Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Down in the (Bitcoin) Mines -- a review of the Butterfly Labs Jalapeno

You say they are blues, these old miner's blues
Now I must have sharpened these picks that I use
-Carter Family, Coal Miner's Blues

Mining has always been a losing proposition, and, though the Harlan County metaphor might be a stretch, but, aside from the danger to life and limb faced by those lyrical Appalachian miners, it's not much different if you've been trying to get in on the game of mining Bitcoin.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Not impossible: re-covering a vintage SX-70

A few years ago, engulfed in a wave of mania for instant photography whipped up by the Impossible Project going live, I purchased a classic SX-70 Polaroid camera (ok, actually I purchased two, but let's not talk about that.)
This second camera worked great -- the Alpha 1 model 2 has some fantastic upgrades over the original model that make it much nicer to work with.  (Things like a strap, tripod socket, and a split prism for focusing -- really essential stuff.)  Since then, I've run more than a dozen 8-exposure packs of Impossible film through it with great results.  
There was one problem, however: the vintage leatherette covering was pretty decrepit, so the camera was not too good aesthetically.

But, all was not lost.  I wasn't the only person who had this issue, and I found a few places around the web that manufacture replacement coverings for the camera.  There were a range, including some very nice real leather coverings.  Eventually, however, I chose one of skinslove's offerings, a self-adhesive die-cut vinyl called "Black Rainbow," based on classic Polaroid branding.  Awesome!
One problem did remain: actually putting it on.  The research I did was a bit discouraging.  After the packet showed up, I sat on it for a few months, but eventually I worked up the courage to get started.

Two of the techniques discussed on the web seemed promising.  One suggested leaving the camera soaking in isopropyl alcohol overnight, wrapped in a plastic bag.  The idea here was to dissolve some of the old adhesive, and also to thoroughly wet the old covering to fight crumbling.  Some people did worry about the alcohol seeping into the camera's workings, however.
The other suggestion was the heat gun -- this is the way I went, since a heat gun can be applied a bit more precisely.  I heated each panel gently to soften the ancient adhesive, then used a painter's knife to slowly peel and scrape away the covering. 

As you can see, it was a messy process -- the old leatherette simply shredded as I removed it.  The mini Dyson came in very handy managing this.  However, I was able to get most of the panels off in large pieces.

The amazing thing about this was that the old adhesive was somehow still tacky after 35 years or so of service -- which meant that its removal was a second painstaking process, depending on Goo-gone, paper towels, and ton of cotton swabs.

I applied blue painter's tape in a few places where it seemed like there were holes underneath the panels, to keep any detritus from entering.  It seemed to do the trick.

Once everything was clean, applying the decals was fairly simple - I just put them on, one at a time, very carefully.  Self-adhesive vinyl tends to be pretty tolerant of adjustments, and a few panels did require some fine-tuning, but eventually went on just fine.  One small complaint was that the bottom-front panel seemed to be just a tiny bit small -- one edge of the metal plate you can see in the photo above is still visible after installation.

 However, the camera is much more presentable than it was previously, and all it took was about $30 for a new decal, 2-3 hours of time, and a few of the old standbys from the toolbox.  I've run a couple of packs of Impossible through it since with no ill effects, and it's really nice to do so without the covering flaking off.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Skyrim: Meandering in the North.

Open up a beer
You say get over here
and play a video game

Skyrim may perhaps be the most indulgent video game ever released.  As everyone who might ever read this post knows, it's huge, it's part of an old series, and tons and tons of people bought and played the hell out of it.  It's a phenomenon, and I'm sure that I have personally played the game for more than a hundred hours.  

It has been a hundred shameful, couch-sagging, tube-sock-wearing, beer-swilling hours of guydom.  

I've played more than a few video games.  Some I would recommend immediately to anyone.  Others, I would recommend only to the most craven old-school video-game recidivists.  Skyrim falls squarely into the second category.

But why?  Surely it's not the majestic open world, with its vistas, or the detail of its characters; nor is it the gameplay, which many have decried due the overly-simply swordplay.  How can you really complain when the archery and spell-casting mechanics are so good?  The melee weapons aren't graceful, but adding in blocking with a shield is a sufficiently engaging  experience.

I'll even give the dungeons a pass -- even though they're almost all purely linear, they're just so damn beautiful it almost doesn't matter.

