Monday, January 31, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: clogged toilets and the economies of doing it yourself

What's this?  No philosophical wanderings?

Not this time.  This is where I spend a fair amount of my time: staring down into the business end of a toilet.  Urinals get some time too, but by their nature aren't as susceptible to this kind of problem.  Not immune, and more on them later.

So: the loo.  The John, the can, the crapper, the head.  Many names.  Right now what you're calling it is "That #$%^$# thing is stopped up again!"  First thing you need to do right now is STOP FLUSHING.  If the clog shifts and blocks things up entirely, suddenly where you simply had a bowl that filled and slowly emptied, you now have a bowl that fills, and overflows onto the floor.

That's icky.

Some will tell you that you need to know what's down there.  Well, don't you believe it.  For one thing, if it's a toilet in your home you can be pretty sure of what's down there, unless there's a small child in your home.  More on that later, too.

If it's the typical, ahem, organic clog then you can break out the plunger with some confidence.  Poo isn't especially robust, physically.  The plunger's action forces water back and forth with more velocity than just flushing can deliver, and more pressure.  If the blockage is complete, flushing just fills the bowl, sometimes with disastrous nasty results.  But for the plunger to work, you need some water in the bowl.  The water is what the plunger pushes on top of the clog in an effort to make it move.

To use the plunger properly, put the rubber head down into the water, tip the handle to one side to let as much air out as possible.  Try not to get splashed because that's, you know, gross.  Seat the plunger's head at the bowl outlet, and compress it fully.  Don't be afraid to lean your weight on the plunger, the toilet is designed to support you when you're sitting on it.  It can take quite a lot.  This will squeeze the last of the air out of the plunger - more splashing.  Be ready for it.  Let the plunger back up gently, so its head completely fills with water from inside the bowl.

Now give it a firmer thrust, straight down.  Seat the head firmly to prevent losing the pressure you develop, and PUSH.  Don't give it everything or else you wind up with a big nasty splash.  Let it back up.  Repeat.

Is the bowl emptying?  Can't tell?  If the water level is low enough, you might risk refilling it by flushing.  You know how low the water gets when you flush, and then it gurgle-gurgles at the end - if it's as low as that, you can probably safely push the lever to refill the bowl.  You want to keep the plunger's head covered with water.  If the water is leaving too quickly for you to keep pushing, then you're probably done.  Lift it up and flush with the plunger out of the way; if the action looks right then you're done.

Did somebody send too much tissue down the hole?  No sweat.  A couple of pushes with the plunger should send that through.  Tissue is designed to hold its strength just long enough for you to get done with it, then disintegrate in the water.

That wasn't tissue, believe me.
Okay.  That happens too.  Still gotta get it moving through the pipe, though, so keep it up with the plunger.  Again, give it the firm PUSH and let it bottom solidly at the bottom of the bowl.  Hold it.  Let it up.  If there's enough water in the bowl, try giving three solid pushes in a row, boom boom boom.  Go much more than that and you can wind up with a serious splashing situation, which is usually best avoided.  Try it again.  Try it again.

Is there a pattern here?
You bet! The biggest mistake people make is they stop trying.  If it takes you an hour to get your toilet unclogged, you're still ahead of the curve.  The last time a plumber came by your house, did you part with less than $100?  Probably not, not when the legendary "trip charge" is $65.  That's the money they bill you just to come to you, before they even start the clock for charging by the hour.  So if it takes you an hour, and saves you $100, compare what you save to what you earn at your day job.  If you don't come out ahead doing it yourself, then by all means call the plumber.  Your butler can deal with him.

How long is long enough to work on this?  It isn't pretty work.
The longest I've ever worked on a toilet is two hours.  It was seriously clogged with foreign objects.  More on that later.  And no, it's not pretty work but it has to be done.  The alternative is you stop using a toilet.  How long can you go in that condition?

Okay, so how long is long enough in most cases?
The vast majority of clogged toilets can be cleared in under fifteen minutes.

Well, I've been plunging away at this thing for thirty minutes.  I'm tired, and had to refill the bowl several times.  It fills, but drains v-e-r-y slowly.  When I plunge it, it goes down, but it doesn't flush. It just fills, then slowly drains.  NOW WHAT?
That's what I call a foreign object clog.  Feminine hygiene products, paper towels, toys (small children, remember) make it past the first bend so you can't see them, but they get hung up somewhere else.  Then everything else you try to flush after that just piles on.  Plungers generally can't power through a mess like that, especially toys.

Now you need a toilet auger, also called a closet auger.  Go to your favorite hardware store and ask the guy in the plumbing department about them.  You don't need the extendable 6' model; the regular three-footer will do the job.

Now you've got me buying stuff.  Tell me again why I shouldn't call a plumber?
Plumber = $100.  Toilet auger + new plunger = $40, maybe.  And the plumber costs that much every time you call him; the tools you buy one time and you own them.  They're on hand every time you need them, no delay and no extra charge after the initial purchase.

Okay, about the auger, then?
First, resign yourself to a few scratches at the bottom of the toilet.  I've never seen a toilet auger that didn't leave a mark or two.  They're not bad, but they're a fact of life.  The rubber pad around the crook of the auger at its base just can't seem to prevent them all.

Crank handle at the top, auger's business end at the bottom.  Springy business end goes into the water, into the outlet, and start cranking.  Don't just twirl it expecting it to feed itself, you've got to push sometimes, pull back sometimes.  Sometimes you're going to need to finesse it to make it go around a bend, just be patient and keep trying.  You're working your way through a blockage, and you should expect the cranking to become very difficult, maybe impossible.  YOU COULD DAMAGE THE AUGER if you're not careful.  When you get a lot of resistance, unwind the cranking a little, and try to pull the blockage out.  Chances are good you've snagged it and can maybe pull it out.  It might get pulled out a bit at a time, so be prepared for that too.

If it feels like you're making some progress, pull out the auger and try to get some water through there.  If you don't feel confident about pushing the flush handle, fill with a bucket from the tub.  Switch the plunger in, too - you'll learn the feel of what a completely blocked toilet feels like, how it resists against the push.  Keep trying.

I've done all that and it's still clogged.  Can I use chemicals now?
No!  Don't use drain chemicals in a toilet.

What were you saying about urinals before?  How do they get clogged?
Minerals accrete out of the waste stream and stick to the inside of the pipes.  You can periodically treat with CLR or Lime Away to try to prevent it, but once the clog happens you're back to the old standbys. Try plunging a clogged urinal and using a urinal auger (like a toilet auger but smaller), and if that doesn't help, you're going to need a plumber.

I thought you said don't use chemicals...?
Special case, roll with it.  You probably don't have a urinal in your home so don't sweat it too much.

Plunger's no help, I wound the auger into kinks, and it still won't flush.  What was that about working for two hours?
The worst one I ever dealt with, I had to pull off the floor to finally get it cleared, and it was a foreign object clog - a little toy Bullwinkle Moose in a little car.  Bullwinkle and his car were jammed in tight; ultimately I wound up replacing the toilet.   If you're comfortable pulling the toilet off the floor, then all I've done is entertain you during your lunch break, because I have nothing new to tell you.  You already know how all this stuff works.

If you're not comfortable pulling the toilet off the floor, then I recommend you call a plumber.  If he'll let you, watch what he does.  Don't bug the man, but watch him.  Check out or buy a book or two on the subject, you can do this stuff.  It's not hard.

Wash your hands when you're done.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Educational Guerillas, Parachute Vouchers, and Why Schools Aren't the Problem

Just a few quick words on that word, "geurilla."  It's from the French word geurre, and all it means is "fighter."  But the implication that goes with it, by association with years of use to describe less-formalized fighting, is that of a freedom fighter, a warrior engaged in a less formal but nonetheless very real battle.

Take a minute or two to read the news article here.

The lady in question is a mom watching out for her kids.  She lives in a rougher end of town and is perfectly aware of it.  Her dad lives in a nicer end of town and she's perfectly aware of that, too.  Being no slouch above the eyebrows, she sends her kids to a school in the district where her dad lives.  If the kids lived with her dad, there'd be no story here at all.  Everything would be above board, her kids would be safer and receiving a better education, and eventually we'd be finding out about this story when somebody went up to Oslo to receive his/her Nobel Prize.  Everybody lives happily ever after.

Except they don't.  Not here.  For starters, the school where her kids were going hired an investigator to dig up where her kids were actually coming from.  Boom, caught.  Long story short, she's hauled in to court on a FELONY charge - not clarified exactly what kind of felony in the story - and ultimately sentenced to jail!

All this for wanting her children to receive a higher quality education.

Looking up "felony," we find that it can cover such things as false pretenses, which would apply here.  She's stating that her kids are residents of the school district when they're not.  They're using up tax revenue in a district where their family doesn't contribute to the tax base.  So that's a no-no and certainly actionable in the legal system.  Not only that, but she's a law student - I would expect someone with that kind of horsepower in the brains department to know better.

