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My last post was in February 2016. And scrolling through the graveyard of dead drafts I see that in 2016 I made a few attempts to write something. The last draft drafted was on the 31st of December, 2016. It didn’t make it. In 2017 I hadn’t even tried. Well, up till tonight.

Tonight there’s something racing in my head, a little Tasmanian devil spinning around and around trying to get out of my head, onto the keyboard, splat onto the screen. Tonight I feel as if I have had an overdose of caffeine, even though I haven’t had coffee at all. Tonight I feel a bit of vitality seeping through the cracks of my hardened soul, and if I knock on the right places, maybe we might just break the dam and get me out of this multi-year writer’s block.

I haven’t written in such a while! This business of self-expression has long eluded me. When I started my first blog (in 2005), I wrote for myself, and for the people who I fancied were interested in reading about my life. Looking back, I can’t imagine why they would be – I had a pretty boring life back then. Life has since become multifold more interesting, but at the same time I developed an expanding self-censoring mechanism, a result of growing consciousness of the dangers of exposing oneself in this digital wilderness. A concoction of fears – of unintended consequences due to unintended audiences, from the revelations of my hero Edward Snowden, and of leaving indelible digital footprints for ever and evermore – rendered the impotence complete.

But tonight I’m feeling brave. Exhilarated. I need to tell someone. Hear me, everyone and no one.

I actually don’t know why this has come about. We can find this out together. Writing usually makes things clearer for me. So, while I write this and while you read this, we are on the same page (literally and figuratively), just separated by space and time.

Maybe it has something to do with this overwhelming high that came out of a recent Youtube channel find – Acapella Science – which tickles so many of my fancies simultaneously that I’m experiencing this extreme joy. The below video is my favourite from his collection.

I must have listened to it at least twenty times by now, but I still experience this frisson from how perfect the vocal arrangement is, and how the lyrics snap into place in beautiful precision. That I am dancing to celebrate art and science, together. There’s something spiritual about this. I want to never stop listening to it, but yet I am afraid to exhaust the magical energy that I’m harvesting. At least there are about 10 science songs from his channel that I’m rotating.

And the more that I think about it, the more I feel that the draw to me is not only the marriage between art and science, but how unapologetically nerdy this musical scientist Tim Blais is. The rendition is impeccable, but what shines through is Blais’ strong conviction in his art and science, no matter how obscure and arcane the subject matter might be, or how niche the audience might be. More than beauty, I draw courage from this steadfastness to be true to oneself and to execute that self-expression into perfection.

The result is distilled joy. I am going to bed with a smile on my face tonight.

Maybe, just maybe, I can write again.

 

It’s 10:30am and since this morning I’ve been tinkering with the solar cooker that I’ve made out of makeshift materials. Inspiration struck yesterday and I was watching youtube videos and perusing the resources from the good folks of Solar Cookers International Network – while waiting for the sun to rise today – and so here we are, with an old cardboard box lined with aluminium foil, seated in a polystyrene box, positioned in the most sun-optimal part of the house at the balcony.

The lined cardboard box is covered with a pane of glass that I happened to have lying around (yay greenhouse effect!) and in it is a black baking tin. My thermometer that measures up to 110 deg C is lying in the box as well. The polystyrene box outside is for keeping the heat in, and doubles as a convenient holder for the heat reflector (usually used in cars against windshields to keep the sun out – in this case it is amplifying the sun’s effect on my solar cooker). The baking tin is black because black absorbs heat most readily.

Side view

Side view

Top view

Top view

Back view

Back view

9:30am: Temperature in solar cooker is at 29deg C.

10:15am: Took a salted egg (the type that is wrapped with black salt) from the fridge and put it into my black baking tin, as the very first thing that I am going to cook in the solar cooker. I didn’t have any other cookware that was black, and the baking tin didn’t have a lid – so I chose to cook something that was black as well, with no water vapour.

The temperature within the solar cooker is 30deg C. The sky is cloudy. There is some intermittent sunlight shining onto the trees right outside my balcony, but usually direct sunlight doesn’t come onto my balcony till about noon, and only comes for 1-2 hours. This will change as we go further into the year, mid year we get, I think, about 5-6 hours of full sun. That is when I think I’ll be able to really take advantage of the sun for cooking.

