Monday, November 10, 2014

Unsuspected Truths in Pop Culture

One of the worst atrocities in recent memory was the 9/11 attacks, which killed nearly 3000 unsuspecting noncombatants during peacetime, a cowardly suicide attack perpetrated by radical militants.  A lesson stands to be learned from it, however - a lesson that has virtually nothing to do with militants, sneak attacks or even body counts.

It has to do with fatigue and hope.

Consider: in the Harry Potter series of stories, the Weasley twins Fred and George have quit school in their seventh year to take up life as entrepreneurs, opening "Weasley's Wizard Wheezes," a joke shop of magic pranks, clothes, aids to skipping classes and even a few more serious lines of products.  Never having taken life too seriously, the lads seem to be custom-crafted for the purpose of providing a laugh even in hard times.

Enter Voldemort.

Hard times are never harder than when there's a despot who hates everyone, mostly because the ones he hates most are his own parents and, by extension, himself.  We won't dig into the psychology of Voldemort, it's kind of low-hanging fruit and doubtless been done already by others much brighter than I.  Let's just establish that Voldemort and his hangers-on are at the center of an awful lot of really bad things, generally ruining everybody's day.  They cause a pervasive atmosphere of dread and distrust, and it continues for a long period of time.

It is into this atmosphere that the Weasley lads launch their business.  It takes off like a rocket.

When the planes hit the towers, the coverage was pervasive.  How could it not be?  It was easily the biggest news item since V-J Day, predicating the first and so far only extra edition of a newspaper I have ever seen.  I don't doubt that other papers also produced extras.  They need hardly have bothered; TV news coverage was sufficient to show every awful angle, minute by minute, and to have one talking head after another endlessly hash over what was, really, not that complex a story.

In the months and years that have followed, it has become a rather more sophisticated story, but still it isn't as nuanced as you could hope.  A group of committed suicide attackers, over an extended period, learn how to fly planes.  Then they all board planes on the same day, at nearly  the same time, and fly them into selected targets.  Thousands die.  More thousands aboard flights already airborne are diverted.  Clouds of smoke and dust.  Innumerable stories of heroism, sacrifice and loss.

Just like any other terrorist attack.  The main differences are the scale, the weapons used and the locale.

Being excitable Americans, we had to watch, and watch, and watch.  Listen and discuss, argue and accuse.  But - and it pains me to admit this - the American attention span isn't that great.  After a while we want to see something else, to talk and think about something else.

CBS' newest reality show at the time was The Amazing Race, having debuted just the week before.  NBC had just launched a show with a sort-of similar theme called Lost (not related to the subsequent ABC scripted drama Lost).  The Amazing Race missed a week, but NBC pushed Lost airings back another week while CBS rolled the dice and started airing TAR again on September 19.  Betting that the public had had about enough of endless news coverage of the disaster, the Race went back on the air and hungry for almost anything besides yet another angle of billowing clouds of dust and smoke, American viewers tuned in.  The Race gained a lead on Lost and never lost it.  NBC dropped Lost without renewing it and without even having aired all of the episodes it had shot.

Amidst all the disaster, you still want to be diverted.  There's only so much tragedy you can handle, and then you want to be something besides a victim, even if you're still inside the tragedy, even if the awfulness is still happening to you.

Remember the story about the band aboard the Titanic, playing even as the ship was sinking?  It isn't apocryphal, it's true.  Witnessed by dozens of survivors and attested to in countless recollections, the band played specifically to help calm the passengers and crew even as the waters were rising.  They knew the score.  And witnesses generally agree that the band did not play "Nearer, My God, to Thee."  That would have been a downer.

It doesn't matter how awful things are.  They'll get better.  It is one of the strongest points of human nature, to be able to look to the future.  It is what makes us the dominant species, our ability to imagine not just tomorrow or the day after, but next year and the year after that.  We fight enemies not because they threaten us right now, but because we desire a future of peace.  We set aside supplies and money against possible lean times down the road.  Sometimes we are caught flat footed, and sometimes we are not.  Sometimes both circumstances occur simultaneously in the form of different people, survivors and casualties.

I know it sounds trite to refer to something as banal as Harry Potter to illustrate basic truths, but there it is.  "You take it, and get inventing.  It's for the joke shop."  Harry was giving up a bundle of cash he had won in a large competition, money to which he didn't feel fully entitled.  "I have a feeling we're all going to need a few laughs." Even as the most feared wizard in the world was rising to power, he was backing a venture whose sole purpose was to entertain, to distract.  And in the real world we have the USO, singing and dancing for warfighters only a few miles away from active hostilities.

ISIS, Ukraine, North Korea...these are all temporary.  Things may get worse, but then they must eventually get better.  And until they do and while I am feeling especially downtrodden by yet more bad news, I will read the comics, listen to Car Talk (RIP Tommy Magliozzi), and marvel in wide wonder how, in spite of how dreadful so many things can be, so many other things are not.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Advent of World War III

ISIS' latest atrocity, the publicized murder of uninvolved Frenchman Herve Gourdel, is only the latest of a string of brutalities that underscores how violent and ruthless the extremist group is.  And I believe it is just another shot in the opening salvo of World War III.

World War I was the result of a runup of tensions all over Europe.  You can't easily point to any one thing that led to it but the climate was ripe for a thunderstorm.  When Yugoslavian archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by the Black Hand (almost by accident as an earlier planned attempt had gone wrong and Ferdinand was returning from visiting bystanders wounded by that attempt when a lone member of the Black Hand took advantage of Ferdinand's sudden appearance in a wrong turn and shot him), it was only the first pebble of the avalanche.  By itself Ferdinand's assassination didn't amount to much, but it was the lynchpin that set other, larger events in motion.

World War II was more complex.  Rather than having a few incidents that we can point to as the actual starting gun, WWII was more of a rising tide, with things happening everywhere at once, but inexorably.  I guess if you want to single out one thing, it would be Poland deciding it was its own independent state and not kowtowing to demands from Germany.  After that, things get exciting.

ISIS took custody of Herve Gourdel, a mountaineering tourist in Algeria, after he was kidnapped there by the Jund al-Khilafa.  Evidently ISIS believes in farming out work to suppliers and subcontractors.

Once they had him, ISIS forced Gourdel to speak for them, then they killed him.

Now, it's bad enough these bastards kill each other.  As bad as that is, I say let them.  That means less of them for us civilized people to have to contend with.

It's way worse when they seize nonpartisan journalists in-country and murder them.  If their cause is right and good, having it reported by journalists is good.  It gets theirr face out in front of the global audience and wins them support.  Killing such neutral parties is counter-productive, it makes them  look out of control, unreasonable.

Snatching a completely uninvolved tourist who is hundreds of miles removed from any fighting is just over the top.  It's bad enough when bad guys do that kind of thing to demand ransom, ransom that helps fund further activities.  But to use the poor victim as a mouthpiece and then murder him too?  That's just too much. 

Not that they are reserving their hatred and violence for foreigners.  ISIS's monstrosity is almost without limit.  Their victims are almost universally Muslim - they claim to be Muslim themselves, but how can anyone claiming any kind of faith carry out the acts they do?  It beggars belief.  And as bad as their behavior is, as long as it was contained to the Middle East, with Islamists killing each other, we were willing to look the other way, like neighbors to a house where the adults fight and yell at each other.  Not our house, not our business.  We don't get upset - well, too upset - as long as the fight stays inside the house.  When those fighters come spilling out of the house and into the street, banging on our doors however, they have dragged us into what had been exclusively Someone Else's Problem.

If ISIS were ever hoping to consolidate animosity against themselves, they're on the right track.  Few things could galvanize public opinion harder against them than deliberately and ruthlessly targeting the innocent, the uninvolved, the unsuspecting.  Gourdel was on vacation, spending his money in a foreign country, offending no one.  NOTE: these things are good for  economies.  You WANT tourists.  If you want your economy to suffer, scare away the tourists.  There'll be a big, noticeable dip immediately.

Can you imagine American tourists heading to the Middle East right now?  I sure can't.  I once imagined I might like to see Saudi Arabia or ancient Babylon at one time, not any more.  And any French tourists who had plans for Algeria has likely suddenly changed his destination to someplace a lot less chancy, like Portugal or Scotland.

Now I think the best thing to do with the entire Middle East region is to bomb it flat until the sand melts.  There are entirely too many factions, too much fundamentalism, too little rationality.  Kill the entire mess until it is completely, utterly dead, dead forever.  But that's me.  I believe very strongly in the fix-it-fast solution, which can sometimes lead to over reactions.  That's why I'm not in politics.

For all you innocent citizens living in the Middle East, I am very sorry for you.  I am.  Somehow this cancer has sprung up within the body of your population, and it absolutely must be killed before it poisons others.

So cut it out for yourselves, before the rest of the world has to cut it out.  It will be bigger and bloodier if we have to do it.  And if we have to do it, it will be known in the future as World War III, the first religious World War.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Thinking About Cars: Colt Vista Update

My grandmother's 1992 Colt Vista, quirky genre-busting tall AWD wagon, is no more.

