The Jimmy Chou Recipe

Jimmy Chou is a Chinese chef who worked for my grandparents on and off starting in the seventies.  He threatened to quit periodically, and then finally retired for good (probably) last year.
One day while he was cooking I asked Jimmy to teach me to cook.  He gave me this recipe, which I've since done my best to get tired of, with no success.

Buy 1 pound chicken, pork, or beef.  Chicken breasts are easier than thighs.  Pork chops are great.  Throw the meat in the freezer for 10-20 minutes to make it easier to slice.
Meanwhile, thinly slice the holy trinity of Jimmy Choo cooking: garlic, ginger, and green onion (spring onion).  Per pound of meat, I use 2-4 cloves garlic, a good cubic inch of ginger, and a bunch of spring onion.  Use just the white parts of the spring onions, saving the green tops for garnish.  For the garlic and ginger, a fine matchstick julienne is ideal.
Slice the meat as thinly as possible with a sharp knife.  This takes some practice.  One sixteenth to one eighth inch is good.  This helps the meat cook properly in the wok.  Consistency is more important than thinness.  Slice against the grain of the meat.
Marinade the meat in 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1-2 T sugar, plenty of black pepper, and 1 T peanut oil.  I substitute maple syrup for sugar sometimes, especially with pork; brown sugar works too.  The sugar isn't entirely essential but it adds a glaze.  You can use any old soy sauce, but Jimmy insists upon the Wan Ja Sha brand, which is available in most Asian supermarkets.  Marinade at least 20 minutes, preferably a couple hours minimum, longer for beef.
Prepare your wok for frying by heating it on medium-high with a few T of peanut oil and a little garlic, ginger, and spring onion.  Cook a minute or so--"just until they start to smell", as Jimmy says.  Fry the meat in batches: Pick up a quarter or a fifth of a pound of meat, allow some marinade to drip off, and drop into the wok.  Let brown a minute or two before stir-frying each batch.  If you sliced thinly, a batch should take no more than a couple minutes to cook.  Add more oil between batches if needed.  Don't cook with very much marinate or the meat won't brown properly.  Don't over-cook--remember that meat continues to cook slightly while sitting.
Stir-fried, steamed, or par-boiled vegetables are often served with this.  Bok choi works well.  Immediately before serving, the meat and the vegetable are combined in the wok to re-heat.  The meat-veggie mixture is often served over rice.

This recipe is a religion and a way of life.  One week, I made variations of this for dinner every night by varying the protein and the vegetable.  Scale up to feed an army.  Go gourmet or go freegan.  Make it vegetarian by substituting tempeh.  Either way, slice thinly and use good soy sauce.

Simulating Shading with Autodesk Ecotect

A couple friends are working on a grant to build a high-performance house on our campus.
They want to put solar PV panels and a solar thermal domestic hot water collector on the house's roof, but they weren't sure how to configure everything to prevent one panel from shading another.

Doing this kind of analysis is fairly straightforward in Autodesk Ecotect.  I was given a 2D .dwg file, so I just had to rotate each block of panels up 20° using a 2.5D CAD program.  Then I imported as a .dxf into Ecotect.  Not seamless yet, but not terrible either.

The graphics below show the percentage of time each panel spends shaded throughout the year, between 9 am and 2 pm (peak insolation window) at our location and altitude here in Boone.
Blue panels are never in shade, while an entirely yellow panel is shaded 15% of the time.

Ecotect is great because I can do this analysis without wasting time on a detailed physical model.  I spent less than an hour on this virtual model, and I'm brand-new to Ecotect.  The models aren't perfect--for example, the panels lack thickness, which would impact shading geometry slightly.  But now my "clients" can determine which configuration to focus on for a more comprehensive analysis.

Technology Fails Technologist

I bought this unbelievably tiny Verbatim "Tuff n Tiny" flash drive.
"How clever I am," I thought to myself, "I'll just leave it on my keys all the time."
Everyone who saw me using it was amazed.  "How'd they make it so small?"
That worked all semester as I slaved over* my graduate school work.
Then I went to retrieve my files the other day.
The drive won't recognize in any computer.
The on-campus computer support folks say they can't help me.

See you in the CAD lab, re-drafting a semester's worth of work.

Thanks, Verbatim, for the reminder to always store important files on the cloud.

* Might could be exaggerating slightly

Spilling the Beans

This is part of a very occasional series of ruminative posts in which I explore the career of a twenty-something student as he explores career options in a world with heaps of possibilities.

