Monday, August 31, 2015

A Football Memory

In The Moviegoer, Walker Percy talks about the taste of time, unexpectedly sensed on noticing a long-used advertisement in a newspaper or seeing on television a movie seen long before at a well-remembered theater.  I felt a bit of that last week when glancing into Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942, 1963. A random flip opened to a letter of November 4, 1961, mentioning among other things that the University of Minnesota had upset Michigan State University in a football game played that day.

I remember seeing that game on television, though I remember almost nothing of it. I remember that it was an upset, not because I knew the reputations of Michigan State and Minnesota, but because the announcers on the broadcast said so, and perhaps my father remarked on it. I remember that there was a safety, certainly the first one I remember seeing; was it intentional, and did my father explain the tactics behind it? I don't know. Nor do I know why we watched. Was a Notre Dame game not on that day, or did it follow the Notre Dame game?

But that victory of the Golden Gophers over the Spartans stays in mind with a memory of a late fall day in the Cleveland suburbs. Did I go out back after the broadcast? Somehow the pine tree out back in late afternoon light comes to mind.

Monday, August 24, 2015


I get plenty of unsolicited email every day at work, and have no trouble ignoring it. The one I am about to quote becomes more entertaining each time I receive it. The sending address and the signature vary, but the remainder is verbatim, down to the missing pronouns and misplaced apostrophe. When I got the third one, I saved them to a system where I could run diff , and sure enough only the signatures varied. Today I received it again, for the fifth time in a month:

Dear owner of whatsit.tld,

I’m sure you have been contacted in this matter many times before but our value proposition is much different. We show the client results before we ask for any further commitment.

As a business owner you might be interested to gain profit by placing your website among top in search engines.

Your website needs immediate improvement for some major issues with your website.
-Low online presence for many competitive keyword phrases
-Unorganized social media accounts
-Not compatible with all mobile devices
-Many bad back links to your website

I have selected your website whatzit.tld and prepared a FREE website audit report. This is for you, completely free at no charge.

If my proposal sound's interesting for your business goal, feel free to email me, or can provide me with your phone number and the best time to call you. I am also available for an online meeting to present you this website audit report.

I look forward to hearing from you - thanks!

Best Regards,
Randolph Scott
Marketing Consultant

PS: I am not spamming. I have studied your website, prepared an audit report and believe I can help with your business promotion. If you still want us to not contact you, you can ignore this email or ask to remove and I will not contact again.
The signature has never been "Randolph Scott", but this time it was the name of an actor.  Only rarely do I have anything to do with our organization's public website, but maybe one of these days I will weaken and reply, if only to see what "Low online presence for competitive keyword phrases" means.

Saturday, August 22, 2015


When we moved to Wheaton in 1989, for several months I found myself irritated every time I washed my hands. Eventually I discovered that this was because the faucets were so short that it was hard to get my hands in the flow of water. I think that this discovery came when it was time to replace a faucet. I found that a faucet somewhat better than those in the row house cost about $5 at Hechinger's, and that a faucet that I would have considered adequate cost about $20. Considering volume discounts, the builders must have annoyed many residents for roughly $25 in savings per residence, maybe .0003 of the original price of the row houses.

Eventually the kitchen faucet started to fail. Once I figured it out, I took the failed cartridge to a hardware store. This had a plastic cartridge like the failed one for something under $10 and a metal cartridge for about $20. The clerk remarked that the had been selling many of these cartridges lately. I told him where the customers came from, and why.

Long ago, I learned to replace washers in faucets. It is possible that I was encouraged to do so by a passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which the unhandy couple find themselves on edge from a dripping faucet. With a wrench, a screwdriver, and a properly working water cutoff, one can change a washer in less than 10 minutes.

Faucets with washers stop the flow of water by pressing the rubber washer against the faucet seat. Over the last forty or fifty years, cartridge faucets have become more popular. Those for faucets that control hot and cold water with the same handle have a ceramic ball drilled to admit water in certain alignments. Those where one handle controls one temperature have a couple of ceramic disks, one fixed, and one rotating, each with a couple of wedges cut out. When the wedges align, water flows; when they don't, the water is blocked. You don't have to replace washers, but if the faucet starts to drip, you must replace the cartridge.

In this house we installed a handsome set of faucets. The manufacturer had everything going for it except, eventually, longevity. When one of the faucets started to drip, we discovered that the company was out of business. A plumber looked at it, found a faucet at Union Hardware with matching disks, and replace them, which worked. He saw no flaw in the original disks, and that should have told us something. A co-worker of his, summoned later, saw no alternative to replacing the whole faucet,, which we did not care to do. The cutoff valve for the cold water stayed in the off position, until my wife tired of having hot water only in a couple of bathrooms.

I had a look, and was able to stop one faucet dripping by tightening the cartridge down. That suggested to me that the flaw was not in the disks but in the washer at its bottom. The washer is not used to stop the flow, but it must keep water from getting around the cartridge. It will deteriorate over time. Nobody seems to sell these washers separately, though.

