Wednesday, October 22, 2008

more on prop 7

The prior research and discussion on Prop 7 continues, both on this blog and in the comments here. Here's where things stand now.

1. I've managed to convince myself that Prop 7 will not affect the legal status of distributed power generation (such as rooftop solar) that's operating under a net metering program.

Net metering is a program where you hook your rooftop solar up to the grid. You pay your utility company for the amount of power you use minus the amount you generate. Under net metering, if you generate more than you use, the utility doesn't have to pay you for it unless you have some sort of separate contract with them.

I was concerned that Prop 7's language would interfere with distributed generation. It turns out it still might, but not the part of distributed generation that's part of net metering. The Energy Policy Initiatives Center has a useful article (pdf) on California law governing Renewable Energy Credits. Section 5, along with its footnotes, gets into distributed generation. It points out that distributed generation through net metering is governed by a separate set of laws, not by the part Prop 7 changes. That's what the exclusion from the definition of "Retail Seller" of generation consistent with Section 218(b) is all about in Public Utilities Code section 399.12(i)(4)(A).

Now, if you want a contract where you get paid for generating more than you use, that may well put you in the category of being a photovoltaic producer under 30 megawatts, so Prop 7 may have some implications for you.

2. It's still not clear what effect Prop 7 has on producers under 30 megawatts.

There are basically two arguments that prop 7 locks out producers of less than 30 megawatts. I think I may have cleared one up, but the other's still murky.

2.a. Must an "in-state renewable electricity generation facility" be a "facility"?

The first argument goes something like this: to be an "eligible renewable energy resource," you must be a "solar and clean energy facility" and you must also be an "in-state renewable electricity generation facility" as defined in the public resources code. The public resources code § 25741 defines "in-state renewable electricity generation facility" as "a facility that meets all of the following criteria" and then gives a list of criteria. It also contains a definition of the word "facility" in § 25110, which the text of prop 7 (official pdf, unofficial HTML version) changes to specifically include "solar and clean energy plant", a term that means a plant of 30MW or more. So the question is whether an in-state renewable electricity generation facility must be a "facility" as defined in § 25110, or whether the word "facility" there is just the generic, English word "facility" without the statutory meaning. If it has the statutory meaning, then to qualify for the renewable portfolio standard, your solar or clean energy generator would have to generate at least 30MW.

I haven't been able to find a court case, a California Public Utilities Commission decision, or a California Energy Commission decision that addresses that question. However, the California Energy Commission publishes a set of guides for energy producers interested in the Renewable Portfolio Standard. One guide (pdf), in particular, covers what energy generators are eligible to participate in the Renewable Portfolio Standard. The current definition of "facility" is restricted to transmission lines and thermal power plants (which must have a capacity of at least 50 megawatts), but the eligibility guide says that solar photovoltaic generators are eligible and doesn't give a minimum size. So I can't point to chapter and verse, but it seems likely that the CPUC and CEC are using "facility" in its common meaning in this case, rather than as the defined term.

2.b. Is a "solar and clean energy plant" the same as a "solar and clean energy facility"?

When the "no on prop 7" folks put in their ballot response that prop 7 excludes renewable energy producers of less than 30 megawatts, the "yes on prop 7" folks took them to court. Peter Wall was kind enough to get a copy (pdf) of the ruling, which he posted to his blog. The associated legal whitepaper (pdf), which appears to be a moderately-edited legal brief, goes into more detail about the arguments. Essentially, the argument boils down to the fact that, to be eligible under the renewable portfolio standard, prop 7 requires that you be a "solar and clean energy facility" and an "in-state renewable electricity generation facility." But it doesn't define "solar and clean energy facility." It does define "solar and clean energy plant," however, and that definition sets a 30 megawatt floor on its size. It also defines "facility," but it does it over in the Public Resources Code, not in the Public Utilities Code where it uses "solar and clean energy facility."

In the court case, the folks against Prop 7 argued that Prop 7 made the two terms the same, that a "solar and clean energy facility" is a "solar and clean energy plant", blocking out producers under 30 MW. The folks in favor of Prop 7 argued that they're different. The court found "each of the party's interpretations has some support in the initiative's text." Personally, I'm not convinced either way by the arguments, so this one's still murky.

3. And now, two rants.

3.a. Rant the First: For cryin' out loud, California, fix your defined terms!

When you write a contract, it's common practice to capitalize defined terms. For instance, you might say something like this:
"Facility" means an thermal power plant which produces electricity and has a capacity of at least 30 megawatts.
And then when you use the definition, if you mean the defined term, you capitalize it, and when you don't mean the defined term, you leave it lower case to indicate the word takes on its ordinary meaning in common written English:
The Commission will consider the application of any facility, but it will approve an application only if it is submitted by a Facility.
This is something California does not do. Which means when they pepper the Public Utilities Code and the Public Resources Code with the word "facility," there's no way to know whether they mean the common term or the defined term. I mean, come on, all you'd have to do is distinguish between "Solar and Clean Energy Plant" and "solar and clean energy facility" and that whole issue 2.b. would just go away.

3.b. Rant the Second: Could we please raise the level of information here?

