Archive for July, 2010

Traveblog

Monday, July 26th, 2010

We visited Chicago last week. I mean, seriously visited, doing the whole tourist thing, partly because Becca wanted to show her guests as much of Chicago as possible, and partly just because. Me and my spouse and my sister and her daughter flew up Wednesday night, landed at O’Hare, rented a car, picked up my daughter at her walk-up in Ukrainian village, and drove immediately downtown to Pizzeria Uno. A short wait on the humid downtown streets paid off bigtime with a giant salad and a thick, Chicago-style pizza that we finally gave up on close to midnight.

Thursday morning we breakfasted at the hip Bongo Room (an omelette for me, plus a little of everyone else’s breakfast), then headed off to the Field Museum, featuring every conceivable dead animal known to science (plus a few inconceivable ones) and the amazing Sue, a nearly complete T-Rex skeleton discovered in 1990 in Utah by an archaeologist named (you guessed it) Sue! Next was the obligatory trip to Starbucks (a smoothie followed by a doppio. I totally confused the barista at first by ordering a “Duplo,” which, of course, refers to the large-sized Legos, not the large-sized espresso). We then took a 90-minute architectural boat tour of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, amusingly and entertainingly narrated by Jen, who explained why Chicago’s river flows backwards, and how Chicago’s drinking water comes from cribs cribtwo miles off-shore in the lake (see real time crib weather data). We even went through the Chicago lock, because the Lake is two feet higher than the river. Famished, we ended the day with a trip through Portillo’s drive-thru for some real Chicago Hot Dogs to-go.

Friday morning, after a modest breakfast of left-over pizza, I dropped our guests off near the Bongo Room for some urban outfitting. An hour or so later, the rest of us picked them up, stopped at Panera for brunch (2nd breakfast?), then met Scott, a firefighter married to one of Becca’s co-workers and a most gracious host, for an exciting afternoon of sailing on the southern part of Lake Michigan in a 28-foot Catalina. Scott let me take the helm most of the day, and by the time I finally decided to turn around, the wind had picked up out of the southwest, we were way out beyond one of the water cribs, and were probably 4 hours of long tacking from the marina. Sailors hate having to crank the motor, but they hate even more having cranky riders. So to avoid that, we dropped the ol’ mains’l, fired up Scott’s Atomic motor (“atomic” referring to the manufacturer, not the fuel), and motored back through gusts up to 30 mph and waves several feet high. To the girls riding on the bow, it was like an amusement park ride, and it was pretty exciting for me and Scott for that matter. An exhilarating sail in a beautiful setting.

After the sail, we retreated to Scott’s family boat docked in the Hammond Marina to wait out an intense, fast-moving thunderstorm. As soon as the clouds cleared, we were all off to Whiting for the 16th annual Pierogi Festival. For people who didn’t know what a pierogi pierogiwas before this weekend, we had ourselves a fine time, walking up and down Whiting’s main street, utterly failing to resist the Polish delicacies that tempted us with every step. The addition of live polka music topped the whole night off, and we could barely drag ourselves back home and up to the 3rd-floor walk-up.

As if we had absolutely no sense at all, we got up Saturday morning and walked to the Flying Saucer for a hipster breakfast. (I had La Bazza, advertised as the “Rolls Royce of vegetarian breakfast bowls.” It included rice, beans, fried eggs, kale, cauliflower, tofu and some more minor stuff I either didn’t recognize or can’t remember. They threatened to take away my Vegetarian License, though, when I added some leftover bacon that the rest of the group couldn’t finish. Fortunately, they let me off with merely a hip scowl.)

From the Saucer we flew back downtown to the so-called “ART INSTITVTE OF CHICAGO” (that’s really how they spell it) and settled in for an afternoon of culture. What a collection! Even at a near trot, we ran out of time way before we ran out of things to see – Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Okeeffe, Gaugin, not to mention artifacts from India, Egypt, and Native America. cloudgateI just tried to take in the images, like Chuck, except this Intersect was all about art. We left the Art Institvte as it was closing down, just in time to see Cloudgate, a sculpture in Millennium Park that strongly resembles a giant, chrome-plated legume.

The last stop on our whirlwind tour of the Windy City was Navy Pier, where we rode the giant ferris wheel, and settled in for a long luxurious seafood dinner at Riva, overlooking the rivapier and the lock. (It was soft-shelled crab and halibut for me. Yep, you guessed it – just for the halibut.) After picking up a few souvenirs and once again successfully negotiating Chicago’s gridded streets, we wound up collapsed at Becca’s place watching The Proposal to unwind. (OK, it is definitely a chick flick, but in case you’ve lost count, the chick-to-dude ratio was 5-to-1.)

For my faithful readers who are wondering “didn’t he do anything technical the whole trip?”, as a matter of fact, I unclogged 2 drains and fixed the toilet paper holder.

So there.

All photos by Jayne.