You may recall I posted a brief review of the strange machine last year, and pointed out that while the Colt Vista answered questions few people ever really asked, it had its strong points.  It boasted cartoonish volume inside its otherwise modest dimensions, room for an entire circus' worth of clowns.

One of those strong points was never corrosion protection.

While under the care of my grandfather before he died, the Vista enjoyed regular maintenance and lived in a garage.  That's good, but the garage was in the great state of Minnesota, where winter is long, cold and full of snow.  They salt their roads in Minnesota.

We salt our roads in Tennessee too, but in Minnesota they mean it.  A couple of decades of that can take a toll on things that are made of steel and then put up wet in a slightly warm environment.  Lather, rinse and repeat a few hundred times and it can be pretty hard on your underbody.

I had no idea.  I've long known that Japanese cars of a certain age are susceptible to breathtaking corrosion problems, particularly Toyotas and Hondas from the 70s and 80s.  But I had assumed that, by the 90s, they would have figured out that American roads are hell on cars and would have taken steps to make them last better.

I called on a nice guy who'd been offering advice and encouragement via e-mail, a nice guy who had left a note on the car when I left it at the shop offering to buy it.  He came over and looked at it.

"Oh, man!" he said, clambering out from under the car, shaking his head.  "I'm so sorry.  There's almost nothing left."

I had spent all my time under the front of the car - the very front, removing bits so I could get around to pulling the head.  It's a bit greasier up there and things are usually in somewhat better condition.

"You've got cracks in the suspension mounts, the pinch weld is almost rusted completely through, shoot, you have cracks in your driveshaft.  I mean, wow."

I squeezed under the car and looked around.  It was amazing.  I had spent absolutely zero time under the car aft of the front wheels, looking around under the Vista's back 40 was an education in decay.  It gave me the shudders to imagine trying to drive it anywhere at all, let alone letting my kids drive it.

"Well," I said.  "That's that."

Tom was dismayed.  "I'm really sorry to give you bad news, man."

"Don't be.  I don't have any emotions wound up in this car.  I don't even associate it with my grandmother that much."

Tom showed me his handiwork under the hood of his very cherry sedan, showing me his deep interest in other Mitsubishi models and particularly his handiwork wrenching on Mitsu engines.  The mill under the hood was beautiful, and definitely not stock.  "I take it to the strips and make the Corvette guys work for their slips on Saturdays."

"Sweet work.  What's that do to your fuel economy?"  I can't stop being an ecomodder.

"Well, at the end of the night I push a button to fire up the economy programming and it gets 30-plus the whole way home."


We said our goodbyes and I called Pull-A-Part to come get the Vista.  And now that it's gone, I'm actually much happier.  It was hanging around, no one was driving it, and it took up space.  So that's the end of that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Not Quite a Book Review: Anthem by Ayn Rand

Full disclosure: I didn't actually read the book.

First I purchased a graphic novel of the book.  I have always had a love for graphic novels, moreso than regular episodic comics in that a graphic novel will usually either draw together an entire storyline from a regular superhero title and publish it all in one go, or else it will render a more conventional story in a pictures-and-word format that is, if not as complete as the original text-only version, maybe more fun.

There are also certain titles, epic titles, that have never been offered as anything else.  Love and Rockets by the Brothers Hernandez has, since 2008, only been published as a graphic novel.  Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman tell his father's reminiscences as a Jewish Pole before and during the Jewish extermination in World War II, and of surviving the concentration camps and a strained life afterward.  It is a gruesome, fascinating tale and oddly continues to fall under the heading of fiction.  It is Spiegelman putting his father's words on paper, his own family's history, but the people are portrayed as talking animals.  Perhaps that's where the problem lies.

But this is about Anthem.  Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was originally from Russia, born into what was about to become the Soviet Union.  As a young girl she was bright, intelligent and not especially challenged by her education.  She went on to college but was purged as a member of the bourgeoisie, only to be reinstated long enough to officially graduate.  She made a trip to the US in 1925 and made it her goal to live there as it was much more to her taste, basking in the individualistic and self-deterministic ideals of "Americanism."  Rand, an atheist, went on to found her own ersatz religion. I use the word guardedly because in fact "Objectivism" as it is called is more correctly described as a philosophical system, which isn't as fun to say knowing Rand's own religious bias.  Objectivism insists that there is nothing more than one's own perception of things as they are, and that the highest moral imperative is pursuing one's own happiness.

This leaves room for argument, if one's happiness comes from eating live kittens or blowing up shopping malls full of frightened tourists.  I haven't dug deeply enough into Objectivism to determine whether there are any asterisks that allow the greater populace to overrule certain individuals' happiness.  God (oops, sorry Ayn, my bad) forbid that the needs of the many might supercede the needs of the one.

In Anthem the protagonist is a bright young man by the unlikely name of Equality 7-2521.  That's his entire name.  That implies that there are a great many other Equalities and in the world where the story takes place, that's to be expected.  Individuality is quashed vigorously, to the extent that unrepentant declaration of individuality is punished by burning at the stake.  Yipes.

Equality 7-2521 is curious, intelligent, and asks difficult questions.  He does not like the answers he receives by the officials of the town or, later, the World Council.  Personal achievement is not striven for and where achieved, frowned on with great prejudice.  In this dystopic vision of the future, the invention of the candle - which was done by a committee! - took decades, and wasn't implemented by the people at large until the candle's impact on the greater economy had been pored over for a similarly lengthy period.

When Equality 7-2521 discovers a long-forgotten underground bunker, and within it tools and devices whose purposes he doesn't know, he is starting from scratch.  He undertakes experiments and explorations, working from a ground state of complete ignorance, until finally, after years of quiet tinkering he discovers electricity and eventually cobbles together a crude light bulb.  He brings his invention to the Council to give it to the world.

As you might imagine, it is rejected utterly.  Its impact on the world cannot be guessed at, and so it must be immediately suppressed and Equality 7-2521 imprisoned.  But again, these are people who are singularly lacking in imagination and Equality escapes.

He runs into the deep forest where no one ever goes.  Why don't they go?  Because it just isn't done, and no one has enough imagination to wonder why not.  Rand hammers on this point a lot, that the population is led and when led hard enough for long enough, the entire mass will eventually blindly go - or in the case of the forest, not go - and, satisfied to not have to think for itself, the population's will to ask, to debate or wonder, withers.

Along the way Equality meets up with Liberty 5-3000, the fetching young lady he has admired during his quiet rebellion.  She observed his escape and followed and now they together continue to wander through the forest until they discover a house.

The house is an Aladdin's cave of wonders full of archaic light bulbs - Equality recognizes them for what they are now - books and clothes, and the two of them marvel in particular when they come to the realization that this house was only intended to house two people.  At his initial discovery of the place, Equality had believed that the house had been intended to house only a dozen, and was almost criminally roomy for so few.

Because this is a work of fiction, the house is exactly what Equality needed.  The books are books of philosophy and science, by which the couple become much more conversant in the language that has fallen away from their peers, the words "I" and "me," and answers to difficult questions like "why not?"  Why not, indeed.

Rand was clearly disgusted by the anti-individual pattern of development of the early socialist country that ultimately became the Soviet Union.  In an ideal world a truly socialist nation could achieve great things without destroying individuality.  That, of course, is not how things came to pass.  Humans are riddled with weaknesses, greed being strong among them and socialism is desperately vulnerable to corruption from within in the absence of a system of checks and balances.  This is the space into which the Soviet Union evolved, enormous power wielded by the heady few, and the surging sea of impoverished humanity holding up the economy that drove the ambitions of those few.

Anthem came about eight years after her first landing in the United States, after she had had sufficient time to drink in the highly individualistic tone of the country, how each person is expected to shift for himself, to sink or swim.  Interestingly, it also came about 13 years after the publication of a similar story, We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin.  Zamyatin had also lived in the early communist Russia, and I have to wonder whether Rand had read We before she wrote Anthem.  If so, that would make Anthem unoriginal at best and render Rand a hypocrite of the first order.

Before I decided to publish a review of the story, I decided I needed a bit more exposure to it.  So I listened to it as an audiobook.

I downloaded it for free from Librivox.  I will say again that I love Librivox as much as anyone can love an inanimate website.

Anthem's message of individual effort for the sake of one's own individual reward, beholden to none, lands very flat in the context of a freely-provided, jointly produced recording of people volunteering their time and effort to read from a public domain text.  The irony is deep, grand and delicious.

And finally (I am inserting this addendum months after originally writing the review, I had intended to make this point then and forgot it, such is the life of the scatterbrained writer) Equality makes the terrible mistake of claiming unto himself his successes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Equality relied heavily on the deus ex machine of the exact thing he needed, a house for him that is full of books written by other people who came before.  His idea of reinventing the light bulb came out of his observation of ancient light bulbs that had been made by people before him.  Even the house was an artifact left behind by other people.  So even as Rand is hammering on the point of individual success and the indomitable triumph of ego, she is actually subverting her own message.  Equality would likely have never succeeded as well as he had, were it not for the myriad efforts of untold people before him.   Ego is good, but community is crucial.  A man unto himself is indeed an island...a desert island, devoid of life, lacking context or potential.

