Spring is sprung, a walk around the property

I went for a perimeter walk around the property — all 15.4 acres of it. That’s a bit over a kilometer of fairly rough terrain — I really should brush-hog it off before the saplings become trees and the wild rose bushes become even more impenetrable brambles. Still, with all the rain and plenty of sunshine, it’s a riot of growth out there. My neighbor’s tractor hasn’t been run for a week, and look at it. Then try to find my tractor which hasn’t run in over a year in the next photo.

Wildlife: the pond is higher than I’ve seen it in years, and I counted well over a dozen turtles snorkling around and about as many frogs jumping in whenever I moved. Deer signs are in abundance, as they like the overgrown brush and high grass back there, though I only spotted one as it ran away from me. Found one turkey nest, no eggs, but with the weird weather they may already be hatched and gone. I’ve seen the groundhogs around and heard foxes and coyotes, and what may have been a bobcat a few nights ago. I haven’t seen any possums, but they’re pretty reclusive. I like them, they eat ticks by the hundred, and despite wearing dark clothing and not using any repellent, a long walk in the grass and brush turned up no ticks, so that’s a plus.

Fruit wise, it looks like I’m in for a bumper crop of berries this year: the dewberries and blackberries are starting to get plump and should be ready in a week or two and have actually started blooming again, the endangered black raspberries look like they’re going to start ripening soon, and the wineberries should be ripe around early July. One of the cherry trees looks like it’s got more fruit than it’s had before, but they usually mold and fall off before ripening, so we’ll see how they turn out this year. Looks like the greengage plum didn’t set fruit this year, I should look into some cross-polination for it I think, and three of the smaller apple trees also look like they failed to set, though the two big ones look good. The walnuts look like they’re having a good year, so should have a good crop next year unless the weather really decides to go crazy this summer.

In wild plants, The Russian Olive, or whatever the heck it is that’s almost taken over a good chunk of the back field, is also going strong, and if they had tastier fruit I’d let it be, but I’m thinking of cutting as many of them down as I can if I can find the time, they’re definitely a invasive species. I’m seeing a good crop of milkweed, though I’d like more so may try harvesting and planting seeds when they mature in the fall. Even the strange cactus that grows in one rocky section looks ready to bloom wildly — if it does set fruit, which it only does every three-four years, I think this year I’ll try to beat the birds and the deer to the fruit and try planting the seeds in a few other areas, see if they can colonize more of the yard. The native lily looks like it didn’t do so well this year, but it’s early yet.

The big winner, though, is the poison ivy. Despite the annual eradication campaign I wage every year, its everywhere: mixed in with the berries, in all the paths, in the clearings, in the woods, vining up the trees, even a shrubby variety, I think, that’s starting to invade the cacti’s area. There’s probably poison ivy somewhere in every photo below. I’m not sure what to do about this, I hope it self-corrects when things dry out but right now I’m stopping in the laundry room on the way into the house after walking around back there and stripping before going in, because I’m basically wading in the stuff. Despite one fall into a mix of berry brambles and poison ivy, I seem to have managed to wash off any urushiol before it set in, except for one small patch on my right hand.

Hmm, Craigslist has a Gravely walk-behind brush hog for a decent price listed, might see if that’s still available and get started on some brush removal.

Pics below of the various plants, animals, and so on. Also, goats!

Can you find my tractor?

My tractor
Neighbor's tractor

not my tractor
milkweed 1

cacti 2



cherry tree

Some of the blackberries, already setting fruit, but still flowering and setting more fruit.
berries and olive

More goats!

Pond. The dark spots in the water are turtles

Gopher den entrance
ground hog den entrance

Some futureology thoughts from a conference

I just attended a set of presentations by various network industry security experts on the future of networking, security, and network convergency. I.e. how, in the future, to use a specific example by one speaker, how your smartwatch, thermostat, social networking analysis of what your friends are eating, medical records, refrigerator monitor, food shopping habits, bank account contents, and so on will result, once they can all exchange information with some sort of aggregator/AI software such as Watson, means that you will never have to ask the question “what will I have for dinner?”  Instead, when you get hone, a bag of groceries will be waiting for you, your refrigerator will have a recipe on it for the menu that has been decided you should eat, and all you have to do is follow the instructions for a meal that is, according to all these inputs, exactly what you want and need.