The amount of time it's taking to get hard info on this initiative is really adding up, and a big part of the problem is the "yes" and "no" campaigns. The "no on 7" web site is mostly conclusory statements with nary a link or cite to supporting data. I can't even get on the "yes on 7" site because it's flash-only, and flash is giving my browser indigestion right now. The Union of Concerned Scientists' "no on 7" page is marginally better, but it still doesn't provide the raw info necessary to really assess this complex set of changes. And there are rapidly approaching limits to how much time I can spend analyzing this stuff. It really shouldn't be necessary to spend hours digging for primary sources to cut through the crap.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

prop 7's giving me fits

During a slow period at work, I decided to research some of the initiatives that will be on the ballot in the November election. Proposition 7 is causing some consternation. That's the one that increases targets for renewable energy, but it also does a number of other things. One of the questions I find most troubling is whether it blocks or tilts the playing field against small energy producers. See, I eventually want to be able to put solar panels on the roof, use what I need, then sell the rest back to the power grid. And even more importantly, I want everyone else in sunny California doing the same thing, because that means fewer transmission lines, fewer fossil fuel and nuclear plants, fewer distribution losses, and eventually a more resilient grid. The Prop 7 opponents say small renewable generators don't count towards the power plants' renewables quota, while the proponents say the proposition doesn't rule them out. The news reports haven't actually quoted the language at issue, and I can't find the Sacramento County Superior Court ruling by Judge Michael Kenny (in which he reportedly refused to take sides). So I decided to dive into the language of the proposition itself.

Let's start at page 121 (page 42 of the PDF), section 399.11(a). It discusses the intent of the law: "to attain the targets of generating 20 percent of total retail sales of electricity in California from eligible renewable energy resources by December 31, 2010" (plus 40% by 12/31/2020 and 50% by 12/31/2025) (emphasis added). That term "eligible renewable energy resources" also shows up in the definitions of "renewables portfolio standard" (section 399.11(g) at page 122) and "renewable energy credit" (section 399.11(h) at page 122). Basically, if it's not from an eligible renewable energy resource, it doesn't count for the renewables portfolio standard and you can't get a renewable energy credit from it. The renewables portfolio standard governs what portion of renewable energy the utility (technically, any "retail seller", defined in section 399.11(i)) has to buy (sections 399.14 and 399.15). I think renewable energy credits are the currency of the carbon trading system. (Section 399.13) As a result, what constitutes an eligible renewable energy resource is crucial to this whole question.

An eligible renewable energy resource is, with a few exceptions related to hydroelectrics and waste incinerators, a "solar and clean energy facility" that meets the defintion of "in-state renewable electricity generation facility". (Section 399.11(c).)

Now we're getting somewhere.

An "in-state renewable electricity generation facility" is a kind of "facility." (Section 25741.) A "facility" includes a regulated "solar and clean energy plant." (Section 25110, as amended, at page 124) And a "solar and clean energy plant" is an "electrical generating facility using wind, solar photovoltaic, [or] solar thermal . . . technologies, with a generating capacity of 30 megawatts or more" (plus small hydro of under 30 MW). (Section 25137, at page 125.)

As a result, it's entirely plausible to me that my rooftop solar of less than 30 MW would not be a "solar and clean energy plant", so it wouldn't be a "facility", so it wouldn't be an "in-state renewable electricity facility", so it wouldn't be an "eligible renewable energy resource", so it wouldn't count for the "renewables portfolio standard" and I couldn't get a "renewable energy credit" for it. Interestingly, when I searched on some of these terms looking for definitions in California law, I came across the California Solar Energy Industries Association's site which has a similar analysis, though they bolster it with some of the intent language.

Now, counter-arguments exist, and I'm sure they came up in the Superior Court case, but since the folks who drafted California's Public Resources Code put all the defined terms in lower case, it's tricky to tell what's a defined term and what's not (and where the boundaries lie), leading to this kind of ambiguity. And frankly, the whole thing cuts too close to the line for my tastes, so as much as it galls me to do it, I think I'll most likely be voting against this proposition. And if some wrong-thinking commentator interprets that vote as a vote against renewable energy in general, well, I guess I'll just have to point him or her to this blog entry.

[Added 10/22: See the comments for more discussion. Also, see the follow-up post here.]

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

AIG and Mark to Market Accounting

There's an interesting article here on the link between AIG and under-capitalization in the European banks. The author points out that AIG's insurance on defaults allowed European banks to operate with much less capital than regulations would normally require, hence the chaos in Europe when AIG was on the skids (and the big federally engineered bailout of AIG).

There's also an interesting collection of quotes here about the proposal to give the SEC the power to suspend mark-to-market accounting. The comments are also a great read. Favorite quotes:
  • "Suspending mark-to-market accounting, in essence, suspends reality." -- Beth Brooke, global vice chair at Ernst & Young LLP;
  • "As a former MBS derivative trader...... all I can say is that not requiring traders to [d]o MTM is essentially a license to print your own say the least, this is not what an already opaque asset class needs at this time!" -- comment by Anonymous;
  • "If the credit markets have seized up because nobody knows who holds the toxic waste on their balance sheets, how is hiding it and pretending it isn't there going to help?" -- comment by IrvineRenter.
OK, that's enough bad news for now. If the federal government's debating suspending accounting rules, the accounting equivalent of pulling the covers over your head, then I can do the literary equivalent. Off to find some good news.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

just sayin'

Mortgages had one key advantage over junk bonds: they were rated AAA by the major credit-rating agencies. The U.S. government felt that home mortgages were important and it subsidized them, not only allowing taxpayers to deduct interest payments, but by implicitly backing the payments on mortgage bonds.

