Monday, February 28, 2011

The Hate Church: Update

The good news goes on.

Westboro Baptist Church's internet sites are still offline at 7:01p, 02/28/2011.

This is my first attempt at including any kind of image; it may go toes-up.  But in any case you can Google the WBC and come up with nothing.  And believe me, it's way better than actually getting through.

...and I'm not a Mormon

Well, it's happened again.  There's that "...and I'm a Mormon" ad showing up on my pages.  Can't have that.

I don't hold anything against Mormons personally.  Mormons, Jews, Muslims, atheists (sorry atheists, you don't get a capital letter) are just like everybody else: some are jerks, and some are not.  Some are serious, and some are not.

Some are misled.

I read up on the history of Mormonism and as nearly as I can tell, there's an awful lot of hogwash there.  The Book of Mormon itself is rife with flat-out lies, declaring that when Lehi and his tribe landed in the Americas they found, among other things, horses and honeybees.

It ain't so.  Those things were brought over by European settlers.  There are varieties of native bee - bumble and carpenter, for instance - but honeybees as we know them are relatively recent to this land.  Horses came over with very early European explorers, died out, and came over again.

We had this very discussion with some nice ladies who came to our door to witness to us for the nth time.  Finally we asked them to leave their holy book and come back in a couple of weeks after we'd had a chance to read up on it.  The two of them, an older and a younger, brightened right up, left their book and said they looked forward to seeing us again.  We read some of their text, found a bunch of holes, and decided that was enough.

According to the Bible, if a prophet is wrong even once, he's no prophet.  We weren't even twenty pages into the BOM and it was already at odds with established natural history, even written history.  Ask modern native Americans and they can probably relate stories of the dreaded "English flies," their phrase for honeybees, a vanguard harbinger of the steady progress of white men into their homeland.  Which is to say, the bees weren't already there when Lehi and his group supposedly landed.

Mention Mormonism to a native American, however, and you might get a punch in the face.  According to Mormons, native Americans are a group on the outs, a tribe that split off from Lehi's faithful and were thus declared unwelcome.  Native Americans don't appreciate that and will tell you that they "were always here."  Maybe, maybe not - but archeological research finds the oldest native American settlement in Florida is over 20,000 years old - far in advance of Lehi's supposed migration.  20,000 years may not be always, but it beat Lehi's bus by many thousands.  That's another hole.

So the missionaries returned, and we shared what we'd found.  The older one's face closed up, but the younger one started to look kind of doubtful.  Sweetie talked to her some more, at a bit of length, and when she dropped the "if it's wrong even once, it's no prophecy and can never be trusted" bomb, the older one suddenly got up and said thank you, it's been fun, have a nice day.  And they were gone.

We've never gotten a Mormon missionary knocking on our door again.  I wonder how much damage control was done with the younger one, whether she left that church.  I hope so.

This is why, at least part of the reason why, I am so incensed to see these "...and I'm a Mormon" ads popping up on my screen.  Don't click them.  Don't give them any time whatsoever.  Whatever they are, they aren't Christian (hold their feet to the fire and they'll eventually admit that).  Their history is dodgy.  Their values change in the face of public dissent - what kind of religion is that?  Either it's a belief you adhere to, or it isn't.  If it becomes something you'll set aside because the heat turned up, you're faithless and you know it.  You just don't like to admit it.

For added insight and an unblinking view of Mormonism - including the juicy darker side they'd rather nobody knew about - check out Jon Krakauer's excellent book, Under the Banner of Heaven.

Piracy vs. Society: what is justice?

Pirates of old have become nearly romantic figures in modern times.  The colorful legends, the ambience of purloined wealth, and the distinct attraction of Johnny Depp's spacey Capt. Jack Sparrow all lend the historical pirate an air of the swashbuckling antihero.  It's what you might get if you combined Walter J. Mitty and Robin Hood, maybe with a dash of James T. Kirk.

But that's not how piracy was then.  They were a cutthroat bunch, fully aware their lives were forfeit if captured and therefore highly motivated to not be captured.  Their faster ships and heavy armament made them a dangerous force to encounter in one-to-one combat.  Then having made away with their prize, the pirates would put in at some safe port of call, spend up their booty, carouse and drink and listen carefully for rumors of the next richly-laden merchant heading into the hunting grounds.

New pirates aren't like that.  Their methods are cruder - if I can use that word in the context of criminal acts - accosting larger ships full of unarmed noncombatants from small craft, as small as ten meters in length, off the coast of whatever country has poor government and little offshore policing.  Somalia's been in the news a lot lately for coming apart at the seams, with its waters lousy with pirates taking everything from tankers to luxury yachts.  Once the armed pirates have the vessels' crews and passengers at their command, the demands begin: ransoms for the tanker's cargo, ransoms for the crewmen, ransoms for the passengers.  All of this money becomes...what?

Cars, houses, women, drugs, and guns.  Lots of guns.

Mostly once the ransom is paid, pirates release their hostages unharmed.  There's been a lot of noise in the news over the last week though: four Americans shot when the pirates were fired upon.  One pirate killed, the rest captured, four dead hostages.

Policing the relatively lawless zone around Somalia has been inconsistent.  Several nations send surface craft into the area, interdict operations from aircraft, capture and then all too often release pirates once their weapons are confiscated.  Release?  How's that going to do any good?  They'll get more guns and try again.

I hate the death penalty.  Hate it forever and that's not apt to change.  But when I hear about attacks like this and all the others, I wonder if a death penalty is exactly the right punishment for the pirates.

This is a war.  Assaulting a ship without provocation cannot ever be mistaken for a peaceful act.  Some pirates try to excuse their actions by calling themselves the National Volunteer Coast Guard, and while that may have ever been true, commit the first act of piracy and all your good intentions and history are out the window.

So: the next crew of pirates caught in the act needs to be tossed over the side.  Blow their boats up and throw them over the side.  Go find more of them and do it again.  Keep doing it until no one dares whisper the word "pirate" except as an epithet, the hiss of hatred that it ought to be.  Better still, toss the pirates over the side, and use their boats to equip an actual Coast Guard for Somalia.

Why so harsh?  Because they disturb all our peace.  They assault Chinese ships, Myanmarese ships, American ships.  They attack innocents going about their daily lives, workers in the middle of their business days.  They steal fishermen's livelihoods from them, so the pirates themselves can go and accost more innocent sailors.  They have utterly rejected social dignity, the basic respect of one for another, in order to take from someone else so they can have more.  Whether they do it as a means of relieving their own poverty or not has no bearing, it cannot be tolerated.  The pirates attack us all, and continue to get away with it.

When in captivity, when conveyed to a court, the pirates may well cry asylum and declare they cannot be sent home because they will receive unjust treatment.  But what is just?  A hundred years ago justice would be swift indeed, a long drop at the end of a short rope, following by an ignominious burial at sea.  One pirate less was always a good thing, and no worries about keeping him alive and secured aboard ship to face trial on land, where he would be found guilty and summarily hanged.  The at-sea approach saves a lot of time and hassle.

So Leifer's solution, his very harsh, gritty solution, is the most direct: blast them out of the water.  Don't pick up the survivors.  Rescue every legitimate sailor that you can, and drown the pirates who would assault them.

Let their bodies feed the fish they claim to be protecting.  Then there will be more fish.  That's good for everybody.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Hate Church: Update

As of 9:37pm Sunday 02/27/2011, Westboro Baptist Church's website is still offline.

Finally, a Sunday with a little less hate spewing out of those people.  Hey folks, crack open a Bible once in a while!

That part where it says "love thy neighbor?"  Yeah, He was serious.  Don't you go all high and mighty, that isn't your job and you know it.

Keep it up, Anonymous!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Lowe's vs. Home Depot

I live in an old house, 60+ years of blazing hot, soggy muggy east Tennessee summers working their magic on the materials that hold some separation betwixt the roof and the foundation.  The works of man are temporary in nature.  As I've said before, this is what drives a lot of duct tape sales.

When it comes time for the duct tape and other, less inappropriate solutions, I saddle up and head for the hardware store.  There's an excellent little store not far from here and I often go there.  It's a little independent operation, couple of gas pumps out front, some new McCormick tractors next to the door.  Step inside and the front row is in general disarray.  Grandkids of the owner wander in and out, playing games on the floor, chatting with friends, watching TV, sometimes doing homework.  Make your way farther back and there's a little booth in the corner that sells barbecue pork, chicken and rabbit.

Yeah, rabbit.  It smells a little funky but it tastes pretty good.  Not the rabbit - that smells and tastes fine.  The smell in general is a little funky.  But hey, it's a hardware store.

But when I need lumber, Sharp Hardware can't help much.  That's when I head the other way, toward Oak Ridge or Knoxville.  If I need something a little less mainstream, Sharp might have the edge and certainly nobody else will sell me an individual ratchet socket.  But what about when I need, say, 10 pounds of bolts?

Home Depot has the volume.  They've got the exposure.  And usually they've got a serious price advantage on Sharp but HD has me driving twenty minutes, Sharp is just down the road.  But even HD won't sell me some things.

Can't get new window glass from HD.  They stopped carrying it, too much liability.  Customer breaks a pane before even getting it to the register, no charge.  People get cut.  People don't know how to trim a piece to fit.  Sales volume is miniscule.  So they only carry Lexan or Lucite, polycarbonate or plexiglass.  That's okay; new windows for my frames, trimmed to fit by my radial saw!  Try that with glass, no thanks.

HD carries paint, lumber, roofing, all manner of plumbing supplies and parts (though on one memorable occasion Sharp got me going in a plumbing emergency), all manner of electrical.  HD can sell you everything you need to build a house, from the foundation to the ridge vent.

So does Lowe's.  In my experience, Lowe's prices seem to be a few cents higher than HD's, but not enough to make me change where I'm going.  For work, I go to the Depot because we have an account with HD.  When shopping for myself, I go to Lowe's.

