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Living side by side

I had an interesting (well, to me) thought the other day while driving through a somewhat poor neighborhood not far from my home. It seems to me that a lot of problems in this country are related to how widely separated the wealth classes are, and not just in monetary terms, but in geographical as well. If you live in a gated community, all your neighbors are wealthy, and your only knowledge of folks in poverty is reading the police reports in the local paper or seeing the shady characters who hang out on street corners on your way home from the opera, you are not going to think highly of the poor. You may come to think they’re all just lazy, that they could easily get themselves out of the ghetto if they really just put their minds to it, that they’re all just criminals who deserve to be mistreated by the police and imprisoned for long terms for petty offenses because they were probably guilty of something.


And if you grew up in a poor neighborhood, watched your mother kill herself with work to feed you and your brother because your dad left years ago, saw friends go to jail (or get murdered) for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and your only interaction with wealthy people is seeing them go on TV and call you a lazy bum or come into the Burger King where you work and treat you like crap, you might think them entitled pricks who deserve to pay outrageous taxes or even get robbed on the streets.


Obviously these are extreme positions. Rich people aren’t all entitled pricks, although a few of them are. Poor people aren’t lazy criminals, even though a few of them are. But they simply don’t interact enough in real life to see past the extremes that they read and see every day. I think we need to get these folks together, living side by side. This isn’t just theory, it really does work in practice, even on a small scale: I’ve known relatively well-off people who have purchased homes in awfully dangerous inner city communities, and they make friends with their poorer neighbors and everybody gets along quite nicely. I think we just need to see more of this.


How to do it? Well, there are a lot of ways. We could simply pass a law that says every McMansion has to have a rent-controlled apartment building next to it, and pass strict laws making sure that those apartments are taken up by truly low-income people instead of just rich folks looking to save a buck, although obviously having rich folks and poor folks living in the same building would be a pretty grand idea as well. Unfortunately we can’t really knock down the existing mansions and apartment buildings and rebuild them to align with our ideals.


The better option, I think, is to tie property taxes to the average value of homes in the community. A guy who buys a million-dollar house out in the country surrounded by other million-dollar houses, well, he pays a property tax rate based on that average million-dollar value. The guy who buys (or builds) a million-dollar house downtown surrounded by $150,000 row-homes, he pays a much lower amount of taxes. It’d have to be an awfully strong tax, of course; plenty of people would be willing to pay an increased tax rate to not live in an area they believe is dangerous. Also, property taxes are currently so low (I think in my area they should be at least doubled, with that extra money going straight to schools, libraries, and community centers) that it wouldn’t put much of a dent in any really wealthy person’s pocketbook. It might also be worth offering extra tax rebates based on a community’s average income, or the number of people in it who use government assistance. We’d also have to make sure that the large amounts of money collected on property taxes in wealthy areas got spent in the areas that had very little tax collected, which might be a challenge. It might also be worth offering special mortgage rates on homes purchased in poorer areas.


I think if we could just get people living near each other and participating in each other’s success, there really would be a rising tide to lift all boats. So tell me: why wouldn’t this work?

Latest Greatest Movie Reviews, Fall 2012ish

Waaaaaaaaaaay back last winter I did a set of reviews of films I had not actually seen, and in fact STILL have not seen, because I don’t have time to see movies in theaters, and when left to my own devices am much more likely to rewatch “Taken,” which is undoubtedly showing on FX as you read this, than see anything new. Because I enjoyed that a great deal, and because there are a lot of interesting new films coming out this fall, I give you Matt Hearn’s Fall 2012 Reviews of Films He Hasn’t Seen And Is Never Likely To! Which I think is a GREAT title.


  • Taken 2: The Takening. Apparently they’re already planning a third in the series, which I can only assume will be Taken 3-D: The Daughter Is Still Annoying As Hell. This is the best action movie of 2012 that doesn’t feature Daniel Craig. Even Maggie Grace and Famke Janssen (Famke: please eat a sandwich, you look like the natives tried to shrink your head) won’t be able to drag down Liam Neeson and his ability to ethnic cleanse entire tourist destinations.

  • Frankenweenie: Because every parent wants spend three months explaining to their 7-year-old why Fido can’t be brought back to life. Personally I think it might be better to just make him watch Pet Sematary and show him what really happens when pets return to life.

  • Pitch Perfect: On paper, it sounds solid. The director of Avenue Q, writers from 30 Rock, Anna Kendrick, and Brittany Snow to bring a little hotness. However, name one movie about a high school arts club (be it dance, music, cheerleading, whatever) that you’d give more than 2 stars to. Thinking…thinking…yeah no.

  • Looper: It’s got Bruce Willis in it. And . Other than that, it involves Time Travel, which is third behind “Nested Dreamstates” and “Part Or All Of the Plot Is Being Shown Backwards” for making movies completely impenetrable unless they feature a DeLorean. Spoiler alert: Apparently Bruce Willis is just JGL from the future, which is interesting because they look nothing alike. (Select the text to make the spoiler appear. If you want, or whatever.)

  • Solomon Kane: Apparently it was actually made in 2009, but is in limited release right now. I just wanted to share with you IMDB’s description of it:
    A 16th Century killing machine who finds his spirituality after an encounter with the Devil’s own Reaper embarks on a mission to take down the Overload, whose human Raiders are ravaging England.

    Somebody in Hollywood greenlit that. It has Max von Sydow in it.

  • End of Watch. It was written and directed by the guy who wrote Training Day, and who also directed Street Kings. I’ll say this for it: he’s found his lane. If you want to make a movie involving crooked cops, David Ayer is definitely your guy. Be warned, however: he might cast Keanu Reeves in it. Important note: this movie also has Anna Kendrick in it.

  • The Last House At The Left Side of The Street, Or Something Like That: I might have the name mixed up with when they released a similarly-named horror film three years ago. This movie has Jennifer Lawrence in it, so if you like her, uh, she’s in it. I think she kinda looks like a losing boxer.

  • Trouble With The Curve: This movie have a bit of trouble with the fact that America seemed surprised to see Clint Eastwood behave like a crazy old man at the Republican National Convention, despite the fact that he’s played nothing but crazy old men for years. Justin Timberlake’s in it, though, and honestly I’ve never not enjoyed him. He’s pretty.

  • Dredd 3D: a horrible remake of a horrible movie. Amusing fact: I saw that Lena Headey plays the villain, and immediately confused her with Lena Dunham, which gave me hope that the movie would have a nude scene or three since Lena Dunham will strip down for just about any reason (a good thing, IMHO, even if she’s not exactly centerfold material). Without nudity, however, I suspect Dredd 3D is just a pointless bloodbath. Not that I’m against bloodbaths, perse; I actually have one in my backyard.

  • The Master: Philip Seymour Hoffman is in this, so it’s either pretty good, or dreadfully overwrought. Joaquin Phoenix raps in it, I’m told. Side note: is there a more overwrought word than “overwrought?” I submit that there is not.

  • Sinister: I hadn’t heard of this before Sarah and I saw a commercial for it last night while watching “New Girl,” and I gotta say it looked scary as a mother. It’s also quite nice to see Ethan Hawke getting work, I wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t overdosed in 1995.

  • Seven Psychopaths: It has Christopher Walken in it. That is all you need to know. Fun IMDB comment:
    When Mickey Rourke left the production after a semi-high profile clash with McDonagh, Woody Harrelson replaced him, and the project suddenly seemed more legitimate — funny how Rourke’s credit rating has slipped again.

    Oh IMDB, you gossipy bitch! I love it!

  • Alex Cross: Tyler Perry takes over the iconic role that Morgan Freeman played brilliantly in “Kiss The Girls” and “Along Came A Spider.” Let me repeat that: this man is now playing a role originated by the man who played Red in “The Shawshank Redemption.” Morgan Freeman, rumors to the contrary, is not dead. I really feel like President Obama should probably have stepped in here.

  • Paranormal Activity 4. IMDB: “The plot is undisclosed at this time.” Well damn, I wonder what it could be about! The same crap as the first three? Hmmmmm.

  • Skyfall. Did you hear that? That was my boner. I haven’t seen a movie in the theatre since Quantum Solace (a minor disappointment). Might have to break the streak for this one.

So, what are you planning to see this fall?

Politics. No wait, politics suck, let’s talk about something else.

I kinda wanna talk politics, since we’ve reached the “Silly Season” part of the Presidential campaign where everything gets over-analyzed and beaten into the ground. Did Governor Romney give away the election by hitting the current Administration on the Libyan embassy attack? Did President Obama screw himself by allowing Vice-President Biden to talk at the convention? Did Gary Johnson blow up his campaign by…wait, who the hell is Gary Johnson? Didn’t he play for the Chargers? (Fun fact: Yes. Non-fun coincidence: he died on President Obama’s 49th birthday. If it’s not clear at this point that we’re talking about a different Gary Johnson than the current Libertarian Presidential candidate, then I don’t know what to tell you other than you might be an idiot and I can only assume you’re a big Mitt Romney supporter.)


Politics is depressing, though. We have a nearly unbridgeable gap between left and right in which each side is completely flabbergasted that the other side could say and believe the things they do. I’m not immune from this: I routinely read about people who honestly believe Mitt Romney will fix the economy (he won’t), and also believe that President Obama wants to take their guns away (he won’t) or is a Muslim (he’s not; I hew pretty closely to the theory that says he’s actually a closet atheist, and can’t admit it until his political career is over), or believe that “ObamaCare” should be called “ObamaTax” despite the fact that they don’t even know anyone who makes enough money that their taxes will be going up as a result of the ACA, aside from the penalty paid by those who don’t get health insurance as part of the individual mandate, something only put in place so that health insurance company lobbyists would allow their representatives in Congress to vote for the law.


That was a long sentence. Just like a potential Romney Administration. (Rim shot.)


I may come back to politics as we get closer to the election. Instead, I’ll give you an update on my current workout/diet regimen, which is going reasonably well.


While in Texas I ate relatively healthily, by which I mean I think I only had chicken fried steak one time, although I should admit the steak itself was most of a single cow. I only gained 3-4 pounds while we were gone, most of which was water weight that I lost in a few days after getting back to the program, and so I continued with my Leangains cut, and continued my RPT workouts. By mid-August, though, I was getting very frustrated with the strength loss I was seeing, and wanted to get back to eating a bit more, so I decided to switch to a “recomp”, and also add a bit more volume to my program.


I should explain what “recomp” is; it’s short for “recomposition,” and usually means eating approximately the same amount of calories as you burn. So if your body uses 2500 calories a day, you eat 2500 calories a day. The idea behind it is that you do that and lift heavy weights and get plenty of protein, and your body should theoretically shed a bit of fat, and your muscles should grow. The problem is that it’s very, very slow. The human body doesn’t just turn fat into muscle, despite what you may have read; it either loses bodyweight (because of caloric deficit, eating less than you use) or adds bodyweight (because of caloric surplus, eating more than you use). So eating the same amount of calories every day means your body uses those calories…and then has nothing to grow muscle with. On Leangains, however, you eat more on training day than on rest days, so after lifting weights your body uses extra calories to build muscle, and on the rest days your body is in a deficit and sheds fat. It’s still not as fast as the classic “bulk/cut” cycle, but it doesn’t require you to spend a few months getting fat while adding muscle, and then spend a few months cutting that fat back off. Also, folks with very low bodyfat tend to lose fat slowly anyway, and folks with a lot of barbell training under their belt add muscle slowly as well. So for folks who are already in good shape, it’s good enough. I’m not sure if I qualify for “in good shape” yet, but I did buy a pair of 34×34 jeans at Old Navy that fit nicely. I’m averaging about 228 pounds, which is the least I’ve weighed since freshman year of college, and I didn’t have near as much muscle at the time. I estimate my bodyfat at around 15% right now.


So I switched to the Leangains recomp protocol, and since I would be eating more and therefore theoretically be able to recover faster, I thought it might be a good idea to go back to a full-body workout. After poking around a bit I settled on “The Texas Method,” which is an intermediate lifting program involving a high volume workout on Monday, a light workout on Wednesday, and then a low-volume but heavy day on Friday. So for example, you might work with 80% of your max on Monday, but do 5 sets of 5 reps; on Wednesday, you work at 50-60% and do 2-3 sets of 5; on Friday, you try to set a 5-rep personal record. It works best when eating a big surplus, but by cutting the volume back to 3×5 on Monday and hoping for less frequent Friday maxes, I thought it might work on a recomp.


I lasted 4 workouts.


Part of the problem was that on the 2nd week, I decided to replace rows with power cleans, which would probably be a great idea if I was any good at power cleans or decided to start low. Instead I really wore myself out with 3×3 at 175lbs and the next day I strained my back bending over to fill my water bottle. Also, my ever-annoying right hip had started to flare up a bit, and I thought maybe the volume was going to be too much and trying to add 5 pounds to my maxes every week was wishful thinking without eating 4000 calories a day. It was time to try something else, so I looked into 5/3/1, a program by Jim Wendler. Now, for anyone who’s read my posts on Fitocracy over the past year or so, the fact that I’m doing 5/3/1 might come as a surprise given how many times I’ve told people not to do 5/3/1. In fact, I’ve never had anything against 5/3/1; I’d never done it, but from everything I’d read it seemed like a fantastic program if you are of a sufficient training level that periodization and slow monthly progression are necessary. The reason I was telling people not to do the program was because they were new lifters, and adding 5-10 pounds a month to their lifts was silly when they could do Starting Strength and add 5 pounds every workout.


However, knowing that RPT (which meant hitting the same weights every week and never being able to progress, even if I was pyramiding down from the max) wasn’t working, so periodization (working at different percentages each week) seemed like a great idea; and realizing that unless I was willing to eat like a pig I probably couldn’t add weight every week like the true intermediate lifter I am, 5/3/1 seemed like a nice option. It also features frequent “deload” weeks to give my poor old man muscles a chance to recover.


(WARNING: things are about to get lifter-nerdy up in this.)
The gist of 5/3/1 is that you do a 4-week cycle: first week, you warm up and do 3 ramped sets of 5, topping out at about 85% of your “training max” (more on this in a moment); second week, you warm up and then do 3 ramped sets of three, getting to 90%; and then in week three you warmup and do a set of 5@85%, 3@90%, and then 1@95% of your training max. The fun part is that the 3rd set each week, the prescribed reps is only a minimum: you actually do as many as you possibly can. So on week one you might actually do 11 reps at 85% of your max, and in week three you might be able to do 5 or 6. I’m in the middle of week 1, and I hit 11 reps of my top squat set on Monday, and 9 each on deadlift and overhead press yesterday.


In week 4, you deload, just basically doing warmups and allowing your body to recover from the 3 week pounding you just gave it. Then you repeat the cycle, pretty much forever if you want.


The real genius of the program is the use of the “training max,” which is not the same thing as your true max. In fact, if you know your true one-rep-max (1RM) Wendler prescribes setting your training max to 90% of it. If you don’t know your one-rep-max, he has you estimate it from your 5RM or whatever rep max you happen to know. The reasons that you set your weekly percentages from this hypothetical training max instead of your true max are, in no particular order:

  1. Most guys don’t know their true current max.
    “I do a seminar basically every week,” Wendler says, his voice rising. “Every time, without fail, when I ask someone what their one-rep max is, I get this: ‘Wellll, about three years ago I hit 365 for a triple, but that was when I was training heavier …’ Most guys just don’t have a f***ing clue.
    “By using the 90%, I account for this bulls***. By using weights they can actually handle, guys are building muscle, avoiding burnout, and most importantly, making progress every workout.”

  2. If you step backwards a bit, you allow yourself to build momentum forward such that after a few months your training max actually exceeds your previous max, and a few months after that, you’re doing multiple reps in week 3 of a cycle with what had once been a theoretical 1RM.

  3. As Jim says, “You don’t need to operate at your max to increase your max.” Since the top set has only a minimum prescribed number of reps, you can achieve muscle exhaustion with high reps that will trigger muscle growth, and follow up in the heavier weeks with lower reps that continue to stimulate growth.


Every cycle, you add 10 pounds to the training max of your deadlift and squat, and 5 pounds to the presses. You could even increment even more slowly, something I might explore if I find I have to reset too frequently. A reset is triggered by not being able to get all the prescribed minimum reps for an exercise, and so in the next cycle you knock 10% off the training max and work your way back up.


Normally, 5/3/1 is a 4-day training program, with overhead press, deadlift, bench press, and squat all done on separate days with various assistance exercises that are left pretty much up to the trainee. I’m doing Wendler’s “beginner” modification, which is a 3 day “full-body” variation in which on Monday I squat heavy, then bench press very light, and do some assistance (rows or leg raises); Wednesday I deadlift heavy and overhead press heavy, followed by some chins; and Friday I’ll squat light, bench heavy, and then probably do some inverted bodyweight rows. I have a good amount of muscle soreness from the workouts, but no joint pain so far, and my back’s holding up fine. I’ve considered doing the regular 4-day program but honestly can’t rely on being able to get 4 lunch hours a week devoted to training. My hope is that over the fall/winter/spring I knock out 9-10 cycles of 5/3/1, add 7-8 pounds of muscle, and cut off enough fat so that my super-fly abs start popping like a toaster strudel. I’ll keep y’all updated since I’m sure you’re on pins and needles about the whole thing.

Texas, Part D

Sorry for the delay, but jaun’s been cray. Poetry, people. Make it happen in your life, today!


On Wednesday, we piled into the car with Grandma and headed to Glen Rose, Texas, to see Dinosaur Valley State Park, where they have some neat exhibits and several areas where you can go and look at petrified dinosaur footprints in small creek beds. Interesting and sad fact: the footprints are gently being eroded away by the same freeze/thaw cycle that tears up roadbeds and driveways, and will be pretty much gone in a matter of decades. They survived as long as they have by being covered by mud and silt, which gets washed away, exposing the soft limestone footprints to the elements.


After that we got great food at the Storiebook Cafe in “downtown” Glen Rose. They sell gourmet sandwiches and chips, along with used books and knick-knacks, and even have a small playroom chock full of toys for the children. I bought a book on Fermat’s Last Theorem, and nerded out on that a bit. Afterwards we returned to Waco, and Grandpa and Papaw and I hit a few hardware stores in search of a trap large enough to capture a squirrel, since they keep eating all of Grandpa’s birdfeed and he hates them.


For dinner, the whole Furrer clan (Sarah’s mom’s family) descended on the house for fajitas, and then we went down to Uncle Mike and Aunt Donna’s to look at their various animals, and got some nice fresh eggs for breakfast.
On Thursday we started our voyage home; spent the morning packing up the car, and didn’t end up getting on the road until close to 11:30. Having learned from our voyage down, I packed stuff in the roof carrier that we wouldn’t really need in hotel rooms, which made nightly stops easier. We also made sure to take plenty of long stops to stretch our legs and tire out the various and sundry children.


I hoped to make Little Rock, but didn’t want to go near Dallas, so we stuck to small roads, which mostly had 70mph speed limits but had to slow down occasionally for tiny towns. We made it into Arkansas by early evening and decided we’d had enough, so we stopped in Hope, the birthplace of one William Jefferson Clinton. I was very sad to discover that Hope is in a dry county, but managed to eat horrible Pizza Hut food while William yelled at us, and went back to sleep in a hotel room that smelt strongly of mildew. The next day could only be better, I figured.


On Friday we managed to get up and out super early, well before 7, and put a hundred miles behind us before stopping for gas and McDonalds breakfast. Rolled on through Little Rock and Memphis, and then stopped at a pretty shady truck stop (literally just a grassy place to park and a horribly foul bush that had been peed on by every long hauler in America, I suspect) to change William. In the early afternoon we arrived in Nashville, where we stopped at a Ted’s Montana Grill for steaks and mashed taters. We wanted to tire the kids a bit, so we found a McDonalds with a horrible, germ-filled play area, and got some coffee. Poor timing meant that we left Nashville during Friday afternoon rush hour, but that cleared pretty quickly and we finally stopped for the night just west of Knoxville.


On Saturday we were a little late going, but still put a few dozen miles behind us before stopping for breakfast. We continued up 81, finally heading east on 64 towards Richmond, but had to stop in Charlottesville to pee and get more fuel. We arrived in Richmond in the early evening and spent a nice night with Kyle and Kristy and their daughters, and got on the road Sunday afternoon for the last leg home. After doing almost all the driving up to that point, I stepped aside and let Sarah take the wheel, which was wise because we immediately hit horrible traffic precipitated by a bad accident around Fredericksburg, VA. We made it home around 7pm and managed to get the car unloaded and cleaned out before crashing hard.


Texas and back is a long way to drive, is all I’m saying.

Gone to Texas, part Deux

If you missed the first part (how could you let that happen?), it is to be found here.


Thursday was sight-seeing day with the older 2/3 of my various and sundry children. We went into town to go to Fort Mason and look it over, and ran into a nice gentleman who was working on some renovations and exhibits, and who told us a bit about it. He expressed surprise that we’d driven all the way from Delaware, and then realized that they didn’t have any Delawareans in the visitor book and became very excited to have checked that item off his bucket list. After that, we drove into the town square and visited a small museum that containing a large Kettner family tree in it, including mention of yours truly. After that we headed down to a larger museum in the old town grammar school, where we were immediately accosted by an elderly gentleman who had apparently been waiting for just this moment for decades. I think he actually brushed cobwebs off himself as he stood. I was able to use the excuse of corralling the children to escape him, but poor Sarah was trapped listening to his spiel for well over 20 minutes, long after the kids and I had gone outside to run around and burn off some energy. (There was a small playground with a large walking track, at least 1/8 of a mile, and I told Charles I’d time him running it, which was a stroke of genius.)


