Don't fixate on your tools

To today's ears, much of the electronic music circa 2000 is laughable.  There are a lot of songs with formulaic bleeping and bonking noises but no regard for musicality.  I loved it at the time, and I still listen to some of it, but when the musicians and fans got over the novelty of using a laptop to generate music, it felt like waking from a long, weird dream.  It felt like a revolution until we realized it was just hardware.  Similar things happen in other fields too, for example--you knew this was coming--social media.  Sure, your new phone/tablet/online community/syndication service is awesome, but quit playing around and do something meaningful.  Connect with your audience.

I was going to write a longer post, but I think I've made my point.  Instead I'll leave you with a couple musical examples.  First, here's a song I used to really like but I now find kind of tired.  I call it "the song with four notes", Sandstorm by Darude (2001).
Here's one that's aged a bit better:  Pearls Girl by Underworld (1996).
Andalucia red yellow red yellow....

Experiences become narratives that become bricks in the path that got us here.

Have you ever noticed that when you and your partner are telling stories about the things that have happened to you, the stories get tighter and tidier as time goes on?  Details get omitted if they don't contribute to the way you're interpreting it for the friends you're talking to at the moment.  You and your partner may even engage in a subtle public battle over the meaning of your shared past, like a watered-down real-life Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Our life has a layer of incidental detail that influences the way we experience it.  In the retelling, we strip off these details to make neat narratives that are easy to relate and easy to hear and make us look clever and entertaining.  These narratives are malleable for a time, like clay, but eventually they ossify, hardening into bricks.  When we look into our past, these stones fit together without gaps to form a path ... a path sturdily constructed to answer the question "how did I get here?".

We simplify our stories to make them easy, but the truth is that our lives are not steps from one stone to the next.  They're buzzing with possibility, with different things to notice and different ways to think and feel.  A life lived consciously cannot be distilled into a novel.

This phenomenon came up in a conversation I had with some friends; the Buddhist tradition explicitly fights it, making an effort to include all the details when events are recalled.  It honors the listener by assuming they're smart enough to come to their own conclusions.  Todd Kashdan recommends that when you have a good experience, you should try not to pigeonhole it with an explanation - the moment you do that, the event is dead.  If you allow the experience to be surrounded by all the tiny details that came along with it, you allow new meanings to continue to be created, and your happiness to go on.

A short catalog of purists

  • Vodka martini hater
  • Vinyl LP nut
  • "Everything is better in Europe" dude
  • That one guy who refuses to buy a car with a spoiler unless the car needs it for downforce at 150mph

Little technical problems add up to big money

The Pentagon estimates that 3% of America's GDP is spent fighting corrosion.  That's right:  rust costs us $1000 per person per year.  They have an entire budgetary office dedicated to corrosion R&D.  You might be surprised, but I'm not - corrosion is a major subfield of materials science.

They could have said the same thing about friction.  In my last gig, I worked on lubrication, which saps 10% of all the energy (read:  fuel, carbon, dollars) used in the transportation sector.  That's not just cars but also heavy trucks, rail, aircraft, and watercraft, with a total energy consumption measured in tens of "quads".  That's a euphemistic abbreviation for quadrillions of BTUs of heat per year.  One quad is equivalent to about 170 million barrels of oil.  I'm not kidding.

Farther from my personal expertise, the nation's electricity distribution system is not perfectly efficient.  In getting current from the power plant out to houses and factories, about 7% of the power is lost as heat.  A lot?  Yeah.  Easy to fix?  Not very.

These are the seemingly simple scientific issues that it turns out have vast influence on our nation and our planet.  This is why we professionalized science:  because there are problems to solve that are both deep and immense.

Consumerism vs the liberal arts education

The other day I was reminded of the quaint concept of the "liberal arts education" when the shooting of Rep. Giffords in Arizona was blamed on the suspect's ownership of Mein Kampf.  Whatever the merits of that argument, or the question of whether the shooter had even had such an education, I wonder whether today's college students so much as know what a liberal education means.

