Sunday, August 28, 2011

What are the Costs of Letting Them Die?

There are some thoughts you have, that you worry what other people might think about you if you were to speak those thoughts aloud.

We as a nation are spending a lot of money projecting our force overseas.  Forces in Afghanistan, incursions into Pakistan - granted, the maguffin of killing off bin Laden is about worth the price of admission, but still - aid missions in Somalia and elsewhere.

How many American lives, how much American money, do we save if we simply keep our forces at home?

China has recently called us out for spending money we don't have.  Fine, China, let's see you step up to the plate and do some lifesaving.  Oops, the country whose dissidents simply disappear might not be as humanitarian as that.  Oh well.

So the question I ask myself, the thought I sometimes think and feel ashamed for thinking it is, what if we just let them die?

What if we simply packed up all our soldiers overseas and brought them home?  Gather up all the food shipments to aid projects in Somalia where there is no government, pull the US Navy out of the pirate-ridden waters of the western Indian Ocean, just pick up our ball and go home.

Deaths would skyrocket.  Populations that are limping along from one US-subsidized meal to the next would just starve to death.  Warlords in contested areas would become even bolder without having to worry about answering to the occasional Marine sniper.  The pirates would have a free ocean.

But no more American soldiers would die.  At the risk of sounding like an absolute monster, I'm going to come out and admit it: I don't care about those other countries.  I don't care about the people who live there - I don't know any of them personally.  I don't care about those other countries' governments.   Pakistan was hiding bin Laden whether they knew it or not; they can be officially irritated by the incursion of American forces to go get him, but they should be damned embarrassed.  Bin Laden is was a force for evil.  Whatever his stated reasons, the one thing he contributed most to was chaos in general.  We did Pakistan a favor, killing that bastard off.  He had it coming and he knew it, and he also knew it was only a matter of time.

Somalia as a nation has come completely apart.  There is no government.  There is a sort of ersatz coast guard, but evidence strongly suggests the so-called Somali coast guard is also the pirate fleet.  Not the pirate fleet exclusively, but some of the faces on both teams are the same.  When a pirate is captured if he is turned over to any kind of Somali "authority" he gets released.  There is no government structure in place to process criminals.  What there is is a raft of gangs.  The gangs don't prosecute the pirates, and the gangs steal the food aid shipments, doling them out as suits themselves.

Mohamed Siad Barre, murderous monster though he was, had laudable goals when he took over as Somalia's supreme dictator.  Stamping out tribalism is a good thing.  But he failed to achieve that; as soon as he died and the government collapsed, tribalism was right back again.  And that's the downside of a dictator: as soon as the head dies, the government suffers a tremendous shock.  I'm looking forward to Fidel Castro kicking the bucket, I bet Cuba lasts as a communist republic for no more than five years after that.

I've sometimes loudly wondered why we don't just nuke the entire Middle East to a flat plain of volcanic glass.  So many of those people hate each other so much, I'm certain that there will never be a complete and lasting peace.  The Pax Americana has only gone on 50 years and there are parts of the world that it just hasn't touched, can never touch.  Rather than wait for that bad dog to go completely mad and hurt someone, why not just shoot it and have done?  Nuke the whole region and get it over with.  Yes, it's bad.  Yes, it's unnecessarily harsh.  But it has the added bonus of expedience and thoroughness.

Except not everybody in the Middle East hates everybody else there, or even us.  We are on polite terms with Oman, for instance.  Happily, Oman is one of the few countries still on speaking terms with Iran, so if there's need for diplomatic contact with Iran without anyone bringing guns, Oman can be the message bearer.

While there is officially no war on in Iraq, there are still factions within the country that continue to kidnap, murder and bomb the general populace.  I have no idea what their goals are.  One would think that it would be enough to simply live and let live.

Syria would like to shuffle off its government heads.  Careful you don't find yourself going the way of Somalia, Syria.

One bright flash and it would all be over.  Nothing left but fused soil and cockroaches.  Whoever wants the oil fields can have them.

But by playing the part of the good guy - or trying to - the US plants seeds of doubt in the minds of populations.  Their governments tell them the US is bad and decadent and Imperialist and lord knows what all else.  But we send them a few thousand tons of rice and wheat - how bad can we be?

Working to eliminate very real threats, working to silence the voices of chaos and hate increases the overall safety of the entire world.  People in power, people who hate the United States and what it is trying to maintain (a democratically governed, peaceful world) instigate, motivate and alienate.  And that is simply intolerable.

You want Saddam Hussein gone?  Okay.  We do too.  Guy's nothing but trouble.  Since you can't seem to do it, we'll send a few thousand of our own best and brightest and hunt that rascal down for you.

Osama bin Laden got you down?  We're pretty annoyed with him ourselves.  Where's he hiding?  What...?  Pakistan?  Really!  Well, Pakistan was just sure he wasn't there...well, anyway, fire up the choppers and we'll take him out.  Boom.  No more bad guy.  Who's next on the list?

Remove the rabblerousers, the hate preachers, and the general populace just wants to go about their lives with a minimum of fuss.  Get rid of people like bin Laden and I reckon quite a few people have a moment to think about whether the Americans are such bad people.

I mean, all we want is to be left alone, too.  Stop killing each other and we won't have to worry about how long before you guys all go completely crazy and start trying to kill us too.  Then we wouldn't have to send troops and aid to your enemies and working to subvert your governments.  We wouldn't have to, because we wouldn't care.

There wouldn't be anything to care about.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Remodeling Vacant Properties

Some things, when they are in bad enough condition, you just toss them.

The list is actually pretty long.  It goes way beyond a side chair that has a broken leg, or a lamp that's too nasty a style to tolerate.  Americans will cheerfully throw away almost anything.  Bicycles, lawn mowers, pets, you name it.  Is there an upper limit to what people will throw away?

No.  When you can find cases of abandoned family members, too old or too sick for their families to care for, there is no upper limit.  And that's a damned depressing road to travel, so I'm not going to do that today.

I've seen abandoned houses.  Sometimes they have a sign out front with a realty company's name, but sometimes they don't.  The house is just there.  No tenants, no owner, no nothing.  Just an empty house.  What's up with that?  Who owns it?

Most likely the city owns it, or is about to.  Unpaid taxes pile up because no one has been seeing to the place for years.  Grass gets longer, bats move into the attic, that kind of thing.  But the place is still standing, right?  That's got to stand for something.

A house still standing has some strength left in it.  You can fix it.  A lamp that still turns on is still a lamp.  And even if it doesn't turn on, you can fix that too.  You can get the parts anywhere, up until a few years ago you could expect to find a couple of lamp repair bits in grocery stores or the Woolworth store.

Remember Woolworth?

Anyway.  The point is that even though it doesn't have the value it used to have, it still has value.  Lamps can be fixed.  Cars can be fixed - even though ones mouldering on the hill at Lambert's Used Auto Parts.

Houses can be fixed.  What's a house, anyway?  A great big box people live in.  That's pretty simple.  Of course, there are somewhat more complex bits that go on, too.

Roofs wear out.  But they can be replaced.  Scrape off the old roof, put on a new one.  That's easy.  I've done it before, the most difficult part is not falling off the roof.   Do that and keep the courses even from one side to the other, and it's a good roof.

Electricity goes around inside a house, too.  Well, if it's a battered, stripped-out shell of a house most of the wiring may well be already exposed.  That makes replacing it easy.  Super easy.  And you can replace wiring without tearing open walls, just attach new wires to the ends of the old wires, pull the new through as you're pulling the old out.  Strenuous but not impossible.  No popping or sparks when you turn the lights back on, either, so that's good.

Siding keeps the wind and rain out of the wall.  I can tell you from experience that replacing siding is easy - easier than roofing.  There's not as far to fall, generally, so that's good.  And if you're replacing all the siding, you can add an inch or two of foam insulation to the wall and make it easier and cheaper to keep the place comfortable when all's done.