But she's a mom too - you fight for your kids.  Sometimes wisdom takes a back seat when your kids' safety is at stake.  The claws come out, and Mommy Lioness is in the fight.  She saw the bad neighborhood, the poor-performing schools, and took the action she could to get them into a better place.  It worked, at least for a little while.  A little peeking into the records, a little digging into the tax rolls and the house of cards came tumbling down.

Here's where I get a little annoyed, though: why did the school district hire an investigator?  Were they tipped off, overhear something in conversation, what was it?  Were the kids just too black to be local?

By the way, if I have to be white, nobody gets to be African-American.  Keep calling me by my skin color, and that's the kind of label we're all going to use.  And I'm not "Caucasian," either.  I don't even know what the heck that is.  I'm Minnesotan.  Absorb that, demographers.

Back to the point.  Investigator discovers that the family isn't in the school district.  Mom gets called up on falsifying records, court, hoosegow.  Sentence reduced from five years to 10 days, so there's some understanding on the court's part but now her nascent law career is completely shot down.  That felony conviction doesn't ever go away.  Disclose that on a job application and most places just stop talking to you: "Thanks for stopping by, we'll call you if anything opens up."  It never opens up.  She has a chance at finding a friendly law firm and making a career as a functionary, but no shot at a future as an attorney, not now.

All this for wanting her kids to have the best she could give them.

You could ask, why didn't the school say, "laudable goals, citizen!"  Tell her to take her kids back to their neighborhood and put all that effort to work in her own demesnes?  Why take it all the way to court and utterly ruin her future that way?  Where is the percentage there?

You'll pardon my harshness but all this does is make the school district look like serious jerks.  Yes, they're justified.  That doesn't make it just.  You're supposed to fight for your kids, you're supposed to demand the best of the school system.  To be trapped in a school system that's failing and have no opportunity to get out, to seek a better one, doesn't feel right.

I used to not know where I stood on things like school vouchers.  Now I do, and I'm firmly in favor of it.  I'm also firmly in favor of pouring more money and effort into education for the sake of the schools to prevent them being vouchered all the way to emptiness.  Let me explain why:

The voucher system is a harbinger of failure.  It's a parachute, an escape system.  You strap on the voucher system and bail out of the failing school.  Okay, your kids are out of the failing school: great.  Now what?  Now all those kids, whose educations are already hampered by experience in a below-average system, are pulling down the averages at other schools until those other schools' experience and skill can get the kids up to par.  Also great, but then - what about that first school?  The kids are gone, so no point keeping the teachers.  The teachers are gone, so no point keeping the school.

The voucher system cannot function as a permanent solution.  It's only a temporary spare you strap on until you get the school bus's regular wheels back on and functioning properly.  These things take money money money, and LESS TESTING.

You heard that right.  Demanding that teachers meet a test's criteria means they will teach their students how to pass the test.  Regular education gets punted to the sidelines while the tests get all the attention.  Should the test be part of a regular educational curriculum?  Well, that's not up to the school board anymore, is it?

It's better to teach the kids how to think, how to learn.  Instead, they're being given material that covers these idiotic standardized tests and nowhere near enough of how to be Americans, thinkers, learners and ultimately taxpayers.

I test great.  GREAT.  I consistently knock the ball out of the park on standardized tests, including ones for subjects I never studied.  My kids do too.  But I work with a guy who tests lousy because he freezes up on tests.  Ask him about his favorite subjects and he can bend your ear all day on minutia, subtleties you never imagined.  Put all that in the form of a multiple-guess test however, and that river of knowledge just dries right up.  Standardized tests don't allow for that.

Increased testing loads, increased pressure to perform to a standard isn't what the teachers in these underperforming schools need.  Far from it: they're trying hard to perform where they already know the cards are stacked against them, calling them out when their school doesn't perform above an arbitrary threshold is like shaming the warriors of a forlorn hope.  Their kids are coming from chaotic home lives, probably improperly fed, probably improperly supported and monitored in their at-home hours.  Some of the children are parents themselves at a young age.  Of course they don't learn well, they've got too many other things on their minds.  Teachers in that environment are heroes without capes, get the stupid tests out of their faces and let them do their jobs.

The kids are the important part of this whole raft of issues.  Their safety, their future's security, their health, their education.  Holding any part of that hostage for political reasons, because it's too expensive or too difficult or nobody knows how is foolish.  The kids are the next generation of inventors, workers, doctors.  Tax income in the future comes from tax revenue invested in the kids today, more and better taxpayers down the road come from better educated, happier, healthier kids today.  It's selfless to watch out for them for their own sake, it's selfish to watch out for them for ours; whichever way you look at it, the needs on both sides of the table are addressed by doing everything we can to assure our kids are safe, healthy and well educated.

What's needed is more and better law enforcement in the neighborhoods.  Cull out the gangs, get rid of them.  Fix the homes.  Teach better sex education - keep morality out of abstinence-only programs if you want the kids to keep listening - and stop harassing the schools.  The school isn't the cause of the poor performance, it's a symptom.  If you want the school to perform better, you have to improve the entire neighborhood around it.

The reason it's so much more attractive to attack just the school is that it's one building where just a few people work.  You can hold their feet to a much smaller fire for a much smaller bill.  It's easier.  Like doctors with certain diseases, the inclination is to treat the symptom while the body heals itself.  The only problem is the symptom they're trying to treat is a melanomic eruption.  The whole neighborhood is the source of the problem; fix the neighborhood and the school will improve.  Don't stop working on the school, but don't pile on it so much, either - the folks there are already trying hard.  Now the neighborhood has to be brought up, too.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Heat Pumps: Moving Heat

The air conditioner in your home, should you be so fortunate as to have one, is a heat pump that only goes one direction.  It takes heat from one place and puts it in another, from inside to outside.  If you're one of those people with a heat pump instead of a regular furnace, then your machinery can change directions and move heat from outside to inside.  It doesn't have to reverse the direction of the compressor to make this happen, it's done with a valve the changes how the refrigerant flows from the compressor to the indoor and outdoor coils.  Whichever coil comes first after the compressor is being heated; outdoor first is moving heat from inside to out: air conditioning.  Indoor coil first means heat is being moved from outside to in: heating.

Of course when it's cold out you want heat to be moved inside, but you should be so lucky.  It's cold outside, right?  There isn't that much heat to move.

That isn't entirely accurate.  On the Kelvin scale there's lots of heat to move, but using the refrigerants - the fluids that carry the heat from here to there that are readily available, the lower end of the Kelvin scale is essentially off-limits.  It takes more energy, higher pressures, etc.

Why pressures?  You might not know exactly how the heat pump works, but remember when you were a kid, pumping busily on the bicycle pump to get some air into your flat tire?  Yeah - and did you ever feel the base of the pump?  It gets warm.  Pump up something bigger and it can get downright hot.  You take a compressible fluid - like air - and squash it down into a smaller volume and the heat energy in its original volume now has to manifest in a smaller volume.  It does that by feeling hotter.  The amount of energy represented is the same.  Imagine: LEGO blocks on the floor represents the ambient temperature.  Make them take up less space by stacking them: now they're taller and whatever's above that ambient level, you can peel off and use elsewhere - very simplified, that's what the heat pump does.  The heat pump squashes the gas into a smaller space, and stacks the heat higher.  There's still the same number of blocks, but you can peel the higher ones off and send them elsewhere, by blowing the heat off with a fan.  Allowing it to expand in the evaporator coil lets the fans blow the heat off the refrigerant, either into your house or into the great outdoors, depending on what you're doing.  The hot side is compressed so it's warmer than the air around it, and extra heat can be blown off.  The cool side is cooled below the air around it, so it can absorb heat from the air.

I'd send you to an animation explaining heat pumps, but if you're not interested in the subject, they're really not helpful.

There's another limiting factor, too - water, or at least the presence of it and its pesky freezing point.  There's a lot of water in the air, especially in the humid climes of East Tennessee, and running the heat pump to pull heat from outdoors to indoors means cooling those outdoor coils well below the freezing point of water.  That means water vapor in the air freezes directly on the coils as frost.  Next thing you know, there's two inches of frost on your coils, no air is going through them at all, and the silly thing just keeps running because the idiot thermostat continues to call for more heat.  There's no more heat.  No air going through the coils to give up the heat to the house.

If it's such a pain to have a heat pump, why have one?  Well, if you're not on a gas line - and I'm not - then it's the next cheapest way to heat your home.  Running resistance heat, sometimes called strip heat, gives approximately a 1:1 ratio, one kilowatt-hour of electricity equals one kilowatt-hour of heat.  It's not perfect, there's losses in any system.  But fire up a heat pump and you're not trying to make heat, you're just moving it around.  That takes more complex hardware, but it's more efficient.  Even my crusty old heat pump is probably performing at close to a 1:2 ratio, one kilowatt-hour of electricity is good for two kilowatt-hours worth of heat.