While I find that unlikely except for a very few privileged and interested individuals, what I do find likely is that your health insurer will decide all you get to eat today is raw kale and water or it will cancel your policy. That your employer will note that you bought too much alcohol and mandate counseling. That the grocery ordering service, having decided your raise means more of your income should go to its corporate masters, will suddenly include filet mignon and truffles instead of your usual hamburger. But, while creepy and almost certainly aimed at extracting as much money as possible from your account, that doesn’t strike me as the most likely outcome over the long term.

All of this assumes that you have a certain level of affluence — home delivered groceries, smart watches, enough disposable income to have active IOT (Internet Of Things) in your home, and that your maintain a social networking presence. Looking around the conference, the vast majority are male, white, and affluent enough to spend three days at a technology conference — and they mostly seem enthusiastic about such services and new technologies. Of course, you can take steps to minimize your digital fingerprints. But who’s going to bother other than the paranoid and ultra-wealthy who can opt out of such things? Certainly not these technocrats and net-wizards.

During the McCarthy era, they had to rely on people admitting, admittedly under duress, to being a Communist and turning in others to avoid having their lives and livelihoods destroyed. Now, should we end up with similar socio-political witchhunts, instead you will find out that not only do they know you’re a Communist (or atheist, Jewish, Muslim, anarchist, etc) based on emails, chats, messages, and so on, but the government secretly turned on the microphones and cameras on all your networked devices, including said refrigerator and thermostat as well as the expected phone and computers, as well as that of all you contacts and intimates, and people who they correlated your location with so that even if no electronic communication happened, they know who to tar with the same brush. But we know, or at least strongly suspect, that all this is already going on.

When someone does something wrong, but not wrong enough to actually throw them into a prison so they are physically separated from the rest of society, we attach a collar to a leg, so their location can be monitored and alert the enforcers should you stray from the permitted areas. Now with just about everyone carrying at least one cell phone, just about everyone the government has an interest in now has such a tracker.

Who does society currently “hunt?” We’ve seen police target people of color — do you think that these systems in the hands of law enforcement won’t become the new tools of oppression? While not as satisfying as shooting a despised minority or beating them up, finding a legitimate reason to secure a conviction for someone on anything they’ve done that might be illegal simply becomes a matter of data mining, severely limiting their future options in terms of employment, education, and quality of life. We know that the FBI had a mandate to find something, anything on certain people: legitimately for Capone, less so for MLK Jr — now imagine what Hoover’s men could have done today, with the kind of information integration that these leaders say is already going on, secretly and openly? Certainly the Stazi and KGB would have loved this level of surveillance, along with the internal security apparatus of every other fascist/totalitarian government.

And that’s just the current status quo. If we undergo a war, or suffer another major terrorist attack, or for some reason decide some hated class of humanity deserves official scrutiny and control, that’s just about it for that group: no hiding, no escape will suffice to avoid the scarlet letter and officially mandated punishment.

This seems to me to be inevitable. The kind of people who are desirous of this power want the resulting control — the billionaires who fund the companies developing these tools are, if the psychologists and economists are right, terrified that the masses will take their hoarded wealth and remove their privileges. They generally desire wealth for its power, and will use that power to preserve their privilege, even if it means oppressing the other 99.99% of humanity, assisted by the 1% who just think they have wealth and power, and the 30% who are sure that one day they’ll be one of the few people who actually matter to this kind of mindset.

Sadly, I don’t have an answer to how to prevent this grim meathook future of soussurveillance and top-down control. Dr. David Brin’s answer, of “looking back at the watchers,” assumes they’ll allow that, which is contrary to human nature; the other solutions of abandoning technology, or somehow legislating all the bad actors into being nice, strike me as just pollyannaism, unrealistic optimism.

And the worst thing is that all the benefits will be viewed as enough of a carrot to hide the stick, and that we’ll end up in an unrecognized dystopia, impossible to remove because the vast majority of people can’t even see the downside of being watched and controlled all the time. And this vision of the future these professional visionaries and technologists presented received a standing ovation from the engineers and other attendees.