Get a Move On

Monday, July 19th, 2010

One of the first things I learned about vehicles is that you cannot steer unless you are moving. Whether you are on a car, a skateboard, or a bicycle, you can operate the steering mechanism as enthusiastically as you want, but, unless you are moving, you will just sit there, pointed in the same direction.

It’s actually worse in a boat. Even if you have no motor or wind moving you through the water, you will be moving ON the water. You will be carried by waves, wind, and current, none of which are likely to propel you toward your destination. To gain directional control, you must be moving THROUGH (not just on) the water.

Lack of motion introduces another uncomfortable result, and if you’ve ever sat on a stationary jet ski, you’ve experienced this phenomenon. Not only are you directionless, you are also unstable, tossed about by the smallest of waves or wind gusts. You feel like a kid trying to ride a bicycle too slowly. Water craft are designed for movement, not stagnation.

There’s one more lesson to be squeezed out of this analogy. A sailboat headed directly into the wind soon stops moving, and is said to be “in irons.” It can’t move or steer. The phrase refers to the likely result befalling a naval vessel in a sea battle – if the boat loses forward progress, the crew is likely to be captured and put “in irons.” The way a boat can recover from being “in irons” is to physically force one or more sails away from center, exposing them to the force of the wind. Even a small amount of sail blown by the wind will cause the boat to begin to move backward through the water. As soon as the boat has some backwards momentum, the skipper can move the rudder to one side, swinging the stern of the boat off center, and turning it across the wind. With the wind no longer coming dead-center, the crew can then adjust the sails for proper sailing.

I don’t want this to turn into a sermonette, but I don’t want any faithful readers to miss the point, either. If there are aspects of your work or your life that feel out of control, take a lesson from the boat, and get a move on! By moving yourself through your circumstances rather than just being pushed around by the forces around you, you will not only gain the ability to steer, you will stabilize yourself. Do you feel like you are “in irons?” It’s not too much of a stretch to say you should just try something, even if it seems to be moving you backwards. At least you’ll gain steerage.

Lastly, if none of these tricks seem to be making a difference, you might want to re-visit my June 14th posting, Clawing off a lee shore, and ask for help if you need it.

Happy Sails to You.

Mixing

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

When I was around 14 years old, Dad, Mom, and I added two rooms and a bath to the back of our house. (I’m sure my sisters, who were 12, 7, and 4, helped too, even though my memory of their contributions is vague. But they are all hard workers today, so I’m sure they were busy helping even then.) We did all of it except the plumbing – foundation, brick skirting, framing, asbestos siding (yep, for real), roofing, flooring and paneling. I even wired it, with Dad’s cautious oversight. That was the project in which Dad taught me how to mix mortar and cement with a hoe and a wheelbarrow. I started by trying to stir the cement, aggregate, and water by using the hoe like it was a mixing spoon. Of course, the dry ingredients flew up in the air, the water sloshed over the side, and, even when I kept the ingredients inside the wheelbarrow, the dang stuff still didn’t get mixed very well.

After a couple of futile attempts, Dad finally came over and showed me how to just take a small bite with the hoe, and pull it to one end, then take another small bite, and so on, working a “row” at a time, until the ingredients were all at one end of the wheelbarrow. Then I stepped to the other end of the wheelbarrow and repeated the process. It seemed really slow at first, but soon I had a nice mixture, with all the ingredients distributed evenly.

A dozen years later I went to work for Superior Steel Fabricators, Inc., designer and builder of custom materials handling systems – bins, silos, conveyors, etc. I learned about angle of repose, pneumatic conveying, and how ingredients of different size settle at different rates, which is one of the challenges of mixing. We built one of the fastest automated ready-mix concrete plants in the country – we could batch and load a 9-yard mixer truck in 90 seconds. But perhaps our most notable achievement was a novel design for a lead oxide mixer. The President of the company was a great engineer, and he designed a stainless steel mixer with polyurethane scrapers. I built an electrical and pneumatic control system that weighed and dispensed the lead oxide, sulfuric acid, and water. OxMaster MixerWe figured out how to assemble the whole thing so it could be shipped on a single flat-bed trailer. It was a very successful product, and 25 years later, although neither the original company nor its President are still around, the OxMaster Mixer still uses almost all of our original design.

For the past few years I’ve been trying to start my day with some chopped fruit, Greek yogurt, and a generous scoop of my own breakfast concoction, usually made of raw oats, wheat bran and germ, flax seed, chopped pecans, walnuts, raw almonds, and raisins. Whenever I mix the concoction in a big stainless steel bowl, and also when I try to mix the fruit, grains, nuts and yogurt in my cereal bowl, I think about what I’ve learned about mixing, some from Superior Steel, but even more from my Dad. Nice, small, even chops, a little at a time, and before you know it, I have a well distributed mixture.

Does anybody know where I can find a small hoe and a sturdy wheelbarrow that will fit on a kitchen countertop?

