Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Hot Dog Cooking Challenge: Tea Light Edition

Last week, Shira and I celebrated Thanksgiving with a delightful trip to Death Valley in California (full post coming...eventually). While purchasing provisions in Las Vegas, we realized that with a bit of careful shopping we could pick up a portable Thanksgiving feast. We grabbed hot dogs, buns, pickles, mustard, a cooling rack and a two-pack of Sterno fuel. When Thanksgiving arrived, we positioned the cooling rack using a few handy rocks over the can of fuel and cooked the hots with a field expedient grill. The meal was delish!

We had evidence this would work, as we cooked hot dogs over Sterno on a secluded beach in Puerto Rico. That time, we used coconuts as rocks weren't handy. We got by without a grill by wrapping the dogs in aluminum foil.

Turns out, the Sterno company thinks that cooking over Sterno isn't such a crazy idea, and offers a cheap folding stove so you can do this on the go without having to improvise.

A Travel Friendly Solution

This got me thinking: if we were traveling to a destination that we knew had Sterno, we could easily pack or pickup basic supplies to make cooking  simple affair. But, what if the destination we have in mind doesn't have Sterno? Or, we don't want to drive around town looking for the stuff? TSA is a hard no when it comes to flying with any fuel, so you can't bring the cans with you.

Looking around for other cooking ideas, it occurred to me that we could consider the humble tea light. This begs the question: can you cook hot dogs over tea lights? Tea lights are TSA safe, portable and easy to travel with. But, do they generate enough heat to make a quality dog? Last night, Shira and I decided we'd find out.

Getting Fired Up

My first attempt was to spread out a 2 x 4 grid of tea lights, and then make four pillars of two tea lights each to rest the grill on. I lit the candles and tossed the doggies on:

Within moments, parts of the hot dogs turned black. In my attempt to make as hot a setup as possible, I'd put the dogs too close to the candles. The result wasn't burned hot dogs, but rather dogs covered in candle soot. I wiped off the doggies and tried again, this time elevating them further from flame by using four baking ramekins. This did the trick nicely. The dogs sizzled away and didn't accumulate soot. Holding our meat thermometer between the dogs showed temps as high as 300°F. So apparently, the candles gave off plenty of heat.

It took about 12 minutes to cook the hot dogs, though Shira wasn't impressed with how carefully I turned them to avoid any charring. But when we finally ate the dogs, they were hot all the way through and quite tasty.

I experimented a bit with making a sort of aluminum foil tent over the hot dogs, attempting to capture some of the heat being lost to the room. Ultimately, I think this wasn't necessary, but it seems like this approach could be used to get a more oven like effect than just cooking over the flame. I'd also like to try placing the tea lights in the bottom of a meatloaf shaped pan with the grill on top.  I wonder if that configuration would also capture more heat than having the tea lights in the open.

The main lesson learned from experiment is: be patient. The setup seems improbable, but give it time. The tiny tea lights will produce plenty of heat, so don't rush the process. We're talking slow roasting here, not 30 seconds in the microwave.

I'm looking forward to our next travel adventure where hot dogs are on the menu. It's powerful stuff knowing that 8 tea lights, a bit of foil and some ingenuity is all that's standing between us and a gourmet meal.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

In Support of Local Public Art Projects

Every time I run or drive by the The Pike, a public art installation located on the West end of Columbia Pike in Arlington, I have the same couple of thoughts.

First, I love it. The sculpture consists of a wind turbine wing standing on its end, with 4,000 plus coins embedded in its base. You can read the artist's explanation of the symbolism here. From my perspective, the wind turbine component is a clever nod to innovation. Wind power is 7,000 year old tech that we continue to strive to improve. The coins, donated by Arlington residents, come from 117 countries and every continent minus Antarctica. They capture the quintessentially diverse nature of Columbia Pike, my neighborhood.

The second thought that quickly follows the first is, what a thankless job it must be creating public art. If the comments on arlnow are any indication, the majority of my neighbors are far less impressed with this creation. Here are some comments from the post announcing the project:

Apparently the Arlington County Government Committee of Drunken Sailors has met and come up with another waste of our taxes.

So a discarded wind tribune/blade, that an "artist" self proclaims is "art" will be stood up on end and cost the good people of Arlington how much?

In all honesty, that is horrendous. Just very ugly. Putting aside the cost.

To celebrate the Pike.....
The single blade is part of a wind turbine project that was started and never completed. Thus the blade represents Columbia Pike, as the "failed project" artwork represents the streetcar project.

I like it! It’s says, “ Welcome to Columbia Pike! We’re the stabbiest part of Arlington!”*

This is dumb, ugly, and not even a sculpture. Failure on every level.