Why is that?  Well: looking for electrical bits one fine day, I was talking to the fellow in the electrical aisle at Home Depot and casually remarked, "...and I have three-phase electrical in my house, so..."

"No, you don't."  The guy hardly blinked.  A flat denial.  No questions, no further exploration.

"...sorry to have interrupted you."  I walked out, fired up the truck, drove across the highway to Lowe's.  I've commented that the peculiar penchant for building the two right next to each other may someday instigate a war of trebuchets, built from landscaping timbers, flinging bags of mulch across the highways at the two big box giants.  If that ever happens, I'm backing Lowe's to win.  They won't hit as hard, but they'll hit more precisely.

I told the guy in Lowe's electrical aisle that I had three-phase electrical supplies.  "You live in Norris?"

I blinked.  Norris ain't big, there aren't that many people that live there and frankly it was a 20-mile ride from the house to this store.  For the guy to jump to that conclusion had rattled me just a bit.  "Uh, yeah?"

He nodded.  "Figures.  Three-phase residential's 'bout as common as hen teeth, and whenever I hear about it they're usually from Norris.  What can I do for you?"  Well, they had what I wanted and good advice besides.  The guy in the aisle knew exactly what I was looking for.

When I go to the hardware aisle at Home Depot, the special items drawers are usually in some degree of disarray.  Slots are empty, items mis-stocked, the special items drawer section woefully small, ten feet long and bearing such items as press-on axle nuts (like for a Radio Flyer wagon) and mirror rosettes.

At Lowe's the special items drawers are the entire length of an aisle, and part of the next.  They're neatly ordered, still the occasional mis-stock but infrequent enough that I attribute that to careless shoppers.  They're full.  Mirror rosettes are where the mirrors are sold.  Stainless, brass, chromium-plated steel bolts, screws, clevis pins, cotter pins, washers - I could go on.  Odd sizes, odd threadings.  Left-hand threads sometimes.

Lowe's lumber is...well, it's lumber.  The price is comparable.  Same with everything else, the concrete blocks to the paint department to roofing shingles.  But the excellent service I received that one time and the similarly excellent condition of the special hardware section have won my allegiance.  I prefer Lowe's Hardware first and foremost.

Unless I'm buying bits for the tractor.  Then I go to Tractor Supply, and that's a whole 'nother love affair.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Breaking News: Anonymous vs. Westboro Baptist Church

Widely reviled Christian-themed hate group Westboro Baptist Church has inspired the ire of the online hacktivist group Anonymous.  Defining exactly who Anonymous is, or even where they are, is beyond my ken and pretty much everybody else's.  They take their name seriously, their data-management kung fu far exceeds anything I might ever bring to the party.

What has happened?  Well.  It appears the WBC tried to start a fight to raise a little attention for themselves.  Oops.  In the course of a live interview, Anonymous downloaded the WBC's network and made it available for public viewing.   If you ever wanted to see the electronic spleen the WBC keeps venting, now's your chance.  At this writing, the WBC is offline.  Yay!

Hey, Anonymous - I can't officially say I like your style because I think what you're doing might be illegal, but still - I like your style.

In other good news, Charlie Sheen's show "Two and a Half Men" is off the air for the rest of the season, hopefully forever.  The only thing in that show's favor is that it's only a half-hour long.

I do hope Jon Cryer finds another gig quickly.  I like him.  And here's hoping Charlie finds rehab and lots of it, really soon.

Not Quite a Book Review: The Brendan Voyage

 - for Chuck and Susan, who recommended the book, and who were and are good friends -

Back in the 70s, everybody seemed to be on a kick to explore the high seas.  Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic had captured the imagination of thousands as his first genuine bestseller.  ABC's Love Boat set sail for the first time in 1978.  And in 1976 a British writer named Tim Severin set out to explore whether the legend of the Irish monk Brendan's journey across the Atlantic in a leather boat could indeed be true.

I was first turned on to this story by an old friend who insisted I would probably get a big kick out of it.  He was right.  And lo and behold, I discovered that I had heard of the story before.

Severin's experiment had been relayed to me already, in the pages of National Geographic.  I hadn't realized what it was at the time.  All I knew was there were huge glossy photos of several bearded men crossing a tossing ocean in what appeared to be a giant coracle, a boat whose frame more closely resembled a basket than an actual boat.  As it turns out, that's about right.

According to legend, Brendan began his journey c.530AD, starting out from Ireland and following a stepping stone route that takes him to the Faroes, Iceland, and ultimately to the coast of North America.  As much as it pains me to say it, that would put a European explorer on North American soil a solid 400 years ahead of Leif Eriksson.

In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated that it was possible to cover tremendous distances with Bronze Age technology, sailing over 4000 miles across the Pacific in a raft made of balsa and rope, with no metal fastenings at all.  So the exploratory, experimental side of marine archeology had already had some exposure to the public imagination.  But Severin's example was a little, well, weird.  Leather boats weren't unheard of, coracles weren't unheard of.  But to try to cross the Atlantic with one?  Well...

As it turns out, you'd have to call Brendan's vessel a currach.  Its history goes way, way back.  And the practice of sewing skins onto a basket-like frame is just as long.  If the skins do such a great job of keeping all the wet gooey parts of animals in, they should do a fine job of keeping the sea out.  That's what you'd think.  But in testing all the modern tanning methods left leather badly vulnerable to sea water, and the leather rotted away quite quickly, a matter of weeks.  The only one that worked: exactly as the legend tells, leather tanned in oak leaves.  And in full immersion or just frequent damping, the leather lasts for months.  Severin's hides were tanned in a part of Ireland that has had an oak tanning industry for hundreds - you read that right, hundreds - of years.  I guess when you find a method that works, you stick with it.

It's been a few years since I read The Brendan Voyage but that's okay, it's a story that sticks with you.  Severin's description of life aboard the Brendan is harrowing, uplifting, intriguing.  Discovering a small bird aboard ship one morning is like having a snowflake land in your eyelashes.  You can't help but pause to look at it with some wonder.  And like the snowflake's melting, the bird's absence the next day leaves you a little disheartened.

What had been merely touched on in National Geographic was really opened up in the pages of a book that had room to spread out, the entire North Atlantic to stretch out on.  Severin's journey is both a demonstration of plausibility, that the details of the legend of St. Brendan are within the bounds of what was possible, and a plumbing of his own depths, too.  He was pushed and tested, not just in his ability to research an ancient story of dubious veracity but in his own resolve.  It's a fine thing to test the materials and build the boat, to prove that the thing could have been done and might have worked.  You know you're committed when you're making hull repairs - with a sewing awl - upside down with your head underwater, hundreds of miles from land in that very same boat.

The commitment was great, and the legend has a sound basis at least as far as marine architecture goes.  Severin and his crew set foot on Newfoundland after over five months (plus a winter's break in Iceland) at sea.  St. Brendan the Navigator may have done as much.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Book of Leifiticus

1) Honor thy handyman and his assistant, for their fingernails are worn down for thy sake.  Waste not his time nor his effort, he has no more hours in the day than thou.

2) If thee should find thy handyman with his head and shoulders within the devices of thy dwelling, disturb him not.  His ears cannot hear thee, and his kiester attendeth not.

3) Change thy own air filter, for thou art not a fool, and a lame monkey could do it blindfolded.  Waste not thy handyman's time and effort.

4) Attendeth thou at the meeting wherein the helpdesk tickets are described in their nature and their use.  If thou hast a problem at thy workstation and thou file not a helpdesk ticket, be not aggrieved.  Thy handyman knoweth not that thy desk be on fire until thou tell him so.

5) Strive mightily to feed nought but bean-sized debris and smaller into thy industrial food disposal.  For though thy handyman hath described yon device as a caged demon lurking 'neath the spray sink and it can eat thy arm, it will surely jam upon thy arm as it has jammed upon thy pork chop bone.

6) Strive mightily too to feed but little into the disposal.  Scrape debris(1) into yonder garbage can whose capacity is an ephah or more, for that is its purpose.

7) When thy workers have jammed the disposal demon with pork chop bones and an ephah of beans, be glad thy handyman is dealing with it.  The hour is late and his sleep disturbed so he can reach shoulder-deep into the demon's gullet and set it to rights.

8) If thy handyman be on fire, put him out, for he is not an offering and the odour is not pleasing to me.

9) Chew well thy food and eat thou plenty of fiber, that thou cloggeth not thy porcelain Honda and require thy handyman's time and effort.

10) Monitor thy children that they shall not defile the porcelain Honda and clog it with things never chewed, nay even Spongebob and Bullwinkle though they be but small, shall never pass through the Honda's nether workings.

11) Turn thou off lights upon leaving a room, for darkness costeth not a shekel nor even a dinar.

1 Some translations have offal

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Eat the Beans

Imagine opening a steel can of beans.  You find the can you want in the pantry, set it on the counter, and fish around in the drawer until you come up with the can opener.  Set the opener on it, twist the crank and the can turns in steps under the cutter until the top is completely severed, and there you are with an opened can of beans.  Dump the beans into a pot, ready for heating and eating.

Now eat the can.

What was the point of all of that effort?  The can was made specifically for the purpose of conveying the beans from whatever canning factory to you with the beans intact, in good condition, so you could eat the beans.  But now you're eating the can.  That's dumb.  Really dumb.  Fo' real.

In a previous post I mentioned the "If It Ain't King James, It Ain't Bible" bumper sticker.  I love that sticker, I love those people.  For one thing, the people are passionate about their faith and that's great.  Everybody needs something to believe in, including atheists (atheists have placed their faith in the absence of a god, so they are in effect believing in something which would have to be the absence of something else.  Hilarious good fun).  I like the sticker because it means that person is serious.  But the sticker's message is bad.  Bad bad bad.

If it ain't King James, it must be something else.  New International, Good News, the Torah.  Whoops, my bad - that last one's only the first one-fifth of the Bible.  What the heck, roll with it.  But to imagine that the King James version is the be-all end-all of Christian authority is laughable.