Salomon stripped these mortgages into pieces in the same way First Boston had stripped junk bonds. Salomon created a trust . . . transferred a pool of mortgages into the trust, and then created a structure to separate the mortgages into different tranches. . . . These strips of mortgages were generally known as Collateralized Mortgage Obligations, or CMOs, and the different varieties had fantastically colorful acronyms . . . In most cases, the wilder the name, the riskier the bond. The riskiest versions were sometimes just called "nuclear waste."
-- Frank Partnoy, Infectious Greed at 103, describing the creation of Collateralized Mortgage Obligations in the early 1990's.
As average investors learned about the losses, they became upset with Wall Street, and bankers briefly became pariahs, as they occasionally do. . . . The bankers didn't seem to care about all the fuss. They knew it would go away soon, as it always did. Instead, they disclaimed any responsibility, and blamed investors for making stupid bets and for failing to supervise their investments.
-- Frank Partnoy, Infectious Greed at 137-38, describing the climate in December 1994 and early 1995 as news began to spread of major losses due to derivatives trading, especially losses in Collateralized Mortgage Obligations due to the Federal Reserve's increase in interest rates on February 4, 1994.
For more than a decade, a massive amount of money flowed into the United States from investors abroad, because our country is an attractive and secure place to do business. This large influx of money to U.S. banks and financial institutions -- along with low interest rates -- made it easier for Americans to get credit. . . . Easy credit -- combined with the faulty assumption that home values would continue to rise -- led to excesses and bad decisions. Many mortgage lenders approved loans for borrowers without carefully examining their ability to pay. Many borrowers took out loans larger than they could afford, assuming that they could sell or refinance their homes at a higher price later on.
-- President George Bush, Address to the Nation, September 24, 2008, describing the economic crisis of 2007-2008.
As we all know, lax lending practices earlier this decade led to irresponsible lending and irresponsible borrowing. This simply put too many families into mortgages they could not afford. . . . A similar scenario is playing out among the lenders who made those mortgages, the securitizers who bought, repackaged and resold them, and the investors who bought them. These troubled loans are now parked, or frozen, on the balance sheets of banks and other financial institutions, preventing them from financing productive loans. The inability to determine their worth has fostered uncertainty about mortgage assets, and even about the financial condition of the institutions that own them. The normal buying and selling of nearly all types of mortgage assets has become challenged.
-- Treasury Secretary (and former CEO of Goldman Sachs) Henry Paulson, Statement to Congress, September 19, 2008, describing the economic crisis of 2007-2008.
Mortgage and asset-backed securities include residential and commercial whole loans and interests in residential and commercial mortgage-backed securitizations. Also included within Mortgage and asset-backed securities are securities whose cash flows are based on pools of assets in bankruptcy-remote entities, or collateralized by cash flows from a specified pool of underlying assets. The pools of assets may include, but are not limited to mortgages, receivables and loans. Additionally, the Company’s mortgage-related trading positions consist of loans purchased as non-performing loans, equity interests in commercial properties and asset-backed securities that are backed by mortgage loans or other assets.

It is the Company’s intent to sell through securitization or syndication activities, residential and commercial mortgage whole loans the Company originates, as well as those acquired in the secondary market. The Company originated approximately $0.5 billion and $2 billion of residential mortgage loans for the three and six months ended May 31, 2008, respectively, compared to the $17 billion and $32 billion for the three and six months ended May 31, 2007, respectively. The Company originated approximately $2 billion and $4 billion of commercial mortgage loans for the three and six months ended May 31, 2008, respectively, compared to the $19 billion and $32 billion for the three and six months ended May 31, 2007, respectively.
-- Lehman Brothers, Quarterly Report on Form 10-Q, July 10, 2008.
Lehman Brothers reported a preliminary net loss of approximately ($3.9) billion, or ($5.92) per common share (diluted), for the third quarter ended August 31, 2008, compared to a net loss of ($2.8) billion, or ($5.14) per common share (diluted), for the second quarter of fiscal 2008 and net income of $887 million, or $1.54 per common share (diluted), for the third quarter of fiscal 2007. The net loss was driven primarily by gross mark-to-market adjustments stemming from writedowns on commercial and residential mortgage and real estate assets

Net revenues (total revenues less interest expense) for the third quarter of fiscal 2008 are expected to be negative ($2.9) billion, compared to negative ($0.7) billion for the second quarter of fiscal 2008 and $4.3 billion for the third quarter of fiscal 2007. Net revenues for the third quarter of fiscal 2008 reflect negative mark-to-market adjustments and principal trading losses, net of gains on certain risk mitigation strategies and certain debt liabilities.