Salted egg in baking dish

Salted egg in baking dish

10:45am: Temperature is at 32deg C. It is still overcast.

10:54am: Checked weather forecast – it seems that it will rain in the afternoon. Should have checked the weather forecast earlier :(

11:03am: Temperature now is at 33deg C. A tiny sliver of direct sun is showing itself on the next wall – it will come our way in about 1.5 hour’s time. It’s windy and cloudy.

11:14am: It’s still at 33deg C, though I thought that the glass felt a little warm when I hovered my hand over it. Leo didn’t feel it though so maybe it’s my brain manifesting its wishful thinking. I am now wearing sunglasses when I go check on the cooker.

11:31am: It seems to have dropped to 32deg C. I am feeling dejected and my only source of hope is the expanding sliver of sun on the next wall. I have also found some recipes on the Solar Cooking Wiki (part of the Solar Cookers International Network website).

12:07pm: The temperature is now at 34deg C. The sun is advancing, but the sky remains cloudy. The hope is that the rain will come after I get some of my full sun, just to see how high the temperature can go. I am full of regret that I didn’t do this experiment a few days earlier when it was so warm. Still, my sunglasses are perched on the top of my head as I write this, indicating my adamant optimism for a better outcome every time I go check on it.

12:20pm: 36deg C, go sun, go! Incidentally, I rediscovered this product which is called the Go Sun stove, which seems to be the coolest thing for camping. I got to know about it some time ago when I chanced upon its Kickstarter page, and it looks like nowadays it’s in production. It’s not cheap, and I wonder if it’s possible to try to make a copycat product based on same principles. I now regret that I never spent much time learning woodwork or metalwork in Kemahiran Hidup back in high school. Would be useful now when I’m life hacking.

Source: Go Sun Stove

Source: Go Sun Stove

12:32pm: 37.5deg C. Unfortunately there’s a big thick rain cloud above in the sky which I observed with annoyance through my sunglasses. Taking off the glasses did not help assuage the worry that my hopes of a full sun may be dashed. Well, as long as it’s not raining the solar cooker will remain standing out there. The glass does feel warm to the touch now, as it’s a titch above my body temperature.

12:45pm: 37deg C. The rainclouds are really heaping in, and I’m slowly losing faith. Spot, in a gamely show of solidarity, is now camping beside the solar cooker and keeping watch.

Spot is keeping watch

Spot is keeping watch

Rain clouds :(

Angry sky being angry

12:55pm: I watch in despair as the temperature recedes to 35deg C. Spotty got bored and left. Maybe it’s a sign that today’s not a good day for solar cooking.

1:34pm: It’s 37deg C again. The rain has not begun pelting down although it had been threatening to do so for the past hour. If the rain clouds were gone, the sun would be right on the solar cooker by this time – which probably explains the increase of temperature again, even if the sky looks pretty dark by now.

1:50pm: It’s 38deg C. I doubt that we will get much further progress today though, even if it hasn’t started raining – in an hour or so the hypothetical direct sun (behind layers and layers of clouds) will have deserted my balcony, and so I don’t think the temperature will rise any further. I’ll still keep it out there but it seems a lost cause by now.

1:52pm: Just started raining :( Mission aborted. Brought the whole setup indoors. Better luck tomorrow.

1:58pm: Started wondering if I could try to set up a project regarding rainwater as well – if you can’t beat them, join them right? Maybe a rain chain? To harvest downpours of rain?

Rain chain

Rain chain (source)

Notes:

  1. Always check the weather forecast first. ;_;
  2. As a proof of concept I probably chose the worst day to test the prototype. Even though the sun wasn’t out the oven’s temperature rose steadily, but then it receded when the sky made clear its decision to rain on my solar cooking parade. Hence we have no idea if this thing will work or not.
  3. It was fortunate that I didn’t lay out any elaborate recipe and only put a single egg into the baking tin, but this was because I didn’t have a lid for my baking tin and didn’t want the ingredients to steam up my greenhouse glass lid (which I assume is a problem – not sure if it is). So I gotta figure out the lid problem or get another cooking container.