Rest in piece, Ayn Rand.  You provided me with a good chuckle and you never even knew it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

ISIS, ISIL, Infidels

Q: When is an Islamist not a Muslim?
A: When he's a member of ISIS and ISIL.

Already having shown its extremist tendencies by mowing down hundreds and hundreds of their own countrymen, countrymen who are ostensibly fellow Muslims, ISIS and ISIL have upped their game to what can only be described as pure madness.

I will not provide any links.  These nutcakes have been in the news enough that you don't need me to show you where to find more evidence of their cruelty.  I don't want to send you somewhere that points up, in graphic clarity, the extent of their brutality.  No one needs that in his head.

And yet, ISIS' and ISIL's operatives keep that in their heads, keep it and visit it upon others.  I'm going to try to dig up some supporting doctrine that might excuse their behavior.

Quran 41:34 says: "Goodness and evil are not equal; repel evil with what is better."  If ISIS try to tell us they are answering hurts with similar hurts, well, that's just wrong.  Their holy book says so.  And there are indeed passages that condone violence but only in the context of defending against an attack.  One wonders what attack David Haines, an aid worker in Syria not backing any political agenda at all, might have committed to be answered by his heartless murder.  And then again there are passages that call for violence but no one has made a definitive call whether those passages, the Sword Passages, supercede the Peace Passages.

Haines is only the most recent in a long list of what can only be described as hate crimes propogated by the "state" that is ISIS and ISIL.  Certainly these attacks have raised ISIS' and ISIL's profile in world media, if only for the fact that where they sorta-kinda had a fundamentalist rationale for killing those countrymen of theirs who did not adhere to the same doctrine as their own, the neutral nature of previous victims who were both journalists and this most recent atrocity clearly targeted non-Islamic, noncombatants.

In the case of Haines, ISIS is literally biting the hand that is helping feed its countrymen.  Bad ISIS!  Bad!

When a dog goes that bad, you shoot him.  I won't go into the various ways the Quran is just bad doctrine - Muhammad was not the great guy Muslims want us to think he was, if you go digging into his history he's bad news - but that's for another day.  Right now ISIS and ISIL need to be scraped off the surface of the earth.  Its so-called "caliph," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself as caliph and leader of all Muslims everywhere - when really most Muslims are pretty annoyed with him at best, and downright horrified by him and what his group's actions have done for Islam in general.  I know the Geneva convention prevents deliberate targeting of a head of state, but really Baghdadi isn't a head of state - he's a terrorist with a really big support cell behind him.  So blast 'im and we can all enjoy a quieter Middle East, which is really what everybody wants.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Day...oh, who cares? 174, and Who's Surprised? Not me.

I haven't been keeping close track of how many days it has been now, but the important part is that I haven't drifted back into the 180s.  Even after a long holiday weekend, I tipped the scales at 174, a nice modest number and less than a handful of pounds from my main goal.  My stretch goal is still somewhere around 165, but 170 is a good number for a guy my size.  It means I get to remain a guy my size, and maybe start searching for pants a size down from where I am.  Some days, the belt just doesn't quite feel up to the challenge of keeping my 36" pants up, and moving back down to a more modest size would be a great thing.

In other news:
I saw this news item back in June: a new young driver in South Carolina, stepping up to the photo booth at the DMV for the very first time, the closest thing the US has to a rite of passage common to every kid, was told:

"Hold it, kid.  Scrape off the makeup and then we can take the picture."  You might be just a bit outraged, when has the DMV ever demanded a woman take off her makeup before she can get her picture taken?

Except this new young driver is male.

Chase Culpepper is male but doesn't conform to any gender.  Whether that's by choice is beside the point.  He wears clothes that lean toward the feminine, he definitely looks feminine with his eyelashes, skillfully done makeup (I've worn enough on stage to know what it takes to look good, as opposed to merely clownish) and hair.  More to the point, there's quite a few photos of Culpepper dressed and made up this way.  I can't find as many of Chase in a less-feminine guise, though there are some to be seen.  Either way, he's a good-looking kid.  Got lucky in that respect.  I do not make an attractive woman, and it takes a good thick layer of makeup to get me to where I make a passable woman.

But here's the point: women are not required to remove makeup before license photos.  Chase was required to remove his because DMV personnel considered it a "disguise," a deliberate attempt to alter his appearance to make future identification difficult or impossible.

Well, looking at his photos, I would say there's probably at least a 50-50 chance that if stopped by police, Chase would look like his photo, regardless of how he was made up or dressed, either in the picture or in person.  Knowing that, what the hell difference does it make?

And with that exact question in mind, the Culpeppers are taking the South Carolina DMV to court.  Who's shocked?  Raise your hand!

Hmm, no hands went up.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Oh, the possibilities...

I initially read the title of this news item as "Muppet Labs..." clicked it and started reading, and spent a lovely few seconds believing the world of IT was about to take a seriously strange, magical turn.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Equilibria and Day 42: 180

The first few pounds are the easiest to lose.  Clearly I was working pretty hard at holding my body weight so high above what might be described as its equilibrium state, that level that it most naturally would sustain without much attention on my part.  I say working, but really what it was was not working, not getting any exercise beyond pushing back from the table for another trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet.  Those things, while delicious, are a siren's song drawing the ship of your arteries onto the hardened shores of plaque and hypertension.

That's the good news and the bad news combined.  If I assume that this, 180 pounds, is approximately my equilibrium state, that's still a lot heavier than I want to weigh.  I'd like to hold at something more like 170.  I will have to get down to 170 and hold that, probably for a couple of years, before I can relax my vigilance a bit.  You can change your equilibrium, the longer you hold a weight the more likely you are to retain it even when you stop paying attention.  It just takes time.

But, and this is the very good news, this is my lowest post-weekend weight thus far.  I didn't bounce very much.

In somewhat related news, our larger cat has lost a pound.  She had it to lose, too, and seems to be doing a bit better with less mass to haul around.  But she doesn't understand these things intellectually of course, and becomes very vocal at mealtimes.  My previous cats have generally been indoor-outdoor animals, free to go outside if there was someone to open the door for them.  They would prowl around and run off their food.  That doesn't happen with these cats and while our elder cat remains lean, the younger one will wolf down whatever food is in her dish.  This is an animal for whom the word "leftover" has no context.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Handyman's Fidelity Crisis, and Day 35: 181

It might seem like I'm stalled at around the 180 mark, but I'm not too concerned.  For instance, on Saturday morning the scale pegged at 179.  I expect to see a little bit of bounce over the weekend, but now the week has begun and I pay attention again.  Smaller meals, long walks around the block, maybe even lifting a few weights.

My workday was spent mostly on the roof of our north building, arguing with the disparate elements of a rooftop ventilator.  This particular ventilator serves the dish room where used trays are returned after meals, and for whatever reason, all the clips that secured the "hat" that covers the top of the ventilator - and its mechanical bits - broke.

Tennessee isn't that windy, but it's windy enough.  Evidently there was a big enough blow at some point that the hat parted company with the ventilator and I was certain it was gone.  As it turned out it wasn't gone, the hat was just pretty hard to find, since it looks exactly like all the other rooftop ventilator hats, and when you have gigantic 800-gallon water heaters and their exhaust vents, 250-gallon water heaters with their exhaust vents, an exhaust hood for each and every restroom, assorted HVAC vents and other things, well, it isn't the featureless plain you might expect a roof to be.

You can see how finding a replacement for something like that,
 if it's gone, could be a little problematic.

Since the hat had been off the ventilator for a while, the vent motor was seized.  That meant a new one.  No problem, Fenco had an appropriate replacement for under $100.  I've loved Johnstone for a long time but sometimes the prices of the parts and supplies just floors me.  I know keeping a building up and running isn't free, but dang.  Well, there are no motors like this to be had at this price from Johnstone.  On top of that Fenco is literally just a few blocks away, whereas Johnstone is a few miles.  Fenco looks better and better, especially when the closest motor Johnstone had to offer was over $200.  Yipes, and hi, Fenco!  It's not a no-name motor, it's a solid Mars and it went in pretty cleanly.

Eventually.  I seem to have hit a wall with my common sense today.  First I cast around on the ground to the west looking for the hat.  Prevailing winds come out of the west around here, and of course the hat was to the east.

This was after I spent about a half-hour wandering around, first in the kitchen sizing up the big stock pots, then in the maintenance area looking at assorted large tubs, for something that could be called into service to replace the hat.  If I ever have to replace it, I will be finding something to press into service; the price tag on the replacement hats that I could find - none of them right for my application - was bonkers and completely out of line with the item itself.  But while I was holding up what looked like a likely candidate, wondering how it would hold up against sun and wind, I had my dope-slap moment and went back to look in the correct end of the roof.  A-ha, and now we proceed.

Motor procured.  No problem.

Gotta remove the pulley from the old motor.  Okay, lever with a screw...dri....VER damn that thing is really on there.  Give it a whack.

