I spent a good chunk of this weekend being a handyman for friends--probably good practice for my ideal retirement plan of loading up a truck with my tools and driving around the country fixing up the houses of my friends.

On Friday, I got a call from P & D out in Burlington--I lived with them for a summer, when I first moved back to Boston. D. was taking the day off, then heard these noises from downstairs. She went down, and found that there was a geyser of hot water erupting from the top of the tank, spraying the basement with 120 F water. After finding the shutoff valve, they gave me a call, to see if I could come help them out--they had solicited my advice on tankless water heaters before, so it seemed to make sense to talk now.

So I got home from work home that evening, grabbed my plumbing bucket, changed into Carhartts, and drove out to their place.

Oh wow. Ouch. The output nipple sheared off inside the copper fitting. No, it's not a dirty word there--check out the link (SFW)--that's what you call a short length of pipe, okay?

I started to debride the wound of the water heater--I already knew it was going to be bad, given that the unit is 12 years old, and you could see rust pockmarks coming through from inside. But exposing the full damage was pretty bad:

Youch. Looks like there's been a leak there for a while. Don't let your water heaters get into this condition, people! But digging through the rust felt like <documentaryvoice>...after the artifacts were recovered from the sea floor, it was urgent to keep them underwater. The cold, low-oxygen conditions had previously preserved these items, which began to rust immediately after bringing them to the surface...</documentaryvoice>

There was still a broken-off stub of pipe stuck in the water heater. Hrm.

The judicious use of a pipe wrench and some abuse resulted in... grr, a busted off pipe still stuck in the water heater. Crap. Various valiant efforts were made--pipe extractor--unfortunately, my kit only has the wrong size, or the wrong type; I really need a 3/4" screw-type nipple extractor. Enough sniggering, you. Continued work included hammering with a screwdriver and ample foul language. No use. Then, I did the last-ditch effort of using a hacksaw blade to cut two weakening cuts in the "ring" of broken pipe, and did some more hammering and prying. Booyah!

I came back the next morning to finish off the install--it will limp along for a week or so--hope they can get a new unit installed by then.

After having lunch with them, I headed out to Sudbury, to help another set of friends--they are building a new house on their property (and will demolish the dumpy old place down the hill when it is done). They were working on hardwood flooring today; I helped them finish off a room. I've never put down ~3 or 4" oak flooring before--goes down a bit faster than the typical 2-1/4" stuff. They had a non-pneumatic nailer--it actually works pretty well; maybe two or three strikes to drive the nail.

We then hung out for the evening--they made dinner. A very nice evening. Unfortunately, Sudbury is right in the middle of the box bounded by 128/495 and Mass Pike/Route 2, so it's a bit annoying to get there.

This friend happens to be the former coworker who is doing an insanely all-solar house--all the great features I love to see, and then some. Both PVs (electricity) and solar thermal (both for hot water, and for storing energy for space heating), not to mention a lot of south-facing glazing (passive solar gains). He even went and climbed the adjacent trees to top them off, so they don't shade the array. He's pretty friggin' hard core (he's the one that used to bike in to Somerville from Sudbury, every day, rain or shine).

I've had the tour before--he's currently getting negative energy bills. Annoyingly, though, when utilities do net metering (i.e., paying you for what you generate) you only get 6 cents per kWh, instead of the 19 cents per kWh that you pay to buy juice. Their game, their rules, they win.


Media (Music, Video) Dorkery

Two bits of iTunes dorkery to share. First of all: Season 5 of The Wire was just released! Woo hoo! Yeah, I'm probably the only one in my circle of friends who cares (Perlick already has seen Season 5), but I am a huge fan of the series, and I have been waiting and waiting for it to become available. Now I definitely have ways to waste vast amounts of time.

Incidentally, speaking of TV shows, I finally managed to check out hulu.com for the first time--the first thing I watched was Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog--definitely amusing (yeah, this was the first time I've watched it). After watching snippets of Family Guy, I realized I needed to tear myself away before my dessiccated corpse was found with at the kitchen table, with a finger on the touchpad.

The second piece of dorkery comes from how I found a piece of music. I was listening to Marketplace yesterday, and one of their 'buttons' (the song snippets between stories) was an a cappella version of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." Found out that it was done by Petra Haden, and I had the instant gratification of buying it from iTunes about 30 seconds after that. It had lots of cute tongue-in-cheek musical humor bits, and the voice-fed-through-effects-box for guitar solos was terrific. As an aside, my canonical example of that effect is Vox One's cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "The Sky is Crying" (one guy doing both the voice and solo guitar part, alternating microphones. Whoah).

It turns out that the song is from the album
Guilt By Association
...on which some of the top indie artists cover their favorite guilty pleasure pop songs in their own unique way.

