Desking It Out

2020.02.22 in personal

Somehow it has been 4 years since the last post here... I don't promise to return, but there are a few things I have been meaning to post about, so there might be a few updates over the next few months. We'll see!

The Motivation

Over the years, I've had many unsatisfying desks at home. In moving around the South Bay every few years, I often found myself leaving behind my desk, hoping I'd find something better in my next home. It was never the same things, but always some subset of crappy or leg-space-encroaching built-in storage, impossible cable management, insufficient depth or length, and cheap or fragile construction (generally always including that one). I think my favorite was probably the super-janky plywood half-moon built-in monstrosity at our college apartment in Troy, but that desk... certainly had its own time and place, and 2020 definitely wasn't it (I hope it's still there, though!).

My desk in Troy.
(One more picture that I won't put inline
because there's just way too much to unpack there).

During our last move, I decided to do something about this, though it took a few months for the plan to come together. I had noticed that my desks at work were, while simple, much more satisfying. Solid slabs, separate storage, deep enough for anybody's legs, with plenty of space for hardware, sensible cable-management, reasonably non-ugly, and fairly sturdy. So, I set out to build something at least vaguely inspired by them (and also by a mishmosh of posts from the absurd folks on /r/battlestations).

The Project

Since I live in an apartment, don't have easy access to a lot of tools, and wouldn't necessarily trust myself with them even if I did, I needed something that was feasible to construct with those constraints. I eventually happened upon this Simplified Building article which didn't really cover the details, but introduced me to the idea of building a desk with pipes, and to Kee Klamps, which seemed like a great way to make sturdy structure out of pipe without requiring any heavy machinery.

I cracked open my trusty not-actually-CAD-but-whatever-it'll-be-OK tool, Blender (after emailing the Kee Klamp folks for models!) and threw together a model of my desk sitting in context, allowing me to decide on sizes and colors. This is what I ended up with:

That's a US Letter size piece of paper in the middle of the desk for scale.

After agonizing for ages over where to get the desk top, I settled on a nice rustic walnut butcher block, and ordered it along with all of the pipes and clamps and whatnot.

Since the wood had a long lead time, I had the pipes sitting around during my parents' summer visit. I enlisted my dad to help paint the pipes black, and to cut the ones that needed cutting (with a hacksaw! it was an experience). I don't think the painting would have come out nearly as well as it did if I'd been left to my own devices, so I'm quite thankful for the coincidence and for his help!

A few days after my parents headed home, the butcher block was delivered... to the sidewalk, outside of our apartment building. In a 7'x4', 250+lb splintery crate. It wouldn't budge!

After much panicing and trying to ensure nobody would trip over it, Alicia suggested hiring some help, so I got a "heavy lifting" TaskRabbit to come rescue me. I think he was amused, but certainly made short work of the job. He kept apologizing that the one-hour minimum seemed excessive for the five-minute job, but I was just happy to get it inside and out of the way.

I spent time on and off for the next few weeks slowly building the desk. A few mistakes were made along the way; I also discovered that I had to make a few more pipe cuts by myself; the longest pipes that run the length of the desk needed to be cut in half. This was evident in the Blender model, I just missed it somehow when ordering. I did manage it, though, and eventually, it was taking shape!

It was at this point that I could really test the sturdiness. My father and I had chatted about the potential need for braces or something to keep the front legs from bending to the sides, but it was clear now that I could actually apply pressure to the thing that it wasn't going to be a problem in the slightest. It is absurdly sturdy, and incredibly heavy. I managed to flip it over alone (don't ask me how, I'm not even sure myself), and then started strapping electronics and cables to it.

The Result

The desk is accompanied by standalone pedestal drawers, for storage that doesn't encroach on leg space. My trusty 2013 Mac Pro is mounted to the bottom of the desk, along with a variety of hubs and switches, power strips, and the like. It's been about 8 months now, and I'm quite satisfied! So, I challenge you -- if you're struggling to find the perfect version of something... consider making it yourself! Even if it doesn't come out 100% perfectly, you'll love it all the more because you made it.

The finished product, after 6 months or so (and some upgrades).


2016.07.03 in photography

My father, for as long as I can remember (I'm sure my mother can vouch for the many years before me), has spent an inordinate proportion of his free time designing and building telescopes, gazing skyward, and publicly educating and advocating a love for space and amateur astronomy. From decades of Stellafane conventions, local astronomy club meetings, and sidewalk observing sessions, to running public telescope building classes, building machines to make grinding mirrors easier, and driving around the state collecting light pollution data, astronomy really is one of his passions.