People in Arlington Mill don't want this horrible postmodernist garbage to come into our neighborhood and symbolize the gentrification and how college-educated (sub)urbanites think we're so "cool," this is our worst nightmare. I hate my neighborhood already, but you're gonna make me hate it for more than one reason, hopefully a gang of unemployed teenagers with some common decency will find a way to destroy this piece of blasphemy. Get out of my neighborhood, and take your farmers' market, your foul sculpture and your multiple masters' degrees with you.

The trip we took to New York City last year did a fine job of tuning my perspective on public art projects. Specifically, it was the time spent on Liberty Island and learning about the Statue of Liberty that made me appreciate just how significant a public art project can be. In short, if you want to help poor immigrants erecting a massive statue seems like a counter productive move. And yet, Lady Liberty has helped cast a mindset that has done amazing good. I'm not suggesting The Pike is our Statue of Liberty, but for those with even a modicum curiosity The Pike has an important story to tell.

Lest you think criticizing public art projects is anything new, here's a snippet from the October 10th, 1886 edition of the New York Dispatch. The author manages to slam both the Statue of Liberty and President Grover Cleveland in one go. Arlnow commentors have nothing on this writer.

It occurs to us that the selection of President Cleveland to deliver the dedicatory address is very appropriate. Like the Bartholdi statue, he owes his prominence to the position he occupies. Like the Bartholdi statue, he is hollow, and large and thinly plated. Like the Bartholdi statue, he can stand around and do nothing. It has cost a great deal of bother, worry and trouble to squeeze out of the American people enough money to put the Bartholdi statue in position upon its pedestal, and everybody will be glad to have it dedicated and done with.... If it bad been advertised as a monument of President Cleveland’s incapacity, the money would have come in more easily.

*OK, that one is pretty good. 

Monday, November 27, 2023

Three Magical Days at Bradley Beach

[Composed 8/11/2023 - 8/13/2023]

For the last few summers my family has been converging on Bradley Beach, New Jersey. Shira and I were finally able to make it up for the festivities this year and it was awesome.

The weekend started with a delicious Shabbat dinner, where we enjoyed getting caught up with everyone. As much as possible, I ducked out of adult responsibilities by hanging with the kids. I showed them how to play the card game California Speed and within two rounds I was getting trounced by them. Oh man it was so great seeing everyone.

Saturday morning started before the sun was up by going fishing on the shore with my Dad. The fish were biting; literally. I'd feel some aggressive tugging, and poof, all the tackle would be gone. I did manage to pull off a novel feat: I caught two fish on the same cast!

While we were hoping for more fishing success, those two fish were all I managed to pull in. My Dad, of course, pulled in a few more. But ultimately, catching a prefect sunrise with my Dad was the real win. I also found a pristine sand dollar, which was an unexpected treat.

By mid-morning we were back at the beach and ready to take in the sand and surf. Shira and I showed up at the beach just as the kids were returning to the water. I plunged in, preparing for hypothermia to set in, but to my surprise the water wasn't that chilly. We enjoyed doing battle with the waves (spoiler alert: waves always win). Ralph gave me some proper boogie board lessons, and in a few cases, I managed to solidly ride some waves. It was thrilling. I'm sure I've goofed around with small body boards in the past, but apparently I'd been doing it all wrong. When things click, and the waves power you into shore and it really is a mini thrill ride.

After an hour or two, Shira informed me it was time to go and that weather would be rolling in soon. I argued with her. Just as I was explaining to her how she was misreading the radar app on her phone, the skies opened and the thunder and lightening kicked in. While she wasn't pleased I'd ignored her warning, she did relish the 'I told you so moment' she'd earned.

The rain didn't last long, but did disrupt things just enough that Ralph and the band he was supposed to play with that night had their gig canceled. In the evening we made our way back to Ralph and Rachel's place and found the band had collected there. Instruments were busted out, the front porch cleared and and an impromptu concert began. It was delightful. The band, named The Wag, played a mix of Beatles music and their own creations. While I'm sorry that most of the town missed out on the experience, it was really special to have what amounted to our own personal concert that night.

After the concert we made our way out for some ice cream. The next morning we wrapped things up with breakfast at Ralph and Rachel's. As you can see below, I got a parting make-over by the kids. My hair never looked so good. And before we knew it, it was time to get on the road.

As one last hurrah, I managed to get Shira to stop at the nearby Project Diana site. At this location, the Army Signal Corp bounced radio signals off the moon for the first time. This odd sounding accomplishment had far reaching implications:

In Project Diana after [World War II], Camp Evans bounced radio waves off the surface of the moon and read their echo, demonstrating the possibility to communicate beyond the earth’s atmosphere. This achievement showed, in principle, that it would be possible to communicate with spacecraft and with artificial satellites that could observe our planet from space. These capabilities have led to many military applications, but they have also given us weather satellites, for example, by which we can track hurricanes—including Sandy—and have global communications that support the Internet.

