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A Tall Tree in a Tight Spot

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We had the big sumac tree by the front door cut down this morning. “Big” is no exaggeration, either: It was forty feet high, and two feet thick at the ground. (Look carefully and see Carol standing behind it.) It was a bad place for a tree that size, for several reasons. It was messy, and dropped seeds and leaves almost continuously between April and August. That was annoying, but what worried me was triggered by what happened to the guy right next door to the east of us: He had a biggish (but not even that big) mesquite tree snap in half in a windstorm and destroy the pergola over his back patio. I looked at the sumac and calculated what would happen if it lost structural integrity in any direction. If it fell to the west (toward me in the photo) well, ok. Any other direction, and it would take out one or both of two gates, part of our block wall, some or most of the guest room, and some or most of the front entrance, including our stained-glass encrusted front door.

That was a thick tree, probably as old as the original house, which is now 52 years. Some parts of the two main trunks were well over a foot thick, up higher than our roof line. I agonized over the decision, because it was a healthy tree that looked solid as a rock. But it was too close to the house, and even closer to the front gate. So we had a landscape company we knew and trusted come out and take it down. We also had them take down a much smaller mulberry tree that was not healthy. “Not healthy” is putting it mildly. See the photo of the mulberry’s main trunk, below.

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Well, that had certainly been the right call.

The mulberry was quick; they had it down in twenty minutes. The sumac took the rest of the morning. The crew knew very well what was at stake, so it probably took more time than it might have, had it been growing in the middle of the back yard. It came down a chunk at a time, with each chunk tied on a stout rope and steered expertly down to terra firma. Some of the chunks were impressive.

Down, down, down. Then: Six or seven feet above the base of the trunk, the cross-section started to change. Take a look:

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Egad. The damned thing was hollower than the sickly mulberry. After I took this shot, I dug into the chocolate-colored stuff surrounding the void and tore huge chunks out with my fingernails. There were probably three inches of actual wood–sometimes less–forming a 15″ trunk. I wanted to yell into the hole: “Hey, any elves in there? The chipper’s at the curb. Last chance to come out, guys. Bring cookies.”

Any regrets we had taking down the tree vanished the instant we saw this. Sure, there was solid wood all the way around. But consider the lever-arm torque on the tree trunk if a really bad west wind hit the tree’s canopy. Crunch! We could have been out our front entranceway.

There’s a downside to losing that tree: It provided considerable shade to the house in the worst of the summer. My electric bills are probably going to go up.

The major lesson in all this is that we assume trees are immortal, but they’re not. Trees live for some period of time, and then they die. The typical lifespan of a sumac like ours is 30-50 years. We were already past that. The rot at its core was nothing worse than old age. I remember when I was a kid, and the cottonwood trees in the parkway on Clarence Avenue all started to die at once. The city had planted them, six to a block on both sides of the streets, when they platted the neighborhood in 1929. But once the market crashed, nobody wanted to build homes there until the last of the 1940s, when the trees were already twenty years old. By 1960, the cottonwoods were over thirty years old, which is pretty much end-of-life for that species of tree. Just about every one was hollow enough to hold a whole bakery’s worth of elves, including a few really fat ones. My sister remembers that one of them on another street fell on a house and did some serious damage, and since the parkways belonged to the city, wham! Hundreds of cottonwoods vanished in a couple of years.

A postscript: Our cottonwood was the last one on the street to go. When we saw the logs stacked up, we realized that it was solid to the core. So trees have bell curves too. Bummer.

Anyway. We have plenty of other trees, none of them (thankfully) quite that close to the house. We have a gorgeous Aleppo pine in the front yard, outside the wall, that may exceed fifty feet high. Google tells me Aleppo pines typically live for 150 years. If I ever feel the need to hug a tree, well, I’m going with that one.

Fighting the Time Bandits…

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…not to mention the energy bandits. I didn’t always have trouble with those.

So. I have not abandoned Contra, am not dead nor even injured. (I took some skin off one of my toes in Hawaii.) I don’t know that I can manage a detailed entry today, but I’m not sure I’ve ever gone a month without posting here. I’ve done a little better on Facebook, but that has mostly been posting interesting links and maybe a little commentary.

Like, f’rinstance, the Sun has gone to sleep, and has been asleep now for twelve days. For ten of those twelve days, even the solar plages went missing, and I generally don’t see that. Yesterday I started to see some plages again, so I’m guessing we’ll see some spots in the next few days. It’s remarkable for this to happen just two years after a solar maximum, poor limp excuse for a maximum that it was. We’re certainly seeing a much quieter Sun than we’re used to. What that means is impossible to know right now. I doubt we’re sliding into a new Ice Age, though it’s fascinating to speculate…and one of the reasons we may not be is that we have a little more CO2 in the atmo to keep things warm.

The cool part (as it were) is that I will probably live long enough to see if a weaker solar cycle has any measurable effect on climate. (I won’t be 90 until 2042, and I certainly intend to live at least that long.)

So. The reason I’ve been so strapped is this: When we packed the house last December so we could winter over in our new house in Phoenix, we packed what we needed, and left everything else in Colorado. Now we have to empty the house except for some furniture and knicknacks for staging.

What was startling was how much was left after we extracted what we needed.

There’s a lesson in that somewhere, and if I had time I’d dig for it. Instead, Carol and I are doing triage on an enormous amount of stuff, packing and labeling the keepers and hauling the discards to whoever will take them. I’m making a salvage run to the metal yard later this week with a couple of ’50s chrome kitchen chairs with the padded panels removed, a couple of ’70s folding chairs ditto, a ’50s charcoal grill, a ’50s stepstool, some odd steel scrap, and about ten pounds of copper wire and other odd copper/brass items. I’m selling furniture and our gas grill on Craigslist. We’re shredding twenty years of odd bills and recycling several boxes of old magazines that somehow escaped the heave-ho last year. Almost all back issues of the Atlantic are now online, so I don’t need to keep paper mags, even the ones tagged with significant articles. (The Atlantic used to have a lot more of those in the ’80s and ’90s than they do today.)

Solar Panel 300 Wide.jpgCarol’s packing glassware and kitchen and office stuff and much miscellany. I have to get rid of a solar panel that I cobbled up in 1977 from six 6-cell subpanels that doesn’t work anymore, and I would like to investigate the peculiar failure mode if I had time: When first placed in the Sun it generates 17 volts, but over a period of no more than five minutes the voltage drops down under 10 volts and eventually to 5. It hasn’t been in the Sun at all these past 40 years…so what died? I’m curious, but not curious enough to keep it and do exploratory surgery on it.

The kicker, though, is this: No sooner did we get back from our Hawaii vacation than I was sent the PDF proofs of my six chapters of Learn Computer Architecture with the Raspberry Pi. That’s 100,000 words and 90 hand-drawn technical figures. I have to read them closely, because I’ve already spotted typos that were not present in the edited manuscript ARs. Somebody, somewhere changed “Jack Kilby” to “Jack Kelby.” The inventor of the integrated circuit deserves better. I may be the last line of defense against stuff like that, so I have to read slowly and pay complete attention. Also, don’t get me started on example code. Whitespace is significant in Python…and for what, Lord? To torment typesetters and technical editors?


We’re still trying to schedule some essential work, like having an epoxy coating put down on the new garage floor, getting all the outside windows washed, and having the carpets and drapes cleaned. So, evidently, is everyone else in Colorado Springs. Want to make good money? Forget your Grievance Studies degree and go into carpet cleaning.

By now you may be getting the idea. I turned 64 on the 29th, and am feeling every day of it. I’m desperate to do some new SF (so desperate that I’ve started writing country-western songs in my head while schlepping boxes) and that’s not going to happen for awhile.

The bad news is that this isn’t going to be over any time real soon. End of July, I hope. But if the house keeps vomiting up weird stuff that we didn’t have to deal with last time, all bets are off. Your best bet is to watch Facebook, as I allow myself fifteen minutes of online time during the day.

I’ll be back. (Didn’t somebody else say that? Oh, yeah: I used to have some 75 ohm terminators, but they’re long gone.) I haven’t been doing this for 18 years only to stop now.

Shoveling Heavy Metal

I literally didn’t know that it was Earth Day until the metal recycler guy thrust a bright green T-shirt in my hands. I had just sold them $77 worth of metal, and on Earth Day they were giving away T-shirts. He invited us to stay for their free Earth Day barbecue, but I had to decline: I was still shoveling.

I missed Earth Day mostly because I was shoveling. That morning I had shoveled close to 300 pounds of metal into the back of the Durango. About 30 pounds of that was bronze and copper, and another 100 or so was aluminum. The rest was iron and steel.

My scrap metal collection is legendary; why did I let so much of it get away? Easy: I dumped the stuff that wasn’t likely to be useful. Chunks of pure copper don’t machine well. Brass is way better–I wasn’t giving away any brass. The bronze was a sort of special case. Carol’s dad had given me several husky bronze Acme-threaded bearing brackets that once gripped a lead screw from some very large but long-dead surface grinder. Each one was bigger than my fist. I’d been staring at them (and carting them from state to state) since the early 1980s, and never came up with a use for them. In the cause of The Duntemann Ensmallening, I decided to trade them in for something much more useful: cash.