First of all, the King James version is a Johnny-come-lately Bible.  It only goes as far back as the 1600s, so it's preceded by such translations as the "Great Bible" and the Tyndale Bible.  The "Great Bible" came about so some bits the Church of England didn't like about the Tyndale could be changed.

What's that, you say?  Someone would tinker with Scripture?  Oh, yes.  In fact we can find different versions of events within the Bible itself.  Read about Jesus' interaction with the hemorrhaging woman (Mat. 9:20 and elsewhere) and there are subtle differences between Matthew's description of the encounter, Mark's and Luke's.  Not enough that the message is lost, but differences.  And that's just differences between descriptions of an encounter those three apostles were supposed to have also witnessed; various translations have other differences added, removed, changed or mistranslated for assorted reasons, including political ones.  People take their Bibles seriously, adding stuff to it for any reason isn't something to be taken lightly.  Churches have split over single lines in the Bible, this kind of thing can create a whole new sect.

Why would it create a whole new sect?  Because they're eating that can.  The point of the message is that Jesus healed somebody, not because he intended for it to happen but because her faith was so strong that she couldn't help but be healed.  It was and is Jesus' entire point of existing, to heal people of the wounds upon their bodies and spirits, and the mechanism by which that happens is faith.  The lady approached him with only one thought on her mind: "I don't even have to touch him (which would have been illegal under the law as she was "unclean"), just his cloak would do."  And lo it came to pass, and Jesus noticed, et cetera.  That's the beans, her faith in the savior healed her.  Boom, done, who's next.  Whether the beans are Italian or frenched, lima or pinto, eat the beans!  The can just gets them to you.

Then there's the whole "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" passage.  That's in Exodus 22:18.  It lands in a list of other things thou shalt not suffer, but oddly is separated from the list of religious transgressions that thou shouldn't suffer either.  It's between a ruling on dowries for daughters and no nooky with animals.

Well, that last one's just gross.  I guess when you don't have cable TV people get bored, but man...

But if you start reading up on Ex 22:18 you find its history is a little convoluted.  It goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, when they were saying thou shouldn't suffer a poisoner - maybe.  It could have been they were saying not to suffer a druggist.  By the time you get up to King James' translators, they were probably just as confused as I am, decided the word meant "witch" and went with that.  The popular story is that King Henry wanted shut of Anne Boleyn and had the passage interpreted in such a way that he could point to her extra breast and extra finger, declare her a witch and that was the end of her.

Interestingly, there appears to be no maxim stating that wizards had to be put to death.  It's only the female magicians that get singled out, Harry Potter need never fear.  There's a lot of fear and loathing of the distaff sex throughout history, but that's not today's topic.  Whether Anne had an extra breast or finger isn't the topic, either.

So which is it?  Witches, poisoners, pharmacists?  Tough call.  It's been a long time since the Bible first got written down, even some of the original apostles sat on their memories and let them stew a few years before they got around to writing about their experiences at Jesus' side.  Is it divine, the True Word of God, or is it history - written by the winners?

I don't think it matters.  What do you care, if the can is aluminum or steel?  What difference does it make whether the label is in King James English or New International?  The point is that the beans inside are good for you, and they're what you opened the can for in the first place.

Eat the beans.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: Appliances

What would modern life be without appliances?

Answer: it would be turn-of-the-century life.  The raft of modern appliances we don't even think about anymore, the refrigerators, the freezers, the washing machines - these have taken on a lot of the work that used to fill our days.  I look back on a lifestyle where Dad worked and Mom stayed at home to raise kids and wax rhapsodic about it, but don't be fooled: Mom was busy.  When there's no refrigerator there's got to be some way to save food for when the garden isn't producing.  Canning is one way, and it's days and days of hot, heavy work.  Sunup to sundown, in the kitchen or on the back step, prepping, cutting, cleaning, cooking, lather rinse repeat.  And that's just one small aspect of life that appliances were invented to alleviate; there's lots of others.

So what about them?  The appliances work so I don't have to, it's what they're there for.

Yes, and they'll never work as well as they did on their very first day.  But consider for a moment your refrigerator.  Do you know how it works?

No.  And I don't care to, either.

Fine.  Paring the story to its bones, the refrigerator works by taking heat out of the refrigerator and putting it in your kitchen.  Just like an air conditioner takes heat out of your house and puts it outside, but smaller and it goes to a lower temperature.  And your air conditioner has something that your fridge might not, and you should check it out.

What's that?

An air filter.  Find the owner's manual for your fridge and read up on it.  If it has a filter, it'll probably be near the bottom.  If not, it may not have one at all.  And if you had to read the owner's manual to figure it out, chances are good you've not thought about the air filter or anything else going on under there, so it's long overdue.  So get ready to snuggle up with the machine.

Remove the grille at the bottom if it has one.  Peer under there with a flashlight and if you've never done this before, the view is probably pretty gross.  Lint, pet hair, whatever pencil the cat chased under there and couldn't retrieve - the refrigerator's fan runs to pull air across the coils, cooling them and in the process making sure all that crud just stays put.  So fire up the vacuum cleaner, attach the hose and a brush and get it all off of there.  When you think you're done, look at it again.  Keep going.

Looks pretty good, now.

Sure, from the front.  Now pull the fridge away from the wall - be careful of the water supply if you have a built-in ice maker - and see if there are any panels down low you can remove to get to more stuff.  If so, unplug the refrigerator's power cord, remove the panels and go to town.  Get it all.  The result is a fridge that runs cooler, holds temperature better, uses less electricity and lasts longer.  If you work at it for an hour, four times a year, but the fridge lasts ten years longer (that's totally reasonable), you've saved $1000 (typical purchase price on a fridge that lasts ten years) for a total outlay of 40 hours of work.  That's $25 per hour, a good payday no matter how you slice it.

There's a lot of other crud here behind the fridge, too.

Clean that up, too.  It's all about the air flow.  Anything that slows it down is The Enemy.  The fan under your fridge is no jet turbine, it needs all the help you can give it.

What about the freezer?

Same deal, just colder.  Give it the same treatment.  And when that's done, if you have a manual defrost freezer - most people don't - you may have a nice layer of ice built up on your shelves and whatnot.  That's bad.  While you're in a maintenance mode, now's a good time to fire up your laundry iron - right, the one you use on your shirts - and get that stuff off the coils.

Why?  It's ice, it's okay.

Well, it's not - it's actually insulating your refrigerant coils so they don't do such a great job of cooling the freezer.  Turn the freezer off or unplug it, and first use a car windshield scraper or a kitchen spatula to try to physically remove the worst of the ice.  Don't go crazy, just a few jabs and see if anything pops loose.  Whatever you can remove mechanically means you don't have to add heat to the freezer to melt it away.
NOTE: a lot of manual defrost freezers have the refrigerant coils built into the shelves themselves, on the underside.  So be especially careful not to damage those coils; puncture one and it's time for a new freezer.  You could probably get it fixed, but it may well be cheaper to replace so be careful with the coils.

When I do this chore, I get out a jelly roll pan to put on the next shelf down, and start scraping.  When the scraping stops helping, a few passes with the iron set on its lowest setting just goes right through the frost.  Then more scraping.  Switch back and forth, don't force anything, try not to overheat the coils.  Too much heat causes the refrigerant (what most people just call "freon") to break down, and that's bad.  Chances are you won't get there with the iron, but why go looking for trouble.

The jelly roll pan is there to catch drips and falling ice.  You'll be dumping it a lot if your freezer looks like mine.

Start at the top and work your way down.  You really want to get all the ice but some places are just hard to reach.   Don't sweat it - be thorough, but be realistic, too.

Since I'm a little concerned about efficiency, what are good settings for these things?  What's the best setting?

Well, for the best quality and best keeping without damaging food, you want to set your fridge to the coldest setting it'll maintain without freezing the food - most food scientists recommend 40 degrees or less, but not freezing - imagine fresh veggies that have been frozen.

Yech.  They get slimy.

Right.  So spend $5 and get a refrigerator thermometer, give it an hour to stabilize and see what your fridge is doing.  Move the dial in half-steps to get you to 40 or a tad less.  If you've been running colder than necessary with furry coils under the fridge, be prepared to see a slightly less weighty utility bill.

What about the freezer?

Shoot for 0 degrees.  Your freezer is designed to keep it at zero, and that's where the food keeps best.  For every five degrees above that, expect food to retain its flavor and quality only half as long.  That's right, half as long.  If you can expect a hamburger patty to be okay for three months at zero, don't be hoping to enjoy it as much after just six weeks at 5 degrees.  Or 20 days at 10 degrees.

That was just the refrigerator and freezer.  There's other stuff in that kitchen.  Look it up in the internet and see what you should be doing for it, or check back here later.  And hey - got a question?  Drop it in the comments.  If I can't give you a smart answer, I can at least be entertaining.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Following the Money Tide, the Ebb and Flow.

In a previous post, I mentioned that advertisers, by dint of their dollars, wield a lot of control over society's vectors.  They are a lot of the thrust behind the direction in which society moves.

I've had it rumbling around inside my brain for a while now - there's a lot of room up there - that the Parents Television Council was making a lot of pointless thunder - noisy but no lightning - by not taking stronger notice of the advertisers behind the shows they disapprove of.

I was mistaken in my assumptions.  I went to their site and looked again.  They have a section naming those advertisers meeting their criteria for socially responsible advertising, which I would surmise means not only ads whose content isn't over the top, but ads whose placement falls during shows whose content isn't over the top, either.

The PTC recently had a big to-do over how Taco Bell - those of the limited-beef taco - was a big advertiser during MTV's new show Skins.  I haven't seen a single episode of Skins and probably never will.  The characters portrayed sound pretty awful, the kind of kids I'd lock in a church for a few months.

Not all of them together.  They'd level the building.

First, I'm shocked that PTC would even bother to review an MTV show.  The former Music Television cable channel has become an entertainment venue whose central themes are youth, partying, music, gangsta rapper lifestyles and more partying.  This is the same channel that brought us Jersey Shore, after all.  There's a lot more to the Jersey Shore than being orange, Italian and loud, but as far as MTV goes none of that matters.