That's lousy performance, by the way.  A coefficient of performance (COP) of only 2.0 is just terrible.  If it were a new unit doing as poorly as that, I'd tell the installer to come and take it back.  New units can do much better, quieter, etc.  If you have a ground source heat pump, which dumps waste heat into the ground, and picks up conditioning heat from the ground, you can blow past a COP of 4.0 with little difficulty; COPs in the 5.x aren't unheard-of.  A bonus there is that the outdoor coil, buried as it is, doesn't frost over.  Ground source units keep working as long as the temperature of their ground coils stays relatively warm.  Around here, a coil 300 feet long and buried about four feet deep would be sufficient for a house my size, with a nice margin for extra-cold days.

So how do new heat pumps keep working when the weather chills?  Well, there's multiple stages of performance.  Full speed on the compressor and fan for mild weather.  Low speed on the compressor and full speed on the fan when it gets cold - more air mass moving through the coils while the compressor pulls less heat from the air, so it doesn't cool the air too much and frost the coils.  Defrost cycles that briefly warm the coils up, drive the moisture off them so they can keep working.   And of course there's "Emergency Heat," the resistance heating elements.  Think of a really big space heater, plugged in and glowing: that's Emergency Heat.  Sometimes you'll see a heat pump paired with a gas or oil furnace, too.  When the snow flies and mercury drops, the flame fires up and you're still toasty.

Man, don't I wish.  When my place gets cold, the wood stove comes into play.  It gets the job done, too, but its off at one end of the house, so we tend to hang out in that one room.

Fantasy Heat Pump
I like to imagine an installation of solar panels on my roof that's heating a large holding tank of water below my house.  It raises the temperature of the water to something comfortably above ambient, maybe as warm as 70-80 degrees in the middle of winter.  This would be a large tank, over a thousand pounds of thermal mass.  And instead of the heat pump using an air coil, it would have a water coil dipped into the tank.  It would pull stored heat from the tank, squash the refrigerant and blow the heat off, into the house.  In the summertime, disconnect the solar feed so it isn't heating the water, and the air conditioner cycle dumps heat into the cool water.  If nothing else, this eliminates the need for the noisy outdoor fan and coils, buzzing and humming outside my bedroom window all night.

Fantasy Air Conditioning
I've also wondered whether I really need the very cold air the air conditioning cycle generates.  I don't cool my house very much; were I to have a ground source coil in the ground, couldn't I just run that coolant directly through a heat exchanger?  The temperature would be about 58 degrees, which certainly feels cool enough in our hot summers.  I don't cool my house much below about 78 degrees anyway, and all this would need would be a small circulating pump and a fan.  That's way less power draw than the big AC compressor.

You won't see that many people admitting that they fantasize about heating and cooling schemes.  I'm man enough to step up and claim it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Neutron Stars: Bright, But Dense

Neutron stars are made up of collapsed molecules, really just solid neutrons from edge to edge, under maybe a thin shell - like a millimeter or three - of collapsed normal matter.  The electron shell of each atom has been squashed flat under the crushing gravity of all the mass on top it.  A teaspoon of neutronium - what sciency types like to call neutron star matter - would weigh thousands of tons.  That teaspoon of material all by itself would have a gravitational field you could detect with your own senses from a distance - not a big distance, but you don't want to get too close, either.  A neutron star's escape velocity can approach a third of the speed of light, get too close to a mass that small and heavy, next thing you know you're plated around in a thin layer.

We're inclined to think that neutron stars are bright, because we call them "stars," but the fact is they aren't.  I mean, they are, but they're radiating from such a small surface that by the time their light reaches us here on Earth, they look pretty darned dim.  But coming as they do from a former star, they're pretty hot and glow by the light of their own heat for a few million years.  Things that heavy cool off pretty slowly.

Wait, what?   I was always amazed by how smart my kids could be.  When they were home schooling and taking chemistry, I was utterly useless as a guide.  They wound up teaching it to me, and dang if I didn't forget virtually all of it.  But while they were trying, patiently, to explain it to me, I was getting it.  They still get it, which I envy.

This isn't a recent trend.  They've been almost frighteningly smart from way back.  Sweetie gave one child a screwdriver to play with one day, and it got weird.  She stepped out of the room for a while, came back to fetch something from a cabinet and the handle, very carefully stuck in place with a dab of butter, came loose in her hand.  She grinned at the mischievous child and grabbed the edge of the door.

The door came loose from the cabinet.  Kid #2 had removed the hinge screws.  All the screws were neatly stashed in a cereal bowl for safe keeping.  All the handles and hinges were carefully put back in place on their doors.  He was about four years old.

"Okay," Sweetie said.  "Now put them all back together again."  And he did, correctly.

This is the same child who, about a week later, was instructed to find his shoes.  When Sweetie heard him report his progress, "I can't find them anywhere!" she looked over to see him peering carefully at the corners of the ceiling.

We must hope that that was the last place he was looking.  Eventually they were indeed found, and they weren't on the ceiling.

My point is that we are all Neutron Stars.  We are bright, but we are dense.  Some less than others, but be assured that the moniker must fall upon you eventually.  If you've ever slapped your own forehead because nobody was around to do the slapping for you, you have been a Neutron Star.

Case File: driving along, thinking carefully through the process of how to stab the clutch, grab a gear just so, feather the clutch back out while adding gas, and proceeding with the perfect gear change.  One of my kids learning to drive?  Not hardly.  That was me!  About six months ago.  I slapped my own forehead.  I'm a Neutron Star.

How's that make him a Neutron Star?

I was driving an automatic at the time.  No clutch.  So if you stomp any pedal with your left foot, well by golly everything just comes to a violent stop doesn't it?  Sweetie looked around, yelling, "What?  What?"  I had to admit what had happened.  I can't describe the face she made when I got around to admitting I'd forgotten what car I was driving.

Neutron Star.  Bright, but dense.  Sometimes it's you.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Not Quite a Book Review: Artificial Sunshine by Maureen Dillon

Artificial Sunshine isn't the kind of book you think you might enjoy.  I saw it on the shelf and was drawn to it because I'm kind of a geek about artificial lighting - really, all kinds of lighting, including daylight harvesting.  But there I was at McKay's Used Books and here was this peculiar title shining down on me.  I picked it out, opened it up, and decided it had to go home with me.

Maureen Dillon, the book's author, spends a fair amount of time discoursing on the social aspects of artificial lighting, and some also expounding on the technology itself.  The social aspects are what fascinated me the most.

Consider the word "inglenook."  I've heard it from time to time, mostly as a brand name on cheap wine.  From the Old Scots, the word means "chimney corner."  A classic inglenook is almost a room in its own right, an enclosure around the fireplace.  In the bitter northern isles of Scotland, building a box around the fire - and then staying inside the box with the fire - would make the most of the fire's output.  Until technology developed that could sustain a small flame that burned brightly, the larger but dimmer flames of heating and cooking fires had to suffice for providing light after dusk.  And poor light it was.  Poor heat for that matter, but at the time the technology was mostly an open fire on an open hearth; cruder households handled smoke by having a hole in the roof.  Whatever warm air you might generate with such a fire went straight up through the hole, but you got the added advantage of slowly smoking whatever food was hanging from your roof's rafters, so the food kept a bit longer.  The light it gave was dismal and dim; activity slowed way down and huddled 'round the fire after the sun went down.  If you were a little better off than some, you might have an oil lamp.

In its earliest iteration, an oil lamp wasn't any more sophisticated than a bowl with a spout.  You'd think the spout was for pouring, but in fact the wick was laid up the spout, until it poked above the edge.  The lamp's flame was there at the tip of the spout.  The next technological improvement was the inclusion of a second bowl a short distance below the first, to catch the drips that inevitably seeped over the side of the lamp from the wick.

Oil lamps begat rush lights - rush lights are marsh reeds soaked in tallow, held in a holder that would permit easy adjustment of the reed itself as the material burned out.  Rush lights evolved into candles, but it bears mentioning that candles cost a lot more than rush lights.  Many households kept using rush lights even though candles lasted longer; the cost differential was such that rush lights were still cheaper per hour than candles, even though the candle's was a better quality, brighter light.

But oil lamps were where the real light was to be had.  Wick development, flame management in the form of better chimneys and air feeds under the flame, and finally the development of the incandescent mantle (like on an old-fashioned Coleman lantern) made the oil lamp the biggest light for the money.  It left candles, well, in the dark.

Still relying on a flame, the gas lamp came next.  The gas lamp came on the heels of the new technology of in-home gas generators (lighting with acetylene!), and was itself the impetus behind gas lines run underground into the home.  Gas lines were at first privately owned, so utility bills were paid not to a governmental entity but to a private venture.  And since metering wasn't up to the challenge, the gas provider would count up your gas fixtures in the household, and charge a rate based on that.