During the fiscal third quarter, the Firm is expected to incur negative gross mark-to-market adjustments on assets of ($7.8) billion, including gross negative mark-to-market adjustments of ($5.3) billion on residential mortgage-related positions, ($1.7) billion on commercial real estate positions, ($600) million on other asset-backed positions and ($200) million on acquisition finance positions. These mark-to-market adjustments were offset by $800 million of hedging gains during the quarter and $1.4 billion of debt valuation gains. The Firm is also expected to record losses on principal investments of approximately $760 million.
-- Lehman Brothers, Press Release filed with Current Report on Form 8-K, September 10, 2008.

I thought the symmetry was striking. What does it all mean? I dunno. You decide. I just blog here.

Oh, here's one more:

Turmoil in the credit markets has pushed Libor—the London interbank offered rate—to an all-time high, according to the British Bankers' Association. . . . Libor . . . [is] the rate at which banks lend to other banks that need temporary funds, by way of the London interbank market. This benchmark is significant because it represents the rate at which the world's most preferred borrowers are able to borrow money, and it's also a widely used reference point for short-term interest rates. . . . After the rejection of the bailout bill by the House of Representatives, banks hoarded cash, driving Libor up to 6.88 percent.

-- U.S. News & World Report, The Low-Down on Libor: Why its Surge Signals Despiration in the Credit Markets, September 30, 2008, noting that more than half of U.S. adjustable rate mortgages are tied to Libor.

Friday, September 26, 2008

sub-ocean methane leaking

I'm surprised this news hasn't gotten more coverage: there's preliminary news that, as the permafrost is melting, methane that was previously trapped beneath the Arctic Sea is bubbling to the surface and escaping to the atmosphere. Methane is about 20 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. It's not yet clear just how much methane is escaping, but it does raise the concern of a positive feedback loop, where more methane escapes, warms the climate, causing more permafrost melting, more methane escaping, and so on.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

One More Question

Mr. President, there's one more question that's been bothering me. In a free market, I would expect assets to move to the entity best equipped to extract the most value from them. For instance, I would expect banks to hang onto their mortgages, because banks are in the best position to make sure that the mortgage holder makes payments on time. If the bank sells the right to receive mortgage payments to someone else, and the mortgage holder defaults, won't that someone else have to go back to the bank to harass the mortgage holder into paying up, or to seize and sell the house? It seems to me that having to go back to the bank would increase transaction costs, making the right to payment worth less to that someone else than it is to the bank. So the bank shouldn't normally be willing to sell that right in the first place.

Yet, according to your speech, mortgage securitization, selling that right to get payments, is a big part of the mess we're in. A really big, $700 billion size, part. That means a lot of banks have been selling mortgages that basic economic theory says they shouldn't be able to sell. And it wasn't a fire sale, because they were doing it in a period of rapid economic growth. What's going on?

The only thing I can think of is that someone was either fibbing or asleep at the switch. Maybe the people buying the securitized mortgage debt didn't know how to value it properly, either because they had bad information from the sellers or because they simply weren't financially sophisticated enough to value it, despite the accredited investor safeguards we have in place. Or maybe that debt was being repackaged into securities designed to skirt around laws and regulations that would normally prevent purchasers from buying that kind of debt.

In any case, I'd really like to know. Preferably before we commit to giving these people $700 billion of our tax money. After all, if they're not savvy enough to value the mortgage debt properly, are we confident they'll use the money wisely? And if they were fibbing, then we'll want to keep an extra close eye on them, maybe closer than what a few members of a bipartisan panel can keep.

Follow-up: if you're not sure what I'm talking about, you can find a readable summary of mortgage securitization, complete with "chicken parts" analogy, here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Bush Economy Speech

Dear Mr. Bush,

Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to explain to us why your administration is proposing this $700 billion Troubled Asset Repurchase Plan. I feel it is the least I can do to respond to some of the points you have raised.

First, you mentioned a number of questions that you knew many Americans have tonight: "How did we reach this point in our economy? How will the solution I've proposed work? And what does this mean for your financial future?" I would like to add two more: How will we prevent this situation in the future? And why is the solution you have proposed the appropriate one?

I couldn't help but notice that your discussion of how we reached this point in our economy did not touch on some factors that are probably significant. You mention large amounts of foreign investment, easy credit, a faulty assumption that house prices would continue to increase, and a large number of mortgage defaults triggered by an oversupply of housing. But you did not discuss the role of deregulation in creating a complex, intertwined financial system, in which no one knows the size of the Credit Default Swap market, an issue that led to the government's $85 billion line of credit to American International Group.

You also did not address the role of the credit ratings agencies and their failure to properly rate this mortgage debt. Nor did you touch upon the role moral hazard plays, in which a free market, hands-off philosophy only during good times allows financial companies to keep their profits but encourages them to take on too much risk, on the belief that the government will bail them out. Finally, you did not provide your thoughts on whether compensation packages that reward chief executive officers for short term gain, coupled with severance packages that do not take into account the long term financial position of the company, create an incentive for too much risk.

In fact, Mr. President, your discussion of how to avoid this situation in the future was limited to Mr. Paulson's suggestion that the Federal Reserve (not the SEC?) "take a closer look at the operations of companies across the financial spectrum and ensure that their practices do not threaten overall financial stability" and that Congress consider "other good ideas," but with the stern caution that they must "ensure that efforts to regulate Wall Street do not end up hampering our economy's ability to grow."