Wow... I am so completely unhip as to not recognize any of those indie artists. Ah well. ("Um, dude... you're 38. Unless you're a music critic, I'd figure there would be no chance of it.") For instance, I had a better frame of reference that Petra Haden is the daughter of Charlie Haden (jazz bassist, was a member of Ornette Coleman's band--Shape of Jazz to Come) than the fact that she was a member of the Decemberists.

Anyway, you must must must please check out the YouTube Video somebody made of that song--it had me laughing out loud.


One Bit Communication

One issue that JMD and I deal with is feeding her unfriendly/borderline-psychotic feral cat Clyde. Our interactions with him are principally feeding him, and holding up a finger in front of him: he swats at it (if we’re lucky, without claws), and then runs away. Therefore JMD’s usual name for him, “Ya little bastid.”

Given JMD’s schedule, there are plenty of times when I’m leaving in the morning and Clyde is giving me plaintive looks and meows: “I’m sooooo hungry! Pleeeaaase! Feed meee! Pleeeaaase!”. Or JMD asks me via text message to take care of feeding him in the evening; I pop a can open and serve it up. So while I was at Tag’s Hardware, I figured out that technology developed for dishwashers could be adapted to address this problem:

Heh. Admittedly, this is a pretty convoluted way to communicate one bit of information. But hey, it works.

Work/Play Bay Area Trip

I just wrapped up another Bay Area visit—there is some degree of familiar sameness to all of these visits, but then again, each is also distinctly memorable in its own way.

I gave the three presentations in two days to pretty positive results from the audience—I figured this was my ‘hat trick’ of conferencing. I sat in on an afternoon meeting on behalf of a coworker as well—but I did manage to earmark some time to hang out with friends at the conference. Also spent an hour or so on the beach, writing a few postcards—the conference is held at the Asilomar Conference Center near Monterey, which has a beautiful campus, right on the beach. Some photos of my time there here--check out how much the fog rolls in.

Not too bad. Glad I got to dip my feet into the Pacific, unlike the last time I was at this conference. Plus a shot of some washed-ashore kelp.

Then I caught a ride up to South Bay; Schmooz and Jen hosted a low-key shindig at their place. We were joined by folks who work down in the area plus families (Bradley and Janie, and Lucky, Karthiga, Jayshan, and Arvin) and Perlick and Jess (both moving to the Bay Area). Perlick had successfully completed his house-hunting and car-browsing mission in preparation for his move out here. It was really great to see so many folks there. Plus the Bay Area is getting an influx of people—Jofish, Perlick, Jess, and Janet are all moving there soon!

Photos from the visit on Flickr.

Headed up to the city the next morning, and had takeout lunch with U-Boat and Christy at the Instructables office. Remember… never go anywhere without your robot mascot!

I had made plans to spend the afternoon at Fort Point, a Civil-war era fort/battery that is directly underneath the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate bridge, and is now a National Parks Historic Site. It’s been on my list of places to visit, based on a New York Times article (“Guns on San Francisco Bay, and the Hiking Trails Left Behind”). Jess joined me on this trip, despite my warnings that extensive infrastructure dorkery might be involved.

The cannon were placed there to maintain security for San Francisco harbor as its importance grew during the Gold Rush. The overlapping fields of fire from Fort Point, Alcatraz, and other batteries would have made entrance into the bay by unfriendly ships near-impossible. The fort was also manned to defend against the Confederates during the Civil War…. it made me wonder—this was before the Panama Canal, so attacking San Francisco would have taken a lot of work. (“What, we’re sailing most of the way to the South Pole and back, just to make a symbolic attack on a West Coast port? And then need to get home? Sure, sign me up!”). Aha: The Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah planned to attack San Francisco, but on the way to the harbor the captain learned that the war was over; it was August 1865. It was still active during World War II, but decommissioned after that.

The MUNI bus drops you off at the toll plaza just before the Golden Gate bridge—there’s a section of the bridge cable on display; check out the close ups of the section--there are 27,572 individual steel strands, each about 0.192 inches in diameter. For those of you who don’t know how suspension bridges are built, they first build the towers, and then temporary walkways where the main cables are going. Then they send the hanging spools of cable back and forth from anchorage to anchorage, laying down the main cables strand by strand. Whoah. (check out this article).

The fort itself is a brick structure with walls 5 to 7 feet thick. I entertained myself extensively looking at the rust shadows and bolt holes at the gun emplacements, to figure out what was arranged where (“Oh, okay, there must have been a round track here, and a pivot point over there.”) Also wandered down to the exhibit of their powder magazine for the canon…. kinda like a wine cellar, but different, I guess.

I engaged in serious infrastructure dorkery—I stayed long enough that the Park Rangers kicked me out at 5 PM.

