Snow day

In the new year I’ve resolved to post updates more regularly, starting with a few interesting things from the past month or so. This adventure took place on November 30th, 2019.

I have been back in California almost three years now and I’m still not used to the level of geographic and climate variation on display. I can stand in my yard in a t-shirt and look up at the snow-covered peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains. The end of November saw heavy storms and snowfall, so Katy and I drove up the Angeles Crest Highway to see what we could find.

It did not take long to gain a few thousand feet of elevation and enter a whole different world.

Snow in the Angeles National Forest

We didn’t have a specific destination in mind, so we stopped at a couple pull-offs to marvel at the white stuff. There were plenty of other people doing the same, many quite ill equipped for the weather.

The obligatory selfie

We stumbled upon a neat hiking trail and followed it a short way, but sans map and wearing only jeans, we quickly decided to backtrack.

We had to dig deep in our closets to grab puffy jackets and warm caps, but we weren’t committed enough to get fully decked out for adventure. But perhaps next time!

We turned around and just spent some time driving and marveling at the lovely scenery. Some views were breathtaking. With all the scrub brush and smaller trees it is a very different experience than, say, Vermont or New Hampshire.

We stopped one last time to romp through one particularly nice patch of fresh deep snow. Were snowballs thrown? Of course they were.

An hour later, we were back in the relative warmth of Pasadena.

Women and people of color, of course, were originally outside the protection of [America’s] founding documents. But on Wednesday, the most diverse Congress in history declared that even the most powerful white man in the world should be bound by them. When Republicans act as if that’s a sacrilege, they show us what they worship.

Michelle Goldberg, “The Tyranny of the 63 Million”

Adventures in chimney replacement

We purchased Hacienda de la Tortuga knowing that the circa-1928 chimney was no longer fit for purpose. The chimney is built with a single brick thickness and some of the bricks and mortar had deteriorated due to age and use. Because the structure is not reinforced, an earthquake could send it tumbling into the house or onto the neighbors driveway.

A chimney liner is a flexible or rigid metal tube that is placed into the existing chimney

A traditional fix for this sort of problem is the installation of a metal chimney flue “liner”, a relatively straightforward and inexpensive operation. But due to the narrowness of the chimney and the lack of reinforcement, a liner alone would not solve our problem.

The two masons we consulted both said we needed to tear down the chimney and either seal the fireplace (making it non-functional) or rebuild the chimney at great expense. Neither option was particularly appealing, but we were also unwilling to give up on the charm and comfort of a fireplace.

How a direct vented fireplace works when vented through a rear wall

Having lived on the East coast, I was convinced that another approach would be easy and cost-effective: tearing down the existing chimney and installing a direct venting fireplace instead. While standard wood burning fireplaces are dirty, inefficient, and actually pull heat out of the house, direct vent units are sealed, clean, use natural gas for fuel, and provide substantial heating capacity. Plus, they do not require a chimney!

And this is when I started to think I was losing my mind. While I was convinced that direct vent was the way to go, the local “experts” I consulted were dismissive of the option. They told me direct vent fireplaces are ugly, cheaply made, and inflexible, since you cannot use them to burn wood or to put in other decorative elements. They said that venting through a masonry wall was not possible and would not meet code requirements. I could only find one nearby store that even stocked direct vent units; even there the salesman tried to discourage me from buying one. And if I had bought it, would I have been able to find someone to install it?

I could only find one nearby store that even stocked direct vent units; even there the salesman tried to discourage me from buying one.

Direct vented fireplaces are sealed units that can look quite nice when properly installed

Eventually I identified a local company that was willing and able to reinforce and line the existing chimney for about half the price of a full replacement. That work was completed right before Thanksgiving and, pending final city approval, we now have a functional fireplace that can burn wood.

As I write this on a 40ºF winter morning, I still regret that the direct vent gas option was not possible. It would be nice to have a crackling fire accompanied by heat. At least I know I’m not crazy — plenty of YouTube videos, including one by This Old House, espouse the benefits of the approach I was pursing.

California is a land of paradoxes, and this strange fireplace journey is just another one to add to the list. In an era of climate emergency, why wouldn’t the state be encouraging and even incentivizing the replacement of dirty wood-burning fireplaces with cleaner natural gas alternatives? I wonder how often we will actually burn wood, and how much the heartburn about our contribution to atmospheric carbon pollution will offset our enjoyment of the crackling flames.


A Day With the New AirPods Pro

The original AirPods would not stay on my ears, which is an important prerequisite to using headphones. The new AirPods Pro utilize a proper in-ear design with changeable tips. There is a clever built-in test that plays audio and uses multiple microphones to advise on fit.

Having completed the pairing and calibration, I went for a run on a cool morning. It was a bit confusing to determine how the three modes work — normal, noise-cancelling, and “transparency,” which is supposed to provide the benefit of noise cancellation while also making voices and traffic noises audible. Transparency was particularly awful while wearing a hoodie, as every rub of hood against AirPod stem was loudly transmitted. Sometimes I heard approaching cars quite loudly, but then when a car was pulling out of a driveway right ahead of me, there was no sound at all.

A mile in, I wiped the sweat from my brow with the back of my hand, a common and subconscious action. In the process, I somehow jarred loose the right AirPod, which went flying to the ground. Luckily I did not step on it, but it did get pretty dirty. And when I put it back in my ear, it took a lot of fiddling on the phone before the music would start playing again.

Near the end of my run, I took off my sweatshirt. In the process, both AirPods came loose and fell off. That did it — another very expensive and impractical gadget is going back to the store, and I’m going back to my BackBeat Fits. They don’t sound as good and the case is bulky, but I’ve never worried about them falling out or getting lost.

