March 23, 2019

Temporarily living in Malaysia

We are living outside Kuala Lumpur for about six months, from December 2018 on. The company I work for has a partnership with Hanwha Q Cells to build a pilot scale silicon wafer factory using our technology on their campus here in Cyberjaya. See news story here.

This deal was finalized about a year ago and we have been working very hard to make it happen since then. First came an intensive design phase last spring to update our equipment build package. Then we worked with our partner's machinery division over the summer in Korea to build the machines while construction got underway here in Malaysia for the new facility. Now we are working with their solar division getting the process running and ramping up production.

My family was able to come with me for this assignment and it has turned out to be a great experience for all of us. Part of what made it tenable for them was the fact that it is for a definite amount of time, not an open ended move. So we are living here kind of like we are on vacation from our normal lives. Well, I have to work a lot at the plant, but have no responsibilities outside of that. Most days we eat ice cream and watch TV on the internet after dinner. Might be hard to adjust going back to our normal routine later this year!

We are living in a pretty nice row house close to the factory. Luckily another engineer from 1366 was able to bring his family and lives in the same complex, so our kids can play together and not feel so isolated and lonely.

Becky and the kids do homework and swim at the pool in our development during the week, and on weekends we see sights or do other things around town together (picture at top is of us visiting a palm oil plantation). Food here is great, and cost of living is lower than at home. We don't have a car here (I take the local equivalent of Uber to work).

Society here is varied and highly multicultural. Most people can speak quite a few languages and are very open and friendly. Almost no americans here, and most people back home don't know where this country is or anyone who has even been here.

We have been keeping a blog about our trip here:

January 15, 2019

Cider 14 (2018)

Apple Sourcing
Once again we bought two bins from Autumn Hills in Groton. Ann Harris, the proprietor, said they were low on seconds this year since they had been selling to a cider making place, but she gave me a good price on a mix of seconds and prime grade apples. Jim Serdy and I went up there for the morning one day and packed apples into used Wacker Silicon boxes I got from work. We sent 22 boxes to Ben in Maine via van carrier. While not the cheapest solution, the combo of Autumn Hills and General Courier gets us good fruit at a convenient location for a bearable cost.

Dave and Emily had a sizeable contribution of apples from the orchard in Five Islands and some wild harvested apples from around the island. Last year's hard cider had an excess of acid and lacked tannin, so Ben returned to making the pilgrimage to Poverty Lane in NH for a bin of bitter cider apples (Dabinett this time). They were low on fruit for outside sale this year at Poverty Lane, having suffered much loss from the depredations of animals.

I brought a symbolic contribution of GoldRush apples from my backyard in Somerville. 

Since I was out of town much of the summer for work and thus not actively keeping the squirrel population down, I lost a fair portion of my apples to squirrel damage. My GoldRush tree continues to be the star of the backyard espalier lineup - profusely and annually bearing since a young age, easy to train, and neither too much nor too little wood growth. And the apples are fantastic; packed with flavor, very crisp for a week or two after picking, store well in the fridge, good size.

Cider weekend was held a week later on the calendar and we were unlucky with the weather. Friday night was cold and clear, but nice.

Saturday was cold and rainy. 

The weather cut down on the number of day trippers on Saturday so we could all reasonably fit in the barn during the day.

Equipment Updates
This year we had two equipment projects. One was to hook up a rowing trainer as an additional power source to the apple grinder, the second was an elevator to move apples from a wash basin up to a spinning wash tunnel.

Eerik instigated the rowing trainer effort, buying a used one for a good price after arriving in Boston. He brought it in to my workplace and we tinkered with it in the shop after hours on Thursday evening. We removed the fan housing and machined a rigid shaft coupling to adapt the trainer hub to a piece of 5/8 shaft.

Later in Maine, a few of us had a productive hacking session after dinner on friday night.

we got a sprocket mounted to the trainer and worked up a mount for a hydraulic log splitter pump to couple by chain to the drive sprocket. 

With a bike freewheel on one side, we had to thin down the #40 sprocket perimeter so it could fit a bicycle chain. 

A quirk of the trainer is that the axle is mounted in soft rubber cups to the frame. This had the effect of making the axle deflect hugely as a pull stroke was applied, which made the chain coupling unworkable. Eerik, Ben, Keith, and Steven worked up an outboard support for the axle on the other side of the chain sprocket, which improved things. 

We worked out a mount and coupling for a hydraulic motor on the grinder, to spin the grinding drum shaft directly. 

Hydrualic hoses and other system elements were hooked up and testing commenced. 

The trainer was able to pump a good amount of oil around the circuit before the motor went in, but once the motor was put in the loop the effort required to pull the rowing stroke became unreasonable.

After more fooling around, our conclusion is that the hydraulic motor has a high pressure drop to get moving at all, and doesn't seem to be terribly efficient even if you get it going. It was clear that the rower was not going to contribute much to the grinder when coupled in this way.