Lately I've been thinking about how businesses use the Web strategically.
For example, Chris Kulczycki, proprietor of Velo Orange (and friend of the blog), uses his company's blog to not only provide updates on new products, but to engage publicly with customers about product design and even explore new branding strategies.  On a recent trip to Taiwan to meet with manufacturers, Chris blogged and tweeted about new product possibilities and production challenges.
Arc-Zone has a slick web presence, which includes their main e-commerce site as well as two blogs, Carmen Electrode and Joe Welder.  Written by Arc-Zone's marketing director, Carmen Electrode focuses on women in welding, and in fact may be the only blog on that subject.  Carmen herself has a facebook profile.  Besides a Twitter feed, Arc-Zone also has a YouTube channel.  In one YouTube video, the company founder gives a tour of their facility, including enough detail to make a competitor salivate.
These are just two examples.  I'm sure there are dozens more like them.
Traditional business logic would frown on all of this.  These companies would seem to be giving away the very things that keep them competitive.  Every tidbit tweeted could put a competitor one step closer to undercutting them.
And yet, the sky--it does not fall.  These businesses are not in decline.  Competitors aren't appearing daily.
"Why?" is a subject for another day, but, as a consumer, I feel an attachment to these companies.  I understand a little better what drives them, where they're going.  I want to do business with them because I can see how they work, their attention to quality & detail.  Managing a complex web presence is challenging and time-consuming.  A company with a serious commitment to that is doing something right.

With that in mind, let's talk about me.
This summer was a great one.
For about a month, I did contract work for two companies.  At one I did 3D CAD, designing parts in a quiet office, and learned a lot about engineering a complex pneumatic/hydraulic/electrical system.  At the other I helped build a prototype mountain bike frame in a busy fabrication shop, working alongside welders and machinists.  My main contact at each company was a late 30s/early 40s business owner--energetic, passionate, talented, fathers.  Two different guys, but they both needed things made, new things, unlike what they'd made previously.
For the first time, I felt like my clients really valued my skill set.  My clients made me think about who I want to be when I'm their age.
I also spent a month as a volunteer in Guatemala, doing similar work, but in a very different setting, and with a focus specifically on sustainable technologies for the rural poor.  I worked on micro-hydroelectric installations, made a sheet metal flue for a brick oven, and troubleshooted solar thermal domestic hot water collectors.

What if this is me: the guy who helps people prototype.  I do 3D CAD, do the stress/strain analysis, make shop drawings.  I have a broad range of fabrication skills.  I specialize in metals, but beyond that I'm fairly niche-less: machining, welding, brazing, cutting, CNC, steels, aluminum, pipe, tube, plate, square, round, thick, thin.  I could even specialize in unusual processes, like dissimilar metal joining.  I provide the perspective of a fabricator in the design-for-manufacture process, while remaining fluent in the language of design.  I'm the bridge between manufacturing and design, because I have experience with both.  When time comes to mass-produce something, I can offer contacts in manufacturing and help work out the details.

Questions for discussion:
- What is the client base?  Entrepreneurs?  Artists? Companies wanting to develop a new product?  What about academia--grant-funded researchers?
- To what degree should I specialize in renewable energy, or anything else for that matter?  This may evolve as the business grows.
- What contacts do I need?  Who would be the best people to know?  What contacts do I need in manufacturing specifically?  Does this mean expanding my network towards China, Taiwan, Japan, Germany?
- How do you market a business like this?  What kind of image/brand do I want to portray? What kind of web presence would be best?
- Does the list of services include fabrication?   Do I need my own shop space?  This could be the most expensive start-up cost, including tools, space, utility bills, insurance.  High fixed costs, even if it goes unused.  A shop is expensive to move, and ties up capital in a form (machinery) that's not easily liquidated.  Slowly acquiring more tools on a job-by-job basis seems prudent for now.
- Where would be the ideal location?  How much travel would be involved?
- What key employees or partners do I bring on board?  Who takes care of the things I'm not good at?
- Who else is doing work like this?  What can I learn from them?

Name/slogan/branding ideas:
Business-savvy design/fabrication consulting
Prototypes that work
Technology Consulting
FAB Design
Prototypes, Inc.
Proto Design
Technology Design

Wait, Detroit is Cool?

The city that once reigned as the locus of brute American manufacturing strength has been in collapse for decades.  Yet now, in its deepest decline, Detroit is once again ripe for a new kind of development, as Urbanophile explains in an exceptional piece of internet journalism.  What kind of craft revival could emerge from the recession-wrought wreckage of Motown?
Hat tip to Galen Pierce-Gardner and Sistah Sarah.

dream house, rough draft

One of our first Big Graduate School Projects is a residential design for Sustainable Building Design & Construction.  We're supposed to incorporate everything we know about sustainable building into a house.

To make things more exciting I decided to design something I'd actually want to live in...when I win the lottery.

I learned Autodesk Revit 2010 for this project.  It's a lot like Inventor, but this house still took a full day to draw this up, with plenty of help from my classmate Mike Hairston, and the model is rough.

Three bathrooms are clustered on the north side to accommodate a composting toilet system.
Of course there's greywater treatment, composting, rainwater catchment, maybe even a biogas digester to make methane from animal wastes.

Most exterior walls would be 6.5" polyurethane SIPs, R-40.  Probably a SIP roof too.

From SE.  Exterior glass is concentrated on the south wall, where it does the most good for passive solar heating.
The floor of the 2nd level is polished concrete, which has pretty good thermal mass properties.  Not as good as water, but water is so much harder to walk on.  Unless you're in the bible.  But then you'd have bigger problems, like locusts.  And whales.

