Last minute handmade gifts : vouchers

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Every body needs a little help from his friends. So why not offer your time and talent as a gift this Christmas? Homemade vouchers make excellent gifts and stocking stuffers. Here are some ideas for your own vouchers/gift certificates.

If you have a car, you can offer a friend who doesn't to accompany him/her shopping for heavy items (think Ikea, Club Price, or grocery shopping for lots of pantry items).

If you have cooking skills, you can offer a personalized cooking class to a friend who would like to discover a particular kind of cuisine : vegetarian, mexican, thai, etc. You could also give a voucher for a baked item per month for a year, or a week of lunch boxes.

If you have special powers put, them to good use and offer to help out with one of your speciality : haircut, bicycle mechanic adjustments, computer repair or debugging, physics/math tutoring, knitting class, etc.

If you like pampering your significant other, you could offer him/her a back massage, shoulder and neck rub, foot srcub, breakfast in bed, romantic candlelight dinner, etc.

If you know new parents, they will be delighted to receive babysitting vouchers!

Teens can offer their parents household chores vouchers, such as :
weeding the garden, washing the car, washing the dishes, mow the lawn, rake the leaves, washing the clothes and ironing, etc.

Children will love to have : trip to the pool, trip to the park, one very long bedtime story, stay up one hour late, 1 hour of Internet,  order-in pizza dinner, slumber party, piggy-back ride, etc.

Offer a fun activity to a friend or relative to do with you : cross country skiing, hiking, evening in a jazz club, diner and a movie, afternoon at the museum, botanical garden, aquarium, science center, craft fair, farmer's market, etc.

To make your voucher, use a template (microsoft word, iWork Pages) or write it down by hand. Put it in a nice envelope, or even a "money holder" card along with your seasonal greetings. Look on the Internet for nice money/gift certificate/voucher holder cards how-to's (like this Christmas one, or this generic one).

Do you have other ideas for vouchers?
Movember is all about moustaches and raising awareness about prostate cancer. My friends have been growing their moustache for several weeks, sporting their facial pilosity with pride. But how could I participate? Crocheting one, of course.

My all-time favorite composer and guitarist is Frank Zappa. He is one of the most prolific musician I know, releasing over 60 albums during his 33 years of musical carrier. He is also well known for his iconic moustache. Here it is :

frank-zappa.jpgSadly enough, he died from prostate cancer at the young age of 52. I felt I had to pay a tribute to him for our annual moustache contest (the JIMM : Journée Internationale de la Moustache Montréalaise, not originally related to Movember, but we moved it to November to show our support).

This year, we had a props category for the persons who can't biologically grow a moustache (mostly girls, in our case), and guess what... I won! Here is the picture from the competition.

This is not much of a pattern, but more some kind of guideline to explain what I did. I hope you get inspired by it.

My Zappa moustache is crocheted from natural (undyed) brown single-ply wool, which incidentally matches my hair color. It was easy to do : I chained until it was long enough to cover my upper lip and go down on both sides of my mouth. Then, I singled-crochet 2 rows. Holding the moustache-to-be over my face in the mirror, I decided where I wanted the angle to be. That happened to be 4 stitches from each ends.  I slipped-stitched 4 stitches, skipped 2-3 stitches, and single-crocheted tightly so it would pull the end of the moustache at a right angle. I single-crocheted until I was 6-7 stitches from the other end of the moustache, skipped 2-3 stitches and slip-stitched tightly to form the other angle. The key here is to be symmetrical. I finished it my slip-stitching some more to make sure the angle will stay put and weaved in the ends.

Then, I made a square for the pinch. Soaked everything in water and blocked it overnight. You can felt it if you feel like it.

On the big day, I used regular scotch tape to adhere it to my face, but I think double side tape would have been better. I tried to eat soup while wearing it, and I tell you it's a real challenge!

Here are some great hand crafted moustaches resources I took my inspiration from :


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champagne_model1.jpgI designed this neckwarmer last year for my friend's birthday. Within 48 hours, I had spun and  knitted it. I could not find a decent set of buttons in my stash, so I figured out how to make a set of buttons out of Champagne cork stoppers. By the way, after a year of wear, the buttons never failed, so unless you pull on them deliberately, they're solid and there to stay. For your pleasure, here is how to do it and how it all happened.

Big chunky snowflakes were slowly falling as I was trying my hands at a new hobby : spinning. I was turning mountains of big fluffy Corriedale top into soft, chunky yarn with the humble help of a drop spindle. I was plying it using my own two hands with the Andean ply technique. It was low-tech. It was awesome.

