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Something’s Burning…

Like, Colorado Springs.

Ok. First of all, Carol and I are fine. We’re fine in part because we’re not yet back in Colorado Springs. We’ve been in Chicago for three weeks and might have stayed a little longer, but then friends started to call and email asking, “Are you near the fire?”

Egad. I don’t talk much about being away until we’re back, so apart from locals few people knew we were not in Colorado. Once it became clear that the fire was no quick or small matter, we got things in order as best we could and started the long trip west. We’ll be home some time tomorrow.

Our house is about 11 miles SSE of the Waldo Canyon fire and does not appear to be in immediate danger. Jimi Henton is there with Aero and Jack, and we’re in regular touch with her. Over the last two days, the fire’s perimeters have moved mostly north and east. 30,000 people have been evacuated already (including several of our friends and even Michelle Malkin) and things are a stupendous mess.

More than this I can’t tell you until we get there. Stand by.

Packing the Deck

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The Springs got hit by near-hurricanic winds last night, stronger than I’ve seen since the infamous New Year’s Day storm in 2004 that threw a piece of the back fence of our rental house through the window, and demolished a nearby house that was under construction. We don’t have a fence here, and the roof shingles are concrete, so as best I know the house itself took no hits. However, the wind howled all damned night with a fury that suggested 80-90 MPH sustained gusts. I have wanted a weather station here from time to time. This morning, I want one a lot more than I did yesterday.

We looked out on the back deck when we got up and found that our gas grill and all of our deck furniture had been tightly packed onto the south end of the deck. There was some snow, but it had been blown around and drifted so heavily that it was tough to tell just how much. (I’m guessing 2″.) What was there was wet and very dense, suggesting that we might have had 10″ or more this morning had the temps been ten or fifteen degrees colder during the night.

I’m still under spousal orders to stay in bed as much as possible, and probably will until this terrible cough goes away. (My chest has gone into it-hurts-to-breathe-too-much mode, suggesting that the cough will pass away sometime this afternoon. It had better.)

How much wind does it take to do that? Yikes! I’ve stopped thinking about a weather station and have started shopping. If you have any recommendations, I will enthusiastically hear them.

Dare I Believe It?

I remember a sunny Monday morning in early June, 1974. Classes had ended at DePaul University the previous Friday, and I would graduate the following Saturday. Since entering kindergarten in September 1957, I had been going to school from September to June, and repeating the cycle again the following September. It was literally the only life I knew. School for nine months, vacation for three months. Lather, rinse, repeat. But wait, I thought–not only do I not have to go to school today, I never have to go to school again.

Dare I believe it? I was done.

It shook me to the core.

I remembered that feeling last night, after the burly young men packed all the scraps and fuzz and staples and things out the front door and roared off in their Ford van. I looked around at our lower level. Slab. Plumbing. Tile. Paint. Carpeting. Linoleum. It’s all there, functional and gorgeous. Things that had been breaking or leaking or cockeyed (or just plain plug-ugly) for several years were now as they should be. We were done.

Wow. This project was starting to feel like a way of life. I will confess that by June of 1974 I was getting tired of going to school. I was tired of getting ready. I wanted to dive in and get some things done, which I did. (Two weeks later I got a job at Lafayette Radio fixing burned-out stereos, portable radios that somebody’s kid had thrown up in, CBs that some dork had hooked to a TV antenna, etc.) I am long past ready to have my workshop and exercise room back, and a guest room for nephew Matt and his lady Justine to stay in when they visit next month.

Ok. I admit that it’s really not quite sincerely done. We now have a beautiful, empty lower level. There is one more job for burly young men to do: drag all the furniture out of the furnace room, the unfinished bedroom, and the odd corners of my workshop and put it back where it belongs. I guess I then have to unpack 1,000 books and re-shelve them.

No biggie. That’s just rearranging things I already have. The hard stuff, the stuff that had to be chosen, matched, paid for, delivered, and glued to the floor or slobbered on the walls, that’s all done.