Give it another whack.

Say some bad words.  I'm alone up here on the roof, who's going to know?  Well, you do, now.  But it's only abstract knowledge, nothing concrete, nothing witnessed.  So we're cool.

Take the motor down through the hatch - no stair access here, it's a straight-up ladder and anything heavier than 20 pounds is burdensome - put it in the vise...whoops, won't fit in the vise.

Construct a vise arrangement to hold the motor suspended in a bucket, and now I can put a punch in the Vise-Grip and give it a proper whack.  48-oz. engineer's hammer, hardened steel punch.  WHAM.

Many whacks later I whipped out the torch and tried heating, and further whacking.


Ace Hardware has been so conveniently thorough for my needs of late, and they have a newish location just up the road.  Well, no pulleys there.

Quite a wide selection of pulleys at Northern Tool, but the juxtaposition of 1/2" bore and 2.5" diameter doesn't happen with what's in stock.  Dang it.

I alternately love and hate Harbor Freight.  It's like a Chinese grocery: a little dingy, a little chaotic, and half of what you see doesn't make any sense at all.  But you get the feeling that an entire culture understands all of it, and you might enjoy purchasing some of it just to get a taste.  The power tools are pretty obviously low-rent knockoffs, but the air tools are generally pretty reliable and some of the hand tools are solid.  Sometimes you make a purchase and are pretty damned sorry you did.  But other times you come away with a winner: my main digital multimeter, for instance, puts my original Craftsman multi to shame and only cost half as much.

I'm a solid nerd, by the way: I have a different multimeter for different tool bags, that's how big a tool hound I am.

But there are no motor pulleys to be had at Harbor Freight.  A few sheaves for cables, but that's in the winch section and not the kind of pulley I need.

*sigh*  Back to Fenco.

"Back again, huh?"


"What'd you forget?"

"I didn't forget.  I just can't get the pulley off and I've run out of bad words to try to jar it loose."

Of course Fenco had it.  Of course the one they had was adjustable so I can dial in the exact diameter I want.  Of course it was affordable, and nearby, and exactly what I needed.  Of course it was.  I had wandered away into the wilds of fickle retail, when the wholesale solidity I needed was a mere four blocks away from my office door the whole time.


I love you, Fenco.  I'm sorry I was unfaithful.

Friday, May 30, 2014

A Real American Speaks UP, and Day 25 : 181

Stepped on the scales and saw the needle come to rest at 181 pounds.  Not bad!

I don't watch ESPN so I really don't know who Stephen A. Smith is, but he's in the news.  He's in the news partly because he tells the (sports-related) news, and partly because LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling is in the news.  This is a toppling dominoes story, and how we wind up at this juncture isn't really the point.

This juncture, where Stephen A. Smith hauls off and shares a big ol' piece of his mind, is the point.  And it is brilliant.

In this video, I don't see a black man.  I don't see a racist, a commentator, a flak, anything like that.  I see an American of the highest order.

I have nothing further to say.  This is an act I cannot follow without detracting from it.  I salute you Mr. Smith, and wish you nothing but the best.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Joe the Plumber," and Day 23: 183.5

See that ".5" on my weight?  I went up since the last report.  Except I went up further than that, and am back down to only half a pound above where I was.  And this morning I walked a good long trek from Sweetie's office to downtown K-town, and on to my office.  Yes, that's the long way.  It's still cool in the mornings and the city is really quite attractive while it's still waking up.

Lately in the news we're seeing this kid, one Elliot Rodger, who up and killed a bunch of people before taking his own life.  Frankly, I don't think anyone who really knew Rodger was especially surprised that this happened.

This much of it makes sense, if it can make any sense: emotionally disturbed individual becomes fixated on person or persons as the root cause of his assorted problems.  True or not, this is an understandable paradigm in American culture, and we refer to people who cause problems as "bad guys."  Unfortunately Rodger's mistaken notion was the women in general and the popular, attractive people who might have been his social peers in particular were the "bad guys" in his life, and he whipped out his multiple legally-purchased weapons and started killing the "bad guys."

If I go read about the "bad guys," these essentially blameless people who were killed simply for not finding an antisocial, erratic loner attractive, I will probably wind up very very sad.  And some of them weren't even people Rodger wanted to be attracted to, some were just his roomies.  I guess he though they were in the way.

What's Joe the Plumber got to do with this?  You might remember the guy: asking Obama a question during a campaign rally, Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher was the stalking horse that became an icon of the Republican party and 15-minute media darling of the John and Sarah Show.   It's weird that the guy, even now, is more recognizable under the "Joe the Plumber" nickname than under his own.

Also, he is not now nor has he ever been a licensed plumber, even though he worked as a plumber at the time.  That was a bit embarrassing, and may have been at least part of what cost him his bid for Ohio Representative in 2012.

Anyway, in an open letter published on BarbWire, Wurzelbacher had this to say: "As harsh as this sounds, your dead kids don't trump my Constitutional rights."


Strictly speaking this is indeed true.  He tries - and fails - to soften this amazingly crass blow with words of comfort that come out sounding pretty damned hollow.  After a line like that, maybe it would be better to think better about the whole open letter idea, and maybe not send it.  Oh well, too late now.

And both the parents who call for a serious re-examination of gun rights, and Wurzelbacher in his moment of utter head-slap obtuseness, are right.  I think it's high time we reconsider just how easy it should be for people to have guns, and until such time as the laws are changed, no number of dead kids and mourning parents will override the rights of the American people.  People who aren't mourning also have to have their say.  Rights can, and have, be changed.

I am approaching the point where some of the hand wringing makes sense.  "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns."  Well, that may or may not be true, but the fact that so many people have free and easy access to guns doesn't seem to have done the crime rate any favors, so maybe it's time we take another look at how freely people can get guns.  The point of the 2nd Amendment was to help ensure the then nascent US Government not decide to take up any dictatorial practices.  When the people you're attempting to oppress have weapons of their own, oppression takes on a certain deadly risk and tends to die young.

But the other systems in place to keep the government from running away with itself are pretty effective.  I suspect the Damoclean sword of an armed populace might be overkill at this point in our history.  But even more overkill is the capacity to own more guns than you have hands, more ammo than needed to utterly puree the legal hunting limit in your locale, and being able to buy anything more lethal than a toenail clipper when you're seeing a basketball team's worth of therapists and still walk around loose among an unsuspecting neighborhood.

How hard would it be to just start up a database, open to all mental health professionals, and be able to drop in names and SSNs of people who seem just a bit too edgy for gun ownership?  "Warning, dangerous nutcase, no guns for this one.  No machetes or even toenail clippers, either."  A few quick lines on a secure web page that is accessible to mental health professionals and the people in charge of the background checks.  "Whoops, sorry, no bazooka for you."

Granted, the rollout of the Obamacare website doesn't raise my hopes at all for government-operated databases, but you never know, maybe they can contract the job to some 18-year-old, set him up with a six pack of Pepsis and get things done.

Unless some nutjob comes along and mows him down, too.

So far I think the most positive outcome of all this is it should put Joe the Plumber's future Congressional aspirations on permanent standby.  So that's not all bad.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss, and Day 17: 183

Stepped on the scales and rang up 183 pounds.  That's a modest 6 pounds in two weeks.  I'm trying to be more aware of my portion sizes and what's actually in my food, plus doing a fair amount of walking.

Sweetie is down a few pounds as well, and finding, even at this early stage, a surprising amount of extra room inside her clothes.

"Bummer," I said.  "Your pants are too big."

"As bummers go, I don't mind it."

Another thing that's helping me with keeping a better eye on what I'm eating is the relatively new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss.  I heard of this while listening to NPR, listening to an interview with the author, and even in what little I was able to catch before having to go on to other things, what I heard was intriguing.

I've only been reading the book for a few days now, and even so I've already picked up on a few important things: the food industry is perfectly aware of what kind of psychological effects food can have on us, and they exploit those effects to make us want more.

It's the most cynical thing I've ever seen.  It's right there with the tobacco giants, insisting time after time that the clinical trials regarding the possible dangers of tobacco use are "inconclusive," even as they're turning up the nicotine content of their cigarettes to strengthen the addictive qualities.

We all are pretty aware of the addictive qualities of things like narcotics, alcohol, and nicotine.  What we aren't as aware of, due to the sheer ubiquity of it, are the addictive qualities of such simple things as salt, sugar and fat.

There is a "bliss point" for sugar, a level - actually it's a range of levels that fluctuates depending on the presence of other cues, but for the sake of brevity right now we'll stick with the term "point" - at which sugar has the maximum effect without going overboard.  The insidious thing about it, though, is that sugar isn't just satisfying.  It can also create cravings for more sugar, for more food.  And once you've gotten used to so much sugar, the one craving it really induces above all others is the craving for more sugar.

Here's a little tidbit I never imagined before: the body's sense of satiation isn't triggered by calories you drink.  You load up on food and it isn't long before you feel full and satisfied.  That sensation of satisfaction, however, will not be affected much one way or the other by a soda.  If you're having a Coke with your meal, there's a bunch of calories that didn't register, and were taken in whether you felt you needed them or not.