Before lamps, there really wasn't such a thing as night life.  Only the very richest segment of the population, royalty and nobility, could afford torchieres, early candles and the several busy servants required to keep all those fixtures lit and filled.  They were high-maintenance items, and insanely hazardous.  The servants weren't just there for keeping the fires going, they were also alert to keep extra fires from starting.  And even so, firing up a raft of torchieres wasn't something you did every day.  That was kept in reserve for special occasions.

By the time the American colonies had gotten started, such things as artificial lighting were already well underway.  In fact, the brutally efficient New England whaling industry would hunt the mighty sperm whale nearly to extinction in the Atlantic in pursuit of fuel for oil lamps.  But Artificial Sunshine is a uniquely European book, as there was no recorded history in North America of the development of artificial lighting until white settlers landed there.  The economically and technologically progressive European countries drove the development of artificial lighting in step with development of other things; the more light you can generate per unit of fuel, the longer you can make the fuel last, the longer you can keep machines working and generating profit.  So light = money.

Odd trivia: up until 1973, sperm whale oil was the primary component of automatic transmission fluid.

The book comes to an abrupt end with the development of the electric light.  That makes sense; electric lighting drove a lot of standardization as the light bulb had to be made by specialized equipment that was expensive to make and difficult to operate; a smart plumber with a hammer and soldering gun could knock together a gas lamp in an afternoon from flat sheets of metal and some pipe.  So where the gas lamp supported small craft guilds and local industry, the electric lamp supported large companies and centralized manufacturing.  Add in the much greater fire safety of the electric lamp and the near-infinite comparative convenience of merely flipping a switch to have the light come on, and the gas lamp was extinguished fairly quickly.

Ha ha ha.  I pun.

In my own home I have a small collection of pressure lamps, mostly old Coleman lanterns.  One is a particularly handsome model from about 1939.  In terms of lumens per watt of energy, they're disastrous.  A good pressure lantern generates maybe TWO lumens per watt compared to a typical light bulb's 12-14; is it any wonder then that the lantern that's too bright to look at is also hot enough to cook over.  It still beats a candle's 1/2 lumen per watt, though.  I'm also taken with oil lamps, and have an oil mantle lamp, an old Aladdin.

Even something as ubiquitous as a plain ol' incandescent bulb has more poetry and warmth - literally, that last bit - than the modern compact fluorescent or LED.  Artificial lighting is so deeply ingrained into our modern societies that we don't even think about it anymore.  But way back when, it was developing and society was shaped by it, even as other developing technologies shaped society.  It's all dovetailed so neatly together.  Humanity puttered along in its current form for fifty thousand years or so, but really the greatest advancements have come only since about the 1400's.  Six hundred years, and electric lighting for about the last hundred.

What is changing and developing now, that is changing and shaping us now?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Qualities of Quantities

It's attributed to Stalin: "Quantity has a quality all its own."  Chances are good ol' Uncle Joe never said it exactly that way, the most famous quotes in the world become more poetic with a little bit of license on the parts of those who retell them.  But he's right.

The Good (sorta)
In Stalin's case, he was referring to using wave upon wave of poorly-trained, ill-equipped soldiers to fling them against the flinty-eyed war machine of the Nazi eastward expansion.  As poorly prepared as they were (at least at first), they ultimately got the job done, halted the German advance and finally pushed them back onto their original territory.  I could go on about this, but I'm not a historian with a headful of facts handy and since I hope to sleep tonight, I'd best not do a lot of research, because it quickly becomes fascinating.

The point I'm making is that if you don't have an economical amount of something great, then a bunch of merely "good enough" might get the job done anyway.  Fighting, for example, the bitterly determined Finnish Defence Force in the Winter War of 1939, the Red Army met resistance quite beyond anything they'd ever expected and suffered losses entirely out of proportion to the sizes of the opposed armies.  But the Red Army won eventually.  There were simply more and more and more of them.

The Bad
So what do we have more and more and more of?  America isn't as high quality as it once was.  We proved we were the best and the brightest in WWII, but a couple of botched wars later and we're not the sleeping giant, wakened and enraged and absorbing punishment to protect friends, but the blundering giant, thrashing aimlessly in the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of the Middle East for goals that aren't obvious to the American people and in defense of political entities whose citizens may well hate us.  On top of that, the exit strategies aren't clear.

Americans aren't stupid.  We're not.  Like Agent K said in Men in Black, "One person is smart.  You can talk to him, reason with him.  People are dumb, panicky animals and you know it."  This may be the smartest line of movie dialogue I've ever heard.  I apply it to many situations, and it hasn't led me astray yet.  So while you might be able to communicate a complex, sophisticated and subtle array of military goals and exit strategies to one guy at a time, it's way tougher to convey that message to the nation at large.  The quantity of citizens has a quality all its own.  Unfortunately, that quality is a short attention span and an inability to comprehend nuance.  In the act of communicating, parts of the population begin to react to the message before it's fully communicated, react loudly.  The media picks up on the reaction, and reacts to that.  Next thing you know, part of the story is the story itself, not what it's trying to convey.  The message gets diluted in its own impact.  Dumb, but there it is.  So, Americans aren't stupid...but perhaps America as a whole is.  In mass quantities we aren't as smart as we are individually.

The Ugly

Home-cooked meals were at one time the presumed standard.  Mom cooked, Dad worked, kids helped set and clean up, etc.  The classic nuclear family was never more than an idealized image on the TV screen, Hugh and Barbara reacting to pretend names and shaking their heads over The Beav's latest shenanigans.  But look at those kids in that show, and pretty much any other show of the period and what you don't see is a kid as wide as he is tall.  "Lumpy" on Leave it to Beaver was a husky kid but not over the top.  Cindy Brady had some baby fat in her first couple of seasons.  That's it.  And going outside to play, I'd see leagues of other kids my age and we were all built like that, lean and energetic.  We might go to McDonald's for lunch if one of us somehow found a five dollar bill in the laundry, and the biggest sandwich was a Big Mac.  There's three or four sandwiches bigger and bolder than the Big Mac on the McFood menu these days.  Drink refills are free so you can guzzle all you want, then fill up again to take some with you.  I wish I could remember where I heard this, but recent estimates place caloric intake for the typical American at 40% from our drinks.  Sodas, tea, sports drinks.  Crazy!

 And the Big Mac was supposed to be a quality burger.  It was a combination of tastes nobody else had and that was okay, if you wanted something less specialized, you'd go to Burger King and "have it your way," they'd build a sandwich exactly to your specification: a whole different quality.  If it's exactly the way you want it, or a sandwich like no other shop is going to offer, you don't need more of it, right?


Enter: Everybody Else.  Sandwiches have gotten bigger to make them stand out against other chains.  "Five!  Five Dollar!  Five Dollar Foot Long!"  Big eats for cheap.  "Thickburger," "Half O Pound," "Super Size it!" Lord knows what else.  Golden Corral couldn't have named itself more aptly; walk in there and the soundtrack should be wall-to-wall oinking.

It's shocking to me at the Golden Corral.  I'm not a big guy, but I'm not tiny either.  5'10" and 185 (naked, maybe holding a couple of balloons), I could stand to lose a few.  Like, a few = 20 pounds.  But at the Golden Corral I'm the smallest person there by a wide, wide - really, seriously - wide margin.  There are people there half a foot shorter than me, but twice my weight.  Quantity has a quality all its own, and instead of finding a smaller meal and enjoying it, the diners there are finding a one price fits all meal that doesn't stop until they do.

The food isn't that great.  But for one price, eat all you can handle.  The quantity is the quality that has attracted the new American.

Okay, let me back that up.  The steaks are fabulous.  But I can cook steaks at the house for the whole family, lay out huge platterfuls of veggies and steak and a peach cobbler for what it costs to purchase one buffet pass at the Golden Corral.

The estimates for how much food energy the typical American needs to stay healthy hasn't changed.  In fact, in light of our increasingly luxurious lifestyles where you don't have to get up from the couch to change any of the channels, we "play" games by staying on that couch, and don't even walk around at malls much anymore, the estimates have probably decreased.  Americans average around 2600-2700 calories per day when our average level of physical activity is probably the lowest it's ever been.  The USDA still bases a lot of its assumptions on an idealized 2200 calorie diet, which is in my opinion a lot more in line with how much so many people are doing.

Our lives have become too easy, unhealthily so.  Channels that change from the couch.  Automatic transmissions.  Telephones that you can have anywhere in the house - no jogging to catch it before the answering machine does!  Remember when typing meant you had to bang the key hard enough to actually make the ink stick to the paper?  Even that made a difference.  Now, you're just clicking little switches;  a feather touch is all it takes.  Each modern keystroke is a teensy bit easier to complete than a manual typewriter keystroke.  It adds up.  If I were to bang out this collection of thoughts on a manual typewriter - remember that creaky old Underwood, Mom? - I'd be getting some exercise.  The keystrokes add up.

Their quantity has a quality all its own.  I believe that as a country, we must refocus ourselves on better understanding the qualities we seek to keep around ourselves.

