About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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Making mistakes is inevitable, but repeating the same ones over and over doesn't have to be. You should endeavor to make all-new, spectacular, never-seen-before mistakes.

Jeff Atwood



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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 6/16/2017

Totals
Posts - 2435
Comments - 2551
Hits - 1,959,675

Averages
Entries/day - 0.48
Comments/entry - 1.05
Hits/day - 384

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:41 PM Pacific


  03:01 PM

In the realm of home improvement, few things irritate me as much as people who paint over light switches and door hinges. One or more previous owners of our house engaged in this practice. Grrr. (<— see? I'm irritated) Since we're now doing some painting of our own, it seemed like it was time to deal with this.

I went looking online for non-toxic ways to remove paint from hinges. A technique that several people recommend seems promising: you throw the hinges, water to cover, and a little soap into an old crockpot and soak overnight. Alternatively, you can use an old pot on a low burner. That sounded fine, but our steady de-accummulation of stuff means we don't have old pots (let alone old crockpots) stashed in the garage.

So I improvised. I put the hinges in some empty cans with some dishsoap, and then poured boiling water over them and let them stand till cool, maybe 10 or 15 minutes.


It seems to have the desired effect, namely to soften the old paint:


I scraped a lot of this paint off with just my fingernails. You could use something else, but remember that brass is quite soft. A wooden scraper of some sort would be ideal.


For stubborn paint, I repeated the process, and when I got impatient with repeated soakings, I used a brush. You need something pretty stiff (not an old toothbrush), but again, not too hard (no steel brush). This brush worked great for me:


The end result came out pretty clean:


For extra thoroughness I got out some Brasso and polished the hinges, just because.

Disclaimer: I was doing this for what was clearly latex paint. (I could scrape the paint off in satisfying rubbery sheets.) I don't know if it would work also for oil paint. Maybe? I will note that very old paint can have lead in it, so take appropriate safety measures.

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  11:04 PM

For some Friday Fun today, I'll tell you the story of how I solved (I think) a problem in my home office. My office is in the bottom level of the house ("daylight basement"), in what's normally known as the "rec room" but around here is just the man-cave. It's a nice setup, except that it gets cold — sometimes 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the house.

When it's cold, I have a baseboard heater that I will sometimes use to prevent my hands from going numb. I can get the man-cave toasty, but in order to do that, I have to close the door to prevent all this nice heat from escaping.

And therewith is the problem: the damn door to the man-cave. First, you have to picture how the rec room/man-cave is configured:


Note the lengthy distance between my desk and the door.

I can close the door, but this introduces the following problems:
  1. People come in and out to go to the laundry room, and they leave the man-cave door open.
  2. The dog whimpers outside the door to come in.
  3. The dog whimpers inside the door to go out.
  4. The cat scratches on the door to come in.
  5. The cat scratches on the door to go out.

So I find myself constantly getting up and opening the door or getting up and closing the door. (Did I mention the lengthy distance between the desk and the door?) You can see that this is going to cut deeply into the highly productive time I spend constantly sitting at my desk.

Not long ago I had a thought, so I scrounged around and got two cup hooks and some stretchy hair ties (rubber bands, basically) and rigged a little closing device on the outside of the door:



After a couple of tries, I managed to get the hooks in just the right place such that now the door gently swings until it's closed but not latched.[1]

Dang, this solved problems 1, 2, 4, and 5 in one go. People can come and go, and if they leave the door open, it swings slowly shut. The dog and the cat can push their way in, and the cat has even figured out how to hook her claws around the door enough so she can pull it open and exit.

The only remaining issue was that the dumb dog couldn't figure out how to get out of the man-cave. So he would push his way in (door would swing shut), decide after a minute I wasn't as interesting as he'd thought, and then sit there whimpering to be let out.

I pondered this for a couple of weeks. Then one day I had another thought. I scrounged around some more and found some string and some screw eyes (yay for a garage filled with stuff). I used this to rig myself a kind of pulley system so that I could open the door from my desk, as long as the door wasn't actually latched:


I added a weight to my end of string that's enough to keep the string dangling but that isn't so heavy that it prevents the door from swinging shut.

In theory I'm all set: door stays shut (or shut enough to keep heat in), and I can open it from my desk as needed. I'll bet, though, that when we decide to sell the house, the real estate agent is going to "suggest" that I remove my contraption. Harumph.

[1] I have in the past installed spring-loaded hinges. For some reason, tho, I was in a sort of maker mood whilst thinking on this problem.

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  11:48 AM

It's Roundup (Mostly) Lite today, I guess.

Secret to Success. A short, clear list. I think the sticking point is that the list includes items that often require fundamental changes in thinking. Incidentally, the TED talks are great if you're inclined to watch a lecture on your monitor.

The sheep he rode his cattle back. A little homophonic fun has been sitting there in Windows in front of us all this time.

secretGeek's guide to selecting a cartoon to suit your chosen IT career. If you thought that only "Dilbert" is about working in the world of technology, here's a catalog for you, expertly matched to your job description by Leon Bambrick.

Dewey Decimal System Game. Bet you never thought you'd shelve books against the clock, eh? (Flash required.) I can't tell whether the cheesy music is, you know, intended ironically. [via Colleague Bruce]

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  10:01 PM

A brief follow-up to the continuing saga of the laundry room. I got a proper breaker for the water heater which puts a single switch on two branches, rather than the two separate breakers that had been in there, probably illegally, before. That cost about $15 and about 5 minutes, not counting Home Depot time.

I had also been concerned that the water heater seemed quite inefficient since I reinstalled it. It was producing hot water, but only enough for one shower, and not even a long one at that. I figured that all that manhandling I'd subjected it to had probably done something to one of the heating elements. I was thinking of pulling those and replacing them.

When I was researching that, I also ran across a suggestion that inefficient hot water can be caused by a broken dip tube, which carries the incoming cold water from the inlet (on the top of the water heater) to the bottom of the heater for heating. A broken dip tube lets cold water into the top of the heater, where the hot water is (since it rises). The article I was reading suggested: "A sign of this is just a few minutes of hot water before it turns cold."

That sounded suspiciously familiar. I went and had a look at the cold water inlet in my water heater to see how I might go about taking it off to get at the dip tube. While I was cogitating on the fact that the inlet appeared to have no obvious way to dismantle it, I noticed that the cold water inlet was connected to the outgoing hot water pipe. And the incoming cold water was connected to the hot water outlet.

Oops. I guess that I hooked them up backward last time. Gee, could this have anything to do with small quantity of hot water I was getting out of the beast?

I'm surprised I was getting as much hot water out of it as I was, actually. But anyway, I exchanged them and all seems to be ok now. Just to be sure, though, I went and took a long, hot shower.

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  12:48 AM

In the wake of finishing a multi-year project, our beneficent employer gave us some days off last week. A really lo-o-o-ong weekend! What should I do? Should I lie on the couch and read? Should I go away for the weekend? My mind reeled with possibilities. So much so, in fact, that I became confused and anxious. In the end, therefore, I went with that old stand-by for time off work: home improvement.

This time it was the laundry room. When I moved in, the floor was covered with these sort of vinyl-y tiles. But soon enough they cracked and pieces of them came loose, exposing the bare concrete floor underneath, along with a layer of black mastic. Ugly. Plus the room smelled like cat pee, having been one stop among many for a now ex-cat whose senility confused her about where the catbox was.

The job was straightforward enough on paper. Remove washer and dryer, remove laundry sink, remove water heater. That last gave me pause, but I suppressed my doubts. Once the room had been depopulated of appliances, I needed to take up what remained of the tiles. Then I had to scrape or otherwise remove the old mastic. Then put down new vinyl floor. Then reassemble.

I knew that I would be without hot water for the duration, which, er, incentivized me -- once started, I had to get the job done. I figured a long weekend would do it.

Which it did, but barely. All the usual home-improvement imperatives applied: unexpected difficulties; more ambition than time, talent, or energy; Hofstader's Law[1]; a sudden and debilitating loss of energy (mine, I mean) about 3/4 of the way through; and way, way too many trips to Home Depot. As I say, the usual.

A few notes, then.

Wiring  I needed to disconnect the hot water heater, which (for those who are interested) is wired with two hot wires to make a 220-volt circuit. For a while I could not determine which breaker controlled the water heater, though. I eventually figured out that the two hot wires were connected to two separate breakers. When I noted this to the electrical dude at the (good) hardware store[2], he looked horrified. I guess the issue is if one breaker trips and the other doesn't, there's trouble that starts with T and that rhymes with E, and that stands for call the Electrician. Or maybe the insurance agent. So I put that on the list to fix soonest. After that, draining the water and lugging the empty heater out to the garage was no problem.

Old mastic  I had a notion that I'd scrape up the old dried mastic with a sharp scraper kind of thing. Hardly. What I needed was a substance closely akin to paint remover[3]. I would brush this on, wait 15 minutes, and then use a putty knife to scrape the resulting black jelly off. As I learned very quickly, that remover stuff is eye-wateringly foul. According to the label, it contains chemicals "known by the State of California to cause cancer." And known by me to cause pounding headaches. "Use outdoors if possible," it says on the label. Sorry, I can't haul my laundry room floor outside. It took three passes in all to get the old stuff off the floor. To give you an idea of just how foul it is, when I was done I rinsed down the whole floor with paint thinner, and that was a great improvement. A rather thin silver lining is that this treatment definitively got rid of the cat pee smell. So there's a little tip for you.

Flooring  I got new vinyl flooring at the remnants place. I sprung for some good Armstrong stuff; what sold me is that they guarantee against tearing, which seemed good for a floor I'd be dragging the wash machine across. Even at the remnants place the price made my eyes go wide. But I figured what the hell -- I sure didn't want to be doing this job again any time soon. While some minion was cutting the vinyl off the roll for me, I chatted with the sales guy about my old floor. "12-inch tiles or 9-inch tiles?" he asked. 9-inch, I told him. "Probably asbestos," was his guess. Oh great.

Too many jobs  The temptation of having the laundry room conveniently empty was too great to resist, and I added more jobs to the queue. I patched a hole in the wallboard, which is a multi-day job (apply, sand, reapply, sand, reapply, …). I also thought that with the water heater out of the room, I should quick-like paint behind it. And I figured I'd re-install the water heater to code, which meant raising it off the floor and strapping it. In other words, rather than doing one job -- replacing the floor -- I was suddenly doing about four. Guess how many of those got completely done.

Tools and materials  I do a fair bit of home stuff, and over the years I've accumulated a batch of tools and a garage full of leftover supplies. You'd think, therefore, that I would have a can of wallboard primer around somewhere. Nope. Vinyl-floor glue. Nope. Or maybe not "nope," but "not that I can find, dammit." The latter applied also to various tools -- for example, I have a stud sensor that I used not long ago, but which is now mysteriously nowhere to be found. So I got a new one. If you're a pro, you can amortize the cost of your tools and materials over your various job. If you're an amateur, you don't use your tools or leftovers enough and end up re-buying most of them for each job. That, my friends, adds quite a bit of cost to a job like this, not to mention the annoyance of many trips to the store.

The happy news is that the floor went in pretty smoothly, allowing for the inherent awkwardness of laying out a big sheet of vinyl and then gluing it down by halves. There was one recalcitrant bubble that I convinced to lie down and stay by piling bricks on top of it. Crude but effective.

From that point, it was "a simple matter" of reinstalling the water heater and the other appliances. I assembled the little steel table which was to be the heater's new throne. I even figured out a way to hump the empty heater 12" up and onto the table.[4] Then came another of the unexpected difficulties: the old water tubing wouldn't reach, nor would the old electrical cable. I had known this, but what I didn't know was just how hard it was going to be to find the right replacements. In the end, it proved impossible, actually, or at least, impossible to complete by Sunday. So I took the water heater back off the steel table (oof!) and reinstalled it in its original location. But I did get it all strapped in:



So the floor is done (and nice, too), and the appliances all work. (When I hooked up the washer, I reconnected everything except -- oops! -- the drain pipe. So I had the opportunity to mop my new floor right away.) I have to get the two-breaker problem resolved, and I do still have to raise the water heater, maybe not as high, and I have to finish painting and I have to finish the patch on the wall and I have to come up with some kind of baseboards. So perhaps another long weekend will come along soon, heh.

For all that, it wasn't all just home improvement. Sabrina had three concerts and I did do some socializing and I read some and did in fact get some benefit from having down time. As I was noting over the weekend, this home improvement stuff, it's fun and it's necessary, but it can't be the only thing I ever do with my long weekends. So I won't.


[1] Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you think, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law. — Douglas Hofstadter

[2] McLendon Hardware.


[3] Perhaps you're familiar with the Jasco line of products, all based on noxious chemicals.

[4] Rolling it at a 45-degree angle up a plywood ramp, as it turned out.

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  10:12 PM

I had an addition put on my house a couple of years ago, which included a master bath with a stand-up shower. (No tub for me! :-) ) Ever since the thing was finished, the water pressure in the new shower has never been so great, and over time it's gotten worse. I tested the supply to the bathroom itself, and that seemed ok, so the problem seemed to be with the shower itself.

So, ok, holiday's done, back to fun. Today I dismantled the shower from the back, going through my closet. I wanted to get the valve body out so I could see if there were blockage or something. The removal took some doing, as it was not installed with the idea of being removed. But I managed to get it out. I disassembled the valve body, and sure enough, the thing had a stupid restrictor valve in it that moreover had gotten silted up or something.

So I took the restrictor valve clean out, since I'd never had decent pressure with it in place. Then I spent some time reconstructing the shower, which gave me a chance to do some soldering. (Fire! Melting things!) I was pleased that I got everything back together and could turn the water on again by mid-afternoon. Here's where the backend of it stands now:



Fixing up the wallboard is not critical to having a working shower, so I'll get around to doing that patch Real Soon Now.

As with most home improvement projects, there were delays with bits I thought would be easy, and the job did not go quite as I thought. But it wasn't unenjoyable, and it works, and I now have a most excellent blast-o shower, which is what I'd wanted all along.

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  10:45 PM

As part of my garage cleanup, I need to Do Something with an old Sears radial-arm saw I have. I got it years ago from a friend who didn't want it any more. I've actually used it only a couple of times. Frankly, the thing kind of scares me. Not only do all the lights in the house dim when you flip the switch and start that big 10" blade to spinning, but there's something a little nerve-wracking about pulling a blade on a 1 HP motor toward your midsection.

A more practical reason I haven't used it much is that I don't have a proper table and fence. (If you don't know what that is, it's not important ... it's just missing some stuff.) I got onto the Web today to see what I might do to find or make a table for it. Not much luck on the table front, but I did stumble across this: "CPSC, Emerson Tool Co. Announce Recall of Craftsman® Radial Arm Saws Sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co." They continue:

CPSC and Emerson have received about 300 reports of injuries while using these saws. Injuries include hand and finger amputations; lacerated hands, arms and fingers; fractured hands and fingers; and facial injuries.

"Hand and finger amputations"!? "Facial injuries"!? Ok, so the notion of doing something with the saw takes on, mmm, a new dimension.

Options? Emerson, the manufacturer, makes a blade guard that can be retrofitted. Enter your model number, please ... <think, think> ... nope, not for the model I have. Further options? Well, it looks like you can send in the "carriage" -- the motor with the blade assembly -- and get $100 from the company.

Shoot, that actually sounds like an ok deal. It's more than the saw is probably worth on the open market. I'll give them a call tomorrow to see if this offer is still good. The recall was in 2000, but the website (http://radialarmsawrecall.com/) is still up, so we'll see. I can imagine how much fun it would be to ship 50 pounds' worth of saw motor somewhere. Hope I don't drop it on my fingers in the process.

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  02:33 AM

Somehow it doesn't feel like vacation time if it's really just a long weekend. But I guess it's Tuesday, and I ain't going to work, so now I really am on vacation.

I've spent comparatively little time at the computer; I believe that three days without a blog post is a kind of record. I did play a little with my relatively new copy of Adobe Audition, which I intend to use to clean up the recordings of school concerts that I make with my Sony MiniDisc recorder. In some distant ideal future, I also hope to digitize some old LPs (those for which I can't find replacement CDs), and Audition promises to help clean up the sound from those old and undoubtedly well-worn records. That's the kind of project that I'll do "someday" in my "spare time." Audition has many other cool features, which I have no immediate need for, most notably, working with multitrack recordings. It's sort of like PhotoShop -- a professional-grade tool in the hands of an amateur.

I'm also screwing around with trackback auto-discovery. If I understand the concept correctly, I do this. When I save a new entry in my blog, I walk it looking for links. For each link, I scrape the page pointed to by the link and look for a trackback ping URL. If I find a trackback URL, I send the ping to that URL. Presto, no need to manually enter URLs and the like. (But lots of activity, golly.) I got out my Friedl and practiced using RegEx to find links in an arbitrary hunk of HTML. Fun. I'll also use regex to get trackback URLs out of the scraped pages. That process is simplified if the target blog "registers" its trackback URL in a little hunk of rdf, as explained in the MT spec.

