Archive for January, 2016

Listen to Your House

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Alice and I usually finish up our days by resting upstairs with a laptop or tablet scrolling through facebook, watching youtubes, reading, or watching netflix content. In order not to bother each other, if there is audio, we often have headphones on.

Last night I had my ‘phones on and was listening to something or the other, when I sat bolt upright, took them off, and stared intently straight ahead. There was a sound, ever so faint, but one that did not belong, coming from somewhere in the house.

I got up and did a short investigation, and discovered that the pressure relief valve on the upstairs how water tank was running. This happens a couple of times each winter, as a direct result of the hybrid hot water system in our house. In the summer, a homemade solar collector heats our water on sunny days. In the winter, a water jacket inside the firebox of our Monarch Wood/Electric Stove does the trick. In-between a small electric hot water heater does the job.

Several days ago the Monarch started to smoke, so I rolled up my sleeves and cleaned it out. This project takes me a couple of hours, and is not a job I enjoy doing. The advantage is the stove doesn’t smoke anymore. The disadvantage is until a little soot accumulates in the stove’s innards, the wood in the firebox burns very fast. Couple that with the high 20s weather we’ve been having, which means we’ve been primarily heating the house with the woodstove, and you have a recipe for the domestic hot water supply to become hot enough to blow the pressure relief valve.

I approached Alice with a proposal. “Would you be willing to take your nightly shower now instead of later?” Since she doesn’t listen to the house, she had no idea why I’d make such a request. But when I explained the situation to her, she agreed to help (what a trooper!) With our hot water system, the only way to turn off the pressure relief once it pops is to cool down the tank significantly. While she showered, I filled the sink up with hot water. Between the two of us, we were able to lower the temperature of the tank enough to turn off the relief valve. Calamity averted!

I suppose there is something primal about this sixth sense I seem to have; when something just doesn’t “feel” right in the house. Our ancestors probably heard dangerous critters stalking outside the domicile, and didn’t live to procreate unless they dealt decisively with these dangers. I’m downright amazed at myself actually. Alice can suggest in a loud voice that the clothes I’m putting on look like they came out of a dung heap, and I can’t hear a word she is saying. But let a valve release some pressure at a few decibels, and I’ll hear it even though “Thunderstruck” is booming in my headphones.

Recreational Snow Removal

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

“Well, I guess Franco and I are going to head outside and plow the driveways.”

Alice looked up from her project and said, “You sure do take good care of us. All I do is bake pies, but you strong men keep our driveways clear of all that snow. Bless you!” *Editor’s note, these may not have been her exact words.*

“You’ll probably be tired when you come in from all that work. How about a nice pie warm from the oven? I think you like raspberry the best, don’t you?” she asked.

“I think I could choke down a forkful or two before I collapse,” I told her.

So Franco and I strode manfully from the house, dusted off the trusty old International Scout II with Fisher plow, and went to work.

Let me tell you a little secret. If you give most guys a chunk of iron that weighs thousands of pounds, power it with an engine in the hundreds of horsepower, stick an adjustable steel plow in front of it, and tell them to drive as fast as they can until they smash into yonder snowbank, they won’t think of it as work. Most guys that I know pray for snow, so they can get outside and smash into things for a while.

I’m reluctant to make too big of a deal of this for several reasons. First, there are lots of people that spend all this great winter weather on the beaches of the world, and kid themselves into thinking they really have it made. All they seem to have to do is contemplate scantily clad people walking by while sifting sand through their toes. Were they to realize the snowbank smashing they were missing, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan would be so crowded we wouldn’t have room to pee off the back porch anymore. So please don’t let on to these folks.

Were the recreational opportunities of moving snow to become more well known, vehicles like my 1977 International Scout II would become financially out of reach for folks like me. I’d probably have to resort to shoveling snow with an actual shovel, which might make me nostalgic for those boring tropical sandy beaches.

And finally, were the wife of this household to learn how much fun her husband is having, she might just want to take the controls of the old Scout, and become addicted to taking out her frustrations on innocent snow patches. And frankly, I’d rather eat the pie she makes, than be inside baking them while she is out there shouting Yee-Haw out the open window of the Scout.

Twenty Feet of Wall

Saturday, January 23rd, 2016

Alice and I attended a very nice concert at the university performing arts center last night. We don’t get out and do such things very much anymore. Part of it is we are very content being home with each other. Part of it is we just don’t have the pep we used to. We were both glowing after last night’s performance though. We saw many of our friends from our careers at Michigan Tech, and reestablished some important and long-lost ties.