You could, for instance, be Bruce Springsteen.  If you're looking for him you may have to go over to VH1, where they do still occasionally play music videos.  Hit it, Bruce.

(We now pause for a little throaty classic rock.  Talk amongst yourselves or even better, sing along)

 I like to think the PTC would find Bruce Springsteen to be completely acceptable, and feel vaguely uneasy about that.

So the PTC has pointed up advertisers they think are not contributing to the further degradation of America's youth - good.  What about advertisers that are actively seeking to steer it?

No word on that.  I'm pretty sure that what's going on with those advertisers is, they're trying to not get splashed with the backlash against certain shows.  That would cut into their advertising dollars' impact.  But some shows, like Skins, have been pitched to advertisers looking for a specific demographic.  Advertisers were told that Skins would "deliver kids."  Advertisers looking for eyeballs from a certain age group perk right up when they hear words like that.  According to the PTC, Taco Bell perked up enough to crack its wallet open pretty far.

Then the child pornography accusations started flying, and Taco Bell's wallet closed right back again.  So did Subway, Wrigley and GM.  In fact the only advertiser I can still find associated with Skins is Clearasil.   So while all these angsty young kids are getting their mack on, their -uh- Skins will look great.

Jersey Shore suffered an exodus too.  And after forty days of wandering, the money came back to the Shore when it turned out the show was a hit.  Taco Bell and the others are gone for now, but how long before all that exposure - media, not the actors' - throws up one too many dollar signs and those conscientious objectors come back, with their wallets cracked open?  The tide will turn.  The money will come back.  The financial heads will see that there are sales to be made, that young Americans have more spending money now than at any point in history and want to spend spend spend it somewhere.  How will those kids know where to spend it if we don't put an ad out there?

When Skins was pitched it drew plenty of interested advertisers.  Those already mentioned signed up, and others.  But then the first show aired, PTC weighed in, and I bet the advertisers themselves caught an episode and recoiled in horror.  "What will our customers think of us?"  If you're lucky, they'll think you're selling sandwiches.  But that's not the way the corporate mind works, it's all about the image and guessing the attention span of the buying market.  The tide rolled out.  MTV and Skins was resting on the beach in a pool of Clearasil.

But MTV hasn't abandoned ship.  Other advertisers are out there of course, wanting that screen time, wanting those eyeballs.  MTV will drop the price if necessary to shake a few larger names of the fence.  Skins will stay on the air for at least a few more shows.  By its controversial nature it will continue to attract thousands of viewers, young and hip and with pockets full of money.  Will the tide turn back?  Can a boat made of Skins float?

Time will tell.  Somebody tell me what's up, though - I don't get cable.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bieber Haters and Other Sour Grapes

Okay, I'll admit it: I like Justin Bieber.

Man, it's like Step One: admit you've got a problem.  I've seen his smooth-cheeked face on just about every magazine imaginable, right up to and including Vanity Fair.

Young Mr. Bieber may have to get an unrestricted driver's license before we see him on the cover of GQ, but I doubt it's far off.  He's on a tear.

Up until a few minutes ago, I hadn't heard a single one of his songs.  No, not one.  And now I have and while it's a little lightweight - he's a kid, after all - it gets the toes tapping.  He's got a clear, sweet voice and his delivery is strong.  Mix in a healthy dose of production magic with some big names on the mixer board, and baby you're a star.

Bieber has been paired with some solid names in popular music.  He's gotten some major backing from Usher - who was part of the big push behind getting him recognized, signed, and packaged into the rising star that he is today - and was actually being fought over by other labels.  So, maybe singing your little heart out on YouTube isn't such a dumb idea, hey?  That's where all this starts, and with Bieber's mom posting the vids.

Accoding to Wikipedia, so you know it's totally solid facts from back to front,  Bieber is sorta athletic, typical Canadian kid, hockey nut, soccer kid, and kept his musical bent to himself.   Looks like Mom took care of that.

So Justin Bieber's got chops.  He's got real talent, and it shows.  He's got major backing, and when it comes time to put out the polished, slick music modern audiences demand, that's a necessity.

But call out the name "Bieber" in a crowded room, and while females under the age of twenty might perk right up and look around, any guy of a similar age may well start throwing stuff.  The male resentment and backlash against Bieber is strong, and I think I know where it's coming from.  Those guys are jealous.

So am I.  Well, not so much - I don't want to have to learn to shave again, and now that I've been out of high school for a couple of decades, that's one angst-ridden cesspool of adolescent drama I'm not sorry to put behind me.  But what about all those boys out there who didn't get discovered, who aren't going to suffer the endless adulation of millions - that's right, millions - of screaming pretty girls?  Well, they're a little annoyed that this little Canuck has turned their girlfriends' attention off of themselves, that's all.

So what's it gonna be, guys?  Whip out the microphones and start singing into your computers.  Take up juggling.  Write a novel - I don't have the patience for the plot development, myself, that's why I'm here - or at least a short story.  Maybe you could crank out a magazine article, explaining a guy's perspective on the whole Bieber phenomenon.  My point is, there's spitefully hating on somebody who has some honest talent and got a little lucky and is riding that wave, and there's doing something about developing your own star power.

And there are some who just can't accept that Time Marches On.  Listening to a few AC/DC tunes on YouTube, I noticed a couple of things.  Firstly, every AC/DC song featured some anti-Bieber epithets in the comments section.  That was a little weird.  Second, several of the songs' comment sections featured a lot of anti-Brian Johnson rage.

Come on, people.  Johnson's been fronting AC/DC for over THIRTY YEARS.  That's five times longer than Bon Scott was even at the mic, if Johnson keeps it up until 2014 he'll have been singing for AC/DC as long as Bon Scott was even breathing.

So if you gotta hate on Justin Bieber, if you gotta hate on Brian Johnson and a Van Zant-less Lynyrd Skynyrd, maybe you need to dust off your LPs and push back from the radio.  Nothing coming out of that thing is going to please you.  Somebody's got to make the music, and if it isn't you, don't complain.  Either listen or don't.

This Bieber kid isn't awful.  I might even buy one of his CDs.

They do still make those, right?  Man, I miss records.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Putting Voices in Your Head

How many hours do you spend on your morning commute?  Okay, maybe you get that trip done in less than an hour - but how many hours in a week?  If you're spending an hour a day, round-trip, that's about 250 hours per year, keeping it between the ditches, hanging on the straps on the subway, waiting for the world rushing past you to get where it's going, so you can get off the ride and begin the rest of your day.

Now, there's some debate as to how legal it is to drive with earphones on.  As far as I can tell after minutes of research, there aren't many laws on the books that tell you that it's absolutely disallowed.  I drive with headphones, sometimes alongside police cruisers, and garner no attention whatsoever.  Of course, my headphones are shot on one side, so really I've got one ear open anyway.  But considering all the myriad earbud headphone options, it would be next to impossible to detect headphone use from outside the car.  If it became a law, it would be nigh-on unenforceable.  But all of this isn't really to my point.

Even if you can't get behind headphone use in the car - and I'm not advocating it, so don't climb all over me on that - it's becoming more and more common to be able to play your audiobook via myriad media devices.  There are CD players in cars, new stereos are available that have auxiliary ports built in, so you'd hook up your player to the stereo as if the stereo were a pair of headphones, there are stereos with USB ports built in, and of course there are devices that will allow your MP3 player to connect wirelessly to a stereo by transmitting a weak FM signal, which the stereo then plays.

I won't advocate iPods, either.  For a company that prides itself on being the nonconformist's choice, Apple certainly does have a large contingent of fanboys that hangs on its every product.

So let's just see a quick few options for finding audiobooks.  Where do you go to find them?

McKay's Used Books here in east Tennessee has a large selection, though what's on hand is variable and by no means reflective of what's currently in production.  We got all the Harry Potter titles, but there was a lag of several months between title releases and their turning up at McKay's.  It helps to get there early in the day.

Cracker Barrel restaurants does a brisk business in audiobooks, but the selection is going to be fairly narrow and pretty tame.  They're intended for folks on long trips.  They also will refund the purchase, minus a per-week charge.

The usual suspects, the big-box book dealers Barnes and Noble and Borders have their own audiobook sections, neither of which measures up to McKay's but these tend to reflect the bigger sellers currently enjoying exposure on the shelves.  Borders' website has a large section providing immediate digital download, if you absolutely have to have your titles now now now.  If that's the case, get on the keyboard and start clattering, Borders has been showing signs of financial distress lately.

There are other outlets besides the regular players.  Just do a quick search for "audio book" and you'll find all manner of options.  One in particular I'm fond of - and Sweetie absolutely loves - and that has seen mention here before is LibriVox.  LibriVox produces only titles that are in the public domain, so you will have to wait fifty years or more for the latest Harry Turtledove alternative history thriller, but on the other hand certain works are already available for free.  That's right, free.  Nada.  Zip, gratis, complimentary.  Sweetie has downloaded the complete works of Jane Austen and enjoyed it immensely, but she concedes that the volunteer nature of the talent pool that generates the readings can leave the quality a bit dodgy at times.  You may have to choose from among several versions before finding a reader who, if not satisfies, then at least doesn't grate on your ears.

Project Gutenberg is another source providing public domain works, and uniquely also has some works that are read not by volunteers but by a computer.  I listened to one; hold out for humans.  Then again, listening to Robinson Crusoe I was several times set to wondering whether my reader was entirely organic.  There were times when his delivery was so stilted I was certain that if he wasn't a computer, then he had to be a Borg.

Up until a couple of years ago I got all my listening done with an Aiwa tape player, a stout little device with digital FM tuning and an apparent appetite for punishment.  In my previous job, I had dropped it a grand total of ten times from my hip onto concrete.  Each time it bounced back and kept going.  But cassette tapes have only so much life left in them; as time goes by the tape stretches, the magnetic signal on the tape itself degrades, and the sound on the tape becomes so poor you just can't stand to listen to it anymore.  CDs hold their signal better; the CD is by design a more stable medium.  Its optical recording isn't subject to degradation over time.  Avoid scratching its face and a CD is playable for decades, while a cassette tape will slowly become unplayable even if you never take it off the shelf.