But enough about that. I finished painting my kitchen, the logical next step after installing new lighting. Plus a short detour to install a new circuit for the microwave. Each small improvement in the kitchen raises more seriously the question of when to bite the bullet and do it up right. I need to install a new floor, and I need to get a gas stove in there. The latter requires running some gas piping in the crawlspace, although the real question is whether my existing line has the capacity, or whether (as I suspect) they need to run a larger pipe back to the meter. Expensive operation, that. In any event, I have samples of vinyl flooring lying about on the kitchen floor at the moment.

Zack and I did the first oil change in the new cars. On the plus side, the plug and filter were reasonably accessible. On the minus side, I don't have a wrench for the teeny-tiny, toy-like filter used in Corollas. The factory put that OEM filter on there but good, so we couldn't muscle it off. We ended up using my fail-safe, namely a 22" channel-lock plier. It crushes the filter, but its steely jaws and long handles give you sufficient grip and leverage to be able to turn the thing.

Yesterday we braved the crowds at Gas Works Park and went to see the fireworks up close and personal. One of our cohort, the dad of one of Sabrina's friends, had an in that allowed us to park "close," still well over a mile away, on Queen Anne Hill. But it wasn't bad. And in spite of the crowds we were able to find a tiny square of grass to sit on. The show itself is spectacular; the state of fireworks technology these days is amazing, allowing them to choreograph rockets and music. There's nothing quite like being right there underneath, where you can not only hear but also feel the explosions.

I did not have firm plans for my time off, but I think I've already accumulated enough possibilities to have way more than I can do in my short break. Garage cleanout, as mentioned before. I bought materials to make a simple mantlepiece for my fireplace, which no longer has even the pathetic trim it had when I moved in. There is yardwork to be done, plus more electrical in the kitchen (GFCI outlets), plus refinishing the baseboards in the kitchen. Sigh. Good thing this all constitutes "fun" around here.

The happiest folks around here are the dogs, because they've gotten to go the park every single day for the last five days. Time off and nice weather, boy; it's dog heaven. They're not going to be too happy when I go back to work, I suspect.

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  09:18 AM

From a publisher's description:
Once you have followed the instructions in this book and build your own catapult, you'll wonder how you managed to get along without one.

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  09:45 AM

Mr. Furnace was supposed to come this morning to vacuum out the ductwork around here. The house is well-nigh 50 years old plus I have, lessee, one, two, three ... well, a lot of cats and two hairy dogs. I'm looking forward, in that ghoulish way one does, to how many bags off stuff he'll be able to suck out of the piping.

But not today, apparently. I got a call from the dispatcher telling me he couldn't come today because "he'd been in a traffic accident." Ooh, that's bad. However, I'd be slightly more sympathetic if I hadn't actually heard this exact same story before. (Well, and if it hadn't been my furnace that they weren't coming to clean.) I have a sneaking hunch that "had a traffic accident" is the dog-ate-my-homework of the repair industry. As opposed to "oops, we overbooked," say. But they'll give me discount when they do finally show up sometime later this summer. Assuming they don't have a traffic accident.

Since I'm already home I logged on to work. Ack. Normally I connect to the corpnet late at night, when most of the overachieving early risers have gone to bed, so response time is reasonable. At 9:00, though, things are hoppin', bandwidth-wise, and it felt like I'd connected at 14.4. It's not often that you get to watch Outlook paint the screen in stripes.

Nothing for it but to head into work.

While I'm sitting at my desk waiting and waiting for the slow connection, Sabrina is out in the living room. She's taking drivers ed, so she's waiting for her brother to come pick her up. When Zack got his license a year ago, that seemed normal, but there's something odd to me about Sabrina being old enough to drive soon.

Anyway, while she's waiting, she's sitting at the piano sight-reading whatever happens to be on the stand. A little Handel, then some Scott Joplin. I got up to make coffee, and while it's burbling, I boot her off the piano and pick my way through a Handel piece I laboriously learned years ago. It's slow going, oh boy; the kids had years and years of lessons, but I'm pretty much self-taught. Sabrina looks over my shoulder impatiently as I stuggle to pick my way through the piece. She helpfully hums along, as if I didn't know what the piece sounded like and didn't recognize the mistakes. Oh, the irony. "That's what it was like to listen to you kids practice," I tell her. Heh. Well, it won't be the last time that we'll have traded roles.

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