Finally, a Smartphone that Tempts Me

Published at 15:10 on 27 January 2014

This phone is tempting, despite still having all the disadvantages inherent in a smart phone.

Alas, I suspect the temptation to be mostly academic. If the phone can do all which is claimed of it, then expect the government to promptly ban it. If not officially, then behind the scenes by getting the cell phone carriers — who have a track record of being the willing lackeys of the surveillance state — to agree to not support it, by deliberately crippling their networks, if need be.

The latter wouldn’t be hard to do; just block all serial numbers in the Blackphone’s range.

Maybe He Was Trying to Convince Himself

Published at 08:49 on 15 January 2014

About thirteen months ago, an acquaintance of mine was nearly aghast when I spoke of my desire to move out of Seattle. Despite my mentioning how urban things matter less than nature things to me, and how Seattle is not the best of matches for me as urban attributes go, he kept bringing up the advantages of living near the center of all the action, as he saw it.

A few months later I find out that Mr. City Life has a second home in the country that he visits regularly. At my current salary, I suppose I could afford such a thing, but I don’t want the hassle of managing two homes nor to become addicted to a higher salary. So given that I am to have a single home, I’d prefer it not to be in the big city, if I can find a way to make such a home work for me (and I have).

Last month, he starts posting from the Portland radical faerie e-mail list, as if he now lives there. Turns out he does. So not only was he of mixed feelings about the city versus the country, he wasn’t really all that attached to Seattle, either. Interesting.

Yet another reason why it’s always a bad idea to do something just because of what you think someone else might think or say: that other person may be putting on a false front, too.

Lessons Learnt Today

Published at 21:00 on 12 January 2014

Braiding 10 gauge copper wire is something that sounds simple but is in practice very difficult. It’s not possible to easily get a nice, tight braid, because by the time you’ve bent it enough to braid it loosely, it’s become work hardened to the point where it needs to be annealed yet again if you want to bend it tighter. While possible, doing dozens to hundreds of mini-annealings as one braids would be such a pain that one is best off forgetting about using the braiding technique (at least if one is focused on tight braids).

It may not be classic fire scale, but heating copper to the point of annealing it makes it significantly more reactive than it is at room temperature. Reactive enough, in fact, that it instantly forms a lovely black layer of oxides. The classic boric-acid-in-denatured-alcohol barrier flux that silversmiths use does an excellent job of preventing most of that oxidation. And it’s not necessary to purchase insane quantities* of boric acid from a jewelry supply house; any drug store should have it in their first-aid section.

The barrier flux won’t prevent all oxidation. What it doesn’t prevent can be removed using what’s called a “pickle”. You don’t have to buy special “pickle compound” from a jewelry supply house; just dissolve 2 tablespoons of salt in 1 cup of vinegar. Keep it on the warm side (at least 100 °F) for best results. Since it’s winter, I just kept the jar on top of a baseboard heater today. Salt-and-vinegar was apparently the standard pickle compound before jewelery supply houses started convincing people to buy sodium bisulphate from them.† (Hence the name “pickle”, because it’s essentially a stonger, saltier version of what’s used for the food-preserving technique that goes by the same name.)

Do not under any circumstances pickle anything with dissimilar metals, unless you want to see the more reactive of the metals become electroplated with the less reactive metal. It was something of a surprise to see the brass design highlights on a bracelet turned to the same copper as the rest of the piece. Thankfully, it was a very thin layer of copper which was easily removed with some aggressive polishing.

* For some reason, they are fond of selling the stuff in minimum 5 pound lots, which would be enough to last me several lifetimes, most likely.

† In defense of the bisulphate, it does apparently last longer than the salt/vinegar mixture. For me, that’s no big problem, as I’m occasionally making jewelry as a hobby. Another plus of the salt/vinegar pickle is that commercial pickle is yet another thing that jewelry supply houses insist on selling in insanely-large (for a mere hobbyist) lots.

The Torch

Published at 10:29 on 12 January 2014

Ahh, fire. I’ve always been fascinated by it and it would be dishonest to deny that part of the attraction of experimenting with jewelry making is that it will involve using fire.

Professional-grade jewelers’ torches all tend to have two problems: First, the price. It’s justifiable to spend hundreds of dollars on a tool you will be using daily to earn your living. It’s far more difficult to justify the expense for one hobby out of many. Second, the gas or gasses. There’s basically two options: propane and oxygen or acetylene and air. The first requires a large high-pressure oxygen tank of the sort that’s banned in most residential strictures. The second requires an acetylene tank, which is also typically banned by fire codes. You need a dedicated studio space to use each. Again, that’s a completely reasonable expense if jewelry is your business, but hard to justify if it’s just a hobby.

The alternative generally recommended for the rest of us are small butane torches of the sort used by chefs to caramelize crème brûlée. The trouble with those is that the fuel supply is in the handle of the torch. Note I said “fuel supply” and not “gas supply”; the butane is actually a liquid under pressure. That’s significant, because if you fail to hold the torch sufficiently upright, the liquid will get into the torch nozzle and either cause a surge of flame or make the torch go out.

I’ve used such torches before and I’ve found it awkward to be forced to always hold the torch upright. I want the freedom to hold the torch head at whatever angle best suits me, and that means using a torch with a hose between the fuel supply and the head.

Thankfully, there’s a third option out there: the Orca Torch, sometimes marketed as the “E-Z Torch” or the “Whale Torch”. It doesn’t require bottled oxygen and it can run on the same sort of disposable propane cylinders my Coleman camp stove uses, which can be purchased at my local hardware store. It’s not as good as a professional jewlers’ torch, but it’s good enough for me. And the hose lets me wield it at whatever angle is most natural.