We must examine them, assess them.  Keep the ones that are harmless, take up more of the ones that are beneficial, set aside more of the ones that are destructive.  We can watch less TV and afford to get up when the channel needs changing.  Better yet, we can leave the TV off entirely and go walk around the block.  One step isn't exercise, but a few hundred is.  While you're out, stop by the store and pick up a gallon of milk.  Not soda, milk.  Vote more.  Text less.  Try to always listen longer than you talk.  We should increase the quantities of positive qualities.  We'll be better off for it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Recycling and actual homeland security: it has little to do with flying.

You've probably heard the maxim, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without."  Out of context it's a little difficult to decipher, especially to one such as me, raised in the era of plenty that was the 80s.  The statement is that you should wring every bit of value out of something, and if you don't have it, then live in such a way that its absence isn't a hardship.  That's old-school, Depression-era economy.

Some municipalities - such as the one where I live - offer curbside recycling.  Put the bin out and your recyclables magically disappear, to be responsibly made into new recyclables.  Only maybe not.  Our little town did a review on the process and wasn't able to nail down what happens with its recycled plastics after the trucks dump the load.  There's a better than even chance they go to - where else? - China to be burned as fuel.  It's not a surprise considering how lax some of China's environmental safeguards have been in the past, though I don't know what their current standards are, or how well they're enforced.

But do you have to assume it requires lax standards to burn plastics?  If they're made from petroleum, then they're just bound hydrocarbons.  Unbind those hydrocarbons.  Be free, petroleum!   Make heat for someone!  There are probably emissions scrubbers that can handle the exhaust from that kind of fuel source and make it at least as clean as, oh I don't know, something dirtier, like coal.  If we're burning coal and not asphyxiating entire populations downwind, we can probably burn our own plastics right here, too.  We paid for those plastics, this way we get to double the use of our own money, right here.

Aluminum, steel, plastics and lots of other stuff are not that difficult to recycle.  In fact, the energy in aluminum is mostly in making it.  It takes only a fraction as much energy - less than a tenth - to recycle an aluminum can as it does to make a new one.

American cars - and Japanese, European and all the others - are scrapped at the ends of their lives (entirely too soon, but I've already ranted a bit about that) and getting reduced to raw materials and sent elsewhere.  Why is that, exactly?  Have we no factories here?

In fact, we do.  They are idled because the companies that built things don't build things anymore.  Costs went up, payrolls got unwieldy, and cheaper offerings were available from overseas.  Goodbye, factories.  Goodbye, factory jobs.  Hello, trade imbalance.

That steel is here.  That aluminum is here.  It's already in the States, let's build something with it here.  Can't afford to build it?  Why not?  What's going to be needed is a change in paradigm.  Paychecks don't have to be as big as they've become, unions don't have to be a club held over the heads of the factory owners.

You want to see a real union that has its mission where its mouth is, find one that owns the company and the factories.  That's a real union that has both the workers' and the companies' best interests in mind at all times.

We're auctioning off our own capacity as a productive nation.  No one aspires to the factory job, no one wants to be a farmer, no one is willing to roll his sleeves up for the gritty work that takes sweat and effort.  We want air conditioning, cushy chairs and shuffled papers.  Note, I say "no one," but of course there are people that willingly saddle up for those jobs, but the proportion isn't what it used to be.

I'm shopping for American-made electronics and coming up short.  The list is ridiculous, a few peculiar little custom jobbies that are components of something else.  Actual consumer goods are assembled overseas from components manufactured overseas.  Why is that: cheap labor, fewer overhead costs.  It's still cheaper to build it somewhere else, load it into a ship and send it here than it is to just build it here.  If more people were satisfied with $10/hr, that might change.

$10/hr pays the bills.  If not, you've got problems.

Overhead costs are crazy.  Steel made elsewhere gets used elsewhere.  Steel made here...wait, are there any American steel mills anymore?  In its heyday the industry in America employed hundreds of thousands of workers, now the rolls are around 158,000 total.  Bummer.  I can't find what American rolls are for aluminum production, but Alcoa, #3 producer of aluminum worldwide and I think the largest American producer, has rolls of 58,000 or so.  That's worldwide rolls.

So where do we get inexpensive materials for use in American manufacturing?  Right here.  Scrap that car but don't send the metal away.  Keep it here.  Cans too.  Plastic, waste veggie oil, everything.  Be willing to pay an extra buck for the Made in the USA label, be willing to settle for a buck an hour less on the paycheck.  It'll come back to you, believe it.  It'll come back in the form of more jobs on American soil when you want them.  It'll come back in the form of greater national security, a stronger dollar that buys more.  What does it matter if you don't make as much money, when your money buys more?  Remember when comic books were 25 cents?  I do.  They're $3.00 each, now.  And they're thinner, with more ads.  Less content, higher price.  That's inflation. Settle for a little less income, be happy with a slightly higher price, the results eventually slew back around to an America that relies on itself.  It'll hurt for a while, but it'll be worth it.

Curtis Mathes TVs, once the perceived (whether it was true or not) Rolls Royce of home electronics, now just slaps their brand on someone else's budget line, and probably not for much longer.  Ick.  Vizio is a supposedly American company, but its products are built elsewhere.  Doesn't really impress me that you're an "American" company when the vast majority of the labor budget is overseas.  Philco, who made the quintessential cathedral-shaped radio, is now a brand of the Dutch company Philips.  GE makes most of its money from financial products - not appliances.  Not cutting-edge turbines.  They still make those, but it's not their bread and butter.

There are some success stories to be found in the globalization nightmare that's cut American manufacturing's hamstrings.  AGCO, the agricultural giant that includes such brands as Hesston (hay tools), Massey-Ferguson (former Canadian company, famous tractor manufacturer) and Fendt (German tractors).  AGCO is huge, and has a dominating influence on worldwide agriculture hardware.  It got its start when Allis executives at Deutz Allis bought the Allis shares back, closing the circle of ownership that had taken from Fiat, to Deutz, back to themselves.  And then they started buying up everybody else.

Too bad more of those tractors aren't made in the USA from scrapped Japanese cars.  That'd be cool.

Okay.  Enough ranting.  I probably got off point more than once.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Word on the street is that China's looking to pull back on its rare earth exports.

Before you say "So what?" take a moment to think about that.  The name "rare earth" ought to tell you these materials aren't especially common.  But that's not right.  They're not that uncommon, but neither do they occur in conveniently large clumps.  Usually they're bound up with other stuff, and often found together.

At this time, China is the leading producer of rare earths for export.  There are other sources to be had, but they are all pretty much currently idled.  Work is underway at the moment to open at least one US mine but that kind of thing doesn't happen overnight.

One wonders just how cheaply China's workers work, if a mine on US soil is idled because raw ore can be had more cheaply from across the Pacific.  There must be some economies of scale that I'm not aware of, but that's beside the point.  The point is that raw materials that are integral to industries here, abroad, and also in China, will soon be harder to find anywhere but China.

China isn't pulling the plug.  The music will keep playing, but they're turning the volume down.  US companies making high-efficiency electric motors (hello, Chevy Volt!), developing competitive electronics (hello...wait, there aren't any US companies doing much of that), will have to pay more to get what they need, and may not get all of what they were hoping to get.

China will have it.

Remember when electronics you bought in the US were likely made in the US?  Motorola radios, GE televisions, Crosley record players.

The electronics you buy now are most likely made in China.  There's a fair chance it was assembled in Indonesia, Korea, some Asian country where wages aren't high, workplace standards aren't high, and labor is plentiful.  If it so happens that a lot of the raw materials are coming from close by - like rare earths in China - more's the better.  Lower costs, more profit.

When shopping, keep your eyes open.  If you can choose between the item made in China and a similar item made in the US, get the American one.  It probably will cost a bit more, but it's worth it.

Is it worth it in added quality?  Probably not.  Serving size will be the same, when you buy a pair of shoes there's probably going to be one right and one left.  Pants, calculators, notebook paper, whatever it is you're shopping for, try to keep the American economy going.  If you lived in one house but for some reason decided to pay the neighbor's kid to mow your lawn instead of your own kid, wouldn't you expect that to have an effect on morale in your own household?  That's the kind of thing I see happening.  It gives me a nagging feeling of concern.

It's getting difficult to buy American but it can be done.  You're going to have to dig dig dig to find the producers of the things you need, and some of the things you want, you may just have to do without.  iPods, for instance, are made in Shanghai.  Nowhere else.  My Sansa Fuze is Chinese, too. 

Next topic: recycling as a matter of national security.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Holding Her Purse

I'm married.  You probably picked that up in a previous post but I'll restate it for those of you who stepped out during the commercials.  She's wonderful.  I wouldn't trade a moment of our life together for anything.

