Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Expanding My Vocabulary

I ran across an interesting word today that I had never seen before. The word appeared in a patent publication that was sent to me via email at work. While the legalese on patents is always a challenge due to the strange usage of the language and somewhat arcane words in use, the word "hydrometeor" stood out for some reason.

I looked up the word "hydrometeor", and one definition stated that it was "A precipitation product, such as rain, snow, fog, or clouds, formed from the condensation of water vapor in the atmosphere." In other words, a hydrometeor is a raindrop or a snowflake, among other things.

We have been having lots of hydrometeors around here lately. A regular hydrometeor shower. Last Friday's storm dropped white hydrometeors to a depth of about six inches. I used the hydrometeorblower to move all the hydrometeors off the driveway. The boys, seeing that this kind of hydrometeor makes for slippery parking lots, hauled out the propellor bike and created huge clouds of hydrometeors until the engine died. It appears that the carburetor is fouled up. Josh was disappointed because the engine died before David's turn was finished.

I now have in my brain two very different types of meteors. A "meteor" is a solid object which, when striking the earth, creates large craters or causes other damage. A "hydrometeor" can hardly be felt when it lands on the tip of your tongue.

There's probably something deeply philosophical in all this somewhere. I just don't see it.

Maybe I'll just get my hydrometeor shoes and do some snow shoeing.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Tomato Tales

This year, as a way for the boys to earn some money, we decided to have them raise tomatoes and sell them by the road. Our neighbor had been doing that for several years, and Josh had helped him the last two years because of the neighbor's failing health. When the neighbor passed away this past winter, his widow offered us the use of his little tomato stand and the use of his garden space for raising tomatoes.

In early May, Deb took the boys shopping. They came home with what they thought was 200 tomato plants. They discovered a little later that they actually had 250 plants. They went to two different places to buy the plants, and one place put more plants in a flat than the other place. So now we had 250 plants in the greenhouse that needed to be kept watered until the danger of frost was past.

Putting out that much money ahead of time, with no guarantee of ever getting it back, was tough on the boys. Sixty bucks is a lot of money, and put a good dent in their spending money. Even so, there were a couple times when the plants in the greenhouse got a little dry from neglect, and I walked in to find their big investment looking very droopy.

All of them survived, however, and soon they had the rather daunting task of planting that many tomato plants. It was a lot of work, and had to be done in a short time, because of a week long vacation we were planning at the end of May. This trip forced us to plant about a week earlier than we would otherwise have planted. Frost is still possible near the end of May, and we watched the weather closely.

The day before we left, the weather forecast included a frost warning. That evening, in addition to packing for a week-long trip, we had to figure out how to save 250 tomato plants from frostbite.

It was well after dark when we finally finished our makeshift protection. We put the sprinklers on the tomatoes in the neighbor's garden, after scrambling to find enough hose, and a large fan hanging from a ladder would hopefully keep the frost from settling on the plants in our garden. This consumed our entire stock of extension cords. The thermometer that I placed in our garden recorded a low of 33 degrees that night. One degree above crop failure.

The next expense came when the plants needed to be staked. We managed to find enough wood to make stakes, but the boys had to buy their own twine. Staking tomatoes consumes enormous amounts of twine, and the big roll they had bought last year when they were selling firewood quickly ran out. They found baler twine at a local farm supply store, and bought about 4 miles of it.

The staking was even more work than the planting. We handled it bit by bit. Stake one or two rows today, one or two tomorrow, a little at a time until, after a couple weeks, the stakes and twine were all up.

At this point, they were having doubts that this venture was worthwhile. They had a lot of hard work and about ninety dollars into it, with nothing to show for it except a large spider web of orange baler twine hanging in the garden. It was wait-and-see time. Keep the plants watered and wait and see if anything happens.

About mid-July the first tomatoes started to ripen. Out of the entire patch, we were getting first one or two per day, then five or six. When we finally had enough for a quart-sized box, we did some fixing up to the stand, which was rather weather-worn, and parked the stand with a single box of tomatoes in the front yard. A sign announced, "Tomatoes, $2.00 per box."

The box was gone within a half hour. In the money box was the first income from the tomato business. Two bucks, in small change. Since the stand was now empty, the boys rolled it back up the driveway and parked it out of the way by the big Forsythia bush.

The next day, there was enough for one more box. Again, they parked the stand by the road with its lone box of tomatoes. Again, the tomatoes disappeared in the first half hour. Four bucks down, eighty-six to go to break-even.

A few days later, there were enough tomatoes for two boxes, which also sold quickly. There were more doubts. Half of the patch planted in the neighbor's garden was showing signs of blight. The scrawny plants probably didn't even need the stakes and twine that surrounded them. Although the plants located in our garden were doing much better, they seemed bent on producing lots of rich foliage and very few tomatoes. One row in particular overgrew the stakes and twine, the plants becoming so large and heavy that they started to pull the stakes over.

But production did continue to increase. As I'm sure anyone who has raised a few tomato plants can attest, once a plant has developed a full head of steam, it seems to want to bury you in tomatoes. We eventually reached that point. One day, we had a couple boxes of tomatoes left over at the end of the day. It seems that we finally saturated the clientele of the neighborhood.

