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Posts from — November 2007

The time of day

At some point each day, there is a transition between “early in the day” and “late in the day.” If I manage to get something done while it’s still “early in the day,” then I’m happy; if I don’t finish until it’s “late in the day,” then I feel that I’ve spent the entire day on that task and don’t really have much time left to accomplish anything else. This is true whether at home or at work. Of course I hardly ever get things done “early in the day.” 

Presently, I think that the transition point is 2:30pm.

Along similar lines, I think the boundary between “late at night” and “early in the morning” is 3:30am. Or at least now that I’ve left graduate school, I hope never to have to stay up past or wake up before this point. 

November 29, 2007   2 Comments

small pleasures

I’m not, by any stretch, a serious railfan. No vacations centered around sites to watch trains, no vest or baseball cap studded with rail-themed collectors’ pins, no log of serial numbers of cars I’ve seen, or even ridden, nor even a mileage log of my own. But I have enjoyed watching trains for as long as I can remember, and I’m told that when I was very young I’d make my parents stop the car to watch a passing train. If my son asks, in a few years, to stop and watch a train go by, I’ll happily agree.

One of the bonus features, then, of living in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington DC is that the Metro tracks parallel the Amtrak tracks on the way to Brookland leaving Union Station, so when I’m riding the Metro to or from home I have a few minutes view of some busy rail lines.

One sees lots of MARC trains, especially during commuter hours; they’re not so interesting. There are usually random pieces of Amtrak equipment in the yards, locomotives and switchers and the like. It’s a good day when I see a revenue service Amtrak train moving, especially an Acela Express, or the Capitol Limited. Once I saw the American Orient Express. In the late mornings, when most of the VRE  trains have arrived and are waiting for their evening departures, there’s a particularly nice view of 4 or 5 of them on different tracks but lined up: a nice illustration, I think, of the Zen View from A Pattern Language.

I of course prepare for this brief trip through the railyard, by trying to get a window seat on the appropriate side of the train: right side when going in the direction of Glenmont, left side when traveling in the direction of Shady Grove. In morning rush hour, it’s rare that any seat is available, but in the evening enough people get off at Gallery Place-Chinatown, with some more getting off at Union Station, so that there’s a reasonable of a window seat opening up. When one does, and especially if I get to see some trains, it’s a small but welcome pleasure in my day.

November 28, 2007   3 Comments

Magic words

There are magic words in our society, words whose utterance casts a spell over all those who hear them. No, this isn’t about any supernatural hogwash.Two magic words–there may be more–are liability and security. “Liability” has been with us for decades now, but the magical effects of “security” were only discovered post 9/11.When these words are uttered, and the spells cast, those under the spell temporarily lose the ability to think. The usual context is something like this: several people are gathered in a meeting. One of them suggests doing something that would be enlightening, entertaining, or otherwise innovative. Someone else, feeling threatened by this idea, will respond by chanting the spell, along the lines of “What about our liability?” or “that brings up security issues.” At this point, instead of a discussion about the actual potential legal liabilites, or of what, specifically, the security concerns are–it does not matter if there are no genuine experts at either liability or security in the meeting–the idea dies. (I do not wish to imply here that I necessarily believe in the existence of genuine security experts.) The other people at the meeting are under the spell, so great is their fear of being personally responsible for the next multi-million dollar lawsuit, or the next 9/11.I do not know of effective ways to counter these spells: perhaps to call out “Abracadabra” and demand specifics?

November 25, 2007   1 Comment

History in a Christmas Tree

We cut our Christmas tree today, at Butler’s Orchard, where we’ve gone for our tree every year since 2004. Tree harvest was from a new stand of trees this year–we got a Douglas Fir (they also had White Pine); there were no Canaan Firs as in previous years. By and large, the trees in this field were beautifully sheared, giving them near-perfect conical shapes. (How long before someone introduces topiary Christmas trees, I wonder?)

Counting the rings on a slice of trunk, I guess the tree has been around a few months longer than we’ve been in DC. Here’s an annotated picture:
History in a Christmas Tree

November 24, 2007   No Comments

Happy Buy Nothing Day

It’s 6am; I’ve overslept! I should have been in line at the mall three hours ago!

