Cheap at half the price

This silly little Amazon Treasure Truck notice popped up on my tablet earlier tonight:

Amazon knows I live in Massachusetts, right next to one of the most prolific and sustainable lobster environments in the world, but maybe they don’t also know that, for a few weeks now, the Market Baskets around here have been selling live lobsters for US$4.99 a pound, as is their wont in the summer. Yes, you’ll have to buy about three pounds of lobsters to net a pound of meat, but that’s still only $15. And it’s fresh.

I know there are some lobster farms in Asia – rock lobster, because other species don’t survive farming attempts – but wild-caught is what you get here. No need to farm:

I think the wholesale price is what’s represented in the chart, so you can see that Market Basket has a mighty slim profit margin when they drop lobster down to $4.99, unlike other area supermarkets that continue to price theirs at up to $9.99 a pound (pffft!).

120 million pounds of lobster is the equivalent of eighteen fully-fueled Saturn Vs. As is the case with size of Wales or Olympic swimming pool comparisons, this helps the reader not one whit, of course, but at least the writer is amused. And now craving lobster, so there’s my comeuppance.

 

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Wildfire topics that few talk about

I refer you to the 31 July 2018 “Built to Burn” episode of 99% Invisible, podcast and transcript here.

I think this and McPhee’s “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” are vital to the proper understanding of wildfires, especially in the western United States. You can’t build developments in guaranteed wildfire zones, take no preventative measures, even the simplest and most effective, to protect the homes – the topic of the 99PI episode – and blithely expect nothing dire will ever happen. A few embers from a fire that never actually reaches your house can easily ruin everything.

99PI will have a follow-up episode this week.

“One of the very frustrating things that I had experienced this past summer, particularly from the California fires, is the continued sense of fatalism: ‘Oh, well, there’s nothing that could be done.’ Well, no. The bottom line is that we can do something; it just doesn’t have anything to do with controlling the wildfire.”

Watching news footage from the California fires, something stands out, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time with Jack. Once you get over the shock of seeing neighbourhoods reduced to ashes and the drama of firefighters talking about how there was nothing they could do to stop the flames, your eyes shift to something else: the green trees, untouched by fire, surrounding the burnt-out homes.

From this week: Lake Keswitck Estates in California; click for a larger version

From this week: Lake Redding Estates in California

 

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State of mind not proportional to desk clutter

My old home office desk was feeling too samey of late, so I replaced it. The old one was all wood – well, veneered particleboard – and similar to the new one, with the same 4×3 foot footprint along with a raised monitor shelf and pull-out keyboard tray, but the new one is a better design, with 50% more desk space, 50% more bottom shelf space, 50% more room on the keyboard tray, and maybe 200% more class.

I found it via an image search for “workstation desk”, with this picture of the Cyrus desk, a metal and wood design with a heavy tempered glass desktop, on the third or fourth result page. From the look of it, I figured it would be pricey, probably between US$200 and $300, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it was just $130 on Amazon, which I believe is $40 less than I paid for that boring old workstation fifteen years ago.

I assembled it in a couple hours and found it quite sturdy. I think it’s so far away from samey as to be fantastic. I said to a visiting friend the other day, “I love this desk”, not something you hear me exclaim of many inanimate objects. My printer is on a separate glass and metal stand on the bottom shelf, with paper storage underneath, and the PC, not visible at lower right, and all cables and power strips are self-contained on the desk instead of partly behind and underneath as they were before.

As an example of how much more room there is on this desk, I could fit the keyboard and trackball and not much else on the keyboard tray before. On the new one, from left to right, I have a Logitech Harmony remote horizontal charging stand, a Motorola S305 Bluetooth headset, the keyboard, a Logitech trackball, and its receiver, which formerly sat on top of the PC. I added a hook on the left corner of the desk for the backscratcher and a soft rubber five-channel cable manager on the right corner to corral all the pesky USB cables. The 8″ long metal USB 3.0 hub with 7 ports and 3 charging ports that also used to be on top of the PC is now at the rear corner of the desk instead.