Working on plumbing is straightforward too.  If you're fixing up a tax sale house, you might need to tear everything out and start over.  But with modern PEX tubing for fresh water and PVC for drains, you don't need to know anything about how to solder or leading joints or anything like that.  If you ever glued a model airplane together, you can handle plastic drain pipe, no problem.  And PEX tubing with its new fittings is almost literally plug-and-play easy.  It's even flexible, so you don't need to make as many joints as the old copper lines.  Just flex the line to where you need it.

Why give up on a house?  Everyone needs someplace to live.  Seeing the homelessness problem go up and up pretty much all over the country, and so many municipalities have these vacant homes on their tax rolls.   Rather than sell them in a bidding war to entrepreneurs, why not give the vacant house to a homeless family?  Let the homeless families apply for the house.  They can't live there until the place is fixed up of course, but if they do have a place to live while doing the work to make it safe, that would get an eyesore fixed up so property values around the house would go up, a homeless family wouldn't be homeless anymore, and the house could start generating tax revenues again.  Everybody wins.

That sounds like a proper job of remodeling to me.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Smart ForTwo

How smart is a Smart?  Note that I'm capitalizing the name, even though in the marketing and on the car, it's all lower-case.  That's just for the sake of clarification.

The EPA highway rating for the ForTwo is 41mpg on premium fuel.  Check that out, premium.  Your ultra tiny economical personal mobility pod takes high-test.   But at 41 miles per gallon, that's not bad.  Assume $3.89 per gallon - totally reasonable on this date of late August 2011 - and that works out to a fuzz under nine-and-a-half cents per mile.  If it's just you getting down the road, you're doing well.

But let's cast that against a few of the other options.  Take, for instance, the globally developed Chevy Cruze Eco.  It's a Cruze with a few small modifications and if you, like I have, ever spend any time on the excellent website, you will see that most of what GM did to make their Cruze an "Eco" was nothing you can't do at home.  But that noise aside, the Cruze Eco whistles up a rating of 42mpg highway.  Wait a sec - that's one more than the "Smart" car.  And the Eco takes regular.  Assume $3.60 per gallon - and at this moment that's actually more than I pay by about 10 percent - and you're looking at about eight and a half cents per mile.  You might think that's chump change, and it is - you're a chump if you pass it up. 

Not a Chevy fan?  Okay.  The Ford Fiesta "only" whistles up 40mpg highway.  But again, it's running on regular fuel, not premium.  There's savings there, but it's slightly down from the Eco's impressive result.

I drive around 12,000-15,000 miles per year.  At a penny per mile, that's up to a $150 savings per year.  Maybe only $100 worth of savings driving the Fiesta.  Insignificant, you might think, but let's reexamine some of the givens of these cars.

The ForTwo is a two seater.  Smart is pretty loud about this.  They play it up, declaring it to be one of their car's primary selling points.  "All the car you need, and none of the car you don't."  If all you ever do is convey yourself back and forth, it may well fit that mold.  But how certain are you that that's all you really will ever need?  Things happen.  Families grow, you move, you get a cat.  You pick up family from the airport.

If you have one friend to carry with you, the Smart gets the job done.  Two seats, one trip, no problem.  Add one more person and the formula goes into the wastebasket.  There are no more seats.  Even Scion's brand new iQ submini, almost a doppelganger for the diminutive Smart, can carry four in a pinch, and it's only a foot longer than the Smart.  The iQ is still tiny.  It still looks like a baby shoe.  And it also takes regular gas.

The Cruze Eco has seats for four.  Five if there's someone small you can put in that emergencies-only center spot.  So what you can do in one trip in the Eco, the Smart will need four trips to accomplish.  And of course the Eco has a perfectly functional trunk, comfortably larger than the Smart's cargo area.

The Ford Fiesta is available as a four-door hatchback, that super-flexible form factor that makes you seriously question your need for a wagon.  Seats fold down, cargo cover tucks away, and suddenly toting back that new fire ring from Home Depot is a snap.  It all fits inside.  And it still gets that thrifty 40mpg on regular.

The Smart ForTwo is cheaper at its base model than either of these other offerings.  Even completely optioned up, it still comes in at a comfortable margin less than a similarly equipped Eco.  And coming with only half the seats and half the cargo space, it had damned well better.  Of course, it doesn't cost half as much.  It's more like about 6/7 as much.  So yeah, there's some savings to be had, no doubt.  They will slowly be eaten away by the lower highway mileage and the thirst for the more expensive fuel.

It's worth noting that the Smart ForTwo and the Scion iQ both get poorer fuel mileage than the Fiesta or the Cruze Eco.  So as convenient as the super itty bitty form factor might be in a crowded city, it's actually holding you back once you get onto the open road.  Once you get to where you can open it up, the Cruze and the Fiesta start passing up the gas stations that the so-called "economy cars" can't ignore.  Bigger car with more capacity, bigger fuel tank, and even better economy.

Sorry, it just doesn't seem that smart to me.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: Power

So what's on your agenda today?

Your house uses a lot of electricity.  It doesn't have to.

This goes without saying.  You know it's true because the utility company keeps sending you those friendly reminders every month that you owe them money.  And they never miss a month, so it's not like you've ever caught up with how much you've used.  More got used.

So what can I do about it?

Blame Edison.  No, wait - blame Nikola Tesla..  We use AC electricity, alternating current.  Edison was a genius, make no mistake.  But he was hung up on DC current and wanted everyone to use that.  Edison even went so far as to stage public executions of everything up to and including an elephant with alternating current in order to build public sentiment against AC.  Edison wanted DC to win popular approval.  It was expensive to lay the heavy transmission lines, so if he could make AC look scarier, he could gain a lot of business.

Money eventually won out, of course.  AC is easily stepped up and down with transformers, and once stepped up can be sent over many miles of conveniently thin and inexpensive transmission wires, unlike DC current.  So Tesla eventually won that war.

But now that we've mentioned transformers, let's talk a little more about them.  Do you have a cell phone?  Lots of people do.  How about a telephone answering machine?  Small, low-power devices like these often use a little plug-in transformer to convert that 120v juice in the outlet down to something more like what the device really needs.  Transformers are necessarily bulky, so you can't just slap the transformer into the device itself, right?  Too heavy.  But did you know that even if the device isn't plugged in, there's still some current going into that transformer?

Well, it's just a little wall wart.  It can't be using a lot of power, can it?

Oh, yeah.  It's not a lot, but it's real.  It's called a "phantom load" and it adds to your utility bill.  Not a lot, but some.

VCR and DVD players have their transformers built in.  You don't see them, but they are there.  TVs have memory circuits that are always on, and the tube (for those of you still using previous-generation cathode ray tube TVs) is kept a little warmed up.  Folks above a certain age remember how TVs used to need a couple of minutes to warm up, get to full brightness.  Not anymore.  Now there's a little juice going through it all the time so it's ready for you.  That convenience costs.  And when did you ever have a TV emergency?

Never a TV emergency.  But I thought new devices were supposed to be more efficient than the old stuff they replace?

Lots of things are, for sure.  LED clocks are more efficient than the old motor-driven electric clocks.  They just are.  But remember old stoves, the gas or electric stove that had no clock at all?  All it did was get hot.  Turn it off and it was off.  My current stove tells time, has a timer, and can even be scheduled to come on at such-and-such a time.  I don't know how to make it do that, but it can.

Thermostats.  Again, this is a better choice than the old mechanical ones.  The old kind had liquid mercury in it, probably, and couldn't be set to turn the AC off during the day while you're at work.  The new ones can, and it's totally worth it.  You give up maybe a kilowatt-hour of power per year to run the thermostat, but it saves you dozens of kilowatt-hours every week that you let it run a setback schedule.  So if you don't have a programmable thermostat, get one.

Don't get Rite-Temp.  They're a disaster.  Shoot for Braeburn or Honeywell.  Honeywell is easy to install, Braeburn more versatile.

Remember those wall warts, the little plug-in transformers?  Get them all together and put them on a plug strip, one that has a switch.  When you're not using them, turn off the plug strip.  Bye-bye, phantom loads.

Not a big TV watcher?  Put the TV on a plug strip too, and the set-top box if you have cable.  Shut it all down when you're not using it.  Phantom loads.