Buy Nothing Day Visa Poster

I’m not a strict BND observer, but considering how you can’t separate the environmental damage caused by manufacturing, by mining and refining raw materials for manufacture, by transportation of goods and materials, and by disposal of packaging and worn-out junk from the purchase of new goods, BND does seem to be one of the more useful spiritual holidays around. There’s a reason that “reduce” is the first keyword in the “reduce, reuse, repair, recycle” mantra.

Many argue that stuff not bought today will be bought some other day, so it’s understood that BND is not a cure for consumerism, but rather a time to reflect on the future of a consumer society in the age of global warming and Peak Oil. We should question the underlying assumption of that argument, though, that there’s some fixed amount of stuff that we’re going to buy. Rather, we need to keep the Jevons paradox in mind, and consider whether the ease with which we can purchase something plays a role in our decision to purchase it in the first place.

If you’re going to make any observation of BND today, I’d say the first priority is to avoid products that are explicitly marketed as “green.” One of the softer, and IMHO more unreasonably optimistic environmental notions out there is that we can save the world simply buy buying the right stuff. A much larger fraction of the Green Living blog and its companion piece on Sierra Club Radio are devoted to buying less damaging products, instead of reducing, reusing or repairing. So today, instead of buying a shirt made from organic cotton, ask yourself instead whether you really need another shirt in the first place.

I did look through all the sale flyers that came with Yesterday’s Washington Post. Among the things advertised, without which I think that that, on balance, the world would be a better place: electric martini makers, “Latte” makers (ironically, from a company called “Back to Basics”), and Margarita makers. And scented candles.

November 23, 2007   2 Comments

Thanksgiving, nontraditional

Every year since 1995, I have cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving, or if we were traveling, for Canadian Thanksgiving. After trying several recipes, I settled on the Cooks Illustrated brine-air dry-start breast side down-flip midway through roasting method, with the stuffing cooked in a separate pan.

But not this year. We have been wanting to try a country ham for several years now, and finally decided that this Thanksgiving would be the time to try it. We actually bought a half-ham at Eastern Market. Country hams that have been aged more than 6 months need to be soaked; we figured ours hadn’t been aged that long, and didn’t pre-soak. Hams can be simmered or roasted, and if roasting they’re often simmered first. We simplified things by just simmering.

Except for apple pie, all the other dishes were new recipes for us also; in the past we had done more or less the same menu. We tried sweet potato pie instead of pumpkin pie, and picked three side dishes from Cook’s Country: a mashed potato casserole, cranberry glazed carrots, and creamy peas with goat cheese.

Thanksgiving dinner 2007

Country ham is potent stuff. Ours probably could have benefitted from soaking; it was quite salty, but very tasty. The other recipes were all successful, and remarkably simple as well. I do think I prefer the aroma of a roasting turkey to that of a simmering ham.

November 22, 2007   No Comments

Red Envelope

Red Envelope, Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel, Harry and David, New Braunfels Smokehouse, Signals, Pretty Good Goods, VivaTerra, Napastyle, Levenger, Uno Alla Volta, Smith and Hawken: these are a few of the catalogs that have been arriving in my snail-mailbox recently. Plus the clothing ones, that I don’t even look through.

I think some of these catalogs employ agents to go around on trash night and look through everybody’s recycling, so they can send another catalog to those of us who tossed the last one.

I do admit that I like the stuff in some of the big-name yuppie catalogs more than I should. I’ve noticed, though, that a lot of the wine decanters and candle holders and trendy picture frames look the same from catalog to catalog: is there some sort of (meta-)catalog of items for yuppie catalog makers to select from? Or do design trends just propagate that quickly: one year in some rarefied place where the innovation happens, next year in the yuppie catalogs, next year as cheaper look-alikes at Target?

Catalogs are, of course, put together by graphic artists, who in many cases can’t seem to imagine that the readers of the catalog are anything but graphic artists. At least, that’s the way it seemed when I was in the market for office furniture. All the “to-do” lists on the designer whiteboards and such read like “show drawings to Kevin” or “meet with clients.” And many more ways to store your art supplies than the stacks of paper and books that tend to characterize my work environments.

November 20, 2007   1 Comment

Click, click-click-click-click-click

This was the sound that greeted me Sunday at 5 in the morning. Our house was built in 1941, making it one of the last of the pre-war houses. As such, I’m used to hearing the occasional creak or soft thud, but a whole series of clicks is not something I should hear.

Click, click-click-click-click-click. Then a pause.