Perhaps next year we will try to figure out a direct mechanical coupling. The main difficulty with this is placement of the rowing setup. Access around the grinder radially is already pretty constrained with sections taken up by input, feed push stick, output, and bike power shaft stations.

The new apple elevator, on the other hand, turned out wonderfully. Ben had been wanting to do this project for a few years and had gathered some parts ahead of time. This year he did some supporting woodwork in the weeks before cider and had it far enough along that a final push by Rachel, Steven, Ben, and Keith on Friday night got it to a beautifully functional state.

The final implementation involves the elevator at a steep angle, plunked into the end of a big plastic tub filled with water. 

Apples are fed into the water tub and gently picked up by the slats of the elevator. The action is powered by the same bike that runs the washing tunnel, coupled by V belt. The bike operator can push in a tensioning roller or not to cause the elevator to lift or pause as needed. The elevator allows a useful pre-rinse of the apples and makes feeding them into the wash tunnel a much easier and less wet job. Transferring apples into the low slung tank is a great job for the youngest of our cider workers.

One last minor improvement concerns press cloth. Last year I made up a set of new presscloths from what seemed to be the same 12oz cotton canvas I had used previously from, but due to either the weave or the sizing applied to the cloth, these had great difficulty allowing cider to flow through and we were not able to use them. This year I bought a couple purpose made presscloths from a cider equipment supplier, Oesco. The new special cider presscloths worked wonderfully and we'll most likely get some more of those next year. They are not cheap, but work very well.

We've been developing a standby cider weekend menu these last few years and continued with the running themes

Black bean tacos on Friday night, led by Ben and Alexis. This year we had dinner at the big barn rather than the shore cabin since it was cold and we had work to do in the barn on equipment after dinner.

Breakfast Burritos saturday morning, led by the Kaufmanns. Delicious as always.

Nebraska cream can Saturday lunch, led by Dave and Emily.

Chili, cornbread, and apple crisp led by Becky and myself. There was plenty of orchard grown corn and rye left from last year, so that got ground up in the country living mill on the press bike. 

I took home a good slug of the five islands corn and rye to grind at work for cornbread during our annual halloween chili cookoff.

We had plenty of help making dinner, and various supplemental food was supplied and prepared by other attendees. 

Ned and his friend engineered the return of his tasty cider donuts on Saturday.

Buckwheat pancakes on Sunday morning led by Ben and Emily. Sunday was quiet as usual, but cold and overcast. 

Cider Production
Total volume was not a record this year, but given the weather and lower attendance this was for the best as we could finish up apple processing mid afternoon and get cleaned up in plenty of time for dinner. The one thing that ran long was bottling last year's hard cider, with plenty of hard working attendees all day and Eerik continuing to work even after dinner. 

Ben reports that total juice produced stood at 745 liters, at over 70% yield. The sweet cider got nearly cleaned out Saturday, which is usually not the case. I took home somewhat less than usual of the hard blend in expectation of being out of the country for half the coming year. The rest was put in glass and transported to the cellar.

Thanks to everyone who helped make cider 14 possible! 

Thanks to Eerik for many of these pics.

You may find Ben's blog post on the same event here (using many of the same pics, since we drew from a common pool).

March 27, 2018

School of Honk!, and learning to play Trumpet

I've not been posting as much the past year or so, mainly because I've been working less on the type of projects that I've come to see as good material for the blog. House maintenance and the like just don't motivate me enough to share here as other projects do. In addition to less bloggable projects though, I have been spending a significant fraction of my free time on music and language learning. I though I might make some posts in those areas over the coming months.

In the music area, I sort of unexpectedly started playing the trumpet in August. Yeah, sounds funny, right?

Somerville is home once a year to a fantastic festival called Honk!, wherein boisterous street bands come from all over the country and even internationally to play on street corners and parade around the streets. It is a good time and we have been going down to Davis square for years to take in some of the energy and music during the weekend of Honk!

Just over three years ago, some local enthusiasts and musicians organized an open community band inspired by the Honk! festival called School of Honk. It welcomes newcomers, even if they have never played an instrument before, and I think for all the green members the music comes off as pretty damn good. The band owns and maintains a number of loaner instruments for newbies to use. They run a summer camp which Child 1 went to last summer.

Child 1 has always liked brass bands, since she was very little, and has enjoyed going to Honk! So she was psyched to attend the summer camp with her clarinet. The camp did not disappoint, and she had so much fun that she wanted to start going to the weekly meeting for SoH every Sunday. She made some friends at camp and loved the energy. Now it is without a doubt her number one favorite thing in her life.

The first event we did post-camp with the band was to join them on a trip out to George's island in Boston Harbor over the summer. We explored the island for a while before the music started

 then Child 2, Child 3, and I followed the band around while Child 1 paraded and played with them.