I soon had a big ball of bulky, bumpy, slubby, thick-and-thin yarn. The natural wool color was asking for another natural companion : wood. A couple of cork stoppers turned themselves into buttons, the yarn was tamed with a simple stockinette stitch and in an evening I had a new cozy neckwarmer for my friend's birthday.

This is a great neophyte spinner project that showcases your very own bumpy handspun yarn. This neckwarmer keeps you warm while the upcycled cork buttons make both an environmental and a fashion statement. It also makes a quick and sophisticated gift : after all, you had to drink four bottles of Champagne to make it!

champagne_model5.jpgFinished measurements
Width: approx. 7.5 inches
Length: approx. 19 inches

  • 1 set(s) US #11/8mm straight needles
  • Fiber: Louet [100% corriedale wool; top]; color: natural white; 3.5 ounces.
Spin it using a drop spindle and the Andean ply technique.

Or use a commercial alternative yarn, like :
Cascade Jewel [100% Peruvian wool; 142yd/130m per 100g skein]; color: 8010; 1 skein

The idea is to have a yarn with 7 wraps/inches that knits with a gauge of 9 sts/12 rows for a 4'' square.

For making the buttons
  • 4 champagne (or sparkling wine) cork stoppers
  • 4 two-holes buttons
  • 2 two inches long safety pins
  • wire cutters
  • a sharp knife
CO 20 stitches.
Rows 1,3,5 : *K2, p2 * to the last 2 sts, k2.
Rows 2,4 : *P2, k2* to the last 2 sts, p2.
Row 6 (WS) : K3, p14, k3
Row 7 (RS) : K all sts.

Repeat rows 6 and 7 until work measures 16.5 inches. Finish on WS.

Next row (RS) : *K2, p2 * to the last 2 sts, k2.
Next row (WS): *P2, k2* to the last 2 sts, p2.
Button holes row 1: *k2, p, bo1 * 4 time,  k2
Button holes row 2 : *P2, co1, k1* 4 times, p2.
Next row : *K2, p2 * to the last 2 sts, k2.
BO all sts in pattern.

Weave in loose ends. Block to size.

To make the buttons :
Step 1 : Using a sharp knife, cut the champagne cork stoppers in order to have four 0.5 inches thick slices.

champagne_butt1.jpgStep 2 : Cut the two safety pins with the wire cutters in order to have four straight pieces of metal.
champagne_butt2.jpgStep 3 : Bend each piece in two.
champagne_butt3.jpgStep 4 : Insert a bent piece of metal into a 2-holes button.

champagne_butt4.jpgStep 5 : On the wrong side of the work, place the button. The metal should be poking out on the right side.

champagne_butt5.jpgStep 6 : Center a cork slice on the metal pokes and press firmly.  Tip : It's better if the metal pokes are not parallel. In other words, they must flare a little. That way, once it's inserted into the cork, it will not come out easily.

champagne_butt6.jpgRepeat steps 4-6 to secure the remaining buttons.

Peace one day, peace today!

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Peace is a preoccupation of mine. I directed a short film about it. I wrote an electroacoustic music work about it.  I spent my vacations in Hiroshima, thinking about it. And today, I blog about it.

Will there be peace on earth one day? Definitely. And sooner than you think: today!

September 21st is the UN International Day of Peace, a day of global ceasefire and non-violence: Peace Day. I view it not only as a "stop the war for one day" event, but also a time for reflexion about mankind's brotherhood. The Day sure has a lot of obstacles to overcome, but it's a good start that people recognize the relevance of it.

I invite you to think about what you can do for peace, at your own scale of influence. Sincerely apologize to someone you did harm, sign a petition against the use of nuclear weapons, or simply wish peace to all your friends.

paper_cranes.JPGSo here is my contribution to you, dear Internet readers, for Peace day. It's a photo I took last year in Hiroshima. It's a whole lot of origami paper cranes that are displayed at the children monument for peace. The paper crane is a symbol for peace and Japanese kids fold thousands of them every year in remembrance of a girl who died of leukemia several years after the atomic bomb devastated the city.

Download it here in full resolution and use it as a desktop background, or print it to cheer up your office walls. It will be there to remind you that   children wish for peace, and so do I.