The head of the project, Jack DeWitt, explained the importance back in 1946:

If one allows the imagination free rein many future possibilities appear. Spaceships carrying passengers at thousands of miles per hour can be controlled and communication established with their passengers for we now know that the Earth's atmosphere can be penetrated.

What required imagination in 1946 is now the norm.

Project Diana was also made possible through a quirk in the hiring process at Fort Monmouth, the base where Camp Evens was located:

At the time, Fort Monmouth was one of the few places that didn’t require a photograph to be included in a job application, allowing an applicant to be judged on merit rather than skin color.

This allowed Dr. Walter S. McAfee, a black scientist, to secure a position at the base and ultimately participate in Project Diana:

Project Diana was a scientific collaboration in which engineers, including mathematical physicist McAfee, studied the Earth’s relationship to the moon via radar signal echoing. He contributed the necessary theoretical calculations including a radar cross-section of the moon, radar coverage pattern, and the distance to the moon, all of which were crucial to the project’s success.

Family, fun, boogie boarding, beach combing, music and history--what a weekend! I'm already looking forward to next year. Now, if I could just figure out a card game that I can teach the kids and win at, I'd be all set.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Cramming for an Astrophotography Opportunity

Shira and I have a trip coming up where I should have the chance to shoot some amazing night sky pics. While I've done some research on the topic before, I've never put this into practice. With time quickly running out, I wanted to take whatever steps I could to improve my chances of getting some keeper shots.

To YouTube!

First up, I headed over to YouTube to arm myself with the latest information. In my mind, there are broadly two types of night sky photos to capture: fixed images and star trails. It turns out that both sets of images can be created the same way: capturing hundreds of relatively short exposures and then stacking them together to either form either a static image or star trails.

This tutorial in particular walks you through every step of the process, from preparation, to image capture to post processing. At nearly two hours in length it's a lot to take in, but so worth it. If I have any success at capturing photos in the field, it will because NebulaPhotos got me there.

To Amazon!

Fortunately, the only new hardware I'd need is an introvelometer. This device plugs into your camera and allows you to capture N photos with M delay between each one. It's perfect for capturing thousands of photos of the night sky. It's also handy for time lapses and other photo projects. And, at $20, it was surprisingly affordable.

I thougt I might need a star tracker to have the camera rotate at the same rate as the Earth to avoid un-wanted star trails. But, all of this can be accomplished in post processing.

To Emacs!

To increase the odds that I won't forget something in the field, I've updated my astrophotography cheatsheet I created a few years ago. I've folded in the information learned on YouTube and dropped the distinction between shooting with a DSLR or phone. My Samsung's S22 pro mode should work more or less the same as my DSLR if I want to give that a try.

You can find the source for my astrophotography chatsheet on github. Feel free to grab it and make improvements.

To The Field!

I felt it was really important to get out and do at least some primitive testing with both the camera settings and my new introvelometer. The best scene I could find given my free time for was to set up a poorly lit, sort of busy intersection. My hope was that dark scene would imitate the night sky, the headlights of cars would stand in for stars. This would be my first attempt at working with raw images. I figured any experience I got in the dark and cold would serve me well.

I spent about 10 very chilly minutes shooting outdoors, capturing two 50 photo sequences.

To The Command Line!

Now that I had some photos, I wanted to practice post processing them. This Reddit post had a suggestion for using ImageMagick's convert function to average a set of photos into one. While this is far more primitive than the astrophotography software I'd ultimately be using should I manage to capture some night sky pics, some of the concepts are the same.

My first attempt to producing an averaging shot was a bust:

$ convert -monitor cr2/*.CR2 -evaluate-sequence median output.jpg
convert-im6.q16: delegate failed `'ufraw-batch' --silent --create-id=also --out-type=png --out-depth=16 '--output=%u.png' '%i'' @ error/delegate.c/InvokeDelegate/1958.
convert-im6.q16: unable to open image `/tmp/magick-27807cFWXnZiY4WSQ.ppm': No such file or directory @ error/blob.c/OpenBlob/2874.
convert-im6.q16: delegate failed `'ufraw-batch' --silent --create-id=also --out-type=png --out-depth=16 '--output=%u.png' '%i'' @ error/delegate.c/InvokeDelegate/1958.
convert-im6.q16: unable to open image `/tmp/magick-27807i9EWII9jtzZR.ppm': No such file or directory @ error/blob.c/OpenBlob/2874.
convert-im6.q16: unable to open image `/tmp/magick-27807i9EWII9jtzZR.ppm': No such file or directory @ error/blob.c/OpenBlob/2874.