The funny thing about this project is that while the sun has mostly been a source of annoyance in a major part of my tropical life (until I visited temperate countries, which was when I realised that we’re lucky and ungrateful bastards in this side of the world), now I’m actually eager for it to unleash its full power on my balcony so that I can see if this solar cooker works. Goes to show what a change of perspective can do to one’s likes and dislikes.

So I’ve finally bitten the bullet, beat procrastination, and planted some seeds. I had wanted to do it for the longest time but didn’t, because of one problem or another. Either I didn’t have the right containers, or I didn’t have soil, or I was in Japan.

But tonight the stars aligned and I planted some cucumbers, and four rows of leafy vegetables: 奶白(Nai Pak), red bayam (spinach), Hong Kong Sawi (香港菜心)and round bayam. Writing this down to note the date. All the plants are in recycled containers – the cucumbers are in some old ice-cream cartons, the leafy greens are in polystyrene boxes that I dumpsterdived after the pasar malam yesterday.

I’m excited and cannot wait for the month or so for harvest! Getting ahead of myself – let’s just first look forward to the sprouting of the seeds 😀

It is 10:30am. We have had breakfast and been to the beach, where I practised my ukulele and Leo ran. After taking a shower, we are now at the lovely hostel cafe, located right beside a big field on which two cows are steadily chomping grass. They have a lot of grass to get through, and I have a lot of work laid out. But I daresay we’re contented, the cows and I, and today is unfolding into a great day.

We have decided on a rough routine. We wake up about 7am, do beachy things, and start work around 10. Lunch, continue working, and do another round of beachy things around 5pm. Dinner follows, with or without copious amounts of alcohol – a mug of beer in the neighbourhood Chinese seafood place is RM5 – and we are merry until 11pm, the time we go to bed. The routine for the next ten days will be broken for two days of motorcycling/cycling around the island, since the hostel rents them out at low prices.

Besides some work that I’m quite excited to get into, I am also budgeting some time to practise the ukulele, read books (I am 10 books behind schedule for my 2015 reading challenge of 50 books), and brush up my long forgotten taichi. Some doodling on my notebook is in order because I forgot to bring a sketch pad. I guess some staring into the distance and daydreaming will also be involved. And writing – for the sake of writing. I don’t think I’ve done so in a long time.

Yup. We’re contented, the cows and I. Work awaits.

So I decided today that I am going to try making mosquito repellent with my garden’s over supply of indian borage (also known as bangun-bangun). I’ve read here and there that it is a natural repellent and have been curious about whether if it works or not.

15 mins later.

I blended a sizeable bunch of leaves with some water. Filtered the concoction, and am left with about 200ml of green, disgusting-looking liquid. Now it is on my work desk willing me to go deal with it but for some reason I am paralysed by a ball of fear in my stomach and hence I’m staring at it from afar.

Some part of me wants to throw it away and have nothing to do with it. But the rational part of me is telling me that I’d come this far (harvesting the leaves, blending them, filtering them) and I should just heat and hold it, throw in some bug repelling essential oil and a few drops of preservative, and call it a day. At least I would have accomplished something. Another part of me is telling myself to restart the process by brewing an indian borage tea and use that instead of the icky murky dark green liquid.

The irony of this is that while I’m typing this, I am itching from a few mosquito bites on my arms, affecting my judgment of the situation. Could it be that I’m unknowingly making a concoction that attracts mosquitos instead of repelling them?

Argh. I’d make the worst witch ever. Alright. I’m going to measure out 100g of this liquid and heat and hold it. The rest might just go down the drain.

10mins later.

The slow cooker is in motion and I’ve put 106g of the indian borage liquid in to double boil. The remaining liquid is still staring at me but I’ll probably throw it away. Heat and hold process starts now, while I practise the ukulele.

Quite some time later.

