Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Am I Back?

Now that I have an entirely too clever phone (which is not the same thing as smart), will I start blogging again in quiet moments?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Live Long and Prosper

Several weeks ago a cow-orker of mine made the famous "Live long and prosper" hand sign invented by Leonard Nimoy for his Spock character on Star Trek. But he was unsure of whether the sign was made with the thumb extended or not.

Of course we quickly found the answer (thanks, Google), including pictures from the TV episode where it was first used.

Anyway, I thought of that hand sign immediately when I saw the cast they put on my younger son, 2 of 2.

In case you're curious, he wiped out on his scooter and when he put his hand out to break his fall, he broke his pinkie and ring fingers. The doctor said it was a Salter 2 fracture, and the orthopedist said that they had to be immobilized to give them a chance to heal properly. You can Google for Salter fractures if you are curious.

Live long and prosper,

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

New Olympic Sports

One of the fun things about any Olympics, including the one just finished in China, is watching the new sports. Who can forget the excitement that swept the world when curling was introduced at the 1988 Calgary games?

Actually, it was RE-introduced, having appeared in the first Winter Games way back in 1924 and also having been part of the '32 games in Lake Placid. Curling was a "demonstration" sport in '88 and '92, and became an official Olympic event in 1998. What was once so exciting for its newness is now part of the fabric of the games.

This year's Summer Games brought BMX racing to Beijing. While this is not a new sport to us Merkins, it is probably pretty new to much of the rest of the world.

But apparently you can change existing sports as well. Witness the Decathlon and Heptathlon and the throwing of Javelinas. Not being a big track and field fan, I don't know what javelina throwing replaced in the competition for the title of "World's Greatest Athlete". NBC declined to show the javelina throwing competition during its prime-time coverage, probably to avoid the protests that would surely come from PETA. I also couldn't find it at

And it's a shame, too. I would be interested to know the proper technique for throwing javelinas, and wonder how far a world-class athuhleet can throw a javelina.

I would also like to know how athletes train in parts of the world where javelinas are hard to come by. We've all cringed as we've watched third world swimmers struggle to compete when they have no (50-meter) pools in which to practice. How do prospective javelina throwers practice? Do they use pot-belly pigs? Or worse -- midgets?

Enquiring minds want to know (and the National Enquirer(TM) has been silent on this controversial issue).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Inspector Gadget

With apologies to the animated Inspector Gadget(TM), that name seemed an appropriate title for a post which introduces my experiments with gadgets on my blog. It (my experiment) is clumsy and, in many ways, clueless. In other words, perhaps a lot like what you'd expect from Inspector Gadget if he were to write a blog.

So Many Gadgets, So Little Time

There are quite a lot of gadgets to choose from. Something north of 40,000, if I remember correctly. Indeed, with that many gadgets, how can one peruse them all to find the best? Most popular, perhaps? But would that really be the best? Or would it only be the best of the first 100 or so that were presented in the first couple of lists?

Many Are Called, Few Are Chosen

So I chose "this date in history" and "quote of the day". Both are inspired by my good friend, Seamus, who occasionally sends out very interesting "this day in history" types of lessons and whose emails always end in a supposedly random but often quite apropos quote.

I should note that Seamus' history notes arrive occasionally, not that they are occasionally interesting. In fact, they are usually interesting, unlike actual history lessons from my days in publick skool.

I shall enjoy seeing what these gadgets have to offer.


If you peruse the list of gadgets, you may find yourself mildly confused, as I am, by the pictures that accompany each gadget in the list. For example, the Jokes gadget is presented beside a picture of a woman's bikini clad chest. The text describing the gadget indicates that you can choose from several joke categories, including "clean" jokes, but why did they choose that image as the visual identity of the gadget? I've never thought of either breasts or of bikinis as particularly funny.

And what happens to the wholesome, family nature of my blog if I put jokes in it? Will that cleavage photo appear next to every joke? Or will that depend on a "picture on/off" setting? And what about the jokes? I learned a long time ago that almost any joke is sure to offend someone. Indeed, a friend of mine recently sent out a joke that caused a few "I'm offended" messages (followed by the obligatory "I'm offended that you're offended" replies). So this is a current concern. I'm not sure that I could put an unregulated joke gadget in my blog without offending someone among my readership. So I guess I'll have to pass on that one.

Come to think of it, the two I am trying out (history and quotes) could end up offending some people. But at least they aren't accompanied by myopic pictures of buxom women.

What do you think? Are gadgets a good idea? Hmmm. Maybe I'll choose the poll gadget!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Man vs Machine

I vaguely remember in some literature class of my youth that there were only four story themes. I'm pretty sure three of them were:
  1. Man vs Man
  2. Man vs Nature
  3. Man vs Himself
But what was the fourth? Today I will nominate "Man vs Machine".