How do you measure the brightness of a polished metal surface?

How do you measure the brightness of a polished metal surface?

During a recent knifemaker symposium, the topic of stainless damascus came up with the stated problem that nobody really knows which high carbon stainless steels (HCSS) have the greatest contrast. In fact, the expert said in his opinion it was just easier to mix in either non-stainless (D2, L6) or non-high-carbon stainless (305, 315, 420, etc) and accept the inconsistency in the final product. What I would like to do is take a sample of each common HCSS (ats34, bg42, 440c, sv30v, etc), say 20mmx20mm, heat treat, polish to a standard grit, probably .5 micron(A5, 1500 grit ANSI) and then measure the brightness, or reflectivity of the surface, then etch with some standard etchants and see what that shows.  The problem is, I'm not sure what to use to do the measurement. Back when I did typesetting, we used a reflectance densitometer to do something similar, but I'm not finding the right tool. Any suggestions?

Ideally, what I'd want is a calibrated light source aimed to reflect off the surface at a specific angle and hit a photoreceiver that can measure how much of that light is being received. The comparative numbers should give a better idea of what existing HCSS would have the highest contrasts, and given the metalurgical analysis of the respective steels, might suggest alloy formulations to try for an even higher contrast. Just don't know what the tool would be to do that measurement.

Got the press home and in the shop

My birthday present to myself this year is a hydraulic forging press, something I've wanted for a couple of decades but could never really justify the expense for.

Today, I picked up the press, got it off the truck (about 700 lbs), moved it in the shop, though it still needs to be moved to its final location. Moving the press off the truck was the hardest part -- I ended up using a 2500lb rated chain wrapped around a couple of overhead beams, attached a couple of 1000lb rated ratchet straps to the base, and used a 2-ton come-along between them to lift and lower the press. Then I just levered it into the shop in case of rain. Took about an hour from arriving home to getting it in the shop, not bad for one out-of-shape guy.

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All this, of course, ignores the really important question: What color should I paint the press? Right now it's just primer black.

Nanog Baltimore

I'll be at NANOG Baltimore on Monday, if you'd like to catch me I'll be manning the Carpathia booth until 11:30, then panels and the social afterwards. Anyone else going?

New knife, slicer with hamon

Steel is W2, there's a nice hamon there, hard to see in the photos but quite evident in real life. Handle is macassar ebony. This is the first knife heat treated with the new molten salt pot heat treat setup I built.

Slicer final - side B
Slicer final-side A

Powered makita sharpener troubleshooting.

Anyone know motors? My Makita sharpener has a custom 560rpm 1.1 amp motor, which usually has plenty of torque, but suddenly the speed and torque dropped to the point where it can't do the job anymore, and the motor housing gets very hot. Pic attached of the insides. I'd like to fix it if possible, but replacement motors aren't available, assuming it's not that great honking capacitor, which is available, but I don't know where to even start troubleshooting. I suppose I could buy a replacement unit, I've had this one since 1998, and it's seen many hours of use, but I'd like to avoid the expense if possible. Any advice before I blow the tool budget again?


latest knife: W2 small chef

After a few failed attempts at getting a hamon with W2, I think I have it. It's a small chef's knife, about 6" of blade, cord-wrapped handle (stage tie-line), ground to x16 then hand polished to bring out the hamon. I made this one on the winter solstice, after a similar design failed during heat treatment (ping of death during the quench.)

solstice a

solstice b

Any questions? What do you think of my hamon?

Outdoor pizza oven ala blacksmith

As a blacksmith, I’ve built several forges -- 4 at last count, and rebuilt a couple of others. I know something about heating and getting high temperatures in an open space.

I also like making pizza and baking bread. Combining these two hobbies leads to the inevitable idea of building a wood-fired oven, but one that goes a bit beyond what I’ve been finding online.

Most wood fired pizza/baking ovens are little more than a heavy construction of brick and stone to hold the heat, a hearth to burn some fuel, and the same hearth to bake the goods on. This means you build a fire, let it burn down, scrape and push it back so you have a hot surface to cook on, then try to make a pizza that doesn’t have a layer of cinders on the bottom. This is why pre-modern-oven bakin would use a thin layer of dough -- called cake, as in the infamous “let them eat cake” proclamation -- as a base for their baking.