Most of the time, the tomatoes simply disappeared, being replaced by cash in the box, so we never got to meet many of the people who stopped by. We had people leave too much money, too little money, or sometimes no money at all. One person decided to rearrange all the tomatoes in the boxes, taking the best ones for herself, and then mistakenly left a one and a ten-dollar bill in the box. When she didn't come back to claim the extra money, we figured it was the cost of the "premium" tomatoes. Occasionally someone would come up the driveway, needing change or just wanting to talk. One woman in particular told the boys, "I just love your tomatoes. I come about twice a week." It was nice to see that we actually had regular customers.

We had been regularly making deposits into the boys' bank accounts from the tomato sales and from their weekly paper routes, which is also collected in one-dollar bills and small change. We count the cash, make an electronic transfer from our joint checking account, and stow the cash in a safe place. One day we brought it all out onto the kitchen table and counted it all out. A few-hundred dollars in one-dollar bills can look like an enormous amount of money, especially when counted into neat piles on the table. It can also make quite an impact on a child who, just a couple months before, was questioning a ninety dollar investment. Those doubts were now gone and the boys are now convinced that it was well worth the hard work. The bank teller was also amazed when I came in with a large big pile of singles and about ten pounds of change.

A wet, mostly dreary September effectively ended the season. The tomatoes are gone, and so is the income they generated. Having no regular income other than their weekly paper routes, the boys will have to make their savings stretch over the winter. This will be a lesson in restraint, particularly since there will need to be enough left over in the spring to buy next summer's plants. Right now, that seems like eons away.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

How To Build a Boat

A few weeks ago, we and another family met together to plan a Cardboard Canoe Regatta. Participants would have two hours to build a canoe entirely out of cardboard and duct tape and then would then compete against other participants for speed and endurance. We drew up a set of rules, chose a date and a location, and then hoped for good weather.

We had no idea how many people would choose to participate. Such events are usually sponsored by youth groups and university engineering departments, but when the day of the event came, we had 7 boats in the Regatta, a very workable number.

We collected a whole bunch of cardboard from a local bike shop, who conveniently held a big sale at that time and so had a lot of cardboard to get rid of. We also had several cartons from some kitchen cabinets. It was quite a pile. It was enough to allow the boys to build and test a prototype canoe a week before the event.

The boys completed their prototype in about two hours and they used every bit of duct tape we had laying around, about a roll and a half. We found out then that all duct tape is not created equal. One partial roll had adhesive about as strong as sticky notes, and would come off as soon as it was applied. They had to reinforce that with some clear packing tape (we can bend the rules when building prototypes).

The prototype performed well, lasting for just over ten minutes. Joshua's end of the boat sank first, after he slowly sank through the sodden cardboard. The boys paddled nearly all the way across the lake at 8th Avenue Park before the boat sank. What a blast. They laughed all the way across the lake.

But 10 minutes was not long enough. They learned that another team built a boat that lasted for 15 minutes. This was the new target.

When the day of the Regatta came, the boys applied what they had learned to their new boat. The made the new boat larger and stronger, and they had two fresh rolls of duct tape, which stuck well and stayed in place.

The boat building time was a flurry of activity, with the pavilion at the park littered with cardboard and busy boat-builders. It was interesting to see all the various design approaches, from precision measuring, cutting, and fitting to slap it together and tape it in place.

Two rolls of duct tape turned out to be quite a bit, and a couple careful boat building teams were able to have enough left over to coat the entire bottom of the boat with tape. This could be a long contest.

The park was practically deserted except for our group, and a local police officer who was patrolling the area expressed surprise at this. He said this park is usually crowded on a summer Saturday.

After the building was done, it was time to launch the boats. We set out a couple milk-jug buoys and instructed the boaters that the first around the buoys and back to shore would win the speed award.

At the starting signal, all seven boats splashed into the water. One sank immediately, the weight of its occupants bursting out the back. The others splashed toward the first buoy.

Josh and David, in the SS Minnow II, pulled ahead right away and made it back to shore in three minutes. I'm not sure if it was the design of the boat or the furious paddling or both that contributed to their speed, but it was a no-contest race.

Over the next half hour, three more boats sank. The SS Tadpole, piloted by our women's team, started to collapse and then capsized, dumping them into the water. They completed the course around the buoys by swimming, towing their wreckage behind them. Another creation took over twenty minutes to sink, and it sank very slowly, probably due the sheer volume of cardboard used in its construction.

After a half hour, there were three boats left: The SS Minnow II, the Endurance, and the Flying Dutchman. Since we were getting hungry by this time, and pizza had been ordered, we opened the contest up to aggression. The boats came quickly together and with a furious splashing of water and people leaping onto other people's boats, all three boats were down within 30 seconds. The Endurance went down last, just a few seconds after the SS Minnow II, and so earned the Endurance Award.

The event ended with an informal awards ceremony where the Shackleton Award (Endurance) and the Amundsen Award (Speed) were handed out. These were trophies made of ... you guessed it ... cardboard and duct tape. It only seemed appropriate.