Of course one can find almost anything on the internet. Several sites claimed that they had these cartridges. One provided pictures, with a ruled background to judge by. About $50 and two days later, I had the cartridge installed, and the faucet working properly. To be sure, I had to tighten the compression fitting at the cutoff valve. Whether the leak there had anything to do with the flow being shut off for a year, I don't know.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Bored to Waking

Most of us have been bored to sleep at one time or another. Now and then I have had the odd experience of being bored to waking by my dreams.

I work with computers; during periods when I concentrate enough on programming, they intrude on my dreams. I first became aware of this during a computability class, when I found myself dreaming of cars moving out of and back into parking spaces, and realized on waking that this had to with the "pumping lemma" for regular languages.

Such dreams tend to be boring. I explain this to myself by saying that a very important aspect of computing is controlled repetition: do this until that changes. The computer doesn't get bored executing a loop a million times; But the dreamer contemplating it is bored before the dozenth execution.

Such dreams can be mixed up with whatever I have been watching or reading. The parking lot part of the computability dream may have come from a scene in the movie "Tin Men". This summer the dreams have included an as-told-to memoir of Brendan Behan's, a collection of short stories, and perhaps a novel. Such additions do not make the dreams more interesting; if anything they make them more tedious.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


When first in this area, I found myself on the edge of many real estate discussions. Having little money and no prospect of soon buying property, I found these discussions hardly intelligible and not interesting. Then I found it was discussions of children, child care, and schools; I suppose the lag may have been to get the house painted and the student loans paid down. Again I had nothing to contribute to the conversation, and no way of judging others' contributions. Eventually my stage of life caught up, and I hope that I inflicted only minimal boredom on those on the edges of the house and kids conversations.

This weekend I discovered another local discussion, the rat discussion. We have been through a rat infestation that lasted almost six months. It ended with the trapping of one rat, and the detection and closing of a plumbing vent carelessly left open. It could be that there are a couple of dead rats in the walls--it's hard to be sure. We found, though, that pretty much everyone we know has a rat story.

One household has an active burrow in the back yard. Another trapped one hundred rats in six months. One man went to a school were rats were poisoned over a break, and rotted where they died, in the walls. A woman had rats in her basement because of bad concrete work.

My first rat story goes back about 35 years. I did not find it at the time especially disgusting or depressing, nor I think did my housemates, though we were eager to get rid of the rats. I suppose that single men in their early twenties have a higher tolerance for rats scuttling through the ceilings or foraging pantries.

Monday, August 3, 2015


On Saturday at the Mount Pleasant Farmerts Market we took a while making up our minds about the tomatoes. After looking at the boxes under the tables, many of them with stickers from the Lancaster Produce Auction, we decided to  buy some heirloom tomatoes. It occurred to me afterward that the nominal price per pound is the same as I paid for flank steak thirty-five years ago.

The price turned out to be worth paying. While cutting up tomatoes for taboulleh, I told my wife that we finally had tomatoes that tasted like tomatoes. This may have been the first time it happened in a couple of years. These tomatoes probably refute our earlier notion that the heavy rains of June had weakened the flavor; the hybrids we get just aren't very good. Next summer we may have to try growing them.

When I was a boy, my family pulled down our garage, mostly from an expectation that it fall down on its own. Half we covered with flagstones, half became garden. Out of dirt soaked with oil and filings from crankcases, probably sown with old rusted nails, splinters, and bits of tire tread, we got excellent tomatoes. But I don't think that I was properly appreciative of them, though I must have been made to eat them in salads.

While I cut up the tomatoes Sunday, it occurred to me why I might have been unenthusiastic about the tomatoes. The texture is too complicated for a child's preferences, with skin, flesh, seeds, and juice. The great principle of kid food is consistency of texture: the best meat is hamburger or skinless, boneless chicken breast; the best fruit is an apple, quartered; the best vegetable the potato, baked, mashed, or fried. Homemade chicken soup, with irregular bits of meat and with bits of fat spotting the surface, is far inferior to Campbell's with perfect little cubes of chicken in homogenized broth.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Street Music

Friday's Washington Post has an article about a group of street musicians who play at 15th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. NW, by the northeast corner of the Treasury Building. The short version is that tourists love them and that persons whose offices are in earshot wish they would go away.I guess that the former is true. On Friday, I saw a blond boy of about 10, certainly a tourist, doing what looked a creditable job on the tambourine beside them. I expect that the latter is true also. The lawyers at Skadden, Arp are paid a good deal for the ability to bring concentrated thought on legal matters, and music, however good, must distract them.

My own office is out of earshot of them, Still, they have affected my lunchtime walks. I don't care to walk within six feet of a vigorous man's trumpet  or trombone with unprotected ear, and I think it rude to walk past with my hands over my ears. More than one intended walk around the White House (well, the Executive Compound) has turned into a walk up New York Avenue. Proficient though they are, I would like them better someplace I could give them a wider berth.

Charles Babbage did not care for street musicians, and spent a good deal of time and energy trying to keep them away. It seems that he made himself at least conspicuous, maybe a figure of fun, in doing so. A database administrator I knew got into a fistfight with a street vendor over the volume of the latter's portable stereo. Though less fit than the vendor, he didn't suffer much visible damage, and the vendor was arrested, though not held in custody long. The next morning he was at his table to turn up the volume as the DBA went past.