Sunday, March 22, 2015

Front Yard Landscaping - First weekend

Spring has arrived and we've begun redoing the landscaping in our front yard.  We actually started late last fall with the purchase of a maple tree and now the work continues with the rest of the yard. 

Our first step was to have some custom curbing put in place.  Not only does it look nicer than pavers, but it didn't cost that much more and it took a lot less time.


... and after:

After removing the layers of barkdust and rock the previous owners had piled on over the years, we started laying down the landscaping fabric.  Consulting the internet reveal WIDELY varying opinions on how to lay it out (some even recommending it shouldn't be used at all).  Given our inexperience, I've decided we'll call this an experiment and see what we think in five or ten years.

More rock will need to be cleared on the right side of the house and the fabric will go down after that. Lots of work still to do.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Chore Board

In an attempt to stay on-top of our regular house-hold duties and the growing pile of house-hold projects, Katie and I recently purchased a corkboard from Office Max. After a week of use, it became apparent it had two problems:

  1. It was too small (at 3' x 2')
  2. It had hardly any cork.
The second item was the quite upsetting.  The "coarkboard" was mostly cardboard with a thin veneer of cork; hardly a corkboard at all. Looking around for quality alternatives revealed that thick, beefy corkboards were triple-digit expensive and beyond what we were willing to pay. So I began looking for alternatives.

My pre-corkboard plan was to use small tiles of dry-erase board with magnetic backs that we could attach to a metal sheet mounted to the wall.  In looking at the hardware store, I found that steel sheet metal was much more expensive than I anticipated: $30 for a 4' x 2' piece; I would need two to make a board the size I needed.

While hunting at the hardware store, though, I did find an interesting alternative: magnetic paint. Rather than screwing sheet metal onto the wall, I could paint the area; one $20 can gets you a 4' x 4' area. It was a bit of a gamble but I was willing to give it a chance.

Before painting, though, I needed to engage in some surface preparation.  I knew even under best of conditions this was not going to provide as effective a magnetic surface as sheet metal or a refrigerator.  To help any magnet stick, a smooth surface was needed which meant I would be sanding off the texture and smoothing over the rest with drywall compound. So that's what I did.

Once the compound was dry, it was time to paint.  Well, once the paint was mixed, that is.  "Magnetic" is a bit of a misnomer; "metallic" might be better if it wasn't already taken.  The paint is actually a suspension of iron dust in some kind of solvent-y liquid.  The iron dust in my can had thoroughly settled into a coagulated lump.  It was very reminiscent of peanut butter or tahini that had separated, only denser. It took the better part of an hour to mix the iron into the liquid and even then there were still a few lumps.

So, yes, I then painted. The first layer soaked into the drywall compound but the subsequent layers spread more evenly.  I used the entire can, almost a whole quart and put on four or so layers, letting it dry about half an hour between each layer. Not being latex based, all the clean-up was with paint thinner which was messier and smellier.

Since the paint is technically a primer, we decided to cover it with some leftover from the garage. I spread it as thin as possible to avoid further weakening the magnetic effect of the paint, probably using not much more than a cup over the entire section.

The test:

As you can see, it works. Just barely. The adhesion is nothing like sheet metal.  It works fine in our case because the only thing the magnetic tiles have to hold up is itself (more or less).  I doubt this project would have turned out as well if we had been trying to hold papers to the wall but for our purposes, its perfect.  The magnets can be moved and removed easily but stay put when placed.

I don't know if I could recommend the magnetic paint.  The can advertised "3x Stonger!"; the original formulation would not have worked at all for us.  I could have done a better job of mixing which would have helped but at the end of the day, it lives up to advertising in name only. In our case there was no problem but I don't think it would work well in all the situations you might imagine. 