Someone online once criticized me, saying I put the woman in my life on a pedestal.  Okay, I do that, I'll admit it.  But she drags me up alongside her, so it's cool.  "I can see my house from here!"  If supporting her is putting her on a pedestal, then call it that if you want.  But supporting any member of the family is a highly positive thing to do.  Case in point:

Today she got up from the table at Panera (every Friday morning, breakfast at Panera on the way to work), and left her purse behind.  I don't remember where she was headed, but she was stepping away from her purse - that was the important part.  Without thinking about it, I reached over and picked it up, hung it over my own shoulder.

I've had a little time to think about that.  Do I emasculate myself, making myself the bearer of my wife's things?  Is it a selfish thing I do, or a selfless thing?

You could easily say it's selfish.  Sweetie carries the big credit card, so it's  a matter of personal security to make sure that card is safe.  Hang it around my neck and I know where it is, so I'm keeping track of the family's funds, a lot of the IDs and just the nuts and bolts of daily modern life.  I lock my vehicles for the same reason: so the things I depend on don't wind up in someone else's hands.  I carry a card too, but it's a smaller amount of money available on it since I'm already aware that my impulse control isn't great.  Left alone with money, I'd clean out Sears of their latest and greatest socket wrenches.  Since I already have plenty of socket sets, me having the big card isn't in our best interest.  I carry the little card for gas and oil.

I refill the cars and change the oil.  It isn't something she can't do, but she's not keen on it.  She's especially not fond of the smell of gasoline, and it doesn't really bother me much.  So I fill the cars and she says they have magic fuel tanks that are always full when she needs them to be.

Selfless?  Maybe not.  The exchange is that I don't have to cook.  I don't mind cooking but it's not my favorite thing to do.  I'm not great at it, but I am decent at keeping her supplied with the next item that goes into the pan.  I do enjoy that part, the mise en place that makes cooking happen faster.  That means I get to eat sooner, and I have something to do that's interesting instead of just waiting around.  Plus we get to talk since we're in the same room, so that's all to the good.

What about the emasculating aspects of a guy holding his wife's purse?  It's not terribly macho, me in denim and boots holding a dainty little black leather bag with a spaghetti strap.  It doesn't match my shoes or my hat, and for some reason the beard clashes.

We have come to attach genders to actions: cooking is female, auto maintenance is male.  Mowing is male.  Shopping is female.  There aren't actual genders associated with these day-to-day activities but they have come to have the associations over time, assigned by society.  No announcements were made but it's become real.  Carrying a purse is female.  If you're a guy and you have a bunch of stuff you need to carry, whatever you put it into has to not look like a purse.

If you're a woman living alone, you will be responsible for your own auto maintenance and lawn mowing.  If you're a guy alone, you will cook and shop.  But to make it easier for you, there are TV dinners and Jiffy Lube so you don't have to step out of your assigned role.  There are backpacks and fanny packs you can put your extra stuff into.  No purse required.

I hold Sweetie's purse because that's my job.  I'm not carrying it all day, just for the moment.  She needs to step away and do something that requires both hands, but you wouldn't want the purse to go unattended.  A lot of my family's resources are in there, and I'm protecting those resources.  If Sweetie wasn't around, I'd be carrying the resources anyway.  I would do the grocery shopping (already do, I enjoy shopping)  and more cooking.  Scrambled eggs for dinner!  Fanny packs for accoutrements!

Sweetie knew the purse was safe, that her family's resources were safe.  She knew I would watch over it.  She has left children with me and money with me and snuggles up with me on the couch.  Defenses aren't necessary.  What she would defend from threats she doesn't protect from me.  And that's good, that's a healthy relationship.

If the man won't pick up the purse, what's the message there?  "My perceived masculinity in the eyes of other men is more important than your security."  Why would you give a rip about how masculine you appear to other men?  If you're a guy and you want to appear masculine to anyone, it's to women.  Refusing to pick up the purse speaks of a lack of confidence in yourself, your place in the family, and your place in your own culture.

No one's challenged my masculinity because I have a purse over my shoulder.  No one. I wouldn't care if anyone did, either - if you take exception to my holding Sweetie's purse, whose problem is that?  Definitely not mine.  I'm watching out for my family.  It's as masculine as standing over a fresh hunting kill with a bloody club while the rest of the family carves meat off with stone knives - and the message is the same: Mine.  Ours.  Don't try to take this.  I imagine that a man trained by modern culture sees another man holding a purse and thinks, henpecked.  I wonder if women see that same guy holding the purse and think, protector.

The men can't look past the purse and see the bloody club. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011


I just read about this thing: the Million Dollar Web Page.  It seems that this guy made it his business to sell small blocks of screen space on his home page to anyone and everyone, with the stated goal being to achieve a million dollars of advertising income.  It would appear that he's actually done it.  The little box where you could click to Buy Now is covered with a banner that reads Sold Out.

Evidently, fools and their money are indeed soon parted.  But not really, the vast majority of the space is advertising, some of the ads are ridiculously tiny but whoever paid for the space is indeed getting something for their money.  Not much, but something.  But it was also possible to buy small blocks of space as an individual and just own them.  I can't imagine what I'd do with that.  You could ring up the website, point to a blank space on the screen and say, "That's mine, right there.  That little blank spot with nothing going on.  I paid for that."

Is it possible to make money on the Web?  Surely so, since there are lots of folks doing it.  I'm not.  Google is putting ads alongside my blog entries and more power to them, feel free to visit those advertisers if you feel so inclined.  If the first buck ever rolls in from all this typing, I'll be very surprised.

I used to make money with a computer.  At one time I worked as a production typist.  I used my Kaypro II* computer and a similarly low-budget Sears printer.  With this unsophisticated but sturdy combination, I was making over $8.00 per hour at a time when the minimum wage was only $3.50 per hour.  Not bad.  But what people were really paying for was my skill as a typist.  I'm not as fast now as I was then but I could really hammer the keys.  The Kaypro, when I got it, hadn't been state of the art for several years but even so, you know you're ripping right along when you've been banging the keys full-tilt for a few minutes, stop typing and four more lines of text appear on the screen.  That happened to me all the time.  I was going as fast as the machine could handle.  If I didn't pause, it would start to beep and some of what I entered would get lost.

Machines have gotten faster since then, and I haven't.  I haven't filled a keyboard buffer in years.  But back in the day, it was pretty cool to see.

More about the Kaypro.  It was a hefty machine.  It was deemed "portable" by virtue of being equipped with a handle that would support its weight.  At 30lbs, the Kaypro may have been the inspiration behind the term "luggable."  When I set it into the footwell on the passenger side of my dinky little '78 Civic (an excellent car, and I wouldn't mind having another one), the car visibly settled toward the right.

The Kaypro had two disk drives.  This was when floppy disks still lived up to the name of "floppy."  The disks were over five inches across, and each one was good for a dizzying 170 pages of text.  Your mileage may vary.  The top drive held the software for whatever program I was using, and the lower drive was storage for whatever I was working on.

There was no hard drive.  The first computer I owned that had a hard drive held ten megabytes of storage, the equivalent of seven floppies.  I thought it was fantastic not to have to shuffle disks so often.  Now as a matter of course I'm wearing the equivalent of over a hundred of that first hard drive on my keyring.  Subaru, mailbox, Library of Congress, Toyota.

Okay, not Library of Congress.  But considering how much you can fit into a similar form factor, those dinky little memory sticks, there's room for more than you might read in a couple of years.  Storage has become cheap and plentiful.  And with the huge hard drives and the plentiful memory sticks, you don't shuffle disks at all.  Not even to listen to music.

I kind of miss shuffling disks.  It forced you to step back and assess what you were doing.  It forced you to give a bit of attention to the mechanics of what you were doing.  If I ever make money from this blog - not holding my breath - it'll be because I put all this energy into it.  Not like the Million Dollar Website guy, selling off pixels on his home page.  I don't mind shuffling the disks to make things happen.

*I used the picture of the Kaypro II that is to be found at, along with a great variety of other interesting and forgotten machinery.  I didn't ask their permission.  I hope they aren't mad.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Westboro Baptist Church: Hijackers, hostage takers, hypocrites

You've heard of them.  Westboro Baptist Church, which touts itself as a Primitive Baptist church - and Wikipedia describes in its first paragraph on the church as a hate group - has made a name for itself as the protest group that pickets funerals and fundraisers, gatherings and grievers as deserving recipients of God's hate.

Note: no recognized religious organization claims any affiliation with Westboro Baptist Church.  I think the Church of Satan would probably show them the door.

So what does WBC bring to the party? Signage, and lots of it.  "God Hates Fags."  "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."  It makes me ill just to write the words; thank God I'm not the originator.  That burden lies on somebody else's head, and he's welcome to it.

You'd think Westboro Baptist Church, its incendiary constituents and perhaps not least of all its leaders would take some note of its detractors.  When no less a public enemy than the Ku Klux Klan comes out and says that they utterly repudiate everything the WBC does, you'd think someone might get the message.  When the KKK says you're unconscionable, that's about as bad as it gets.

And now in the wake of the shootings at Arizona Representative Giffords' meet-and-greet, WBC declared it would protest the funerals, shouting that God sent the shooter and everybody that died deserved it, and the shootings were a warning to the rest of us to hurry up and start praying before we got the rest of God's righteous wrath.