Growing up in that environment meant a love for a starry night sky was basically a given. That's why I was very surprised back in October, when I realized it had been quite a while — probably years! — since I'd spent any time looking through a telescope (or really even seen a dark sky, living in the middle of a seven-million-person metro area).

A dark sky above San José.

I resolved to promptly fix this lack of starlight, and did some telescope shopping! Given my previous history of DIY projects, I opted for a off-the-shelf solution, much unlike the telescopes I grew up with; this was for the best, though, as it was the only way that there would be light coming through the eyepiece before 2025. Naturally, I also decided to combine this with one of my favorite hobbies, and got all the components needed to attach my camera to the telescope.

A few weeks (and well over one hundred pounds of voluminous packages from Orion, much to the dismay of apartment complex staff) later, Matt and I set out, car filled with mirrors, glass, cameras, and snacks, and … didn't see anything! The telescope didn't even come out of the car. We had headed up Mt. Hamilton, east of San José, with a vague destination in mind, but had not confirmed that it was actually open after dark, which it was not (apparently, the local astronomy group has a deal with the park, but random people like us can't open the gate). So, we bailed out for the day, and awaited another clear night.

The Fiesta, full of bits and pieces, on our most recent outing.

We finally got first light on November 7th, after spending a good portion of the night figuring out how to perform the requisite polar alignment and going through the three-star alignment process at least twice (having the first time aligned with a star that definitely wasn't Polaris, somehow). We had found a workable, dark, quiet spot, south of San José: Coyote Lake, near Morgan Hill. We had previously driven to Coyote Lake for a meteor shower, so we knew it was accessible at night, unlike Grant Park.

Coyote Lake, facing north, before it gets too dark!

The telescope, all set up and ready to go next to the lake.

We peered upwards for a number of hours that night, letting the telescope's software guide us to whatever was visible at the time (any chance of finding things without the computer also sat — or probably slept, given the time difference — three thousand miles away in Vermont). Alternating between looking through the eyepiece and attaching the camera (and refocusing constantly because of this swapping), we saw galaxies, nebulae, clusters, and stars galore:

The Orion Nebula, one of the brightest and easiest to see.

Seeing the picture of Orion pop up on the camera was the first big "wow" moment for me: in the telescope, with my terrible eyes, it looks like a ill-defined grey smudge, but the colors that come out of the camera after just half-minute exposures are totally incredible (if not a bit out of focus).

A very faint image of the Andromeda Galaxy, our closest neighbor.

A number of these pictures have streaks from meteors in them if you look closely; in person, we saw many throughout the night. A pleasant but unplanned surprise!

As the night went on, the temperature dropped — thirty degree nightly swings are no surprise, here, and this night was no different:

Even with warm clothing, eventually the cold got to us and we packed up and headed home! All-in-all, a very successful first evening with the new telescope.

Some of the Pleiades, with their whispy dust clouds just barely perceptible.

The winter and spring went by without going out again; between work, travel, weather, and laziness, many opportunities were missed (I did actually take the telescope out once by myself during these months, but left a critical component behind and had to turn back after getting it half set up — a good lesson never to repeat).

We finally resolved to get out again, and blocked off a new-moon weekend on the calendar: Independence Day weekend, 2016. When I put this on the calendar, I didn't make the connection, but as we got closer to the date I worried a bit more about the camping crowds. Luckily, it seems like San José is not a prime camping spot, because there were no crowds — just a few people fishing nearby (though, using white lights).

Matt doing the three-star alignment procedure — this time, only once!

The telescope setup process, which Matt is now the expert on, remains non-trivial and entertaining. This time I also brought a pair of binoculars to use in the meantime, but without a guide I didn't have much luck finding anything (besides an airplane!).

As soon as we got set up, we pointed the telescope towards the quickly-setting planets: Mars and Saturn. Once we bumped up the magnification a bit, Saturn's rings were readily visible — one of the bigger "wow" moments of the night — sadly, since the current photography setup I am using involves putting the camera directly in place of the eyepiece, the magnification isn't sufficient to make anything out in the picture below. I'm looking into other approaches that put the camera behind the eyepiece and would theoretically allow for high-magnification imaging... we'll see, next time!

Saturn, but you'll just have to trust me on this.

This time, the Trifid Nebula (and the Ring, not pictured here) provided the camera-assisted pop-of-purple, in place of Orion (which is not visible in the summer).