Now I do all my listening on a Sansa Fuze with 8Gb of memory.  It's hard to sing this thing's praises more highly. It holds my entire collection of Harry Potter, all of the Narnia titles, several music albums and a couple more books besides.  Importing stuff from LibriVox or Gutenberg is a snap.   If I get tired of what I keep aboard - Narnia goes with me at all times - it plays radio too.  On top of all of that, I can QUADRUPLE its capacity with the addition of a microSDHC memory card - sufficient to play nonstop for over a month with no repeats.  Considering I don't listen more than maybe four hours in a day, that would take six months to get through, and I suspect it would encompass every single audiobook title I own, and then some.

Sansa Fuze.  I'll say it again, Sansa Fuze.  I tried out several different players and kept coming back to this one.  It's pleasantly compact, comfortably weighty for its size, and flexible in what it can do.  If it ever breaks, I'm getting another one just like it.

As if all this weren't enough, it's not an iPod.  That's a great big layer of icing on top of a really great cake.

Sweetie got the first Fuze in the house.  She liked it so much, she invited me to try it out for a day.  I wasn't willing to give it up at the end of the day, and she gave me one for Father's Day.  Son #1 tried it out and liked it, so he got one for his birthday.  So far, Son #2 hasn't shown any interest in the things at all.

Maybe I'll get him a record player.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The General's Forgiveness

Skunk count: holding at 1, but the trap caught a possum last night.  Opened the door to release him; 20 minutes later the possum was still in there. 
It was a news item over the week of Feb. 7, and it seemed to be destined to flare briefly and fade away.  Fortunately, someone else picked up on it and said what I didn't have time to say.

This is the the kind of thing that happens to people all the time.  You mistake someone for someone else, and before you have time to catch yourself, thump - you get a nice big mouthful of foot.

Now generally it's no big deal.  Like I said, it happens all the time.  You see a pair of dark blue pants, dark blue shirt, and say "Excuse me, officer..." but the guy that turns around isn't a cop, he's a janitor.

Better still, remember being very young and following your mom's legs through the store, until you looked up and discovered you'd been following the wrong legs?  When did that happen?  And now that it's happened, how do you fix it?  No idea where Mom went - you thought you had her in sight the whole time!

General Peter Chiarelli, four stars and very high up in the United States military, was wearing his full dress uniform at a dinner full of bigwigs in Washington.  Another diner, seated, saw Chiarelli's pants going by - sit down and imagine seeing something out of the corner of your eye, you can see how this could happen - assumed the pants were on a waiter (whose pants were similar) and asked for a glass of wine.  Well, you can just imagine what Chiarelli did.

The guy's a four-star General, for Pete's sake.  He's a career military leader, led a life of service and loyalty.  When he says "jump," tens of thousands of armed soldiers are already in the air before he gets to "m."

He got her a glass of wine.  And when asked about it, he was very casual about the whole deal.  Honestly, by the tone of what I'm hearing in the news, Chiarelli's whole take on this issue is one of quiet befuddlement.  He hasn't actually come out and said it in so many words, but you can almost hear him thinking, "what's all the fuss about?  I got her a glass of wine, everybody calm down."

It's easy to say the guy is in such a position of power that it costs him nothing to humble himself with a little impersonal service, that he doesn't lose face in the act.  There are examples of other people in positions of power and influence "lowering" themselves with selfless acts of service to others who didn't recognize them.

I want to flip the coin around.  How about instead of assuming the general has lowered himself, he has raised his fellow diner up?  In this country where it is one of our central tenets that all people are created equal, why then wouldn't he get her a glass of wine?  And he gets a chuckle to share with his coworkers, the lady gets her drink, and the thousands of soldiers who obey this general's command respect him all the more.

We're all in a position to raise each other up.  You can make yourself higher by pushing others down, by counting coup on the people around you and then crowing your dominance to anyone who will listen.  There are lots of people that do this - I'm looking at you, Fox News - and while that may have its place at times, ultimately it doesn't do anything good.

Say you've caught someone doing something wrong.  Now's your chance to make yourself look smart in comparison: "Aha!  You're stupid, and here's why!"  Well, okay - you pointed out that they weren't correct.  But now you've proven that you're an insensitive, rude jerk.

Now let's imagine you've caught someone doing something wrong.  Now's your chance to make them a little more competent.  "Hold up a second.  Let me show you a different way to do that, maybe it'll work better for you."  No confrontation, no resentment, no accusations.  Now you've raised up the person who was wrong and he's not wrong anymore.  And in doing so, have you lowered your own position at all, lost authority, lost face?  Not even a little bit.

What if the guy is one of your subordinates, and you're his manager - well, now your subordinate is that much more effective.  Your crew's production numbers go up, quality goes up, maybe lost time goes down.  What if he's the boss, and you're the subordinate - slightly different results: the boss has more respect for you.  Your reputation is improved and you could wind up with a better assignment in light of your management or problem solving skills.

In a country where all people are created equal, there should be no dominance games.  You try to beat someone down, and you go down with them.  You raise someone up, and raise yourself as well.  It's so easy it's almost laughable.  Sometimes it only takes a few words.

"Waiter, could I have a glass of wine?"

"Sure thing.  Red or white?"

Here's to you, General.  You're a good example.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: faucets

It's the classic cartoon gag: a dripping faucet that quietly, patiently, drives the main character nuts all night.  There's a few things you can do to silence the drip for the night - tying a string to the faucet so the drip runs down that, rather than falling free to hit with a soft plop that you can hear - but that's a stopgap measure.  You need to make the drip stop, and not just for the sake of your sleep.  That persistent little drip is costing you money.  Let's do a little math:

30 drips per minute = 900 drips per hour; (edit 10/12/2013 - Oops, that's 1800 drips per hour, all subsequent results are off by half)
60 drops = 1 teaspoon, 48 teaspoons = 1 cup
So: every 96 minutes, that's a cup of water down the drain.  That's not much...yet.
But a gallon is 16 cups, and you're losing 15 cups in a day.  Every day, nearly a gallon of water goes down the drain. (edit 10/12/2013 - nearly two gallons)

Big deal.  One gallon, that's not much.
Maybe not to you, but there are states in this country so aware of their water use, homeowners aren't even permitted to capture the rain that falls on their own roofs for personal use.  It has to go to the ground, hopefully to replenish the water table.  And that's free water from the sky - this gallon of water in your home, you paid for.  Then you paid for it again.

Again?  Make that make sense.
Look at your utility bill.  You're billed for the water on your meter, then you have another section where you pay for wastewater treatment - based on what is on your meter!  It's just a gallon per day, but you're paying twice.  And if it's a hot water leak, you're paying for the electricity to heat water that you never even used.

Okay, I'm sold - it's worth fixing.  And I'll be able to sleep.  Now what?
First, turn the faucet's water off.

I can't.  It drips, remember?
Not the faucet, the faucet's supply.  Look under the sink and you should find a couple of valves coming out of the wall, which send a couple of hoses up to the underside of the faucet.  Turn off the valves - BOTH of them - clockwise for off (righty tighty, lefty loosy) and then we can get started.

Now we're back on top of the sink.  What do you have: single handle, or dual handle?

Single handle.  It's been acting a little stiff, lately.
No problem.  Lift the handle all the way up, like you're turning the water on full blast.  Look for a screw head that holds it on.

None there.  And water is still coming out. Now what?
 That means your stop valves aren't getting the job done.  Try turning the water off at your meter.  Go find your water meter, and find the big lever that operates the valve to turn off the entire house's water.  NOTE: if you do this, be smart and turn your water heater off.  If you stop for a bathroom break in the middle of this project, each toilet gets ONE flush, and then everything stops. 
I'm going to assume that finally got the water to stop coming out of your faucet.  It will continue to run, draining any lines above it, but let's assume that's all the water that's left in the system.

No set screw underneath?  Okay, that screw's probably hidden under the cap on top of the handle.  Carefully pop that cap loose with a screwdriver blade, and you should see a screw head.  Remove the screw, and you should be able to remove the handle.  It may require some gentle wiggling to break any corrosion that's holding it down.

From here you may have to get on the Internet and look up your specific faucet.  Some have screwed-down bonnets, which themselves have screw-down retainers holding a valve body in place.  Moen faucets (my personal favorite) have a retainer clip that slides out.  Your mileage may vary.  If you're mechanically inclined, you may be able to just look at this and puzzle it out, but if you're wrong you might damage something.  Read up a bit and see what you're up against.

Remove the malfunctioning valve body.  Assuming you don't have a new one on hand, take the old one with you to the store to find a replacement.  Install the new one.  Be certain to get it in the right way!  These single-handle faucets' valve bodies have to go in a certain way, or else your water comes out hot from cold, or the handle won't go on right, or something similarly peculiar.  They're a little finicky.  But it isn't difficult to get it right.

If the new one is sold with included lubricant, smear the lube where the package indicates.  It helps the new valve last longer and operate more smoothly.  Don't skip this step.

If you have the choice between the plastic, cheap replacement valve and the more expensive, solid brass valve (I'm looking at you, Moen owners!), go with the brass.  Yeah, it costs a lot more - about $15 more - but it's worth it.  Next time you have to do this replacement, if you have the brass valve all you replace are O-rings.  So it's more money right now, and less money forever after.

I have another leaker, too, but it has two handles.
This is easier and harder at the same time.  Again, turn off both water supplies under the sink, and head back topside.  Remove the handles, and loosen the bonnet - the cap that the handle's stem pokes up through - until you can remove the valve stem.  WHILE REMOVING THE BONNET, keep adjusting the valve stem so it's in the middle of its travel.  Sometimes the threading difference between the bonnet and the valve causes them to jam against each other.  Just keep backing or advancing the valve stem as needed to keep the bonnet moving freely.  Then back the valve until it comes right out of its housing.  NOTE: the valve may be left-handed, so it would be lefty-tighty in this case.  If your handles turn toward each other to turn on or off, one of them will be left-handed.

