Wednesday, June 27, 2018

No Such Thing As A Term Paper

On this week's No Such Thing As A Fish podcast, Number 222, James's fact at 33 minutes into the recording is this:  “The Gulf Corvina fish has such loud sex that it can deafen dolphins”

I found the article he was referencing, A sound worth saving: acoustic characteristics of a massive fish spawning aggregation, by Brad E. Erisman, Timothy J. Rowell

Here's a tweet with a picture of the Gulf Corvina

At time stamp 41:17 James talks generally about sound underwater, something I have thought about a lot.
James: But I think the problem was that Jacques Cousteau did a documentary, didn't he, in 1956 called The Silent World. It was all about the underwater. But basically his diving tanks masked all the sounds of the water. So he was like, "Oh, it's so quiet in here." And actually that's just where his microphones were. So lots of people thought it was really quiet, but like you say, Anna, it's loud as hell, isn't it?
Anna: "It's not {really quiet} is it? Even though it doesn't work very well with our ears. Because I thought this was really interesting. So sound waves, because they travel a different way in water to how they do in air, and we've got air in our ears, that's why sound is messed up for us underwater, but that's also why whales, you know they have huge amounts of wax in their ears, so you see whale's ear wax, it comes many many inches long ear wax, and that's kind of the same density as water so that means that the sound waves can travel into their ears and they'd be fine. But it's assumed, that if they came up onto the surface they'd be deaf in air."

This is definitely a different way to explain acoustics than anything I encountered in any of my college courses on the subject.

In addition to the Cousteau documentary they mentioned on No Such Thing As A Fish, there was also a book. An autobiography in fact, called The Silent World. I referenced it in a term paper I wrote in graduate school 11 years ago. I can't find the final version of the paper on my hard drive, but I did find these notes that went into it. In keeping with the Quite Interesting tone, here are a collection of facts about underwater hearing and noise and evolution.

Notes for an Oceanography term paper on underwater hearing for FSU around 2007:

Man is an egotistical explorer. Direct observations are limited to the range of the human senses, judgments are based on the human experience. Sensory perception evolved in vertebrates to improve their chances of survival. Because avoiding predators is key to the survival of any individual, hearing developed into the most important warning sense, species by species. Modern human beings can go through their civilized days without needing to know the wavelengths of light they perceive or the frequency of the sound that they hear. While it is common knowledge that dogs have a keener sense of smell than people and can hear high pitched whistles that are silent to our ears, we tend to anthropomorphize our pets and forget our inferiority. It is a bad habit, particularly when making new discoveries. A more modest approach to exploration may reveal an even more complex and beautiful world. This is particularly true when we invade a space where the physics don't match our evolutionary environment. We evolved in the air, not in the water. Here marine mammals have taken a full evolutionary step past us. They experience the world in a way we can only appreciate if we open our minds beyond the limits of our own senses and use our instruments to simulate what they take for granted.

Captain Jacques Cousteau of the French Navy made a great contribution to oceanography with his co-invention of the aqualung and regulator. The physiology of diving was already well researched, particularly by the US Navy, but freeing the diver from his upright posture and hoses to the surface was a breakthrough. Unfortunately the ability to move as freely as the fish, indeed, the ability to freely spear the fish, gave Jacques Cousteau a false impression that he was superior to the creatures of the sea. In his autobiography, "The Silent World," he reveals his strange attitude. "The sea is a most silent world. I say this deliberately on long accumulated evidence and aware that wide publicity has recently been made on the noises of the sea. Hydrophones have recorded clamors that have been sold as phonographic curiosa, but the recordings have been grossly amplified. It is not the reality of the sea as we have known it with naked ears. There are noises under water, very interesting ones that the sea transmits exceptionally well, but a diver does not hear boiler factories." (Cousteau 1953 p. 242)

The hearing loss experienced by human subjects underwater is comparable to those who have an eliminated middle ear, such as because of a radical operation. This constitutes a loss of about 60 dB. (Note that a high quality pair of shooting ear muffs only provides about a 34 dB reduction.) The loss of direction sensation is also expected underwater because of the head and hearing organs being so close to the density of water. Sound localization depends on the two ears working separately. Audiograms made underwater by DeHaan in 1956 and Hamilton in 1957 confirmed the theoretical 60dB hearing loss. In the frequency range of 1000 Hz to 16,000 Hz determination of direction was impossible. Neither the distance between the observer and the source of sound, not the type of sound, namely short pulses or sweep tones, made any difference. (DeHaan 1960).