The Trifid Nebula, with its bizarre dark arms.

I really enjoy observing clusters, mostly because they provide something slightly more visible to the telescoped-eye than the smudge of a nebula; it's easy to make out the mess of stars even without a camera.

A globular cluster; sadly, because we haven't gotten into the habit of taking notes, I don't know which one.

We stayed out until past two, once again forced in by the cold (in the middle of July!) and a need for sleep.

The Whirlpool Galaxy, with its companion.

Overall, I'm glad to have revisited this part of my childhood, and I'm excited to get out again! I can't wait to see what more practice will bring to the pictures, and for the fun we'll have out in the dark amongst the stars. (Once we get a bit more experienced and quick with the setup, I intend to take others along — at least Alicia, but... if you want to come, let me know!).

10 Years of X

2013.06.23 in personal

It was my fourteenth birthday—summer 2003, just a few months before I started high school… Vivian and Margaret decided to be their traditionally-ridiculously-generous-selves, and offered to replace my desktop (an HP tower, also from them!). Young Tim of course started dreaming of some crazy PC (perhaps constructed from parts, perhaps off the shelf), but then they said something like "we know you've been eyeing Apple's offerings, maybe you want to get a Mac?"

Now, some context here: much of my close family at the time were employed by IBM; we had no Apple folk around; our schools were full of Dells; I'd used some Mac IIs many years earlier, but not since then. So, of course, I went for that :)

Little did they (or anyone!) know what that amazing birthday present would turn into, eight years later—one of those tiny whole-life turning points, I guess.

The machine that eventually (just days before Airborne Express, who had some … troubles … delivering it, became a company no longer) arrived was a decked-out PowerMac G4 MDD.

It shipped with Mac OS X 10.2 (Jaguar), though Panther came out a few months later. Apparently, Jaguar was the last release of OS X to ship without Safari; I don't remember, but I do remember running the Safari Beta, all those years ago. John Siracusa's Jaguar review also notes that it was the first release to include the big cat codename in the official marketing name, which is pretty cool.

Trinity, as I called it, was a trusty companion throughout high school, introducing me to AppleWorks, and eventually Keynote, and later Pages, all of which were absolutely cruical to me for those four years. And, to Safari… and we know how that went. It followed me to college, sitting under my desk and acting as a fileserver for a few years, then later running various PowerPC Linux distributions for various reasons. And, even to Cupertino, where it sits under the desk in my bedroom, unpowered but ready to spring to life at any sign of need.

It really does still boot today, though it did have a pair of power supply malfunctions in 2008, which resulted first in me dragging it to the Crossgates Apple store on a CDTA bus, and then later me resorting to using a random G3 we had laying around. I don't actually remember how it recovered, but it did.

So, thanks, Vivian and Margaret, for turning a birthday present into oh-so-much more! It's been a great ten years!

Time in 2013

2013.03.12 in personal

A quick survey of devices which keep time in my apartment, sorted by how far off they are:

  • Alarm Clock (in disuse; this one's my fault): 9:08
  • Living Room Clock (early-00s "atomic" clock): 23:05
  • Bedroom Clock (2011 "atomic" clock): 23:05
  • Camera (D7000): 0:11
  • Microwave: 12:03
  • Watch (Pebble): "twelve five"
  • Phones/Computers/Tablets/Reality: 0:05
I thought it was 2013.

The 23

2012.11.25 in personal

Complaining about the state of public transit in the Bay Area — especially the South Bay — is basically a regional pastime among 20-somethings around here — myself included.

That said, there is one tiny sliver of public transit that is currently absolutely central to my life: the VTA's 23 bus route.

When I say absolutely central, I mean it — sure, during my summer in San Diego, the SDMTS-41 was pretty critical for my weekend outings, and in Troy, the CDTA-22 would often prove useful for trips to Albany — but nothing holds a candle to the 23. I even included it in my trips map (which needs to be revised now that I've moved!).

It gets me to work; it gets me home from work; it gets me to San José; it gets me to the grocery store on occasion. It gets me to Ryan and Julia's apartment, to visit them or Maeby; to both of the nearby malls; to a wide variety of restaurants; even to the Post Office (though it falls a bit short on that trip).

I met my girlfriend on the 23, while going to the airport (yet another occasional destination, though there are two further transfers required to get all the way there). Now, the very same bus shuttles us between each others' apartments (literally almost door-to-door service1, every 15 minutes), on dates, and all manner of trips throughout the South Bay.

