The Most Tenuous of House Plans

When I engage in renovations and building geekery, people often tell me, "Bats, you should totally buy a house." I've definitely thought about it--I'll try to describe what I'd ideally like. But I have lots of reasons to hesitate--I'll also explain the reasons why I'm not rushing out to buy anything yet. A long post follows.

Part I: What I'm Looking For

Specifically, I have been collecting photos over the years that contains hints of what I'm looking for in a house; I recently collected them and posted them to Flickr.

I'd want an existing building to renovate; quite possibly something commercial or industrial, if it could be zoned for residential or live-work. Ugly and blocky? Old gas station? All good possibilities. Here are a few canonical examples.

I definitely want a substantial shop space--it's been over ten years since I've run my contractor's table saw, drill press, and bandsaw--I miss them lots. I'd want a great big garage door to move stuff in and out (possibly a loading dock--everybody needs a loading dock in their house!). However, the living space doesn't need to be that large--I'm currently splitting 900 sf with JMD, and in Canada, and my apartment in Canada was 770 sf, including the back bedroom that was just unheated tool and bicycle storage. Pemberton Street was 1100 sf, split with a roommate. All of these places were plenty roomy for me.

All of you know about my unnatural fascination with shipping containers; I might consider a neighborhood where I could use them as a garage, a back shed, or a deck without getting major complaints.

I'd want a place that was unrenovated--I don't want to undo somebody else's ideal kitchen to build mine. In fact, I could even work with a place with bare concrete walls--assuming I could figure out temporary measures to make it livable. It would let me do a complete insulation retrofit, exactly as I wanted to. I'd prefer to do a gradual renovation by accumulating items for cheap off of Craigslist and salvage yards--the odd kitchen appliance or salvaged building component here and there.

It would be definitely important to be within biking distance of work (Porter Square), preferably with a one-seat bus ride as an option during bad weather. This gives a pretty long distance radius--my current bike commute is 3 miles, so that includes most of Cambridge & Somerville. The area covered by the future Green Line Extension would probably be ideal (see previous thoughts along these lines.

One thing I have always loved is an indoor/outdoor space, such as the back deck at Pemberton Street--it has memories of many wonderful parties, dinners, and brunches.

A roof deck would work quite nicely--an example in Somerville.

When I visited the Noguchi Museum in Queens, I really loved the building--a former factory in warehouse-and-chop-shop land, filled with sculpture and artwork. But there were concrete walls all around the yard, and a Japanese garden inside--a small refuge hidden in the city.

Oh yeah--solar panels (domestic hot water, perhaps photovoltatics) when I build up enough money again to buy them.

Part II: Why I Worry About It

All this being said, I'm wondering if this type of a place is really what I want, whether I would have time to deal with it, and whether it actually is "the right time to buy."

It seems like home ownership is not really structured for single people--even typical condos are more space than I need, and condos seldom have space for a shop. I really wouldn't want more than I could look after on a regular basis, getting slogged down with maintenance constantly. To be just straight-forward realistic, I'm not envisioning myself as part of a couple anytime soon.

Most importantly, I barely have enough free time as it is--it's probably unreasonable to think that I could renovate a building in my spare time and weekends. And it's pretty likely I'll continue to spend a week at a time on the road for work. And trading off working time for free time means less money to buy the place and/or renovate it. Ugh. I'm worried that even if I do this renovation, it will take over my life, and I'll never have free time again ("Hi ho, Friday night, time to get back to hanging drywall...") Not to mention being unavailable for friends' projects.

Similarly, this great shop that I want to put together--will I have any time to use it, to create furniture and the like for myself and friends?

I know, I know--the economic argument--"By renting you're just paying somebody else's mortgage..." Well, a Wall Street Journal article from the beginning of 2007 summarizes a lot of my thoughts on the subject--"Renters Gloat Over Housing Slump". From a blog on the subject ("US Housing Crash Continues"), on why "It's A Terrible Time To Buy":

It's still much cheaper to rent than to own the same thing. Yearly rents are less than 3% of purchase price. Mortgage rates are 6.5%, so it costs more than twice as much to borrow money to buy a house than it does to rent the same kind of house. Worse, total owner costs including taxes, maintenance, and insurance are about 9%, which is three times the cost of renting.

Given my current living situation, there's a lot of truth to that. If you factor in inflation (2004 to 2007), I'm currently paying less than 2/3 of my rent back at Pemberton Street (in North Cambridge, between Porter & Davis). Going to a mortgage and having my monthly payments jump up by a factor of two or three sounds incredibly frightening to me--I might not be "building equity" in property, but in other assets instead.

There's also the aspect that even when you mortgage away your life, most folks end up spending more money on a regular basis after buying a place--i.e., pouring money into appliances, renovations, Bed Bath and Beyond runs, etc.

A lot of this hinges on whether or not this is "the right time to buy." Lots of folks are saying with the downturn in the housing market, folks should jump in. I wonder how much more instability we'll be seeing over the course of this year and the next. See the graph of mortage resets that I posted earlier. I have no problem sitting it out and seeing just how bad it gets.

To be honest, I wonder just how bad the recession (is it officially one yet?) will get. For instance, here's a telling quote just from today's Marketplace:

Despite signs of inflation, especially in grocery stores and at gas pumps, analysts say the Fed's number one worry is something else. They say the Fed fears the banking system hasn't finished unraveling in the wake of the subprime mortgage meltdown.

But back specifically on housing--this graph of house prices (Case-Schiller index) from the New York Times was a real eye-opener when I first saw it; it shows housing prices normalized for inflation from 1890 to 2006. Check out what the current housing boom looks like.

(Apologies if this is depressing to any of my friends who bought in the past few years).

One telling item: you'll note that after each of the recent booms (1970s and 1980s) that prices went down to about the same inflation-adjusted level. If the Wikipedia data on the Case-Schiller index is correct, it has only backed off to ~170 as of Q4 2007. I'm not saying that it's a law of physics that requires it to return to this level. But I remember people saying during the tech bubble, "Keep putting money into tech!--the fundamental rules have changed!" or the 1999 Atlantic Monthly article "Dow 36,000" (Has the long-running bull market been a contemporary version of tulipmania? In explaining their new theory of stock valuation, the authors argue that in fact stock prices are much too low and are destined to rise dramatically in the coming years).

Uh, nope.

Note that the Dow Jones is the right-hand axis; the left-hand axis is the S&P 500.

I know it's a long shot, but I partially worry about a serious crash of the United States economy, Countdown to a Meltdown style. It falls in line with everything I know about peak oil, this country's dependence on cheap oil to function, the rise of China and India, global climate change, the inability of large-scale US manufacturing to compete on a world market, and the way that the Iraq War and tax cuts are putting this country deep into major debt.

On the flip side, it's not like I've shifted my portfolio to prepare for a major economic downturn. Where should I put my assets anyway--cash? FDIC-insured savings? Gold? Ammunition, canned goods, and a biofuel reactor?

Finally, by committing to buying a place and a mortgage, it removes any illusion I can just up and leave, drop out of the world, and not have an income for a while. That feeling comes and goes, but there are times when it seems like that might be coming.

Weekend Geekery (Canal Museum)

A few weeks ago, I saw a highway "points of interest" sign for the Middlesex Canal Museum. Wha? Okay... sounds just like the type of infrastructure dorkery that I'm into.

So this weekend I indulged my geekery by travelling up (by Commuter Rail) to North Billerica to see the place. The museum is in a great old brick mill building, just five minutes from the train station; it's a little one-room deal run by retired volunteers.

As for the historical canal itself--it ran from Lowell (with connections up to Concord, NH) down to Boston harbor, and was put in service 1803; some pics in the Wikipedia article.

Finally, in the 1820's, came the Golden Age of the canal, when lumber, foodstuffs, and granite came to Boston from as far as Concord, NH, in return for manufactured goods. This same period saw the development of the first industrial city in Massachusetts--the textile center of Lowell, whose development was made possible by the canal.

However, it was only in operation for 50 years--by 1853, it stopped running: it was driven out of business by the railroad (which ran parallel to the canal, and was even built with construction materials carried on it). Capitalism at work--trains were much faster, and could run year round.

A working model of canal locks:

There are still echoes of the two hundred year old structure in bits and pieces all along its route, but it is returning to nature and eroding away in other spots. These remanants ranged from the sublime (a boulder on the banks of the canal with lines cut into its face, from the tow ropes repeatedly rubbing across it) to the utterly mundane ("This slightly raised dirt pile next to the parking lot? That used to be part of the canal.")

Another bit of trivia is that many of the lessons learned digging this canal were then used in the construction of the Erie Canal across New York--which made New York City into such a thriving trade port, and thus into the city that it is today.

Speaking of dorkery, I saw a brochure for cruises on the Erie canal. Sounds like my kind of vacation. Man... it's sad, but I really should be a 60-year old retiree, shouldn't I?


California Trip: Booked

I'm heading to California in June for vyrin and ariiadne's wedding; I just booked my tickets the other day. Woohoo! So why the convoluted itinerary below? Short answer: I'm a cheapskate, and when the airlines go bankrupt, it's going to be All My Fault. Oh wait... they already are... nevermind...

2008-06-09 NWA 597 BOS-MSP
6:05 PM - 8:25 PM

2008-06-13 UAL 1224 MSP-ORD
6:57 AM - 8:11 AM

2008-06-13 UAL 139 ORD-SFO
9:58 AM - 12:19 PM

2008-06-16 UAL 158 SFO-ORD
11:05 PM - 5:02 AM

2008-06-16 UAL 530 ORD-MSP
7:01 AM - 8:27 AM

2008-06-17 NWA 1042 MSP-BOS
10:05 AM - 1:53 PM

First of all, I'm travelling to a conference in MSP the week before the wedding, so I thought I'd fly MSP-SFO, making use of the fact that I'll be halfway across the country. However, I'm going to be on travel for a Government Contract--meaning that I can't do what previously worked fine for my company in-house: "I'll book a 3-city trip, here's the cost of a round trip, only the latter is going on my expense report." Thus, the return to MSP on the way home--it has to be a BOS-MSP round trip, or the auditors start to creep out.

Then I started looking for round-trip tickets MSP-SFO. Added condition: my close high school friend (psycho security guard) lives in the Cities, so I definitely wanted to an earmark an evening to hang out with him. The only cheap tickets (~$200) were evening flights--I'd miss seeing him, or I'd miss the Friday night festivities in SF. Grr. So on to frequent flyer options.

Northwest is the usual option MSP<->***... but I used up my last miles getting to Canada for Iron Ring. Grr.

Southwest? Doesn't fly out of MSP. Man... I should make use of that inch-thick stack of free booze coupons I have with them someday.

So what do I have left?... Delta, nothin'... Continental, nothin'... American--when did I even fly them last? United? Yeah. And my options are... connecting in ORD, no nonstops on miles. Swell. So Monday-Tuesday is going to be a hellish travel day.

Of course, after all this, you might ask, "Bats you cheapskate, why don't you just pay the $300+ to get a real flight?--you make enough money nowadays." Well, it's a pathology, I suppose, to want to get halfway across the country for $10:

I have no problem spending these amounts when it is travel for work (i.e., somebody else's money). It's an expected cost of doing business. And I have no issue with how much the airlines are charging: this is a relatively fair price for this service--especially considering the business state of the airlines ("We know you have your choice when it comes to choosing bankrupt airlines, so we'd like to thank you for flying with us today...")

I guess that when it's my own money, spending $300 on plane fare just bothers me when I compare that to physical things that I would buy with that type of money--a new iPod, a nice benchtop planer, a car axle and constant velocity joint, a tooth extraction. Long-term purchases... stuff that actually hangs around for a while (say, like 2002, or 1992, even). Also, I'm so used to the model of "When I fly for personal reasons, it is on miles."

I'm probably bothered by spending that much on something that ephemeral. I think my starts-to-bother-me point is around $100--a nice dinner out or perhaps a show. The concept of $200/bottle wine is beyond me.


So I guess this means I'm not going to be on the mailing list for Emperor's Club anytime soon, huh? ("For a low price of $1500/hour, you could destroy your political career as well...")



A Few Amusing Pics

Nope, not much real content tonight; just a few pics that I thought I'd share.

This weekend, a few of us went out to Chinatown to celebrate M's birthday; we ended up at Penang (Malaysian food). FYI, they have a pork intestine appetizer that is actually fantastic--it has this great unctuousness, and tastes like the fatty parts of Chinese spare ribs that you know you shouldn't be eating.

Afterwards, we stopped by a Chinese bakery, and I couldn't resist taking pictures of the blowfish cake.

Too cute! As well as the pig cake!

One of my other activities this weekend was working on my car--just vacuuming the interior, now that I'm not going to be tracking pounds of salt and sand in there each time I step in. Also repaired a door gasket and some interior and exterior trim pieces.

Another part of the job was documenting how bad the rust is getting--unfortunately, at 16 years old in a cold climate (1992 Subaru Legacy), the rust is rotting out the front fender and the rear corner panels. I had some repaired at a body shop back in 2004, but problems have come back. Around that time, I discovered that the rust behind the front wheel wells is due to the collection leaves/pine needles/etc. in the cavity.

Swell. I have a compost bin in my car. All that mulch ends up trapping moisture inside the panel, accelerating rust-out. Some quality time with a shop vac dealt with that problem.


Geekery Among the Ruins

Another extended New York City visit photo tour--includes a visit out to Flushing, Queens, to see the Unisphere (i.e., the big hollow globe from Men in Black). Lots of pictures follow. Browse it if you have time.

First of all, if you wanted to check out the photos with minimal color commentary, I put up the set on Flickr.

Work wrapped up Thursday mid-afternoon, so I actually made it to the city before nightfall. Wandered through Riverside Park on the West side of Manhattan, up to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at 89th Street.

Had dinner at Earthen Oven on 72nd Street--I read a New York Times review over a year ago, and I've been meaning to go ever since. Outstanding tandoori lamb chops, plus the owner brought over a bowl of black lentils on the house--I wondered if he thought I was reviewing the place, given that I was eating alone. Beautiful weather--I sat at outdoor tables for a while and wrote postcards as the traffic pushed past me, at 9 PM. Spring... wow, what a concept.

Friday was a full day off, so I got to do lots of things on my NYC list.

I wanted to check out the Apple Store on Central Park South--the big glass box. Friends have asked me, "How do they heat and cool that space?" Well, I looked around--it's a single glazed (structural glazing) structure above-grade, with only perimeter heating/cooling; no specific air curtains or anything at the entrance. I figure there's plenty of heat rising from the store, and they just throw lots of energy at the problem.

Next, I wandered by Lever House--the very first modernist glass and steel curtain wall skyscraper, from 1952. The first floor is a public art gallery; the current exhibit is Terminal Stage, by Richard DuPont--a series of full-sized body replicas of the artist (the previous link connects to a video of how the sculptures were created).

The sculptures were created from full-body scans of the artist, but distorted in the horizontal axis along one direction, resulting in an odd stretching effect. But from two angles (parallel to the stretch axis), the body looks normal. Still photos don't quite do it justice, but walking around the mannequins gives you the odd sensation of looking at a continuously shifting funhouse mirror. More photos from the opening here.

Next, I wandered to the base of the Citigroup Center--the skyscraper that's really recognizable on the NYC skyline, with its 45 degree sloped top. The Wikipedia article is pretty comprehensive.

The supports are set up at the midpoints of the sides--which leaves the corners cantilevered; a shot from underneath here. There's a cool story about this building--they switched from welded to bolted connections mid-job, and the structural engineer only figured out after the fact that this weakened the structure enough that it could collapse in a severe windstorm. For the next three months, a construction crew welded two-inch-thick steel plates over each of the skyscraper's 200 bolted joints during the night, after each work day, almost unknown to the general public.

It was then a short walk to Grand Central Terminal; a PBS documentary mentioned an exhibit in the basement--Meet Me at Grand Central: Photographs from the early 1950s. Kinda neat.

Then came my big adventure for the day: taking the 7 Train all the way out to the end. I got there and started with a wander around Chinatown--the New York Times had an article on the three Chinatowns in NYC: Manhattan (the original one), Brooklyn (Sunset Park), and Queens (Flushing—my destination that day). Walked around, grabbed a scallion pancake from a streetside vendor, and then sat down for lunch. Found an awesome Chinglish sign:

Also, another amusing sign here.

I then headed to Flushing Meadows Corona Park--home of the Unisphere and the New York Pavillion (the structures are left over from the 1964 World Fair). This trip was of a special importance to me, having grown up on Long Island. The park is right by the highway, so I've been driving past these monuments for my entire life, but I've never gone to them. Thought it was high time to fix that.

In case it's not obvious, the Unisphere is large--120 feet in diameter. It's made out of 304 stainless (donated by US Steel, back in the 1960's when it was still an American powerhouse company). The rings around it are the orbits of the Gagarin, Glenn, and Telstar, the first communication satellite.

It was then just a short walk to the New York State Pavillion--i.e., the flying saucer from Men in Black, with the low structure ("The Tent of Tomorrow") underneath. No large bug-like aliens were spotted that day.

After the 1964 World Fair closed, these structures were briefly used (the tent as a roller rink), but they were abandoned-in-place shortly afterwards and locked down. If you look at the Flickr pics, check out the external elevator on the tower--one is locked mid-height, to prevent access. The elevators are defunct enough that in order to inspect the towers, they have to send up the crew in climbing harnesses:

During the summer the red warning light on the top of the highest tower, some 226 feet up, went out. It had to be quickly replaced, per federal regulations; La Guardia Airport is close by, after all. But the burnout of a small light presented a large problem for the pavilion’s custodian, the Department of Parks and Recreation.

With the elevators now stuck like barnacles to the sides of the towers, and with the stairwells rotted beyond use, parks officials had to hire a company that specializes in rappelling up buildings to conduct inspections and repairs. Which means, then, that someone climbed up the futuristic edifice by rope to change that light bulb.

I am fascinated by modern large-scale monumental ruins--thus the title of this post. It feels like this continent, due to its history and settlement timeline, has little to offer in terms of monumental ruins--no Parthenon, Roman Colosseum, Angkor Wat, or Machu Picchu. Maybe there are examples that would qualify (cliff dwellings of the Anasazi?)--let me know if I'm misinformed; abandoned steel mills and Sutro Baths spring to mind. It seems that modern ruins are rarely left in place, instead of being plowed under, developed over, or turned into an upscale shopping mall. There's a certain melancholy and smallness that you feel, wandering around a derelict like this. This site is on World Monuments Fund’s list of 100 endangered sites (related NYT article here).

Another short hop brought me to the Queens Museum--the home of The Panorama: a huge (9300 sf) scale model of the five boroughs of NYC.

For scale, in the top right of the photo, you can see a glass walkway railing that’s about chest-high. The aesthetics reminded me of the set design in the scene of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when Slartibartfast takes Arthur Dent through the showroom of Magrathea—a wonderful 1960's look-at-our-awesome-future/educational science film aesthetic.

The Queens Museum also has an exhibit on restoring the outdoor terrazzo map that was on the floor of the New York State Pavillion. An excerpt from the Times article that inspired me to do this visit ("In the Tent of Tomorrow, a Faded Map of Yesteryear"):

For the first time in decades, there appears to be a chance that a half-acre terrazzo road map of New York State from the 1964-65 World’s Fair — an exuberantly overstated mix of small-town parochialism, space-age optimism and Pop Art irony — will be conserved as the valuable artifact it is.

The map is hidden from public view on the floor of the abandoned, roofless Tent of Tomorrow in the New York State Pavilion, at what is now Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. The 130-by-166-foot map has cracked and crumbled badly. Vandals have wrecked what the freeze-thaw cycle has not, and weeds are a steady menace. Seneca Falls is now “ ca Falls,” for example.

However, the map is being restored by a group from University of Pennsylvania—they are removing the panels, bringing them indoors, and cleaning them, and restoring missing pieces. Cornell folks should check out the Ithaca part of the map.

The day wrapped up with drinks and dinner in Midtown with Perlick, Ann W., and her boyfriend Nico, at The Zipper Factory, a nice local place.

Did another round of exploring on Sunday afternoon. Included an exhibit on lacquer work of Shibata Zeshin at the Japan Society (East Side), a round of postcards, walking down to the East Village, and dinner at the Second Avenue Deli (mmmm... pastrami-licious). The vestibule of the Japan Society is shown below. Seems like cool ideas for my living room someday [grin].

Not a bad trip at all; taking a nice relaxing ride on Acela back to Boston now.


Being from the New York area, I’ve always been bothered by how terrible the mass transit options are to LGA and JFK airports. I have not yet tried AirTrain to JFK (from Jamaica Station in Queens), which should be a major improvement. But getting to LaGuardia by transit requires a bus connection; I always worry about a bus leg heading to the airport, since timing is strongly affected by traffic. You can see the relative locations of the three major NYC airports below.

Work sent me to do a job in Newark, NJ, so I’m taking a long weekend here in the city and to visit my folks on Long Island—an update will come later. I dropped off my coworker at Newark airport (EWR), and then needed to make my way into the city.

I have to say that I was pretty impressed by the current rail connection from EWR to NYC. There is a free monorail/tramway connecting the terminals to parking, and then to the Amtrak/New Jersey Transit station. Then you can hop on NJ Transit ($15), getting into Penn Station in about 20 minutes. Two seat ride--major win.

Also, I was fascinated by the monorail track, being the infrastructure geek that I am. There are two tracks (inbound & outbound), but they need to switch the trains at terminal connection to the train station. The rail switch was pretty puzzling to me at first—one of those big pieces spins horizontally or something?

Later, while I was waiting for the NJ transit train, I looked over and saw how it works. The whole section of track rotates upside-down (along the axis of the tracks) to change connections. Whoah. I took some photos from the side, but the more informative version is the animated GIF on this page from the Monorail Society--scroll down to "Rotary Switch."


Too Damn Much Stuff

The storage space that I had in my company's garage is going away, so I had to find a new place to store my stuff. Fortunately, I have been consolidating my things, getting rid of others (giving furniture to tEp), and moving things into my basement. It's cool to realize that I have reached the stage that everything I own can be moved single-handedly (or at least can be broken down into enough pieces to be moved single-handedly).

But two pallets remained to be stored.

Fortunately, A & Guy have a pretty big basement, and were willing to give up a bit of space for storage. It actually worked out very well--they needed to move some old leftover couches to goodwill, so they rented a trailer:

I showed up to help them load it up, and drop it off in Lowell. After that experience, I have to say that it seems like it would be really useful to get a trailer hitch on my car. Renting a U-Haul 4x8 trailer is something like $15/day--dirt friggin' cheap, and no worries about returning the tank full.

We packed the trailer full of my stuff in Somerville, and headed out. Couldn't resist a shot of taking up the last bit of free space in the box:

And we got it all moved into the basement by early afternoon!

Spent the rest of the day helping them organize the basement, going out to dinner, and hanging out for a round of martinis. A good fun and productive day.

Geeky Web Sites

Two websites that are new to me that I thought I would share: jott.com (voice-recognition transcribed memos to yourself or others), and dopplr.com (post your travel schedule, and see if it matches up with your friends).

Jott: One item I miss from my ancient (pre-Canada) cell phone is the ability to take voice memos. Then I saw this New York Times article ("Souping Up a Cellphone for Maximum Multitasking"):

A free service, Jott (www.jott.com) uses your phone as a voice-dictation machine. Once you set up an account, you simply call (866) JOTT-123 on your hand-held device to connect. After the call goes through, you will be prompted for whom you wish to “jott.” You reply with the word myself and wait for the recording tone. Now you can speak “Buy birthday present for Johnny before Aug. 5,” or whatever task reminder you need. Upon hanging up, Jott will transcribe the task and shoot it off in a e-mail message to the address you provided for yourself during setup.

Huh... sounded interesting. I signed up for an account, and tried it out. When prompted for a sample memo, the only thing I could come up with was They Might Be Giants lyrics:

Huh... not a perfect transcription, but basically works. Pretty cool.

I still have no idea what their profit model is--I haven't seen any advertising yet.

Dopplr: Catherine suggested that I try out the website Dopplr:

Dopplr is an online service for intelligent business travellers.

Dopplr lets you share your future travel plans privately with friends and colleagues. The service then highlights coincidence, for example, telling you that three people you know will be in Paris when you will be there too. You can use Dopplr on your personal computer and mobile phone. It links with online calendars and social networks.

Although I haven't been travelling as much for work lately as usual, I'm sure I'll continue to end up on a plane a fair amount. As an example, meeting a coworker in CLT on the way back from a work trip for a round of margaritas was kinda cool.

I only have two people sharing trips with me now, but if you want to find me on Dopplr, I'm (imaginatively) Bats22.

Mystery Sign

Photographed at a Lowe's in Framingham--I figure it likely has to do with the fire suppresions system, but I'm still quite puzzled. Specifically, I figure that the signs differentiate between dry pipe and wet pipe systems (quotes below from this website).

Wet pipe systems are the most common sprinkler system. As the name implies, a wet pipe system is one in which water is constantly maintained within the sprinkler piping. When a sprinkler activates this water is immediately discharged onto the fire.

A dry pipe sprinkler system is one in which pipes are filled with pressurized air or nitrogen, rather than water. This air holds a remote valve, known as a dry pipe valve, in a closed position. Located in a heated space, the dry-pipe valve prevents water from entering the pipe until a fire causes one or more sprinklers to operate. Once this happens, the air escapes and the dry pipe valve releases. Water then enters the pipe, flowing through open sprinklers onto the fire.

This basically makes sense to me--the outdoor parking lot could freeze up, so you would want to use a dry pipe system. But why the heck are you running fire spinklers in the parking lot?

Alternately, maybe it just means that alcoholic beverages are served on the sales floor, but you can't bring them out to the parking lot.


A Very Odd Amazon Find...

I was browsing Amazon.com for work today (honest!)--seeing what sizes 3M Filtrete filters are available in (the purple, red, and blue flavors... er, MERV values--minimum efficiency reporting value--a measure of filter efficiency):

Anyway, over in the sidebar, they had listings of other 3M products. Including the category Health & Personal Care -> Sexual Wellness -> Safer Sex. Um, what? New kinky uses for Post-it notes? Scotchgarding your couch before getting busy? I just had to find out what 3M products are used for safe sex.

Um. Yikes. That doesn't sound pleasant at all.

And the fact that it's a 12-pack suggests that this would be done repeatedly. Assuming that the scars heal up, I guess. And that negative reinforcement has zero effect on your behavior.

I don't suppose any of my kinkier friends have any idea what's going on here? Have any of you had sexual partners so frightening that a Scotchbrite pad is a rational reaction to the aftermath?


Nuke 'Em All!!!

As background, a while back, I wrote about a Mark Bittman Minimalist (New York Times) article on how to equip your kitchen adequately for $200 (it involves restaurant supply stores, plastic handle knives, and restaurant-style pots & pans; see note below).

If you check out that blog post, he had a list of "unnecessary" items in a kitchen, and there were a few that I disagreed with, including the microwave. Microwave not necessary? Huh? As I put it:

Microwave: essential for leftovers, and I use it often for quickly cooking vegetables to incorporate into dishes (broccoli, califlower, potatoes)

Anyway, to my surprise, today's Bittman column talked about using microwaves for all sorts of cooking tasks:

FOR years, I hadn’t used my microwave for much besides reheating leftovers and softening ice cream. I make popcorn the real way, I steam my vegetables on the stovetop, and everyone knows a potato doesn’t really bake in a microwave.

But after all, the thing is sitting there, built into my wall. You have one, too, unless it broke and you haven’t replaced it (understandable but unusual). Shouldn’t you be using it for more than reheating coffee?

I thought so, and so I decided to revisit the microwave. The push came as I was hurriedly putting together appetizers for a dinner party. I’d decided to make a combination frittata and Spanish-style tortilla (impure, I know, but they’re close enough), and it occurred to me to nuke my medium-size waxy potatoes instead of parboiling them. A few minutes in the microwave, a few minutes’ resting, peeling, then quickly browning in olive oil; I went on from there.

He went on to talk about a variety of recipes that work, including preparing vegetables, some pudding-like Indian desserts, and eggplant.

I have to give a particular plug for eggplant--the problem with stir frying/sauteing eggplant is that it is pretty much an oil sponge--add more oil, soaks it up, add more oil, soaks it up. Then, all of a sudden, it cooks through, and it releases all of the excess oil. Sploosh. Ugh.

I have been experimenting with hybrid cooking methods--a quick saute to sear the outside, and then cooking the pieces through in the microwave. When assembling the stir fry at the end, return the pieces to the pan. Seems to work pretty well.

[Edit]--another microwave item--cooking oatmeal in the morning. Put 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup oatmeal, 1/2 cup water in a bowl. Nuke for 7 minutes on power level 7. Hot breakfast in the amount of time it takes to brew coffee. Also, you can use real, chewy, steel-cut oats, instead of textureless instant.

Wow... the Bittman article has 231 comments. I think lots of people wanted to share their microwave recipes.