So far you're talking about a lot of really little things.  I'm sure they add up, being always on.  But is there anything big I can do, some low hanging fruit that makes a big difference?

Water heaters pull serious amperage when they're on.  But if you're gone half the day, install a timer and let it just drift while you're gone.  Have it turn on before you get home, and right before you get up.  Off during the day and while you're sleeping.  There's a surge of electricity use while it heats up, but no silly reheats at luncthime while you're at the water cooler at the office.  You can also add insulation to the water heater to slow down how much heat it does lose, which makes a big difference as to just how long it's on when it does come on.

What about in the kitchen?

Refrigerators with lots of doohickeys in the freezer door tend to pull more amps.  If you can get by without the ice cube crusher and the chilled water dispenser, you can have a freezer that doesn't have a hole in its door.  Hello, conservation.

Anything else?

Compact fluorescent bulbs.  If you're using the old, hot, incandescent bulbs, you're mostly making heat with those things.  The old Easy Bake Oven used a light bulb for a reason.  Compact fluorescents make about the same amount of light for nearly a fourth of the power - that's less heat in your house, that your AC has to run to remove.  Win-win.  LEDs are getting better by the day but they're not as efficient as CF bulbs, not yet - though the spot and flood bulbs are very, very good and if you have to replace in a difficult location, the LED floods may well be worth the extra cost.  Not having to replace a hard-to-reach bulb for ten years is awfully appealing, add in the fact it gets almost the same energy conservation the CF does and it becomes a no-brainer choice.

That's a few ideas, enough to get you looking around. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tobacco Companies Are Whining

If you've been reading the news, you're probably aware that the old black-and-white text-only warning on cigarette packs was going to go away.  They would be replaced with "graphic" warnings mandated by the FDA.

The graphic warnings are pretty graphic indeed.  Big colorful photos comparing healthy lungs with diseased ones, smoker's teeth with non-smoker's, a "body" with the post-mortem Y-incision.

Some debate about that body.  It might just be an actor.

The interesting thing here is that the images that have to be displayed on the packs are huge.  They're fully half the entire front of the pack, with the remaining space below it being the brand.  I've never seen anything like it.  It's like there's a government mandated horror show that goes along with the purchase of cigarettes.

The old warning label didn't amount to much.  First it was the exact same warning every time, and I don't even remember what it was.  Not being a smoker, I don't have much experience to draw on here.  But in the 90s I found out that the label had changed, and in fact wasn't the same from one pack to another.  There were different messages, like advising you that stopping smoking had health benefits compared to continuing smoking, and the warnings had become more sternly worded.  Far from the old, dry language I associated with them, the new warnings with their novel changing messages, at least got people interested in them for a while.  They were a little like Chinese fortune cookies.

Maybe that should be misfortune cookies, considering the message.

Anyway!  These new labels aren't messages at all.  They're pictures, big bold ones.  They're right there at the top of the pack, in order to look at the flap and get the box open, you have to look at the message.  That's pretty arresting, having to open the mouth full of crusty yellowed teeth to get to your smokes.

Tobacco companies are complaining that the images they're now required to include on their packages are too much.  There's too little space left for their brand image, the body in the post-mortem picture is actually an actor.  The changing images on the face of the package will cost too much to implement.

As to the actor complaint, the famous Marlboro Man campaign resulted in a few of those actors dying at relatively young ages.  They took up pretty active anti-smoking campaigns at the ends of their lives; I'll bet any one of them would have signed on for this last modeling gig.  Even no less an icon than Yul Brynner, knowing he was dying of lung cancer, renounced smoking before he died, and wished out loud he could take it all back.

The tobacco companies, I hate to admit it, have a powerful point.  Car companies aren't required to splash their cars with a gallon of blood before leaving the factory to serve as a warning to those who might neglect to brake.  McDonald's doesn't have to stick a funhouse mirror to every door to show people, upon entering, what they might look like at 350lbs.

That last one's actually not a bad idea.

But you need a car to get to work.  Granted for thousands of years humans did just fine without cars, but that's not the way society is shaped anymore.  And there's no way around needing food.  It doesn't have to be McDonald's, but you need food.  You just do.  And these products, fast food and cars and myriad others aren't harmful in and of themselves.  They just aren't.  McDonald's food won't kill you if you moderate your intake.  Responsible driving is almost as safe as walking.

There is no safe way to smoke.  You aren't physically adapted to it - that's why the first time people suck on a lit cigarette, there's usually a fit of coughing, maybe retching.  That's the body trying to expel something bad.

Think about tobacco.  The plant produces nicotine in itself to ward off predation from bugs and animals.  It's not a perfect solution, there are bugs and animals that still eat it.  But it's not worthless either.  Do a great job of growing this plant up nice and tall, now cut it down and dry it out.  Shred it.  Stuff it into a paper tube.  Stuff a bit of insulation into one end of the paper tube.  Light the uninsulated end.  Now stick the unlit end of the paper tube in your mouth, and suck that smoke deep into your lungs.

You're paying for that privilege.  And it's not chicken feed either.  With current prices, each cancer stick cigarette costs about 20 cents.  Each cigarette is estimated to shorten the average smoker's life span by eleven minutes (disregarding the wasted minutes spent actually buying, lighting and smoking the things); a single pack costs about three and a half hours.  Four bucks, three and a half hours.  For thirty-two dollars saved, you could live another day.  More time, less cost.  I don't see a downside here.

So what have the tobacco companies offered to make the cigarettes less dangerous?  What are they printing on their packs that suggests alternatives to smoking?  They are very vocal about the infringement on their rights, but haven't supported their claim to the rights.  The rights are assumed, and that may be where the crux of the entire discussion lies: should anyone have a right to smoke, should anyone have a right to sell tobacco for smoking?  So far that question hasn't been raised and I may do it at a later date, but for the moment that's not where I'm going.  But there's plenty of ground there to cover, so that will probably be a lot of fun when we get to it.

I don't know whether the tobacco companies are still clinging to the "studies" they funded years ago that kept coming up inconclusive.  Of course they're inconclusive.  When the lab is funded by the very body it's holding up to the microscope, you can kiss its neutrality goodbye.  And even if they're not, again they have a haven in the form of the legality of their product.  No one has outlawed tobacco products yet.  No one has outlawed smoking yet.

I think the day is coming, though.  I'm looking forward to it, too.  I'm not even so jazzed about the potential absence of the smell of tobacco smoke - I'm more looking forward to never seeing another cigarette butt again.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Abercrombie and Fitch: Discovering Taste

Believe it or not, Abercrombie and Fitch has its limits.

The young folks fashion store, also known by its initials A&F, has nothing to do with the old Abercrombie and Fitch that used to cater to the outdoorsy set.  That company was full of rugged outdoor wear and upscale hunting and camping gear.  The current one has only the name in common.  Too bad.  If there were a less tenuous chain of relation, it'd be pretty cool to be part of a company whose roots went all the way back to the 1890s.

They still claim it of course, but I don't give it any credence.  Buying a name isn't like growing up with the name.

A&F has been in the news recently for a few little tidbits that have garnered some notice.  For starters, the stock price has been on an upward spiral since January of '09, gaining about 400% in the two-plus years that have elapsed.  That must be a heady experience for shareholders in general.  They're down a bit over the last month, but who isn't?

A couple of months ago, pundits, moms and probably shareholders took A&F to task for its unveiling (ha ha ha) of their new push-up bikini intended for younger girls.  Like, seven-year-old girls.

There's optimism, and there's just plain silly.  There's nothing to push up. And why would you want to?  Isn't seven a little young to be getting into the whole bigger-is-better routine?  I thought we were trying to raise kids with a little less self-consciousness about how they were shaped.  They've since stopped calling it a "push-up" anything, but A&F haven't pulled it off the shelves, either.  No word on how well it's selling, but I hope it's very poorly.  Most of the parents I know would prefer their kids that young, boys and girls alike, just be happy being kids for a while longer.