When I was an undergrad in the late 80s, I got it, barely.  The professors explicitly told us.  They pushed back against students who regarded taking English courses as the educational equivalent of eating broccoli, and wanted to dive right into their major instead.  I get the impression that the last 20 years haven't been kind to the professors' arguments; as the rise in cost of a bachelor's degree has vastly outstripped inflation, students have focused on ROI.  That's a consumerist viewpoint, and as a result, universities have come to resemble trade schools more and more.  This has even trickled down to secondary education, in the form of the "no child left behind" act.  The objective is to produce qualified wage-earners rather than engaged and well-rounded citizens.

Well, consumerism is a self-perpetuating system that trains people to earn more money by making things so that they can spend more money buying the things other people made.  The whole cycle is predicated on the brief rush of pleasure of an acquisition.  But happiness isn't just increasing the number of pleasant moments in your life - unless you consider addiction a happy condition.  The pleasure of acquisition is myopic; happiness requires perspective.  The liberal arts education used to give students the tools to get that perspective, but consumerism wants the resources that went into that education.  (Start your major early!)  I'd even go so far as to say that people with real perspective weaken consumerism, because they're capable of choosing to earn less in order to have a more satisfying life. 

"Kids these days?"  No, that's not my point.  The saving grace in this situation is the current generation's charity work and community involvement.  The grades and extracurricular activities expected of college-bound high school students today astonish me.  If I had graduated from high school in 2010 instead of 1987, barely in the top 20% of my class and with only one theater production to show for all those evenings and weekends, I'd never have been accepted to the University of Michigan.  The exposure to the broader community and the chance to be altruistic goes a long way towards providing perspective.  The competitiveness of the college admissions process might just be a backhanded way of giving these young folks the tools they need to have a better life.

Tech geekery: heat pipes

For the last four years, I've been working on thermal management products - mostly materials and devices designed to keep hot things cool.  I've become familiar with heat pipes and vapor chambers and I think they're cool as hell (NPI).

There are heat pipes in most laptops these days, carrying heat from your CPU to the edge of your computer.  A heat pipe looks like a ~1/4" copper tube, maybe somewhat flattened, and it's usually attached to a solid block at one end (which sits on the heat source) and has fins on the other end to radiate the heat.  A heat pipe can conduct more heat than a piece of solid copper of the same size - but how?  Copper has the second-highest thermal conductivity of any metal!
Remember that heat is carried by convection, conduction, and radiation.  A solid chunk of copper uses conduction, but a heat pipe replaces that with convection, or more accurately, gas flow.  The heat is carried in the form of a hot wind.  The pipe does it, ingeniously, by evaporating a liquid at the hot end and allowing it to re-condense at the cold end.  The liquid is carried from the cold end back to the hot (providing more to evaporate) by a wick.  That's pretty much it:  it's a hollow tube lined with a wick, and partially filled with alcohol or water.  Hot air goes one way and liquid goes the other way, and in some cases the airflow can be supersonic!  It'll carry as much heat as you can dump into it, as long as the wick can carry the liquid back to the evaporation point.  If the evaporator dries out, though, it quits in a hurry. 

There are variations - vapor chambers for heat spreading, Variable Conductance Heat Pipes, etc.  These things are like magic, I'm just amazed that they work.

The advantage of an engaged user community

Community-building seems to be on a lot of people's minds these days.  In the Internet commerce sphere, its importance was acknowledged from the very start.  Here are some examples of engaged user communities, some focused on product reviews and some not. 

Consumer products:  They sell tires.  And wheels.  Not much else.  Their customer feedback mechanism is much more detailed than just a star rating:  after you buy tires, they allow you to rate wet traction, dry traction, snow and ice, etc, all separately.  And with dozens of user ratings on every tire you might consider buying, they're the definitive source of real-world information., electronics retailer.  Their users include real experts (that is, people just a little smarter than you) whose opinions are invaluable.  Newegg's service is good enough to keep their customers satisfied with the retail part of the experience, so they don't have to be afraid when those customers return and comment on the products.

Entertainment:, song lyrics database.  I've become quite fond of this site, but then, its competition scrapes the bottom of the barrel.  The conversation here is mostly quite thoughtful.  I've found surprises like the theory that Interpol's "PDA" is about date rape, and sincere but amusing nonsense like Moving Clocks Run Slow by We Were Promised Jetpacks being about Einsteinian special relativity.