Before the show, we wandered downstairs to the art gallery, and walked inside an art installation that had been put together by a young and enthusiastic couple. I was unable to stay long, but from what I could tell, the theme of the installation was interactive, light, and sound.

On the way home in the car, we talked about it. Alice had been able to go through the whole thing, and said she found it somewhat interesting. I started thinking about the offer the young couple must have gotten for some space in a gallery, and their thought process in deciding what their display would be like. If I were offered a similar chunk of space, what would I do?

I put together a scenario. An official from the local museum calls me to say there is 20′ of wall space at the gallery just past the place where tickets are taken. Every person that buys a ticket and walks inside the museum will walk past this space. The wall is plywood, will be painted any single color I want, and whatever I’d like to attach to the wall can be done with screws or any other fastener. I’ll have 24 hours to load in my work, it will stay up for a month, and I will have the help of two people from the museum staff if I choose. My load-in slot is one year from today.

What will I do?

I’m not an artist, so don’t have a shop full of paintings or sculpture to display. I’m a woodworker, but a bookcase or piece of trim I’ve built probably wouldn’t engage the attention of the museum-going public. Nor would they likely find my abilities to solder copper pipe, frame a building, or run a sewer pipe underground worth pausing for. I think I’d tell a story. And as I have thought about it for the past hour or so, I decided on the story I’d (try to) tell.

Using 5 4′ floor to ceiling panels, I’d tell the story of the Indian Dormitories. This was the forced removal of Native American children from their parents in order to assimilate the natives into Western European culture and habits. These children were forbidden to speak their language, their native names were removed and replaced with western sounding ones. In a letter to George Washington in the 1790s, Henry Knox wrote, “…that instead of exterminating a part of the human race by our modes of population that we had persevered through all difficulties and at last had imparted our Knowledge of cultivating and the arts, to the Aboriginals of the Country by which the source of future life and happiness had been preserved and extended.”

The powers that be thought they were saving the Native Americans from extermination by reeducating them. The Native American families had their children forcibly removed from their families, with the object of making these children aliens from their way of life when they returned. That is the complicated story I’d try to tell.

If you were given 20′ of plywood wall and a year to prepare, what would you do?

Bus Station

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

I just returned from a 6 day trip to visit my parents downstate, and to attend the Michigan Maple Syrup conference in Mt. Pleasant. I did the whole 1,200 mile trip by bus. I’m often struck by how different travel using mass transit is than just “jumping in the car and going.”

This trip I took the Indian Trails bus from Houghton to downtown Lansing, then rode the city bus to the Lansing mall, then the EaTran bus to Independence Village in Grand Ledge where my Mom lives. The EaTran bus was interesting to me. Apparently, there are monies available to communities from gasoline taxes to set up curb-to-curb bus systems for their citizens. The folks that seem to ride these are often either elderly and can no longer drive, working poor, or disabled. Most have a story to tell and most seem willing to share their stories. Since I’m 63, I qualify for the senior rate of $1 per ride. EaTran requires you to call and book your trip in advance.

At my pickup from the Lansing Mall, we drove to a medical facility. EaTran regulations say the driver will pull up, honk the horn, and wait for several minutes before declaring the rider a no-show. This driver did not adhere to this policy. He looked inside when he pulled up, saw no activity, so he walked in and spoke with the receptionist. When he came back to the bus, he radioed his dispatcher that the rider wouldn’t be ready for another 20 minutes, so we drove off and picked up another passenger and dropped them off. By that time, our first passenger was ready, so we swung around and picked her up… literally. The bus is equipped with a wheelchair lift, which expertly lifted our passenger and her walker up and into the vehicle.

We did a lot of picking up and dropping off, and I was struck by how accustomed these folks were to getting around this way, and how well it seemed to work for them. The downside was we couldn’t just walk out to our cars, start them up and drive off. The upside was we were a community. Stories were swapped. If I rode this bus regularly, I’d know and appreciate these fine folks.

For my $1 I got to my destination in good fettle, a bit slower than the cab, but, as I learned on my last trip when I rode the cab, with about $24 more in my pocket.

On the way back home I spent a couple of hours at the Lansing CATA bus station. I like to get there early so I have some slack time in case I need it. The CATA center is a gathering of people riding the extensive Lansing city bus system, and those that ride the Greyhound and Indian Trails buses. It is a long narrow building with parking spots along the outside. There is a slot for bus #3… if the slot is empty, then bus 3 is not there yet. Inside most of the length of this building is two rows of bench seats. These seats are not bun friendly.

The benches are bolted to the floor, and are back-to-back. The seat and back parts of them are made of vinyl coated expanded metal. I’m sure they can be cleaned easily by just hosing them down. That must be the attraction to this design, because long term comfort seems to have been unimportant to the selection committee. As I’ve sat there shifting my weight from side to side, I wondered if perhaps discomfort wasn’t a criteria in their selection. Perhaps they were aware that making these seats too comfortable would encourage folks to become too comfortable there. An announcement occasionally comes on the PA system reminding folks that they should not hang out here; that they should use the facility as a place to wait for a ride. Their rule appears to be followed poorly by some.

The south end of the building seems to be where people hang out and loudly tell their stories to each other. It is my favorite part of the building. There seems to me to be an excess of people that want to talk, and a need for people willing to listen. Lots of the loud talk seems to involve how the storyteller was not respected to the extent they were entitled, and how they used their skills to encourage more respect at the end. There is quite a bit of talking in this place, which encourages the storytellers to up the volume.

My favorite story this trip involved a heavy set young woman. She’d managed to lose her wallet, and was yelling from one end of the room to the other so we’d all be aware of it. Some minutes into the disaster, someone called her name from across the room, and tossed her wallet to her. It traveled about half the distance between her and the thrower before it hit the ground. It was a fluffy knitted sort of thing. When it hit the ground, the contents did not go flying all over the place.

Later on this young woman was walking and talking with someone. I hear her say, “I had 6 seizures yesterday.” I sat there and pondered this as I was reading my kindle. Six seizures? I’ve been around people having these electrical storms in their brains, and they are not pretty. Six! In one day! Good grief.

Powerball

Saturday, January 9th, 2016

I do spend a chunk of my day in front of the computer, and for all of that time, my news feed is up in front of me. Most of what I see there is interesting, partly because I have my feed tuned to things I care about. Now and then items creep in that seem just silly to me. Lately, the big news has been that the powerball (whatever that is) jackpot is up to 900 million, and that there is a “frenzy” of people buying powerball tickets.

I’m not totally naive about the powerball. I understand that is has something to do with the lottery, which is a large money maker for the government that sponsors it. I’ve bought exactly one lottery ticket in my life, back when the Michigan lottery first opened around 40 years ago. I lost. Since then I have not been tempted to buy another one.

Folks like to gamble. It is entertaining for them. My Dad enjoyed his trips to the casino and liked to play the slot machines. He’d never spend more than he could afford to lose, and always seemed to have a good time. Good for him. My Dad also saw the wisdom of investing in his future. I assisted him at this, and now in his late 80s, he has plenty of money for the rest of his life. My Dad did not confuse gambling with investing. I suspect many people do.

There was recently a piece on NPR about investing. There are lots of these sorts of articles on NPR, but this one caught my attention, possibly because what this man believes about investing so closely parallels my own beliefs. Harold Pollack’s premise is that the most important investing advice can fit on an index card. Here is what was written on the card:

  1. Max your 401k or equivalent employee contribution
  2. Buy inexpensive, well diversified mutual funds such as Vanguard Target 20XX funds
  3. Never buy or sell and individual security. The person on the other side of the table knows more than you do about this stuff
  4. Save 20% of your money
  5. Pay your credit card balance in full every month
  6. Maximize tax-advantages savings vehicles like Roth, SEP and 529 accounts.
  7. Pay attention to fees. Avoid actively managed funds.
  8. Make financial advisor commit to a fiduciary standard
  9. Promote social insurance programs to help people when things go wrong

These ideas were spelled out for me in a book I read 3 decades ago called, “A Random Walk Down Wall Street,” by Burton Malkiel. If I were at a stage in my life where I was actively saving for retirement, I’d pin this card up on my wall, and read it every day. If I were retired and had some bad habits that are contradicted by the principles on the card, I’d pin it on the wall and read it every day.

If you are rushing out to buy another powerball ticket because you think it is a good investment, please save your money. Look down the list above, and put your powerball money into one of those categories. The lottery is not an investment strategy. The list above is.

