out great as well. The Seth's had some very nice effects on the belly of the rocket, a pearlescent appearance with golds, metallic light blues, pinks and yellows. The rocket body had a higher thermal mass than Julie's dragon, so held onto more heat when before I flashed the piece than the dragon had. The increased heat effects the thickness of the oxides that form on the surface, which results in the colors maturing differently.

We reloaded the kiln, and started firing again. We were up to twelve hundred degrees within minutes, when it started to rain( fat, heavy drops ). We decided to stop firing then, and killed the gas to the burner. I fetched our largest umbrella, and Julie held it over the kiln when we opened it up to allow the pieces to cool. We brought everything back into the garage to wait for tomorrow night, except for the four finished pieces.