The old desk was perfectly usable, so I put it outside festooned with large “FREE” signs visible from the street. It took eight days, but someone finally got themselves a good desk and, on a less magnanimous note, I didn’t have to dismantle it to put in the dumpster.

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Posters and framing on the cheap

Click for a larger version

Last weekend, I refreshed the pictures in my upstairs hallway, the new ones shown above. As a frame of reference, the photo shows an area of about 7×3 feet. For about a hundred dollars total, I was able to get three 16×20″ prints and one 12×36″ panorama of high-resolution Apollo-era photographs from Shutterfly and mount them in the best borderless clip frames available.

There was a time when I did my own picture mounting on foam board and framing using mail-order Nielsen #11 frame pieces and locally-sourced, custom-cut sheet glass (I never attempted matting), but these days I most often use clip frames – good ones, that is – because they’re easier, they look clean and classy, and they’re a lot cheaper than professional framing or even DIY Nielsens. The last picture I had mounted, double-matted, and framed, the “Clipper at the Gate” shown below, cost me well north of US$200 – and that didn’t include the signed print, which I had purchased several years previously. Don’t get me wrong – the framing and matting is well-done and quite attractive, but I have a lot of drawings, paintings, and photos on my walls and I am well south of a millionaire.

I was able to get those four hallway prints done both well and on the cheap thanks to four things:

  • In recent years, the negatives from the Apollo programme have been scanned with better equipment and at much higher resolution, which allows for nice-looking enlargements – not the case with the low-res images previously available. In the case of the three-foot-wide print, someone stitched together a 10,000-pixel-wide image from a panorama photo series Charlie Duke took during Apollo 16.
  • The recently completed Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project used current technology to produce, from the data on hundreds of carefully preserved original 1960s magtapes, awe-inspiring photos far beyond the resolution and quality NASA could produce fifty years ago. The top middle picture in the hallway is an oblique photo of Copernicus from 150 miles south of the crater that was taken by chance during a “let’s move the film forward a bit” housekeeping task on Lunar Orbiter 2.
  • A plethora of discounts, including 40% or 50% off sales that Shutterfly runs every week or two, periodic Visa Checkout deals (US$25 off the next order), and even $25 Shutterfly credits that Best Buy includes with many hard drive purchases means you can easily get prints in these bigger sizes for $12-$16 each. That’s cheap for high quality large prints.
  • Massachusetts-based Quadro Frames, which I’ve used for many years, produces the highest quality borderless clip frames I’ve seen; other, more widely-available types are mostly flimsy and ill-fitting. 16×20″ frames from Quadro are US$12.50 and it’s $20 for 12×36″. Each frame is precisely fashioned and includes a sturdy, non-bending backing board with perfectly cut, strong clip channels on the back, pristine and perfectly clear PET plastic glazing panels with peel-off protective sheets on both sides (or glass panels for just $3 more), and more than enough clips that slip into the back channel with a satisfying firm snap. Even their care in shipping to guarantee safe arrival is the best possible: I always think, “Wow, just look at that” when I open boxes from them. For some of my orders, I’ll wager it’s taken them half an hour or more to pack the materials so fastidiously. It’s a good example of corporate responsibility and pride in doing things right.

Here are the source photographs I uploaded to Shutterfly for the hallway prints. You can pause the slideshow and right-click to view and/or save any image at its full size.

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I also got these three enlarged to 16×20″ and they’re up elsewhere in the house:

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The moon is a messy place

In which I discuss moon suits, moon dust, moon models, and moon stories

“Smells like someone just fired a carbine in here.”
– Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan on smelling moon dust inside the Lunar Module

I finally got around to making my 1/6th scale Gene Cernan figure look a little more realistic. Brand new, it looked like this:

Apollo 17 Commander Capt. Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, in 1/6th scale

I never quite liked the pristine look of it because the only time it was that clean was the day it arrived from the manufacturer, ILC Dover, a division of Playtex at the time the suits were designed. Yes, Playtex designed the 21-layer Apollo suits. Here’s the figure after I applied a fair amount of graphite powder using two different brush sizes:

Now you may think I went a little over the top with that, but I didn’t. My variation is probably about what Cernan’s A7LB suit looked like after two of the three seven-hour moonwalks he and Jack Schmitt made. Below you can see what his suit looked like after their third and final moonwalk on 13 & 14 December 1972 – and this was after they spent quite a while brushing each other off before re-entering the Lunar Module for the last time.