The valve looks kind of like a fat screw with holes in it.
Bingo, that's what you're looking for. Look at its bottom and see what kind of condition the washer's in.

Washer?  No washer here, just a ragged piece of rubber.
That's the washer.  "Ragged" is the problem.  You'll need a new one.  You might need a new valve seat, too - peer down into the valve and look at the circular hole that washer rests on when the water's off.  If you can see any nicks or worns spots, you need to get that seat out of there.

It has a square hole.  Will a small socket extension work?
To be honest, I've never tried that.  Give it a shot; if it fits and applies torque without slipping, good for you.  If not, head over to your favorite hardware store and get a seat wrench.  Ask whoever's in plumbing, they know what you're looking for.  A tapered seat wrench will drop right into the seat, down to where it fits, and now you can remove it.  Try lefty-loosy first.

Now you have to go back to the store and get a replacement washer and a new seat.  Again, talk to the plumbing rep if you're new to the process; take the old valve stem with you and let him see it.  If it looks in bad shape, you might do better to replace the whole thing.  Be sure the threading and length match.

Right length and threading, but this new one has a hex hole!  Now what?
If you got the basic one-size-fits-most seat wrench, one end is for square holes, the other end is for hex.  Just turn it over and you're off to the races.

Be careful threading the new seat home - you don't want to cross those threads, and they're probably brass, so crossing them is kind of easy.  I usually turn the seat backwards with gentle downward pressure until I feel it "click" as the leading threads drop past each other.  Then I know it's lined up and ready to engage going forwards.

The washer on the end of the valve stem is usually held on with a small stainless steel screw.  Old one off, new one on, and thread the valve stem in.  Bonnet nut goes back on.  Handle goes back on.  Turn the water on.  Boom, you're done.

Still leaking, but right around the valve stem now - right under the handle.
Try torquing the bonnet nut just a little more.  Or look for the packing nut - a sort of secondary bonnet nut, that squashes the packing material around the valve stem.  It's there specifically to make the seal around the stem.  Not too tight though, or else you won't be able to turn the handle.

I have the packing nut, but by the time the leak stops, the handle's locked up tight.  Now what?
Turn the water back off, remove the handle, the packing nut if you have one, and the bonnet nut.  Leave the valve where it is but if it comes out again that's okay.  You need to remove the old packing stuffed up inside the bonnet, and put in new.  It's pretty much just a wad of impregnated string, and the hardware store will have some.  Just put the bonnet down over the stem, wind and shove the string onto the stem above the bonnet, and shove it all down with the packing nut.  Torque everything down and test again.  Repeat as needed.

Hey, that worked!  Is it always trial-and-error like that?
Sure, but after you've done it a few times, there's a lot less "error" and not as much need for "trial."

Don't forget to turn the water heater back on.  If anyone just couldn't wait, go flush that toilet that got used.  Wipe up any spills before they ruin anything, and put your tools away.  That's it, you're done.

You can sleep peacefully now, without the quiet plink plink plink of money going down the drain.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Guitar Zero

Guitar Hero is coming to an end.  Musicians the world over, rejoice.

I'm not ragging on Guitar Hero itself.  As a game, it invites the player to do something radically more creative than just find monsters and blaze away at them with whatever gun they've found in the game's environment.  Still calling on no more skills than hand-eye coordination, GH sends waves of notes sliding down the TV screen; as the notes enter the scoring box, the player should key the appropriate "fret" bar and strike the strumming controller.  There's also a so-called "whammy" controller so you can throw in special effects to make your played character more of a star.

No word on whether overexcited fans flash the stage or throw their undies.  I doubt it, it's supposed to be a family-friendly game.  But still, if you want it to be lifelike...

Actually, if you want it to be completely lifelike, the game should require you stay up many, many hours beyond your bedtime, spend interminable weeks on a tour bus jetlagged and cranky, have to shout at assorted promoters, venue owners, suffer endless equipment breakdowns, et cetera.  But who'd want to play that?  And at the end of it, I think flashing fans would be a puny reward for all that misery.  So Guitar Hero is a highly concentrated caricature of the most exciting part of the rock-n-roll star's life, the stage performance.  And none of the bad stuff.

If you're not already a guitar player but have ever strummed even one note on an "air guitar," then Guitar Hero's controller is perfectly comfortable.  It's the right shape, a tad smaller than the real thing, and not terribly demanding.  Five keys for frets, strum bar, whammy bar.  Nothing about a wa-wa pedal, tuning the amps, having a string break in the middle of a song.  Unlike some other games, Guitar Hero uses both hands, never tries to terrify you with gruesome images, and features lots of different music.  But what if you're already a musician?

Don't play the game.  GH's controller, the fret bars for example, is nothing like a real guitar.  They're evenly spaced and go all the way across the neck.  Three-finger E, for example, requires fretting two strings next to each other, and one string by itself at the next fret down the neck.  Guitar Hero isn't that picky: either fret it or don't.  Nothing in there about individual strings.  And down at the strumming controller, you're either hitting the strings or you're not.

So if you've been playing a lot of Guitar Hero and it's got you all excited to learn how to play, first be warned: you don't know anything yet.  You have some bad habits to unlearn before you can begin to learn the good ones.  Guitar Hero is to guitar playing as operating a computer mouse is to typing.

I've never actually played it, but I watched a couple of kids whaling away at the controller in front of a display at Best Buy.  They were pretty physical about it, making faces and as far as the game went, doing very well.  They were certainly keeping up with the notes on the screen, and occasionally a message would flash on the screen to announce their Star Power had increased or something like that.  I asked them if they knew how to play guitar.

"No.  But maybe I could, now."  It's nice to imagine, isn't it?  That you could play a game and become good at something real from that experience.  Microsoft's Flight Simulator series of "games" is so realistic in the behavior and control that you could spend hours "playing" in the Simulator game, step into the cockpit of one of the modeled aircraft and recognize all the salient gauges and controls well enough to describe how and when they're used.

 It wouldn't make you a pilot, not by a long way.  It's one thing to crash and press Reset, it's a whole 'nother thing to crash and wait for the trucks with the flashing lights.  But you'd be familiar with the controls, the theory would be sound.  Actions and their natural reactions would be as you'd learned in the game.

There's other games even further removed from reality, but based on activities that should be fun and involving.  Tony Hawk, legendary American skater, has his name on a skateboarding game series; the last two installments have had a skateboard-like controller.  How did a player interact with the game before?

Thumbs.  Clicking the controllers, wiggling the little joystick.  Growing up, my thumbs' involvement in skateboarding was 1) holding wrenches to switch wheels from one deck to another and 2) trying not to break them during falls.  There were lots of falls, a couple of scars.  I brought a lot more natural skill to biking, but there are a few permanent marks on my body from that, too.  Maybe I should've played one of the biking games instead.  No, wait - those weren't around then.  You had to actually go out and do it.

I'd love to be able to play guitar.  I know it takes a big investment of time and effort, and of course a bit of outlay for a guitar.  You can get a good used axe all over town for as little as $100.

That's cheaper than a new copy of Guitar Hero.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Insidious Plots, Recurring Themes

In 1955 Frederik Pohl published his short story, "The Tunnel Under the World."  Since then other stories have been published with similar themes, and certain themes are shared with other works; the popular films The Matrix and The Truman Show have common elements.  The point of the story is a fellow wakes up from his existence, and discovers that not only is his world not real, neither is he.  He is forced to live the same day over and over, each repetition slightly different from the last.

Groundhog Day also comes to mind, but I've never seen it since I don't much care for Bill Murray's movies.  He's so unpleasant in so many of them.  I guess my favorite Bill Murray scene is when Carol Kane knocks him senseless with a toaster in Scrooged.  But that's not relevant here.

Pointless trivia: estimates place Murray's character's total time spent reliving Groundhog Day at over 30 years.

So the fellow in the story, Burkhardt (try downloading the story as an audiobook, use the link in the first paragraph.  It's free.  I love you, Librivox!) is trapped in an existence that means less than he ever imagined.  I won't give away the entire story.

But now that I've got that example out there, let's think: how certain are we that New Coke - remember that? - wasn't just a giant advertising campaign?  When New Coke came out, the hue and cry against it was gigantic, even though Coca-Cola officials insisted that in myriad taste tests this was the formulation that people came out in favor of.

I hated it.  It tasted like Pepsi.  There are diehard Pepsi fans out there and they're welcome to it.  It was ghastly.

Ask the executives that presided over the change and they'll insist that they were neither that smart nor that dumb, to conceive such a convoluted plan as New Coke to reinvigorate sales of the original formula.  I suspect that that is in fact the truth; conspiracy theorists can battle back and forth on this, and will.  But wonder.  Because the sales bump after the reintroduction of Coke Classic was just huge.

What else?  Ford.  I love Ford as an American company, love them for succeeding in the face of foreign competition, for not taking the big bailout (they did take one, but not the big ones you saw GM and Chrysler receiving).  But remember the Pinto fiasco, and the damning memo that FoMoCo even today wishes never came to light: the estimated cost of compensating grieving families for people killed by ruptured and flaming gas tanks would be cheaper than the cost of changing the design in the car.

Ultimately, at the end of its production cycle the Pinto was actually a pretty good car.  But as an example of the flip side of a social engineering project, it was the icon of How To Make Enemies and Negatively Influence Customers.

Advertising is becoming more camouflaged.  If you're one of those people twiddling your waking hours away on facebook, playing Mafia Wars or Farmville or whatever it is, you may start to notice ads or product placements popping up within the game.  As it stands, those games require you first allow facebook to access your personal profile so it can shoot more carefully tuned ads your way; wouldn't the advertisers jump at the chance to position the ads on the screen at the very place where they know you will look?  You bet they would.