We had lunch at a small burger place in town and then headed back to the ranch to relax for a bit. The afternoon we spent swimming at Fred and Joan’s, and then they fed us fajitas and beer. Pretty fantastic way to spend an evening.


Sarah’s cousins Deborah and Jill, who had been in town with their kids to visit with us, needed to head back to their homes in West Texas and New Mexico, but they stopped by on Friday morning to say goodbye. After that Sarah and her mom went into town for a bit of knick-knack shopping, after which we did some more swimming and napping. That evening, Grandpa and Charles and I drove down to the Eckert James River Bat Cave to watch the millions of bats emerge and fly off into the evening sky; there are pictures below, and a totally choice video that’s kinda Zapruder-esque:



The bats emerge every evening, somewhere around sundown, from roughly May to September (when they migrate to their winter residences south of the border). If I recall correctly there are between 2 and 8 million of them, depending on time of year; the site is essentially a “maternity ward,” full of pregnant females and their pups. As the evening wears on, you start to see “scouts” come out, lone bats that appear to judge the conditions (temperature, sunlight, availability of bugs), and they’ll fly back to apparently report to the others. After a few minutes the entire roost will emerge in one long tornado stream. The vortex of the spinning stream of bats sucks air out of the cave, and along with it an unbelievable ammonia smell from the guano, which coats the floor of the cave to a depth of several inches.


On Saturday we arose fairly early to head to Fredericksburg, a nearby town that is the historic center of the large German migration to Texas in the 19th century. Sarah’s dad edited a book of his ancestor’s letters home to Germany, and he gave a short talk to some interested history nerds in the Vereins Kirche, the original town church, now a museum. After that we walked the streets of Fredericksburg a bit, and went to a spectacular Mexican restaurant named Hilda’s.


Josephine fell asleep in the car on the way back to Mason, and she was in dire need of the nap, so I dropped off the rest of the family and drove around Mason County a bit to snap some pictures, below. After that, we spent the afternoon packing and preparing to drive to Waco the next day. I did get an opportunity to fire Grandpa’s hunting rifle, and I continue to be a good shot. I’ve decided I need a hunting rifle and an opportunity to use it. We had chicken fried steak at the Walnut Creek Cafe in town, and then I had a brief chance to go wander around with my .22 rifle and hunt jackrabbits, but saw nothing but deer.


We didn’t get on the road the next day until close to noon, but did so and headed roughly northeast towards Waco. The sky grew ominous, and sure enough, after we stopped for gas and snacks, opened up with a torrential downpour that actually had us turning the blinkers on and driving about 25mph on a 70mph roadway. I couldn’t see more than 25 feet in front of me. Eventually I noticed that the sky to the north seemed lighter, so I turned off in that direction and waited for the GPS to catch up. It took us a little while to wend our way around the north side of Waco but we eventually arrived at Mamaw and Papaw’s at around 3:30pm.


We spent the rest of the evening visiting with the family, but I really want to share the recipe for a blackberry buckle that Sarah’s Aunt Donna made that consists of three ingredients:
Vanilla Cake Mix (one box)
Frozen blackberries (2 bags)
Sprite (one can)
Stir it together in a baking dish and throw it in a 350 degree oven for 45-50 minutes and then wonder why nobody ever thought of it before.


On Monday, we needed to get the crazy out of Charles and Josephine, so we decided to wander into downtown Waco and see the sights. First we stopped by Baylor University to see the bear enclosure, but the only bear was asleep inside her den and barely (bearly?) visible. We wandered through the Baylor bookstore but decided the only way we’d spend $35 on a ballcap was if we were Baylor Alumni, wealthy, and drunk.


After that we decided to go to the Cameron Park Zoo, which I highly recommend. As members of the Brandywine Zoo, they let us in free, and when we went to buy some hot dogs from a vendor towards closing time, she gave them to us for free because otherwise they’d just throw them out. We got to see a bunch of extremely awesome animals (including lions, gibbons, tigers, and elephants), and had a nice snack, for the price of two ice cream sandwiches.


On Tuesday we visited with some church friends of Mamaw and Papaw, and then we took Josephine and Charles to the Mayborn Museum on the Baylor campus, which is a great hands-on experience for kids. Lots of buttons to push, dials to spin, things to draw on, trains to operate, cars to drive, etc. It’s like the Delaware Children’s Museum, except cheaper and bigger (obviously the University helps subsidize some of the cost, and I suspect they have a substantial endowment that the DCM can’t hope to have). After that, we had dinner at a “Catfish King,” a cafeteria-style seafood joint, where I ate enough seafood to make my burps taste like mercury.


Next time: a few more days in Waco, and the trip back to La Casa.

Gone To Texas, Part One

I’ve travelled with children a number of times. There’s no easy way to do it, and more importantly, no easy age. When they’re infants, you can usually time activities and road time around naps, but you still have to stop frequently to feed and diaper them; when flying, you may find yourself changing a particularly disgusting diaper while actually holding the child in your lap and the poor fellow next to you in a cheap business suit is praying he doesn’t get peed upon. As they get older, they can fend for themselves a bit more, but they still have small bladders and unreliable tempers, so you still deal with stopping every 2 hours or trying to bribe them to stop kicking the seat of the guy in front of them who may or may not have just drunk 3 tiny bottles of Absolut and taken a Xanax and is still white-knuckling the armrests, poor devil.


This is why when I looked at prices to fly 5 people to Texas this summer, and realized it was going to cost $2000 just getting to the city at which we would then have to spend another $1500 to rent a minivan to haul us around, I said “let’s just road trip this beotch.” (That is a direct quote.) One of the driving forces behind our recent automotive purchase was making sure we had a nice set of fly wheels that could get us to Texas and back (instead of taking my 1998 Dodge Caravan with broken air conditioning). Everyone said we were crazy, but I knew if we had a nice roof storage tub and a fresh change of oil, we could easily knock out a 4,000 mile round trip road cruise with no problems, because my children are well-behaved, mild-tempered, and all-around great kids who would never dream of hitting each other with pillows in the backseat when they were supposed to be napping and if you kids don’t settle down I’m going to stop the car and beat you with an empty Pringles can, now stop antagonizing each other and watch the damn video!


The Friday before we left, we got a babysitter to come over and entertain the kids while we packed, organized, repacked, cursed a lot, and eventually opened a bottle of wine. In hindsight, we should have gotten her to come back Saturday morning, because all efforts to actually get the car fully loaded were interrupted every 3 minutes by one child or another demanding food or attention.


“Mom, where’s my baseball cap?”

“In the car, packed.”

“Can I have it, please?”

“No, you can’t have it, it’s packed!”

“Why not?”

“BECAUSE WE’RE TRYING TO LEAVE PLEASE STOP BOTHERING ME.”


2 minutes later:
“Mommy, can I have a snack?”

“Did you finish your apple?”

“No.”

“Well, where is it?”

“Where is what?”

“THE APPLE.”

“I don’t know.”

“GO FIND IT.”


2 minutes later:

“Mom, Josephine has apple in her hair!”

“OMG STOP TALKING TO ME.”


As the morning wore on, it seemed less and less likely that we’d make it to our first hotel reservation (Bristol, Virginia, about 480 miles). Finally, at around 9:30, we headed out of the driveway as I muttered “Next time we’re fricking flying.” That’s right, America, I’d gotten surly and regretful not even 15 seconds into a 3-day road trip.


I wanted to get away from the I-95 corridor as quickly as I possibly could, so we skirted around Baltimore on I-695 and picked up I-70 towards Frederick, where we stopped and had a very fine picnic lunch. I’d like to go back someday; it’s a neat little small town, fairly hilly, lots of brick buildings. We didn’t spend much time on the main street but it seemed like it had a number of fun little shops and restaurants. Awfully nice place to spend a weekend at a B&B, I bet. But, we had promises to keep and miles to go before we’d sleep, so we continued west towards Harpers Ferry, where I thought we could kill a little time looking at Civil War history and stretching our legs, and add another state to the list of ones we visited on the trip. That’s when we hit Traffic, with a capital T. Not just “volume,” or “a mild slowdown,” but absolute dead stop. After waiting a few minutes and going no more than 15 feet, I took advantage of an emergency vehicle turnaround and headed back whence we’d come. Found a tiny road heading south, and did some meandering, eventually cutting back over to I-81 for the real haul of the trip. (We never did get into West Virginia. Oh, well.)


I-81 is a long-ass highway; 823 miles from Tennessee to Canada, and more than a third of that is in Virginia. Storms the previous day had knocked out power for much of it, making pee breaks complicated: gas stations were mostly closed, so we peed by the side of the road more than once. Shortly after we got onto I-81, at Natural Bridge, Virginia, we happened upon this amusing sight:


We hit another big traffic jam shortly after that, because someone had rolled an SUV into the ditch in the median. As we drove by, paramedics were working on some poor soul lying flat on the road nearby. Shortly after that we had to get gas, and lucked into a station that still had power. I filled it up and asked any of the kids if they had to pee, and they did not, so of course we had to stop not even 10 miles later for Charles to pee by the side of the road again. The late afternoon travel was difficult (it always was, we found as time wore on); William was very tired and irritable, and he’d drift off to sleep for a few minutes only to have Charles poke or pinch Josephine, who would scream a the top of her lungs and wake everybody up. After a few iterations of this, William simply took to crying and screaming as loudly as he could, and we had to stop to change him and get him calmed down.


We finally reached Bristol at about dinner time, and we got Chick-Fil-A (this was just prior to the whole Dan Cathy gay marriage uproar, although honestly I still felt guilty about it later because Chick-Fil-A is so delicious) and lounged by the pool for a while. We got to sleep around 10pm, but then William awoke around 11:30 and simply would not be calmed. I had to actually go and drive him around a little to get him back to sleep.


Our plan had been to try and get to the hotel as quickly as possible, stopping only as necessary along the way, but that made everyone pretty much miserable for the duration of the ride, and the extra time spent at the hotel wasn’t particularly fun either. We decided that the next day’s travel would start earlier and end later, but feature lots of long breaks. To that end, we got up around 6:30, got our free continental breakfast and some cheap coffee, and got on the road around 8:30, passing into Tennessee. By 10am, everyone in the car had to pee, so we pulled off at Gatlinburg and spent some time exploring a little visitors center. Sarah had snagged some Krispy Kreme when we got gas on the way out of Bristol, so we enjoyed those on the visitor center’s front porch, and had Charles and Josephine race each other from one end of the porch to the other. I liked the look of Gatlinburg, and really thought it might be nice to drive up into the mountains a bit and look for bears, but we didn’t really have time. I promised myself we’d try and do it on the way back, but of course we were even more rushed then and had to skip it.


Our next destination was Chattanooga. I had done a little googlin’ and discovered they had a nifty railroad museum, and knowing Josephine’s love of all things trainular we planned to get there around lunchtime and wander a bit. We didn’t announce ahead of time where we were going, so once we got there Josephine flipped out (“TRAINS! TRAINS! WHERE’S THOMAS?”). She was actually a little frightened to see exactly how big the engines and rolling stock were, and didn’t want to get very close to the enormous black steam locomotive you can see in the gallery below. She did climb up into some of the passenger cars, though. They had a functioning train on a short loop line, but we didn’t think that was the most effective use of our time, so we just went into the museum to look at a few things. Josephine, of course, was most intrigued by a pamphlet advertising Thomas the Tank Engine, who would be visiting later in the year. We managed to drag her away from there to get an awfully expensive lunch and glance through the gift shop, and then we waved goodbye to the trains and got back on the road.


After a short time we entered Alabama, the first state on our trip that I’d never been through before. My original hope was that we’d get as far as Tuscaloosa, where’d we stop for the night before pushing on towards New Orleans the next day. We realized that a detour to New Orleans would pretty much add an entire 4th day to our travels, so we decided against that, but still managed to reach Tuscaloosa fairly early in the evening because of the time change entering Alabama. We stopped at a Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner, and decided we’d head on towards Meridian, Mississippi, where we once again spent the night at a La Quinta (reward points, y’all!).


The next day we arose early but found that the breakfast was very picked-over and still full of travellers, so we hit up a McD’s on the way out of town and headed west. We stopped in Vicksburg, on the Mississippi River, where we played a bit at a small park and took pictures of neat things at the waterfront (including a big flood levee with marks on it indicating where recent floods had crested). We continued west, but only got to Monroe, Louisiana, before William got antsy, so we stopped in another McDonalds to get a hearty lunch. After that we continued to Shreveport, where we made a gas and potty stop, and Sarah nearly murdered everyone in the gas station because they had no changing tables in either bathroom and she had to change William next to the sink. I have a motto: if a place is so backward that they don’t have a changing table in the men’s room, I do it out in the middle of the establishment in view of as many people as possible, the message being, “Hey, if you don’t like seeing baby dicks, then maybe splurge the few hundo and get a fold-out changing table in the bathroom, idiots.” I keep hoping that a restaurant manager will say something to me about it, but in 6+ years of changing diapers everybody’s pretty much kept mum. Perhaps they know I’ll fling a diaper at them.


Eventually we got into Texas, to the great glee of the younger passengers, who of course didn’t understand why weren’t at Grandma and Grandpa’s yet. (Josephine developed the amusing habit of constantly saying “This is TEXAS?” for nearly two weeks; she couldn’t imagine how we could leave a place, drive for 2-3 hours, reach another place, and not have left the state. That’s a born and raised Delawarean, right there.) I myself experienced great glee when I realized that even the small two-lane roads (I deliberately avoided the interstates because they suck) had 70mph speed limits, aside from the occasional small town. A fully-loaded Mazda CX-9 can still pass slower traffic very effectively, it turns out. Around dinner time, we found ourselves in Crockett, Texas, where we stopped in at a “Whataburger” and had a pretty solid meal and some fine southern hospitality. The hotel options in town consisted of 3-4 really shady trucker motels, and a Holiday Inn Express, which had no vacancy. I don’t know what attracted people to Crockett, TX, on a Sunday in early July, but it apparently was a popular town that weekend. After a few calls I determined that another hotel in Centerville, about an hour west, had space. We went to a Sonic to use their playground and got two cups of truly horrible “coffee” (it was so bad that Sarah actually refused to drink hers…more for me!), and then continued on our way.