"The creatures of the sea express fear, pain and joy without audible comment. The old round of life and death passes silently, save among the mammals -- whales and porpoises. The sea is unaffected by man's occasional uproars of dynamite and ships' engines. It is a silent jungle, in which the diver's sounds are keenly heard -- the soft roar of exhalations, the lisp of incoming air and the hoots of a comrade. One's hunting companion may be hundreds of yards away out of sight, but his missed harpoon may be clearly heard clanging on the rocks, and when he returns one may taunt him by holding up a finger for each shot he missed."  (Cousteau 1953 p. 242) Jacques Cousteau wasn't just wrong about sound in the sea, he was kind of a jerk.

Since accepted wisdom is that life originated in the water, it follows that hearing developed there as well. This formation of a sensory apparatus for hearing probably began with the tactile sense, followed by a nervous system, lateral line organ, and finally organs that we think of as the inner ear. Some of the fishes, the most highly developed vertebrates, were able to transition to life on land. Underwater hearing became air hearing, reaching the pinnacle of performance in mammals. (DeHaan, 1960)

Hearing in mammals is the most important source of information on what is happening at a distance. The eye is limited by obstacles that would block a line of sight, where sound would refract around it.  Hearing does not depend on sunlight. Unlike smell it doesn't require the proper wind direction.  The ear gives information first and most rapidly, and is therefore the most efficient warning organ (DeHaan 1960).

Imagine a pool full of children playing Marco Polo. As the other children call out to blindfolded Polo, he flails about to tag them. He is usually dead accurate in guessing which way to turn and how far to jump, the only real challenge being that all the Marcos jump out of the way. This game is an ideal use of the ear for localization. First of all, everybody in the game is calling out at ear level and splashing right on the surface of the pool. Ears on the sides of the head make us really good at localizing sound all around the same plane as our ears, and particularly in front of us where the outer ear reflects sound into the ear canal with maximum efficiency. Our ears do not work nearly as well for localizing sounds in the vertical plane. It's logical to suppose that in our evolutionary past, most of our predators were coming at us from the ground and not attacking from the air. Another reason Polo has an advantage is because the frequency of the human voice falls right in his peak sensitivity to sound. We lose sensitivity at the low and high end of our spectrum, which encompasses 11 octaves, from about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.

Although our brain does it automatically without our realizing it, there are two main ways people listening in air can localize sounds, the difference in time of arrival of a sound at the two ears, and the difference in the spectrum of the sound reaching the two ears. Both of these depend on the distance between the ears and the sound shadow of the head and the outer ear.  (Heffner 1980) The spectral difference of the sound involves the phase of the individual frequencies that add together to make the sound wave. This is important at low frequencies where the wavelength is large relative to the size of the head. At about 1500 Hz, the frequency of maximum sensitivity in human hearing in air, the wavelength is just right to make the phase of the waveform the same at both ears. It is very difficult to localize this pitch. Fortunately for Polo, children don't yell in pure tones.

Now imagine all these children put on scuba gear and tried to play Marco Polo. They'd get disgusted and go inside to play video games within ten minutes. They could still holler underwater, but they would barely be able to hear each other. The sound of their bubbles and the kicking and splashing would seem louder than their voices. The one with a blacked out face mask would have no idea if somebody was above him or below him or left or right, if he could hear them at all.

Mammals returned to the water after they evolved to life on land. By considering how their anatomy changed as a result of evolving to marine life, we may better appreciate why human beings are poorly equipped to appreciate the underwater soundscape with the naked ear. All the mammals still have similar inner ears, with a cochlea and basilar membrane described by standing wave physics. It is the pathways to get vibrations into the cochlea that show the most evolutionary difference in the marine mammals and man. The Cetaceans (whales) and Sirenians (manatees and dugongs) are said to share a common ancestor with modern ungulates, the cud-chewing cows and hippopotamuses. The bottlenosed dolphin has a fascinating anatomy for hearing and sound creation, including the ability to mimic sounds it hears, and a sound path to the inner ear through a hollow jaw full of specialized fat. For echolocation, dolphins produce and hear frequencies 3 octaves above the human frequency range, similar to bats. (Verbal, Nowacek) While the dolphins were evolving this predatory advantage, some of their prey were keeping up. While most fish can detect sound to 1-3 kHz, herrings may have evolved to hear echolocation at 180 kHz to avoid predation. (Popper 2000)

Dolphin hearing may be advanced too far beyond humans to make a good comparison. We are only now beginning to decipher the physics of their auditory system. Studying dolphin psychoacoustics could prove even more astonishing. For a simpler anatomy comparison to humans, it would be logical to look at marine mammals that have evolved to live part of their life on land and part underwater.

The evolutionary ancestors of the sea lions and the walruses were small flippered mammals with dense underfur like modern day fur seals. They fed along the coastline, hauling prey onshore to eat. Evolutionary changes in these marine newcomers to accommodate to life in the water included enlarged eyes and circulatory and ear adaptations for prolonged and deep dives. Directional sensitivity to underwater sound was not developed. Sharing a common terrestrial ancestor with bears, the extinct pinnipeds called enaliarctids likely lived all over the coast of the North Pacific until 16 million years ago. (Repenning 1976) As far as hearing underwater goes, we aren't even on an even playing field with an animal that went extinct 16 million years ago. We can't close our ears to the water with special tissues that react uniquely to pressure.