This was one of those events that will probably warrant a repeat performance; we'll probably do it again next year.

Monday, April 24, 2006

"H" is for Cold

It leaks.

I turned the water on the other day, partly to test my plumbing work and partly because we needed the water in the greenhouse. The joint where the new pipe joins the old began the familiar shimmer around the edge, and then formed a droplet which eventually fell onto the floor in front of the clothes washer. It was soon followed by another, and another; little shimmering dribbles growing, then falling, growing, the falling. It would have been rather hypnotic had it not been so maddening. Of course, I do not have the parts, which will necessitate a fourth trip to Lowe's.

I fixed it temporarily with an empty paint can, hanging it below the pipe to catch the dribbles.

We're big into life skills for the boys and this would have been another opportunity for life skills training. But we've done quite a bit of plumbing and are to the point where perhaps plumbing training is becoming counterproductive. I had David help me put the faucet back on the bathroom sink after we had it re-glazed several weeks ago. I showed him which hoses to hook up where under the sink and he worked at it for a while, looking like a plumber. Only the bottom half of him was visible, sticking out from under the sink and I could hear the clanking of wrenches and pliers.

When he emerged, I asked him if he trusted his work enough to turn the water on. He just grinned.

I ducked under the sink to make sure the drain was all tightened down and noticed something amiss.

"David!" I exclaimed, "Did you realize that you got the hot and cold water pipes backwards?"

His grin just got a little bigger. "Rats!" he said, with a twinkle in his eye. "You weren't supposed to notice this soon!" He was hoping it would go unnoticed until someone (usually Deb) turned on the hot water, waiting for it to warm up. It would have been a long wait.

When your son starts sabotaging the plumbing, then it's time to end the training. He can learn in the school of hard knocks once he gets his own home. Then we'll see what kind of water comes out when you turn the handle marked "H".

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Purple and Happy

"Use only in a well-ventilated area."

Yeah, right. The instructions on the can don't take into account that most plumbing is in basements, or close crawl spaces. This latest plumbing job was to replace a faucet that I temporarily repaired last fall by simply screwing another valve onto the end of it. My makeshift fix froze over the winter and split. This was another one of those I-Hate-Plumbing jobs.

This time, I was going to do it right. I paid the big bucks for one of those freeze proof faucets. Armed with my newest purchase, a flashlight, and a hack saw, I wormed into the crawl space under the family room to where last year's twisted pipe was. It took some pretty good bodily twisting to actually get the saw onto the section of pipe that needed to be cut, but I managed to start the cut... and got water and copper shavings dribbled onto my face.

This is part of the job, I told myself, and kept going. Eventually, the pipe was free. I wormed out of the crawl space, pulled the old faucet out from the outside, and inserted the new one into the hole in the wall. Back into the crawl space, back into the contorted position so I could reach the tail end of the faucet so I could wrap it with plumber's tape.

I picked up the plastic pipe fitting that mated with the tail of the faucet and saw that it was the wrong size. How typical. This meant another trip to Lowe's to replace a 35 cent part. And it was one of the few parts I didn't have in my large bag of leftover plastic pipe fittings. It seems that every plumbing job requires at least two trips to the hardware store, so this would get the obligatory second trip over with.

I checked out with the same cashier that I had just an hour before. She appeared surprised that I was back so soon, buying another part for 35 cents. Out of my frustration, I didn't offer any explanation.

Back in the crawl space, I now had to thread the new part onto the faucet. This is rather hard to do when both arms are extended over one's head into the floor boards while the rest of the body resembles the fetal position. I managed to get another section of pipe glued into the fitting, and an elbow onto the pipe so now it extended below the floorboards, making the next sections much easier to put on. I only dribbled a little of the purple primer onto my hands and managed to sniff just a little of the Tetrahydrofuran and Methyl Ethyl Ketone and Cyclohexanone contained in the pipe glue. It makes for a rather odiferous crawl space and a rather light-headed plumber.

Only a short section of pipe and a coupling remained between me and another completed plumbing job. The short section of pipe was glued in quickly, but I then discovered that the old section of pipe was just very slightly larger than the fittings allowed. It seems that pipe this old was no longer compatible with today's version.

Oh, the joys of owning an older home. Now I was not only replacing a faucet, I was going to have to replace 40 feet of pipe as well. This resulted in trip number three to Lowe's to get the necessary pipe and fittings. A 1-hour job was now spreading out into 2 complete evenings.

Now, instead of just a couple fittings needing to be glued together, there were more. Elbows, couplings, pipe sections, hangars; all needing to be assembled over my head in close quarters and worked around the other infrastructure: heating ducts, wires, other pipes, etc. And the daubers in the cans of purple primer and glue are really meant for larger parts and so hold far too much for little fittings. My hands were stained purple from the dribbling primer. At least the glue, although it smelleD strongly, wAs thiCker, sO it DIdn't dRip as bAdLY. i tHnk i actUAly fIniishedthe joBbefore i ppasSEdout.. maYbee i'LL turNIton neXtYeartoSeEif itActuaallllly lEAksssssssss.