But even without the dorkery, the views from the fort are just spectacular, in all directions. Checking out the bridge from underneath, sea lions, the ships going in and out of the harbor, the breakers rolling down the rocks, the kite surfers getting mad air…. The view of San Francisco is from the opposite side that I am used to seeing (i.e., typically from the East Bay or the Bay Bridge).

My evening plans fell through (the lovely and brilliant Dr. O was running up against a work deadline, and had to cancel dinner plans), so I had a great dinner at Isla Tortuga. It included U-Boat’s experiments in making sauerkraut—very entertaining, even without the tasty results!

And here I am, on a coast-to-coast airplane ride, summarizing the trip. Many thanks to all of my friends for their wonderful hospitality and/or willingness to hang out while I was bumming around town!

Argh… tired… but still on West Coast time…


Review: Dahon Jack Folding Bike

A few months ago, my ancient beater bike was in the shop for a whole week (headset bearings were shot)... which got me thinking that it might be nice to get a new backup/occasional use bike. After some browsing, I decided on the Dahon Jack--so I thought I'd put up my thoughts on it to date as a public service to the Intarweb.

After looking at a few options, I figured the Jack would work pretty well for me. I thought that a full-size bike (26" wheels) might be easier to adapt to--I had no specific trips or plans to take it anywhere, so just having one that is a bit more compact/transportable seemed reasonable (as opposed to the ultra-compact 16" or 20" wheel models). It looks like it would fit quite easily in a car trunk, for instance. I've taken my full-size bike on commuter rail, so there's no need to reduce the size there.

Second, it's not super high-end or anything--seven speeds, regular caliper brakes, compared to the disc brake performance models. I realize that riding around town, I leave my front derailleur on the middle ring, and only shift the front going up or down serious hills.

Third, it was a pretty reasonable price--one of the lower-end items in Dahon's product line.

The folding mechanism works very nicely--it feels very secure when locked, and folds easily and quickly. When I'm riding, I occasionally hear a squeak from the frame when I am pedaling hard, but I don't think it's the hinge.

When you fold it, it's not something that is 'easy' to carry--it's still pretty bulky, and 27 pounds. But it would definitely be easier to bring up and down stairs, or in an elevator, than a regular bike. You can make it more compact by loosening one Allen screw, and dismounting the handlebars, and dropping the seat post.

You'll notice the U-shaped bar coming out of the bottom of the bottom bracket; I believe that it's there to keep you from bouncing the front chainring when you put the bike down.

As for the ride itself--it always requires a bit of adjustment to switch to a different bike. But it was clear that it's much nicer than my current bike--going from a 15 year-old Cro-Moly steel frame beater to a brand-new aluminum frame bike. I also had to get used to not having toe clips.

It's also more compact when you hang it from the ceiling:

Another thing I wanted to point out: this bike came equipped with Schwalbe Big Apple tires--I was extremely impressed with them. They are large diameter (2"), and soak up a lot of the road shocks, but the rolling resistance isn't too bad for street riding. Kevlar-reinforcement; minimal tread--the perfect city tire. This blurb from the manufacturer says they soak up shocks nearly as well as suspensions--I haven't ridden suspension bikes, but they definitely reduce the pounding on the legs and tuchus. I liked them enough that I bought a set for my day-to-day commuter--I'd thoroughly recommend them for anyone getting new tires for a commuter bike.

Finally, I read a bit about Dahon's history, which was pretty cool--the founder (David Hon) was working for Hughes Aircraft, but bailed out to form a folding bike company:

Yet despite his success, Dr. Hon eventually found the work at Hughes Aircraft unfulfilling, because his energies were devoted to instruments of war, rather than for the betterment of society. Then, in 1975 came the oil and gas crisis and the seed for Dahon was sown.

One afternoon, in his third week of waiting in hour-long lines to buy gasoline for his car, Dr. Hon was struck by the magnitude of the world's dependence on oil, a non-renewable resource that would likely be depleted within the lifetime of his grandchildren....

Dr. Hon's solution - a portable folding bicycle. Next came the hard part: turning his ideas into reality. Working evenings and weekends in his garage over the next seven years, Dr. Hon built dozens and dozens of prototypes, trying to perfect a folding bicycle that would maintain the riding performance of a regular bicycle but would fold quickly and to a compact size.

Finally, in 1982, Dr. Hon introduced the first Dahon folding bicycle to worldwide acclaim.

A pretty neat story. Also, there's a blurb written by the vice president (one of the founder's sons) about buying better things, fewer times. Sound advice.

The problem with disposable products of course is that our earth’s natural resources are finite and we are quickly going through all of the wood, iron, aluminum, and oil that is available. And creating cheap products that quickly break down only means that we are constantly replacing what we own and dumping them into landfills.