Click for a larger version

The large brush they used for the suits – and the lunar rover – was six or seven inches wide. They also had a smaller brush for camera lenses and such. You can see both in this compilation. Gene Cernan raises his gold-plated visor here while cleaning the rover’s camera lens.

Moondust is funny stuff – fine, powdery, almost like snow, and it smells of burnt gunpowder when it’s on the moon. That smell goes away on prolonged contact with normal air, so the returned samples no longer smell of anything. They don’t really know why it smells like gunpowder, but there are some theories.

Excerpts from the Apollo 17 Technical Crew Debriefing [corrected link to PDF] on 4 January 1973, during which the problems with dust came up a lot:

“Dust – I think probably one of the most aggravating, restricting facets of lunar surface exploration is the dust and its adherence to everything no matter what kind of material, whether it be skin, suit material, metal, no matter what it be and it’s restrictive friction-like action to everything it gets on. For instance, the simple large tolerance mechanical devices on the Rover began to show the effect of dust as the EVAs went on. By the middle or end of the third EVA, simple things like bag locks and the lock which held the pallet on the Rover began not only to malfunction but to not function at all. They effectively froze. We tried to dust them and bang the dust off and clean them, and there was just no way. The effect of dust on mirrors, cameras, and checklists is phenomenal. You have to live with it but you’re continually fighting the dust problem both outside and inside the spacecraft. Once you get inside the spacecraft, as much as you dust yourself, you start taking off the suits and you have dust on your hands and your face and you’re walking in it. You can be as careful in cleaning up as you want to, but it just sort of inhabits every nook and cranny in the spacecraft and every pore in your skin. Although I didn’t have any respiratory problems, I think the LMP, which he can comment on later, had some definite local respiratory problems right after the EVA – due to dust in the cabin.”
– Commander Gene Cernan

“Dust – We’ll just talk about in-cabin dust. After the first EVA, there was considerable dust in the cabin. It would be stirred up by movements of the suit and the gear that we had. Almost immediately upon removing my helmet, I started to pick up the symptoms that you might associate with hay fever symptoms. I never had runny eyes or runny nose. It was merely a stuffiness in the nose and maybe in the frontal sinuses that affected my speech and my respiration considerably. After about 2 hours within the cabin, those symptoms gradually disappeared. By morning of the next day they were gone completely. After the second and third EVAs, although I’m sure the dust was comparable, the symptoms were not nearly as strong as after the first EVA. That was as if I either developed a mucous protection of the affected areas or had some way or another very quickly developed an immunity to the effects of the dust.”
– Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt

Here’s James Burke wearing – and removing, one by one – all the components of the A7L spacesuit. The A7L was used through Apollo 14 and the more advanced A7LB was used on Apollo 15-17.

That report was prepared prior to the moon landings. In 1979, Burke did an excellent ten-year anniversary documentary that explains a lot of the workings of lunar missions better than most.

I think this is a great time to start reading Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo. I’ll do that tonight.

I also now have a lighted display case for the Dragon Lunar Approach model I have at home. In normal light, it looks like this:

In the dark with the case’s inbuilt lights turned on, this is closer to how the pair would appear in the sunlight of deep space during the translunar coast:

Finally, a treat: Several years ago on BBC Radio 4, Jeanette Winterson did a fascinating ten-part, 150-minute series about the moon from many perspectives. It’s called “The Inconstant Moon” and you can listen on her site here. Quite a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

Radio 4 used this graphic for the programme:

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Musk decides not to murder tourists

Surprise, surprise, there will be no slaughtering of tourists around the moon in Q4 2018 as originally stated early last year. That’s a sensible thing. Besides, nobody but the worst of humanity would want to see the millions of laugh-cry emojis that would inevitably be pasted willy-nilly by the worst of humanity.