Ditto the aluminum, most of which consisted of aluminum grinding wheels from very large but (probably) long-dead surface grinders. The largest were 24″ in diameter and 5/8″ thick. All had once had a coating of fine diamond abrasive on their edges, suitable for the grinding of carbide dies, which was what Carol’s dad did for a living. When the diamond coating got thin at any spot along the edge, the wheel was swapped out for a new one and scrapped.

He gave me a lot of them.

I did keep a few, and I have used a couple in the last 35 years, especially the smaller, 8″ diameter ones. The rest of the aluminum pile was odd stuff I’d picked up cheap at hamfests in the 42 years I’ve been going to hamfests. As for the steel, well, it consisted of odd and generally rusty chunks that used to be frames for chairs, lamp base weights, a beat-to-hell surface plate, and several 3′ lengths of badly galvanized (and now corroding) 1″ threaded rod that I no longer remember obtaining at all. 1″ threaded rod is stock at Artie’s Ace Hardware in Phoenix, and I don’t have to scrub the rust off of theirs. Out it went.

I’m probably due for another Advil. There’s a hard deadline for emptying the garage utterly: On May 4 the jackhammers will show up to take out our crumbling garage slab. Much of what I will be doing between now and then will be shoveling. Tomorrow I’ll shovel a load of ancient computers, computer accessories, dead cordless phones, ratty computer speakers, and cables (RCA / VGA / parallel etc) into the car to take up to Best Buy for recycling. I still have to Craigslist my small workbench and figure out how to con somebody into taking a middling list of dead or limping radio gear, including my Kenwood TS-520S (blew out its balanced modulator) a WWII Navy MAB receiver, condition unknown, and a Heathkit HW-22A that’s immaculate but may or may not work. (I bought it cheap at an estate sale, sans cables.) Most regretted may be my Hammarlund HQ-145X general-coverage receiver, which was my SWL radio in college and later my Novice receiver. It always had a few quirks, and probably has a couple of bad tubes, as it doesn’t bring much in anymore. (I haven’t had it opened up in 30 years or so.) Alas, the Hammarlund is enormous, and does nothing that my IC-736 doesn’t already do, in a third the space. I’ll miss it, I guess. But that’s what an Ensmallening is all about.

I’m going to ask $75 for the whole pile and see what happens. I could probably have gotten more for them by selling each item individually, but it would be a bad use of my time, considering all the shoveling that still has to be done.

I may try to foist a few things off on my hapless partygoers at our nerd party next Saturday. We still have a Midcentury Modern steel stepstool, decorated with drips of every color known to Sherwin Williams, and a “flying saucer” charcoal grill from the ’50s. Beyond that, what’s left is lumber scraps and useless crap that’s going out on the curb this Wednesday, if I can force myself to keep shoveling.

No ifs. Shovel I must, and shovel I will, until the Ensmallening is done.


Carol and I just got back from two weeks in Phoenix, in a house rented through VRBO. We had intended to scout out neighborhoods as part of a long-term project to buy a winter place down there. We had a daily routine: After breakfast, we threw QBit and Aero in the car and headed over to one of the local parks. (Jack and Dash don’t travel as well, so we boarded them with Grandma Jimi.) After the dogs had had enough, we got back in the car and cruised the surrounding neighborhood, noting details we would otherwise have breezed past, including For Sale signs. That night we looked up all the For Sale signs on Zillow. The next day we looked at the map and chose a different park. Lather, rinse, repeat.

On Day 2 we paused to watch a ball game of some sort, played by a crew of East Indian guys. It almost looked like baseball, and then it hit me: Cricket! I had never seen a cricket game before. I have no idea what the rules are, and I wasn’t used to seeing the pitcher bounce balls off the ground on the way to the batter. Maybe it was just that they were on a deadline or something, but the game went a great deal faster than baseball. (I’m not alone in thinking that baseball is too slow to be interesting.) So is there sandlot cricket? I’d even be willing to try that.

On Day 3 we ran into a woman walking her little dog (which I think is a dashuahua) and after talking briefly about dogs we asked her if she lived in the neighborhood and what she thought of it. She did, and told us about it, and when we said we were interviewing neighborhoods for a winter place, she let slip that she was a realtor. So although we hadn’t really intended to look at individual properties this trip, she clearly knew what she was talking about, and we spent much of the rest of our two weeks touring homes on large lots in a rectangle bounded by Hayden, Greenway, Tatum, and Shea.

One of them truly called to us, and we looked it over carefully. It has a PV solar array that can put out 5000 watts in peak sun, a fenced pool, and (critically) no stairs. A little pricier than we’d like, but then again, what isn’t? So we’re still researching it and chasing down financing. Besides, I’d have to have another workshop scratchbuilt. Have done that twice now, so a third time would be no big deal. Or so I hope.

We’ll be back there later this year and will pick up the quest again.

A marksman friend of mine drove out from California so we could punch some holes in calibrated cardboard up at the Ben Avery Shooting Range near Cave Creek. We pumped about 150 rounds total, first at 25 yards (with a .22 rifle) and then at 100 yards, with his AR-15. I did a reasonably good job, and got ten rounds into a 3 1/2″ circle at 100 yards with the AR-15, including two in the 1 1/4″ bullseye circle. The range was so crowded that several .38 rounds from other people hit our targets. (They probably struck the ground and got turned to one side or the other by hitting a rock.) There was a miserable crosswind, and I’m far from a marksman, so I’m satisfied with what I did.

It was the first long trip we took in our new 2014 Durango. That car is so comfortable that I could credibly describe it as a Barcalounger with a V8. It’s about 840 Interstate miles, and we split the run at Grants, New Mexico. I forgot to write down the average mileage for the trip down, but for the trip back it was 24.5 MPG, which I thought was pretty good for a thing this size cruising at 75-80 MPH.

Why do I want a place in Phoenix? We lived there for 13 years and considered the weather good for nine months out of the year. Then we moved to Colorado, and consider the weather good about six months out of the year. Colorado winters are getting worse, and (sorry, Certain People) based on my research I’m betting against global warming. Besides, I miss swimming pools.

I found something interesting in the pile of held mail that I brought home yesterday. More on that tomorrow.

Odd Lots

  • The University of Utah has a fascinating animation demonstrating the relative sizes of very small things. Starting at the scale of a coffee bean, you can zoom down by pushing a slider past single cells, various viruses, proteins, until you reach the carbon atom. Won’t take but a minute, and has plenty of wow factor, especially if you can’t picture things clearly at nanoscale.
  • For all the beautiful weather and the fact that school was out, this year’s Halloween saw no trick-or-treaters here on Stanwell Street until almost 5 PM. Summer from around the corner and her third-grade friends arrived in a mob at 6:30, and Dash got plenty of girl-attention, but that mostly exhausted the supply of local grade-schoolers. A few young teens came by between 7 and 8, but that about was it. The neighborhood has a fair number of teens, but we were told they were all having at-home parties, and we’re good with that, though I have a mass of Milk Duds here that would probably go critical if placed in a single sufficiently large bowl.
  • Carol and I went over to our next-door neighbors later in the evening. Carol wore her footie jammies and put her hair up in huge 70s rollers. I cobbled up a Ben Franklin outfit that wasn’t half bad, and I carried the small pink kite tethered to a balloon stick with about two feet of string. When we walked in, the guy down the street commented, “Lost some weight, huh Ben?” “Yup,” I replied. “Low-carb and all that.”
  • Want to haunt a house? Hire a team of scientists and an architect. Real ghosts just never show up for work when you need them.
  • This is the smallest packaged PC I have ever seen. Not worthwhile, given that it lacks digital audio out, is Atom-based, and stuck on Ubuntu 8.04 (!!) but it is small.
  • And if you’ll settle for something only a little bit bigger, the AOpen MP45D will do a lot more.
  • I may have linked to this once years ago, but it’s worth running through again: The Museum of Unworkable Devices, which is bestiary of perpetual motion machines, with careful explanations of why they don’t work. Lots of links to even more of the same.
  • NASA has calculated the “average color of the universe“…and it’s the color of my livingroom walls! (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Finally, don’t forget the contest I posted yesterday once it goes down under the fold! Keep those shortie filk schticks coming!

The Last 290 Miles…

…were without incident, but not without irritation: Virtually the entire 200 miles to Denver I had to fight a 30 MPH crosswind, and I was very glad that our good bright sun had dried out the roads before we left Ogallala at 11:00 AM. QBit started getting kennel fever in the great big featureless nowhere that I-76 crosses in northeast Colorado, and Carol had to put him in her lap to keep him from chewing a leg off.

We took a short detour up to Lake McConaughy before setting out this morning, and found that the lake is now two feet higher than we’ve ever seen it, and higher in fact than it’s been since the now-fading drought got serious in 2001. Whatever’s been eating Nebraska’s climate seems to have gotten fixed somehow, and since our atmospheric CO2 level has kept increasing all the while, I can only conclude that–gasp!–climate changes all by itself, in ways that we simply can’t predict because, like the Wizard of Oz admitted in the basket of the Omaha State Fair balloon, we don’t know how it works.

Anyway. The short form is that we’re back in Colorado Springs, where last Thursday’s blizzard shows a bare few remnants in habitual shadows but has otherwise melted into the soil. The house smells like plasticizers (as it always does when we’re gone for a month) but the plants survived, and although we’re exhausted and will be digging out for a day or two, the trip is over and I can get back to work on the book. I’m a little late with Chapter 8, but I’m now 105,000 words in (of about 175,000 words total) and I suspect I’ll make the rest of the deadlines with a little scrambled eggs and caffeine.