Coco scarf

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I went shopping at Chanel last week, not that I have the money to buy anything in there, but just out of curiosity. There was an elegant yet very simple pink knitted scarf that I reverse-engineered in seconds. It's a basket weave scarf with a ribbing "fringe" and neat clean double-knit edges. I was quite impressed by the edges. So simple, yet so professional-looking. I think from now-on, I will use it every time I knit raw edges. It would make a great reversible scarf for men and women alike, depending on the colorway you choose.

So here's the pattern for my friend Alisha who wants to knit one! (and I'll probably knit one too!) The pattern is intended for a solid color yarn, to show off the texture.

Pattern notes :

The 4 first and the 4 last stitches will be the edge stitches. You will always perform the "neat double-knit scarf edge" on those edge stitches. The 30 other stitches will be the center stitches that will show off the pattern.

Cast on 38 stitches.
Work 2x2 ribbing on center stitches for about 15-20 cm (or as long as you want).
Work basket weave pattern on center stitches for at least 1 meter (or as long as you want).
Work the same number of rows of 2x2 ribbing as you did at the beginning.
Cast off.

*Remember to work the "neat double-knit scarf edge" on every row on each edges of the work!!

Neat double-knit scarf edge :
On an even number of stitches (ideally 4 or 6) :
With yarn in front, slip 1 stitch.
Put yarn in back and knit one stitch.
Repeat for remaining stitches.

2x2 ribbing:
*K2, p2* until the end of the row (center stitches).

Basket weave pattern :
Row A : K6, p6, k6 p6, k6
Row B : P6, k6, p6, k6, p6
Repeat rows A and B two more times (6 rows in total).
Row C : P6, k6, p6, k6, p6
Row D : K6, p6, k6 p6, k6
Repeat rows C and D two more times (6 rows in total).
That will result in a chequered pattern with 6x6 squares of jersey alterning with 6x6 squares of reverse-jersey.

Floppy disk pencil holder

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I can't resist the charm of old technology upcycled into something useful. I saw the instructions for making a pencil holder out of old floppy disks on Esprit Cabane and I knew I had to try it.

floppy_cube.jpgI gathered 5 old floppy disks (not that old actually, I was still using them 3 years ago for making backups of laboratory data. Ahhh... USB drives changed my life...) and made the pencil holder. I also hot glued some felt under it, but that's totally optional. I looks pretty neat, I think. Try it too ! It would make an awesome DIY gift for the geeks in your life.

(Note : Floppy disks are not square, so you have to fiddle a bit to make it look like a cube. Also, tie-wraps and floppy disks come in different colors, so have fun with it!) 

Perfect popcorn, the physicist's way

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Tired of unpopped kernels and burnt popcorn? Sick of that yellow salty/greasy artificial "butter"? Upgrade your popcorn experience with these simple tricks and make perfect popcorn by understanding the basic physics behind it. You'll be rewarded by a healthy, whole grain and low calories delicious snack.

First, let's look at how a corn kernel pops:

Heat transforms the water content of the kernel into water vapor, and when the pressure is high enough, the kernel pops. That brings our attention on the two main parameters of our experience : water content of the kernels and heat transfer from the pan to the kernels.

Water content : soak it
If your corn kernels are a little old, chances are they do not pop properly. Soak them in water for 15 minutes, pat them really dry and pop them.

I tried this simple experiment : I popped 1/4 cup of kernels, then I popped 1/4 cup of soaked and pat-dried kernels. I ate the two popcorn bowls (joking -- I saved most of it for later) and counted the unpopped or half-popped kernels. The result? It's a tie : 10 for the dry kernels and 13 for the soaked kernels (the difference is not significant enough to draw a conclusion). My kernels are still really fresh, so I will have to retry this experiments with older and drier kernels to see if it really makes a difference (but according to Bill Nye the science guy, it does). So, if your kernels are still fresh skip the soaking step.  

Heat transfer : a little oil goes a long way
I learned this the hard way. I was tried to make a no-fat popcorn but it was a disaster. The kernels popped very unevenly, so by the time the last ones popped, the first ones were burnt. Also, they were smaller than usual, and often hard and half-popped. Disaster, I say.

Oil is essential to pop corn kernels on the stove top. Oil promotes an even heat transfer from the pan to the kernels. A heavy bottomed pan also helps for the same reason. I usually use 0.5 to 1 tablespoon of olive oil per 1/4 cup of kernels.