Um, anyway, we're restricted to 1600 sq. ft. of living space...but there's no limit on shop I added a 1600 sq. ft. shop in the basement.

The three bay doors would be these, R-value 17.5, with windows along the top for daylighting, and taller than shown here.
The shop is wired for a nice TIG rig.  220 volts on 30 amp breakers at least.
I'm leaning towards a rammed-earth shop floor on top of a concrete slab.  From what I've heard, earthen floors are really comfortable.  My feet hate concrete floors.
A separate ventilation system removes fumes and dust, preventing any nasties from mixing with the air in the living area.  LEED is really particular about indoor air quality.

East elevation.  The north side is set into a modest hill, so the upstairs door and the shop bay doors are all on grade.

South elevation.

From SW, showing master bedroom.  I haven't figured out the interior walls yet.

From SE.

Brazing Copper to Steel with Gasflux C-04 Nickel Bronze

While researching something else the other day, I came across a few people wondering how to join copper and steel.  I had to do this once and had great success using this method, so much so that I've used it a few times since.


I use Gasflux C-04 nickel bronze in 3/32" diameter, along with their Type B blue paste flux. These should be available through Airgas on the East Coast. Low-fuming bronze from the local welding store is not at all the same thing.

Copper, being much more thermally conductive than steel, quickly sucks heat away from the joint. So if the copper you're brazing is connected to more copper, be prepared to heat up the whole mess, which can take a lot of heat.

Conversely, steel is slow to disperse heat, so you may want to preheat the steel to avoid overheating the copper, especially if there's a lot of steel and not so much copper. By the time the steel comes up to temp, the copper may be hot enough to flow brazing filler, just from being around the steel.

All that said, this is not a very hard joint to braze. If you've done blacksmithing or basic MIG or stick welding, this would be a lot easier to learn than TIG.  A quick practice joint or two would suffice for training.

There are other ways to join copper and steel, like silver soldering, but this method may create a stronger joint than silver, especially in a tee or butt joint. Bronze fillers (like C-04) are better for filling gaps than silver fillers.

This method works especially well for brazing copper tube passing through a hole in sheet steel. The hole need not have a perfect clearance fit around the pipe, and the tube need not be perfectly centered in the hole.

As in all brazing operations, freshly-sanded, clean, oil-free parent metals are highly recommended.

If the copper gets too hot, it'll open up a hole, which would likely mean replacing the copper, so watch out for that.

Discoloration of the copper is normal and can be easily removed with abrasives like Scotch-Brite and emery roll.

Copper anneals at temperatures well below brazing temperatures.  Be prepared for the copper to soften considerably.

I've always used oxy-acetylene, but oxy-propane would surely work.

UPDATE: Here's an example.

Not my absolute best work, but good enough.  Flux was applied to the steel only in a small circle, hence the black oxidation everywhere.

What Obama Could Say to Students

Later today, the President will make a "Back to School" speech to America's K-12 students. The White House released the text of his remarks earlier.

The speech mentions several careers to which students might aspire:
Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.
And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it. [Emphasis mine.]
Generally, a fine message. But it doesn't jive with Obama's desire to reinvigorate the American manufacturing sector. In naming Ron Bloom as his senior counselor on manufacturing policy on Monday, he said Bloom is "going to help us craft the policies that will create the next generation of great manufacturing jobs." [Emphasis mine.]

What about the next generation of great manufacturing workers? Tomorrow's machinists, carpenters, welders?

As it turns out, welders are in short supply in this country. The American Welding Society reports the average age of American welders is in the mid-fifties. AWS anticipates a potential shortage of 200,000 welders by 2010. That figure excludes self-employed welders.

Compare this with the oft-reported nursing shortage, which a recent Johns Hopkins Magazine article reports is gone but will return soon. According to a nursing professor at Vanderbilt, the average American nurse is 43.8 years old. Buerhaus predicts a shortage of 260,000 nurses by 2025.
The average welder is more than 10 years older than the average nurse, and we'll need more welders sooner.

In fact, few of the careers Obama mentions are among those in short supply. In May 2009, Manpower, Inc. released the results of its fourth annual Talent Shortage Survey.

The top 10 jobs American employers are having difficulty filling:
1. Engineers
2. Nurses
3. Skilled Trades*
4. Teachers
5. Sales Representatives
6. Technicians
7. Drivers
8. IT Staff
9. Laborers
10. Machinists/Machine Operators

Worldwide, it's a similar picture:
1. Skilled Trades*
2. Sales Representatives
3. Technicians (primarily production/operations, engineering or maintenance)
4. Engineers
5. Management/Executives
6. Accounting & Finance Staff
7. Laborers
8. Production Operators
9. Secretaries, PAs, Administrative Assistants & Office Support Staff
10. Drivers

* Manpower notes:
In this survey, Skilled Trades refers to a broad range of job titles that require workers to possess specialized skills, traditionally learned over a period of time as an apprentice. Examples of skilled trades jobs are: electricians, bricklayers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, masons, plumbers, welders, etc.
Of course Obama is right to encourage students to follow the careers they're drawn to. And I don't expect him to mention only the jobs that are in high demand amongst employers.