Needless to say, I've radically cut back on how much soda I drink anymore.  I've had one since I started watching my weight, and I had already been ramping down before I started.  That last Coke took me all day to drink, and the first sip tasted pretty weird.

Now all I have to do is cut down on my coffee.  That would probably have a pretty strong effect on my blood pressure.  It's really my blood pressure more than anything that is inspiring this weight loss, but I imagine lightening the load on my knees and hips can't be a bad thing either.

This is me into the book only a couple of chapters, and already the clear sense of conspiracy and cynicism has had me muttering oaths under my breath, marveling in amazed horror at what we have permitted the food industry giants to systematically do to us.

Case in point: Howard Moskowitz, a food industry researcher, is quoted in an interview in Salt Sugar Fat as saying, as a recent graduate from Harvard and looking for work, "I didn't have the luxury to be a moral creature," talking about his role in discovering the mechanism by which food cravings can manifest, and then developing ways to exploit those cravings to retain and expand food product markets.  This tells me that if he didn't have the luxury of being moral, then what was he being?  That only leaves something other than moral.

I wasn't raised to believe that morality was optional.  It isn't a luxury.

I will probably report more on this book as I get further into it, assuming I haven't snapped and started picketing whichever major food manufacturer is closest before I get to the end.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Mediterranean Food and Day Six: 187

This morning I stepped on the scales and read 187 pounds.

Today is Saturday, so I don't anticipate much of a workout today, but it's been rainy so I might do a little lifting just to keep my eye in.  If it cools off a bit I might go walking anyway.

Today we all went to Holy Land Market, a little grocery and deli on Sutherland Avenue in Knoxville, TN.  As groceries go it's actually not that great.  The range of products is limited.  But that's actually okay, because it focuses on the stuff that really makes Mediterranean food what it is: unique ingredients that aren't common in Western cooking.  Let's face it, you can get eggs anywhere and if you go to a distinctive grocery for them, you're going to take a bath at the checkout.  So you won't find eggs at Holy Land.  And that's okay.

Actually you might, but I never looked.

What you will find are such exotic (to us) concoctions as Turkish delight and stuffed grape leaves, ghee and seriously affordable cinnamon.

In the last few years Holy Land has gotten serious about its deli.  We waited until Son #2 got home from work and went out there for a late lunch/early dinner meal.  The food is fabulous.

At first Son #1 was a bit nonplussed at his choice, a beef brisket plate.  It tasted like American food.  "Except it isn't.  It tastes like American food served in a Med restaurant.  I mean it tastes like what someone would get in an American restaurant somewhere in Egypt, if they have American restaurants."  I never really thought of food that way, that our traditional meat-and-three might have "exotic" overtones in the right setting.  Anyway, he wound up trading nearly half his meat around.  It was a delicious cut of meat, ridiculously tender.  He traded heavily with me, Son #1 is a big fan of goat meat and couldn't get enough of my meal, the goat stew platter.

The goat stew platter has a strongly Indian vibe, there's plenty of curry in the dish and the sauce is a lot like a spicy masala, heavy with potatoes and served over rice.

Sweetie's dish was a shawarma chicken platter, wonderfully spiced and highly varied but she traded fairly early with Son #2 who got the chicken shiskebab, as he isn't fond of the Greek salad that came with it.  Sweetie devoured the salad, and I watched her with some envy. The garlic yogurt dressing that came with that salad was brilliant, and wound up topping gobs of goat and rice on my pitas during the meal.  She had some too, but most of it came to me.

Shawarma is really more of a street food preparation, it's easily moved from place to place.  Shawarma just means the food has been roasted on a turning spit, kind of like gyro meat.  For that matter Holy Land has gyros, but I'm keeping my eyes peeled for a nice Greek place in the area first.

While we were waiting, Walter - the guy who runs the place - brought us our grape leaves as an appetizer, with a cup of cucumber yogurt for dipping.  Dipping the lamb-stuffed grape leaves is completely unnecessary, but it's fun.  A lady came in with her husband, marveling at the place.

"Is this your first time here?"

"Yes!  I didn't even know this was here.  Is the food good?"

"Is it ever!  Here, have one of these."  And I held up the plate of grape leaves.  She took one a bit doubtfully, and bit into it.

She waved her husband into a chair.  "Sit down.  We're eating here."

Holy Land Market at 3609 Sutherland Ave, Knoxville TN.  You won't be sorry.

I might be, a little bit.  I think I'm definitely going to have to go for a walk, that was a big plate of food.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Dallas: The Next Generation, and Day Five: 187

Stepping onto the scale this morning, I looked down at the dial between my toes: 187.  Looked at one way, I've only lost two pounds.  Now, two pounds in a week is pretty good.  Looked at another way, I'm 10% of the way home.

In the 1980s my mom's favorite show was Dallas, as it was for lots and lots of other people, too.  In fact Dallas first aired in '78 and steamrolled through the entire 80s at full chat, not coming to a top-tier finale until 1991.  Along the way were many iconic moments like "Who Shot JR" and "It Was All A Dream," which drove my mom quietly bananas.  She'd been a big fan of the show but that last bit pretty much pulled the drain out of the tub for her.  That weird revelation that Bobby wasn't really dead wasn't enough to put everybody off, though: Dallas' finale is the 15th most-watched TV episode in US history.

That finale took JR Ewing, who was originally not the main character, on a little trip through the Land of What If, a Dallas version of It's a Wonderful Life.  As Ewing is descending into depression, contemplating killing himself, another character walks him through how the various members of his extended family would have experienced different lives without him around.  At the end of the episode, there's a gunshot.

That scene wasn't resolved until five years later!  There was a Dallas reunion movie in 1996, and JR was alive and walking around in that.  In fact there were two more movies over the next few years, and evidently there's either enough retirees with time on their hands and basic cable, or simply that many aging actors looking for work, that Dallas is back with significant elements of the original cast.  Even JR returned.

Except now that Larry Hagman has died in real life, we have to see exactly how Dallas, which was heavily affected by the remarkable gravity of the Hagman singularity, will function in the future without either him or JR.

It Was a Wonderful Life!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Fuel Economy, and Day Four: 188

Walking around the block for exercise last night, no workouts.  Also last night we met Son #2's girlfriend, which was a surprise.  It was a surprise because I didn't know he even had a girlfriend.  One epiphany after another, I guess.  The kid can be closed-mouthed, that's for sure.  Anyway she's a pleasant young lady, suitably nerdy to appeal to not just him but the rest of us, too.  We surprised her with a quickly-made dinner, then they hung out by the fire outside for a while.  When it got dark, he popped back inside.

"Hey, run her home, could I take the Honda?"


"Why not?"

"I have a really good average going on this tank and I really really really want to set a new high."

"I can do that."

"Don't be offended, but I don't think you can."  I hold my own hypermiling skills in some regard and so far have the very best mileage performance of anyone in the family.  When you're beating the EPA's estimate for your car by 20% or more, you must be doing something very right.  I'm currently the #11 truck on the trucks leader board, and the #21 hybrid car, and the competition is tough.

Getting 20% over EPA also makes me think all those people who wanted their money back from Honda for "overstated" fuel mileage estimates weren't trying.  Again, like my revelation regarding my own health, they're abdicating responsibility to entities outside themselves, another instance of the pop-a-pill mentality, that there is a quick, painless solution to every little ill and you don't need to invest time or energy on your own part to keep things performing at some arbitrary level.

I work at my mileage numbers.  My truck is currently below 30mpg and that just galls me.  Am I working at dragging that back up, you'd better believe it.  It has held a moving average over 32mpg in the past, and I want it back up there, pronto.  The tough part is that sometimes Son #2 - the only other one in the family with an interest in hypermiling - works a mere three miles away.  Right about the time the engine is getting warm and starting to deliver good economy, he's parked.

Breakfast this morning: some backsliding.  But the Panera cinnamon rolls are soooo good.  Ye gods, look at all those calories.  Well, I guess that's enough of that.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Personal Epiphany of Health Care

The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines "epiphany," besides the obvious Judeo-Christian meaning, as a moment of sudden understand in a new or clear way.

Sitting at the pharmacy drive-through window, hearing that the doctor's office had failed to call back to confirm a refill request on my blood pressure pill, I came to a moment of sudden understanding in a new and clear way.  I had ceded responsibility for my own health.

At 46 years old, I'm about 5-10 and right at 190 pounds.  That's a little heavier than I like.  In fact, it's a lot heavier than I like because I can remember being much younger, a shade taller and about fifty pounds lighter.  Granted this height at 140 is pretty skinny, but this height at 170 felt great.  I could run, jump, lift heavy things, all that stuff.  I could fit into 34-inch-waist pants.  There haven't been any 34" pants in my bureau for a while now.