To successfully pop kernels on the stove top, heat the oil and the corn kernels on hi in a heavy bottomed pan with a lid on. Lift the pan, shake it and put it back on the stove top from time to time so that the kernels are heated evenly. Do that lift-and-shake maneuver more often when the kernels start to pop. When the pops are 2 seconds apart, remove the pan from heat and let it cool for a minute with the lid on. Transfer to a serving bowl and salt to your taste. Mmm...

popcorn.jpg Other tips
- Use very fine salt, such as the one you get from a salt mill. It sticks to the popcorn, as opposed to table salt which ends up at the bottom of the bowl.
- Olive oil is healthier than many other oils, but it doesn't withstand heat very well. Grape seed oil would do a better job here.
- Plain corn kernels are way cheaper than buying bags of microwavable popcorn. Buy organic ones if you can find them. They are 4$/kg at my local grocery store. Beat that, Orville Redenbacher! 
- 1/4 cup of kernels yield about 5-6 cups of popcorn.
- There are about 35 Cal per cup of popcorn, plus the calories from the oil (about 15 Cal per cup if you used 1 tbs of oil for popping), so it's about 50 Cal per cup of oil-popped popcorn.
- Pimp your popcorn with spices and herbs. I like mixes such as cumin-cayenne-allspice-cinnamon, or Italian herbs and grated Parmesan cheese. Be creative and share your favorite popcorn flavor in the comments below!

Nanotube mitts

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Ever seen a sheet of graphene? Carbon atoms in a sheet of graphene assemble into an hexagonal lattice, which resembles a honey comb. Take a sheet of graphene, roll it and you've got a pretty fine nanotube. [Extra info : Depending on the orientation you roll it, the nanotube will have different configuration (zig-zag, armchair or chiral) which will determine it's physical properties, e.g. if it's a metal or a semiconductor, etc.]

Types_of_Carbon_Nanotubes.pngTake a slip-stitch honey comb patern, knit it in the round and you've got a pretty fine knitted "nanotube" (with a zig-zag configuration, if I might add).
 nanotube_closeup.jpgAdd a ribbed cuff, a thumb, a little shaping and some extras and you've got a mighty fine nanotube mitten! The slip-stitch pattern is also reminiscent of fish scales or turtle shell, which is fine too.

nanotube_mittback.jpgStay tuned for the pattern!

Making ice cream with liquid nitrogen is a delicious way to observe the phenomenon of phase transition, but the real reason physicists make ice cream that way is that it looks darn cool at a party. This is a discussion of my latest experiment with ice cream to clarify the process for people who might be interested in trying it.

1 - Get the liquid nitrogen. That's the toughest part. Liquid nitrogen (LN2) is cheaper than milk, but you can't buy it at the grocery store. We use it to cool down sensitive cameras for spectroscopic experiments in our lab, so we have an easy access to it at the university. It usually comes in big containers of 70 liters, so for the party we have to carry it in a smaller container. For the recipe, we will need 2 to 5 liters of LN2, which we can carry in special thermos-like bottles. Never, ever put liquid nitrogen in a closed container! The pressure will build up and the container will explode with LN2 flying everywhere (I know this by personal experience). The cap of our thermos bottle has a hole in it, so the pressure is regulated.

LN2_2.jpg 2 - Make the ice cream base. This is the recipe I used :
  • 1 liter of half and half (10% fat cream)
  • 0.5 liter of heavy cream (35% fat cream)
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • real vanilla extract, to taste (or other flavor)

Stir all the ingredients together until the sugar dissolves. I suggest you chill this mix in the fridge until you are ready to make the ice cream, unless you have plenty of LN2. Note that this recipe feeds 20 persons, feel free to halve it.

3 - It's time for the show. Pick an assistant and make her wear protective goggles and cryogenic gloves (or just mittens). While you slowly pour the LN2, your assistant has to stir constantly with a whisk or a wooden spoon. That's the key to make good ice cream : the ice crystals must be small for the ultimate fine-textured ice cream, so keep stirrin'! The mixture will boil, so be sure to use a big metal bowl to avoid spilling (some plastics might not resist those cold temperatures). When the mix is to thick to use a whisk, stir vigourously with a wooden spoon. Keep pouring slowly LN2 until it is the consistency you like.

LN2_4.jpgLN2_5.jpgLN2 boils at -196 degrees Celcius (77 Kelvin), and in order to change from a liquid to a gas, it has to absorb some energy (5.56 kJ per mole, to be exact). It thus takes this energy away from the cream, which cools it. By losing thermal energy, the cream will eventually turn into a solid, what we scientists call "ice cream". ;-)

4 - Taste test. Mmmm-mmmm! The recipe I used was totaly improvised and worked out beautifully. Try it!