This last may have stayed in the news cycle a little longer, or come back around, when Vogue recently featured a tarted-up 10-year-old on its cover and in its pages in its most recent issue.  At no point does the child look like a fully-vamped adult, either - she looks like a kid with some serious Dress Up skillz once she's gotten access to mommy's closet and warpaint case.  One wonders what Vogue is doing, even putting her in the magazine.  It's an utterly unrealistic image to portray.  Do the adult readers aspire to that appearance?  Too late for that ladies - you've got boobs now.  Is Vogue hoping to attract younger readers?  Well, maybe a few less Virginia Slims ads, Buick ads and they've got themselves some potential.  Of course, your average preteen has next to no spending cash, so that may be a bad market to expand into.

There I go, ending a sentence with a preposition.  Sorry, Kathy, if you're reading.

But now the latest blip in the news is A&F is asking a "celebrity" to stop wearing their products.  There's something you don't see too often, and frankly I find it astonishing.  Where a lot of publicists carry the mantra, "there's no such thing as bad publicity," A&F has decided, as a corporation, that there is.  And who is this undesireable person?  No less than Michael Sorrentino, "the Situation" of MTV's Jersey Shore show.

I've ranted about Jersey Shore before.  I won't cover that same unpleasant ground again.  The sooner JS goes off the air, the better - and takes its loudmouth buffoons with it.  And it would appear that A&F has the same opinion.

Abercrombie and Fitch used the term "aspirational" when describing the look they want their fashions to portray.  I'm taking that to mean they want the people wearing the clothes to look like they aspire to something.  Since all I get from The Jersey Shore is a bunch of 20-somethings that have little to do but party, drink, tan and hang out, I can see where there would be disharmony between the two.  A&F wants to be associated with people who are trying to make something of themselves, and The Jersey Shore conveys little evidence of making something of anything except comments overheard at bars.

If I made clothes, I wouldn't want my brand associated with a bunch of hangers-on.  Get a real job, you slackers.  Put on some no-name overseas-made jeans while you're at it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Stick Shift

I mentioned David S. Platt a couple of weeks ago, and his video that discusses the mindsets of people who use software: they don't want to use software, they want to have used software.  But before he said that, he used the example of driving, that the vast majority of drivers are much less interested in the act of driving than they are in the fact of having arrived.  They aren't interested in the mechanism by which arrival happens, so long as it happens.

Specifically, his example pointed up stick shifts, manual transmissions in cars.  Software engineers, at least the sample of them in Platt's audience, like them.  They are simpler in their function, more reliable, more efficient and offer more control to the user.  But they are more difficult to use.

There's a subtle but very real change in the function of the accelerator pedal when it's in a manual transmission car vs. a car with an automatic transmission.  Not the function of the pedal itself, but the function it serves to the driver.  To fully understand it, let's first look at the transmission itself.
Here's one stripped naked.  This appears to be a five speed (plus reverse).

The interesting thing is that it looks like all the gears are already meshing with each other, right?  Except that last pair at the right.  That last pair is reverse.  Looking at everything else, you just see four pairs, so you'd think four-speed transmission, right?  Nope: in a typical five-speed tranny, fourth is actually a straight-through drive.  Fifth is the first pair of gears on the left, the input gear is a tiny bit bigger than the output gear.  It means you have the output shaft turning faster than the input shaft: overdrive.  Slows the engine down for economical turnpike cruising.

But they're all meshing.  Except they aren't.  The greeblies between the gears are what make the actual engagement happen.  Without those being engaged, the gears just spin freely on the shaft.  And to make that engagement easier to do, there's a sort of mini-clutch inside the transmission that make the two different parts of the shaft match speeds, so there's no grinding when you shift.  You can, if you have the time, eventually get your car up from a dead stop and fully engaged in first, just by gently leaning on that synchronizer clutch inside the transmission.  Make no mistake, it's a terrible thing to do to a synchro, but it can be done.

If you drive a stick, you probably know about all this already, or at least some of it.  And that picture of shafts and gears and whatnot up there, you can probably correctly identify at least half of the various parts.

Now let's take a look at an automatic transmission.  There are a few different varieties and the newest, most modern automatics are radically different in design from the ones that started the automatic transmission industry fifty years ago.  And yet, there's one thing most of them have in common and so we'll take a look at that:
An automatic transmission.  Image from

Now of course that image isn't of the transmission itself.  And if you drive an automatic, you probably don't really care.  Just so long as it works.  Reverse to get out of parking spaces, Drive to go forward.  Neutral between them to avoid unpleasant mishaps, and Park so you can get the key out.  What does the actual transmission look like?  I sincerely doubt the majority of automatic drivers know, and couldn't describe one if asked to do so.

In the manual transmission-equipped car, you use the clutch and accelerator pedals to decouple the transmission from the engine, match engine speed to transmission speed (if already moving), modulate the takeup of load onto the engine and increase then engine's torque output (if at rest) to get the car going and increase its speed.

You have to choose which gear.  You have to decide when to select it.  You disengage the clutch, let up on the gas, reengage the clutch and get back on the gas, all in a sophisticated, rapid and carefully timed dance.  Don't forget you're also steering and thinking about the brake while all this goes on.  The gas pedal is how you make the engine do what you want it to do, because you want it to do different things at different times.

In the automatic, you put the gear selector in Drive and go.  You use the accelerator pedal to control only the car's speed.  Not the engine's speed, the car's.  What the engine and transmission are doing is not a consideration you worry about.  Having selected Drive, your further involvement with the function of the transmission and engine is not required.  You want the car to go, and it's going.

Do you see the difference there?  The difference in wants.  The manual transmission car requires that you want different things to happen even as the car is going down the road and take the necessary action to make them happen; you already want to arrive at your destination, but operation of the manual transmission predicates a bunch of other wants in order to make that happen.  The automatic, however, doesn't.  It leaves you only with your original goal-oriented want.  It takes care of everything else.  There are other wants associated with the operation of the car, of course, but I'm not talking about them.

I prefer not to abdicate the responsibility for my car's proper operation.  In fact my favorite vehicle doesn't even tune itself on the go the way a modern fuel injected car does; if the fuel-air mixture is off it's up to me to figure that out and to fix it.  Fuel injection is constantly self correcting things like that and it's great - but I like to know what's going on.  If the engine tunes itself, then me knowing what's going on is completely unnecessary.

How long before the driver is completely unnecessary?  Not long, it appears.  You can have an automatic and abdicate the operation of the transmission.  You can have satellite navigation systems and blame an electronic device when you get lost.  You can have adaptive cruise control that brings your car to a complete stop with no intervention from the driver if it detects an obstruction.

You can have a car that drives itself.

Remember when it was up to the driver to operate the car safely?  How much more of that are we going to trust to automated systems?  It started with the automatic transmission, ostensibly to make driving easier, safer.  But I think it's accelerated the surrender of personal responsibility worldwide.  That's a larger question about human culture in general, a much bigger question that I'm not ready to tackle.  And with hackers, EMP attacks and the occasional solar flare, I don't think it's a great plan to give over so much responsibility to devices that are fallible.  If we learn to rely on the machines, we don't have to learn to rely on ourselves, do we? 

Shift for yourself.  I said it before, but it's worth repeating.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: Cooking in Iron

This is a paradigm shift.  Usually you're talking about household maintenance.  What gives?

Yeah, I'm usually about handyman type stuff.  But the underlying theme there is always money money money, and especially not giving yours up to someone when you could simply do the work yourself.

You might recall that I've already touched on the economics of eating in vs. eating out.  The example I chose wasn't perfect because it looks like rather a tighter race than it really is, and of course I did mention that breakfast tends to be a low-priced meal even at the fast food places.  Lunch and dinner on the other hand can become pretty pricey, and certainly more expensive than even a lavish meal cooked at home.

I get all that.  But the title up there says "Cooking in Iron."  Expand on that.

Like home repair professionals, top-notch chefs are inclined to make you think you're stupid, incompetent.  If you're dumb, that means they're the smart ones, the ones who can bang together an excellent meal.  But if you've ever watched Top Chef (my personal favorite, all-around good guy Rick Bayless who actually believes anyone can cook, probably as well as he can and they're all worth learning from) you've seen that one of the challenges the competitors face is making gourmet meals on short notice, or in primitive conditions with rudimentary equipment, or with vending machine ingredients.  That is to say, they're made to make food that doesn't rely on gadgets, flashy pans, or super-high-dollar foods.