Now that I'm in 36" pants and sometimes sucking in a bit to get them snapped, I have been feeling a bit depressed.  It takes extra effort to get off the couch and walk around the block, it takes a certain amount of will to say "no" to the second bowl of chili that is just so good but I don't actually need it.  It takes a certain combination of pessimism and optimism, pessimism that even though I am happy in the moment of the second bowl, in the morning I will be unhappy when I cannot get the pants snapped, optimism that nothing is irreversible.  I don't have to be stuck at 190, I may have trouble snapping the pants now but that doesn't have to be permanent.

One day, I can get back into 34" jeans.

I am certain that a fair portion of my need for a prescription medication to control my blood pressure is, at least in part, my weight.  And there I was, fuming at the back of my mind that for whatever reason, my doctor hadn't called in the refill.  Now, I know that weight isn't everything and that skinny people have high blood pressure, too.  But I also know that weight is a contributing factor in a lot of cases, and it's a factor over which I have complete control.  But I wasn't controlling it, and harboring a quiet anger toward my doctor when, in fact, I could actually take positive steps to eliminate my doctor's influence on my health and, by extension, my peace of mind.  It doesn't feel good to have something so basic held in control by someone else.

So here I am now, stating these facts:

Day 1 (Monday 05/05/14)
Weight: 189 pounds.  I had a ham-egg-cheese sandwich for breakfast, missed lunch, cold cut sandwich for dinner.  Spicy pickle relish on the sandwich, big flavor, small calories.

Walked around the block, lifted a few modest weights.  15-lb dumbbells, 3x10.  Sit-ups and push-ups.  I hate push-ups.  But I'm not keen on man-boobs either, so push-ups it is.

Day 2 (Tuesday 05/06/2014)
No weight.  Scrambled eggs for breakfast, large hoagie at lunch.  Green beans, onion, corn on the cob and smoked sausage for dinner.  Tasty!  Went easy on the butter, counter to my instincts.  My big thing about the butter is the salty taste, so I salted the corn instead.  That worked great.  Walked around the block.  No workout at all.

Day 3 (Wednesday 05/07/2014)
Weight 188.  We're on our way!  Breakfast at Chick-Fil-A.  Skipped the fries.  Lunch was leftover from dinner, no corn.  Delicious.

That's it for the moment.  It's the middle of my workday so I'll follow up.  I'm determined to actually beat this thing.  I'm not grossly obese or in terrible condition, but I can feel myself becoming more complacent.  More than anything else, that complacency is the most dangerous part.  I don't think it's good to be comfortable with having surrendered so much of my own life to the control of others, and I intend to take it back.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Regarding the Death Penalty: An Open Letter to the US Government

I've said it before: the death penalty is bad.

There are people who really shouldn't be walking the earth with good, law-abiding citizens.  Those bad people cannot be trusted to respects the rights of others: they kill, they terrorize, they place their own wants - not needs, wants - above the needs of others.  This last sounds trite but I'm talking about killers.  Invariably, killers.

And possibly rapists.  It's hard to get around rape, too.

And while I don't think people like that should be permitted to live around other, non-criminal people, I don't think it should be up to the law-abiding citizens to kill them.  I'm not as concerned about the criminal as I am about the person who is supposed to carry out the death penalty upon that criminal.

When a condemned man is put to death, the medical examiner of the governing body where the execution took place lists the cause of death as "homicide."  Which is to say, some other person killed this one.  Through careful phrasing, those other people are absolved of the title that usually goes with committing homicide: murderer.

Clayton Lockett of MacAlester, Oklahoma was on the slab last night with a tube in his arm when something went wrong.  Lockett was being executed for a terrible murder in 1999.  I won't argue with the decision to rid the world of him, he was a terrible person.  The sedative flowing into him failed, but the paralytic and respiratory suppressant drugs he was receiving continued.  Those last two are known to be agonizing without adequate sedation.

Lockett died anyway of a heart attack, after about a half-hour.  A properly performed lethal injection execution gets the job done in just a few minutes.  The victim falls asleep and dies.  This was not as simple as that.

When officials noticed things going wrong - Lockett struggling to rise from the table, regaining consciousness and mumbling - they pulled a curtain to block witnesses from seeing.  That's a bit ironic, that it's okay to watch the man die but not to watch him suffer.  It's obvious why it's not okay, of course.  Seeing other people suffer hurts the watcher, too - usually.  Certain pathologies react differently.

So, suddenly, it was NOT okay to watch the man die.  And now, in the wake of what has happened, another execution scheduled for the same night has been put on hold.  It would be unacceptable to kill a man in the wrong way, evidently.  As technology and American culture has progressed, we have sought more and more humane ways to put people to death, to end their lives as gently as possible.  We don't want to hurt the condemned, just get rid of them without causing them pain.

If we are a nation that holds life so dear, to spend billions of dollars on health care, to command assorted manufacturers to make their products safer for users, to acquiesce to other manufacturers that demand we not use their products to put condemned prisoners to death, then why do we kill condemned prisoners at all?  In this one small pocket of cognitive dissonance we are bloodthirsty and unforgiving.

As he laying gasping, one wonders what the instincts are.  Mr. Lockett was condemned to die, but now with the procedure going awry, were the attending medical personnel inclined to save him?  The execution was supposed to happen in a certain way, a way that wouldn't unnecessary hurt him - his terrible crime was dreadful and all the fires of Hell may not be punishment enough, but that isn't for us to decide, so we're supposed to be as gentle as possible even as we hasten the heart's final beat.  But he suffered, absolutely.  He isn't even the first.

I submit to the entire United States government that our penchant for killing our own nation's criminals, however bad their crimes, makes us all party to systemic murder, adherents to a policy of death-dealing.  The associated costs of keeping a condemned man in prison until his execution are already well known, much, much higher than for a non-condemned man.  Looking at the situation from a coldly economic standpoint, on that basis alone killing condemned prisoners is unsupportable.

And worse yet, innocent men get executed too.  Even one is too many.  The only way to be absolutely certain that the United States, and by extension, all Americans, is innocent of unnecessarily killing an innocent person is to never kill another prisoner again.  Stop now and forever. 

These deaths that are carried out, ostensibly in my name as well as the name of every other upstanding citizen, weigh upon me.  They bear down with a load that I do not want.  Don't kill for me.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Stuff Worth Owning: Trü Pickles (mostly)

I found these bad boys just a few weeks ago.
Once again, I happened upon them while wandering the aisles at Ace Hardware.  I don't know if any of you have noticed, but it looks to me like Ace Hardware is on a tear lately.  It may not seem that way nationwide but it sure looks like that in East Tennessee.

Near me are three Ace Hardware stores.  One replaced a failed unit in downtown Clinton.  I'm not surprised it failed; if you don't sell antiques from your store in downtown Clinton, well, you're in the wrong place.  Another landed in Halls, nicely coinciding with the Walmart upping stakes and moving out of its former location.  Walmart didn't go far, it is almost literally within sight of its former location, but it's just a wee bit further up the road.  Why they went there, I can't fathom.  But it's farther out of Halls, leaving folks in that little suburb that much more hard up for retail options.  And another sprang up in the void left by the eventual dissolution of what had been the indefatigable Parker Brothers Hardware in Knoxville.  Each one is compact, dense, and covers a pretty broad range of products.  I love 'em.

So I was shopping for some wood stove door gaskets and cement.  No problemo, I knew without even asking that Ace would have it.  And on my way toward the door, I saw...
Being a fan of pickles I naturally snatched one up and plunked it on the counter beside my coil of fiberglass gasket and high temperature cement.  I got 'em home, chilled 'em for an hour or three in the fridge, cracked 'em open.

They are amazing.  These are some seriously good pickles.  They're too spicy for some folks, Sweetie doesn't care for them on that basis alone, allowing that they are very tasty but far too spicy to suit her.  That means they're all for me!  No, wait, it doesn't.  Son #1 also enjoys a mean pickle and we shared the jar.  That didn't take long.

They're pricey, but they are so worth it.

Then, a couple days ago, I found these:
Smoked Black Pepper Pickles! Even spicier! So they're going to be great, right?

Wrong. There's a distinct black pepper flavor all right, but the most prevalent flavor coming out of this is mulch.

I'm not kidding.  It took me a bite or three to figure it out, but this tastes more like compost than anything else.  Wondering if I'd chanced upon one that just hadn't been quite right, I tried another.  I think it must be the smoke flavor that's added, but they're dreadful.  Maybe it's like cilantro with some people: most people have no trouble with cilantro but some say it tastes just like Palmolive. I hate to say it, but I've actually happened across a food item that I refuse to finish.  I'm throwing them out.

I'm one of those people who says cilantro tastes like dish detergent.  Maybe the problem is me?

But be not dismayed, Trü!  I'm coming back.  Those first pickles were fabulous.  Sweetie may love the bread and butter pickles.  I know I won't but that's just me - I can't stand sweet pickles.  Can't please everybody.

A little sweet pickle relish in my deviled eggs, however, is crucial to a full and happy life.  So even I can find use for sweet pickles.