Rock climbing and the economics of innovation

Because reality has a surprising amount of detail, a quick overview of the many innovations and advances in equipment, technique, travel, and knowledge that were needed before Alex Honnold was in a position to “free solo” El Capitan. Everything builds on everything, and it’s turtles all the way down.

This new abnormal is a pernicious and dangerous departure from the time when the United States sought a leadership role in designing and supporting global agreements that advanced a safer and healthier planet. The new abnormal describes a moment in which fact is becoming indistinguishable from fiction, undermining our very abilities to develop and apply solutions to the big problems of our time. The new abnormal risks emboldening autocrats and lulling citizens around the world into a dangerous sense of anomie and political paralysis.

It is still 2 minutes to midnight, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Introducing Hacienda de la Tortuga

My move to California meant giving up an old house by the sea in favor of modern apartment living. And while apartments have much to recommend them, I missed living in (and owning, and DIYing) my own house. (This mostly manifest in the form of nightly binges of home improvement and woodworking videos on YouTube.)

After getting married in June, Katy and I decided to start looking for a more permanent residence. We stuck to the Pasadena area — which is overflowing with charming Craftsmans — and the surrounding cities. Alas, none of them were in our price range, but after much looking and some stressful negotiations we were able to acquire a cute little bungalow in the Spanish Colonial Revival style.

Our new home is a single-story stucco structure with a flat roof trimmed in clay tile. The lot is a flat 1/4 acre on a quiet street within walking distance of restaurants, a grocery store, and several Armenian bakeries. There is a single car detached garage that is just perfect for a small workshop. And best of all, the house came with a reptilian occupant — a 25 year old, 65 pound sulcata tortoise named Kip!

The previous homeowners adopted Kip after he was found abandoned at the nearby Huntington Library in 2004. He seems pretty active on warm days and more pokey on the cold ones. We’ve been feeding him lots of leafy greens and vegetables and he seems content.

We are planning a few major projects that involve professionals, like replacing outdated sewer systems and old windows, as well as lots of small projects that we can tackle on our own. Katy has managed much of the unpacking and organizing while I’ve been installing new locks, shower curtains, smoke detectors, speakers, and the like.

Surprisingly all of the YouTubing seems to have paid off a bit, or maybe it’s the benefit of all my experience in Hull over the years, plus a bit more patience and planning. So far I haven’t put any holes in walls that weren’t intended, haven’t electrocuted myself, and haven’t needed to make unexpected hardware store visits. I seem to be getting marginally better at patching walls, fishing wires, and adjusting stuck doors.

Our first night here was rough — we felt unsettled, we were surrounded by boxes, there were swarms of ants everywhere, and none of the light switches did what we expected. A week later we are starting to feel more settled and more at home, as well as more confident that this wasn’t a huge mistake.

We are working on coming up with a silly house name, and I’m advocating for Hacienda de la Tortuga. Hacienda for the home’s Spanish heritage and our plans to make it a homestead with vegetable gardens, chickens, and who knows what else. Tortuga for obvious reasons. But Katy would like to incorporate our gatos into the name as well. I guess we’ll keep thinking about it. We plan to be here for a while, so there is no rush, and in the meantime there is so much else to do!

The Myth of the Wealthy Welder

Dissecting a conservative myth that contends middle-America tradespeople can be as or more successful than college-educated city dwellers in the modern economy. In reality trades are rarely lucrative, and the underfunding of public education means that trade schools leave students deeply indebted even as they face a lack of opportunity.

Politicizing the weather

Trump’s Sharpie vs. reality

As all levels of government are subverted and corrupted at a pace few would have thought possible, even something as fact-based on weather predictions are subject to the lies and whims of a whiny and narcissistic chief executive:

“It makes me speechless that the leadership would put [Trump’s] feelings and ego ahead of putting out weather information accurately,” said Michael Halpern, a deputy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If we’re politicizing the weather what is there left to politicize?”

NOAA staff warned in Sept. 1 directive against contradicting Trump“, Washington Post

The corruption of any notion of objective, agreed-upon reality is the point. The breakdown of social cohesion is the point. Once even the weather is a political opinion, the fabric of society is so ripped asunder that unity and common purpose may never again be achievable.



Ragtime book cover

Ragtime is my favorite musical. Re-reading the original E.L. Doctorow novel recently, I found it impossible to disentangle it from my feelings about the show.

I first read the novel around the same time as I saw the original production. My grandfather gave it to me and I struggled through it. I found the narrative style jarring and the story disjointed. When I told him this, he laughed and marveled that such a good show could come from such a mess of a book. Apparently he gave me the reading assignment as a form of torture!

Re-reading it now, I love the narrative structure, the simultaneous richness and sparseness of the prose, the seamless blending of real historic figures and imaginary characters. It truly is a rich tapestry of an era. And I still agree with grandpa, it is remarkable that a novel with such construction could be so expertly adapted into a riveting stage musical.

Automated pancake robot

Pancake robot doing it's thing
From batter to nearly inedible finished pancake in only 60 seconds.

I can’t stop thinking about the engineering effort, time, testing, and sheet ingenuity that went into making this $4,000 machine that spits out the worst pancakes I have ever tasted.

Encountered at the Heathrow Airport Doubletree Hotel on our layover coming home from Greece. This was also my first time experiencing manufactured fried eggs that were simply re-heated on site. Each one looked exactly the same and tasted only vaguely like the real thing. Progress!