The desmatophocids are a formerly abundant seal that evolved from the enaliarctids, surviving until about 9 million years ago. These creatures were much larger than their ancestor, an advantage in holding heat in cold water, particularly as they adapted to life away from the coast. They are believed to have enjoyed improved directional underwater hearing because the entire ear structure was much more specialized than the enaliarctid ear, with many of the modifications specifically related to isolating the two ears from one another. Acoustical advantages in modern sea lions and walruses, particularly major flat areas on the skull favoring sound reception from selected directions, were missing in this ancestor. (Repenning 1976)

The bony structure and the soft anatomy associated with it has two functions, protection against pressure and sensitivity to sound. The enaliartids had adaptations that indicated it was a deep diver, but few adaptations were for directional sensitivity. 12 million years ago walruses developed directional underwater hearing advantages, and the sea lions 8 million years ago. The walruses are supposed to have undergone a reverse evolution when they changed to a shallow-water bottom feeding lifestyle, losing some of the deep diving protective adaptations, perhaps with improved air hearing as a benefit. (Repenning 1976)

In air, the human outer ear serves to reflect sound waves and direct them into the ear canal, assisting with locational clues, and performing somewhat as an amplifier. The sea lion's ears may serve the same purpose out of the water. In the water, the outer ear loses its function. The density being so similar to water, vibrations pass right through it with no reflection. Furthermore, at low frequencies, underwater sound vibrates the whole skull, including the two hearing organs. In air the middle ears move separately with respect to the inner ear and skull. (DeHaan 1960) This is why it is important that the marine mammals evolved to isolate their inner ears from receiving vibrations from all directions through tissue similar in density to the seawater. Mapping the density of layers of tissues in the heads of marine mammals is a useful technique for modeling acoustic pathways to their inner ear. Studies of this type in manatees recently revealed some previously unknown underwater hearing adaptations. (Verbal, Marie Chapla, 2006)

Even before all these discoveries into the adaptations in hearing anatomy in underwater mammals were made, back in the time of Captain Cousteau's early aqualung diving adventures, scientists were paying attention to the sounds these mammals were making. In a paper in Science, February 1949, William Schevill and Barbara Lawrence of Harvard described sounds of beluga whales heard on underwater listening apparatus. At the time, only the toothed whales were known to make noise at all. The songs of the humpbacks weren't known until later. The listeners, watching the whales with field binoculars, reported  high-pitched resonant whistles and squeals, ticking and clucking sounds, mewing and chirps. Some of the sounds were bell-like, indicating a build up of overtones. Some sounds suggested a crowd of children shouting in the distance. There were sharp reports, and the trilling that gives the beluga the nickname "sea canary".  The author admits it is notoriously difficult to adequately describe unfamiliar sounds. (Schevill 1949) {This study was done in the area of the St. Lawrence Estuary, where these beluga whales are now so contaminated with heavy metals their carcasses have to be treated as hazardous waste. (Verbal, Nowacek 2006)}

Fifty years since this attempt to describe the cetacean sounds, Australian scientists studying fish calls described four sounds fish make -- pop, trumpet, drumming, banging. They suppose several biological reasons for making these sounds: reproductive displays, territorial defense, feeding sounds or echolocation. There is also physical noise -- sea noise, rainfall, breaking surf, seismic noise, low frequency swell, and ice movement (McCauley 2000)

Humans are used to living in a sound field characterized by architectural acoustic concepts such as reverberance and liveness. (Shroeder, 1966) Reflected and diffused sounds make up a large part of our perception of the world around us. Sound reflects off objects underwater exceptionally well, as evidenced by the success of sonar. The 4 to 5 times increase in the speed of sound means that sounds reflected off objects in our range of sight would reach our ears so fast our brain wouldn't perceive it. A psychoacoustic phenomenon known as the precedence effect causes humans to lump all amplitude reduced sounds delayed by up to 35 milliseconds together with the initial sound, even if the second comes from another direction. By 70 milliseconds this breaks down and we begin to recognize an echo. This ability to recognize echos at all is related to separation of sound between the ears -- each ear having a slightly different input. (Wallach 1949) Since one of the primary difficulties man has in hearing underwater is that his whole head vibrates together, that may turn out to be even more important than the delay effect when it comes to detecting reflected sound underwater with the naked ear. "Things seem one-fourth nearer than their actual distance, a deceitful perspective caused by the refraction of light passing from water to air though the glass plate. On my first dive I reached for objects, saw my hand fall short and was dismayed at my shrunken flipper of an arm. ... It takes practice to automatically correct distance and size." (Cousteau, 1950 p.252.) Oddly, there has been no sport diving apparatus developed for the ear. (There's no telling what the Navy has invented for their divers.)

