Kale Stemmer Phase 3: Overthink

What had started as a simple, straight forward vision quickly snowballed into a Swiss army kitchen tool monstrosity.  What other things do you do to vegetables to prepare them for cooking?  Well, you have to peel several of them, for starters!  How do I incorporate a vegetable peeler into my tool as well?  How do I IMPROVE on the vegetable peeler so that I can create a better tool than what already exists?  Before I knew it, I was trying to solve problems I had never intended to solve in the first place.

Since the kale stemmer had pliable arms, I thought I could apply that notion to the super-veggie sculptor, or whatever I was creating at this point.  I could use tongs, but instead of grippers at the end, that’s where the peelers would go so you could peel TWO sides of the vegetable at once!  Never mind how you would hold whatever root you were mutilating, I just doubled productivity!

I could add the stem slicers to the ends of the peeler arms and viola!  You have a veritable Trogdor of a kitchen contraption.  (Thanks MetaStackExchange for the original graphic, and Strongbad, of course…)

Trogdor the Vegenator
Trogdor the Vegenator

This was clearly getting out of hand.  After turning the whole thing over in my head for another week or so, I had come to the conclusion that I had invented the biggest pile of crap ever.  Maybe I was right the first time around, and have it only do one thing, and one thing well.  I went back to the hard plastic model I liked best and thought about how to add working blades to it so I could test how it worked in the real world.

I got as far as hot glueing razor blades to the model when my roomie Brandon asked if I knew about the finger method of stemming kale.  I suppressed a juvenile giggle and professed I did not.  He grabbed a piece of kale, made a little noose around the bottom of the stem with his index finger and thumb and pulled the leaf with the other hand through the noose.  In an instant, curly leaves were all over the counter and he held a bare stem.  I stared at it, heartbroken.

How did I miss this?  I would later try this technique with different types of greens and–with the exception of collard greens–it worked for the most part.  It wasn’t perfect, but about 80% of the time it got the job done.

Had my whole idea of the kale stemmer been a product of overthink?  Do I really need to invent a tool that my hands are able to carry out somewhat sufficiently on their own?  This new revelation had really impacted me.  I had started preparing my greens using this technique each morning.  Maybe I didn’t have anything worth making in the first place.

Then again, we do live in a consumerist society!  I decided that maybe my idea was not good enough to waste anymore of my own time or energy on, but maybe it’s worth wasting other people’s!  Besides, my tool would be 100% effective for ALL leafy greens!

That’s why I’ve launched a Quirky campaign!  In the off-chance they do not approve my campaign, maybe I’ll tinker around with it some more and put it up on Shapeways and see how well it does there.  I’ve even got a great name: the Stem-sational!

Vote for the Stem-sational on Quirky here!

With your help, I can make this idea a reality with minimal effort!  You are required to sign up for Quirky because social media, but it is free.  Now go get voting!  I’ll let you know where we land next week!

[Author’s note:  since the voting period is only open for about two weeks, it’s safe to say that the above link is now completely useless. I debated edited the post to be in past tense, but ultimately decided to leave in it’s original form with this addendum.]

Kale Stemmer Phase 2: Successive Iterating

We left off last week at my first hurdle I needed to overcome, which left me dead in the water.  It wasn’t until I spoke with a friend who suggested 3D printing, which would fling the door open on the iteration process.  I knew about 3D printing but had written it off because I didn’t want a plastic tool.  But that was the problem.  I was getting stumped on the material!  My friend told me it doesn’t matter what the material is when iterating, especially since it’ll save me money to print several versions in plastic.

The next task was to figure out a 3D program I could use to mock the tool up.  I first looked to Autodesk because it’s the most well known.  They had two free options, TinkerCad and 123D.  I started with TinkerCad, which is probably the most approachable of the two.  After a few hours piddling around, I was satisfied with my first mock up.  I uploaded it to Shapeways and a couple weeks later, like magic, I get a physical thing in the mail!

Kale Stemmer Version 2
Kale Stemmer Version 2

The first lesson I learned was about size.  I knew when I saved it, I didn’t really have a good feel for how big it was going to be; and sure enough when it arrived, it was rather small.  Manipulating three dimensional objects has always come second nature to me.  I’m a kinesthetic learner, and can master quickly anything I need to use my hands to learn.  So I was surprised when it took me a while to really get my bearings with 3D software.  I think the difference is: even though the object I’m creating will ultimately be 3D, I’m working and perceiving it in a two dimensional way.  But I guess calculating in the learning curve is all part of the iterating process.