And this relates to me how...?

If they can do it, so can you.  At this moment Sweetie is whipping up a little dinner.  Admittedly it isn't going to be anything flashy but frankly we're not flashy people.  I don't want my food to be flashy.  I want it to taste good.  That's why I choose to eat the food instead of just subsisting on the same thing day after day.

Fancy oven?  Not hardly, a ten-year-old Kenmore from the lower-middle of the spectrum.  Utensils: cast iron, baby.  Lodge cookware, from South Pittsburg Tennessee.  You don't find that many things made in America anymore, but Lodge is solidly planted just a hundred miles down the road.  Ingredients: canned.  I don't know what brand and frankly I don't care.  My dad told me a story one day about how a factory cranked out Penn brand tennis balls during the day shift, and Slazenger brand, from the exact same production line, during the night shift.  Same balls, different stamp.  It might be just a story, but what the heck: they're tennis balls.  Who's going to tell a difference?  They're green beans, who's going to tell a difference?

So you could drop a few hundred bucks on a set of top-of-the-line Calphalon pots and pans and use, just like everyone else, the same four or five pans over and over.  What are those other pans for?

Revereware is a popular and very old brand, and we have quite a bit of it.  Most of our array of Revereware has been accumulated over years from garage sales and thrift stores.  What the heck, it's a pan.  It's clean.  It matches the others.  What more could you ask for?

Sauteing, frying, lots of general cooking happens in the cast iron, though.  Do we miss the old non-stick surface of our Teflon lined pans, not a bit.  A well-seasoned iron pan practically rejects scrambled eggs, they leap out of the pan onto the plate.  Cleanup is a snap and f it doesn't shine, well, it's cast iron.  It's supposed to look like its great uncle was a locomotive.

What's your point?  It sounds like you're just bragging about cast iron pans.

Maybe a little.  I like the absence of pretension.  It's a solid piece of metal designed to transfer heat and cook food.  Period, end of story, no embellishment.  So the food stands on its own, as does the cook.  You don't need to lean on gadgets and expensive ingredients for good food.

Dinner tonight: butter beans, pork chops, potatoes.  It might not sound like much but we can expand on it:  Pan-seared pork chops with sauteed onions, breakfast fries with pepper, and butter beans.

That first description doesn't sound impressive, does it?  But the second one does, almost like something you'd read in a menu at Shoney's.  It's the exact same plateful of food.  And if you ordered it at Shoney's it'd set you back $8 per person, while the cost of all the ingredients for the entire family's dinner tonight might not be $8 total.  And no tipping, either.  Sure, someone has to do the dishes.  What of it?

Looking for the point, still...

The point is this: good food is just good food.  You can pay a lot for it to have someone else cook it, someone else bring it to you and someone else clean up, or you can pay a little and do it yourself.  But the big point is there's nothing to stop you from doing it yourself.  Dinner tonight, with either the plain or the fancy name, took about fifteen minutes to make.  I've already cleaned half the dishes from making it.  No Kobe beef was involved, or marinated artichoke hearts.  Cans were opened, plain potatoes were peeled.  The cookware is black and hot and the wallet stayed closed.  It was affordable, fast and delicious.

Your dinner can be all of those things.  Or it can just be fast.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Honda Civic

The Honda Civic has been around as a discrete model for 38 years.  Nothing else except the Porsche 911, which has had a longer production run, comes close.

You could argue that the Toyota Corolla is in fact older, and as a nameplate it is, but it has undergone larger changes in its basic architecture (formerly a rear driver, for instance) than the Civic ever did.  From one end of its existence to the other, the Honda's evolution has been almost linear, contrasted to the Corolla's watershed transition to front drive.

At its introduction, the Civic was a small car with a small engine driving small front wheels.  It got good mileage.  The engine ran in the opposite direction from almost every other engine on the road.  It was simple and reliable.  I had one.  It weighed 1700lbs with me in it.  I could park it anywhere, it was so small only a motorcycle had more parking choices than I did.
 This is a nicely enhanced 1978 model, probably lots of new 
goodies under the hood.  But the body looked just 
like this.  Image from Honda Tuning Magazine

A few years down the road and the Civic was a tiny bit larger.  To cope with larger Americans in its developing market, it got a somewhat larger engine.  Honda got a handle on the dreadful rusting issues that plagued their little cars.

A few more years down the road and the Civic was updated with angular styling that still evoked the original slightly frowny expression of the predecessors.  Mileage stayed fantastic.  Now the Civic could be had in a decidely sporty flavor, the CRX Si which, with over 90bhp on tap and a feathery 2000lb curb weight, actually lived up to its promise.  In the emissions-strangled 80s when the big 5.0 Mustang delivered all of 210hp and the Camaro's "big" engine was a peculiar anemic 305 from the GM stables, the "Crixie" Civic was economical, an absolute blast to drive both in straight lines and through corners (unlike the Camaro), and even easy to insure.  Roads all over America were riddled with them.
An excellent image from Car and Driver, 1985 CRX Si

Then in the 90s Honda noticed that curves were all the rage.  Not on the roads, on the cars.  What Ford had begun with the Taurus and carried to an outlandish expression with the suppository-shaped third generation of that model, Honda and most other makers picked up on.  The Civic became something of an egg.

Starting about 1996 but achieving full fruition in the current generation in '06, the Civic is a sleek one-box design.  It doesn't even feel right to call it a one-box design, because boxes have corners.  The Civic has none.  It is an ovoid of aerodynamic idealism, carried out with grudging compromises for the realities of wheels and doors and oh yes, human occupants.
A 2012 Civic

The aerodynamic advances, in conjunction with serious engine advances, transmission advances and lord knows what else, are why the new Civic, weighing about 1000lbs more than the old CRX Si and packing about twice the horsepower, still gets better fuel mileage.  It can even be had as a hybrid, which calls into serious question whether you would ever want the Insight, Honda's purpose-built hybrid model.  Unlike the Toyota Prius, the Insight is small and dreadful, an ill-wrought response to what was a seriously well-executed initial effort from Toyota.  The hybrid Civic is, on the other hand, a Civic that in city driving especially sips like a teetotaller, an already thrifty and very useful car made even thriftier while giving up almost none of its original utility.  It's a better choice than the current Insight.

I had a 1978 Civic, with the rare Hondamatic "semi-automatic" transmission.  It didn't shift itself, but it didn't have a clutch pedal, either.  1st took you to about 50mph, and 2nd took your everywhere else.  You could skip first if you wanted.  It was so compact it was ridiculously easy to park.  All four corners were clearly visible from the driver's seat, so planting it anywhere there was room was almost as easy as walking.  Shoot, as compact economy cars went it was even quick, the torque converter allowing the engine to leap up to its torque peak and hold there as the car gathered speed with impressive rapidity.

Like your first girlfriend, your first night away from home and your first day in a college classroom, there are things you remember, and that old Civic was my first car.  I would give rather a lot to have it back.  It was a very good little car, and I wish new cars were as simple and unabashedly fun as it was.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why Rick Perry Can't Be President

He looks like Ted McGinley, for one.  We can't have POTUS jump the shark, can we?

Texas Governor Rick Perry

Ted McGinley, seen here not cursing any show at all

Ted McGinley is the actor who, through no fault of his own, is somehow associated with TV shows that tank.  He's a perfectly nice guy, easy to look at, typical leading man rugged charm.  But when he's featured on a show, it's like some distant death knell sounds somewhere.  I was so unhappy to see him on Sports Night.

The other reason, the big reason, is Rick Perry's faith.  He's too Christian.

That's right, too faithful.  Too devoted to his own spiritual path, too Christian.  It pains me to say it, being Christian myself.  But Perry's big prayer rally was, in my opinion, a big coffin nail in his not-a-campaign to run for President.  There are things you might do as a private citizen that you just don't do as a politician.