I could dig into the question of whether you're going to "own" food.  You take it in, take it apart for nutrients, and a fair portion - all of it, pretty much - eventually gets excreted back out.  Anyway.  Those kosher dills are fantastic and I highly recommend them.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Irony in the News

"Human Barbie" thinks interracial couples make ugly babies.

...and this individual is a good judge of beauty?

For comparison, a "composite woman" from the cover of Time Magazine:

As a typical, heterosexual male with more-or-less middle class standards, I find the second woman extremely appealing on many levels.  The fact that that woman doesn't actually exist is beside the point, my point is that the image is the result of combining hundreds of faces.  Those faces are from many different races, many colors, many shapes, and we can clearly see that when you put all those things together, what you get looks pretty good.  And the first woman, Valeria Lukyanova, is freakish.  Ms. Lukyanova claims to come from a place where "only joy and love exist," and I, for one, recommend she go back to that place and stay there.

She also says she has only had her boobs enhanced.  Yeah.  Not falling for that, either.

Russia is in Ukraine to assure peace

Sure thing, Vlad.  We're all buying that.  We're totally convinced the 90+% "yea" vote on Russian annexation of Crimea was on the up-and-up, too.

Click that link.  Look at those happy faces.  How many of them do you think were paid to look that happy?
Archie Andrews Must Die!
For those who might wonder at how that might be ironic, consider this: the publishing company is called Archie Comics.  Killing off the title character could be considered shooting oneself in the foot, or perhaps the head.
It's not quite as apocalyptic as it seems.  "Life with Archie" has been a what-if kind of title, like DC Comics' own "Elseworlds" line wherein familiar characters are dropped into environments and storylines far different from the mainstream, regular comics.  The infant Kal-El of Krypton, for instance, raised as the son of the Wayne family and growing up to become a Super Batman.
Usually comics move along in a sort of timeless purgatory, living years over and over but the as the years move forward, the characters stay put.  Lately that has required a string of "reboots" in the DC panoply in particular and I, for one, am well and truly sick of it.  I am suffering from reboot fatigue and divesting myself of my large comic collection.  But Life With Archie was different, Archie and the gang got older, became adults and had to deal with adult problems.
So this will bring an end to the what-if side of things.  Archie Andrews, perennial teenager, icon who moves through the years without being entirely affected by them, will go on.

Monday, March 24, 2014

RE: MH370 and US Lawmakers


Regardless of whether the Malaysian government is actually "bungling" the search, it is not the place of US personnel to comment on practice, policy or execution.  Shut up.

The citizens of Malaysia are embarrassed enough without ugly Americans wading into the already-roiled waters.  They have enough angry people shouting at them, why add to that?  This is yet another example of the hand being offered is a clenched fist instead of a helping grip.

When Steve Fossett's plane crashed in 2007, a gigantic array of seachers were fielded, including satellite coverage from Google, and they even had a good idea where to look.  Fossett's plane wasn't found for over a year.  Not only that but they were searching on land - none of the bits were likely to have sunk under the surface of the ground.  Searching the ocean is a whole different kettle of wide-open featureless space.

American deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken, however, went on record stating that the various countries working together for the search was praiseworthy.  Good!  At least somebody is finding something positive to say.

Can't we all do that?  How hard would it be for American Congressmen to say, "Hard luck, gents.  It happens to all of us!  How can we help?"  That's all that needs to be said.  I'm quite certain Malaysia in general and Malaysian air traffic officials in particular are feeling a bit under the gun right now, let's not be jerks and pile on in their time of crisis, okay?

I'm going to sound awfully cold and calculating in the next few lines, so just roll with it: The US could come out of this, an air disaster in which we have virtually no stake at all (three Americans out of over 230 people aboard) smelling like a rose with just a little careful management.  It goes like this:

1) No critical commentary from US at all unless specifically asked for by Malaysian authorities, and then only in private.  Malaysia discloses criticism at their own discretion.

2) Bend over backward, sideways and inside out with assistance.  Rally every vessel we have to search and recovery efforts, everything within a week's sailing.

3) Commit search submersibles now.  Send their support fleets steaming to the nearest port for immediate dispatch once the crash site has been determined.

4) Shut up about all of it.  Be humble, be gracious, be self-deprecating.  The very best marketing is the marketing that is believed, and shouting your own merits tends to sound hollow.  When some other nation, however, has nice things to say, words like that have a lot more merit.  It sounds expensive to send half the Pacific fleet churning toward the Indian Ocean, but we wouldn't be firing any guns.  This is how a nation wins hearts and minds, and we're missing the opportunity.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Death of a Hatemonger

When I heard that Fred Phelps, pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, had died a small, uncharitable part of me said, "Good.  It's about time."

I'm not proud of that.  I like to think that I don't actively hate anyone.  I don't preach hate, certainly not the way Phelps and his church did.  But I've thought more than once that Phelps is was one of those people the world would probably be better off without.  I didn't necessarily wish him dead, I just wished him gone.

I'm aware of how immature that is, how fantastical.  If the person is there, for him to be gone he has to die.  But can you believe me when I say there was no malice in that?

So now we have a world that is short one Fred Phelps, Sr.  Is the world a better place with Phelps gone?  I suspect it probably is.  It is only incrementally better, a very small increment.  But sometimes you have an incremental hurt like an ingrown hair or an infected eyelash.  Minor things, tiny things.  And yet they can be highly irritating and the instant they are gone you feel so much better.

Phelps' history is checkered.  As a Kansas lawyer he successfully fought for civil rights in many cases, but he also took on a personal vendetta against a court reporter, haranguing and defaming for his own reasons.  He was ultimately banned from practicing in Kansas courts but continued to represent cases in Federal courts, until another vendetta - against judges this time - got him disbarred from any kind of court.  That pretty much put an end to his legal career.

It's not really clear exactly what led him down this path of vitriol.  Several members of his family have quit both the church and the family.  Most of them cite both physical and emotional abuse.  Well, can't blame them for leaving.  The church's history of protesting military funerals and political activities in order to draw attention to "God's hatred of America" is pretty well known, unfortunately not just here in the US.  The church's reputation got Phelps and his wife placed on a permanent persona non grata list in the UK.

Ironically, in the last year or so Fred backed off his extremist views.  That put him on the outs with the WBC which, believe it or not, got him excommunicated from the church where he was the founding pastor.  Wow.  If you thought Phelps was intolerant, look at the intolerance he's inspired.

And now he's dead.  Ostensibly because members of the WBC do not "worship the dead" but possibly because they'd rather avoid any loud and unpleasant protests, there will be no funeral for Fred Phelps, Sr.

Rest in peace, Fred.  It isn't up to you to tell us who God hates, but for your own sake you'd better hope He forgives.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The View From Above... shoes, that is.

Here they are:
Sexy, not really.  Just tall.

My few regular readers will probably remember that I do a little acting in community theater from time to time.  I have been fortunate enough to win the part of Aunt Augusta in "The Importance of Being Earnest," it was really the only part I was auditioning for.  I wanted it.

I'm a guy.  I'm about 5' 10", which isn't especially big for a guy.  For a woman however it's pretty large, and when set atop 3" heels (and under a foot-high hat) Aunt Augusta is downright imposing.  That was the plan.  She's an imposing character.  I have dreamed of taking Aunt Augusta right over the officious, blustering top in high style ever since I first saw the play.

It's a peculiar quest to find heels of any height for a guy - any guy - let alone one my size.  Get online and Google "women's shoes for men" and your popup banner ads start to get a little weird.  I won't get too graphic, but let's just say it wandered into alternate lifestyles of which I do not take part.

I found shoes that fit.  I normally wear a men's 12 to 13, which we guessed would translate to a women's 15W.  They're a little big but that's good, I think men's feet tend to be a bit wider than women's, certainly men's shoes tend to be wider than women's.  So I have nearly sufficient width for my feet and a bit more length than is strictly necessary.  Padding takes care of that.

But my toes are under terrific pressure from my own body weight.  They are bent into an odd angle that hurts after a while.  The heel of the shoe begins to bear up against my own heel in a way that my usual everyday shoes never, ever do.

So now we come to the point of this post: high heels hurt.  I have always told my wife that she is never prettier than when she is comfortable; if she is wearing something that doesn't feel good then by all means she should take it off and throw it away.  Life is too short.

Heels hurt.  They hurt all the time and then when I take them off my feet continue to hurt for hours afterward.  I understand that my limited experience means that my feet haven't become accustomed to them and they would probably get better if I had both better-fitting shoes and gave them more time to acclimatize.

But they hurt.  Why in the world would I want to acclimatize to that?

Take your high heels off and throw them away.  It may sound terribly hypocritical to say that, after 4 decades of having never said anything about women's shoes, but that was because I had no experience.  I have that experience and now can say, from a much more sympathetic viewpoint, that high heels have no saving grace at all.  Besides being flimsy and subject to structural failure, they can and do cause permanent injury over time besides being highly uncomfortable in the moment.

And don't start me on bras.  Holy cow.  Between the shoes and the bra my back feels like I've been splitting wood and raking leaves since September.  The ache won't go away.

