Like a Flamingo Among Chickens

December 27, 2012


Chinese has many set phrases chéngyǔ 成语: four-word phrases that communicate an idea or concept quickly to someone who knows the cultural and historical context of the phrase.

Some are really easy to understand, like rén shān rén hǎi 人山人海 : people mountains people sea. This place is very crowded!

Others require some knowledge of Chinese history and literature, like máo suì zì jiàn 毛遂自荐 : Mao Sui recommends himself. If you don’t know a little bit about The Warring States period, you might have no idea why your pal Lao Wang yelled this as he jumped up to fix the paper jam.

English-sepaking fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation would do well to think of chéngyǔ as the language of Tamarians: just think of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, and how much Tamarian history Picard had to learn before he understood what the Tamarian captain was talking about.

I recently learned a Chinese expression: hè lì jī qún 鹤立鸡群: a crane standing among chickens. My understanding is that it’s used to describe someone or something that stands out from the crowd, but I wasn’t sure whether this should be used in a positive, negative, or ambiguous sense.

My American sensibility led me to think it’s positive, since we tend to celebrate the individual. Boy, that kid does math better than the rest of her class. She’s truly a crane among chickens, and we should praise her achievements.

Or should it be used pejoratively? That kid’s always showing off how good she is at math. She’s truly a crane among chickens, and we chickens should peck her down to size, post haste.

I’ve also seen the expression used by American expat bloggers, describing themselves as wildly different from the people around them. In this sense it sounds akin to the English idiom “sticking out like a sore thumb.”

I follow Hacking Chinese and through that learned about Lang-8, a lanugage-exchange site that pairs up native speakers from different languages. So I asked about 鹤立鸡群 over there and they say it’s overwhelmingly positive.

I’m also now completely hooked on correcting the English grammar of Japanese teenagers. I can only imagine how dumb I sound in Mandarin with my pidgin talk about my cold cup of coffee.

The characters on the sticks are kinda-sorta-puns– 吉 (second tone) can mean lucky, but 鸡 (first tone) translates as chicken.

He 鹤 (fourth tone) is a crane (as in the bird, not the construction equipment), but 和 (second tone) can mean “harmony” or “harmonious,” depending on the context. So if you know the original chéngyǔ that character makes some kind of sense.


A flamingo is a 火烈鸟, or fierce fire bird. Which is funny if you think for a minute about how threatening a pink filter-feeder can be.

I’m going to say my newly-minted chéngyǔ is unambiguously positive. You, my friend, are not merely a crane among chickens. You’re a flamingo among chickens. You are just that cool.

The next time you have folks over for cocktails, give the flamingo stick to the guest of honor. Everybody else gets a plain old chicken.

You can download these cocktail sticks from Thingiverse. 干杯!



October 28, 2012

Halloween fast approaches, and I still haven’t managed to make that electroluminsencent Riddler costume I’ve been dreaming about for the last two years. But this year I did manage to come up with a nifty Hack-O-Lantern that uses an Arduino and a pair of diffusers that I printed on my MakerBot Replicator. Here’s what the animation looks like, including my new favorite function, derp().

My apologies for the soul-deadening ambient light in the video. The Hack-O-Lantern looks a lot cooler in person, although if I had more time I’d try to boost the voltage to the LED’s and brighten them up a bit. Right now they’re running off straight off the Arduino, and I didn’t want to burn out any pins by driving too much juice. Maybe next year.

You don’t need to use an Arduino to use these diffusers: if you’d rather just stick a couple of LED’s in there with a watch battery taped to the leads, that will work just fine. The LED’s in the top photo are running in series off 4X 1.2V NIMH 2500 mAh rechargable C cells, and they look great.

The diffuser has a slight lip on the back that you can use to score your pumpkin’s flesh before cutting.

Nightmare fuel, anyone? Here’s all 14 LEDs soldered to hookup wire, fed through the pumpkin’s eye holes.

Once I connected the LEDs to pins 0-13 on an old Arduino Duemilanove I had kicking around (SCORE for finding a set of headers I’d forgotten I ordered six months ago), I put the whole contraption in a plastic bag so the pumpkin guts couldn’t short the hardware.

Working inside that cavity gives you a lot more respect for brain surgeons.

If you’ve carved a pumpkin recently, you’ve probably got some seeds kicking around. Here’s what I’ve been doing with them lately:

Zheng3 Szechuan Pumpkin Seeds

approximately 1.5 cups of pumpkin seeds, washed.
1 tablespoon doubianjiang
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon hot chili oil
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon Szechuan peppercorns

Mix everything except the peppercorns in a bowl and toss to coat. Set aside for an hour to marinate.

Toast the peppercorns in a wok over medium heat until fragrant. Crush with a mortar and pestle.

Spread the pumpkin seeds and marinade evenly on a flat baking tray. Bake at 350° for about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with the crushed peppercorns and serve.

If you can’t find doubianjiang and you’re not willing to wait for a shipment from Amazon you can probably substitute some garlic powder mixed with Sriacha rooster sauce.

Approximating the flavor and mouthfeel of Szechuan peppercorns is more difficult. Try this:

Dip a jalapeño pepper in powdered laundry detergent and suck on it for 30 seconds. Then put your lips across the terminals of a 9V battery.

It tastes better than it sounds, believe me.

You can download the STL’s and Arduino code here at Thingiverse.

His nibs.

October 19, 2012

I started using a Wacom Intuos 2 tablet in 1999 after struggling with a mouse-induced repetitive stress injury. I’ve been holding the same stylus pretty much every day, for hours a day, for the last twelve years.

Over time, the nibs eventually wear out, and I’m left wondering where I left that tiny bag of replacement nibs I bought from Wacom three years ago to replace the tiny bag of replacement nibs I lost six years ago.

Now I have a Replicator, and I can print my own highly precise pieces of plastic. I’m a big believer in Taking It Just A Little Too Far, so I’ve designed a nib based on the slicing end of a Shaolin spade.

The Shaolin spade (月牙铲, or yuèyáchǎn for my fellow xuésheng) was the favored weapon of drunken monk Lu Zhishen, made famous to those without an interest in classical Chinese literature by Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide and the fine Kurt Russell vehicle Big Trouble in Little China.

The nib should work for any Wacom stylus. Here it’s pictured in my Bamboo, which I use for work when I’m traveling.

My original plan was to include the Shaolin spade in the Zheng3 Cocktail Arsenal, but the tip is too wide to be thrusting through maraschino cherries. It should make a dandy calligraphic nib for those so inclined.

If you’re the kind of person who cares enough about the quality of a digital brush stroke to 3D print custom nibs for a Wacom tablet, you deserve a step-by-step tutorial on how to do it.

This is a really precise, but very simple print. The nib’s shaft needs to be sized so that it fits the bore of the Wacom pen and can be removed with the tiniest effort, but not so loose that it falls out when one begins to draw with the stylus.

I did a lot of trial and error to get the nib diameter correct, because my four-dollar hardware store calipers produced a measurement that was way, way too thick to fit into the pen. A radius of .065 cm seems to do it when printing with the following method. I’m assuming there’s some contraction/expansion/plastic real-world-weirdness that doesn’t show up when the design isn’t all vertices and electrons.

Note that I’m printing with PLA.

ReplicatorG Settings:
HBP: 45° C
100% infill
Layer Height: .2
Number of shells: 1
Feedrate: 25 mm/sec
Travel Feedrate: 55

This print is so small and delicate that any extruder-induced jiggling of the Replicator is likely to shift the plastic off your platform. I got good results by slowing the print heads down. Here’s how I did it:

Generate your gCode from within ReplicatorG using the above settings. Then do a couple of find/replaces in your favorite text editor:

Replace F750.0 with F100.0
also replace F1500.0 with F100.0

There’s probably a way to do this from the GUI but for some reason I’m more comfortable mucking around in the ASCII.

Run the print. Your instinct will be to pull that new nib off the build platform and jam it into your stylus ASAP. Don’t. Give it a few minutes to cool so it doesn’t warp upon removal.

It’s easy to remove a fresh nib from a Wacom stylus. Just grab it with some pliers and pull gently. Scissors are useful for removing a worn nib; cut slightly into the plastic of the nib with the blades and then pull it out.

Download it from Thingiverse.

Gansu Province Fail

September 3, 2012

Gansu province fail.

It took a few tries before the China Puzzle printed properly with PLA.

Chinese is puzzling.

August 18, 2012

My Chinese teacher is on vacation this month, so while my spoken proficiency withers on the vine I thought I’d brush up on my geography. Laoshi is visiting Xinjiang, which as I understand it is like going to Wyoming but with spicier food and fewer AK-47’s.

I don’t expect this to be one of my more popular models; the last time I tried combining my hobbies I wound up with the Happy Family Chopstick Rest Set, which is bumping along the bottom of the lake with 23 downloads as of today.

Seej models are much preferred by Thingiversians. The Seej Starter Set is at 431 and the Penny Ballista is well over 1200 (!) downloads by now.

A 3D map of China is a pretty nichey thing, but the design and printing process has been a really valuable educational experience for me, so time well spent.

The first approach to this model was the straightforward one– find a public domain SVG China Map, download, and extrude.

Any map you find online is going to be a crapshoot– either too much data, not enough data, or poorly organized data. My rule of thumb is if I can’t find what I need in seven minutes, it’s probably a better use of my time to just put in the work and do it myself.

So, to Illustrator it is, remaking each province control point by control point with the pen tool, letting the names and forms seep into my subconscious.

At this point, about six hours in, I can feel the names and shapes starting to gel. Mnemonics arrive unbidden: Gansu is kind of long-necked like a goose, and ganso is goose in Spanish, so there’s a connection there. Heilongjiang resembles Bill Peet’s Droofus the Dragon looking out of his cave — Heilong literally means Black Dragon in Chinese so I’ve got that one down.

Whoops, missed the border between Jiangsu Jiangxi and Fujian. Easy fix. Jiangsu and Fujian don’t share a border. Remember that for later. And the border between Hebei and Shaanxi (or is it Shanxi? Crap, it’s Shanxi) isn’t going to work when it’s printed in 3D. Tweak, tweak, tweak, learn. Part of Xizang’s south is disputed by India. Ok, two models for Xizang. We can probably ignore the disputed western border and chalk it up to the puzzle’s resolution.

It should be easy enough to remember there are four municipalities– Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and the sprawling megacity of Chongqing. The first three are too small to print, so I’ll just have to remember that they exist.

The islands. Hainan, Macao, and Hong Kong are easy to remember, although the latter two are too small to include at any reasonable printing scale. Which brings me to Taiwan.

Is Taiwan part of China? That really depends on who you ask. If you ask the People’s Republic, they’ll tell you absolutely, Taiwan’s a part of China and it always has been. If you ask the Taiwanese, you’ll get a hell no.

The United States is emphatically wishy-washy on the matter. Our official position is that we’d like Taiwan’s relationship to remain the status quo, without ever defining what the status quo actually is. This is why we invented diplomats, I suppose.

Taiwan’s in the model and users can choose for themselves whether or not to print it. I think it’s better to include it with the caveat that its diplomatic status is in dispute: that’s a much more interesting and instructive answer than yes or no.

Printing tip: ABS seemed to shrink too much post-print to ensure a good fit between pieces. I printed a second version in PLA, which is a lot more malleable.

I put the whole map (minus the islands) on a cast-iron griddle, heated it up, and then gently pressed the pieces together. Now every province is nice and snug with its neighbors.

I’d have used a wok, but I didn’t want a concave map. This time.

You can Download the .zip of this puzzle for free from Thingiverse. Includes PDF maps in English, pinyin, and Simplified characters for your educational convenience.

Optimizing hobby time

July 14, 2012

There’s never enough time to do everything I want to do. Gotta get up and make a new Seej model. Gotta get that IR-sensing followbot built. Gotta hit the gym. Gotta watch another episode of Breaking Bad while I work on cardio. Gotta do the laundry. Gotta learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu take six months off to heal a rotator cuff injury from hitting the gym too hard so I don’t get pwned at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Gotta study Chinese.

I read Chinese at sub-kindergarten level, so I’m always looking for opportunities to reinforce my written vocabulary. And since I’m a busy guy, I try to make my hobbies do double duty whenever I can. Here, I’m learning some new words and doing a little 3D printing on the side.

Here are the translations of the characters, so you can make sure everybody at the table gets the correct rest. I’m using traditional characters because they’re prettier. You can download this whole set from Thingiverse for free if you like.

Māmā 媽媽 is pretty universal: that’s mom.
Bàba 爸爸 is dad. From there:

gēge 哥哥: older brother
dìdi 弟弟: younger brother
érzi 兒子: son

jiějie 姐姐: older sister
mèimèi 妹妹: younger sister
nǚ’ér 女兒: daughter

I’ve also included “concubine” and “eunuch” in case anyone in your household fits those descriptions:

qiè 妾: concubine
huànguān 宦官: eunuch

I’m 99% sure that as a non-Chinese American I’ve missed some subtlety in familial relations. Native speakers/Mandarin experts please correct me by email, Twitter, or in the comments below. 谢谢。