I won't speak to righteous wrath.  Whether or not we deserve it, (and I'm pretty sure we do) I don't think the WBC is any kind of reliable prophet regarding wrath or anything else.  Here's why:

In the face of huge, angry outcries from pretty much everybody when they announced they would, the Westboro Baptist Church has now announced they won't protest the funeral of Christina Taylor Green, a little girl who was also killed in the shooting.  In all the Bibles I've read, you're either a prophet or you're not.  I've never heard of God's word being conditional, something to set aside if the heat goes up.  And you have to wonder, why pick on this child's family in the first place?

Now this is just me talking and I don't know much about the kid, but I don't think God had it in for Christina.  Nine years old, adorable in pictures, full life ahead of her.  And then boom, it's over.  I don't call that the work of God.  God may have to have words with me when my life is over, but this is where I stand right now: Christina stood blameless and was murdered in cold blood by a madman.  Not God.

But Westboro Baptist Church was going to picket her funeral and shout to everyone listening that God wanted her gone.  WBC doesn't have a history of softpedaling its message.  They're bold, bright, and ugly.  Splashy rainbow signs declaring who God hates (everybody), why (you name it), and what you can do about it (not clear on that) are a hallmark of their presence.  Also a hallmark is a large group of motorcyclists who interpose themselves between the WBC and whatever funeral procession they've got a mad on for this week.  Love those guys. But back to the point! Now WBC says they won't protest Christina's funeral.  Why not?

Because a couple of radio stations in the area offered them airtime in exchange for not protesting the funeral.

Hmm.  That doesn't sound like a protest, nor does it sound like evangelizing.  It sounds a lot like a hostage situation, a hijacking.  And somebody paid up.

Mexican drug gangs.  Middle Eastern warlords.  And now if you can believe it, a group proclaiming itself to be a Baptist church.  They take hold of our peace, our security and maybe our loved ones, take hold of them and don't let go until we give them something they want more.   If Westboro Baptist Church was actually capturing people and holding them hostage, they'd get sniped down by the FBI.  But no, what they're doing is worse.  What they're doing to us isn't something that comes to an abrupt end, blam and it's over.  Their declarations become intertwined with our grief.  They rape our memories.  They claim it's in the name of God, at God's command, all they're doing is evangelizing, warning us that we're going wrong and we got what we deserve, et cetera.

Christina's family has had a bad week.  For their sake, I hope that nothing else is ever this bad.  For all those families, let this be as bad as it ever gets.

Now is not the time to tell anyone that God hates them.  If you ever wanted to harden a heart, if you ever wanted to turn someone away from God, just get that person on his worst day ever, and tell him that God hates him.  Tell him that he got what God sent him, and rightly so.

That's what Westboro Baptist Church is doing.  They're turning people away from God.

How is that a church?

Thursday, January 6, 2011


My house is cold.

Let me back that up.  My house isn't cold: my house is insufficiently warm by modern standards.

"Modern standards" would recommend I keep my house at heating cycle temperatures as high as 70 degrees.  Looking at my thermostat, I see the house is sitting at 65 degrees.  Since I've got a few layers on, it's plenty warm enough to suit me.  Same thing for cooling in the summer - recommended settings are ridiculously cool; keep your house at those levels and when you step outside, it's like you've been flung into a huge, moist oven.  72 degrees for cooling is crazy.  80 on the other hand, when it's 90 outside, isn't such a shock to the system.

I augment my ancient and noisy heat pump - one of these days, that thing is gonna go - with a wood stove.  Usually I spend a lot of time and effort cutting up blowdowns and scrap trees for firewood; I didn't do that this year.  Big mistake.  But last year I didn't do it either, and relied on the heat pump, and God help me, the heat pump's emergency heat.

Emergency heat is very expensive.  Use it only in emergencies.

So this year I'm using the wood stove more, but without firewood.  You could ask, "what are you burning?"  You've heard of pellet stoves, those highly engineered machines that run on pelletized fuel, uniformly sized little nuggets of densely compressed sawdust.  And they work pretty well.  At maximum output, a typical 40,000btu stove will go through about 40lbs of pellets in a day.  There are bigger ones to be had, all the way up to pellet furnaces intended to be hooked up to your central HVAC system.  Some stoves will burn corn, too.  You might think that's wasteful, but if you're a farmer and already generating many tons of corn or living in an agricultural region where some kinds of corn are cheap, then the economies work out and you get more heat per dollar that way.  You have to do a little math on this stuff to figure which way to go.

But what if you don't have a pellet stove?  I don't.  I've thought about getting one but the darned things are $1,000 and up.  That's a big chunk of change.  I wandered all over the Internet looking at prices, that $One Grand is the low end of the range.

But in my wanderings I did find a basket for burning pellets in a regular wood stove.  Just a simple wire affair, pour 'em in, light 'em up and you're off to the races.  Well, that can't be too difficult.

The one I read about is no longer available, but it's not a problem - this is easy!  Two pieces of expanded metal lath - some folks might call it diamond lath - one of them cut in half, form the long one into a U and the two half-pieces become ends.  Leave a little extra poking down below the U to hold the bottom up, get air all around it, and that's it.  I used copper wire to hold mine together.  You could use steel.  Whatever's lying around, but no lighter than 16ga wire - a full basket like mine is heavy, and when the fire gets going, it can soften the metals some.

So how well does mine work?  Well, my worst month last year I sent $350 to the utility for electricity.  December 2010 was one of the coldest I've ever lived through, and my bill was only $90.  Yes, the pellets cost money, but I only spent about $120 on pellets in December, so no matter how you math it up, I'm ahead.  But there's an even better bit in this whole bootstrap pellet stove conversion:

My wood stove will still burn wood.  Yank out the basket, throw some wood in, and you're off to the races.  Can't do that with a dedicated pellet stove.  I was looking at pellet stoves and looking for my credit card when Sweetie tugged on my arm and said, "What happens when the power goes out?"

The power doesn't go out very often, but when it does, well, it can be out for a while.  You can get mighty cold.  The pellet stove has to have a forced draft - a fan - to work, no power means no pellet stove.

It's not as efficient as it could be.  It demands I put in some effort, but the wood stove is staying.  I'm keeping the basket, having expanded the wood stove's capabilities is a good thing.

And it still goes through only 40 lbs of pellets per day.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Snow days

I'm sitting here, trying to wrestle a useful message out of cable TV, how you'd all be better off turning it off, read a book for gosh sakes.  But it's just not coming, it's not working.  I'll get a better head of steam on that someday, not right now.

The fact is I'm a little stiff, it was a biggish day with a bit of a letdown at the tail end.  But I clambered away from my littered and disorganized desk, picked up my coat and headed out the door...

...into snow.  A lot of it.  Son #2 had called earlier to say that there were huge flakes coming down and it was sticking everywhere, but that hadn't really registered.  I commute 20+ miles each way so I don't really think of weather at home as being the same as weather at work.  It often isn't.

So there's snow, and it's beautiful.  Not so beautiful I forgot to find a snow shovel and bag of salt and make those available to the people running the front desk, but still - it was quite the kick.  Blink, blink.

I'd add a picture here but by the time I got to a camera, it was full night.  Without significantly more flash horsepower than my ancient Polaroid digital camera offers, the pictures are mostly excellent shots of darkness.  But let's skip past that a moment.

Remember being a kid, and waking up on a morning when the light wasn't quite right, the house felt just a teensy bit too quiet.  That's the odd muffling effect of all that snow.  Sound goes in, but it doesn't come back out.

A few mornings ago I woke and had that same feeling, hearing water running in the gutters (gotta rip those off one of these years, I hate 'em) but no rain hitting the roof.  Everything felt just a bit stiller than a typical December morning.

Lo and behold, east Tennessee's first white Christmas since about 1991.  And it was beautiful.  To wander through the house and find the view through each window so different from what it usually is, knowing it's going to be different but you have to go look at it anyway, is to go in search of that wonder you had in your childhood room, waking and wondering why the world has gone so quiet.  And even now, so many years since I've had a day off from school for snow, still that thrill of sudden liberty is there - no school!  Snowball fights, sledding, building a snow fort - which for me always involved a piece of paper, a couple of sharp pencils and many cups of hot cocoa.  My snow forts were 99% planning, and 1% "Holy smokes it's cold out here."  The thrill of playing in it could wear off pretty fast if the latest growth spurt had some ankle poking out past the cuffs of my jeans.  Get those gloves soaked, and the snow stops looking like so much fun.

I've gotten a lot bigger, gained a great many pounds of weight, some of it muscle, some of it not but generally my thermal flywheel coasts down slower than it used to.  I can take the cold better now than I did then.  But I haven't become jaded to snow.  It's still a delight, a magical transformation of the entire world.  What was green and brown and gray and textured is now all in shades of white, slightly pebbled, silent.