That last caution was enough out of step with the rest of our address that it seems necessary to address some of its implications. In justifying this deviation from your normal inclination against intervening in the markets, you said that "these are not normal circumstances" and that "the market is not functioning properly." Mr. President, I put it to you that, by the time a company has grown "too large to fail," it is already operating outside the free market system--by definition. Once it has reached that size, the market forces that apply to that company are already not functioning properly.

You also did not address why the solution you propose is the correct one. You made a case for quick action, painting a gloomy picture of the consequences of inaction and noting that the government's top economic experts are warning there must be immediate action. But from there, the primary justification you offer for this particular economic rescue plan is to say "after much discussion, there is now widespread agreement on the principles such a plan would include." I cannot help but note that the news reaching us taxpayers does not portray anything approaching "widespread agreement" from Congress.

Why are you confident that $700 billion, spent primarily to buy bad debt from financial institutions, is the appropriate fix for this problem? What will be the long term effect on the economy of raising the debt ceiling? Is it appropriate to delay addressing those "good ideas" to prevent this problem in the future until after spending the money, rather than building provisions into the contracts with the firms that will receive the money, or at least building in additional latitude such as the ability to obtain a significant voting block of stock?

Finally, I understand there is only so much you can fit into a fifteen minute appearance, and you no doubt had good reasons to limit your talk to fifteen minutes. In the future, however, may I suggest asking your speech writers to include a good sound bite. Here's a good starting point: "we have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Cory Doctorow has a wedding ring designed by Bruce Schneier. It's a secret encoder ring, naturally. Now they're looking for an encryption algorithm that can use the ring. I hit a slow patch at work, waiting for some documents to arrive (which means it's going to be all the worse when they actually do arrive), so I spent a few minutes on one. I'm going to post the short version of the algorithm at boingboing, but here's the long version, implemented in Perl. (I deliberately avoided using Perl tricks to keep it clear.)

Update 9/10/08: you get better results if you calculate the advance a bit differently. Start with 1. If ring 2 has a dot above, add 2; if it has a dot below, add 1. If ring 3 has a dot above, add 6; if it has a dot below, add 3. I'm still experimenting with the advance, though.

#!/usr/bin/perl -w

# Calculates how many positions to advance a ring to get to the desired letter
sub calcAdvance {
my ($pos, $newPos) = @_;
my $advance = $newPos - $pos;
if ($advance < 0) {
$advance = $advance + 26;
return $advance;

# Ring1 is inner-most, Ring3 is outer-most.
# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
my @ring2Dots = (9,9,0,0,3,3,9,9,0,0,3,3,9,9,0,0,3,3,9,9,0,0,3,3,9,9);
my @ring3Dots = (2,2,2,0,0,0,1,1,1,2,2,2,0,0,0,1,1,1,2,2,2,0,0,0,1,1);

# The Conjugal Encryption Algorithm.
# Initialization using the crypto key.
# Start by aligning all the "A"'s.
my $ring2Pos = 0;
my $ring3Pos = 0;

# Then initialize the ring.
my $key = "congratulations";
while ($key ne "") {

# 1. Get the next character of the key
my $keyChar = substr ($key, 0, 1);
$key = substr ($key, 1);

# 2. Rotate rings 2 and 3 together so the A on
# Ring 1 aligns with the key character on
# Ring 3.
my $advance = calcAdvance ($ring3Pos,
ord (lc ($keyChar)) - ord ("a"));
$ring2Pos = ($ring2Pos + $advance) % 26;
$ring3Pos = ($ring3Pos + $advance) % 26;

# 3. Calculate an advancement amount.
# a. Start with 1.
# b. Look at the Ring 2 letter next to the A of Ring 1.
# If there's a dot above, add 9. If there's a dot
# below, add 3.
# c. Look at the Ring 3 letter next to the A of Ring 1.
# If there's a dot above, add 2. If there's a dot
# below, add 1.
$advance = 1 + $ring2Dots[$ring2Pos] + $ring3Dots[$ring3Pos];

# 4. Advance Ring 3 that many letters.
$ring3Pos = ($ring3Pos + $advance) % 26;

# Generate some useful output
my $plaintext = "Wishing you a happy life together!";
print $plaintext, "\n";

# Skip whitespace and punctuation when encrypting.
$plaintext = lc($plaintext);
$plaintext =~ tr/a-z//cd;
print uc($plaintext), "\n";

# Encrypt text. Initialization vector omitted for clarity.
my $cyphertext = "";
while ($plaintext ne "") {

# 1. Look at the letter on Ring 3 adjacent to the A on Ring 1.
# Rotate Rings 2 and 3 together so that same letter on
# Ring 2 is adjacent to the A on Ring 1 (and some different
# letter on Ring 3 will now be adjacent.)
my $advance = calcAdvance ($ring2Pos, $ring3Pos);
$ring2Pos = ($ring2Pos + $advance) % 26;
$ring3Pos = ($ring3Pos + $advance) % 26;