I can say, though, that I'm loving the whiteboard tiles. Much quicker and easier to use than notecards and the corkboard. Write on the tile while its on the wall and move it where it needs to go. My organizational heart has found its rest.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Door Anatomy

You know those cheap doors that you get at Lowe's and Home Depot, the ones that cost around $60?  We replaced two of those in our house and, after letting them sit beside the house all winter, I finally cut them up and put them in the trash. The dissection was revealing, though.

First, the outer frame of the door, shown here on the far left.  It is made of actual wood.  In fact, the only thing that we would recognize as wood is used around the entire frame of the door.  As you can see, its not a very big piece of wood but it is wood.

The photo also highlights the material of the door proper: high-density fiberboard. This is the kind of stuff they use to make board games and books for infants.  As a point of reference, this is wood in the same way that Velveta is cheese.

To keep this wood-product from collapsing on itself another wood product of even lower quality is used as a spacer: corrugated cardboard. Every panel of the door a nice block of cardboard has been glued into place.

The obvious reason this door is so cheap is that there is hardly anything to it. Its an interior hollow-core door of quality commensurate with its price.  A true, solid wood door is easily an order of magnitude more expensive, possibly even two. Its great that we can easily buy good-enough doors for about a McDonald's daily wage. This is a good thing.  But let's not kid ourselves; these are not quality items that will last for decades.  This is a product that marginally accomplishes its goal at the lowest possible price.

And these doors are popular because they are so cheap; we replaced these doors with two more just like them. We only had so much money to use on getting the house in working order and we decided the money was better used on other things.  I hope we don't regret that choice.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Trip to DC

In late January I took my first trip to DC, one of many that I suspect my new job will have me doing.  It was my first time in the Capital and I ended up with only two or three hours in the late afternoon to see the monuments. Maybe my next trip will offer a bit more free time; I'd love to see the Air and Space museum.

Entrance to one of the Smithsonian Art Museums.

The underground commuter train station. I really enjoyed the lighting on the concrete vaulted ceiling.  It felt less like a cave and more like a cathedral.

The famous Washington Memorial.  I saw it first on my train ride from the airport to my hotel and I couldn't believe how prominent it was.  It makes a great sign post for the mall area.

Looking from the Washington Memorial to the WWII Memorial and then the Lincoln Memorial.

 View from the WWII Memorial back to the Washington Memorial. Though the fountain wasn't running in the winter, I really appreciate the WWII Memorial.

The also famous Lincoln Memorial.  There are alcoves on either side of the central statue, one with the Gettysburg address engraved on the wall and the other with his second inaugural address. This is the first time I read the second inaugural address and it made an impression on me. 

"... If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether...."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Christmas Tree Watering

For our first Christmas in Washington, we purchased a real, live Christmas tree.  My wife loved it; it looked and smelled great, making our living room absolutely festival.  She feared for its health, though, during our trip out of town over the holiday weekend and asked if there was anything that could be done to ensure it was watered while we were away.  Of course there was; we've got technology for such things. With only a small amount of work, I had an Arduino-based system constructed and installed, ready to serve all our Christmas tree watering needs.

I took the timer code and hardware from the moth-balled daylight alarm clock and repurposed it to check the water level in the tree stand and the water level in the reservoir every day at noon.  If there wasn't enough water in the tree stand and there was water in the reservoir, the program would turn the pump on, checking every tenth of a second to see if the tree stand had filled up.  Once it had, the pump was turned off.

For water level sensors I used two wires glued down to the edge of the tree stand and reservoir. As you've probably heard, tap water is quite conductive so as long as both ends of the wires were in the water, the circuit would complete through a resistor divider network.

The pump was driven by a Darlington transistor feeding the coil of a 5V relay.  Much like in my root beer temperature controller project, I used the relay to control one pin of a 120V AC plug. This plug was mounted in an outlet box with a pig tail that was plugged into the wall.  This effectively created an Arduino programmable outlet which, in this case, was powering the pump.

Here is the complete schematic:

And here is a photo of the installed system, in all its bread-board glory.

The reservoir is a simple five gallon bucket; you can see the blue and white wires used to sense the water level in the bucket at the top of the photo.  The tube on the right provided a conduit  between the reservoir and the tree stand for the water.  The black cord going into the bucket is the power for the pump; the other end is plugged into the outlet.

On the right-hand side of the picture you can see another set of blue-and-white wires running under the tree; those were used to sense the water level in the tree stand.  The Arduino and DS1307 can be seen plugged into the bread-board along with the resistor divider network (hidden among the pine needles).  (You might notice the Arduino has a lot of extra hardware on the PCB; this is actually a Ruggeduino, a fully protected Arduino clone which I highly recommend.)

As to performance, the system worked just fine; there were only two minor hiccups.  Problem one: the DS1307 is known not to be terribly accurate and it wasn't. I checked the time on it when we were taking down the tree yesterday and over the course of a month or so, it had drifted about 20 minutes.  There are Arduino libraries out there that can be used to correct this (by putting in user-specified drift constants) but I didn't bother to implement them.  In this application, whether the tree was watered at 12:00 or 12:05 didn't really matter.

The second problem was result of me not thinking about the placement of the tube in the tree stand. On my first test, I placed the end of the tube as low in the stand as I could.  When the pump turned on, the water flowed smoothly into the stand and when the pump turned off... the water continued to flow.  I verified the pump was off but the water continue to come, slowly overfilling the tree stand.  I lifted the tube out of the tree stand and the water stopped.

By placing the tube outlet so low in the tree stand, I had managed to accidentally use a trick common to flood-irrigation farming.  If you place the outlet of a tube lower than the inlet, and can somehow get the water started flowing all the way through the tube, no external energy is needed for the water to continue to flow.  By turning the pump on I had started the system flowing and by placing the outlet of the tube low in the tree stand, I had ensured once it started, even turning the pump off wouldn't stop it.  Simply positioning the outlet of the tube higher along the trunk with the outlet pointed down solved this problem.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

What I'm Learning About Insurance - Part 3

Its close to a year after I started writing about it and now that my case is settled and I have a tiny bit of free time, I've decided I'm going to try to close out my mini-series on what I've been learning about insurance. Let's pick things back up and discuss a little weirdness with liability insurance.

When I introduced liability insurance, I framed it as protection for you, the policy holder, when you do something that causes damage to somebody else.We buy this insurance because, particularly in the case of driving automobiles, it is very easy to cause a lot of damage to somebody or their property. Rather than being financially obligated to directly pay for all of the damage directly out of your pocket, liability insurance comes in and covers those payments for you (up to a certain amount).  Insurance companies do this in exchange for a relatively small monthly fee which, according to the big piles of data they have after doing this a long time, is big enough to allow them to make a profit even after paying out for all this destruction that people cause with their cars.

There are a few tricks they use to make this work. One, they are relatively selective about the type of people they insure.  There are a bunch of people at insurance companies (or people the insurance companies contract out to) called actuaries, whose job it is to figure out what kinds of things are indicators of bad and good drivers.  Past auto insurance claims?  Tickets?  Age?  This type of information allows them to asses just how risky it would be to enter this kind of liability agreement.  Furthermore, using even more data and math, they are able to make an educated guess at how much they should charge you for your monthly payment to them (your premium) in exchange for taking on this risky.  The riskier a bet you are (because maybe you've told them you always drive two times the speed limit), the higher your monthly premium will be.

The second trick to making this whole insurance thing work is to insure tons of people.  Lots and lots and lots of people, hopefully people who always signal, drive the speed limit, and have never gotten a ticket.  By being selective and pooling all those monthly premiums together, it is possible to pay for whatever destruction is caused and still make money at it. Its all statistics, a numbers game. There are no guarantees but with a good screening process and lots of people, the actuaries can find a way to make it work.

(Until recently, health insurance worked the same way.  In fact, some health insurance companies were such sticklers about only letting in healthy people that if you did end up seriously sick, they worked very hard to find a way to weasel out of the contract they made with you.  This is called "recidivism"and its one the things Obamacare  has been trying to fix.  This sneakiness and legal legerdemain on the part of the health insurance companies would be unnecessary if we had a single-payer system where there was only one insurance company; everybody would be covered by default.  Requiring everybody to have health insurance is a step in that direction but still provides some incentives for health insurance companies to try to off-load their sickest policy-holders to somebody else.)

Liability coverage is the most fundamental type of insurance and it extends to more than auto liability insurance. Ice skating rinks, home-owners, water parks, schools, fast-food restaurants, everybody has liability insurance because anybody can sue anybody at any time for causing harm or damage.  Liability insurance makes it possible for businesses to not have to hoard a huge stockpile of cash just in case they get sued for damage they may or may not have caused. During the process of transferring our home and auto insurance during our move we were asked if we wanted a general liability policy, covering our whole lives, essentially.  When I briefly owned my own legitimate window-washing business I had liability insurance in case, you know, I dropped a squeegee on somebody's head or something. Liability insurance gives us all the ability to sue for damages while allowing businesses to not exist one lawsuit away from bankruptcy.

So liability insurance is a good thing for us auto-drivers. But what happens if I have a $100,000 liability policy but I drive into an art museum and destroy their $100 million Van Gogh?  The agreement I have with the insurance company says they will pay the first $100,000 (ignoring the deductible) and the rest is on me.  Things are looking bad because, even after the my insurance company pays out the full policy limit, I will still have approximately $100 milllion to pay.

There is another catch in the law that can prevent my life from being one of poverty henceforth and this is the concept of recoverable assets.  Even though I am still on the hook for $100 million and the museum can sue me to try to recover their losses due to my careless driving, they are not able to take all of my worldly wealth to do so.  There are only certain assets which can be recovered by the museum in a lawsuit. In Kansas (working from memory of what my lawyer told me), the museum could not take:
  • My home (primary residence)
  • One car per adult in my household
  • My retirement savings
For most adults, most of their earthly treasure falls into these categories.  If the museum were to sue me, the amount of money they might win is probably going to be relatively small, even by the standards of a typical household. If the museum has some reason to believe I have a bunch of money, they can search the public records and find out what property I own and how many cars I have registered in my name but they can't look at my bank accounts or ask to go through my house to see if I happen to have any Van Goghs. Based on whatever information is publicly available, they have to decide if it would be worth the time and expense to sue me.  

In the the case of the person who hit me, though I don't believe we did a public records search, we had good reason to believe she was a normal person that probably didn't have piles of cash laying around, at least not $100,000 worth.  What about her salary? There is a possibility of garnishing wages (legally forcing part of her future income to be sent to me) but enforcement is tricky.  Its a lot like child support in that even though I might be legally obligated to that income, enforcing those payments can literally be more expensive than they are worth. Even though she was 100% at fault, the cost of personally suing here would in all likelihood result in lower compensation for me.

It kind of stinks. The combination of a Kansas' low liability requirement ($25,000) and the lack of recoverable assets most of us have means that it is very easy to be completely without fault in a collision and still receive very little compensation for the damage caused.  I could have lost much more than the ability to walk pain-free and the payment I would have received in compensation for my losses (and to pay for future medical care) would have been unaffected.  This is why having uninsured and underinsured policies are so important, particularly in Kansas.  They set a lower limit to the payment amount regardless of the other party's insurance policy.  

To be clear, I really like the idea of protecting what you might call "essential assets" from lawsuits.  Even if I had been able to, I would not have felt good about taking a house, car, or life savings from the gal who hit me. I am very convinced that there was no negligence on her part and that this was entirely an accident.  Unfortunately for me, I am bearing most of the consequence for her mistake but this is exactly why liability insurance should exist.  And this is also why requiring so little liability coverage in Kansas is such a tragedy.  The people who really make out well in this situation are the insurance companies.  They are only on the hook for $25,000, assuming their client buys the state minimum.  If it weren't for the under-insured policy with MY insurance company, everybody but me would have been happy with how things turned out.  That policy made the pool of money in play big enough that lawyers and insurance companies paid attention.

In case it is not clear, here are my recommendations for buying auto insurance:
  • Be responsible and buy a lot of liability insurance.  You may be able to skate by with less but this is the primary mechanism by which people are made whole by the damage you cause.  The amount of havoc that can be wrought by a car is tremendous and as such, your liability coverage should be high.  You don't want to be responsible for any unpaid moral debt.
  • Buy as much uninsured/under-insured coverage as you can afford.  With my insurance company, this was less than 10% of the yearly premium I pay. This extra policy ensures that you won't be left out to dry when somebody else makes a mistake and doesn't have the appropriate amount of insurance.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

One Year Anniversary

A year ago today I was hit by a car while riding into school on my motorcycle.  Today, I can walk and though there is pain in every step, most days it is not much more than what you might experience with a sprained ankle or pulled muscle: annoying but not debilitating.

Thankfully most of what I do is with my mind and and not my body because if the former was the case, things would not be so cheerful. As I have been fixing up our new house, I have found that the flurry of home improvement on Saturday has consequences on Sunday.  I take an ibuprofen and do as Christians have done for centuries; I rest.

I am fragile.  I have always heard those older than me talk about youth and their invincibility.  It wasn't true; how could they say that? It is true. This injury has prematurely aged me and made it clear that this is not simply a statement of the carelessness of youth but more specifically, the lack of necessary care, the lack of premeditation in every step, jump, sprint and turn.  When I approach a large step I become an old man, carefully easing my way down the twelve, fourteen, twenty inches. I remember when I would have eagerly jumped off and landed in a sprint. Now this step is a reverse Himalaya for me, the seasoned mountain climber.  I have history and knowledge that I can conquer this but not without effort and the outcome is uncertain.  There will be pain. I will persist.

I am not young, closer to forty than thirty. About a decade ago I injured my back and over the many months of treatment I was able to more-or-less recover to my pre-injury state.  The physical therapist told me that though I was asymptomatic, I would only stay that way through regular exercise.  The injury would never heal and the pain of my nerve impingement was only millimeters away.  I was young and I generally ignored her.  I have had several minor "re-injuries" since then and still don't do the exercises as often as I should.  My muscles get soft and fail to keep my back in line; I hurt.

Life changes quickly.  I was putting up a picture of Katie and I and it was clear to see they were taken when we were younger, several years ago.  It doesn't seem that like we should look so different.  How long ago did we get married?

This has been a full year for us.  The injury lead to three months of bedrest and three months of physical therapy destroying any plans I had of graduating in May. By mid-June I had a job offer and the process of relocating our lives has filled so many of the days since then. I managed to complete my degree somewhere in there.  It feels like every day from that first phone interview was full with the seeds and fruition of this move; the days feel like weeks. My mind tells me it has been a year since we left Wichita for good.

A legal settlement between all the relevant parties was reached shortly before we left and I do intend to finish my "series" on insurance and what I've learned of the legal system through this incident.  The money was helpful in buying this house but I would trade it back for the ability to run and hike without care again. The only basketball I can play on the huge concrete pad in our backyard is free throw practice.

I write all of this to affirm the platitude: life goes fast and we are not promised tomorrow.  There are many, many who have more than my share of difficulty and trouble through no fault of their own. What I write is not statement of pain and pity but one of grief for the ways things were and never will be again. In the same we that funerals remind us of our mortality and motivate us to consider our life choices, let this short eulogy of my days of youth push all of us to make the most of every day in which we wake up. It is a gift.

Let me end with this. These are words commonly attributed to the Biblical King Solomon of Israel, a man whose life was extravagant, impressive, and devastating enough for our modern media tastes, a man who knew the pleasure and pain of this world so well:

"You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment."

Amen. May it be so.