These people sure looked like they were having a good time!

Some weeks later, I took Child 1 to drop off at SoH sunday session. People were not really sure if it was ok to drop off a 10 year old, so I just stayed there to watch. One of the leaders of the trumpet section, Candy, came over and strongly encouraged me to blow a horn even if it was the only time I'd ever do it. She said trombone is easiest to get sound out of for a beginner, but I felt like it is such a large instrument it could be hard to transport by bike. Plus I've always liked how the trumpet sounds. So I grabbed a trumpet and paraded down Main st. with School of Honk to Kendall square and back. I tried to copy other trumpet players in fingering some of the songs, and the more experienced players were helpful and generous with occasional instruction. It is even possible I made the right note a couple times.

Parading with the band, draped in a borrowed polka dot scarf and blowing a plastic trumpet, I could see delighted, shocked, and nonplussed bystanders witness our passing by, many of them whipping out their phones for a video. Almost all these surprised people were smiling. Between the music, the spectacle, and the welcoming atmosphere, this was a ton of fun! And Child 1 had a blast and was highly committed to continuing to attend.

So the very next day I bought a used student trumpet off craigslist for $80, and I go with Child 1 to the Sunday SoH get together every week we can make it.

I don't practice as much as I should at home, but it is surprising how fast I've been able to develop some basic skills. After 6 months I can sort of play about 3/4 of the songs, especially if I can keep an eye on an experienced player nearby to remember the fingerings and get the timing right for when to come in. I can't get past F at the top of the treble clef yet, and my face gets tired quickly while playing, but I can feel improvement happening. There are quite a few people in the band who play very nicely and were beginners just like me only a year or two ago.

Meanwhile this experience has made Becky and my neighbors appreciate the trumpet much less than they used to. I tried playing with a practice mute, but it makes playing much more difficult, even after I drilled some extra holes in the mute. Sometimes I play with the bell facing a crumpled up blanket sitting on my lap some centimeters away, which helps limit the volume. Actually the second mute I got is much freer blowing and works pretty well. This "bubble mute" by Jo-Ral was more expensive and doesn't stay in the trumpet as well, but it sounds better and is not too difficult to blow through.

Still not quite like playing unencumbered but ok if I need to be quiet. As I get better, it gets easier to play with less volume, and my playing gets less annoying for others to listen to. Or maybe they are just getting numb to the barrage of horn sounds? I am still awful at improvised soloing but I have faith I'll get better if I keep working at it.

In the fall, Child 1 and I got to perform with the SoH band in the actual Honk! festival. We played a set in Davis square

and Blackbird Special on a stage in Harvard square. The band dress motif is polka dots, so I got some fabric and sewed Child 1 a dots shirt to wear for the festival.

The kids worked on their own little projects while I was making the shirt.

Just about a month ago, Child 2 and I started joining the SoH dance section when it is running (once a month usually). A few awesome dance leaders choreograph group numbers to SoH songs and teach the rest of us. This is really fun and adds another dimension to the SoH experience. Becky even came to dance section for the SoH party around Mardi Gras time.

Child 2 got a cheap melodica from Amazon and has started hanging out with the reeds section during non-dance sundays to start the process of learning the songs.
She plays piano pretty well, so the main challenge is learning songs and figuring out how to play whilst holding the instrument and blowing in the tube, parading down a city sidewalk.

Child 3 has gotten interested too, and says he wants to play trumpet with me. So we've started practicing a little a few days of the week. When he can play the notes for middle C up to B he will be ready to start learning some songs. His favorite one right now is African Marketplace, which I know 100% and play around the house frequently. He is learning a low section which only uses C, D, Eb and F#.

Here are Child 3 and Child 2 helping me give my trumpet a bath.

Maggie (a trumpet section leader) gave a great lecture on brass instrument cleaning and maintenance at a trumpet sectional meeting and we wanted to put the instructions into practice. The valves are definitely smoother and faster since the deep clean.

SoH is absolutely awesome, and we are so grateful to all the people who put in their time and energy to make it happen. I have never experienced anything nearly as fun and rewarding when it comes to playing music, so I am eager for us to take advantage of this opportunity while we can. Everyone is friendly and supportive and the music is great. We donate as much as we feel able to help with the cost of keeping it rolling.

I actually stopped practicing my fiddle in January in favor of focusing on trumpet, and have also set aside the concertina I got last summer. At present I have a wonderful venue for playing every week on trumpet with an amazing group of people (including my kids), so I want to maximize my uptake of that while possible. Whenever I find myself not going to SoH every week for whatever reason, I'll pick up the fiddle again. Or maybe after I get to a minimum functional level of skill on trumpet.

If you live in the area and have ever had a desire to play this kind of music, you should come check it out, even if you have never played before. We meet on Sunday afternoons, in various locations in Cambridge and Somerville. Check out the website and get on the email list to find out where we are meeting every week!