We even walked a four-mile stretch along its route one day, for fun — suffice it to say we appreciate the convenience of the bus even more after that experience.

I cannot even begin to imagine living a carless life in Cupertino/Santa Clara/San Jose without the 23. When I recently was forced to search for a new apartment, my sole constraint was "it absolutely must be near the 23!" (my previous apartment was a 20 minute walk to the nearest bus stop; now, less than one minute!).

So, uh... there's my ode to my beloved bus.

EDIT: 91 Clipper transactions in the last 60 days, 85 of which are trips on the 23!

1 In fact, the only time the 23 leaves its straight line path along Steven's Creek/San Carlos between its westernmost point and San José is exactly where she lives. It's like the route was designed for us!


2012.05.26 in photography

A Cupertino Carol

2012.04.20 in personal

After having not seen each other for almost a year, Carol came out to Cupertino for a whole week! I took the week off, and we had pretty much the busiest, most amazing week ever together. I'll write about some of the things in more detail later, but here's a linkified extremely-brief summary: (there are a few pages of pictures on Flickr, as always)

Friday, 2012.04.13 Saturday, 2012.04.14 Sunday, 2012.04.15 Monday, 2012.04.16 Tuesday, 2012.04.17 Wednesday, 2012.04.18 Thursday, 2012.04.19 Friday, 2012.04.20 Saturday, 2012.04.21 Sunday, 2012.04.22
  • Bye, Carol!

(Walking) Trips

2012.03.31 in code and personal

Having lots of time to think about the web and little time to create content, I took a few minutes out of this weekend to make a silly little thing with d3.js.

Not being a driver, I find myself walking around a lot - to work, to visit people, to find food. Some of those walks are longer than others, and I thought it would be neat to be able to visualize and compare them!

I built to do that. The map on the right is a little confusing, because it is four cities, superimposed, with my "home" in each centered in the same place (using our 15th St. apartment for "home" in Troy, since I had three). Lots of things respond to hover, and clicking the different sorting options provides a few different ways to look at the trips (and adds a splash of color!).

The most interesting thing that sticks out of the data (to me!) is the relative shapes of the four cities. Cupertino and La Jolla are way younger than Troy and Colchester, and are clearly more "designed"; La Jolla with swooping curves all around, and Cupertino with a strict grid (except around IL, of course).

Initial Experiments in Molecular Gastronomy

2012.01.21 in fooding

A while back, I watched the No Reservations episode filmed surrounding the final days of el Bulli; the Catalonian restaurant often called the best in the world.

Since then, in the back of my mind, I've known that food can be more interesting than we usually make it, through the introduction of chemistry! Those who know me probably realize that the passion and culture of the food (which drove el Bulli) wouldn't be nearly as exciting to me as the application of science — not the most noble reasoning, and certainly not the takeaway anyone involved in that episode intended, but still very exciting from my perspective!

I left that knowledge alone for a while, moved out here, and became extremely lazy about cooking. Recently, though, I decided I'd play with some of the basic techniques of molecular gastronomy, just to see how it worked. After some trouble I managed to acquire a supply of basic ingredients — after all, they're not the kinds of things you can easily find in an ordinary grocery store.

I'm beginning with just the simplest techniques first, attempting to learn separate components before combining them into anything actually interesting. I imagine what I've managed so far might appear more boring than normal food, from the outside, but the possibilities are what excite me!

In fact, I've tried just two techniques so far, out of the many yet invented — the simplest: spherification and gelification, and only in their most basic forms.


Spherification involves constructing a skin around a liquid, using calcium lactate and sodium alginate.

1/3 cup lemonade
4 grams C6H10CaO6

The target liquid is combined with calcium lactate, then frozen in small spherical portions. I chose lemonade simply because it was on hand, and seemed like a reasonable liquid to have "exploding" in your mouth.

1/4 cup water
2 grams NaC6H7O6
Next, the sodium alginate is dissolved in water, to make the spherification bath. While the spheres are freezing, the bath is refrigerated.

Once the spheres are completely frozen, they are removed from their molds, and dropped into the bath. After a few minutes, they are removed from the bath and washed in water, to prevent further growth of the skin.