# 2. Calculate an advancement amount.
# a. Start with 1.
# b. Look at the Ring 2 letter next to the A of Ring 1.
# If there's a dot above, add 9. If there's a dot
# below, add 3.
# c. Look at the Ring 3 letter next to the A of Ring 1.
# If there's a dot above, add 2. If there's a dot
# below, add 1.
$advance = 1 + $ring2Dots[$ring2Pos] + $ring3Dots[$ring3Pos];

# 3. Advance Ring 3 that many letters.
$ring3Pos = ($ring3Pos + $advance) % 26;

# 4. Get the next character of the plaintext.
my $plainChar = substr ($plaintext, 0, 1);
$plaintext = substr ($plaintext, 1);

# 5. To encrypt this letter of plaintext, find the
# plaintext on Ring 1 and write down the matching
# cyphertext on Ring 3. (To decrypt, look at
# the cyphertext on Ring 3 and write down the matching
# plaintext on Ring 1.)
my $ring3CryptoPos
= (ord ($plainChar) - ord ("a") + $ring3Pos) % 26;
$cyphertext = $cyphertext . chr ($ring3CryptoPos + ord ("A"));

# Print the cyphertext.
print $cyphertext, "\n";

Thursday, August 14, 2008

more on inverting the pattern

I've been thinking a bit more about inverting the pattern, moving from a blog-like pattern of lots of talking and not much listening to something with more listening and less talk, or at least more meaningful listening.

Broadcast media is not the answer. A radio or TV station is basically the same thing as a blog, still a monologue where the speaker is hoping listeners will tune in. There might be more listening, but only because there are fewer speakers.

If you look at the pattern of a typical conversation, it's a group of people with only one person talking at a time. It happens that way because if two people try to talk at once, they interfere with each other. And it's usually considered bad form for one person to monopolize the conversation. With blogs, though, there's really no limit to the number of people who can talk at once, so there's a lot more talking. But with all the talk, who has time to listen and evaluate?

So what would it mean to bring a conversation-like pattern into the Internet? One example might be Internet Relay Chat: when one person types, everyone on the channel sees it. Another example, which I like even better because it moves a little more slowly, allowing the opportunity for greater depth, is a computer bulletin board. The modern version would be a web forum. Unlike blogs, where the blog's author holds most of the conversational power, the participants in bulletin board systems or forums [1] all have roughly equal power, so there's more room for the give-and-take that makes for conversation.

[1] Apologies to the classics purists, but I just can't bring myself to write "fora".

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

inverting the pattern

Blogs are all about talking, but they're rarely about conversing. They're more like monologues within earshot of one-another, and sometimes another person will tune in and change their own monologue in response. Twitter's basically the same thing, which isn't too surprising since it's really a form of blogging.

I wonder, though, if there's a way to invert the pattern. Instead of everyone talking and hoping someone listens, is there a way you could reverse it so there's much more listening going on than talking? What would such a thing look like? And would people use it?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Al Gore's speech

This post was originally going to be an analysis of Al Gore's energy challenge speech and some of the criticism of it.

If you view the speech as a logical or rhetorical argument, it has its share of problems. For example, when talking about the falling price of silicon for solar cells, Gore says, "the same thing happened with computer chips--also made out of silicon. The price paid for the same performance came down by 50 percent every 18 months--year after year, and that's what's happened for 40 years in a row." This conclusion doesn't follow: the price per unit of performance for computer chip drops because transistors keep getting smaller, but making the features on a solar cell smaller will quickly run out of steam because you're fundamentally limited by the amount of sunlight per unit area. Even if you increase efficiency by 50% every 18 months, and in a few years you get darn close to 100%, you still hit the limit imposed by the sun. That's not to say that solar cells won't get cheaper, but microchips' cost per unit performance is not the right model. Also, Gore has the annoying habit of not citing his sources, even in the transcript, which makes the speech very hard to fact-check.

The criticism is worse. It opens by saying "Al Gore wants you to do as he says, not as he does" and spends fully a third of its length calling Gore a hypocrite. But that doesn't follow either: the validity of Gore's contention that we need this energy challenge, and the underlying reasoning he presents, have nothing to do with his personal energy consumption habits. It could just as easily come from, for example, T. Boone Pickens. The next third of the criticism is devoted to an argument that says, essentially, it's impossible because we're not doing it now: renewables are a tiny percentage of our current energy production, therefore it is unreasonable to expect that they could reach 100% in ten years. But at its core, this argument is a simple assertion that change is impossible, which we know by experience to be false. Finally, two thirds of the way down, the criticism brings up a scientific paper that denies human impact on global temperature change, which is at least fodder for debate. (More background on that paper here and here.)

But you know, my heart just isn't in the analysis. Deep down, the reason is that I missed the last Apollo project and want one I can be a part of. And this is a cause I can get behind. It's big, it's inspiring, it'll create some fantastic spinoff technologies, and it'll produce great results. Even on the (exceptionally remote) chance that the IPCC is wrong and the paper the criticsm cites is right, that anthropogenic global temperature change is an illusion, it's extremely hard to deny that much of U.S. foreign policy is driven by a dependence on foreign oil, that even if we tap all our domestic sources they won't meet our demand, and that shifting to domestically produced renewables would give us a ton of new flexibility in foreign policy. So, yeah, I hope this thing takes off. And if it does, I want in.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

redundancy and unexpected interdependency

A couple weeks ago, the office network went down. Not surprisingly, we couldn't print or get to any electronically filed documents. Maybe a bit more surprisingly, the phones also went out because we've moved to fancy new Cisco network-based phones, and they took voice mail--which is now e-mail-based--with them. And so did the fax machines, because when faxes come in they get scanned and e-mailed to us. The net result was that we were almost dead in the water. Fortunately, the Blackberries stayed up, so we could use cell phones and could still send e-mail through the Blackberry server.