So I’ve recently adopted a new mantra—something that I call “Buy Less, Buy Better.” Basically, I’ve resolved to buy fewer “things.” I try my best to only buy things that are really necessary, nothing that’s trendy and fashionable but that will be out of style in a year or two. And when I do buy, I’ll search for higher quality products that will last. Sure, the price will be a bit higher, but if the product lasts as long as several cheaper products, I’ll have come out ahead financially and I’ll have tossed less waste into a landfill. Plus, I’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of using that higher-quality, better designed product.

I'll keep you all posted once I try taking it on a trip somewhere!

Lookitt my Buuuut!! 3: The Rise of the Inseam

When we last left Bats on a quest for slacks that fit him (and his ass), he was considering ordering a new set:

I think I might order a new pair, but with a low rise, instead of regular. Also, maybe I should play with the Torso:Legs proportions. Oh yeah... and change the ass setting.

The new pants came in a month ago, but I haven't been motivated enough to blog about them until now. I did change the "ass" setting (from "prominent" to "average"), as well as several other settings: Thight Shape to "average," and rise to "short." The results are seen below (the obligatory front/side/rear photos):

I'm pretty pleased with the results, actually. Changing the "rise" setting had the biggest effect... and getting rid of the 'jodhpur' effect at the thighs is a plus as well.

Another delightful side effect is that by reducing the rise and pulling the inseam upwards, a 25" inseam actually fits me--rolling up the pants legs is no longer necessary (as opposed to the usual hanging crotch/24" inseam).

Sheesh... all this work just to have pants that look "normal." Ah well.


West Nile Virus!

I have many many posts to catch up on--from this year's Summer Camp, to birthday celebrations, to the fact that I'll be slogging through this Week Of Suck (possibly stretching into Weekend of Suck) before I fly to California for a conference (and, of course, to see the Bay Area folks). But as a quick throwaway of things on my mind today, I noticed that I was feeling a bit headachy/groggy during the day, and started getting really bad neck pain/stiffness. Then again, that could be the result of a really long day starting at a monitor.

But then again, last week during Summer Camp, my legs got completely massacred by mosquitos. I still have scabs all over the parts I couldn't swat. I wonder what the symptoms are for West Nile?

Hrm... according to CDC's website:

The symptoms of severe disease (also called neuroinvasive disease, such as West Nile encephalitis or meningitis or West Nile poliomyelitis) include headache, high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, and paralysis.

Also, today's Boston Globe says "West Nile virus has spread across state". Uh oh. However, I just checked my temperature--98.0 F, so no sign of fever.

The worst part is that I can't hear the name of the disease without mentally singing the crock song "West Nile Virus" (to the tune of "Zoot Suit Riot):

West Nile virus (Virus!)
Kills birds, horses and deer,
West Nile Virus (Virus!)
(It's) spread all the way up here!

I think I'll be... what's the right phrase... ruefully amused?... if it turns out to be the case. Seems unlikely, but I'll keep an eye on it. Somebody let me know if I start going comatose.


A Nice Visit, Catching Up

Nothing terribly exciting since last week, except for a visit by Josh/Speedbump, who brough his son Max with him. A bunch of us went out to Brehznev's for dinner; they and Bird hung out at my place--a few beers, some chatting, the usual.

Josh has defended his PhD, and is currently living in Indianapolis--so I guess he's most of the way to being Dr. Bump!

Max found the Schmedley collection; JMD decided that they have lived here long enough, and they went with him. Heh.

Also, random entertaining asides--while biking over to T-Stop, Jessie, and Indy's place, I was biking through Davis Square, and heard, "Hey Bats!" Jesse/Penguin, his girlfriend, and Julee were sitting on the steps--I love the random meetings that happen in a town like this. Julee was in town for Wally & Agi's wedding; she's still pounding away in med school in CO.

Also, at the bus turnaround, I saw an odd piece of equipment chained to the bike racks. Huh?

Turns out it is a mock-up of the front bumper of a bus and the folding bike rack that you can use to bike/bus commute. Huh.. wacky. No idea why it was there. But I went ahead and tried it out for myself (as practice, if I ever need to put my bike on the bus).

Another random vignette--while I was at Whole Foods the other day, as I was approaching, I saw somebody come out of the store, look at the bike rack, and go, "Aw, fuck!" Turns out that his brand-new Cannondale had been stolen... which does suck. But then when he mentioned, "I was only in there for five minutes..." and that he didn't lock it up, a lot of sympathy went away. Argh... what makes you think it is possibly a good idea to leave multiple hundreds of dollars of highly mobile equipment around unlocked... even if for a few minutes? Um, how many seconds does it to steal an unlocked bike? Even with my 10+ year old beater, I lock it whenever I step away from it, and would consider it an obvious invitation for theft. Also, it appears that Boston was the number six city for bike theft in 2002 ("includes Cambridge, Allston, Somerville").

Anyway, off to another Summer Camp (big symposium/party that my company puts on every year)--I'll be living up there for the next three or four days--see y'all after that!