One word of caution: there’s lots of bait-and-switch artists out there who will sell you less than a complete torch outfit. In order to have an Orca Torch you can actually use, you need all of: the torch head, a set of three nozzles, a hose, and an adapter to let you connect the hose to either a refillable tank or a disposable cylinder.

The link above is from a company whose page for the torch lists the complete outfit and which openly says that you need to order a tank adapter as well. It’s the source I chose for the torch, because of their evident honesty.

There is another torch option you may run across at your local hardware store, such as this item. The problem is that oxygen’s boiling point is very low, so unlike with propane, you can’t hold it as a liquid under a relatively low pressure; only a limited amount of compressed oxygen gas can be stored in a thin-walled disposable cylinder. Thus, these torches are best avoided for the simple reason that the disposable oxygen cylinders they use need very frequent (as in every 8 minutes of torch use) replacement.

The Bench and Workspace

Published at 10:02 on 12 January 2014

I live in an apartment so I don’t have a garage or basement to turn into a workspace. I do have a spare bedroom which I mostly use as a home office but which had room for a small work bench, so I decided to make a corner of that room my workspace.

First, one needs a bench. If you’re going to do anything other than the most basic jewelry making, you’re going to need to solder and anneal things. That involves using a torch, molten solder, getting pieces of metal red-hot, cutting/sanding/filing, and other messy tasks. You don’t want to do things like that on any item of fine furniture you don’t want to ruin with burn marks and dents.

I chose Harbor Freight Item No. 60723 as my bench. First, it’s small for a work bench, demanding only 4 linear feet of space. That’s important; most benches take up 6 or 8 feet. Space is at a premium for me. Second, it has a pegboard back. That lets me have a pegboard without drilling holes in my landlord’s walls and getting zinged for damage when I move out. The latter point was a huge plus for me since a pegboard was a must for me and I was trying to design a way to have a one without drilling holes in the walls. When I ran across this bench, I knew instantly my quest for both bench and pegboard had been resolved.

The downside is it’s not a top-quality item. That’s OK for me, because I’m not in my long-term home yet. I don’t want to spend lots of money on anything which might end up being suboptimal in whatever longer-term home I move into in the coming year or two. The bench is sturdy enough.

Next comes the floor. Or rather, the carpet. I will be producing metal filings and occasionally dropping globs of molten solder or red-hot metal items onto the floor (the latter two not deliberately, of course, but “Oops!” happens). A single such “Oops!” and there goes a chunk of cash when I get zinged for having destroyed the carpet in the spare room at move-out time.

My solution was to purchase a standard 4 by 8 foot sheet of plywood and have it cut 2 feet from the end. The big piece went on the floor under and extending 4 feet in front from the bench. The small piece went on top of the bench to provide a surface to protect the one the bench came with.

I’ll add a photo soon showing the completed set-up.


Re-Visiting Metalworking

Published at 09:43 on 12 January 2014

I played with making jewelry out of hardware store items a bit about five years ago. The results got noticed and got approving comments, but at the time I was too wrapped up in other things and basically put that embryonic hobby on hold until later. I had (and still have) plenty of hobbies and interests competing for limited time.

Last fall I decided that “later” meant the coming winter. So I’ve been slowly acquiring the things I need to experiment more with making jewelry, starting with a workbench and tools. Since what I’m doing is unconventional (mainly copper and brass, while most resources focus on silver), I thought it might be useful to relate my experiences and research here. I plan on doing so in subsequent articles under the category “metalworking”.

Why I Almost Dropped Out of College

Published at 09:07 on 10 January 2014

Apropos this, I disagree with the answer in the headline. Science may be harder than other subjects but I also found it much more interesting than other subjects. It was always my favorite subject in school. Difficulty is not an obstacle if a subject is interesting.

Yet, I almost dropped out from a scientific major in college. The issue wasn’t the work, it was that the work was mostly ritualized bullshit that had very little to do with actual learning. And most of the professors obviously cared more about their research than their teaching.

On the latter point: why shouldn’t they? Excelling as a teacher seldom gets one the recognition and rewards that excelling as a researcher does. Any professor who prioritizes teaching over research has chosen to buck the system and sacrifice formal career rewards for the intrinsic reward of doing well at a job s/he enjoys and values. The latter is admirable, but it’s not the way to get a set of professors who typically value teaching as the number one priority.

So, there I was, struggling with lots of BS homework that was getting in the way of side projects I was doing on my own that were leading to real learning. Mathematics and physics were particular problems, since I comprehend both in different ways than most. The lectures, books, and assignments were mostly mystifying and comprehension could only come as the result of extensive pondering and research on my own.

There were two straws that almost broke the camel’s back. The first was when honor students would come to me, the student who was struggling to keep a B- grade point average, asking for help with key concepts they were incapable of grasping. The second was my difficulty of of getting courses taught by my favorite mathematics professor (one of a select few who did not mainly mystify and confuse me), who also had a reputation of being one of the hardest professors in the department. In response to students avoiding the hard professors, that department had a policy of not publishing who was going to be teaching various courses, which frustrated my desire to get courses taught by that professor. It became clear to me that formalized education was a mostly corrupt institution with little overall net value.

I persevered, but got out as soon as I could with a B.S. degree and refused to consider going further. If I’m to be assigned lots of busy-work that gets in the way of my self-directed learning and exploration, I figured I might as well get that busy work in the form of a job where someone else pays me to do it, as opposed to at a university where I am paying for the same nuisance.