But Obama is missing an opportunity. He could have started to remove the stigmas that help shroud manufacturing careers from today's brightest students: that training in the trades is "just something to fall back on"; that welding is dirty work, unfit for an educated young person; that there's no future in being a plumber or an electrician.

Obama says students will need the "problem-solving skills [they] learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS". He could have also mentioned the problem-solving skills required to, say, plumb a house, or diagnose engine trouble.

There's much work to be done to revive the manufacturing sector, especially small manufacturers. Expanding the MEP would be a great start.

But if this is to be "a country where things are made" in the next twenty years, I hope it's today's kids who'll be doing the making.

Conversation with a Shop Teacher

I was talking to a welding teacher earlier tonight. He teaches high schoolers all day, then adult students like me at night.
I've talked to a lot of shop teachers. This one said something especially frank.
"It's hard to get anyone to take me seriously around here. Even the administration."
He explained that this was why he'd gotten a Master's, and he said it in a way that made me empathize.
His tone belied a contentious relationship with his colleagues, one that found him fighting for resources, for funds, for respect for being a Teacher, dammit, not the ringmaster of some sooty circus.

Don't Panic.

I arrived in the mountain town of Boone, North Carolina, five days ago, my little red pickup Baby loaded down with everything I'd need to start a new Official Graduate Student life here.

Then the kick-ass housing situation I'd been counting on fell through.

Don't panic. Meet grad students, sleep on their couches, join, buy beer for your hospitable hosts. When the couches run out, decide to go camping at the last minute. Keep looking for the right place to live. DON'T PANIC.


Yesterday I was in class with a lot of uncertainties. We're writing a proposal for my university to compete in a Big Important Prestigious-As-Hell Competition. The rulebook is an inch thick. We have almost no idea how we're going to get the proposal done in time.

As I am wont to do, I kept raising problems I could foresee. How are we gonna transport this thing a thousand miles without damaging it? How much of the fabrication will we do in-house? Finally one of the profs said something to the effect of, "Don't panic about that. We'll figure that out."


I realized that every job is subject to these tensions. Do we make it ourselves or outsource it? What tolerance can we get away with here? Do we build it to last for generations, or just to last long enough?

Some part of me has been hoping that these issues would disappear one day. That eventually budget would cease to be a concern, so I could stop worrying about how much things would cost and just focus on how it's made.

But these things never go away. Everything costs something. The job is to deal with these factors, these tensions, without panicking.

Life Flux

Guatemala photos here

Many stories to tell.
The project I was lined up for was more engineering-y than my background and skillset. I worked on it a little, and spent a lot of time making various things. I talked safety, I talked about what tools to buy next, I got the flu, I fixed things, etc. Actually I was sick a lot of the time. Thank the sweet lord for antibiotics.
Climbed the Pacaya volcano in my last week there. Went to Lago Atitlan a couple days. Only a few days in was nice but it gets old quick.
A great experience, all in all. But I am a lot less idealistic about being able to make a career doing that kind of work. Seems like everyone involved is a volunteer, more or less.

The plan was to treat my time in Guatemala as a 'field internship' to earn the last credits of my undergraduate degree. This worked, somehow, and now I'm a few days from graduating with a VCU Bachelor's of Interdisciplinary Studies degree (concentration in Appropriate Technology)
.....and after only 12 years and 27 institutions...... *

So, now what?

The plan is to earn an M.S. in Technology with a concentration in Appropriate Technology from Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. This is the only 'AT' graduate program in the country, to my knowledge. Through the Academic Common Market, I am an in-state student, tuition-wise, even though I'm from Virginia. And they have a nice 50s-era Department of Technology building, with what appear to be well-equipped wood and metal shops. They were a big factor, perhaps not surprisingly.

Earlier in the summer, I was working on a really cool prototype of a fuel cell system for a small start-up in Richmond. Great place to work, and I was doing some fun/challenging 3-D solid modeling in AutoCAD Inventor. I was ready to take a more permanent position, defer my grad school admission, and stay on for the fall or longer. They were down, but the money wasn't there to pay me.

So grad school it is. I move to Boone on Saturday.
Eventually I suppose I have to end my career as a professional student. But not yet.

*actually more like 6 years and 5 colleges

A thought on safety

are like guns
and are ideally treated as such.

Now I'm talking about guns used in a certain way, like by a gun collector or a hunter. I'm not a big fan of guns, but if there must exist guns, I'd prefer they all get treated the way these guys treat their guns.
And I'm talking about tools like a plasma cutter, an oxy-acetylene torch, that kinda real powerful high-energy kinda tool. Well, all tools, but those especially.

That kinda tool can mess you up right good and real quick, if you don't handle it right. You could die because of being just a little bit wrong.
On the other hand, you treat the tool with respect, you take care of it, you can go your life using it every day and be just fine. In fact, there's lots of people doing it.