Which is simply to say that it’s a big hearty Deo gratias and the dawn of the first day of the rest of our lives. Oh, and note to self: Our next house will not be on the side of a mountain.

Odd Lots

  • For the several people who asked: The odor-free carpet pad that we used in carpeting the lower level here is called Napa Carpet Cushion, from Leggett & Platt.
  • Apart from N&P’s Fallen Angels, Bob Tucker’s Ice and Iron, and possibly Mackelworth’s Tiltangle, what other SF novels involve an ice age on Earth in the near(ish) future? I have a concept that capitalizes on all my recent paleoclimate research, and I’d like to see if it’s already been done.
  • Whoops, found a list just before posting this. I clearly have some reading to do, assuming I can find any of these items. What are your personal favorites?
  • Today’s sunspot number is very close to zero. I haven’t seen sunspot activity this low in some time, and here we are supposedly barreling into the Cycle 24 maximum. The sunspot number is going in the wrong direction. 6M DX is evidently not in my immediate future.
  • Joe Flamini and Jack Smith are both pretty sure that the mysterious Comco gizmo I presented in my February 6, 2012 entry is an early remote control unit for commercial and public service radio systems, allowing control of a transmitter or repeater through leased phone lines. More on this in a future entry.
  • Having read briefly about hydraulic analog computing in a magazine decades ago, I built hydraulic calculators and computers into the technological background for my novel The Cunning Blood. Turns out the Russians did it on a pretty large scale back in the years running up to WWII. (Thanks to Jim Strickland for the link.)
  • From the You-Probably-Couldn’t-Do-That-Today Department: The flipside of the Chad Mitchell Trio’s 1963 hit kid/Christmas 45 “The Marvelous Toy” was “The Bonny Streets of Fyve-I-O, about a colonel who shoots one of his own captains for insubordination.
  • Tucows (does anybody even remember Tucows?) is launching a contract-free mobile service using Sprint’s network. The rates are interesting, and favor people who want smartphones but just don’t use them much, and data little or not at all.
  • The Maker Shed has a $99 Geiger counter kit that allows logging of pulses through a serial port, and detects both beta and gamma radiation.
  • A little gruesome maybe, but it’s real: When we lived in California in the late ’80s, there were reports of sneakers washing up on Santa Cruz area beaches…with human feet still inside them. At the time we assumed drug violence, but there’s a less scurrilous if no less ghastly explanation for a phenomenon that’s still happening. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Mmmph. Military combat aircraft should be able to fly in more air than we’re used to, no? Sweden had this problem recently. (I’m guessing that Saab has it too, now.) Thanks to Aki Peltonen for the link.
  • The name of my company, Copperwood Media, LLC, was inspired by a set of traces on an old PCB that just happened to look (a little) like a tree. I had an artist draw me a better copper tree for the logo, way back in 2000. Now Rich Rostrom sends a link to the odd tradition in some parts of the UK of hammering coins into cracks in trees until the notion of “copperwood” takes on a whole new meaning.
  • Some very nice steampunk watches and jewelry. “Chronambulator” is a great word, whether or not you’ve got a steampunk gizmo to hang it on. Note also the level-reading absinthe hip-flask. (Thanks to Bill Cherepy for the link.)

Smelling (Or Not Smelling) Victory

CarpetPad500Wide.jpg

As I posted on Facebook last night:

My family room now has a floor
And some fancy new tile by the door;
Though it took sixty days
We both knew patience pays–
Now it’s all that we’d hoped for and more!

Yesterday was Floor Coverings Day here. The poem doesn’t quite capture it. All of the lower level areas that were once carpeted were re-carpeted, and that includes two good-sized bedrooms, the hall, the big stairs, and our 20′ X 20′ family room. The total carpeted area is just under 900 square feet. Much of our original carpeting was pulled up or otherwise destroyed when we had the lower-level slab mudjacked back in December. The rest was torn up and carried out yesterday morning, along with a great deal of carpet padding, some tack strips that had gotten in the way of construction, and assorted trash that sure seemed like it came out of nowhere.

It took a little over seven hours, but the new padding was laid and then the carpet put down atop it. The stairs represented a great deal of fussy work, as was getting things cut just so for the closet insets and odd corners. We think it’s gorgeous. It’s much better carpet than what the contractor put down when we built the house in 2003. It matches the wood trim a lot better, and with some top-of-the-line padding underneath it, you feel like you’re walking on a firm mattress.

So we smell victory on the remodeling front. Things aren’t completely done. The roll vinyl for what we call the Harry Potter Closet (a huge-ish volume under the main stairs) was back ordered, and we may not get it laid until next week. But once that’s in, the construction is basically done. After that, I hire movers to put the furniture back where it was, and then start emptying 1,000-odd books out of boxes onto the shelves.

Why did it take so long? We smelled vectory when we didn’t smell it, basically. As anyone who’s worked with carpet should know, not smelling carpet and (especially) carpet padding is nontrivial. Our lower level stank of carpet pad plasticizers for a couple of years, and plasticizers are one of Carol’s migraine triggers. We looked at countless carpet samples, and the first thing we did when we laid hands on any sample was sniff it. If it stank of solvents or anything else, interview over.

This was a problem with carpeting. Our eventual choice was pure nylon and doesn’t smell enough to be an issue. The problem was a great deal worse with carpet padding. A lot of padding is made of chopped-up scrap padding salvaged from subdivision-scale construction, and to make it all stick together, well, they use solvents. Even what might appear to be new padding is plastic foam, and plastic is just polymers in solvent. They stink.

This was our major issue, and we said so. A number of carpet vendors did not take us at all seriously. I had to be a major hard-ass, which is against nature for me and requires practice. I got lots of practice: “This pad smells.” All padding smells. “This pad smells too much.” Padding that doesn’t smell is more expensive. “Brings us samples of what you have that smells less.” We have to order the samples. “Then order them.” It’ll take two weeks. “Good-bye.”

We shopped for almost a month. The pad we chose is some sort of unobtanium pseudo memory foam that looks like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s purple, sheesh, and has a gray-lavendar impermeable film on both sides. It’s also a far better insulator than most carpet pad, and given that it’s basically sitting on a slab of concrete resting on the Colorado soil, that did matter. At the carpet store, we held it up to our noses, and when we realized that we couldn’t tell whether it was the pad that we smelled or just the general reek floating around in the store, we knew that we’d found it. We took a sample with us, and when we got it home we realized it didn’t smell at all. I don’t know how they did that.

Don’t care. Sold! It was interesting that the stink-free is warranteed for longer than the carpet itself. That was fine; dogs are hard on carpeting. Hell, ordinary life is hard on carpeting. If in another ten years the carpet starts looking sorry, we’ll have it pulled up and get new carpeting. That pad, now, well. It stays.

So. Slab is where it’s supposed to be. Paint’s done. Tile’s done. Plumbing repairs done. Carpet’s done. Victory is one small roll of back-ordered vinyl flooring away. I can almost smell it.

Another Elfa Closet Done

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The rehab of our lower level continues apace. The tile guys finished up today, replacing the tile around the tub and some floor tile that was damaged by the mudjacking last month. The grout has to cure for another week and the toilet has to be re-set, but the tub no longer leaks. Shortly we will have a guest bathroom again.

The painters begin their work on Monday. We haven’t ordered the new carpeting yet, so the carpeting won’t be replaced for probably another three weeks. In the meantime, there are plenty of odd jobs to be done down there, and yesterday I dove in on one of them: my workshop closet. I’ve been planning an Elfa buildout in that closet for literally years, but it hadn’t bubbled to the top of the stack until recently. To replace the crappy shelves I had in there with Elfa I first had to empty the closet completely, and there was nowhere to stack its contents until I was forced by the mudjacking to clear the eastern ten feet of my shop space. That in itself was an adventure in strength training; QST may be the only magazine in creation denser than National Geographic.

So last week I hauled hundreds of pounds of parts, tubes, sound boards, unfinished project lashups and much other junque out of the closet and stacked it in the newly empty space where those QSTs had been. And yesterday, level and cordless screwdriver in hand, I got the Elfa installed.

Elfa is a steel shelving system made in Sweden, built like a battleship and priced accordingly. As best I know it’s an exclusive from The Container Store chain here in the US. It’s based on a horizontal track mounted high (ideally in studs) from which vertical tracks are suspended. The vertical tracks are not fastened into the wall at all, so can slide side-to-side for fine adjustment. (Mine is biased four inches to the right.) There are several major styles (closet, kitchen, office, garage) and all kinds of interesting bits that click into the tracks. It’s basically a Meccano set for shelving.

I’ve used it twice before, in our upstairs office closet, and across two thirds of the back wall of our garage. It takes a little practice to get good at it, but there’s nothing especially subtle about the system. It was breathtaking to see just how much clutter we were able to scoop up off the garage floor and shovel onto the shelves.

Yesterday I filled an 88″ wide closet with a six-foot shelf bank, leaving a little room on each side for specialty storage for things like brooms, vac wands, and mobile antennas, including a full set of Hustler RM-series loading elements. The Elfa system includes pull-out bins, one of which I bought to see how useful it might be. Having filled it with plastic scraps, I’ve decided that it’s very useful, and on my next trip to Denver will get two more.

ElfaBin500Wide.jpg

I’m still switching shelves around and moving them up and down to get a sense for the spacing, and may put a couple more 2′ shelves on the right side to make space for things more horizontal than vertical, like homebew lashups. That said, I’ve already re-shelved most of the stuff I’d pulled out of there last week, and still have almost twelve shelf-feet of completely empty space. As wins go, it was a biggie.

Highly recommended.

Basement Hydraulics

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Talk about a weird feeling: I stood downstairs in one of the bedrooms after the mudjacking crew had drilled six 1 3/4″ holes through the 6″ slab and down almost two feet into the soil. They stuck a hose as thick as my arm through each of the holes in turn, forcing liquid concrete into the soil. Once all the holes had gotten a dose, the hose was moved to a hole near the north wall, and the crew boss pressed the pump button once, twice, three times.

I watched as the slab rose smoothly, almost half an inch in the space of two seconds. Whoa.

It’s been a messy, dusty, ad-hoc sort of project. In summary: They drill a number of holes through the slab. (In our case it was seventeen.) They pump liquid concrete (“mud”) through a hose into the soil and/or voids under the slab. The voids fill up as the soil rises beneath the slab. Eventually, with no more voids to fill, the pressure of the liquid concrete lifts multiple tons of concrete slab back to where it was before it began to sink. The liquid concrete stabilizes the soil beneath the slab, and with some luck we won’t see the slab settle again.

There were a few weirdnesses. Here and there liquid concrete forced itself up between the slab and the stem walls (and out of a few of the holes as well) like a glistening blob in a third-shelf horror movie. The bathtub didn’t quite return to its former position and may have to be pulled and re-set.

Still, as best we can tell, the operation was a success and the patient not only survived but rose from the dead. There’s much mess down there still, with plastic taped up all over the place and my fiction and magazine stacks all boxed and inaccessible, but the flaw that precipitated the whole business has at least been dealt with. Given that we had to empty the rooms completely, we decided to pull the carpet and replace it. And with the carpet gone, there’s no reason not to re-paint. Carol has been meeting with decorators. I’m designing a new layout for the furniture. It will have been a huge amount of work (and way, way too much money!) but when we’re done, the lower level will look very good.

More on the project as it happens. The wind you heard through the pines last night, however, was a massive sigh of relief.

Last Night Was a Gas

Yes, last night was a gas. (Do people still say that?) It really was. And I didn’t much enjoy it.

Here’s the story: It was 6:45 PM. We were done with dinner, dishes washed, everything put away. I was back in my office and had begun to scan Facebook. I heard a noise. It sounded like one of the pop-up sprinkler risers when you first turn it on and water is driving the air out: A steady hiss, but loud. Anomalously loud; almost an embryonic roar. I was inside. The risers are all outside. I heard it very clearly. And so I went out the front door to take a look.

The roar was startling–at least on our quiet street, where almost any loud noise is startling. It was coming from the lowest level of the landscaping terraces to the south of our front door, right below my office windows, where the control box and pipes for the sprinkler system are located.

Something obviously broke somewhere. But where was the spraying water? I picked my way around the terraces and hopped down to the lowest level where the pipes were–and the reek of ethyl mercaptan almost knocked me over. The roar was coming from the street feed riser pipe where it met the gas meter. I passed my hand along the riser pipe and felt a strong jet of what suggested compressed air coming from the pipe joint at the meter. It took a moment for the truth to hit me: methane was roaring out of our gas feed at 30 PSI. I hadn’t smelled it because the wind was from the north and the gas meter is near the south end of the house.

The pipe looked as though someone had tried to cut it with a knife. It was still attached to the meter coupling but the metal had opened up where the threads began, to leave a gap at least 3/8″ wide. I only gave myself a second to think WTF? Then I remembered my father’s lessons. He worked for the Chicago natural gas utility his entire career, as an industrial engineer. He knew methane all the way down. He enjoyed ridiculing the vague statements in my kid astronomy books describing Jupiter’s atmosphere as consisting of “poisonous ammonia and methane gas.” Methane gas isn’t poisonous the way ammonia or even carbon monoxide is. However–it burns. That’s its job. Get enough of it in one place, and it blows up.

Carol had followed me out the door when I told her I thought the sprinkler system had erupted again. I called up from the terrace that we had a gas leak, a huge big honking might-as-well-be-an-open-pipe gas leak. I climbed back up the terrace walls in a helluva hurry, and while she threw leashes on the dogs I grabbed the cordless and dialed 911.

The call itself took maybe thirty seconds, and the operator handled it with an icy coolness that I greatly admire. She got the address and called the fire department. Then she told us to make sure no one was still in the house, and then move upwind of the leak by 300 feet.

We’re only a few blocks from the Farthing fire station. The truck was pulling up three minutes later. The firemen took one look at the leak (which you could hear over the rumble of the fire truck’s engine, egad) and started unrolling hoses over to the hydrant. That was a little unnerving, but one came over and explained: The pipe break was on the street side of the main, so flipping the shutoff valve on the gas meter would do nothing. They had already called for another truck with more specific equipment, but in the meantime they wanted hoses at ready in case the methane ignited.

We stood and watched. A second truck came by about ten minutes later, followed by a truck from the gas utility. They carefully cut the pipe (I couldn’t see precisely how it was done) and put a cap on it. They went through the house and opened all the windows. The fire trucks left soon after, but the utility techs worked until almost 11:00PM digging under the riser pipe to find the street feed. The riser has to be replaced, so there will be more digging. In the meantime, they ran a stiff coiled yellow plastic gas hose from the street side of our next-door neighbor’s gas meter.

So what happened? The utility guys had seen it before: The ground under the gas meter has been settling ever since we built the house eight years ago, pulling the natural gas riser pipe down with it. The gas meter was off-level, and has been for years. I never gave it much thought. The riser pipe pulled down on the gas meter until stresses on the riser pipe caused it to break at its thinnnest point, the threads.

We’ve had subsidence problems here for years. So not only did the settling destroy one sidewalk (which was replaced) and then mangled my driveway, it almost blew the place up. There’s a lesson here: If your gas meter isn’t level, the riser pipe may be pulling it down as the soil settles. If the riser is pulled downward enough, the pipe will crack. I’m a little amazed that the gas utility hasn’t publicized this problem more broadly.

Go take a look at your gas meter. If it’s cockeyed, the riser may be pulling one side of it down–and that leads to a species of fun you do not want to have!