Have a beautiful evening.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cars and the Man Who Loves Them

That would be me.

I love cars.  I don't love Ferraris because I'm a contrarian investor.  I do love Lamborghinis because Ferrucio Lamborghini, himself a contrarian of the first order, was dissatisfied with the transmission in his Ferrari, took his complaint to Old Man Ferrari and was told to go back to building tractors.  That didn't sit well with Ferrucio, who got a little mad, broke out the wrenches and built the Miura.  The rest, as they say, is history.

No, not Ferraris.  And I like Lamborghinis for the same reason I like cats - they have their own attitude.  If it meshes with yours, good for you.  If not, that's too bad.  But as sports cars go, that's about as exotic as I like it.  To find what I like motoring-wise, we'll have to turn back the clock.

I especially like cars from my birth year: 1967.  That opens up a huge field of excellent European runabouts, Triumphs, MGs, almost the end of the excellent Volvo Amazon or the beginning of the run of the sturdy, staid Volvo 140.  On the American side, there's any number of fascinating cars to dig into.  Ford's Mustang was only three years old, the Falcon was about seven years old and on its third generation.  Crazy stuff, planned obsolescence.  By 1967, the Falcon wasn't interesting anymore.  Too bad, in its first generation the Falcon could do 30mpg.  Fifty years later and we're fighting to get back to that level.  If that's progress, is it any surprise I like the older cars?

But I love trucks even more than cars.  Sports cars are nice, but I love trucks.  I'm not a fast driving kind of guy, 45mph is a very pleasant pace, perfect for cruising with the windows down and the radio on, the engine still quiet enough you can talk over it comfortably, no white knuckles or vibrating drivelines.

Trucks are tools.  Cars are tools too but too often they become a tool like a ballpoint pen - almost a throwaway item, contemptible in its familiarity.  The Corolla, Toyota's bread-and-butter model, exemplifies this condition.  They have their fans, but Corollas don't generate the kind of polarizing attention that, for instance, the Camry does.  For some reason, the Camry attracts attention as being the physical embodiment of the color beige.  The Corolla?  It's so unremarkable, nobody even bothers to hate it.  It's like sand on the beach, everywhere but beneath notice - you just walk on it and go on.

But a truck might be a very real part of your livelihood.  If you're a handyman, it's nothing short of a giant toolbox.  You keep your home warm by hauling firewood in it.  It's a campsite, pitch a tent over the bed and there you are.  Guys don't lose any Man Points driving a truck, even if it's a compact pickup.  And women win Country Girl points driving one.  You won't see anybody picking up any points of any kind behind the wheel of, for instance, a PT Cruiser.  How that thing got classified a Light Truck is beyond me.

Not an SUV, that awful substitute for the minivan.  At least the minivan is completely up-front about its mission: moving people or cargo on a budget.  There's nothing wrong with that and to be completely honest, I actually liked my minivan right up to the point it puked up its own brains during a road trip.  Being stranded 200 miles from home really stinks.  But that's a story for a different time.

No, what really grabs me is a truck.  A truck.  Again, not a sport ute, so many SUVs are nothing more than tall wagons, marketed as such, used as such, and not much more capable, especially the crossovers.  I don't hate them, but I don't like them either.  When I see a vehicle stranded in the snow, it's almost invariably an SUV, driven by somebody who didn't know what they had, and didn't know what they were doing.

Don't get me wrong - there's good ones out there to be had.  I drive a Subaru Forester and it's pretty good.  But I'm not fooled for a moment.  If I needed to go way far afield, I'd take something else.  In snow it's good, if I had to go off-road, I'd park it and lace up my boots.  There's better tools than a Forester for getting far afield.

Like an International Scout.  A Jeep CJ or YJ.  A Ford Bronco from 1974 or earlier.  These are trucks I can love.  They're not fast, not sporty, but they speak to the part of me that likes having the ability to do things and go places lesser vehicles just don't go.  A Scout is what you fire up to go and tow your Forester out of a ditch; the Bronco is what you drive to go fetch the Scout - if it really, really needs it.  If you're going where the roads don't, these things are like tractors: slow, grippy, sturdy.  And speaking of tractors, the old Jeep could even be fitted with a three-point hitch and a power takeoff.  That's right, you can farm with your Jeep.  Seriously, really farm - drop that rascal into 4LO, and off you go.  None of these are really comfortable rides in-town on smooth roads.  They're noisy, thirsty, crude.  That's why I like slowing down.  The noise is less and a lower frequency.  Slower speeds almost invariably yield better fuel mileage.  Crude...well, crude doesn't know a speed.  But it's okay, you get a thumbs-up driving one of these old dinosaurs.  And why not?  Old cars, old trucks are cool.

At the end of it all, that's why I love old trucks.  They're cool.  Hopefully, someday, I'll be old enough to be cool, too.

When I get there, I'll be driving a truck.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Not Quite a Book Review: One Second After by William Forstchen

William R. Forstchen is a sometime pilot of an antique plane, a college professor, and a dad.  Like so many writers, what he lives comes out in what he writes.

Think on that while you ponder where the hell S.M. Stirling is coming from.

But in his apocalyptic One Second After, Forstchen's lead character is plunged into the new Dark Ages of a United States that has been attacked and rendered almost entirely powerless by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP hereafter).  And you can hear in so many of the lines of what he writes, the back-of-the-mind dread of a dad worried about his kids, knowing the scenario he paints is entirely too plausible.  There is no suspension of disbelief required for this plot.  I could build an EMP bomb with off-the-shelf components and an old Popular Mechanics (no joke, they wrote up a functional design.  The sticky math and wiring is left to you, but hey - send in a picture of your completed project and they'll publish it in the magazine).  No nukes are required if all you want to do is shut down a city.  If you want to put the brakes on a larger area, well, you need a little more horsepower.

That's pretty much the end of the review.  Let's spend a few minutes in the sometimes unpleasant world of What If.

What If everything stops working?  Anything as sophisticated as a transistor radio is toast.  An EMP overloads those delicate little integrated chips and solid state devices with a huge induced current.  Zap, and that's it.  If it's completely surrounded by metal with no gaps, a continuous Faraday cage - you'd be smart to insulate whatever you're keeping inside the cage from the cage itself, too - you should be okay.  Unfortunately, testing isn't easy without an EMP generator, or a convenient nuke detonation so you can see if your equipment is up to the challenge.

So Target, Wal-Mart, and maybe even 7-Eleven sells those blister packs of walkie-talkies that supposedly reach as far as 20+ miles on the GMRS frequencies.  Not the el cheapo Buck Rogers Jr. Ranger ones, good equipment from Motorola and Cobra, for example.  Put a couple of those babies in a continuous steel containment - a plain ol' popcorn tin might be all you need - and when the lights go out, open 'em up and you've got communications.  Now that we've all had immediate communication for so long, it's hard to imagine getting by without it.  Now imagine getting by without it, and the infrastructure that makes modern life possible has all stopped.  Scary.

Getting around.  Does your car have electronic fuel injection?  Yeah, forget that.  It's dead, a 3500lb paperweight.  Unless you've got a spare engine control computer and ignition control module stashed in an EMP-hardened container, it's only good as raw materials for other things.  So: maybe hit the junkyards.  Those engine control computers aren't free, but if you're concerned by the state of global unrest as I am, it looks more and more appealing.

Bicycles always work.  Your fancy bike computer will be deader than Latin, but that's all.  Got a battered old aircooled VW you putter around in?  If it's got breaker points and a carburetor, good news - that old-school technology might have a high frustration factor with the need for adjusting points and tuning the carb, but it shrugs off everything but a direct nuclear blast.  Tractors, cars, airplanes that use magnetos for ignition will all survive an EMP okay.  Other bits inside might quit - radios, for instance - but the essentials will be fine.  My crusty old tractor, for example, starts with a crank.  A crank.  There are some tractors out there that are started with a shotgun shell.  Older diesels that don't have sophisticated electronic engine management, they'll be okay too, most likely.  An early 80s VW Rabbit with the diesel engine only had seven wires running from under the dash to the engine.  SEVEN.  New ones have more like 127.  The old ones will keep running.

Keep a new headgasket and new head bolts handy.  I understand that's an issue with those.

I'm not trying to scare you, but I am trying, too.  Do I fear imminent attack, no.  Do I fear attack, eventually, yes.  There are steps to take that can help minimize your exposure not to the attack - can't guess where that might happen - but to the resultant loss of capacity.  Mobility, communications, food, medicine.  These are all things that we use all the time but don't think about until we need them.  When we do need them, our modern infrastructure supports that immediate need with an immediate supply.

Now would be a good time to think about having some kind of supply set aside, whatever it may be, to relieve some of the stress when the infrastructure might not be able to provide for our needs.  We are as weak as we are unprepared.

Sorry about the grim tone.

But hey, if you've ever wanted to buy and refurb an old air-cooled Beetle, this might be a winning card to play to support your argument.