To hold a big prayer rally is a good thing.  Make no mistake on that.  But to hold it as governor of a state (or quasi-country, from their point of view) is another thing entirely.  It smacks of endorsement.  As governor, you shouldn't do that.

As President, you shouldn't do that.

This nation is largely Christian, yes.  This nation was founded by Christian immigrants who were seeking a freer place in which to practice their own brand of faith, yes.  But it was also founded by companies looking to make a buck.  And the framers of our own government proclaimed freedom of faith - not just Christian faith, but any faith up to and including no faith.  Perry's presidency, should it happen (God forbid), would undermine and dilute all of that.  He can't set aside his own spiritual path long enough to admit the legitimacy of anyone else's.

See, the scary thing here is that Perry has decided on many things that many people are still debating.  He's decided and no argument, evidence, or debate to the contrary is likely to dissuade him, ever.  So those gray areas that make politics such a pain in the butt for the rest of us simply don't exist for him.  He's got a certainty, and now all he has to do is find a way to make reality match his convictions.  Abortion?  That's just wrong.  Every time.  Gotta get rid of that.  Gay marriage?  Can't have that, the queers will start breeding.  State's rights?  Totally for them...until he's not.  Hmm.  Bit of waffling there.  Maybe as a presidential hopeful he's less concerned about state's rights.

I'm not the only one thinking along these lines.  A President must be fair and balanced, in a very not-Fox-News kind of way.  I don't think Rick Perry can become balanced that way, and that by itself is a deal breaker.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: Water Heaters

It's been a while since you did one of these.

I know.  Real life intrudes.

Today I want to talk about water heaters.

What about them?  It's just a big tank full of hot water.  There's not much you can do with it, right?

Wrong.  There's a few things you can do to improve its performance and extend its life.

Okay.  You convinced me last time about how it's smart money to buy a few tools and do for myself.  So lay it on me.

First of all, your water heater uses either gas or electricity to heat the water.  If you have a gas water heater, be ready for it to die.  In my opinion, gas water heaters don't last as long as electrics.

Why is that?

Corrosive combustion products condensing inside the flue tend to attack the metal and cause it to wear out sooner.  That, on top of all the usual points failure in a water heater means a gas water heater generally goes toes-up at a somewhat younger age than an electric one.  But the difference is generally not noticeable, and the fuel savings of gas over electric is huge, so it's a wash in the long run.

Okay.  Let's say my water heater just died and I want to replace it.  What now?

First, turn off the water and turn off and disconnect the power or gas, and drain it.  Open a hot water faucet nearby, connect a hose to the drain valve at the bottom of the tank, and drain it by opening the valve.  If you have a window or doorway nearby you can just run the hose outdoors; if not you can take it to a nearby sink or toilet, but if the hose has to go uphill at any point, you'll probably find yourself carrying buckets of water.  Be ready for that.

If your water heater has a couple of shutoff valves in its water supply pipes, when you remove the supplies from the tank you can keep those valves shut, but keep the rest of the house's water on.  That means it isn't quite the emergency to get the job done quickly.

You still  want to get it done quickly, because you're going to want a shower at the end of the day, but at least your toilet and sinks will be working.

Once the tank is empty, you can remove any restraints it might have that keep it from toppling over (required by code in some places), and get it out of the house.  Most trash services won't take something that big, so you'll have to get it to the dump on your own or call a junk removal service.  But it's out of the house and that's the important bit.

Why does it say "fragile" on the box of the new water heater?  It's a big steel tank, looks pretty solid.

The tank is lined with glass.  That's slightly oversimplified but essentially correct.  Water attacks metal, but glass is effectively inert in the presence of water.  So the entire inside of the tank is lined with enamel or some other vitreous coating, just like a good cast iron bathtub.  Bounce it around or drop it, however, and the lining can crack.  That means water can get to the steel, eat it away and there you are after just a few months with a leaky tank, and doing this again.  So handle the entire tank as if it were all made of glass.

So you and a helper wrestle the new tank into place, reattach the water and power and/or gas, and there you are.  Let the water in gently.  Open that hot water faucet again to give the air inside the tank someplace to escape from.  Check for leaks as it fills, and as the tank finishes filling and takes on pressure, check for leaks again, looking everywhere you reconnected pipes.

All done?  Is that faucet done gurgling and spitting air?  Good, job's finished.  Turn the power back on, wait an hour and take a shower, you've earned it.

You said something about making it last longer, too.  I tried to save a few bucks by getting the shorter-warranty model, what can I do to keep it in good shape?

Like anything else, a water heater fares best if it gets a little maintenance once in a while.  Remember the drain valve on your old one?  Did you notice what kind of water came out at first while it was draining?  Pretty gritty, gunky looking stuff, I'll bet.

Every six months, hook up a hose to the water heater and drain off that sediment that's collected at the bottom of the tank.  Just let the water run until it comes out clear.  I've seen many pounds of grit and crud come out of the bottom of a water heater and the owner later told me it was as if I'd installed a new tank, twice as large as the old one.  But all I'd done was rinse out the sediment.  Results not typical, but you get the idea.  If space inside your water heater is taken up with something besides water, then obviously you're not getting the full benefit of the device.  Get that crud out of there and it'll be able to do more for you.

Check the thermostat setting.  I don't know what the factory setting is on your water heater but the last one I saw was defaulted at 140 degrees.  That's pretty hot, hot enough to do some damage.  If you don't need water that hot, turn it down to, say, 130.  I don't recommend much lower than that because you want to be sure it's hot enough to kill bad microorganisms like Legionnaire's disease.  130 will do it, 120 might not.

Double check the thermostat by running hot water over a candy thermometer.  Try to get it to within two degrees of the desired setting at the faucet.  If that means turning up the thermostat at the tank, so be it.

Insulate your hot water pipes everywhere you can.  If they're under the house in an unconditioned space, you give up an awful lot of heat to the winter air when it's cold out.  If they're running through the conditioned spaces inside your house, you're dumping a lot of heat inside your home, which your air conditioning then has to run extra to remove again, all summer long.  Either way, insulate your hot water pipes.  More insulation if you're already wrapped isn't a bad thing, either.

If it's electric and for some reason the heating elements go out, you can replace them.  Turn off water, turn off power, and drain like you're going to replace the whole thing, fit that big wrench onto the element in the side of the tank, wrench it out and wrench in the new one.  Apply a little plumber's grease to the threads or some teflon tape to make installing the new one easier.  Reconnect everything, check for leaks as it fills.

But mine's gas.

No sweat.  Check your burners from time to time.  Clean out the air intakes to be sure there's nothing interfering with proper airflow.  Check the flue, too - no leaves or bird nests (that's unlikely) clogging the output.  That could be deadly dangerous, the flue gases will kill you if they can't get out of the house.  Notice, I didn't say "might," I said "will."  Carbon monoxide is a primary component of flue gases and it has no odor or flavor, and you can't see it.  Worse still, it binds with hemoglobin preferentially, so the red blood cells in your blood tend to hook up with CO more readily than oxygen, and don't willingly give it up.  You can build up to a bad dose over a period of time, get to fresh air for a while, and come back into it and start back on building up a lethal dose, almost from where you left off.  It takes hours to flush CO from your system.

Anything else?

Just one more item, and this is difficult: if you can, replace the anode rod inside the tank every three years.  The anode rod is a sacrificial piece of metal inside the tank that corrodes before anything else does.  It's what keeps the tank from being attacked by water; as long as the anode rod is still there, your tank will probably last forever.  Replace the anode rod on a periodic basis, and you may never need to replace your water heater again.

This requires turning off the water and gas or electric again.  You probably won't need to remove the tank from its resting place.  You'll have to latch onto the rod on top of the tank, so you'll probably have to remove the water supplies so you can get the top of the tank jacket off, unless they've been convenient and made it possible to get to the rod without removing the top of the jacket.  Hook up a big wrench and about as big an extension handle to the wrench as you can find, and spin the rod off.  Lefty-loosy, remember.  Replace with a new one and enjoy a new lease on water heater life.