And--big bonus compared to guns--it's a lot less likely someone is going to pick up a plasma cutter and threaten your life with it. You control these tools your own damn self. Any problems, you usually got just yourself to blame.

This is scary to a lot of people. It's a big responsibility. It takes courage to know that this thing in your hand could hurt you real bad, and then to go ahead and use it anyways.

Occupational reconsideration. Or: Shoe shopping

More often than not I find bloggable moments happening in the insomniac quietude of 3am.


Here's how it goes.
I get into a thing.
Waiting tables.
Building bikes.
I do the thing for a while.
I start to think about what it would be like to do this thing forever.
I try to envision all the good parts, the bad parts, the dull moments in between those parts.
I try it on like I'm trying on a pair of shoes.
I walk around in it for a while.

And then something happens.
The shoes aren't quite right.
The fit isn't there.
The color doesn't work with my wardrobe.
So I take off the shoes, put them back in the box, and look for the next pair.

Right now I'm unlacing a pair that I thought was gonna work.
It's sad.
But I relish the process, as all-consuming and pitfall-fraught as it is.
I get better at it every go-round.

It's harder every time though.
Every time I think: No, I finally got it right this time.
But I'm always wrong about that.


I see myself prototyping. It has its own subtle art. It's in demand, it's interdisciplinary, it's challenging, it means using a lot of the stuff I know a little too much about.

Great blurb from Diego Rodriguez about prototyping (more here):
As you make a prototype, assume you are right and everyone else is wrong.
When you share your prototype, assume you are wrong and everyone else is right.

What I've been doing, what I am doing, is prototyping a career for myself. And prototyping is a long, complicated, expensive, failure-ridden process.

Que haces alli en AIDG?

Soy hombre de taller
Soy technico
Soy soldador
Soy disenador
Soy maquinista
Soy metalista
Soy mechanico


What do you do at AIDG?

I'm a man of the shop
I'm a technologist
I'm a welder
I'm a designer
I'm a machinist
I'm a metalworker
I'm a mechanic

...but, these days, the Spanish words seem to convey more meaning

Exclusive Guatemala Coverage

I woke up at 4 this to get on a plane. Got into Guate about 11. Now I'm waiting for my bus to Xela at 2:30.

Reports indicate:
It's really smoggy. Like, instant asthma smoggy.
Creative attitudes about driving abound.
There's a guard at the bus station with a pump action shotgun.
I got a great shoe shine for Q4 ($.50). The guy was starting to gesture Q3 but then added on another finger. I let it go....This time.
They say in the guide book not to eat "street food". Problem is, they don't define that term. Most of the food places are, well, not on the street exactly, but damn near it. ¿Clarification, Rough Guide?

To be "an operator"

There is a story about one of my relatives that has been going around my family (in various exaggerated forms) since the 40s.

The protagonist is a great-uncle of mine. The setting, Europe at the end of the second world war.

My great-uncle had been fighting for the Allies. With the war over, he wanted to return to his family's ancestral home, a tiny village in Czechoslovakia (at the time), near Ukraine. He didn't know how much of his family had survived the war, but he wanted to bring as many as he could back to the US with him.

There were some obstacles. My great-uncle was in France. The village lay deep in Soviet territory, and the Soviets weren't keen on American passers-by. Border crossings lay ahead. The cold war was beginning. Europe was in shambles.

Somehow he acquired a jeep and some gasoline. Frankly, he probably stole the jeep. He drove the jeep across Europe. He spoke the languages. He made deals. The Soviet border guards drank well.

He found the village and married the only surviving female relative, then turned the jeep around to bring her to the US. They lived in California the rest of their lives.


I've known this story forever. It's part of what I am.
My great-uncle, he's what we call an operator. He speaks every language. He's undaunted by uncertainty. He thrives where others fear to operate. He doesn't follow the rules. He does the impossible. He has a toolbox a mile deep.

Nike + Framebuilding = ?

via SneakerFreaker

Shop Class as Soulcraft update

Long-time readers will recall a post from last April when I was anxiously awaiting the release of a book called Shop Class as Soulcraft, based on a 2006 New Atlantis essay of the same name.

If you pre-ordered your copy like I did, you probably have your copy by now, but if you didn't, you should've; the first 13 pages, aty least, are great.

Only 13 pages in, Crawford (a motorcycle mechanic here in Richmond) hits upon a theme central to Richard Sachs' Tao of Framebuilding poster (yes, of course it's for sale).

Stay tuned, there may be a more detailed writeup forthcoming.

What Makes Great Technical Writing?

[Yes, this is one of those "reader input" posts]

What comes to mind when you think of great technical writing?

Maybe a how-to manual that stands out?
Maybe a good book that happens to be about some technical subject?

Data points to consider:

- When I put this question to my Gmail audience, one friend wrote, "Good grammar and pictures." And brevity is the soul of wit.

- An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual is a 68-page booklet from the USDA. The author's love of axes is plainly legible. It's more than you need to know about axes, but that's the point, right? Bonus points for being "your tax dollars at work".