Even so, as a fellow pizza enthusiast noted, they don’t really get hot enough (700F or better) to make a good pizza. I know wood, or at least charcoal, can get above 2000F, so that seems a solvable problem.

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After looking at several wood fired oven designs, I decided that the “build a fire on the cooking surface” was a losing proposition, and remembered my historical alchemical furnace designs. The reverberatory furnace, specifically, isolates the heated area from the burning fuel, while allowing the combustion gasses and both direct and indirect heat to interact with the cooking area. Since I generally like smoke flavoring, this seems ideal.

In a reverberatory furnace, the firebox is either behind or below the heating area, with the flow of heat passing over and around the heated object, or in the case of the lower firebox, also heating from beneath. Normally they have a natural-draft airflow; adding a blower and a tuyere (air pipe) to the firebox should increase air flow and raise heat generation to the desired levels. This is how charcoal and coal forges operate, and they both can get to the point of melting steel without much time or effort.

Also, at least for the test bed, I didn’t see the need for a large, permanent structure. A 2’ x 2’ baking surface should do fine.

So, for the first attempt, my design is to take a sturdy stainless steel table, such as used for food service, and build the oven on that. The base layer, the bottom of the firebox, is a layer of firebrick, with 8-10” of vertical space to build the fire in. Sides are also of firebrick. A steel structure holds a double layer of quarry tile or other heat resistant material that forms the roof of the firebox and the floor of the oven proper, or maybe do what the pros use and get a 24” x 30” piece of ½” steel and rest that on the brick sides. While ideally any supports would be of titanium, high-temerperature steel, or other heat-resistant (and therefore expensive) material, cheaper steel protected by a layer of inswool or a protective coating like itc-213 should also do the trick.

On the bottom of the firebox, a perforated pipe accessible from the outside acts as a tuyere, supplying air from a blower to increase the burn rate and heat generation. While in a forge precautions would need to be taken to keep the pipe from melting, in this case the desired temps are well below the melting point of iron, so standard black iron pipe should be fine. If not, a thick-walled copper pipe should do the trick, it’s what is generally used as a tuyere in short-stack smelting operations, with temperatures around 1800F or so.

At the back of the oven, a gap is open between the roof/floor and the upper baking chamber allows the combustion gases and heated air to enter the upper chamber. The upper chamber has either a cast refractory or brick-and-mortar construction, in a classic forward-sloping  or half-barrel dome. Construction would involve building a form out of styrofoam, then either applying a thick layer of castable refractory mixed with grog or sand, or building a brick-and-mortar structure around it. Coating the foam with a release agent should allow removal, or it can just be burnt out.

At the front of the dome there will be a chimney with an adjustable damper, both to induce a draft when not using a blower and to control airflow during baking. Both the firebox and oven fronts will have steel doors to help control heat as well.

During operation, a fire is lit in the firebox, and once it is going the doors are closed and the blower turned on. A thermocouple monitors the temperature inside the oven, and when the desired temperature is achieved, the blower is turned off, and any ash that migrated from the firebox to the oven proper is brushed away.  The ceramic or steel floor of the oven should hold a high temperature for quite a while, though just having the coals and embers in the firebox should be enough to keep it suitably hot. Wood chips can be added to the firebox for a smoked effect, and an adjustable vent in the firebox door can help modulate temperature and burn rate.

I’ve sketched out a few diagrams, and am looking for the right table. I have firebricks aplenty, and castable refractory and steel are available locally.

I think I have my winter project.

Bill of materials:

stainless steel table    $150

Castable Refractory    $120

½” x 24” x 30” steel     $60  (assumes local pickup, shipping is in excess of $100)

Firebrick x 30        $225 (replacement cost)

Steel, hardware, etc    $50


total            $605

I can go cheaper by making up my own castable refractory or even by using the local clay, but since most outdoor pizza oven kits go for $3000 or more, I figure this is a win.


Chimney is at the front, firebox (with tuyere) on the bottom, there's a hard-to-see gap at the back allowing airflow from the firebox to the baking chamber.