You may have to shop around for a new anode rod.  Lots of places don't carry them, since they simply accept that "water heaters wear out, there's nothing you can do."  Bosh and tish, says I.

When you go to install a new anode rod, give those pipe threads a gentle daub of plumber's grease.  A little goes a long way, and it also means that next time you go to do this, you might not need the extension handle.  It's worth the trouble.

Reconnect everything, check for leaks like before.  Job's done.  Sit back and relax and enjoy a new lease on water heater life, and the satisfaction of making a device that's expected to last only a few years, way more years than anyone ever expected.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Clouded Thoughts

Steve Jobs has talked about keeping a lot of your next computer's software and storage "in the cloud."  Amazon offers five gigabytes of free "cloud drive" storage.  Five gigs isn't a lot compared to some things, but it's a thousand songs, too.  Approximately the equivalent of 80 CDs, that's not chicken feed if you compress them to MP3 format.  Looked at another way, it's only 20 minutes of video, or just enough time to save a brief recording of chicken feeding.

Dig a little deeper into Amazon's "cloud drive" offerings and you find 1000 gigabytes - 1 terabyte (one million kilobytes for you old farts that remember when the standard 64k of memory was where "real" computers set themselves apart from the kiddie units) - costs $1000 per year.

You read that right.  One terabyte of storage, one kilodollar, one year.  What happens to your data if you don't pay up?  In an admittedly brief search, no word on what happens, but at a guess I'd say you can't access it.  Instead, you get a sternly-worded message saying your data is held hostage until you pony up.

Elsewhere on Amazon you can find a one terabyte hard drive, $80.  Instead of $83 per month, that's $80 one time and you own it.  No sternly worded messages at all.  I'm not seeing a lot of advantage here, but let's explore that a bit.

What's the single largest advantage?  Portability.  Anywhere there's a computer with a working web browser, you have access to your storage.  Log in and there it is, boom.  When you're done with whatever you're working on, save it, boom again.  Get back to the house or office and there it is, all the changes saved just like you left them.

You can achieve similar results with a USB drive.  You can't carry as much information on your person, USB drives only go up to about 32G, but really unless you're editing video on the run you don't need that much storage.  There's the obvious risk of losing the USB drive, but there's the risk of losing your cell phone, too - that doesn't stop anybody from putting their personal information on there, family phone numbers and addresses.  All very risky behavior, from a security standpoint.  But they do it.  I daresay a USB drive is even a little more secure, since it rides down in a pocket, not on a belt carrier.  Less likely to get dropped.  And mine is on my key ring.  In order to drop and lose it, I'd have to not hear it, and that's really unlikely.  I don't leave it behind when I go somewhere, since I can't leave without my car keys.  It's not a terrible system.  Perfect, of course not.  But how perfect is the "cloud?"

When's the last time you heard of this database or that network, supposedly a very secure one owned and administered by some large company, falling prey to hackers or other infiltrators?  Not that long ago, was it?  Sony, eggheads par excellence, got some serious egghead on their face when their Playstation user network was compromised.  You'd expect that Sony would be up to the task of keeping one of their big cash cows safe and secure, but no.  If they can't do it, how safe is your data at Amazon?

If you answered, "no safer than at home," bingo.  You won the booby prize.  No location is completely safe, no storage is completely impermeable.  It appears the hackers are slightly more imaginative than the security purveyors.  Maybe there's just more of them.  Whatever the case, your data can be found.  The beauty of the external drive sitting on your desk is that you can unhook it, physically separate it from the rest of the world.  That's old-school wireless as in "off the grid," and it is absolutely 100% proof against hackers.  If they want at your data, they have to come to your house and get it.

Sorry.  My half-witted novel drafts just aren't worth the risk.  Do I have a pit bull terrier?  A Taurus Judge? A battered Louisville Slugger?  Any hacker worth his password crackers knows better than to find out the hard way.  So I unplug and relax.  My unassuming home and unassuming town are better security than any software I might load onto the computer.  Can't sneak a peek at a DVD that isn't in the drive, can't dig through files on a hard drive that isn't hooked up to the 'net.  Can't be done.  It might as well not be there.

If a hacker looks through your data stored in Amazon's "Cloud Drive," will you even know?  My security program keeps a sniffer going all the time, it'll probably put up some kind of alarm if it detects something, but would I get such a notice from Amazon?  Hard to say.

Where is this cloud?  The concept delivers software as a service, rather than you owning an issue of the software and using that on your own equipment.  So what your little tablet computer is, is essentially an input/output terminal.  The computing hardware isn't in your computer anymore, but somewhere else.  There are efficiencies to be exploited there, a typical tablet computer simply isn't big enough to carry much computational horsepower, but when all it has to be is a display and keyboard, then that's really all most people want.  I think this is speaking more to what most users really want in a computer: they want to have used the computer.

I found a video by a guy named David S. Platt, and he wrapped up the video with this one great truism.  "People don't want to use your software.  They want to have used your software."  In other words, what people want are results, not processes.  Typical users aren't interested in having a computer, they're interested in having what the computer does.  That's a completely different thing.

In effect, they want a TV that does more than just project shows, they want one that also picks up newspapers, does word processing, spreadsheets and video telephony.  In short, they want all the functions of the computer and don't care two hoots about how it happens.  For these people, cloud computing is perfect.

For the rest of us, who store our thoughts and release them in a measured way, who plan and daydream and philosophize, the cloud is rather too nebulous, diaphanous, insecure.  I'm not ready to release this blog post yet, so I'll retain it until 1:00am tomorrow morning, thankyouverymuch.  No hackers need interfere.  My Great American Novel which I will never finish writing must languish without electronic sneak thieves getting their grubby mitts on it.

I don't mind using the computer.  I enjoy shifting my car by hand, making my own sandwich and knowing exactly which piece of software I'm going to use next.  I don't mind being actively involved in the processes of my day-to-day activities.

I don't want the cloud.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Escapist Moments

Sweetie has a few things she waits for, saves up for, to make a tiny little mini-vacation in her day.  I don't do this as much but I have a few of my own, too.

Car washes.  Sweetie guards her trips to the automatic car washes jealously.  If she can have it, she'll go by herself, and find the ones where the machinery grabs the car and gently pulls it through from one end to the other.

I asked her about this.  "I imagine myself at the beach, as a grain of sand.  I'm looking up at the foaming water, the spray and slosh and the sounds and it's very relaxing."  She expanded too, adding that the last time we went to a beach, she couldn't really relax because every few minutes a young child or other would come running up, demanding she run along behind him to see what he'd found, make him a snack, help him get sand out of his swimsuit.  She'd have to pause to get sand out of her own swimsuit, for that matter.

We all know my solution to that particular problem.

And then of course there's the fact that when you're a parent of young kids at the beach, you really can't relax, not ever.  You look around to spot one kid, he's okay, look around for the other.  Check on him.  Check on the first one.  And so on and on and you can't lay back and imagine being a sand grain on the beach, washed by waves.  You don't dare.  But locked in the car with the machinery pulling you through, for a few minutes nothing can happen.  You can simply set all the burdens down and not think about them for a brief little span.

In the morning, Sweetie likes to get up, turn off the ceiling fan, and come back to bed to watch as it slowly spins down.  I still don't know entirely what that's all about and I'm not certain she could articulate it.  But that's a few minutes of the morning she spends in quiet contemplation, watching the blades come to rest.

I like to draw.  Unfortunately what I draw isn't very artistic and sometimes not that very imaginative.  I tend to draw the same thing over and over.  I draw my dream car, exactly how I would build it if I simply could produce the perfect parts, arrange them in just-so order and not have to learn panel beating to make the body curve this way and that way to match my imagination.  I draw floor plans for houses, again, often the same one.  You'd think I could rip one of those out in no time flat, having drawn a few of them, literally, dozens of times.  But no, every time I start to find myself wandering through the house in my mind.  I'm not sure now if what I'm doing is drawing a floor plan or simply providing a somewhat more concrete framework for a daydream.  Because sometimes when I get out the trusty quad rule paper and ruler and pencil, I sit for many many long minutes before drawing a single line.  Sometimes all I accomplish is a couple of lines, the rest of the time spent thinking and wandering.