Nor is my problem the alarming lapses that break the spell cast by the finely grained detail.  (You might have thought it would hit them the 3rd or 4th time they had a voice actor read the "Arrow in the knee" line...)  How can you really complain about a few lines being copied when there are so many characters, so many stories, and so many events that can happen? Sure, the experience is uneven -- they've lavished more time on some quests than others, and of course it shows.  But to use some office-speak, with so many balls in the air, some are sure to drop.  

The problem certainly isn't with the leveling mechanic -- indeed, this is what Skyrim is all about.  Want to kill monsters?  Keep at it!  Level your weapons skills.  Of course, it's the alchemy, enchanting, and smithing that really get the compulsive impulses flowing.  This is where the gamer's heart of darkness truly lays: ritualized button-clicking, calibrated to find the quickest ways to level up.  Buy materials, make weapons, enchant, more, craft more...level up.  Adventure only after you exhaust the possibilities or you run out of money...or the merchants do.  Note the imperative: one started there's not a lot of choice left.  It's compulsive, solitary, and a bit disgusting.  Masturbation is the obvious metaphor here.

And yet this isn't the issue.
This is the problem with Skyrim: it just doesn't matter.  I know -- it's a video game.  Of course it doesn't matter.  Sure.  But then, the same can be said about movies or novels.  And yet we're not surprised when a movie or novel creates drama which draws us in.  The problem with Skyrim is that it fails to create the same kind of drama we experience in other contemporary games -- and a big part of that is because your choices have no weight or consequence.  And in a world of this size, there are many, many choices that feel like they should.  At the end of the day, onanistic 14-year compulsion may be the only reason to play Skyrim.

Sure there are quests with great moments;  sudden dragon attacks.  Powerful enemies.  This is exciting stuff, right?  And times it is.  If Skyrim had come out a few years ago, it would be enough.  

But then a few things happened.  Specifically, Heavy Rain and the Mass Effect series.  When video games demand as much respect in universities, both of these titles will surely studied as early masterpieces, for a simple reason: your actions have consequences.  Characters -- important ones -- live and die based on your choices, or even how well you play the game.  

Furthermore, the writing, voice acting, and production are strong enough to make you care.  In these games, the package coheres into something that's more gripping than all but the best movies; as the experience spreads out over the hours, you become closer to the characters than is possible in a film.  In a film, you sympathize with the characters.  In these games, you become the characters you play.

Don't get me wrong.  Skyrim is a good video game.  It's just not a great video game.  Let me put it this way: the best games out today (Mass Effect, Heavy Rain, perhaps Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted, or L.A. Noire) are games that you don't play when your significant other is out -- they want to see what happens next.  On the other hand, Skyrim is a game you only play when they're out, and nobody seems to mind.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tip of the cap: selling parts

Old vs. new

About ten years ago I sprang for a set of headphones.  I spent about a hundred bucks on a set from Sennheiser called the "HD 25 SP."  I liked them for a couple of reasons:

1) good isolation from outside noise
2) deep, physical bass

In the intervening years, I did a lot of things, including moving back and forth across the country, getting jobs, losing them, traveling various places...meanwhile, mp3 players became popular, which were then eclipsed by smartphones which also played mp3s.  Headphones can be very handy and these got their fair share of use -- especially since their noise isolation rivals the popular active cancellation models.

(Audio side note...keep in mind that the active models really work best at blotting out static white noise, like a plane engine, while a set with passive attenuation will cut all sound equally, without batteries or impacting sound quality.  Also, though I understand the noise cancellation itself is very good, you pay a premium for anything labeled "Bose," and that premium may not always be reflected in the sound quality.)

My pair got pretty beat.  As a member of our disposable society, I probably should have just tossed them and found a better pair.

There was only one problem: I couldn't find anything I liked better.  At least, nothing with the same level of isolation and sound quality, unless I wanted to pay a lot more.  Sure, I could upgrade to the HD 25 SP's big brother, the HD 25 (basically the same headphones with some nicer features, very popular with DJs and sportscasters) or just plunk down another hundo for a set of the HD 25 SP II which replaced my set.

Both options seemed pretty silly, especially since the only problem was that the pads were a bit ratty, as you can see on the left -- the pad's "skin" had started to separate around the edges.  I attempted a patch with some electrical tape at some point...with mediocre results.