The second lesson I learned right away was about material.  I decided to print it in stainless steel because that was one of the materials Shapeways had available, and I figured, why not?  Since it was ultimately what I wanted the tool to be made in, and I just wasted a month banging my head against a wall about it.  I’m glad I did, because I learned that it wasn’t a good option to print in stainless steel as it’s 1) expensive and 2) has major printing constraints: I was not able to make the arms thin enough to really be pliable.

Lastly, the shape did not allow enough room for the arms to be manipulated around a stem.  Back to the drawing board I went.

I decided to mock up the next version using 123D, just to try out that software.  It took me even longer to figure out how to use that, and I did not do as good a job as with the TinkerCad.  It’s also pretty powerful software, probably too much for my poor, first generation 11” Macbook Air to handle.  However, I did have an idea for how big the tool was going to be this time.  The shape changed in order to make the tool work the way I had envisioned.

Kale Stemmer Version 3
Kale Stemmer Version 3

I made the arms on this model as thin as Shapeways would allow me to print.  This time I printed it in a few different materials, just to see what the difference would be.  I tried stainless steel once more because I like wasting money.  As it turns out, it was still too stiff to really be pliable.  I also printed it in a soft plastic, which was far too soft; and a hard plastic, which was juuust right.

Kale Stemmer Version 4
Kale Stemmer Version 4

I was pretty happy with the shape and size of the hard plastic version and having a hard time thinking how to make it better.  It was a simple design, it worked the way I wanted it to.  I showed it to friends and no one had any real feedback except, what else does it do?

Which made me think, what else should it do?  What if it could do more?  I know the whole point of the tool was to be a simple one-function kitchen tool, but if it had more than one function, wouldn’t it then be more valuable?

Maybe it was because I was reading 1984 at the time, but I like to call this next phase “overthink”.

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Risotto Machine

For anyone that has ever cooked risotto, you will know why this is important.  This is a dish I normally save for restaurants, since I’m too lazy to lock myself away in the kitchen, and chain myself to the stove for about an hour.  Unfortunately even when ordering out, this dish can taste rushed.  (I’m sure restaurants don’t have an hour to wait around either.)

The idea came to me when my mother bequeathed her old Kitchen Aid mixer to me after we bought her a shiny brand new one for Christmas.  The old one still works pretty well, a lot better than mixing by hand anyhow.  The only problem is, I don’t really bake.  I have a ferocious sweet tooth and I know that whatever I bake will immediately go into my mouth, and subsequently onto my thighs.  No moderation, no sharing; just uninhibited, roman-style bingeing until I want to puke up all the cookies I so feverishly stuffed down my throat.  So, it’s better just to avoid that entire scenario altogether.

So what do I do with it?  It’s too big to just sit around and take up space, especially if real estate is at a premium.  It’s too useful to not use, I just had to figure out what else it’s useful for.

I was thinking about the mechanical spinning arm, and different uses one might have for it, when it struck me: a consistent and constant stirring motion is exactly what you need to make a perfect, tender, creamy risotto!

In case you’ve never made risotto before, let me explain.  Cooking risotto requires both physical strength and mental determination.  One wonders how the stunted, old-world nona’s of yesteryear could have possibly put up with this torture.  I’m sure having the pleasure of lauding it over their children to guilt them into staying with their mother had a lot to do with it, which I guess is why in these modern times does not seem like motivation enough.

There are two deceivingly large roads that will lead you to stray off the narrow path to perfection.  The first is: you stop stirring.  At worst, this means the rice bakes on the bottom, and you’re now making a casserole; at best, you lose the creaminess you’ve worked so hard for and everyone else wonders why it took you so long to make Hamburger Helper.  If stirring for an hour sounds like a good excuse to have a love fest with your guns, then you have to be careful of growing impatient and deciding it’s “good enough” because you can’t take another ten to fifteen minutes of staring at your spoon go around… and around… and around….  Which ultimately means you’ll have to muscle through dinner eating underdone rice–under dente?–washing it down with a large glass of self-loathing, knowing that arborio rice got the better of you… again.

What you need is a mechanical arm to the hard labor for you!  Hello, industrial revolution!  And with a Kitchen Aid mixer, you can set the pace to “slow” and just check up on it every ten minutes or so when you need to add broth!  Unless “broth” was just code for “tears of agony” in which case, you can always substitute by chopping an onion and leaning your head over the pan.  Or thinking about how you put poor nona up in a rest home–after everything she did for you!  (You can get creative here.)

All this means I have to figure out how to attach a hot plate to the bottom of the mixer.  Voila!  Risotto machine!  Kitchen Aid, if you’re reading this (ha ha…) please make a hot plate attachment for the stand.  Otherwise, I will be forced to take electrical matters into my own hands.

PS: if there is no post next week, it means I unsuccessfully soldered a hot plate to the mixer and burnt the kitchen down in the process, and am now definitely homeless and possibly dead.  Keep me in your prayers.