The particular machine today was my dishwasher.

The battle actually started a few days ago at roughly midnight. I had started the dishwasher before going to bed, as I often do. We have a pretty quiet dishwasher so the sound has never been a problem before. But on this fitful night it started to make a horrible racket which continued for almost all of its water spraying time -- over an hour.

According to the owners manual (yes, I still have it) this usually indicates that something hard has entered the food grider. It should go away after it gets all ground up. But of course, the sound never went away or lessened. Owner's manual's recommendation: call for service. But since I'm unemployed, I decided to battle the dishwasher myself.

6/10ths (my better half) gurgled our dishwasher model number and found a service manual for the equivalent Whirlpool model (ours is a Kenmore). I printed the PDF and went to work.
Aside #100 decibels: The troubleshooting guide in the service guide said nothing about noise as a possible problem.
I removed the racks and started taking out parts until I got down to, and removed, the food grinder. There was nothing around to explain the noise, leaving me to conclude that the main motor (which turns the grinder as well as pumping water through the sprayers) was going bad.

I went back to the owner's manual (the service guide didn't include a parts list) and then to Sears' parts store (online, of course). A new motor was $140 (+tax and shipping). A new sump and motor assembly was $180. Since there were lots of dire warnings in the service manual about damaging delicate parts when removing or installing the motor, I decided that for an extra $40 I'd go ahead and get the sump and motor assembly. But it was sold-out @ Sears (both online and at all stores within 100 miles). The motor was available online, but not at the local Sears store).

Gurgle confirmed that bad motors were not uncommon for Whirlpool/Kenmore dishwashers and that most technicians prefer to replace the motor and sump as an assembly rather than just the motor. You have to remove the motor and sump assembly before you can get the motor off to replace it, so treating the thing as an FRU (Field Replaceable Unit) was not unreasonable.

The odd thing was that Sears' price was among the lowest believable prices (the $68 one on EBay sounded "too good to be true"(tm)). So I called my local appliance store and was told that they could have one for me the next morning. $200. Whatever, I bought it. Chalk it up to the cost of needing it now. Besides, that $20 premium was certainly lower than the trip charge any repairman would tack on.

Of course, there are dishes to do in the meantime. So I tried to reassemble the dishwasher. I couldn't get the grinder back in place. It seems that they expect you to take the sump assembly out first before you go disassembling it. I didn't do that. I just started taking it apart while the main housing was still in the dishwasher tub. The proper way to access the food grinder also requires removing the motor (dire warnings and all). Of course, having not removed the sump, I also hadn't removed the motor. So I put it all back together without the food grinder and made sure to rinse my dishes very well before putting them in the washer.

Guess what? Yep. It was much quieter without the food grinder installed. But it still made the horrible grating noise about half the time. I guess the food grinder put enough stress on the motor to make it complain all the time.

In the end, I got my new sump and motor assembly, got the old one out, got the new one in, and am now doing my first load.

Nice and quiet.

Keeping my fingers crossed that my surgical procedures didn't cause any incontinence.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Energy Credit - HAH!

6/10ths (my better half) has been worried about our water heater for some time. It's over 10 years old and sits in our attic. While it is in a drain pan connected to a drain, she has no faith that the pan will be able to handle a catastrophic failure of the tank.

Based on the water released when other water heaters I've known have failed, I think she's right.

So we've been wanting to replace the heater before it fails, but have been procrastinating for a couple of years now. Friday's newspaper contained a Sears advert saying that major appliances (including water heaters) were 10% off, so she thought that was a good excuse to go buy one.

But Wait... we might be able to get an Energy Credit on our taxes — up to $300! IRS Form 5695 says that you can get an "energy credit" off your taxes if you buy a water heater with an energy factor rating of 0.80 or higher. Each dollar spent on such an appliance gets you $1 off your federal income taxes (up to $300).

"Cool," says 6/10ths. She goes to the Sears web site. Nothing about energy factors. She calls Sears. None of their gas heaters qualify. We go to Lowes' web site. They report energy factors on gas water heaters as around 0.60.

Huh? How can this be? What does it take to get this tax credit? We poke around some more. It seems that the only gas water heaters which qualify are tankless. They cost a lot of money. They would also cost a lot to put into my house because I'd have to run a bigger gas line to my attic, or a new gas line to some other part of the house, before I could install one. Sorry guys.

But wait, several of the electric units have energy factors over 0.80! Great!

Or maybe not.

I don't have a 30-amp, 240V circuit in my attic.

So how much do those electric puppies cost to run? For a 50-gal heater they range from $350 to $400 per year, compared to $209 for the gas unit we were looking at @ Sears (all figures from the yellow energy label). Hmm. Those figures are based on 2004 prices. How much does gas cost today? How about electricity? The yellow label says electricity in 2004 was 8.4 cents per kilowatt hour. Today we pay over 14. So that electric heater will cost us (for comparison purposes) $583 to $666 per year. EVIL!