“If I’ve told you media people once, I’ve told you a hundred million times that I never engage in hyperbole! Ever, do you hear me? Now get out or I call in the bulldozers!”

See also: NASA decides not to murder astronauts

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No such thing as a mistake

I’m losing a bit of faith in the QI podcast “No Such Thing as a Fish” lately. In nearly every episode in recent months, I’ve noted at least one mistake, sometimes as many as three when subjects on which I know a fair amount come up. They’re mostly small mistakes, but they’re bothersome since Quite Interesting is noted for its high accuracy, with only a handful of mistakes that I can recall in the fifteen years of the television series. I have much enthusiasm for high quality – see my site name – so I have a lot of respect for QI.

As an example, the most recent podcast claimed that the falcon feather/hammer Galileo demonstration Commander Dave Scott gave during Apollo 15 was done during Apollo 12. A small mistake, but that’s pretty sloppy by QI standards. Such mistakes make me wonder about the accuracy of the things they discuss that I’m not familiar with, and if the television show is also going to be somewhat untrustworthy next series since the podcast crew work there.

I think the problems may have started when the podcast co-presenters started going on tour, publishing books, &c a year or so ago. It’s likely they rely on each other to be careful with their research, but with their busy schedule, they’re slipping substantially and don’t yet know it. Some cross fact-checking would be prudent if they’re going to continue travelling a lot. Don’t make me come over there.

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Now just four

Alan Bean, the Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 12 who actually got to fly the LM in lunar orbit thanks to his friend, Commander Pete Conrad, has died at 86.

Here’s how they landed on the Ocean of Storms on 19 November 1969. 16mm film of the final approach from Bean’s LM window begins at 8:39, but the first part of the video does a nice job in explaining all the steps from Powered Descent Initiation through landing.

One of the many interesting things that happened during their flight is discussed in this somewhat not-safe-for-work clip from the excellent documentary”In the Shadow of the Moon”:

I highly recommend the seventh episode of the excellent “From the Earth to the Moon” series. In that episode, Apollo 12, arguably the best Apollo mission in terms of fun, is presented in accurate detail from Al Bean’s perspective. You can view it or download it at archive.org here.

After he left NASA, Bean pursued painting as a new career, and well:

A few hours after I read the news, the wallpaper on my desktop – one of 3,700 rotated randomly – happened to change to this high-res photo of Bean taken by Conrad on the surface of the moon during one of the best days of both of their lives.

Click for 4095×4095

Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean

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“What you see before you is the result of a lifetime of chocolate”

Katharine Hepburn’s brownies; click for 1920×1080

The full quotation is from Katharine Hepburn when she was 70:

“I don’t have to watch my figure as I never had much of one to watch. What you see before you is the result of a lifetime of chocolate.”

These are my fortified version of her one-pot, one-pan brownie recipe. Hepburn’s brownies were well-known by her friends and her recipe accompanied an interview in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1975. In 1987, it was included in this book that’s in my collection:

My variation on her recipe has toasted pecans swapped in for the walnuts and is enriched with espresso powder and extra chocolate and vanilla. These are quick to make and disappear even faster in a murmur of Mmmms, so you may want to consider a double batch. They’re ideal when you’re perhaps a little pressed for time but want a great dessert – whip these up in under an hour, including the time to preheat the oven and toast the pecans, and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

For that still-warm-from-the-oven effect, I recommend microwaving one brownie for 9 seconds. And a napkin. Maybe a Wet-Nap.

Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies – My Variation

  • 2½ oz/70g unsweetened chocolate – I use Ghirardelli (in New England, Market Basket has the best prices on Ghirardelli by far)
  • 1 stick/4 oz/115g unsalted butter, or salted butter if you have no unsalted
  • 1 cup/200g sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder (usually found near instant coffee in the supermarket)
  • ¾ teaspoon table salt, or ½ teaspoon if you’re using salted butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ cup/30g flour
  • 1 cup pecan halves toasted at 325F/160C for 9 minutes and broken, processed, or roughly chopped into large pieces
  • 1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips such as Ghirardelli 60% Cacao chips

Preheat oven to 325F/160C. Toast the pecans on a baking sheet for 9 minutes, then remove from the pan and allow to cool a bit. Break each half into four quarters or process/chop them into large pieces. Line an 8×8″/20x20cm pan with parchment paper – see the method below. You can instead butter the bottom and sides of the pan, but these are gooey brownies that really want to stick, even to a well-greased non-stick pan.