We reached Centerville at about 9pm, by which time all the kids were asleep. I pointed out that we were only 2.5-3 hours from Mason; why go to the trouble and expense of staying the night in a hotel when we could just push on while everyone slept and get to our destination around midnight? Sarah agreed, with reservations, so we continued. William, of course, spent the next 90 minutes alternately sleeping and screaming. I stopped on the side of the road near Eddy to pee, and then found myself on I-35 heading south with 75mph speed limits and enough caffeine in my system to give a horse a coronary. I felt like I was steering an X-wing down a canyon on the first Death Star. I’m pretty sure some of the cars behind me were shooting lasers, but I managed to dodge them and keep rolling. Just north of Austin, I continued west, but had to lessen my speed a bit because I kept seeing (or hallucinating) deer on the side of the road. We reached Mason at 11:57pm, at which point of course everyone woke back up and we didn’t get to sleep until after 2am.


William was up early the next morning, which awoke Charles and Sarah; I got up shortly thereafter in time to see Grandpa’s brother, Uncle Fred, come by with Aunt Joan and a whole crew of cousins and dogs and four-wheelers and pickup trucks. Charles hopped on the back of a four-wheeler with his cousin Jacob, and headed off to fish. Josephine slept in for quite some time, which was a blessing to all. Sarah and her mom went into Mason to do Zumba; they returned at the same time as the fishing crew, and I went off with all of them to admire a very large tree that somehow I managed to get no pictures of at all. We had lunch, and then Sarah and her mom went grocery shopping in town. After that we went to Fred and Joan’s to use their lovely swimming pool and eat their watermelon, and then came back to Grandpa’s house for spaghetti dinner and bed.


On Wednesday we started the day with pancakes and sausage (my plan to stick to my Intermittent Fasting diet had been pretty much discarded on day 2 of our trip), and then Charles and I went to do some fishing with a rod and reel that Uncle Fred left for us. The only bait we had on hand were small frogs jumping around by the pond; Uncle Fred caught them by hitting them with his hat, so I did the same, which left annoying mud stains on my bright red Phillies cap. Once stunned, a small frog will not resist much as you stick a hook through it. Oddly, I was not grossed out by this. Charles’s casting skills left much to be desired; within a few minutes he’d managed to catch the hook in my pinky, which didn’t do much damage but which did break the line. I, because I’m an idiot, compounded the problem by trying to pry the lead weight off the broken line with a pocket knife and slicing my left forefinger open at the top. I went back up to get a band-aid and was handed a small mason jar of live katydids by my father-in-law, who advised us to use them as bait, and here I have to admit: I was too much of a wuss. They’re just big grasshoppers, but I couldn’t tell if the big thing on the back was a stinger, or how you could manage to grab just one out of the jar without the rest getting away, so I stuck to frogs, which might pee on you but which didn’t normally bite or sting. We caught no fish.


In the late morning we took the kids back to Fred and Joan’s for a swim, and then went back home for lunch and naps. I was able to go out with the .22LR rifle that Grandpa’d given me for my birthday last winter and demonstrate my excellent sharpshooting skeelz (see evidence below). In the evening, we went to Grandpa’s cousin Joan’s house (a different Joan than his sister-in-law, obviously, but I thought I’d make sure you weren’t confused), where she and her husband Richard had put together a fantastic barbecue meal. Richard takes his BBQ seriously; he has a few of his own smokers, and when he and Joan shoot deer in the fall he makes some of the venison into fantastic smoked sausage, which I ate entirely too much of. They also had nice brisket, and some potato salad, and some of the best dill pickles I’ve ever had. After dinner we enjoyed looking at the stars, and the kids ran around and played with glow sticks.


Next time (hopefully not 3 weeks hence): we visit forts and bat caves, and head to Waco to look for bears and dinosaur tracks.

On gun control.

I’ve got a massive, multiple-day update planned detailing our trip to Texas and back, with pictures and all. (I’m sure you noticed I wasn’t posting on here for like 3 weeks? No? Okay cool then, it’s fine.) But before we get to that I’ve got to say a few words about the latest controversy on gun control, in response to the Aurora shootings last week, organized as a serious of barely connected thoughts:


  • When people talk to me about gun rights, the Second Amendment always gets mentioned, but honestly I don’t even use old Bill O’ Rights #2 when defending gun ownership. Why? Because it can be construed a million ways. Folks insisting that only the militia (which they read as the National Guard, despite the fact that the Militia Act of 1903 is pretty clear that the “Militia” is anyone eligible to be drafted, which means any male between the ages of 17 and 45) should have guns, or insisting that “well-regulated” means that the government should have the right to decree what guns are legal and what aren’t, and the folks on the other side that say “well-regulated militia” is just the rationale behind the amendment, and the real meat of it is the “shall not be infringed” part. Each side defines the text however it best fits their agenda. So frankly I just ignore it. Even if there was no Second Amendment, I still think most everybody should be allowed and encouraged to own guns.

  • When someone is in favor of gun control, I think it’s fair to ask exactly what they intend to accomplish with it. Getting rid of guns is a pointless thing to do unless it serves some greater goal. It’s like banning trans fats. The reason for banning trans fats, of course, is to make food healthier, which leads to healthy people. Healthy people is the real goal, trans fats is just the step that gets you there. So when you want to enact gun control, what you REALLY want are safer people.


    Assuming they want a safer populace, what gun control advocates really have to demonstrate is two-fold: first, does a full or partial ban on guns actually make us safer, and second, is it the MOST EFFICIENT way of making us safer. The second is a little difficult to explain, but let’s say that banning all guns would make Americans safer, as indicated by a drop in violent crime of, say, 2%. (That’s a made up number, just used for this example.) But say that increasing welfare benefits to the under- and un-employed would cost about the same as a gun ban, and would produce a drop in violent crime of, say, 25%, just because a well-fed, healthy population tends to shoot each other less frequently. (Again: made up number.) Wouldn’t the second option be the better idea, just from a cost perspective?


    The first issue is a little more cut-and-dried: John Lott’s studies in the 1990s seem to indicate that communities that enact gun bans see pretty much no drop in crime as a result. In some communities the amount of crime went up, the speculation being that criminals are no longer afraid of encountering armed homeowners during burglaries. So at the very best, gun control SEEMS to be an ineffective way to reduce crime.


  • Another issue is that gun control always seems to come up after a big shooting tragedy, and if you think gun control is ineffective in reducing overall crime, it’s absolutely hopeless in preventing tragedies like we had last week. For example, Germany has fairly strict gun control: a firearms license is required, and to get one you must prove “trustworthiness,” “personal adequacy,” “expert knowledge,” and “necessity.” (“Self-defense is not a recognized ground for necessity, outside the narrow requirements of a carry permit.”) None of this kept the Winnenden School shooting from occurring. The fact of the matter is that unless you can GUARANTEE that no guns are available to anyone anywhere for any reason whatsoever, you can’t guarantee that tragedies won’t happen. And if they aren’t guaranteed to be prevented, it’s just a matter of time before they happen. It sucks that they do, but it’s one of the sad side effects of living in a free society.


    An example: man joins the Marines, goes into a combat zone, sees some horrible things and develops PTSD. However, like most mental issues of that type, he’s able to control and hide it fairly well. He leaves the service, and because of his military experience is able to get a job as a police officer. One day, he snaps. He walks into the police armory, walks out with a variety of semi-automatic weapons, and goes berserk. I don’t say this to disparage the military (although they could probably be doing a better job working on the mental issues of veterans), but to demonstrate that there is no gun control legislation that will absolutely guarantee we don’t see the occasional spree shooting. Make it less frequent, maybe, but honestly they’re so infrequent now that it’s like trying to do something about people dying from lightning strikes.


  • Unfortunately, none of these facts seem to make any difference to gun control advocates, who seem to want to eliminate guns just because they find them scary. Which I find a little terrifying, because that’s exactly the same kind of logic that leads to anti-sodomy laws and the drug war. I mean, if we can outlaw certain types of firearms just because they make folks FEEL safer, it’s hard to argue against initiatives to eliminate gay marriage. In both cases, logic and science are being ignored in favor of feelings and beliefs. Pretty scary thought, for a country that’s supposed to be the freest in the world. It made me think of a fun internet trope I’d seen, which I’m modifying here a bit to reflect what I think is liberal hypocrisy on this subject. (I think my liberal bona fides are fairly well established, so forgive me a little zinger.)


    Don’t like gay marriage? Don’t get one.

    Don’t like abortions? Don’t get one.

    Don’t like drugs? Don’t do them.

    Don’t like sex? Don’t have it.

    Don’t like guns? OMG BAN THEM THEY ARE SO SCARY


  • Another frequently comment I see is along the lines of “Well, guns in general are fine I guess, but we need to get rid of military style assault weapons, nobody needs to have those.” (Nobody needs to have swimming pools either, and a few thousand people a year drown in those, but you never hear of anyone wanting to ban them.) Here’s the big issue: what consistutes a “military-style assault weapon?” The military has access to all kinds of weapons that aren’t available to the general public for purchase, usually because of the fully automatic features. Buying a legal, fully automatic weapon requires a federal license that’s almost impossible to get. It seems as if folks think that anyone can waltz into a gun store and buy exactly the same rifle that soldiers are using in Afghanistan, but that’s just not true.


    So what a currently legal “assault rifle” is, is a semi-automatic rifle. It might have a pistol grip that makes it a little easier to hold and aim, but that’s just about the only thing that differentiates it from a regular semi-auto hunting rifle. So-called “assault weapons” often have larger magazines, but guess what: you can buy a hunting rifle with a big magazine too. You can also buy semi-automatic handguns with large magazines, and honestly if you want to perpetrate a mass shooting, one of those is even better to have because it’s concealable. And as I mentioned above, there’s some evidence that getting rid of defensive handguns actually makes a community less safe. So what you’re doing with a ban is reducing the number of shooting sprees (which are already so rare as to be discounted, statistically) and increasing the number of “everyday” shooting deaths.


    My feeling on the matter is that so-called “assault weapons” just look scary, and so some folks think they should be banned. Which goes to the issue above: just because you’re scared of it, doesn’t mean getting rid of it would actually make anyone safer.


  • Here’s a little thought experiment: take two groups, conservatives and liberals, and show them the movie “Boys n the Hood.” If you haven’t seen it, a quick explanation is that it’s about gangs and violence and what the African American youth experience was like in the 80s and 90s. It’s got a fair amount of shooting in it. After you’re done, ask the two groups about what was responsible for the violence. Now I haven’t done this experiment, but my best guess is that the liberals, who usually haven’t grown up around guns and tend to be leery of them, are going to say that the problem is the guns. I think the conservatives, many of whom grew up around guns and are pretty comfortable with them, are going to say “black people.” Obviously I’ve set up a room full of straw people and I’m laying a lot of racism on them, but I think it demonstrates the kind of irrational fears that I believe are driving most political debates today. And let’s face it, as Jon Stewart once said, not all Republicans are racists. But if you’re a racist, you probably vote Republican.

  • Just as a final note, I’d like to comment that in Switzerland, every male citizen between the ages of 20 and 30 has a fully automatic assault rifle in his home, although admittedly he is no longer required to keep ammunition for it, which seems kinda silly. Still, estimates of the number of military or privately-owned guns in Swiss homes ranges from 1.2 to 3 million, according to Wikipedia, in a country with a population of 8 million. The number of murders in Switzerland in 2010? 53. Also, here’s an interesting tidbit: “Although Brazil has 100 million fewer citizens than the United States, and more restrictive gun laws, there are 25 percent more gun deaths; other sources indicate that homicide rates due to guns are approximately four times higher than the rate in the United States.” Also: “All firearms in Brazil are required to be registered with the state…The total number of firearms in Brazil is thought to be around 17 million with 9 million of those being unregistered.” But restricting gun availability for everyone keeps them out of the hands of criminals! Not so much, it seems.

  • This is probably a little bit “Chicken Little,” but if things continue along their current path, the likelihood of armed confrontation between groups of Americans goes up. Tea Party folks are already showing up at political rallies carrying their guns, to show how “free” they are, and also to make sure we’re all nice and intimidated. I admit a civil war isn’t terribly likely, but it’s hard to rule out. Do we really want the Tea Party “Patriots” to be the only folks who have guns, and know how to use them? Seems like an anti-gun liberal is a guy that’s not paying enough attention to the crazy SOBs running the Republican Party at the moment.

  • In the end, this country is facing a lot of issues at the moment, and I think that gun control is just about the last thing we need to be worried about. The fact is, Americans like guns, and no politician facing a difficult battle this November is going to touch the issue with a ten foot pole. The Supreme Court legalized unlimited, anonymous contributions to political campaigns, and I’d say we’re pretty much screwed unless we can put a stop to that. Right now the political process is bought and paid for, and I’d kinda like to get it back in the hands of Americans instead of corporations. That ain’t happening if we elect a GOP President who’ll pack the Court with conservative appointees, and if President Obama utters even one peep about maybe banning a few assault weapons, we’re almost guaranteed a terrifying Romney administration. As progressives, let’s just drop this gun control nonsense and focus on the important issues, okay?

  • Next time, I’ll get to chit-chattin’ about our Texas trip, which will be much more fun, less argumentative, and probably picture-heavy. Have a solid week, y’all.

A gentle whirr goes silent

I must report a bit of sad news: despite my jury-rigging brilliance, the Hearn family’s venerable Playstation 2 appears to have met its sad but inevitable end.


It had been slowly dying for some time. A year or so ago I had to take most of it apart to clean the disc-reading laser and blow out 9 years of accumulated cat dander and other detritus. Earlier this year, the cooling fan built into it had gotten so noisy that I decided it was time to replace it, so I ordered a new one, popped the case open and put it in. Finally, last week, I noticed that it would occasionally turn itself off. I usually left it running all the time (I subscribe to a relatively-common theory among nerds that electrical devices prefer to actually have electricity flowing through them at all times, and that frequent power-off and -on shortens the life of the device) and I’d come into the room and notice that instead of the blue and green lights indicating the P2, as it was affectionately known, were off, and the red light was on, indicating that the power switch on the back was on, but the OS wasn’t running.


Then I noticed that when playing a game, the cooling fan wasn’t turning on. The poor thing was overheating and powering itself down to keep from melting. So, I took it to the kitchen table, popped it open, and started testing things. A long story short, I determined that the fan itself was fine, but that the system board wasn’t signalling it to turn on for some reason. I should probably have put the poor console out of its misery at that point, but instead I went online and ordered a cheap USB fan to stick to the front.