- I've read only one of Gene Logsdon's books (this one), but I liked him immediately. He's been aptly described as a "man of letters"; he's an example of a great writer who just happens to write about technical things.

- Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds is a great little book about water storage. It's 3/8" thick and it's everything you will ever want to know about storing water. Lots of pictures and clear diagrams.

Why Bikes are a Great Way to Learn About Technology

It goes like this. Someone finds out that I'm a "bike guy". They learn that I build up bikes for friends, or they see bike tools in my apartment, or they read this blog.

Sometimes they figure that bikes are all I want to work with, all I'm interested in, just bikes.
The reality is almost exactly the opposite. In learning about bikes, I've learned a lot about other things. Because of what I know about bikes, I know a little about a lot of other related things.

Bikes are a great way to learn about technology. They're accessible, but they're challenging enough to be interesting. Getting started is easy, but learning the finer points of bikes means learning about all kinds of technology.

- Industry standards for bicycle parts are a mixed bag, to put it mildly. Pick up a random bike part, and its threads might be based on a metric, an imperial (SAE), or a totally bike-specific standard. Some parts are ISO, some JIS; Raleigh even had its own threading standards. Then there's the Italian, French, and Swiss standards. A few parts are left-hand threaded. People who know bikes are comfortable switching between all these crazy standards. Inch vs. metric? Try Italian vs. Swiss. Pop quiz: What's the difference between ISO and JIS bottom bracket axle tapers? Ask Sheldon

- Many of the essential technologies of modern life are present in every bike. Bearings, chain drive, brakes, control cables, and spoked wheels, to name a few. People who know bikes are familiar with all these subsidiary techs that drive so many other things. They've taken apart bearings, regreased, and reassembled.

- For under $300, you can buy a set of tools that will allow you to maintain damn near any bike. That kit doesn't have everything (notably a truing stand and workstand). But good luck overhauling your motorcycle with $300 in tools.

- Similarly, information about bike repair is easy to find. is 90% of what you need.

- Steel bike frames are pretty unique in the realm of steel fabrication. The tubes are thin-wall--down to .3 mm in some cases. They can be joined in a lot of different ways, each requiring advanced skills. A frame needs to be straight, so low-distortion joining is key. The frame has to interface with all those funky bike part standards mentioned above. And the frame has to fit the rider, so there's a big human-machine-interface problem to be solved. Building bike frames is challenging, but part of the reward is that most other fabrication jobs are straightforward in comparison.

- Weight is always a factor with bikes. As Keith Bontrager said:
Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick two.
This isn't just true for bikes, though. As designers and fabricators, bike people are acutely aware of the trade-offs inherent in working within these constraints.

- There are bike parts made from a wide variety of materials, from brass to carbon fiber. Bike people have experience with the interactions between these materials. They know that aluminum seatposts tend to get stuck in steel frames because of galvanic corrosion.  They know that blue Loctite or beeswax can keep a threaded part from coming loose.

Why else?

Onion-esque Headline of the Day

IHOP renegs on duck breast pancakes

Been Standing on the Corner of 5th and Vermouth

I went down to the local watering hole in the wee hours to get quarters for laundry.
I saw police lights outside while waiting at the bar, so when I walked out I looked around and saw a cop pulling over either:

A) Chrysler's last-ditch effort at the electric car


B) a golf cart with weather flaps

Upon closer inspection it turned out to be B. Three young men were crammed inside. From the way they were pulled over it was clear they'd been "driving" on Harrison St. As I walked by, the cop and the guy in the driver's seat were going around and around:

cop: I can tell you've been drinking. Don't lie to me now.

"driver": Naw, man, c'mon, I'm telling you, I ain't been drinkin, man...listen, I had A drink, but I'm good man, I'm tellin' you, I'm good, listen!

cop: Look, I know you've been drinking.

et cetera

His two buddies in the back seat were looking around like, "Oh. Shit. This was a really bad idea."

So, you decided to go joy-riding on city streets in a golf cart with weather flaps at 1 am. And you probably stole the golf cart.
Fine. Everyone's been there at some point. Sucks you got caught.

But now you claim you were not drunk when you hatched this plan?
Good day, sir. Good day.

Summer Volunteering Vacation

For 6 weeks this summer I'll be volunteering for AIDG in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

I'll be creating documentation for the Pelton wheel micro-hydroelectric generator that their incubated business XelaTeco designed, built, and installed. The documentation I work on will be published on the internets for other NGOs to use and improve upon (open-source, yo).

So I'll be MIA from the end of June to the beginning of August, and then I'll be graduating.

I'm reading Bitter Fruit to prepare. Before Iran and Iraq, Guatemala was the US' first experiment in ousting a supposedly-threatening leader.

Fun fact:
Apparently, in order to be president of Guatemala in the 40s/50s, your last name had to begin with "Ar": Arevalo, Arbenz, Armas, probably not in that order. Two of these guys had the other one killed, but as to which was which, I wasn't paying enough attention.