Instead of the hurry-up concrete world in which I exist, where deadlines are very real and tangible results are the order of the day, it's nice to have these pauses where there is no agenda, just abstract possibilities.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Junkyards

I have a Volvo 240.  Volvo built these things for about a thousand years and didn't change them much from one end of that span to the other.  Headlights changed a little, interior appointments changed a little.  At some point they stopped using Freon in the AC and started making the factory installed refrigerant R-134a.  Cassette players went away and CD players became the stock option.  But the car?  Same basic engine, same basic architecture for about 20 years.  Why mess with what works?

Why indeed.  I need a taillight lens, an expensive part on a lot of cars and no exception on my Swedish beauty.  $130 new from an online dealer; if I can find that at my favorite junkyard, that's about $120 saved.

I've learned from experience that you can find parts if you're willing to sweat a little for them.  But there's risk involved.  Junkyards are dangerous places where cars are sometimes stacked five high, wasps have built nests right under that beautifully unblemished stereo and so many things are sharp or filthy or heavy and might land on your foot.  But there's another, greater danger to watch out for.

At the junkyard is a whole 'nother world.  No one yells at you if you walk on the cars.  In fact, some of them are so haphazardly stuffed in there, walking on them is the only way to make progress.  But still, you try not to walk right in the middle of a broad, flat hood - someone might need that, no point in oilcanning it so it's no good.  So you step on fenders which are much more rigid due to their shape, and right over the hood latch.

There are amazing things to be found at the junkyard.  There's jacks out of trunks everywhere, including jacks that would fit my truck.  Some are in perfect condition.

There's a bus I recognize, a shorty model from the local city bus service, complete with its handicapped lift.  I recognize this bus.  Why do I recognize it?  Its owner tried to donate it to me.  I listened to it run and was seriously tempted by the absolutely perfect engine...but the dreadful condition of everything else stopped me.  I'm not surprised to see it on the hill at Lambert's Used Auto Parts.

In the front lot is a SAAB 96 sedan.  It's pre-1967 because it has the three-cylinder two-stroke engine under the hood, but it's not the Sport or Monte Carlo model.  No triple carbs.  Too bad.

Too bad in general, really.  It pains me to see such an interesting car parked in front of Lambert's.  It's probably doomed.  I'd love to own it, but I'd love to win the lottery too.  And neither one is going to happen, because I don't buy into them.

At the top of the hill with a little halo of open ground around it is a late-70s Jeep Grand Wagoneer.  It's a little rough but the woodgrain is all there on the sides.  The windows are sound, the seats aren't torn, even all four tires are still inflated.  It looks as if someone with incredibly bad judgment has driven it here and parked it.

One day, shopping for new control buttons for the fog lights and cruise control in my Forester, Son #1 and I found a Subaru Legacy Outback wagon that not only still had the battery in it, but it started right up.  We ran the radio and air conditioning while I harvested its two perfectly functional buttons.  They fit in my Forester like original equipment and unlike most junkyard finds, I didn't break a sweat getting them.  It made me feel good about my Subaru that a junked one fired right up, and it made me feel pretty bad that someone seemed to be trashing a car that had a lot of utility left in it.

At the top of the hill, just barely visible from next to the Wagoneer, is a Volvo 240.  It's one of only two up here, a little surprising when you think about it: Volvo built the 240 for so long, eventually nearly three million rolled off the line.  Some companies change body styles every three years, and here's one that looks remarkably unchanged from one end to the other.  The taillight lenses seem to be exactly the same as mine even though I can tell by the VIN the car is about ten years older...but the lens I need is broken here, too.  Great.  Only two out here?  The other one's a wagon, taillights are different.  I'll check around...

Huh.  Pull-a-Part has one on the yard now.  It wasn't there when I looked two weeks ago...yep, arrived the day after I looked.  Okay, three 240s in junkyards around my home.  That's precious few.

It makes you wonder whether people don't junk them because they're just so easy to fix - which is great for me - or because they simply don't break - which is also great for me.  But it still leaves me on the hook for a taillight lens.  I'll go out there on my lunch break tomorrow.

There's a few models you don't see at the junkyard.  Not at Lambert's, not at Pull-a-Part, not at all as far as I've been able to tell.  You see Jeep Cherokees, you see the not-a-Jeep other models of Jeep like the Liberty and Compass.  But you don't see the Wrangler or the CJ.  There aren't any.  None.

There's a Mustang, just one.  It looks like a late 80s model, very rough.

No Corvettes.

The Wagoneers are an oddity - not one but two on the same day.  One looks great, the other looks like its been abandoned and someone finally decided to drag it out of the woods.

An International Scout II Terra.  That almost makes me want to cry, I want an International Scout.  It's the only International up here.  But this isn't the style I want and I'd rather find a '67, so we'd be the same age.  I daydream about it just a little, and move on.

There are vans of every description, trucks, assorted anonymous cars, everyday cars, the kind of cars owned not by people who love to drive but people who want to already be where they want to be.  Cars owned by people who are interested only in the destination, not the journey.  Many Kias, many Geos and Toyota Camries and other even less noticeable models.  The majority of what's here is the faceless mass of every rush hour you've ever driven in.

  A couple of incredibly old and rudimentary  motorcycles.  Piles of transmissions and transfer cases that make me fantasize about building my own tractor from scratch...and right there is an already bare truck frame I could use to start that project.  And maybe I could wrestle that excellent diesel engine out of that bus, it's still here...

That's the other danger I mentioned.  In spite of the explosive heat, the distant but distinct danger of being squashed by a collapsing stack of wrecks or the much more immediate threat of picking up a wad of yellow jackets, you can get even more lost inside the daydream of what you might build if you had the money, time and materials to just cruise the yard, picking and putting until you've confabulated something entirely new.

The operable Subaru was a real eye opener for me.  It made me wish I owned a company that bought up "junked" cars and restored them to like new condition.  That Grabber Orange Ford Maverick back in the corner?  Save that.  The SAAB on the front apron?  Definitely save that - but maybe swap the engine for something less troublesome than a noisy, smoky two-stroke.  Maybe a two-liter turbo four from a later 900?  And swap in brakes for whoa to match the new go.  A total sleeper, a real junkyard racing dog.

There's a gigantic Cadillac hearse in the back, painted a lurid orange and white.  It is East Tennessee after all, and those are Volunteer colors.  I tried to use a landau bar from the side of the hearse to prop up a trunk lid to see if there were any useful bulbs, but the landau bar was surprisingly floppy and flexible - vinyl trim. If I could, I'd save that and make it into a new game day parade car.  Do I care about football, not a bit - but a snazzy parade car would be fun.  Don't forget, I used to drive a minivan that was covered with mermaids.

Well, the good news is that tomorrow I have an excuse to go to the junkyard.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Why Michele Bachmann Can't Be President: Part II

You'll recall we've taken a trip on this boat.already.  It apparently takes more than one route to get to the same place, however.

On Sunday Bachmann's people released a statement from her, a statement that says, among other things, "It was you that got us into this mess, and it was you who wanted a $2.4 trillion blank check to get you through the election."

Those would be fighting words if they had a larger grain of truth.  If we refer to a little data, we find that while we are indeed underwater with Obama's spending and taxation programs, we discover that we were already well beyond our depth when Bush sank the boat.

Complicating these facts is the Tea Party delegation that seems hellbound and determined to have their way or no way at all.  In a government that is supposed to be by and for the people, they tend to represent a pretty small group; it's one thing to represent your constituents and that's well and good, that's what you should do.  But when you insist on the wingnut platform your wingnut voters backed, in defiance of whatever else the rest of the country might want, well.  That's just being a bully.

If Michele Bachmann becomes President of the United States, we will have four of our worst years ever.  Mark my words.  You think the economy is rocky now, just you wait.  I'd vote for Dick Cheney before I voted for Bachmann, that's how loose a cannon I think she is.  Cheney actually defines loose cannon, accidentally blasting a hunting buddy - but he's way more rational than Bachmann is on her best day.  We can't afford Bachmann.