So I put 40 drops of mosquito repellent essential oil into the indian borage juice and 10 drops of preservatives, and put it into two 50ml spray bottles. Froze one bottle. I didn’t bother with the Polysorbate 20 so I will have to shake the bottle every time I use it. The concoction looks and smells like herbal tea. I have sprayed it over my arms and legs but since I haven’t seen any mosquito flying around, I can’t tell if it’s working. The spray is pleasant on the skin because there’s no oiliness, but maybe it also means that it will not stick on the skin for very long and I will need to reapply quite often.

No bites yet so far. Let’s see how long this lasts.

 

It is not often that I am inspired to document what I ate for lunch, so when the inspiration strikes I have no choice but to follow. Here it is, a lunch for two:

Lunch on a lazy Sunday afternoon

Lunch on a lazy Sunday afternoon

  1. Mashed Potatoes (boiled potatoes mashed with milk and butter and chopped rosemary from the garden)
  2. Stir Fry (of yellow zucchini, carrot, yellow cherry tomatoes, onion, and tempeh; seasoned with basil leaves from the garden, garlic, asam leaves, dried chilli and mushroom dark soy sauce)
  3. Salad (of yellow cherry tomatoes, cucumber, basil leaves, olive oil, and one of my dad’s homemade salted eggs, shredded)
  4. Potato Soup (byproduct of 1., basically salt and potato water)

The salad was a bit of an experiment because I had never tried salted egg in a salad before, and I’m happy to report that it tasted like cheese in the salad and not weird. There was a faint hint of duck. No salt was required and the dish had just the right level of saltiness. I guess it’s also because the salted egg was homemade and not overly salty. The stir fry and mashed potatoes were good as usual.

We ate in the balcony, with the company of three sleeping cats and a breeze circling my little garden of edible plants. When we finished, a high five was administered – followed quickly by a comatose nap curled up on the couch.

Not bad for a Sunday afternoon.

I pretty much abandoned my skincare routine upon return from Europe and have been breaking out with acne because of negligence, stress, and sleep deprivation. Also I was feeling a little icky about using my toner (there was maybe a quarter left) because it had been a long time. I guess I’m paranoid about nasties growing in homemade products which are not supposed to last for long! So here I am, making a fresh batch.

For reference, here is the first attempt. I realise that these posts are a little technical but maybe it might help some others (or myself in the future) to make a better product.

Preparation Stage

I decided to base this recipe mainly on the past recipe that I had used, and added the below changes:

  1. Less humectant (glycerin) because it did feel kind of sticky on the skin and I think that the glycerin was probably the cause.
  2. Also, we’ve repaired the slow cooker so presumably we can do the heat and hold process without the stove (which might make it easier to maintain the temperature at 70deg C); and
  3. I have also got a new stock of liquid aloe vera gel which I am going to completely replace the green tea, I wonder if the aloe gel will change the viscosity of the end product (by itself, the consistency is not too viscous), but I’ll never know until I do it.
  4. Oh another update is that I finally got a digital scale. I wanted to get one that was accurate to 0.1g but ended up mistakenly getting one that was accurate to 0.5g only, which is a little annoying, but oh well. At least it was cheap.

So, the current recipe is this:

Water-based ingredients

  • 30% witch hazel distillate
  • 60% aloe vera liquid gel
  • 3% glycerin

Oil-based ingredients

  • 2% vitamin E
  • 2.5% solubiliser (Polysorbate 20)

Cool down phase:

  • 0.5% essential oil – lavender and tea tree oil, each 5 drops
  • 0.5% preservative (DMDM Hydantoin)

Heating Up Stage

I placed the 3 beakers (water-based ingredients, oil-based ingredients, and some extra aloe vera gel for supplementing the amount evaporated) into the slow cooker, poured in some boiling water and am waiting for the ingredients to heat up to 70deg now for the heat and hold stage, so I’ll take down some notes so far.

  1. I must be the worst chemist ever.

So I very carefully measured the witch hazel and the aloe vera gel, 30g and 60g respectively, and was quite pleased with myself.

(And here, note to self: DON’T BE PLEASED WITH YOURSELF UNTIL THE DAMN CONCOCTION IS BOTTLED.)