Then, I read a nerdy article about a fellow who took a similar fan, connected it to a USB cable, and used it to cool his enormous, sweaty forehead during extend sessions of Diablo 3. I realized that the P2 has USB ports on the front, and I have plenty of old USB cables lying about. So, I took the fan out, spliced it and a spare cable together, and plugged it in. Whirrrrrrr! Yay! I reinstalled the fan into the P2, with the fan wires going out and around to the USB connection on the front. Brilliant! Sure, the “boot OS” button didn’t work anymore. But you could simply turn the box off on the back and then press the CD load button to get things to come to life. Sadly, all I had done was delay the inevitable.


Just as I was planning another self-congratulatory post about my ability to hack anything and get it functioning again, I sat down for a few minutes of MLB: The Show last night. Powered the P2 up, inserted the disc, waited for David Wright to appear on my screen so that I could remind him that the Mets suck, and…nothing. Back to the red light. Hm. I ejected and reinserted the disc tray, which booted the OS, but again: down she went. O noes!


P2 came into our lives in January 2003, a highly-appreciated birthday present from Sarah to myself. Our first game together was Tiger Woods 2002. Over many years, we have spent many hours together playing many games of football, baseball, basketball; hundreds of rounds of golf; and slaughtered countless numbers of terrorists, Germans, rival gang members, and prostitutes. P2, we mourn you, and along with you all of the valuable saved games and customized athletes to which you gave life. Requiescat in pace.


Playstation 2, 2003-2012


2003-2012

A place of honor among his friends

McGyverin’ the mower

I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I am a genius. I am like Stephen Hawking and Yogi Berra rolled into one very strange tall gentleman with full use of his various limbs but very bad at sports. So maybe that was a poor simile. Or maybe it was just so smart it broke your brain. Who’s to know? Other than me, of course.


My brilliance was confirmed over the weekend when I attempted to mow my lawn. I have a fairly sizeable patch of property, so a few years ago a got a used riding mower that has taken every ounce of my considerable mechanical skills to keep running. I’ve replaced blades, batteries, and bearings; adjusted pulleys, decks, and brakes; and even managed to keep a tire inflated with that weird green tire patching goo they sell that’s pretty much useless in any automotive application.


I topped off the gas tank, fired the mower up, and pulled it out into the yard, at which point I remembered that a small bungee cord that holds on part of the mulcher had broken and a cover had been lost, such that the mower would throw “mow muffins” all over the place instead of turning them into a fine grass dust. I decided to simply replace the bungee with a piece of clothesline, and since I was going to be fiddling around only inches from the blades, I thought it best to turn the mower off rather than trust the little clutch that disengages the blades. I got the cover tied back on, sat down atop my trusty steed, and turned the key.


Nothing. Not a click. Not a whirr. Not the telltale grinding that indicates a bad starter, not the constant cycling of an engine that’s spinning but just won’t fire up, nothing. Usually when this happens it’s because I’m doing something stupid, like trying to start it in gear with the clutch up, or trying to start it with the blades engaged; Sears is smart AND lawsuit-conscious, so there are a million safety switches to keep you from starting the dang thing in top gear and flying off out of control at a breakneck 5.5mph. But I was satisfying all of them. Brake on, neutral gear, butt firmly weighting down the seat switch, and nothing. There’s a small ammeter on the dashboard that indicated that juice was being delivered somewhere, but where?


I suspected the battery might’ve been shot; I don’t start the thing between October and April, so the batteries tend to lose voltage as they wear out over the winter, but this one was only about 2 months old. After a few minutes of fruitless searching I was unable to locate my electronic multimeter (my genius does not extend to organization; my garage looks like a Katamari exploded in it) so I said to hell with it and decided to just bypass the battery and jump start the mower with my van.


I connected all the cables, turned the key: nothing. I heard a faint “click” when switching to the “running” position, which indicated to me that the mower could draw power if I could just get it going, but turning the key to “start” did nothing. I disconnected the jumper cables from the van and gently touched them together, getting sparks galore, so the battery seemed to be okay. I then had to spend a solid half an hour digging through my horrendously filthy garage to find the multimeter, which I finally located under various bicycle parts and something that smelled suspiciously like a raccoon turd. I stuck it on the battery, which reported 12.35 volts, about what one would expect. The plot, as they say, thickened.


I decided it was time to go inside and do a little research. I have the owner’s manual on my lappy, which includes a helpful schematic that looks like this (click to enlarge):

Complicated!


That looks crazy complicated, but it’s not too bad, particularly if you’re aware that only part of it pertains to actually starting the engine:
Starter circuit

Starter circuit


Basically what it says is that current flows from the battery, through a fuse and an ammeter, and then reaches the ignition switch, which when turned to “start” forwards that current through the clutch/brake sensor (to make sure the clutch is disengaged, and the brake on), then through the “attachment” clutch sensor (to make sure the blades are disengaged), and then to the solenoid, which is a special kind of switch then when fed a small amount of current, allows a much larger amount of current to flow through another circuit and activate the starter. In short, either one of the switches or sensors is broken, or the solenoid is broken. All of which are fairly cheap to replace, except that

  1. They would take 5-6 days to arrive, and

  2. We were having a barbecue on Sunday for which I’d prefer the grass be ankle-high instead of mid-shin.


Faced with the prospect of mowing 2/3 of an acre with a 30″ push mower (which would take 3-4 hours), I had the lightning bolt of genius that characterizes so much of my life: all the solenoid does is let those various switches and sensors tell it what to do, which is supply current to the starter. Theoretically I could just supply the current to the starter by pressing one end of a wire to the positive terminal on the battery, and the other end to the input connection on the starter. So I got some gloves and goggles, and did exactly that. VROOOOOM! It fired right up, and I finished mowing, being careful not to turn the sucker off no matter what.


The dilemma I’m faced with now is, do I order a whole bunch of new switches and sensors and a solenoid ($45), or do I simply get a nice heavy gauge wire and a cool-looking starter button to bypass all that stuff and just get this awesome switch and a thick wire. I think we know the answer.

Aerodynamic improvements

I’ve been talking a while about my fitness and diet regimen (not that I used the word “regimen;” if you have been using the word “regiment” to describe anything but a military unit, you are a stupid-ass), and figured it was time to share a little results in the form of imagery:
Not so fat no mo'.
The new hotness, right? And I’m still about 20 pounds away from my goal.


Quick update on what I’ve been up to vis-a-vis diet: I tried a “Protein Sparing Modified Fast,” which is basically eating nothing but pure protein and green vegetables, leading to a rather dramatic caloric deficit. I was taking in 1400-1500 calories a day, which is well over 1000 calories under what my body needs to just stay alive for 24 hours, and I lost something like 8 pounds in 10 days. Then my body said “Hey, enough of this crap,” and I spent most of this past weekend fighting what amounted to a 2 day migraine. Horrible headache, stomach issues, occasional diarrhea, and an odd sensitivity to heat on a weekend when the daily high was near 90F. Bad times. The only thing that made me feel better was, unsurprisingly, eating, so by Sunday I was having a sandwich or bowl of cereal every few hours just to keep me feeling hale. I gained every ounce of that weight back as my body soaked up water like a sponge. Now I’m back to the infinitely more reasonable LeanGains cut, and plan to stay on it solidly into the fall, at which point I hope to have rockin’ abs and a minor role in a CBS soap opera.