Along the way, I'd found a link to a set of replacement pads.  The pad attachment on these things is a bit fiddly, so I'd forgotten about it...until earlier this week, when I plunked down to get a set of replacement pads from good old B&H.

And tonight, thanks to the quick shipping, the old phones are as good as new, or at least as close as I can tell.  Sennheiser: classy move making these pads available and selling them through reasonable channels.  You might not have sold me another pair of headphones, but you have earned yourself my recommendation.

So: if you're on the market for some sweet cans, check out the Sennheiser HD 25 and SP.

Things to be ignored during this article:
1) the Bittman article from the Times used for staging.
2) the fact that the "DJ" on the Sennheiser pages is always wearing the same headphones...which don't match the ones on the page you're looking at...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Heirloom tech: the stainless steel vacuum flask.

Image courtesy of Jeff the Gardener
When I was younger, I remember my father loading a vacuum flask in the morning before he made the long drive to school outside Boston.  He'd dump most of a pot of coffee into a tremendous bottle that looked like nothing so much as a gigantic, green-toned mortar shell.

That mortar shell was, of course, the classic Stanley flask.  My father's is still in better shape than this one, but it takes quite a bit of abuse to destroy one of these things.  And note the specification: it'll keep your beverage at temp for 24 hours.

The stainless flask is truly a brilliant device.  It uses no energy to maintain temperatures -- it's just metal, impervious steel, odorless and tasteless.  The liquid space is nestled in an evacuated cavity so the only heat transfer happens through the metal itself.  The metal only connects at the neck of the bottle, which can only transfer heat slowly -- over 24 hours or so.

Glass-lined vacuum flasks (like Thermos) are perhaps even more efficient.  However, they're not as durable, and if you've ever broken a glass vacuum flask, you wouldn't want to do it again.  So it's stainless all the way for me.

Before we go, I'll leave you with a few other high-fliers on the stainless flask scene:

The Thermos Nissan 34 oz.

The Zojirushi Tuff Slim (note detailed temperature performance specs)

Or, if you're cheap like me...Ikea always has one or two very affordable options.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Heirloom Tech: Zassenhaus Coffee Grinder

Move over, Mercedes and BMW: here is German engineering at its finest.  It's an elegant, zombie-proof (as in, will continue to be useful after the zombie apocalypse) method of grinding coffee, from the finest Turkish grind up to a decent size for pour-over, if not quite French Press.

Yes, this is the Zassenhaus Turkish Coffee Mill, one of the finest pieces of coffee kit available for purchase.  Zassenhaus does make some other coffee mills (including the always-in-demand knee mill) but the shiny brass Turkish mill is the sexiest of the bunch.  While the wooden box mills summon images of hardy New Englanders on a chilly winter morning, the Turkish mill seems more suited for a charming square in Greece (or, uh...Turkey.)

But back to the zombie-proof aspect of all this.  Yes, this machine depends on the sweat of your brow to pulverize your coffee into very tiny, even particles (the quality of the grind is as good as you'll get from any powered grinder...probably better, since there is no motor to heat the grinds) but in exchange you'll never have to worry about the power being out.  You can travel with it.  You can have beautiful, even coffee grinds in the woods...or yes, after attacks by zombies or malevolent aliens have taken the power grid offline.  While your cell phones and videogame consoles lay dormant, undone by the lack of electricity and the near-complete breakdown of society, zombie-proof heirloom technology like this hand grinder will soldier on, unbowed.  Even if the breakdown of society has slowed the import of good coffee beans. 

And for that, we salute you, Zassenhaus Turkish Coffee Mill.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Brush-on Super Glue

Everybody loves superglue, right?  Cyanoacrylate glues are ubiquitous because they are strong and quick-drying.  But most of them are packaged in tiny tubes where you're supposed to just dab your glue joint with a drop from the end of the thing.  Eventually you stick your hand in there and get the fast-drying glue on your hands, or get the workpiece stuck to yourself.

Hey, what if you instead had a brush?  No, not a disposable glue brush, but one integrated into the bottle?

Guess what: it exists.  A few brands make it, Quiktite, Loctite, and best of all, Stewart-Macdonald, the guitar supply company. 

Yes, this is as amazing as it seems.  It is a completely new superglue experience and renders the tiny tubes obsolete.  100% no-brainer instant classic.