And so, my overly confident self eyeballed the glycerin and put in a whole table spoon – and watched in horror when it came up to 6.5g. I had effectively put in 6.5% of glycerin when the plan was to put 3%. Fuck fuck fuck fuckfuckfuckfuck was the marquee in my head as I realised that there was no undo button. And not 10 minutes ago I was solemnly vowing to use less glycerin this time!

I would have to double the amount of everything. So I transferred the liquid from the small beaker to the big, and carefully poured in another 30g of witch hazel and 60g of aloe vera gel.

Then I set it aside. For the oil portion, I put in 2g of Vitamin E and 2g of argan oil, since that we’re now doubling the oil portion, and then 4g of Polysorbate 20. And while measuring these other ingredients, I was so intent on getting the exact measurement (well, up to 0.5g) that… TWICE, I forgot that I was holding the oil bottle in my left hand (while dripping the oil into the container with a pipette with my right) that I accidentally tilted the bottle and spilled oil over my work desk. Twice.

It is lucky that I am not working with any corrosive acid, and no harm is done besides the fact that my work desk is now an oily desk. Aiyo.

Anyway, the slow cooker has been making the process rather slow and the thermometer shows that it’s barely 70deg and so I can’t start counting my 20mins yet. I’ll go check again.

Cooling Down Stage

So the heat and hold process was duly done, and after the 20 minutes was up I took everything out of the slow cooker. I had forgotten to measure the actual weight of the 400ml beaker and therefore had to transfer the liquid out into a bowl to measure it, but now I know, for future reference, that it is 147.5g. Only 176.5g of the water was left, meaning that 10g had evaporated, so I added the extra aloe gel (also heated and held) in there. I had prepared a 40g extra but I guess next time I don’t need that much. I’ll probably use the excess for a mask or something later.

I stirred everything up and left the concoction to cool down to 45deg, upon which time I can add in the preservatives and essential oils. I’m not going to experiment on the essential oils, so it will be lavender and tea tree oil again. I put about 1.5g worth of essential oils (about 20 drops of tea tree, and 10 drops of lavender)and bottled them. So I have about 200g of toner now, which means that I’ll need to use them quite regularly to finish it. I’ll probably freeze one of them.

Bonus Stage: Face Mask

Since I have about 30g of aloe vera gel (and this stuff is expensive) I will use some of it for a mask. There are 3 ingredients to this mask: French green clay, French red clay and aloe vera gel. Basically what you do is to put about a table spoon of clay in, and 1.5 table spoons of aloe vera in, and realise that it’s too watery to put on the face, then put in some other amount of clay until the consistency is like yogurt and it won’t slide down your face. That’s basically what happened in my situation. The choice of red + green is simply because I have some at hand. I also have kaolin clay which is white.

Just wait until there’s a tight feeling on the face and it looks like it’s drying and then you can wash the whole thing off. In general I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave it on for more than 10 mins. For my skin the red clay seems to make it red (flushed, not dyed) within an hour of washing the mask off, I’m not very sure why it is, the green clay seems to be milder. I wiped my face off with a warm towel and proceeded to use the toner that I had placed into the freezer for a quick cooling down. The coolness felt good on my skin, and there was no stickiness, so I think it was a good call to lessen the glycerin.

Notes

  1. Maybe I should measure things in a separate container before putting it in. The concern before was that some of the ingredients might get left in the transition container and make my measurements less accurate – but who cares about that if I am actually the biggest enemy of accurate measurement? Maybe the lesser of two evils is the transition container. Maybe I can use a small and shallow container like the saucers that we use to put soy sauce.
  2. Using the slow cooker I can control the temperature to 70 degrees a little better, though it takes a long time to get there. I *could* heat the beakers first with the stove but given my clumsiness I would probably spill stuff and it’s the safest to put all the beakers in and just wait. It doesn’t seem that anything bad would happen with the beakers heating up slowly in time, so I guess I’ll just stick to this for now.
  3. Because I still have about 20g of aloe vera gel unused, even after the mask, I think next time I will only prepare 20g extra and not 40 (this is, if I will be going for 200g worth of toner. For a 100g toner, I will only need 10g extra).