In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the stick of butter and the unsweetened chocolate. When melted, remove from heat – there’s no more cooktop heat from this point – and beat in the sugar. When the sugar is incorporated, beat in the eggs, then the espresso powder, salt, and vanilla. Fold in the flour, then stir in the toasted pecans and chocolate chips.

Pour into the parchment-lined pan and bake at 325F/160C for 40 minutes, rotating the pan 180 degrees at 20 minutes. Check them at 35 minutes – if you see the edges are darkening, get them out of the oven because they’re done. Cool for at least half an hour, then lift the brownies out using the sides of the parchment, peel the paper off, and cut into nine, twelve, or sixteen pieces (3×3, 4×3, or 4×4). A long, thin-bladed knife, cleaned and run under piping hot water between cuts, will help you produce squares instead of a pile of broken brownie pieces.

Lining a Pan with Parchment

  • Cut a piece of parchment paper the same shape but roughly 50% bigger than the pan. I start with these pre-cut half-sheet pan (12×16”) parchment sheets: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00KY5KLZK
  • Cut diagonally in from the corners of the parchment to the corners of the pan
  • Spray pan with cooking spray (or use a dot of butter at each corner) just to help the parchment stay put
  • Place the parchment in the pan, overlapping the diagonal flaps. You don’t need to spray the top of the parchment. So long as it’s silicone-treated, it will peel off just fine.

Notes on Pecans

Costco often sells 2-pound bags of pecans for US$13, which is probably close to what you’d pay for two pounds at a roadside pecan farm stand in the South. However, note that most nuts will go rancid after 6-12 months – walnuts and pecans the quickest by far – but they won’t go off if you freeze them and thaw only what you need for a recipe. Thawing takes just half an hour at room temperature.

In her Connecticut kitchen

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My research suggests they might be baiting you

or

Wishes were horses, proverb suggests

Something I’ve noticed on the increase in headlines is the formulation “[Thing] was/is/will be true, research/study/analysis suggests.” More often than not, that weakest yet most important word, ‘suggests’, is dead last. That’s not a mistake – they need you to click through and read the thing so they can get their advert microcredits.

As is demonstrated every few days on More or Less, too frequently the story behind the clickbait is a wilful exaggeration or misinterpretation of the results of a study for the sake of a sexier headline, or, worse, it reports on a flimsy study that no one should be giving credence to in the first place, one with, say, only a handful of test subjects or sloppy methodology or a questionable premise – or all of those. These days, if such an item gets mentioned by one news agency, that almost automatically means dozens if not hundreds of other agencies will reword and republish the same sloppy, questionable story with a similarly misleading or completely mistaken headline. Sheer numbers add up to credence, or at least quasi-credence, because they’re going to appear that much higher in news feeds and search results regardless of their basic veracity.

This formulation reminds me of high-bogosity archaeological programmes that expound things like “This ragged hole in the wall over here where the sun shines through on the vernal equinox suggests this building was almost certainly a highly-advanced astronomical observatory!” Later the structure might be mentioned more simply as ‘the astronomical observatory’, not a suggestion of one. Uh-huh.

Director: “Cut! Look, don’t just say ‘uh-huh’ or ‘yes’ when the presenter says something to you. We prefer you say ‘absolutely’ to make it sound extra true, but you could also say ‘precisely’, ‘exactly’, ‘definitely’, or ‘of course’ in a pinch. Generally speaking, the more syllables for ‘yes’ the better.”

In any case, the tentative ‘suggests’ just doesn’t match with the concrete ‘is’/’was’/’will be’. The proper usage is “Research/study/analysis suggests X might have been/could be/might in future be true”, but I suppose few would click through on my headlines.

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