These sorts of unexpected interdependencies are cropping up more and more often as we begin to link one network to another, and as traditional network technologies shift around. I've already written about how my (now former) cell phone's alarm clock stopped working when the phone couldn't reach the cell network. There was a radio discussion today about an issue with digital TV: many people put battery-powered analog TV sets in survival kits so they can get news if there's a natural disaster, but (1) the set-top converter boxes that we'll need to use once HDTV becomes standard require wall power to run, which would make those analog battery powered TVs useless, and (2) many radio stations no longer have a news department, acting more as satellite feeds for a central office, so your transistor radio may not be able to pull in anything useful, either. Oh yeah, and many folks are moving away from conventional land-lines at home and going to VOIP phones or cell phones exclusively.

The classic way to deal with system failure is through redundancy: if the TV network goes out, you still have radio, which can get you much of what you need, or maybe you still have telephone. And so forth. The problem is that redundancy only works where you can stop a failure in one system from propagating to other systems. That's one reason most software doesn't have a redundant design: it's very hard to predict how far the effects of a failure will propagate through software, so it's generally not cost-effective to make it redundant. As our networking capabilities become more sophisticated, we're getting to the point where it's becoming harder to figure out what effect a failure of one network will have on the other networked systems we use.

The right way to do this, from an engineering perspective, is to take these sorts of problems into account when designing the systems, and then to periodically test them to make sure we got it right. That's not going to happen, at least right now, for social and economic reasons. The second-best approach would be to invest time and money into developing the design and evaluation tools necessary to either constrain the effects of a failure, so they don't propagate to other systems, or to at least be able to predict the likely failure modes and how far they'll propagate. We might eventually do that, but it'll take time. What's most likely to happen is the same thing that happened in structural engineering a hundred years ago: we may well see a series of unexpected, unforecasted failures, and they'll likely continue until we implement one of the first two approaches above.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

switching antivirus software

For a couple years, now, I've been using AVG Free edition. And for the last month or two, they've been pressuring me to upgrade to version 8. When I install new software, I often skim the End User License Agreement. In this case, here's what I turned up in the EULA for AVG Free 8.0:

6. Miscellaneous.

. . .

b. Privacy.

i. You acknowledge that AVG Technologies collects certain information regarding the users of the Software, including certain personally identifiable information. You hereby consent to AVG Technologies' collection and use of such information, and agree that AVG Technologies' collection and use of such information will be governed by AVG Technologies' Privacy Policy, currently published at, as AVG Technologies may revise the same from time to time.

I'm not too thrilled with the idea of my antivirus software communicating personally identifiable information back to the manufacturer based on a privacy policy they can change at any time. Based on the language in this agreement, I don't see any restrictions that would prevent them from changing the privacy policy in such a way that they could return any contents of my hard drive that they chose to. I also don't really like the idea of a toolbar redirecting DNS and Error 404 pages. The intent is probably to allow them to redirect to a "we didn't find your web page, but here are several similar pages" search engine that provides revenue to AVG, but (a) they don't make that explicit in the agreement, and (b) I don't know what effect such a redirection would have on Firefox, especially in odd situations like running a search while there's no wireless network connection, something that happens fairly frequently when our wireless cuts out.

Net upshot: I'm giving Avast Free Edition a try, instead. I've been running it on a desktop machine that I use occasionally for games, but this'll be the first time on the laptop I use frequently. The only difficulty I ran into is that Avast doesn't automatically uninstall AVG, so you need to do that manually via Add/Remove Programs (off the Control Panel). Also, Avast has a spinning logo in the tool tray, which is cute (the logo spins while it's doing its thing), but I find the movement distracting. However, the EULA was clean. Now we'll see how the program works.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Off-Shore Oil Drilling

I've been sick for the last few days, which has left me with the dangerous combination of being grumpy and having some time on my hands. Which brings me to the topic at hand.

President Bush has called for drilling in the outer continental shelf. Specifically, he has said the following:
In the short run, the American economy will continue to rely largely on oil. And that means we need to increase supply, especially here at home. So my administration has repeatedly called on Congress to expand domestic oil production. Unfortunately, Democrats on Capitol Hill have rejected virtually every proposal -- and now Americans are paying the price at the pump for this obstruction. Congress must face a hard reality: Unless Members are willing to accept gas prices at today's painful levels -- or even higher -- our nation must produce more oil. And we must start now. . . .