Snapping Shrimp section:

"Syrian fisherman select fishing grounds by putting their heads down into their boats to the focal point of the sound shell that is formed by the hull. When they hear creaking sounds they cast nets. They believe that the sound somehow emanates from rocks below, and rocks mean fish pasturage. Some marine biologists suppose the creaking sound comes from thick thousands of tiny shrimps, scraping pincers in concert. Such a shrimp in a specimen jar will transmit audible snaps. But the Syrians net fish, not shrimps. When we have dived into creaking areas we have never found a single shrimp." (Cousteau 1953, p 243-244)

The Syrians use the hulls of their boats to amplify the noise from the water and compensate for the 99.9 % power loss from water to air. They told Captain Cousteau that they cast their nets because they believe the area has the sort of rocky cover that draws fish, getting right to the point of the matter. Snapping shrimp also like rocks with a lot of hiding places, so it seems to be the most basic A=B, B=C, therefore A=C sort of logic. The fact that Captain Cousteau never found a single shrimp is a testament to the snapping shrimps penchant for hiding. According to Johnson, Everest, and Young's research in 1947, "They are notably secretive and demand ready-made or easily maintained burrows. Hence, they seek concealment in crevices and holes provided by coral, stones, shells, calcareous algae, and other solid objects. It has been demonstrated repeatedly by collectors that they live preponderantly on these bottom types. This habit renders collecting very difficult in most instances, especially when a dredge must be used. Hence the animals are far more abundant than generally realized." It is possible these are the marine biologists Cousteau were referring to, as this research came out before Cousteau's autobiography, although F. Alton Everest, one of the co-authors, was a Physicist at the Naval Ordinance Lab and went on to become the author of the most important acoustic textbook in the US, and is not a marine biologist at all. In Captain Cousteau's defense, the snapping shrimp noise is not as pronounced in the areas where he did the majority of his diving. Mediterranean species Typton spongicola were cited as species capable of snapping that are found in the Mediterranean, but they were not considered numerous in 1947.

Though the extreme level of noise, 30 dB higher than state 1 sea noise*, produced by "thick thousands of tiny shrimps, scraping pincers in concert" has been well known for over half a century, the details of the snap are still coming to light. The noise is not in fact made by scraping pincers at all, but is caused by the popping of a cavitation bubble produced by the rapid movement of the claw. In 2001 researchers at the University of Twente found that the bursting bubble also produced a burst of light. The burst of light is not itself biologically important, being shorter than 10ns and not bright enough to see with the naked eye. It is simply an indicator of the power in the shrimp's snap. The shock wave caused by the bubble collapse is now thought to be capable of stunning prey, not merely scaring away predators. ( (Find article in Nature, OCT 2001) *State 1 sea noise refers to the sound generated by waves that are still growing because of the wind, with crest to trough height of less than 30 cm high.

Lautenschlager 1983
During World War I torpedo boats worked over the battle fleets. It wasn't until after the war that fleet destroyers were equipped with active acoustic detection devices developed first by the Royal Navy as ASDIC and later by the U.S. Navy as Sonar.

Kritzler 1952 Pilot whale at Marineland
High pitched squealing or whistling similar to the three species of dolphins in the tank. Small quantities of air escape as it makes the noise. Used at times of excitement, whether due to fighting, fright, pain, or competition for food. Blow hole smacking noise made in air at times of comparative tranquility when the pilot whale was resting. Third type of noise was a kind of raspberry followed immediately by a breath. Fourth sound was inaudible in air but easily detectable with a hydrophone, reminiscent of a large door slowly swung on rusty hinges. Most noteworthy pilot whale sound was unlike any made by dolphins. Peevish whining of a child, or crying of young porcupines or beavers. Only heard when the whale would elevate its snout higher than normal. Easiest to hear at night when it was quiet, or at any time with the hydrophone.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Rattlesnake Foraging Behavior

I went out in the yard this evening to pick up pine cones and get ready to mow the yard for the first time this season. I spied a big ol Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake stretched out by the driveway when I had about 2 buckets of pine cones to go. I put down the bucket and got out my cell phone to take a picture. I uploaded one to Twitter and then texted one to Kim Sash, Conservation Biologist at Tall Timbers. Her response was exactly what I thought it would be. "Awesome.  Wish diamondbacks crawled through my front yard." 
Where I first saw the snake. Easy to spot. 6:09 pm
I watched it move over to the two big hop hornbeam trees that grow all the way to the ground. I pile up pinestraw under them to keep the briars at bay. The snake was rooting around in that pine straw. I decided they looked occupied enough for me to go to the lab and get my 20x zoom camera. I had to put new batteries in it, but the snake was still in the same place when I got back. I took closeup photos of them so I could zoom in on my computer. I couldn't really see the snake very well without glasses and I couldn't see the monitor on the camera that great either up so close. I should have gotten my reading glasses too. You can zoom in on these photos though. If you double click it might put them all in a gallery.
I like how much of his head and body he holds up as he searches for food
I really do need to mow the lawn already.