As part of the gender that has somehow encouraged or even required all you ladies to put yourselves into this state, I apologize.  I assure you, I did not actively take part.  And for my part, I say set it all aside as soon as you can.  Like I said, life is too short.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Helpful Household Hints: Avoiding Frozen Pipes

We're coming up on another deep freeze over the next few days.  If you were one of the many unfortunates that had to contend with a burst pipe due to freezing, you may remember that in my last post I made some suggestions on how to deal with it, and maybe what to do to avoid it in the future.

The future is bearing down.  Your time to act is now.  You cannot wait until warmer weather arrives, if you'd prefer to avoid slithering around in freezing mud under your house to deal with a burst pipe, then you'd better get slithering around under there right now while it's still dry.

If you cannot afford a bunch of heat tapes or are feeling the financial bite of having hired a plumber to do the job last time, then there is a simple expedient: crack open some faucets.

It's really that simple.  Reducing water to freezing temperature doesn't require pulling that much energy out of it, but making it make the change from water to ice takes much, much more energy removal.  If you simply have some water moving through the pipe, always bringing in fresh water from the main, you may be able to dodge the problem.  Before sufficient heat energy has leaked out of the water through the pipe walls, that water has already gone all the way through the pipe and been replaced by new, not-freezing water.

Yes, that means having a faucet run all night.  You might do well to get up in the middle of the night to flush the toilets a couple of times, too.  It's a lot less inconvenient than having to dry out your house again.

You don't have to have the faucet going wide-open.  Just a thin stream will do.  If you're one of those people who can't stop hearing the drip-drip-drip and it keeps you awake, tie a length of string to the faucet that the drip will hit.  The drop will then slide down the string and reach the sink that way instead of having the loud impact that you can hear.

I generally recommend opening all the faucets for just a trickle.  Don't forget the tub.  Water is fortunately one of the least-expensive commodities Americans consume, so you won't break the bank doing this.

Good luck with it.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Helpful Household Hints: Frozen Pipes

Now that the "Polar Vortex" has pretty much rolled out to sea and the only folks still frozen over are the ones used to it at this time of year, let's take a look at one of the main headaches of extremely cold weather: frozen pipes.

It's bad enough that a pipe is frozen.  That means you can't get water out of some fixture where you would normally expect to get all you want.  It's even worse when the freeze happens in the main pipe that supplies your house or office.  But sometimes that ice can even damage the pipes.

People sometimes have the mistaken notion that the water pressure inside the pipe is what causes an ice plug to burst a pipe.  Not so: that pressure is always there.  Turn the faucet off and the pressure is still there.  That the water isn't moving doesn't change the fact that the water pressure continues to press on the pipe.  And really, most houses run at less than 100 pounds of pressure, considerably less.  My own home's pressure regulator is set for 40 pounds, which is more than sufficient for every need.

Think about ice in your freezer, and icebergs.  What do we know about ice?  It floats.  Why does it float if it's just made of water?  It floats because it occupies more volume than an equivalent mass of water would.  And yet it already is water, so it is an equivalent mass to itself.  That must mean that in becoming ice, water expands as it freezes.  And indeed, so it does.

Many of us are already aware of the magical 1/7 ratio, that about 1/7 of an iceberg is all you see above the water, and the rest is below the surface.  I've never researched that too carefully so for now let's assume it's the gospel truth and move on.  But here's a tidbit you might not know: water ice that is restrained as it freezes can exert tremendous pressure on its container.  How much pressure?

Thirty thousand pounds.  30,000 psi.  That's a huge amount.

If you ever experimented by placing a bottle full of water into the freezer to see what would happen to it, perhaps you saw either a lot of ice dribbled down the side of the bottle, or perhaps you saw the bottle split, the top from the bottom.

Household plumbing is pretty sturdy stuff.  Even cheap plastic PEX water supply lines will easily resist 100 psi of pressure with no difficulty.  But 25,000 psi blows through household piping like it wasn't even there.  Don't be misled, you can have plumbing that can sustain such pressures.  A 1/2" inside diameter steel pipe can sustain nearly that kind of pressure, but it won't be the pipe you find at Home Depot, no way.  It's a piece of pipe with an inside diameter of 1/2 inch, but an outside diameter closer to 13/16".  That is not typical plumbing pipe.  And your typical copper plumbing is nothing in the face of such pressures.

So an ice plug formed somewhere in your piping.  If you're very lucky it expanded back in the direction of the water supply.  That means it only experienced the pressures generated by the city water.  The piping walls might take some strain but it's not too uncommon that an ice plug just grows along the pipe and is an inconvenience, nothing more.

But if you have an ice plug that grows toward the fixtures, which are often turned off, then there's nowhere for the pressure of the growing ice to go but out.  And that's when you get pipes bursting.

Obviously the first step is to turn off the water.  Find your control valve if you have one, or the main shutoff if you don't, and get things to a standstill.  Place buckets under the leaks if they're coming from overhead.  If they're in your crawlspace you got lucky for the moment.  More on that shortly.  If the leak is in your wall, you have some cutting to do to find the source.

Now you need to go shopping.  You have some options:

You can make your repair using a repair coupling:
or if your break is small, you can use one like is intended for regular plumbing joints:
and if you shop in the right places you can even find a longer length of the coupling-diameter pipe:
That last one is very useful: you can cut out the damaged section, flex the existing pipe just a bit to slide this repair piece over the existing pipe, and solder it on.  No measuring, just a quick slide-and-torch job.  Very convenient.  And the last time I bought a piece it was about $8.00 for a 12" length.  I like to use the entire length on the repair because it provides plenty of support to the pipe, which is important since you have to cut the pipe to install the piece.  That top piece with the compression fittings works in a similar fashion, you don't have to measure carefully to get the lengths right, the entire length of the piece will slide right over the existing pipe.

Be advised that these are easy to find in 1/2" sizes, typical household size.  If you have a different size go wrong, you may be in some difficulty.  One house where I lived had a lot of 3/4" copper supply pipe, just ridiculously sized plumbing.  And it sprang a leak.  That's when I had to get one of these:
It's called a pipe repair clamp and it's a lot more forgiving on the pipe diameter.  They're intended as a temporary measure so you can keep the water running while you set up for a proper repair, but when I moved away from that old house the clamp had been in place for three years.

To fix the leak you have to find it.  You have to find it.  This will necessitate cutting open a wall if it isn't someplace convenient like a basement or crawlspace.  I like exposed plumbing for this reason.  I don't mind plumbing, but I dislike all the concomitant finish work that follows a burst pipe, trying to make the place look nice afterward.  So screw up your courage and cut open the wall, ceiling, whatever.  Find it.  Cut out the damage and solder in the repair.  

Remember the crawlspace?  Yeah, about that: if your pipe is leaking down there, then it is conveniently not soaking your house...but now you have to go slithering around under the house in a lake of freezing mud and do your repair there.  Win some, lose some.

Compression fittings just wrench on.  Slide the nut onto the pipe, followed by the compression sleeve, and then the repair fitting.  Torque it up.  Use two wrenches, one for torquing and the other to keep things from getting twisted up.  Don't go too crazy, you'll be able to feel when things have started to bottom out.  NOTE: be damned sure about where you want that compression sleeve.  They aren't reusable.  If you get things wrong you have to cut off the bit of pipe with the sleeve and start over.

Solder fittings are a little more involved.  You have to sand the pipe surfaces to remove gunk, then add some flux.  You need a clean, pure surface for a good solder joint.  Sanding gets you close, but the flux is crucial for finishing the job, reacting with and carrying away contaminants so the solder can do its thing. The upside is that the solder joint is a lot stronger than a compression joint, and the material costs are fewer once you've bought the torch, flux and solder.  $20 worth of flux and solder will plumb an entire house, $20 worth of compression fittings will do one bathroom.  And with solder if you get things wrong, you can heat things up until the solder melts and knock it apart, and start over.  The only downside of soldering is the possibility of lighting yourself or your home on fire.  So be careful.  The cool thing about soldering, though, is that once you've got the hang of it it's actually a lot of fun.

Now let's think a moment about prevention:

Pipe insulation
is for more than just hot water pipes.  It helps slow down heat loss from the cold water pipes too, and that's the name of the game here: heat loss.  After enough energy has left the water in your pipe, it changes state and becomes ice.  If you can prevent the heat leaving too quickly, perhaps then enough heat leaks into the pipes from elsewhere or the temperature rises sufficiently to prevent freezing.  There are several different ways to do it: a slit tube that slides on, a tape roll that you wrap around...actually that's about all the ways there are.  Whatever you do, do it.  Thicker is better.  If you can, add two layers.

You can also fight the cold by adding heat
with a heat tape.  So far every installation I've ever seen had the tape wrapped in a spiral around the pipe.  That's overdoing things.  Simply having the tape run alongside the pipe, and perhaps fastened directly to the pipe with a spiral of electrical tape, will suffice admirably and provide a lot more distance on the pipe.  Follow it up by wrapping the whole mess with pipe insulation and your pipes should be proof against anything but the next ice age.

Unless your power goes out.  

Good luck, stay warm and dry, and be careful.