Hobbies:, recipe database.  It's a Conde Nast site, so it contains all the recipes from Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and several others.  The wonderful thing is that users who rate recipes are always careful to mention any changes they made, and how they might change it if they made it again.  This way, you don't have to look at an unfamiliar technique or ingredient and wonder how it will work out - you can see how other people dealt with it.  Other sites have made similar achievements in this space:, whose database is also contained in
DIY sites covering loudspeaker and amplifier building are great guides for their users, partly because people stick with hobbies for a long time.  And of course Linux, wikipedia, etc. were built by users and have pretty much become institutions as a result.

Engagement is power, I think.  The people putting their energy into these communities are amateurs - with very few exceptions, they don't make a living at whatever they're contributing to.   But their collective efforts build something with a life of its own.  For a retailer, that means return business.  For a hobby, it means people being able to accomplish things they otherwise couldn't.

Unnecessary things

Directions on boxes of macaroni and cheese
Standard operating procedures for toilet paper
Warning labels on handguns
Meetings about meetings about meetings
Ingredients on bottled water
Use and care tags on babies
User reviews and star ratings for continents
Photos of knees and fingertips
Instructions for toothpicks

DIY cranberry liqueur

I've just bottled a batch of cranberry liqueur.  I had done it in college and remembered it being pretty good, so I thought I'd give it a shot again.  While it was steeping, I actually contemplated doing my own distillation, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Ta-daa!  I bottled it in the bottle from the Calvados I just replaced, and had enough left over for one rather large drink.  The end result has a strong, authentic cranberry flavor, but unfortunately also a strong, authentic vodka smell.  I guess Stoli wasn't the best choice of base spirit.  Here's how it started out:
I used Gunther Anderson's recipe, without the spices.  Inside that jar is a pound of cranberries, 1 1/2 cups of vodka, some sugar, lemon peel, and orange peel.  It was shaken gently every day for the past four weeks.

The hardest part, actually, was straining it before bottling.  I started by wringing the juice out of the cranberry solids, wrapped in cheesecloth.  Afterwards, the liquid was quite cloudy, so I filtered it through coffee filters.  The problem was that I'd pour a half cup of liquid into the funnel and some of it would come through the filter, but then it'd just stop.  The particulates were clogging the filter papers.  (Paper towels did the same thing.)  So I gathered up the edges of the coffee filters, held them tightly, and gently squeezed the "bag" to push the liquid out through the filter paper.  I went through about a dozen coffee filters that way:
It took a couple hours total.  It's a good thing I'm patient.  As you can see in the first picture, the resulting liqueur is not exactly clear, but at least it doesn't look like that gelatinous cranberry sauce.

If I were to do this again, I might go with a smooth rum rather than vodka.  I just find vodka rather obnoxious, even the expensive stuff.  But during the Christmas season, as I pondered my dwindling Calvados supplies, I remembered another college experience:  some friends and I distilled some "hard" (spoiled) apple cider into applejack.  They'd got about a pallet of it from a farmer.  After the first distillation, there were about five liters of 60-80 proof applejack that was a little rough but had a really nice apple flavor.  A couple liters were sacrificed for re-distillation, and the end result was high enough in alcohol to burn when lit.  It tasted better too.

A search quickly led me to a couple very useful-looking sites:, a comprehensive DIYer site that addresses all aspects of the process, from fermenting the starting material through distilling, filtering, and aging.  Here, for example, is the page about fermenting and distilling fruit (say, for example, apples).  The site seems to have been compounded out of user comments in an online community.  Some of the users got downright industrial about it.  One guy worked out a recipe for rum using only sugar and other things you can get in a supermarket.  That's great, but I don't know what compelled him to make 720 liters of it.  The other useful site was Smiley's Home Distilling, which sells stills and supplies. Apparently you can get a "tabletop distiller" which is a  distilled-water machine modified to run at the right temperatures for alcohol.

Luckily a family member in Indiana gave me a bottle of Calvados, so I don't have to go to that much trouble.  Maybe someday.  It sounds like fun and hard work.  It also makes me wonder what it would make the house smell like.