Product placement is off the hook.  Lady Gaga's popular video "Telephone," along with some of her others, feature several product placements; considering how controversial so much of her material has been, it's interesting to note how willing advertisers, formerly the bastion of conservatism in their image projection, are now to step out on the edge, and maybe a little over it, to gain more exposure, to make you look and keep you looking.

NOTE: don't watch "Telephone."  It's nine minutes you'll want back.  Trust me.

For the longest time, it was advertisers who called a lot of the shots on a show's content.  Too much skin, too much coarse language, and advertisers would start to shy away from exposure during that show.  Cover the girls up, clean up the boys' language and the money came flowing back.

So I think we're at a crossroads, and the crux of the matter is this: the mood of the emerging generation is permissiveness should be the rule.  Do we as a society want to encourage that?  Do we as an economy want to reward that?

If you're one of those who don't want that kind of thing happening more and more, then I firmly recommend you get your finger on the pulse of the emerging generation.  Whatever they're buying, you buy something else.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Me First, Me Only, Me All the Time

That's not my motto.  But it does appear to be the one so many people adhere to.

None of them would claim it, of course, but if we assign personal philosophies to people based on what we see of their actions, a shockingly large proportion of the population lands in this pigeonhole.

Imagine: you're tooling down the highway, minding your own business, but then you notice a vehicle behind you.  Well, maybe not a vehicle - just its grille.  It's so close, that's all you can see.

Slow down.  He stays right there.  Edge over to give him more room, he zooms around you, maybe blaring on his horn because you damned fool, can't you see he's in a hurry?  Can't you see he's running late?  What's your problem?  And then he goes to crowd the next damned fool who can't see he's late, that he's in a hurry.

That's "Me First."  That's failing to recognize that you cannot always be first, you cannot always be at the front of the line.

That reminds me of a little show I saw Way Back When, a children's special that featured, among other things, a cartoon with an obnoxious little girl who kept insisting "ladies first!  Ladies first!"  Except her group was captured by tigers and while the tigers were debating who to have for dinner first, she insisted "ladies first!"  So naturally, she got eaten first.  Then the rest of the party was rescued.  Irony is delicious.

I have worked with a lady who is really not a bad person, but when her phone rings, you suddenly disappear.  Her conversation is what matters; not yours.  Someone called her, so that has to be attended to right now.  She wanders around while on the phone; she wanders into the path of people carrying furniture which is heavy, she wanders into the path of a laden forklift which is moving backwards.  She wanders, somehow hitting the trifecta, toward a truck that is backing up, where men moving furniture are waiting to disembark, to clear a path for a forklift.  You could hardly plan to be more in the way, yet she does it with aplomb.  She's not deliberately rude, it just happens.

This is a sad case of Me Only.  This is inconsideration at its worst, manifested in a person who is really a good person, but unfortunately self-absorbed when she shouldn't be.  Her stated goals are good, her actions when she's thinking about them are good, but her ability to sympathize with others around her when she isn't actively thinking about them is a flat line.  If she isn't looking directly at you, you don't exist.

Then there's the last one.  You see them at the store: the loud, pushy customer that insists on having privileges that don't exist.  They Know Someone.  They've made a Telephone Call to Your Boss.  Those rules posted on the counter, "All Sales Final" and "No Checks" just don't apply to them.  What you're trying to achieve isn't important, the value of the transaction they're trying to undo isn't important, what's important is that whatever it is they want, they get it.

These people are almost inexcusable.  I cannot see why such behavior is tolerated.  I have tolerated it, reluctantly, with a smile plastered on my face and a grimace behind my eyes, and handled such people as quickly as possible because it's easier and faster than the alternative.

What's the alternative?  Well, in my perfect world it's a quick, sharp rap with a Louisville Slugger.  Unfortunately, the Slugger approach has its own drawbacks, mostly unpleasant court dates and learning to tolerate your cellmate's bad habits.  The Me All the Time person is the kind of person who takes the implied social contract - more on that another day - and tears it to shreds.  They simply disregard the needs and wants of anyone around them, and worst of all, they do it deliberately.  This kind of person knows exactly what he or she is doing, and they simply don't care.  Each personal goal achieved, however minute, is a triumph.  Life is a constant game of one-upmanship, regardless of whether anyone else is competing.

How did we arrive at this place?  It appears that our society is rewarding this kind of behavior.  The popular surreality show "Survivor" carries the slogan "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast."  Nothing in there about teamwork.  And though competitors do form "alliances," the nature of the alliances formed is shaky to start with - everyone knows that only one person can win, that the alliance must fail.  Some alliances are formed by people looking to surround themselves with other competitors whose coattails they can ride, and others who are dragged along to be stalking horses.  That's "Me All the Time."  Anyone else's needs are secondary.

What are some good examples of the flip side, not "me" but "we?"  I hold forth the US Marines.  Their initiative and flexibility is what makes US Marines such capable forces, but it demands a high degree of interdependability between each soldier.  Each Marine has every other Marine's back, knowing his own back is just as well covered.

Other examples: US Navy Seabees, the Construction Battalion.  Think Marines, but with bulldozers.  You think construction work is hard, try doing it under fire.  These guys do, and with the same kind of mutual reliance as the Marines.  I don't think I could be a Marine, but I could see myself as a Seabee.

Who else?  Boy Scouts?  Hmm.  Maybe.  Coast Guard?  Absolutely.  In fact, the Coasties are a whole lot less "Me First" and a whole lot more "You First."  You don't see many others willingly flying into a storm to fish out some foolish boater who should've known better.

Remember the movie Pay It Forward? The kid who is the main character makes it a social experiment, for every favor you ever do, don't ever expect someone to pay it back.  Tell the recipient to "pay it forward," and  the effect snowballs until you have an entire country populated by people who do for others without expectation of reward, with the expectation that the recipient will do for someone else.

It's too bad that's a work of fiction.  I think I'd rather live there.  This country was founded on an ideal of individuality, of the right to be who and whatever you are going to be, without judgment or limitation.  But as well as individuals, you can never escape the fact that we all live in this country together, we're all neighbors - if not to each other, then neighbors to other neighbors.  Doing for yourself is one thing in times of survival, but doing for each other strengthens and unifies the entire country, and when the country is stronger, when the neighbors are stronger, when you know you can rely on and trust the person next to you even if you've never seen him before, you are stronger, safer, and have done for yourself.

E Pluribus Unum.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tardy vs. the Middle East

At one time I had a cat named Tardy.  Born 36 hours (to the minute!) after his littermates, his name suggested itself.  Of that litter, he was the one that we decided to keep, and keep, and keep.  We had Tardy for about fifteen years, and he was one of the most personable cats I've ever had.

Toward the end of his life, Tardy had become the grand old man of the house, disdainfully suffering the presence of a younger, rowdier Maine Coon named Simon, and an American Shorthair named Bonnie.  Eventually Bonnie found another home, but Simon was a good fit.  Where Tardy was an affably dense neutron star, Simon could be downright foolish.  But Simon was highly affectionate, intelligent under the right circumstances, and playful.

At the same time, we also had other pets.  We had mice - still do - a hutch full of sugar gliders, and below them, a hutch with a rabbit.

This was our second rabbit.  The first one had come to us as a castoff from a neighbor, clearly someone who had gotten smart.  We took that first one and kept him for a while, but he presently died of old age.  This new rabbit, Baggins Bunny, we got as a kit, a tiny little bundle of fluff and ears.  I would hold her in my lap, turn her over on her back and pet her between the eyes until she fell asleep.  When she was little, she was awfully cute, and I liked her.

Too many things don't stay cute.  Baggins got bigger.  Turned out of her hutch to wander the house and play, she would tussle with Simon, who would tussle back.  Baggins got aggressive and started really chasing Simon, biting and chasing and biting some more.  Eventually Simon would remember he could leap onto furniture, which Baggins couldn't, and escape her clutches.  One evening we found a wad of bloody hair and paw prints and went through the house looking for what we knew would be whatever was left of Baggins.

Not so.  Simon bore deep, bloody claw marks in his belly.  Evidently he had landed on top of Baggins and for some reason imagined himself the winner of this chase.  Baggins had flipped over and pumped her hind legs in that way you sometimes see rabbits do.  Simon walked a little spraddle-legged for a while after that.

The chasing went on.  Tardy would observe it with disdain as he always did.  At about fourteen years of age, Tardy's chasing days were pretty much done, but he still had the occasional burst of energy in him.  He could chase, he liked to wrestle once in a while.  Mostly he sat in my lap and slept, purring.  He was very good, and I still miss him.

Baggins tore through the dining room, hot on Simon's heels.  But wait! there's another cat!  Rather than try to chase down and nip the running one, Baggins opted to run over to the sitting one and nip at him.

WHAM.  I count it among my lucky happenstances to have been there to see it.  Nip, and Tardy was suddenly not fourteen years old, graying at the muzzle and slow of step.  He was the alpha male, the ranking predator in the household, and righteously outraged.

When Baggins sunk her teeth into his haunch, Tardy whipped around in a fine reenactment of his younger days, and batted Baggins clear across the dining room.  If he'd been a prize fighter, the blow would have been a stunning left handed haymaker.  Baggins bounced off the china cabinet, shook herself, and looked back at Tardy with dawning realization:

"That cat knows what he is."  Which is to say, an eater of rabbits.  Tardy's history of eating all and sundry varmints at our previous house was impressive - some animals he brought down nearly weighed as much as himself.  And in that moment, Baggins remembered what she was: prey.

Baggins made fast tracks back to her hutch and stayed there for the rest of the day.  We didn't shut the door on her, but she didn't come out, either.  She never got within ten feet of Tardy again.  She probably need not have worried but as life lessons go, it was a good one.

I look to the Middle East, at Al-Qaida and the Taliban, and I wonder - they bit us on the ass.  A few buildings here, a few airplanes there.  We've smacked them clean across the dining room.