Closing quote

As a reward for your patient reading, here’s a nice quote from E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web), who said: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

Brake free

Monday, July 5th, 2010

I have been awash in books lately, thanks to a couple of Barnes and Noble gift cards. I finished Made By Hand, read all of The Sparrow, and have read half of Borg’s The Heart of Christianity (for an impromptu book club), a third of Pratchett’s Soul Music, and started Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2, a 1995 science fiction based on neural networks. In the midst of all this I ran across a couple of interesting quotes. But first, this brake.

Stop it!

I hate using my brakes. But before you decide you will never ride in a car with me, hear me out.

When I was in my mid teens, my Dad taught me how to grease the steering components of a car. Since then, improved lubricants and seals have rendered this skill nearly useless, but at the time it was a regular item of automotive maintenance. The next step on my long journey into automotive upkeep was changing “brake linings,” as we referred to them at the time – the arc-shaped shoes that expanded inside the “brake drum” to slow and stop the vehicle. For passenger cars, drum brakes were replaced by disk brakes starting in the late 60s, while drums are still used in plenty of applications, like 18-wheelers.

A conservative calculation suggests that I have changed at least 50 sets of brakes since then, most of them in a driveway, sweating in the sun, but some on a winter’s night when the cold wind makes the small metal parts hard to hold, and skinning a knuckle hurts like heck.

That calculation doesn’t count brake repairs, such the time I rebuilt the rear brakes of my Sprite in the parking lot of a service station in Newnan, using the one wrench that the disgruntled station owner deigned to loan me. I would have just driven the rest of the way to Columbus without brakes, but I had my girlfriend with me at the time, so that seemed a little irresponsible. That Sprite (the car, not the girl) taught me a lot of valuable lessons, including the important difference between Castrol brake fluid and regular U.S brake fluid.

Every time I mash a brake pedal with my big, boot-clad foot, pressurizing the hydraulic fluid in the master cylinder, multiplying the force to the slave cylinders, and bashing semi-metallic linings into rapidly rotating steel surfaces, I think about the many brake linings I’ve changed, and the work required to do so. Like any sort of maintenance task, changing brakes brings a feeling of accomplishment, but that doesn’t mean I want to do it every day.

So I drive to minimize the use of my brakes, unlike a lot of people on the road. You can spot ’em several ways. Their front wheels are darker than their back wheels, ’cause they are covered with an unnatural coat of brake dust. The noses of their cars dip down every time they put on the brakes, and pop back up when they finally come to a halt. They accelerate too fast, then have to slam on the brakes because there really wasn’t room or reason to accelerate that fast. And they follow too close.

The most obvious thing I do to save brakes is leave plenty of following distance. The minimum recommended distance is 2 seconds, easily counted using road markers or lines. But if the car I’m following is following too close I leave extra room. Ditto if the car behind me is following too close. Or if the road is slick. Or if I’m pulling a trailer, or hauling a load of lumber, or people. Especially if I’m hauling people.

Over the years I’ve heard otherwise sensible people explain all the reasons why they don’t leave sufficient following distance. Their reasons are like the lame excuses people use for not wearing seatbelts. I have a degree in Physics from the Georgia Institute of Technology, but in case you don’t understand Newton’s laws of mass, velocity, inertia and force, just take my word for it: bad things can happen when you lose control of more than 2000 pounds of metal moving at more than 80 feet every second. OK, I’ll get off the soapbox now.

Watching other people drive in the parking deck at work offers a relatively low-speed example of the impact of acceleration on brake usage. Like most decks, ramps connect the floors, and I’ve found that, if I accelerate slowly up the entrance ramp, I can make the first turn without having to touch the brakes, nor frightening my fellow parkers who are walking to and from their cars. It seems pretty obvious, but 90% of the people I observe accelerate briskly halfway up the ramp, then have to brake to make the turn, not only wearing their brakes, but also burning unnecessary fuel. As my fellow citizens navigate traffic lights on the busy streets of our city, they exhibit similar behavior.

Part of the solution is simply to do things earlier, leave some extra time. The normal things people do to try to speed up their trip don’t help much, if at all. So I go to bed earlier, get up earlier, leave for work earlier, get there earlier than I have to. And it works out fine.

I encourage to join me in braking free. It will set you, er, free.

Quotes

Here a couple of quotes I stumbled upon in my reading this week that I will present without further comment.


The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —

The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —

Emily Dickinson


There are times … when we are in the midst of life — moments of confrontation with birth or death, or moments of beauty when nature or love is fully revealed, or moments of terrible loneliness — times when a holy and awesome awareness comes upon us. It may come as deep inner stillness or as a rush of overflowing emotion. It may seem to come from behind us, without any provocation, or from within us, evoked by music or a sleeping child. If we open our hearts at such moments, creation reveals itself to us in all its unity and fullness. And when we return from such a moment of awareness, our hearts long to find a way to capture it in words forever, so that we can remain faithful to its higher truth. … When my people search for a name to give to the truth we feel at those moments, we call it God, and when we capture that understanding in timeless poetry, we call it praying.

Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow