“Puddles is the only one that really understands me.”

The headline is my favorite entry so far in the ongoing caption contest for this photograph of myself as Cthulhu for Halloween 2009. That photograph was taken by my dear friend Christie Clark, and that is her late, lamented, lovely, little Llhasa-dog Allie in my lap. R.I.P.

Had some good use of the Cthulhu mask, too, during the MAKE online editorial team conference call on Wednesday. Pro tip for Google+ hangouts: You don’t have to point the camera at your head. When this screenshot was taken, the mask was fit over a big plastic jug with a couple of rocks in the bottom for weight, sitting on the desk beside my computer.

I actually have no costume for this year, and since Halloween is on a Monday night I will probably not be doing too much except handing out candy to the neighborhood kiddos. But the caption contest has inspired me to at least sponge Cthulhu off for that purpose. Perhaps there will be more photos to come.

My Dad, cleaning the floor

He’s in his early seventies, and that thing in his hands is a modified weed-whacker.

Back story: Mom and Dad decided, recently, to polish the Saltillo tile floor in their home, and Dad bought a floor polishing machine off Craigslist, for that purpose, for a song. The guy who sold it had been using it to grind concrete floors smooth, but it came with “soft” buffers, and Dad had no problem putting them on and getting them up and running.

Dad uses the machine to buff the floors.

And discovers, to his great annoyance, that some previous owner of the house had sealed the floors without cleaning them, first. The polisher will cut through the sealant on the tile, but the dark grime in the grout, between the tiles, is sealed in and will not come off with cleaners or mechanical buffing.

The grout, he decides, will have to be abraded away, where it’s dirty, and replaced.

He buys a cheap electric trimmer—at Harbor Freight, I think—and replaces the line reel with a wire brush, supposedly made from brass and unequivocally purchased at Harbor Freight.

Using this contraption, he discovers A) the brush is too hard and tends to erode the surface of adjacent tiles, as well as the surface of the grout, and B) every so often, it gives off sparks. Which brass does not do. He holds a magnet up to it and, whaddya know, click, it sticks. The brush is steel plated with brass.

He replaces the fake-brass brush with a special nylon brush he’s found online and ordered through the mail. And it works: The dirty grout is ground away, but the adjacent tile is not marred.

And that’s a picture of him, up top, abrading away the grout between the Saltillo tiles on the floor of the home he shares with my mother, using a tool improvised from an electric weed whacker and a special-purpose nylon brush. In his early seventies.

I do love him so.

My college self’s idea of evil genius…

…included making counterfeit rewards cards for used CD stores using my then-fancy 600 dpi all-in-one scanner/color inkjet printer, my student-licensed copy of Photoshop, and some Avery printable business card paper. I’d bought one CD, getting one card and one stamp, then used Photoshop to extract the stamp image and duplicate it nine more times. I don’t think I ever actually tried to pass one of these, but I could have. Which was the whole point, I think: “First, a free used CD worth $8.99 or less, then the world!

Sad that it has come to this

I’m proud of my Lego syringe kit, and I firmly believe that, used responsibly, it can enhance an adult’s enjoyment of Lego and provide a rewarding, healthy experience. But please, moderate your use, and be honest with yourself: If you lose control, seek help sooner, rather than later. God bless.

Also: Brookelynn Morris, you are a magnificent human being. Thank you.

Warm canned air kills ants

My friend Jon, whose new house has a bit of an ant problem, has observed that gas from a “Dust Off” type spray duster kills them very quickly. His intuition, and mine, was that this is an unexpected phenomenon. I was intrigued at the possibility that the fluorocarbon that’s pressurized to make this so-called “canned air” (it is generally 1,1,1,2-tetrafluoroethane) might have some unexpected toxicity—unexpected, of course, because fluorocarbons are generally assumed to be relatively inert, biologically.

In any case, we Googled first, and discovered that others have noticed the phenomenon before. The hypothesis on this thread seems to be that it is the cold of the rapidly expanding gas that kills the ants, an explanation neither Jon or I found satisfying. This video shows the simple test I ran in response, which involved loading a rubber balloon with “canned air,” allowing it to warm to room temperature, and only then exposing the ants. Admittedly, the gas is still expanding here as it flows out of the balloon, but not nearly so much.

This test was conducted on October 15, 2011, at about 8:40 PM, in my garage, which was at a comfortable “room” temperature. The ants had been collected about five hours previously from the site of a sawn-off limb of an oak tree in a friend’s backyard. He identified them as “acrobat ants,” and observed that they give off an unusual “coconut” odor (even when undamaged), which I also observed. The test chamber is made of clear PETE, and is covered with a scrap of paper towel secured with a rubber band. The balloon, fixed to a cut polypropylene syringe body with Parafilm, was charged with gas from a Falcon “DustOff” brand compressed air duster (labeled “contains difluoroethane”) more than an hour before the test, sealed gas-tight by wrapping the needle-cap with Parafilm, and allowed to warm to ambient temperature. To perform the test, the needle-cap was removed, and the paper towel pierced with the needle, allowing gas to flow from the balloon into the test chamber. No temperature change was felt on the test chamber wall. The balloon was left in place for five minutes. No ants survived.

However, when I performed an identical procedure with propane instead of canned air, the ants died just as quickly, which leads me to believe that they are, in fact, simply suffocating.

And, no, to anticipate the comment, I honestly don’t feel great about killing trapped critters like this. But my curiosity won out over my moral compunctions, and is now satisfied. So I don’t anticipate any more of these experiments. Even if the balloon method does not adequately control against the possibility of “cold kill,” the identical effect with propane eliminates the possibility that the fluorocarbon has some unique toxicity, which was what struck my interest in the first place.

Pot-head with brain cactus

Pothead with brain cactus, 4

A new take on my old sight gag, that would’ve worked better if I could’ve found a better specimen of (what I believe to be) Mammillaria elongata monstrosus. Mom’s got one, too, and both hers and mine have, for whatever reasons, stopped growing in their curlicue “brain” fashion and started sending out straight tubercles. I don’t know if that’s a normal part of the plant’s life cycle and/or if there’s something we could be doing to prevent it, but whatever the cause, as you can see, it rather spoils the “brain” effect.

Agave-spine needle and thread

My pal Jon has a beautiful Agave americana in the backyard of the house he just bought. He removes the wicked spines that grow at the tips of the leaves for safety’s sake, and last time I was there he extracted this one. He showed me how to break off the spine at its base, then pull straight out parallel to the leaf to extract a long braid of fibrous material attached to the spine.

This one has about four feet of fiber, still strongly attached to the needle. I let it dry out lengthwise, first, (it has a tendency to curl) then recently taped it around a can, misted it with water, and let it dry again to set the coil you see here. It’s easy to imagine how they might be used for sewing.

Here’s what they look like in situ: