Archive for April, 2011

Two check-offs

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Checking off boxes on a to-do list is fun no matter how long the list. I got to check off a couple recently. (Remember that you can click on the photos for a full-size version.)

A gate

There’s a small deck outside a bedroom, and a lady often wheels her man through a door into the fresh air and sunshine. But there is a short flight of stairs in a direct line with the door, and they both worry about the wheelchair accidentally rolling down the stairs. They asked me for a solution, and we discussed several gate options, but the stairs are wide and the deck narrow, so a conventional gate would be cumbersome. We talked about a folding gate, but that seemed complicated. We needed something that would be effective, easy to use, out of the way, and relatively easy to build.

After re-surveying the space, I came up with a design that I could build with four 1x4s, four 2x2s, and some miscellaneous hardware. I sketched it up (yes, on MyPad) then took a trip to Lowe’s for the parts, which cost less than $50, including a nice set of counter-sink bits for my collection.

It took a couple of hours to construct it, most of that time trying to get all of the pieces square working on top of a picnic table. The finished result works pretty well. The balusters (is that really what they are?) on the gate fit across the one at the top of the stair to hold the gate closed. The gate slides open and rests on four long lag screws covered with 1/2″ i.d. schedule 80 PVC, because it is grey instead of white. The lag screws also hold the fourth 1×4 in place to keep the gate from falling off the lag screws.

And, as you can see in the last picture, the design fulfilled one more requirement which was not part of the original specification, but which I added during the observation stage. Daisy is very pleased with it.


The second check-off was the plumbing and wiring of the new stove. After entirely too many weeks, I took a day off to run the gas line and electric connection, getting it all complete and tested just in time for a maiden stove voyage consisting of a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled pepperjack-on-rye sandwich.

I managed to knock together a temporary housing around the back of the stove while we plot the eventual cabinetry and storage which will replace all of the stuff I demolished, as previously described.

And in the middle of it all, it appears that Spring has arrived. We had delightful guests this weekend, two cats, three dogs (including Rainier, pictured) and six humans. It was great fun, and only occasionally raucous. Just the right amount.

Long and Short

Monday, April 4th, 2011

I just returned from a work trip to the Left Coast. As part of my self-prescribed therapy, I’m posting a few thoughts, some brief, most not so.

Long: Back to the Future

I think of myself as relatively familiar with new technology, but my rental car experience brought me up short. I felt like I had been transported into the future, without warning.

First of all, the “key ring” they gave me didn’t have a key on it, just two identical clickers with the usual lock, unlock, and open-trunk symbols. Then, when I got to the car, there was no place to stick a clicker, just a pushbutton that said “start” and an LED display that said “brake.” Being the obedient type, I stepped on the brake and pressed the button. All of the dash indicators lit up as if the car were running. But there was absolutely no sound. And, in addition to the usual speedometer and battery charge indicators, there was a big meter labeled “KW.”

About that time, another display attached to the front of the dashboard started talking to me. “Select destination,” it said. This didn’t surprise me quite as much as it might have, since the rental representative had mentioned that the car had a GPS system in it that I was welcome to use, even though I had neither requested nor paid for it.

After the somewhat laborious task of entering the state, city, street and street number using a cursor and an Enter button, it seemed that I was finally ready to go. I placed the (thankfully, normal) transmission selector in “R”, and cautiously pressed on the accelerator. The car silently glided back out of the parking space, and I shifted to “D” just as the GPS system began to advise me to drive so that the triangle symbolizing my vehicle was lined up with the purple line symbolizing my calculated route.

About the time I hit 30 miles per hour, the gasoline engine started, and it began to sound like a “real” car. I am quite familiar with both notions, that of an auto GPS system, and that of a hybrid, at least in theory. And while I have actually ridden in an early Prius several years ago, and used a hand-held hiker’s GPS about the same time, this was my first experience with both technologies in their current instantiation, simultaneously, and in a new city to boot.

Over the next few days, the new technologies and I reached a level of mutual acceptance and understanding. I can see that both offer significant advantages, particularly once one becomes familiar with them. But I do have a few thoughts to share.

  • I’m pretty amazed at the cavalier manner with which the rental car company put a Georgia boy in a hybrid without a shred of introduction, quick-start guide, or even the usual owner’s manual in the glove box. I know a lot of people who might still be sitting there trying to figure out how to get out of the car to ask for help, for fear that it might start off by itself, or perhaps blow up.
  • The GPS system did get me to my destination, but I don’t think it was much easier than my usual map approach would have been. Through the few days I used it driving around, at least three times I had to, “as soon as possible, make a safe and legal U-turn,” because the instructions were not quite clear enough. That’s about my normal wrong-turn-per-day ration when using a map, although I suspect my map skills are better than average, and my GPS skills a little worse.
  • One significant disadvantage of the GPS-only approach was that, when I arrived at my initial destination, I still had no idea where I was, relative to the airport. I was just following the instructions to “turn right in one-half mile. Prepare to turn right. Bong-bing.” I really have to stare at an appropriately-scaled map to really understand where I am. I suppose I am somehow bound to symbolic representations.
  • Figuring out how to gas up a rental car on the way back to the airport is frequently a stress inducer, so the rental car agencies now offer you the opportunity to buy a whole tank of gas at a per-gallon price that is less than the street price. The third option is to do nothing, and they will happily charge you around double the street price to refill it for you. I figured out several trips ago that pre-purchasing the full tank makes dollars and sense most of the time. But on this trip, I learned that FOR A HYBRID, THIS IS NOT TRUE! I drove around for three days before the needle even moved from the Full position. In a way, I sorta feel like they sand-bagged me, because I elected the pre-purchased fuel option when I had no idea that I would be driving a hybrid.
  • I never did figure out the KM dial (photo above). The pointer would dip into the blue when I braked, but would otherwise stay on zero. A couple of times it moved above zero for no apprent reason. I could not correlate its movement with anything I was doing, except not braking. Mysterious, and not particularly helpful to be taking up so much instrument panel real estate.

Shorter: Waste Land

Vik Muniz is probably Brazil’s most well-known visual/graphic artist. A common approach for him is to create an image with a material somehow relevant to the image, then take a high-resolution photograph of it. One example is a series of portraits he made of the children of sugar cane growers. The portraits were made from granulated sugar, each grain carefully placed. Another well-known work is Vik’s dual-rendition of the Mona Lisa, with the right version made of peanut butter and the left one of jelly.

Waste Land is an award-winning independent film that traces one of Vik’s large scale projects from inspiration through execution, including its effect on his subjects. The subjects are “pickers of recyclable materials” who work in the largest landfill in Brazil, outside Rio.

It is a fascinating work, with deeply personal stories both inspiring and heart-breaking, and scenes far-removed from our placid existence. Jayne watched it on MyPad as we traveled to and from Athens one evening, and observed that you certainly don’t look at garbage the same after you’ve seen Waste Land.

But ultimately I decided to watch Waste Land when I read that the distributors chose to offer it via iTunes as a means of saving packaging. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. (See below some previously unposted thoughts on my long-term relationship with garbage.)

It’s available to “rent” for $4 or to purchase for $10. Click for the Waste Land web site.

Very Short: French Phrases

Here’s a quick one purely for fun. It’s a web page that lists a large group of French phrases commonly used by English speakers. Clique ICI. And if you go to the home page, you find a wealth of other phrase treasures, including Latin phrases, American phrases, and a “phrase thesaurus” for writers. (If you don’t already know this, backspace the URL until you get to the root domain, which in this case is “uk”.)

Ooops. Not quite as short: Garbage

I wrote the following back in January of ’09:

My fascination with trash started early. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a garbageman. It seemed like such fun – they got to ride on the back of this huge mechanical contraption, holding on with one hand. They had big muscles. They even got to jump on and off the truck while it was moving! I totally ignored the unpleasant realities (that recurring garbage odor in your clothes, the heat of summer, getting your tongue stuck on the truck in winter….)

My brother-in-law actually rode a garbage truck for a while just after high school. The main thing he learned was how to open his cigarette package from the bottom, so his dirty hands wouldn’t have to touch the part that went into his mouth. Rules to live by.

We were fortunate where I grew up – we had county-provided garbage pick-up. My cousin grew up in a tiny town in south-central Georgia, and they had to dispose of their own garbage, which I also thought was cool as a kid. They re-used as much as they could, tossed the vegetable peelings into the garden, burned the trash, and periodically hauled the big stuff to the county dump.

The notion of sustainability (although not the actual term) was a big part of my college experience. I played bass for a hippie friend in an Atlanta park to help celebrate the first Earth Day. Around that same time, the City of Atlanta introduced high-tech garbage pick-up, consisting of a big, heavy-duty plastic tub with a hinged lid, designed to be rolled to the back of the truck for automated dumping, no more big muscles required. The first batch worked pretty good until the neighborhood kids discovered that the wheels could be used to make great down-hill racers.

The first 12 years of my marriage included access to some primo garden space, meaning not only fresh vegetables, but also composting. I recycled as much as I could, mostly because it just didn’t make sense to pile up my garbage anywhere, in my back yard or the city landfill.

As time and trash passed, the notion of garbage would periodically surface in my consciousness. There was a garbage strike in NYC that caused unpleasantly fragrant chaos, and later a shorter one in Atlanta. Barges full of NY [garbage] floating aimlessly on the ocean looking for a harbor that would accept them. The notion of hazardous waste, and toxic trash. More barges from NY sailing 300 miles off-shore to dump their trash. USCG rules limiting what a boat may discharge into the ocean (Plastics: never).

I guess I never finished that posting. I think it was intended as an introduction to some crazy garbage pick-up chaos occurring about that time in my home county. It has taken over two years to resolve and implement the county’s original well-intended plan to provide an efficient and cost-effective system for collecting trash and recyclables. The resultion included a poorly-executed Request For Proposal that was ultimately thrown out by a local judge, a last-minute extension of “business as usual” of an indeterminate length that left several companies holding the bag, so to speak, and an awkward transition that left many of us with an extra 60-gallon garbage container we can’t throw away. (Have you ever tried to throw away a garbage can? Only way to do it is to put it in a bigger can.) I’m not really serious about wanting to throw it away, but I don’t really need it.

Now that they have finally finished the transition, our service is actually pretty good. It’s covered by an annual fee associated with county taxes, the number of garbage trucks rumbling through our neighborhoods has been reduced by at least 60%, and we can now recycle 35 different types of paper, metal, and plastic materials, no separation required.

I guess the conclusion is that my life-long concerns about garbage, and my positive feelings about sustainability and recycling, have been somewhat justified.

Could there possibly be a better place to terminate a posting than having the most peculiar pontificator almost be right about something?

I think not.