Militarily, the United States retains the destructive power to render the Middle East utterly lifeless.  You thought a lot of that land was barrennow, you have no idea how barren it could become.  Having felt the biting varmints, we've swatted them back.

The United States finds itself in a difficult place.  The easiest thing to do, as far as threats are concerned, would be to utterly destroy each and every member of those factions.  Just crush them into powder.  Easy, I say, because having made the commitment to destroy them, you just blanket their domains with whatever destructive force you want to bring to bear.  Mission accomplished.

But that's the easy part.  Bombers, missiles, offshore strikes.  No, the hard part is mercy.  Coming from a position of religious equality, of human equality, the US's ideals are to honor the sovereignty of each and every human life, whatever its views.  Raise arms against us and take warring action, we strike you down but first we have to winnow you out from everyone around you.  They didn't raise arms.  We don't have anything against those other folks.  It's a particularly nasty sort of war, insurgents and rebels and whatnot, striking against Americans, then hiding among civilians.

You know those scenes in movies, where the bad guy holds an innocent bystander in front of him so the cops won't blow him away.  That's where we find ourselves.  We're the cops, trying to blow away the bad guys.  The bad guys are holding their own compatriots hostage, knives to their necks, bodies before our guns.  And we, being the good guys, lower our guns.  The chase goes on.  Bad guys live to strike again, and again, and again.  They take down our military forces, they take down their own neighbors.  Then they go hide some more.

They don't have the good sense God gave a rabbit.  WHAM and she never got near him again.  Didn't even threaten to do it.

We really do, as a nation, want to get along with everybody.  Stop fighting, stop biting us, and we'll stop knocking you into the china cabinet.  Don't force us to remind you who we are.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: Electricity without electrocution

*NOTE: all advice and suggestions are given only for illustrative purposes; anyone performing any work is responsible for his/her own actions.   Always remember, safety first.  Also remember: if it isn't yours, don't work on it.  If you're renting, call the super or the landlord - the physical structure is his responsibility.

All right, let's get this party started.

Isn't electricity dangerous?
You bet!  Don't believe me? Just remember what it feels like to put your tongue directly on both contacts of a new 9-volt battery.  YOW, and that's less than a tenth of household voltage.  The 9-volt stings like a bee, 120v will light you up.  Don't be misled: it might be "just" 120v, but it can kill you.

So what do I do, to not wind up a chicken nugget?
Find the fuse box, or the breaker panel, and locate the fuse or breaker that corresponds to the circuit you're working on.  The fuse box is a shallow metal cabinet, inside of which is what looks like the bottom ends of a bunch of light bulbs.  Those light bulb bases have a heavy glass top so you can see into them (usually), a breaker panel looks like it's full of heavy-duty light switches.  Hopefully, these things are labeled so you have an idea of what you're working on.

Plug something in to the circuit where you're working, and remove its fuse or turn off the breaker.  Breakers are way stiffer to move than a light switch, so don't be surprised if it takes a little effort.  Check one circuit at a time, then double-check it so you're certain the circuit you're working on is turned off.  Turn one off, check it, turn it back on.  Turn off the next one.  Repeat as needed until you've isolated your problem circuit.

If your panel doesn't have labels telling you what's what, now's a good time to make some notes.  It speeds things up next time you're in the box.

Usually when I'm working on a circuit, once I'm certain it's turned off, I'll check it with a voltmeter or other device, just to confirm One More Time.

Okay, it's off and we're sure it's off.  What are we doing here?
Well, there's good reasons to turn off a breaker and work on your own wiring.  A lot of what goes on with your household electricity is really straightforward stuff.  And even better news, a lot of the parts are really affordable.

Well, I've got this one outlet that kinda crackles and hisses sometimes.  What's up with that?
Hey, an easy one!  First, be sure it's turned off.

Once that's done, remove the outlet's faceplate and set that aside.  Loosen the screws at each end of the outlet and pull it out of its box.  Don't go crazy, the wires are still attached.

Look at the back of the outlet.  Do the wires go directly into holes in the back of the outlet?  If so, good news, that's probably your entire problem.  Spring-loaded contacts inside the outlet make contact with the wires, and the springs fatigue over time, eventually allowing things to flex and not make good contact.  There's two ways to get the wire out of there:

1) Remove the wire by inserting a small, thin blade into the slot next to the hole.  That'll release the spring, and you can pull the wire out.  You may feel like you need three hands for this, and it wouldn't hurt, but one person can do it.  After you've done a few, you'll be able to do it one-handed.

2) Cut the wire close to the back of the outlet, and strip a new portion for attaching to the new outlet.  If you've got big electrical boxes inside your wall and plenty (ten inches or more) of slack wire, go for it.  You get some stripping practice that way.

Whoa, stripping.  Okay Mr. Handyman, start your music while I get my dollar bills...
Don't be flippant, this is important.  You can use wire stripper pliers made for the job, or you can whip out your pocketknife and either whittle the insulation off, or scribe a line around the wire and slide the insulation off.  Whatever you do, try not to nick the wire, that's important.

How much do I strip off the end?
Peer myopically at the back of your new outlet and you'll see it has a handy little example of how much of the end should be stripped.  Most wiring devices are like that, by the way.

Hey, my new outlet has those holes on the back.  Can I just poke the wire in and be done?
Yes and no.  You can, and it would work - but like I said, the sprung contacts fatigue, and you're back where you started.  I always use the screw contacts.  They make much more contact with the wire, and grab really well.

Wait...which wire goes where?
Easy: "White to bright, black to brass."  The white wire is the neutral wire, and it goes to the "bright" screw, the silver-colored one.  The black wire, the "hot" wire, goes to the brass-colored screw.  If you've got a bare copper wire going to your old outlet, shift it over too: it goes to the green grounding screw.

No ground wire?  No worries: the outlet is also grounded through its own metal chassis, directly to the metal electrical box.  If your wiring is really old, though, and the old outlet had no ground and there's no provision for one inside the box, you've got some problems, and may need to call an electrician if you want to keep everything up to code.

Speaking of I violating anything by doing this?  You're not an electrician.
No, I'm not.  But unless I misread the code - hopefully someone will tell me politely if I have - you can do this kind of thing on your own home if you're not making significant changes or receiving money for it.

So far we're up to three screws and three wires.  That sounds minor enough.
It certainly is, and let's crack on.

The light in here is lousy - I turned off their power at the breaker, remember - so I can't see which screw is "brass" or "bright."
Flashlights are your friend.  Go find one.  Barring that, the hot wire goes to the shorter slot of the outlet - look at 'em, one's a little longer than the other.  Hot goes to short, neutral to the longer one.

Okay, where is this "black" wire?  I have white, copper, and red.
That's okay - the red one is the hot one.  You see that sometimes.  In virtually every case you see, the white wire will be the neutral;  a bare copper is always ground.  Any other color will be the hot one.  If you see more than one other color inside the box, they're both hots - two different hots.  More on that later.

 Bend the bared end of the wire into a J shape, and hook it around the screw in a clockwise direction.  Clockwise, so as the screw head begins to drag on the wire as it tightens, it pulls the wire into closer contact around the shank of the screw.  Contact is the name of the game, and more = good.  Repeat for the other wires, and tighten down the unused screws, too. 

Gently fold your wires into the electrical box, screw the new outlet's screws down, and reinstall the faceplate.

Turn the breaker back on.  Test it with a load: lamp, voltmeter, whatever.  Everything A-OK?  Cool, you're done.

Done?  That was easy!
I know, right?  Call an electrician to do that and there's that danged "trip charge" again.  So far you're only out $2.00 for a new outlet, $7.50 for a wire stripper, and maybe as much as $30 for an electrical tester.  You're still ahead of the curve against the electrician, and the next time something goes all sparkly, you've got the tools already.

Hey, speaking of sparkly, I have a light switch that throws sparks.  What's up with that?
That switch is worn out.  Time to replace it.  Same as last time, turn off the circuit, and test to be sure.  Faceplate off, mounting screws out, pull the switch out.  Let's see what we see.

There's two black wires going into this thing!
Right!  But really what it is, is: the black wire goes in, and then comes back out.  Think of it being like a pipe, and the electricity is water.  The switch is a valve that doesn't allow the current to flow, so it just stops at the switch.  The white wire goes right on to the fixture; you could put a switch on the white wire but that does violate code.  Besides, putting a switch on the neutral really throws some sparks, and will wear out a switch very quickly due to heavy arcing.

Remove the black wires from the old switch, and attach them to your new one.  TAKE A MOMENT to orient the switch correctly.  Few things are more annoying than installing a new switch and realizing, too late, you've put it in upside-down.

Yeah, yeah - it's just a few screws to set it right, but still.  Anyway, there you are: $1.50 for your new switch, 15 minutes, you're done.

Is that really all there is to it?
Yup.  When we moved to our current house in 1999, Sweetie made me take a half-hour to show her how to replace outlets and switches.  When I came back from work the next day, she'd rewired the kitchen!  It really isn't hard, you just need to give attention to a few details here and there, and be careful not to work on energized circuits.

What was that about two different hots...?
Most of your household circuits in North America are 120 volts, alternating current.  The alternating bit is that the voltage isn't actually constant, it zips up from zero, to a peak around170v, down through zero 170 the other way (not actually negative, but expressed as such), sixty times per second.  The average voltage your equipment experiences is 120v.  That other hot is doing the same thing, also at sixty cycles per second - hertz, hereafter - but slightly out of step.  The voltage difference between the two of them, in most residential applications, will be about 208v.  If you need to run something big - like a dryer or a stove - you can use 120 and use HUGE wires, or you can use 208 and somewhat larger wires.  It also has the advantage of symmetrically loading your house's supply, so you don't see a big flicker somewhere when you turn the dryer on.

Starting to get a little confusing...
Don't worry about it.  That's big stuff and you probably won't need to work on it.  But if you do, well, maybe you've cut your teeth on something simpler.  In the meantime, I recommend you check out a book or something and do a little reading.  As hobbies go, saving a few bucks around the house is a pretty good one.