It’s Got to be Believable

Friday, January 8th, 2016

My neighbor and good friend, who happens to be a forest climatologist, once told me he had one regret about learning so much about the weather. “I can no longer just look up into the sky and say, ‘what pretty clouds,'” he told me. Learning can be a curse that way. I find that it manifests itself for me when I’m watching movies. Particularly movies involving outer space.

600px-JupiterEver since the Matrix ™ movies, I promised myself that I’d try to watch whatever movies the Wachowskis made. And I’ve pretty much held to that. My latest was “Jupiter Ascending.” A lot of the action of this movie took place on and around the planet Jupiter. One of the bad characters had built a huge complex beneath the atmosphere of Jupiter’s red spot.

Like every Wachowski movie I’ve ever seen, this one was a very good story and well told. In a scene toward the end of the movie, our heroine was trapped on Jupiter (which interestingly had exactly 1G of gravity.) Her brave hero was on a large ship in what appeared to me was geosynchronous orbit just above the red spot. His smaller more nimble ship was inside the big ship, and when it became clear that he needed to swoop down to the planet to rescue our fair maid, he flew his small craft out of the mother ship, and straight down to the planet’s surface.

This bothered me. The international space station is approximately 205 miles above the surface, and orbits the Earth every 90 minutes. GPS satellites in Earth orbit are 12,540 miles up, and stay more or less stationary over a particular spot on the planet. Should something nudge one of these satellites from its carefully calculated orbit, would it fall straight to earth? No! As I understand it, once below geosynchronous orbit altitude, celestial mechanics would dictate the object would start moving faster in orbit the closer to the earth it came. I suppose it would be possible for this “falling” object to fire rockets against the direction they tried to orbit, with the effect that they’d fall to Earth all the faster.

At some point, the piper would have to be paid though. If you didn’t want to hit the spot on the planet you were aiming for pretty hard, you’d have to give up a significant amount of energy somehow. And you need to be mindful that a fragile human body could not handle more than a few Gs of force without destroying itself.

So when the hero flew his ship straight towards his destination, and landed his ship a few minutes later with a puff of air, I groaned. Fortunately for me, however, when I walk outside and look up at the sky, the clouds look pretty.

Firefighter’s Face

Saturday, January 2nd, 2016

I attended a training session in Houghton a while back. It was designed for fire chiefs or their designated assistants to learn to use the SMOKE system, which keeps track of the training courses the firefighters have taken. In order to qualify as a fire fighter, a lot of coursework is required, including the passing of written and practical tests.

It is good for me to attend sessions like this one, because I am in a room with folks that have problems and challenges similar to mine as chief of a small rural fire department. I knew a significant number of them too, and it was good to reestablish relationships. This room was full of people with radios and pagers.

Throughout the course of the evening, radios and pagers were going off. Most of these were someone else’s pages. But what was interesting to me, was how the room immediately got quiet when a pager went off. If you’ve ever been in a room full of talking people and tried to get their attention, you know how difficult that can be. In this room, when a pager went off, the effect was instantaneous. For most of us, it became clear after a few seconds that this page was not intended for us, we quickly resumed whatever we were doing as if nothing had happened. I did observe a couple of times that evening, however, the look on the face of the person when the page was intended for them; their firefighter’s face.

It is hard to describe this phenomenon, and I only became aware of it myself at that meeting, but it is unmistakable. If I was looking in a mirror when my pager went off, I’m sure I’d see it on myself too. The information received from the 911 dispatcher during a page is crucial for getting organized for whatever the run is. How serious is it? Where is it located? What resources are needed? How many people are on vacation? The list is long and complicated, but while the words are flowing out the pager’s speaker, the firefighter’s ears are tuned in and the brain is churning in “get organized” mode.

As they were striding out the door, these guys had a look on their faces that said they were already thinking several steps ahead. They had a plan, and were moving in the direction of making that plan happen. If you’re wondering how you can help these folks (most of whom are volunteers) do their jobs, I have a few tips.

1) When you see an emergency vehicle coming towards you (flashing red light,) give it some space.

2) If you come upon an emergency scene (lots of flashing red lights), don’t gawk. Curious well-meaning people cause a lot of problems at emergency scenes. The best thing you can do to help is to keep your eyes forward, slow down, pay attention to people at the scene directing traffic, and move through as quickly and safely as possible.

3) Consider supporting your local fire department. Some ideas are to support their fundraisers by buying raffle tickets, attending pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners, buying t-shirts, or perhaps just giving a donation. Firefighting equipment is expensive and wears out, and discretionary money is always appreciated.