The sound appeared to come from the heating vent, and sure enough, it was the furnace making all the clicking, a sound furnaces aren’t supposed to make. (The furnace, by the way, is only about 20 years old.) It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on: the clicking was the electronic ignition, trying to ignite gas that wasn’t there. The gas wasn’t there because it won’t flow unless a small fan, called a draft inducer, is running. This fan, which is supposed to draw combustion exhaust up the flue, had stopped, and it was making that hum characteristic of a stuck electric motor.

The Washington Consumers’ Checkbook is a sort of Consumer Reports for local products and services. A few months ago, they reviewed HVAC repair firms, and cross-referencing the article with the furnace repair section of the Yellow pages revealed that pretty much any firm with a big yellow pages ad claiming “24 hour emergency service” was bound to have low ratings. The highly rated firms, of course, might come out on a Sunday, if you already had a service contract, but after a half-dozen calls it was clear that the only people answering the phones were answering service types who didn’t know a thing about furnace repair.

I actually spent most of the afternoon waiting in vain for one of these places to call me back; in the end they didn’t call until Monday at about 11am. I hadn’t ever tried to work on a furnace before, but experimental physicists like to believe that we can fix anything, so eventually I decided to start disassembling the draft inducer, hoping to find some obvious problem like a wad of leaves jamming the fan.

The one advantage of trying to fix things on a Sunday is that, if you need a new tool or something, you can time your trip to Home Depot to coincide with the Redskins game, at which point the store is pretty empty. I got the socket driver I needed, but none of the half-dozen employees I asked knew what duct mastic was, or where in the store I might be able to find it–perhaps the knowledgable employees were all watching the football game. (Turns out, I didn’t need mastic after all.)

Disassembly of the draft inducer revealed only that it was rusting and corroded and presumably worn. No leaves to clean out. I had hoped there might be some way to revive the motor, but as far as I can tell, that would take quite a bit more work. A bit of online searching revealed the part number for the replacement assembly, and I was much relieved this morning when R & B Heating and Air Conditioning told me on the phone that they had the part in stock. Unlike most trade supply places, they didn’t seem annoyed to have a mere consumer wishing to buy replacement parts. It took perhaps a half an hour to install the new draft inducer, and then we had heat again.

So that’s what I did this weekend.

November 19, 2007   1 Comment

Comments work now, I think

Sorry all for not having comments working when this started. I think it’s fixed; I think it had something to do with what sort of Permalink structure the Neoclassical theme expected, and what Permalink structure I had. I’m using the reCAPTCHA spam-stopper, which helps to digitize old books at the same time.

November 19, 2007   1 Comment

Plastic bags

Americans throw out 100,000,000,000 plastic shopping bags each year. This is the figure given in Katharine Mieszkowski’s article about plastic bags in, which I first heard about when Sierra Club Radio Interviewed her.

I won’t repeat what’s in the article: that’s what links are for. Suffice it to say that plastic bags wreak havoc on the environment. But let’s explore the numbers.

As I write this, the Census bureau estimates the US population at 303,384,903: that means that, on average, each American throws away about 330 plastic bags each year, or just one bag per day most days of the year. Five bags of groceries plus two other purchases a week would do it; this tells us there’s no reason to doubt the 100 billion figure. In fact, thinking about all the double-bagging that goes on at supermarkets, and not to mention all the other shopping that’s going on all the time, the figure seems a bit low. And unfortunately, there isn’t one evil industrial polluter to which we can assign the blame: what seems like a normal number of plastic bags times a whole lot of us means a whole lot of bags.

Producing the 100,000,000,000 plastic bags apparently takes 12 million barrels of oil. One barrel of oil is 42 gallons, so you can make about 200 bags from a gallon of oil, or about 2/3 fluid ounce of oil per bag.

According to the US Department of Energy, the US uses 20.7 million barrels of oil per day, or 7.6 billion barrels of oil per year. Of this, roughly 3/4 goes to transportation fuels. So if we took all the oil that presently goes into plastic-bag production, and used it instead for moving around, it would last about 19 hours.

Which means: plastic bags are awful for wildlife, and very ugly when they’re littered around, but they’re not really a significant part of our dependence on foreign oil. If someone comes up with a scheme to recycle plastic bags into an alternative fuel for cars, then perhaps it will be clever, but it won’t really be anything like a solution.

November 16, 2007   2 Comments