The problem was that convert doesn't know how to work with the raw cr2 files my Canon DSLR captured.

I installed dcraw, which is able to convert from cr2 to other formats. While it has a great many options, a simple -T *.CR2 was all I needed to convert a directory of cr2 files to tiffs.

$ dcraw -v -T cr2/*.CR2
Loading Canon EOS Rebel T6s image from cr2/IMG_0021.CR2 ...
Scaling with darkness 2048, saturation 13583, and
multipliers 2.499162 1.000000 1.475508 1.000000
AHD interpolation...
Converting to sRGB colorspace...
Writing data to cr2/IMG_0021.tiff ...
Loading Canon EOS Rebel T6s image from cr2/IMG_0022.CR2 ...

Once in the tiff format, convert worked with the images. I kicked off the following command to average one of the sequences:

$ convert -monitor tiff/*.tiff -evaluate-sequence median output.jpg
Load/Image/tiff[IMG_0021.tiff]: 4021 of 4022, 100% complete
Load/Image/tiff[IMG_0022.tiff]: 4021 of 4022, 100% complete

As it churned, I imagined just how visually stunning the final product would be. Oh man, it was going to be legendary. When the image finished I found myself beyond disappointed:

That's what I froze my butt off for? Sure, that's the scene that was in front of me, but where are the lights of the cars and blur of the people?

I quickly realized that I got exactly what I should have expected. ImageMagick averaged all the photos, so what remained were just the parts of the image sequence that showed up most often. A car zipping through a frame or two was easily averaged out.

Thinking a bit more about this, I realized that this is actually a pretty clever technique. Say I want to capture a picture of the Lincoln Memorial, but I don't want all the tourists in frame. I can simply capture a whole bunch of images and then average them out.

Still, I was curious if I could combine the images in a way that would emphasize the presence of the cars and people. For that, I found this recipe: Create Star Trails With ImageMagick. Again, I used convert to join images, but this time I composed each image on top of each other.

$ cp tiff/$(ls tiff/* | head -1) master.tiff 
$ for f in tiff/*.tiff ; \
  do echo $f ; \
  convert full.jpg $f -gravity center -compose lighten -composite -format jpg full.jpg ; \

The image while far from being a masterpiece is certainly more fun:

I still feel unprepared for this upcoming photo opportunity. But I now feel armed enough to give this my best shot!

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Citi Open 2023 | Murray, Tiafoe and glimpse of Gauff

[Composed 8/1/2023]

The promise of the Citi Open, now technically the Mubadala Citi DC Open, is the chance to see world class tennis on a relatively tiny stage. While we were only able to squeeze in a day of the tournament this year, it more than lived up to its promise. This year we also brought along B and P, who both appreciate sports even if they aren't huge tennis fans (yet).

We Ubered to the stadium in the afternoon and had no traffic or long lines to contend with. The weather was beyond perfect, unlike previous years which were oppressively hot.

We started watching tennis in the main stadium, watching the fifth seed Grigor Dimitrov take on Mackenzie McDonald. We caught the first set tie break, where the two battled it out. And then started the second set, which Grigor pulled away in. While we watched the second set, Shira snuck off to one of the side courts to secure us a spot watching former number one Andy Murray.

Eventually, P, B and I joined Shira on the side court and watched Murray and Dan Evans take on Maximo Gonzalez and Andres Molteni. We tried to explain to P and B that they were mere paces away from a tennis great. It really is tons of fun watching doubles tennis in such an intimate setting. Ultimately, Gonzelez and Molteni won the day; but it was a treat getting to watch Murray emote all over the court during play. And Shira enjoyed pointing out that Andy's mom was in the stands just a few rows behind us.

After the doubles match we got lunch and hovered around the practice courts. We got lucky and managed to catch Coco Gauff warming up. This was one of the first time's we got to see that Brad Gilbert had joined her coaching team, and it was fun seeing BG on the court, not just in the commentating box.

From there, we made it to the night match, where we saw Francis Tiafoe take on Aslan Karatsev. Frances is essentially our local tennis star, so we're always eager to cheer him on whenever we see him. I'm sure winning his home tournament is top on his list of goals, and watching him play tonight it looked like that may very well happen. Frances entertanied, as always does, with his larger than life personality and some massive serves. Man he's fun to watch.

When we asked P and B what they thought of the experience, they were most surprised by just how casual the whole affair was. Not only are you close to the players, but they walk through the venue, among the fans to get to and from the locker room. P tried to imagine what would happen if a pro-soccer play just casually walked through the stands to a match. Yeah, not going to happen.