Smart Coffee Table

You’ve probably read at least one article about the smart tables that look like tablets on steroids, on stilts; which is an admirable first stab at everyware.  Most people seem to think that the natural evolution of furniture will be to have some sort of computer in it, in order to track you and provide better service for you.  However, I’m a firm believer that less is more.  Why does a smart table have to do EVERYTHING?  What if my living room decor isn’t inspired by StarTrek TNG?  A good friend of mine had a much simpler idea of what a smart coffee table should be.

The other day, he found himself engrossed in an interesting coffee table book at a friends apartment.  While he enjoyed flipping through it, the idea of having a physical book sit around for other’s enjoyment is still repulsive to him.  (A little bit of background, he lives in a 12×12 hole-in-the-wall, and is an aspiring Zen master.  He’s currently in the process of ridding himself of all books, starting with ones that have been digitized.)  The perfect scenario for him would be to have a coffee table that he could download books into.  A library of sorts, where he, as well as friends and visitors could read books he had in his library.

To play devil’s advocate for a second–I would be remiss if I did not point out that the book he was enjoying at his buddy’s place was a large book full of beautiful pictures.  Not something that transfers well to a kindle or phone.  Tablet would be the best choice of three evils.  Though still not ideal for the true art lover.  Maybe this is where the StarTrek table comes in?

I immediately thought of the dentists office.  You check in, and have about a ten minute wait before you’re called.  Nowadays most people busy themselves with their smartphone.  Otherwise you’d have your choice of a handful of old National Geographic’s and couple other outdated magazines don’t pertain to you in any way, shape or form.  Imagine instead, an attractive table with only a dock you could touch your phone/tablet/kindle to and temporarily upload the local newspaper… or the latest edition of whatever magazine… or several articles about the importance of gum health.  After 30 mins, whatever you downloaded disappears.  (Hopefully you’re called by then.)

I imagine this product is redundant for those people who have a tablet for every room, carry a mini on their person at all times with several subscriptions to various publications on it.  I don’t own a tablet because–let’s face it–I’m a woman and don’t spend 20 minutes on the pot.  I don’t subscribe to magazines because the only time I really read them is when I’m in a waiting room or at the salon.

I appreciate good design and aesthetically pleasing furniture.  You could not get me to buy an ugly table no matter how smart it is.  I would appreciate a pleasant waiting room and an up-to-date, relevant article I could read on my phone or kindle to pass the time.  I would also appreciate a table that acted as a library I could store all of my books on.  I would become a Zen master as well, and download digital copies of all if not most of my books.  I could be rid of those heavy shelves that house heavy books!  A table, that looks like a table, yet still improves my life not by doing everything, but by doing one thing well.

Smart Doggie Door

A good friend of mine has a dog, Lola, and lives in a building with four other condos.  Three of the four other tenants also have dogs–so there are a lot of doggies running around at any one time.  In case you’re unfamiliar with the size of a condo in San Francisco, it’s not very big; in fact I believe my friend has the smallest place–in the entire city.  A long with the other tenants, he’ll let his dog out into the back yard to run around.  Which is less the backyard of my childhood in small-town California than an enclosed paved area with a couple planters.  And by running around, I mean in circles about ten feet in diameter.

Trouble started brewing when the neighbor who had lived there the longest started stirring up dust because my friend would leave Lola outside all day to run laps while he was at work.  I guess she would bore of this after a while and would walk up the stairs and pay this neighbor a visit, which freaked her out.  Apparently closing her door is not an option, because then her dogs can’t go outside.

What these people need, are doggy doors.  But not just any doggy door, because then all the doggies would figure out they still had access to all of the apartments.  The doggy doors need to to open only for that dog.  Lola would wear a special collar, or fob-tag that would be activated when she stands next to her door.  The door would recognize the tag and let her in.  If she stands next to a neighbors door, it would recognize that she is not wearing the right tag and remain closed.  If Lola leaves the house, the door would lock, not permitting other dogs (or unwanted animals) in.

Sure enough, this idea is too good to not have been invented already.  After searching online, I found this, which is pretty much exactly what I described.  However, I think there’s room for improvement.  What if you already have a dog door installed and just want to make it smart?  Someone could create the electronic component that could be added to any dog door similar to this, which could be used a number of places (scroll down for helpful instructional DIY video).  Just replace the button with the fob-tag, unless your pet has opposable thumbs.

I also wanted to reference this, just has an awesome site.  Of course, something called “hi-tec” woulc still look like it was designed fifteen years ago…

Anyway, my friends problem is solved!  All I need to do now is convince him and all of his neighbors to install one.  And pick up after their dogs.