Plumbing 55-gal. Plastic Barrels for Water Storage

Why Barrels?
- common waste product
- may be available free
- strong, lightweight, durable, good on water quality

Several types of barrels
removable top/"open-top"
- can be re-used in many ways (compost turner?)
- rarer around here
- more expensive to buy new

"Closed top" barrels
- used fo the design below
- more common
- cheaper to buy new
- fewer re-use possibilities besides liquid storage
- no removable lid, just two threaded holes:

The best barrels for water storage have only held food products, like cola syrup, grain/baking supplies, juices, sauces, animal feed?

On the other hand, this design calls for many PVC joints (see below), meaning many fittings and much time spent fitting them. The price of the PVC fittings may greatly exceed the cost of the barrels. The time required to plumb more than a few barrels may be prohibitive. Fortunately, the design is fully scalable, all the way down to a single barrel.

This system is intended to be connected to a house gutter to provide rainwater storage, ultimately feeding an irrigation system for a garden plot.

On Bungs
Closed-top barrels usually have two threaded holes, one coarse-threaded, the other fine-threaded.

Coarse thread hole/"bung"
- funky threading: buttress threads
- but: bung cap has an adapter for 3/4" NPT

Fine thread bung
- regular 2" NPT female threads

Bung caps are made to accept a bung wrench for opening and closing
You can buy one or you can make one.
A pair of pliers will work in a pinch.

Barrel Support
Weight of water is an important consideration.
Water weighs eight pounds per gallon.
A full 55-gal barrel weighs more than 440 pounds.
Some barrel system designs require the construction of a sturdy timber frame for stacking the barrels. This is a fine idea if you have the necessary time, resources, and expertise. I do not.

Instead: stacked barrels in a pyramid--cheaper, faster to construct, more mobile, less resource-consumptive than timber frame.

- Avoid crushing empty barrels. Full barrels shouldn't sit on top of empty ones.
- Prevent the barrels from rolling away when full. Wire rope wrapped around the barrels like a giant rubber band might work
- Prevent the barrels from blowing away in the wind when empty.
- The higher the barrels are, the greater the pressure at the outlet. Might want to make a base from something sturdy. For more, see this.

Plumbing the Barrels

Scale up/down to suit.

One feature of this design: the nominal distance between any two connected bungs is ~23 inches (diameter of one barrel).

Why is This "Untested"?

We found a local source for IBCs at $20 each, cheaper than plumbing the comparable number of barrels. (2 IBCs = ~600 gallons for $40).
We've had a hard time finding suitable barrels for free in the Richmond area.
Faster to install 2 IBCs than 10 barrels.
But, I couldn't find anything on the intertubes about this.

Related Reading
Art Ludwig, Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds
Stacy Pettigrew and Scott Kellogg, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A Do-it-Ourselves Guide

Shop Skills I Possess

Know-how and good sense are the shibboleths of the shop; they are inadequately conveyed in writing. But here goes.


- I'm a designer, prototyper, troubleshooter, and problem-solver.
- I love designing and fabricating one-off solutions to complex problems.
- I love teaching to interested students.
- I learn new skills quickly.
- Steel is my favorite material.  Aluminum, copper, brass, and hardwoods are nice, too.  I know little about plastics and composites.

Introductory Level

Small gas engine maintenance and repair
Automobile maintenance
Oxy-acetylene welding
CNC machining

Some Experience
Stick welding
Advanced machining (e.g. lathe-cut threads, high-precision work)
Sheet metal work (bending brake, shear)
Blacksmithing/forging steel
Epoxies (wood, metal, plastics)
Tube bending, especially thin-wall steel
Fine woodworking
Table saw (wood)
Wood and metal finishing

Lots of Experience
TIG welding
MIG welding
Brazing steel, with brass or silver filler
Copper pipe (cutting, sweating, brazing to steel)
Basic machining (turning and milling)
Drilling and tapping
Horizontal and vertical band saws (wood and metal)
Power sanders, grinders, chop saws, miter saws
Precision layout and measurement to .001 inch or .1 mm
Bicycle maintenance, repair, assembly
Bondo (applying, shaping)
AutoCAD (2D)
AutoCAD Inventor (parametric solid modeling)

Relevant Coursework:
Welding Techniques, Caldwell Community College, Boone, NC
Computer-Aided Drafting II, J. Sargent Reynolds Community College, Richmond, VA
Small Gasoline Engines, J. Sargent Reynolds Community College, Richmond, VA
Machine Shop Practices, John Tyler Community College, Richmond, VA

Machine Blueprint Reading, John Tyler Community College, Richmond, VA
Intro to Digital Drafting, Corcoran College of Art + Design, Washington, DC
Furniture Fundamentals, Corcoran College of Art + Design, Washington, DC

Relevant Work History
Graduate Assistant, Department of Technology, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC
Volunteer, Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
Technical Consultant, MARZ Industries, Richmond, VA
Journeyman Framebuilder, Tektonics Design Group, Richmond, VA
Student Shop Foreman, Machine Shop, School of Engineering, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
President and Co-Founder, Bike Fabricators at VCU, Richmond, VA
Shop Assistant, CNK Machine Manufacturing, Richmond, VA
Intern, Fabrication and Model Shop units, Office of Exhibits Central, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Lab Technician, Sculpture Department, Corcoran College of Art + Design, Washington, DC