I count 8 rattles but that end one is not the natal button. The rattlestring is broken.

The snake started rooting around in the pine straw under the hop hornbeam tree. 

There's something in there
I got a little tired of waiting for something to happen. I turned over the pine cone bucket and sat down and watched and waited while the snake kept poking around in that one spot under the hop hornbeams. I took a macro picture of some ants on a flower that were right in front of me on my bucket.
Ant on a spent flower in the setting sun

I think the snake has narrowed down the spot and figured out a better angle of entry 
What's all this then? This fluffy stuff? Feathers or fur?

Snake keeps poking their head into this hole under the pinestraw

I'm thinking rabbit fur

Lookit the fur sticking out of their blurry out of focus mouth. Dammit.

Keeps going back in

I like the contrast of the keeled scales and the bunny fur

Here comes the head back out of the hole again

Whatcha got in your mouth?

What is it? Why you move so fast?! Make my pictures blurry. It was 7:30 pm and getting dark.

This one the snake was still but I can't see what's in their mouth!

Show me it!

Ok, just swallow it then.

nom nom


Sheesh. You had to wait until it was dark to be so fast? I'm zoomed in here. Aperture is tiny.

Full gullet

Through the mouth and into the neck now

What're you lookin' at?

After the snake finished swallowing what I'm assuming was a baby rabbit there was a lot of that nesting material in their mouth. They kept doing this, opening their mouth real wide.

I mean, look at all that hair in the poor thing's mouth. Blech.

They nestled down for a moment with their head down next to their body, but not for long.

Still doing that hair-in-the-mouth move. This whole shot is blurry though, so most of that movement is on me. Sorry.
This reminds me of when my cousin Rosalie was a baby. She was sitting in her grandmother's lap and said, "Yuk! I have a hair in my mouth!" and stuck out her tongue. Her grandmother had a napkin in her hand and dabbed at Rosalie's tongue, and said "There. See if I got it." And Rosalie looked at her like she had two heads. "What?! I can't SEE in my MOUTH!" 

I kept watching the snake after it was too dark to take more pictures. They kept sticking their face in that rabbit fur nesting material they'd dragged out of the little depression under the straw. I guess they were checking they didn't miss one? I wonder how many baby rabbits the snake ate this evening? Note, I haven't seen any rabbits in my yard lately. Fox squirrels I see every day. Rabbits must be better at staying in cover.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Introducing WatUR: Real Games for Sale Now

(Note: I'm crossposting this on SpasmsOfAccommodation and

WatUR is now for sale on my Etsy store. I've listed one because I've only finished one. I have 11 more ready to sew up. As soon as they're done I'll edit the listing and release some coupons and do some promotions.

This is the best game I've ever played. It's easy to learn and instantly engaging. Whenever I get new people to play it so I can watch I have a good time watching them enjoy the give and take of offense and defense that seems like the decision to be made with every roll of the dice. And then in the end it always comes down to such an exciting, close finish everybody feels evenly matched and as though it's all fair in the end.

Most of my play testing and rules development has been with my nieces, Kate, Brenna, and Kara. After I developed the expansion pack and the final case design I went down to my brother's house to play a few rounds with Brenna and Kara. I woke Kara up early on Saturday morning and made her model for me in the pool before the sun got too high. Kara is 14 and it is not in her nature to get up early on a Saturday. She was a very good sport and an excellent model. I used my brother's cell phone to take these underwater photos and videos. I still can't believe how great it turned out. Later that night Brenna and I sat on the side of the pool on a towel and played two games in a row with our feet dangling in the water. It was exactly as fun as I hoped it would be.
Playing WatUR on the side of the pool
This deluxe version of WatUR comes in a floating case called a presURver. It is good for travel. It fits in a tote bag or backpack. It is 100% nylon though so it's best not to leave it in the sun too long or the UV will make it brittle. I've shown the board, dice and stones going into a dishwasher because it is theoretically dishwasher safe. At low heat and without detergent I would absolutely do it. But high heat and strong chlorine based detergents would likely degrade the dice or leave unsightly watermarks on the board. I don't actually recommend putting WatUR in the dishwasher. I'd just hand wash it. (I don't even own a dishwasher though. I understand some people just don't hand wash things.) If it's so contaminated it's either that or throw it away, go ahead and stick it in the dishwasher. Let me know how it comes out. If the black dice and stones get chalky try rubbing them with some car polish to bring the color back. While all of the parts are fine in the water and sun for a little while they can't stay in the water continuously. Don't set up a game of WatUR as an aquarium decoration. And don't try to wash the case with laundry. Just rinse it off and wipe it down. Dry it out of direct sun if possible. Every time I've gotten one wet it was dry again in under an hour.
The PresURver floats with the game inside
The board is fiberglass with etched copper lines. I would love to see what it looks like on an airport security x-ray monitor. All the lines should show up at high contrast because they are copper. Be sure to pack it so it is flat on to the x-rays and not on edge. That would be boring.