Once the spheres have completely melted, they are ready for consumption:

There are a few things that I'm planning on changing next time:
  1. I left my spheres in the sodium alginate bath for too long; the skin was slightly thicker than I'd have liked. My understanding is that the reaction that creates the skin continues until it's removed from the bath and washed.
  2. The skin of my spheres was not particularly smooth. I believe that a rounder and smoother mold might have helped with this. Also, I didn't have a powered hand mixer to combine the sodium alginate and water; a more well-mixed bath might have helped in the smoothness department.
  3. There were air pockets in all of my spheres! They floated in the sodium alginate bath; I need to find a way to suspend them deeper without impacting their shape.
  4. My spheres were a bit too big. Luckily, there's an easy solution to this!
Verdict: more experimentation required! (and yet still delicious)


While both gelification and spherification are often used to make spheres, there's one key difference: gelification involves turning the entire material into a gel! Agar is the key ingredient in this process; the same algae-derived material used to keep microbes happy on petri dishes!

Conveniently, gelification is extremely simple; a target liquid is heated to boiling, and usually watered down somewhat. Agar is added, in its powdered form, and mixed in thoroughly. This mixture is then shaped as desired, and then cooled; agar is a liquid above 85°C, so the cooling process is the key to bringing it back into its solid state.

The shaping process is where most of the differentiation happens; one relatively easy shape to make is tiny spheres, resembling caviar. In order to make small spherical gels, a mechanism for creating droplets of liquid is required. After reading a bit, I found that people commonly use chilled vegetable oil. In the end, using a pipette to drop the near-boiling liquid mixture into oil that had been sitting in the freezer for a while turned out to do just the trick:

1/3 cup water
1/2 cup honey
2 grams agar

Once the supply of boiling honey is depleted, the spheres are retrieved and washed in water.

After making "honey caviar", I made a few notes to myself:
  1. The balls were extremely uneven. I had used an unfortunately large and hard to control pipette; for later experiments, I found a more appropriate one, with a small tip.
  2. The honey taste was extremely subtle; perhaps cutting down on the water would help.

I took another stab at gelification today, in the construction of a ridiculously time-consuming burger:

1/4 cup water
1/2 cup mustard
2 grams agar

1/4 cup water
1/2 cup ketchup
2 grams agar

The only difference between the preparation of the ketchup and mustard was in the cooling stage; the ketchup was cooled in the same way as the honey; dropped from a pipette (more appropriately sized this time!) into freezer-chilled vegetable oil. The mustard, on the other hand, was fed into surgical tubing, which I then placed in ice water. After a few minutes I used a syringe to force air into one end of the tube, slowly forcing the mustard out the other, leaving behind a stringy spaghetti-like condiment that was so solid it could be picked up in your hands!

The two were then combined to great effect:

I'm quite pleased with how this, my third experiment, turned out; still, there are many more left to be done! If you have any ideas, let me know!


2011.11.17 in music

In the world of Internet-driven geeky music, there are few with more of a claim to fame than Jonathan Coulton. Certainly some are significantly more geeky, or nerdy, or whatever (the fact that I just had those two URLs available off the top of my head is rather sad), but none have the nearly universal success of JoCo — he's one of those rare nearly-universal geek idols. I was introduced to him a few years back by Robb and Savannah, probably around the same time Still Alive launched alongside Portal and the rest of the Orange Box, and I quickly collected a set of favorites which can still be commonly heard playing around my apartment today.

Savannah, Robb, and Matt have all had the opportunity to see him in concert, usually in the Boston area; for some reason, I was never in the right place at the right time... until this weekend! Opening for They Might Be Giants (another geek favorite, if not nearly as extreme, and much more popular!) at the Fillmore in San Francisco, he did a short show, hitting a bunch of his newer material and some of the classics. Having opener play everything you want them never happens — they'd never have enough time even with a full-length show, in most cases!

Still, there was much excitement to be had in the room when he opened with Code Monkey (I predicted this quite successfully), much jumping during I Feel Fantastic (for good reason!), and goofy faux-romantic swaying to Still Alive (which is insane considering the context, but I get it...)

All-in-all, it was a great time! I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for a full-length concert if he returns to the Bay Area.

The They Might Be Giants portion was also great; they did the entirety of an old album (from 1990!) — my only experience with them has been through their science-themed children's album, much more recently (well worth it, too... ignore the fact that it was aimed at children), so I didn't have as much context for their part of the show. Still, it was lots of fun; the floor was filled with excited fans, and that's all it takes to make it enjoyable!

After the concert, I had to get a cab ride back to Cupertino (Caltrain shuts down really early on Sundays...), which... is another story in its entirety!

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