On the way home from work tonight

Me: [biking down Grace St., commute speed, nothin' fancy]

Richmond Police Dept: [buzzes past me in his SUV, no flashers, hurrying to wait at a red light]

Me: [approaching the red light, slowing, seeing nobody coming, breezing through the intersection past the RPD]

RPD: [runs the red, drives up alongside me, stays there, no lights on, no attempt to interact with me]

Me: [alternately looking in front of me, looking at him, trying to discern his intent without crashing, rolling down the hill, passing him, not braking for him (still no reds-&-blues)]

RPD: [speeding up to catch me, rolling down his window finally] "I could give you a reckless driving for running a red light like you did back there."

Me: "Are you stopping me?"

RPD: "No, I'm just telling you that's a reckless driving."

Me: "Uh...OK" [continuing ride home]

Whose actions were more reckless?

On Obscurity

I was at a vintage bike show last year, chatting with a talented framebuilder whose star is rising. I had bought a t-shirt from him earlier, so I mentioned before we parted ways that I was glad to have expanded my collection of obscure frame company t-shirts*.
From the look on his face it was clear he took my comment a little differently than I'd intended it. Perhaps it wasn't the best choice of words. But he was off with his family by the time I realized my fumble.

I wish I could have explained myself as well as Obama did in today's inauguration address:
Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
He described better than I can most framebuilders I've come to know. They are doers, makers of things, uninterested in riches and fame. They are obscure but they are kick-ass. Their obscurity is not a liability.  I meant it as a compliment.

This is the kind of person that I strive to be: someone who goes out and gets stuff done and doesn't make a whole lot of noise about it.

*which includes, among others:

Why the Shop

I spend a lot of time in a shop. I consider myself a shop person.  But most of the people in my life are not shop people, with only a few exceptions.

I often think about how to relate to non-shop people about the shop. "Why do you spend so much damn time down there?", they ask. "You always come home filthy." "What's so exciting about screw threading of all things?"  "What's the point of endlessly tinkering?"

It's especially difficult to discuss, perhaps, because the shop is not generally a place I go to accomplish a specific thing. I might go there to work on one problem but end up working on the shop itself. Sometimes the tool I need is broken, so I spend an afternoon making a new one, or fixing the old one. The work is often non-linear; I work on what needs to be worked on.

Not many places are ambiguous in this way. A kitchen is for cooking; a classroom is for learning; a theater is for seeing shows. A shop can be for doing anything, and its purpose can change momentarily.  A shop is for working on things, but that includes the shop itself and everything in it.

Working in a shop can have a wonderfully self-reflexive feeling, of constantly re-examining the tools, the process, the shop--even the people in the shop, including yourself.

A shop is a place where all variables are in flux. A mill, for example, is so versatile that it could be used to produce a copy of itself*. When you're standing in front of a mill, the question is not "What is possible?" but now "What do I want to do?".
In the shop, the only limitation is you. It's up to you to decide what deserves your time and effort. It's a nice metaphor for growing up.

But why machine tools and screw threads and such?  What dispassionate things to study and to have strong opinions about.

There's a feeling I get after I've been using a lathe for a while. I don't mean any lathe, I mean one specific lathe, because each one is a little different. When I first start using it, I take my time flipping every lever, making sure I don't make some catastrophic mistake. But over time the lathe and I come to an understanding. I learn her idiosyncrasies, and she lets me know when I'm pushing her too far. After a few weeks, I'm flipping levers left and right. I know every control without taking an eye off the workpiece. I like to use the words sensual and intimate in describing this feeling. It's a little like raising a dog.

My old machining teacher liked to refer to using a machine tool like driving a car, e.g. "How do I drive this daggone mill?".  For my part I think of it more like flying an airplane.  It's more complicated than driving a car, but the possibilities are greater.  Pilots are an elite, sometimes cocky bunch, much like machinists.  Among those in the know, what they do inspires awe.

Machine tools are anything but cold. It honors me to include myself in a tradition that bears the mark of so many great people, including a few of my ancestors. It brings me closer to a history I don't fully understand yet. It gives me something in common with everyone who's ever made something well.

It's by learning to apply tools well that we have advanced our human condition. Our survival depends on knowing how to manipulate our world with tools, and on continuing to pass on that knowledge.

And by the way:
Besides being essential to everything we do, screw threads are, in one sense, a culmination of all human experiences. Their development is the result of many tiny decisions made by many people over many centuries. The most recent decisions were based on older decisions, which were based on yet older ones. That legacy goes back to the earliest humans. And without exaggerating, it can be said that screw threading standards have made fortunes and lost them.

In fact, every modern tool is a permutation of some simple, primitive tool. It was when we first started using these simple tools that we became technological--that we began a period of ever-increasing improvement upon what came before.

*This is theoretically true, but it's not something that happens often. It would require almost fantastical quantities of metal and time.  Some of the tools used to make machine tools are friggin' huge.