All the contents of this premier edition of WatUR
The rules I've written for WatUR are the ones Tom Scott and Irving Finkel played on International Tabletop Day in 2017. I've read other rules but these are the ones I like.

I read the full white paper Finkel wrote on his translation of the cuneiform tablet referenced in the video linked above. The main point of it was that stars are lucky. He deduced that players would have a pile of tokens that they would use as sort of gambling and to reinforce that lucky aspect of the squares with the stars. I find it interesting that the board the British Museum found is actually decorated with rosettes, not stars. Mine has stars. And now with the expansion pack it also has 30 tokens for rewarding you for landing on a star and penalizing you for passing over one. I call this ElabURation.
ElabURation and FloURishes
I made up another expansion called FloURishes. This is entirely my invention. The first time Kate played with it against her boyfriend Matt she made him run out of tokens entirely. We made up the rules for that instance on the spot. Running out of tokens is bursting. You lose.

Inside the presURver there are three pURses that hold the dice and stones as well as ElabURation and FloURishes.
Black dice and stones

White dice and stones
I'm really glad I matched the dice and stones because if I play one game as white then the next time I play as black I might forget and try to move the wrong stone. Anything that reduces my cognitive load leaves more energy for coping with the fact I'm in a social situation with another person.
Please buy WatUR!

WatUR: How It's Made

(This content is cross-posted with my other blog at
I'm almost ready to sell my new version of the Royal Game of Ur. Thanks to Chris Warnock and his computer controlled laser cutter I have very sharp cases and unique dice and stones that match my board.
Laser marked dice
Chris sends me the dice and stones after they're etched and I color in the lines one at a time by hand. The dice I do with gel enamel that I brush into the grooves then I wipe off the excess on scrap cardboard. (The inside of cereal boxes) Then I cure it under a UV lamp before going on to the next side.

The stones are a bit harder as the are double convex. I've experimented with a lot of different materials and methods and finally came up with a way that I'm going to keep to myself for now because it took me a really long time to come up with it and I'm not ready for somebody else to steal it.

I got quotes for custom molded dice but even at quantities of 2000 they are still more expensive than laser cutting blanks. And they would have rounded corners and just not look as nice. I am determined to get my head in this repetitive task game and learn how to do it fast. In the end with the price of nylon fabric on rolls at over $9 a yard I could only afford the raw materials to make 15 full sets in my first run. (I can't use fabric from the fabric store because it's folded and that fold will not come out of nylon. Only the 60" wide rolled fabric from industrial sources will work. The added advantage of this high priced fabric from Seattle is that it doesn't reek like all the fabric from JoAnn.)

I went through over 10 design iterations before I finalized the PresURver pattern that I sent to Chris for laser cutting. I heard about a new industrial standard process of bonding instead of sewing and wanted to try it out. Bonding is like gluing fabric together with a strip of adhesive between two pieces of fabric. It's heated under pressure to make the seam. I have some expensive bras that are bonded instead of sewn. It makes a smooth seam that doesn't chafe. I don't have the specialized expensive industrial machinery to do bonding fast and efficiently, but I can mimic the results using products for sale at my local craft store, namely Pellon EZ-Steam II.
Laser cut star with bonding material
Chris cut circles of the sheet style EZ-Steam with the laser. Then he used a laser-cut template to locate them on rectangles of nylon ready to go in the laser bed. The laser cuts the outline of the star shape, sealing the edge of the nylon fabric with heat with the added security of the bonding material.

When the fabric gets back to me in the mail I apply the gold circle, also laser cut, to the back of the fabric. I have a special iron with no holes for steam that I use to bond the gold and black fabric. I made a two layer canvas mat for my Fireslate workbench so I can put all my weight on the iron to press the fabric together. I can only use low heat because it's nylon. I feel like the pressure is critical for this reason.

I mark the lines of the star on the front with a water soluble fabric pencil using a stencil pattern also cut with the laser. Then I sew the lines with 100% polyester outdoor rated heavy thread. I use a Singer 301 sewing machine from 1951 which makes exceptionally straight stitches.