The yellow label says that gas is about 91 cents per therm. My gas bill doesn't list therms, but the internet quickly tells me that a therm is about 10 times more than an MCF, which is how my gas company measures. A crude calculation (which ignores the fact that I pay a fixed $10 per month just for the privilege of being a customer), shows that I pay about $1 per therm, so the adjusted cost of operating the gas heater would be $230 per year.

So even if I had the choice of gas vs electric, it would cost me $350 to $430 more per year to run the electric one. Even factoring the $300 energy credit and the slightly lower cost to purchase the electric one, within a year and a half I'd be better off with the gas model. And with these puppies lasting 10 years or more, I'd be stupid to buy the electric model, wouldn't I?

On the other hand, how much would I save, purely in operating costs, with a tankless unit? Lowes doesn't show the energy label, so maybe I can assume that my Sears gas tank model has an energy factor of 0.60 and the tankless is 0.80. Does that mean that the tankless would cost 75% as much as the tank one? If so, then my yearly cost to operate the tankless would be $172, or almost $60 per year less. At that rate, the $400 difference in price would take over 6 years to break even. Factor in the cost of plumbing upgrades that are needed (the bigger gas pipe) and it would probably go out to 10 years or even longer.

Sorry, I can't afford that right now. Maybe if I were building a new house or doing some major remodeling. But not for an existing home.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Of PCs, Vista, and Office 2007

Our local elementary school PTA needed a new computer and I got picked to buy it and get it working.

Even though I've purchased two other PCs in about the past 18 months I was surprised by how much things have changed. For example, you can't buy 15" LCD monitors anymore and 17" LCDs are getting scarce (and cost as much as 19" monitors).

The monitor issue was a surprise and a problem because the PTA has very little room in which to cram the monitor and a printer. An awful lot of the 19" monitors were widescreen models, which were too wide for our space! So we ended up spending a relatively obscene amount of money for a 17" standard ratio LCD.

Another thing that surprised me was the size of disk drives. Only the very cheapest PCs have less than 320GB drives, which is about three times bigger than we really need for this application.

Another problem is that I was trying to buy in the middle of the performance range because I didn't know when the PTA would have budget again. But prices seemed to jump from $350 for a wimpy computer (which would probably be just fine right now) to $700 and more for just a tiny increment in performance (but a much bigger disk).

And Intel based boxes are expensive! I did my homework and I knew which Intel cpus were comparable to which AMD cpus. But virtually every system I found in my price range had an AMD processor. I have no problem with AMD — quite the opposite, actually; every PC I own has an AMD processor in it. But this time I thought I might actually get one with an Intel chip. I was wrong.

I was starting to think I'd be better off going the white box route.

Then I finally found a decent machine for a decent price. $400 for an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+, 1GB memory, $250GB disk, dual-layer DVD+/-RW.

Vista Home Premium

The new PC has Microsoft's Vista Home Premium installed on it. Of course it was loaded with bloatware and eye candy. It took over an hour to ferret it all out and remove it. But I was struck during the process by how pervasive the internet has become. This PC will not be on a network (but was during my configuration) because the school won't let us connect to their network and doesn't offer any external internet connections. It is amazing how many programs have options to automatically check the internet for updates or supplemental information of some sort.

When I first started, I was also rather shocked by how long start-up and shut-down were compared to Windows XP. It made waiting in line for a driver's license seem speedy by comparison! Fortunately, as I succeeded in turning off all the junk loaded by the PC manufacturer the process got significantly faster. The PTA PC now boots and shuts down much faster than XP. Well, I also turned off a bunch of "helpful" Vista stuff, too.

Office 2007

One of the PTA requirements was for Microsoft's Office Suite. Did you know that there are 4376 versions of the Office 2007 Suite? Well, it seemed that way. I don't know if you can find them all in the stores, but there seem to be way more versions than are necessary. And when you try to compare versions using the Microsoft web site the feature comparison didn't list programs — it listed "features". What kind of BS is that? No, don't answer. I already know.

We finally found a page comparing the programs included in each of the packages and ended up buying Office 2007 Professional.

I was concerned because I've read many times that the user interface has changed a lot in Office 2007 and the implication was that it was changed for the sake of change.

So I was dreading what it would be like when I first fired it up. But you know what? I think I like the new UI! It will probably take a bit of getting used to, but at first glance it seemed really nice and pretty easy to use.

The biggest problem, and hardly big after the first 60 seconds, was that the File menu has been replaced by the "Office Button". No big whoop. I even figured out how to add a "print preview" button at the top of the screen (my wife likes that button).

I may change my tune after trying to actually use Office 2007, but since I still have older versions on the PCs I actually use (this one isn't mine) I'll have to wait a while for that experience.