Concerns about liquid nitrogen

Some people might have some questions and concerns about using LN2 for making food. For instance, Heidi from 101 cookbook (her blog is amazing, have a look at it!) details some of her questions on her post about the first time she made liquid nitrogen ice cream. Let's examine them.

  • "Will I die if I eat it (the ice cream)?"
No. Let the LN2 completely boil off (evaporate) and there is no danger for eating the ice cream.
  • Are those plumes of Halloween-looking smoke coming off the bowl going to gobble up all the oxygen in the room? Are we all going to go to sleep and never wake up?
No. The air we breathe is made of 79% nitrogen, so if you let a liter or two of liquid nitrogen evaporate in a room, it won't make much difference to what you normally breathe. But if someone spills a 4 foot high hardcore nitrogen tank in your kitchen, open the window.
By the way, the Halloween-looking "smoke" is nothing more than water vapor that condensates into small clouds. The same thing happens is you open your freezer on a hot and humid day, or when you exhale outside in winter at -30 degrees Celsius.
  • You need to treat it as seriously as you would a deep fryer filled with hot oil and the like.
Good point, you should be very careful when handling LN2.  But there is a big difference between hot oil and cold liquid nitrogen. If you spill hot oil on your bare hand, you will get burned real bad. If you spill liquid nitrogen on your bare hand, you won't get hurt. Why? The LN2 doesn't actually touches you : the droplets float on a small air cushion between itself and your hand. You can observe the same phenomenon if you spill a couple of drops of water in a very hot pan : the droplets float on a cushion of vapor. That being said, don't try to keep the LN2 in the palm of your hand, it will freeze your skin and that's not cool.

Best free softwares for your Mac

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My best friend got a new MacBook and asked me what useful free software she should install. Well, this is my top list of what softwares I use regularly on my Mac. Most of them are open source and multi-platform, so you can get them for your Linux or (gulp) Windows machine too.

Firefox - the best web browser on Earth. Be sure to download the AdBlock add on, it's so convenient! (You'll never have to watch another stupid bachelor network add while looking for song lyrics.)
Get it here.

NeoOffice - it's OpenOffice for the Mac. You can also have OpenOffice on your Mac, but it runs with X11, and that bugs me. NeoOffice is an open source software that supports OpenOffice documents (.odt) and also Word (.doc), Excel (.xls) and PowerPoint (.ppt), and probably more! Friends don't let friends pay for Microsoft Office.
Get it here.

TeXshop - OK, this one is for typesetting geeks and scholars. It's a nice interface for LaTeX, easy to learn and works great. For those of you who don't use LaTeX to typeset your documents, well, you should. Learn why here.
Get it here.

JabRef - a nice bibliography reference manager (again for scholars). It's especially useful when writing a thesis or a scientific article (ahem! you know who you are...). It is actually an interface to edit a .bib file, so it's very easy to make a bibliography with BibTeX afterwards.
Get it here.

Latexit - a nice small application : you just type your LaTeX equation and it produces a pdf image ready to drag and drop in your Keynote or PowerPoint presentation. So useful!
Get it here.

Freemind - a fantastic mind mapping software. It's a high productivity tool. It is very useful to brainstorm and rearrange your ideas afterwards, or take note during a conference or a reunion. I use it every day and I (and some coworkers) swear by it.
Get it here.

Quicksilver - an application launcher, and much more! It makes all those small tasks more efficient and saves you time everyday. It takes time to learn it and exploit it at it's full capacity though.
Get it here.

Inkscape - a vectorial drawing software. Nice for touching up all those great svg file you find on Wikipedia and drawing your own sketches (I used it a lot for illustrating my thesis).
Get it here.

Skype - for making video conference calls with faraway friends or your thesis supervisor.
Get it here.

VLC - a neat media player that reads most of the video files QuickTime or Window Media Player won't.
Get it here.

Perian - it's not a software, but a "single package for all you playback needs". It's the most comprehensive library of QuickTime components, so QuickTime can read almost any video/audio files (but get VLC too, they are complementary).
Get it here.

Frets on Fire - it's like Guitar Hero, but open source. Sure your Mac is for work, but you have the right to relax a bit once in a while.
Get it here.

Frozen Bubble - an addictive game reminiscent of the old school classic Breakout, but with cute penguins. Same comment as above!
Get it here.