I sew the 4 main star points first in one continuous line then go back and do the short points. As I finish each point I turn the piece over, pull the threads to the back and knot them. If I don't do it as I go the tails can get caught in the stitching for the next line and make a mess. I use the presser foot of the sewing machine to hold the fabric so I can use both hands to tie the knots. I got pretty fast by the last one, being able to sew all the lines for a star in 12 minutes. Chris says this is absolutely not how he would execute this task, but it gives the results I want with the equipment I have. I don't think there is any embroidery machine that can do this exact thing if I wanted to scale up. Embroidering on the whole star would weaken the fabric enormously. I would likely have to redesign this feature for mass production.
Detail for finishing the back of the star
The final step for the front of the PresURver before assembly is adding the snap. I had Chris save the center circle of the star cut out with the EZ-Steam on it. The laser cut about a 2 mm hole in the center. I line this up with another laser cut hole and bond it on with the iron. The snap goes through this reinforced hole and is pressed in place with some special pliers. I rigged them to be a bench mount apparatus with a length of 3/4" PEX tubing heated and shoved on as a handle extender. 

The edges of the pocket and lining are finished with a single fold bonded with 1/2" EZ-Steam tape. Because they are heat cut the raw edge won't unravel. Both hems are sewn as well. There is an inner pocket for the rules on the lining that is prepped with the 1/4" EZ-Steam and sewn around all 4 sides.

The rest of the PresURver is assembled with 1/4" EZ-Steam tape to hold everything together while I sew it. It also gives some stiffness to the edge of the case. I worry about clipping the corners of nylon for fear it will unravel and make a hole in the corner, but with the EZ-Steam I think it will hold up well, so I clip the corners then turn the case right side out. I insert closed cell foam rectangles between the outside and the lining as stiffeners before sewing the fold lines. The last step is to put in the other half of the snap. I fold the case closed and mark the spot for the snap with a white Scribe-All then burn a hole through with a soldering iron. Then I can crimp on the snap. If I just use an awl to punch the fabric it runs, making four lines shooting out along the grain of the fabric. Unacceptable.

In addition to the main case which holds the board there are separate pURses for the dice and stones plus a new gold one for the expansion. 
PresURver with board and pUrses
I did them each in a solid coordinating color. The pUrses have closed cell foam stiffeners and will float their contents individually. They also have color matched non-latex elastic. Finding non-latex elastic in three colors was unbelievably hard. I ordered from 4 different sources before I finally got all three colors of the same width and texture. I went with foldover elastic on these. I didn't like the line the fold made when used flat so I folded it over and sewed it with a double needle. This is a ridiculous extra step. If I go to quantity production I hope I can find a source of the satin faced so-called bra strap elastic that will work instead. I have finally gotten 3 yards each in 3/4". My next run of pURses may have that instead of this kind.  
Full contents of WatUR deluxe spread out
The black and white pURses hold the stones and dice and the yellow one is for ElabURation and FloURishes. These are two optional expansions that can be played together or separately. There are 30 acrylic gems and 5 small printed circuit boards duplicating designs on the main board. The acrylic gems were selected over glass to keep the weight of the complete game under 16 ounces. USPS First Class Package Service is the most affordable method of shipping but it is only for packages under a pound. This game can be shipped for under $5, but that is without insurance. I found these at JoAnn on clearance, plus I had a coupon. I had to wash them in dish soap and dry them on a mesh lawn chair in the sun to get that JoAnn smell off them. I have enough for all the cases I have. Next run, who knows. If I have to buy them online they are going to cost a lot more.

I have some custom woven labels in the design. The pURses have my brand, Beachton, sewn into them. My thinking is that anybody who loses some of their parts can google Beachton, find this website, and contact me for replacements. The main case has the name of the game and logo on the side. I bought both these custom labels online from the Dutch Label Shop in minuscule quantities. The price per piece is quite high, but it works with my goal of making high quality products without a giant investment up front. If I manage to sell these then I'll use that money to buy slightly more next time. And even more the next time, reducing the per-item cost with each subsequent increase in quantity. Will I ever make a profit? I doubt it. I'd be delighted if if I can recoup the expenses. My time will remain uncompensated for the foreseeable future. My goal of the year is to beat my lifelong difficulty with repetitive tasks. I've always been lousy at it. I have a hypothesis that only through muscle memory can you do a good job at repetitive tasks. I want to see if I can reach that point.

I also hope that everybody who buys this game will appreciate it as a unique and valuable experiment in design possibilities or as an art object that they will treasure and show off to their friends.

The boards are all ordered online from SeeedStudio in China. The ordering process couldn't be simpler. I upload a ZIP file of all the Gerber layers and it generates a quote automatically. There is no set-up charge. I pay for it with PayPal up front, including staggeringly expensive shipping. It takes about a week to make the boards and only 3 days to ship them to me. The board and FloURishes are like the woven labels. They scale down to small quantities while still allowing for full automation.

I would like to credit my board layout software too, since it was free. I used Osmond Cocoa for Mac. Their payment model makes it like a demo version until your board has a certain number of holes then you have to buy it. Since my board doesn't have any holes at all, free software. This is perfect for my minimum-cost-up-front business model. I had to do some real file format conversion gymnastics to import a DXF file at the right scale. Then I had to do a lot of careful editing to delete the lines it added to make every single curve in the design into a closed polygon. I think the results are very good though and I'm happy with this program. The Help files are excellent. I was able to learn the tools I needed and ignore all the actual features that a normal person would need to make a useable circuit board. I actually drew the cuneiform numbers on the FloURishes using the tools in the program, which is really really not made for that.

If anybody has read all the way to the end of this then you are exactly who I wrote it for and I don't need to explain why.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

2017 Wrap Up: No'-As-Big-As-Medium-Year-But-Bigger-Than-Small-Year-Year

This is my 2017 wrap up post. I glanced at the report from 2016. 2016 was the smallest year. I didn't try to beat that record in 2017. I decided to actually go places in my car. I got my transmission rebuilt after my 1996 Honda Accord turned over 300,000 miles. I got all the other regular stuff done, new timing belt, etc. Right after that I got a crack in my radiator. I fixed it with epoxy. It worked well enough to get me to the mechanic for a new radiator.

I went on a day trip to Mobile, Alabama to pick up a sewing machine I bought on eBay. That was fun. I stopped on the border with Georgia and saw a big dam. The sewing machine was very good too. It was my second Singer 301. I later bought another one in Tallahassee and I use them both a lot. I keep the first one I got, the Centennial 1951 model, rigged with white thread. The one I got in Tallahassee is maybe my favorite, it's a portable model with the cord done a bit different. It's black and I keep it threaded with black thread. I sold the cabinet the first one came in and the second machine from Mobile to my brother.

I drove down to Jupiter, Florida to see my brother's new house and pick up my niece for a week of crafting up here in Georgia. That was fun. She's 14 and likes things that are slimy and kind of tactile. She was good at finger painting and marbling. One word: methylcellulose.

I got rather obsessed with the Royal Game of Ur in 2017. I learned Affinity Designer and did several different graphic depictions of the game. I worked on how to make it on wood with paint and transferred laser printing. I figured out that Floetrol can be used to transfer printing to wood. You stick the laser printed side to the wood and when it's dry you wet it and rub away the paper. Coated paper works best. But a water slide decal works even better. You have to go over it with water based polyurethane after, not solvent based. Tape makes better lines than paint.

My nieces and their friends helped me get excited about this game by playing it with me at the beach. Matt Berry is responsible for making up a lot of UR based puns for potential designs and featURes.

Chris Warnock at Funjump Rigging helped me enormously with his laser cutter. He's actually the one that helped me figure out I could export SVG files, convert them to DXF, and import them into Osmond Cocoa to get the vectors into the printed circuit board design. Printed circuit board design is so not like graphics. Mainly there is no scaling, for obvious reasons. I kind of enjoyed learning a new piece of software. I used to design real circuit boards so doing one with no actual parts, no connections, and no holes was about easy as it gets.

I had my first idea for printed circuit boards, TransistUR, already designed when I realized I could do WatUR as well. I had 15 each made as circuit boards by Seeed Studio in China.

After they arrived I did 6 different prototypes for bags before I found a satisfactory container for it. And I am still not happy with it. I've made v7 and v7.1 in 2018 already.

I finally worked out good dice at the end of 2017. Chris Warnock laser engraved blank dice and Go stones for me. I'm still working on coloring them in with UV cure gel nail enamel and Sharpie paint pens.

I knit some stuff in 2017 as well. I got 50 items on my Etsy store by November 16 and had a 50% off sale on my 50th birthday. It went great. I made enough money from Etsy to be able to buy those blank dice. I got a few Christmas commissions from hyping the prototypes for sale on my birthday.

Financially 2017 was just the same as all the other small years. I lived within my means, payed all my bills on time. I stayed neatly below the threshold for needing to file a tax return, so I'm not burdened with an abundance of bookkeeping. I did a lot of spreadsheet work for Kickstarter for the board game and remembered I don't really like trying to be profitable. After the Kickstarter failed I went back to happily designing things based on other criteria besides profit. The problem with my latest case design is not that it's expensive, it's that I can't reliably produce them with high quality. The only way to get price down is quantity and I'm just not there. So I'm more concerned with manufacturability.

I did not go to any kind of doctor in 2017. I did get one professional haircut for my birthday. I might get another one in 2018. Nobody ever sees me so you'd think it doesn't matter, but I'm too old to be sending selfies to my niece exclaiming that she could cut my hair better than that. In 2017 she cut my hair twice, and it was great. But going to Great Clips spoils my attempts to block out the realities of the human condition. Getting a license to cut hair takes more training than I've had for any job and they still can't get it right? I don't need to waste my coping skills on that.

That's all I've got. I want to start version 7.2 of this board game bag now.