First, we should expand American oil production by increasing access to the Outer Continental Shelf, or OCS. Experts believe that the OCS could produce about 18 billion barrels of oil. That would be enough to match America's current oil production for almost ten years.
What's interesting about this statement is that the Department of Energy ran a study on drilling in the OCS just last year. The study looked at the current restrictions, which expire in 2012, and mapped out the cases where drilling is allowed and where the restrictions are renewed and no drilling takes place. It found that
access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030. Leasing would begin no sooner than 2012, and production would not be expected to start before 2017.
So if we suppose that Congress ends the restrictions in 2008, a good first guess is that'd accelerate the timeline by about 4 years across the board: no production sooner than 2013 and no significiant impact on prices before 2026.

The reason there's no significant impact on prices is that OCS drilling would increase domestic oil production by about 7%, but oil prices are set on an international basis. In other words, the amount of increased production domestically wouldn't be enough to have a significant impact on global oil supply. Let's assume that oil would increase supply and therefore lower prices in the U.S.. In that case, the oil companies would have the choice of selling at a lower price in the U.S. market or at a higher price to the international market. Past behavior suggests that the executives directing those companies would feel constrained by a fiduciary duty to their shareholders and would therefore sell on the international market. As a result, the domestic prices would rise to meet the international prices. Now, we could impose laws that prevent the oil companies from selling that crude overseas, which might artifically drive down domestic prices, but those sorts of trade restrictions seem out of character for Mr. Bush's administration. So the most likely result is that a goodly sized chunk of any oil drilled here will feed China's demand for it.

Earlier in the speech, Mr. Bush said, "In the long run, the solution is to reduce demand for oil by promoting alternative energy technologies." It is not clear what time frame "the long run" represents, but there are already interesting developments on the alternative energy horizon, particularly in storage of electricity. For example, Zenn Motor Company and EEstor have announced plans to ship an electric car in late 2009 that will go 80 MPH and have a range of 250 miles and that a properly equipped charger could recharge in a few minutes. Similarly, A123 Systems is currently selling a new lithium ion battery technology with dramatically better energy density. (You can currently buy their stuff in certain lines of Dewalt cordless power tools while they work on the long battery life necessary for plug-in hybrids. They are also currently selling plug-in conversions for the Toyota Prius, though at $10K they're currently a little pricey for my budget.) It's also possible--today--to produce biodiesel from algae (rather than, say, corn), something you don't need arable land to do. (Hmm. I wonder how much land you'd have to devote to algae production to remove a billion tons of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere, since bamboo ain't gonna cut it.)

In the meantime, higher fuel prices are having an impact on demand. Amtrak ridership continues to set records, and high gas prices are sending it way up. And Ford is scaling back production for gas guzzlers due to decreasing demand.

Bottom line? Maybe drilling the OCS is not an effective answer either to Mr. Bush's short term goal of increasing supply (beyond insignificant levels) or to his long term goal of reducing dependence on foreign oil.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

I tawt I taw a bomber

While cooking dinner, I happened to glance outside just now and saw an airplane silhouette that looked, well, unusual. A quick check with binocs confirmed it: round tail, four engines, big, and not moving all that fast. A B-17 maybe? A few minutes later, it turned and flew over the house, making that distinctive, rumbling big radial engine sound that only World War II warbirds make. And an H-tail. Not a B-17, but a B-24 Liberator. Probably taking people out for rides on a beautiful flying day. Pity there was no camera handy.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Park and Supergenius Criminal Masterminds

So I've started reading The Park, about a trailer park full of people with superpowers. The idea's got a ton of potential, maybe even for some social commentary. And it looks like the villain just showed up.

Which has got me thinking: why is it that so many supergenius criminal masterminds want to rule the world? "What are we going to do tonight, Brain?" "The same thing we do every night, Pinky, try to take over the world." I mean, say you do take over the world. What do you get? The massive headache of running the whole friggin' world, that's what. And guess who everyone's going to blame the next time there's a war, or a recession, or some government agency muffs disaster relief?

So I'm thinking the really clever supergenius criminal masterminds--you know, the ones a cut above the Wile E. Coyotes of the world--they're not in it for the money or the girls or the private 747 with the jacuzzi tub and reporters and NORAD interface, 'cause there are a lot easier ways to get those things. And they're probably not in it for the recognition, either. Let's face it: a good PR firm will take you a lot further for your dollar than world domination will.

So what is it? Resume padding? The sheer challenge of the thing? The belief that they can run things better than anyone else?

Hmmm. Considering how well things sometimes run, maybe there's something to that last possibility.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

the learning curve continues

We moved in last weekend and are getting the new place up and running.

Today's adventure involves the sprinkler system. Since the rains have mostly stopped, our landscape's been dying, which made getting the sprinklers working a high priority. One of the manifolds that controls one of the sprinkler stations is gushing: not merely leaking, but leaking a whole awful lot of water whenever it turns on. So one project for today was to fix or replace the manifold.

I made the mistake of taking the advice from one of the guys at Home Depot who recommended replacing it with a new one. I also learned that replacing one of these beasts involves shutting off the water, cutting the pipes that connect it to the system, and assembling and gluing in the new manifold. So I bought all the parts necessary to do that. The operation started smoothly enough: I assembled the new system, dug around the old one, and cut it off. Only then did I realize that the pipes on the old manifold are a different distance apart than the pipes the new manifold is designed to fit. So, lesson #1: be careful when taking advice from Home Depot.[1] Lesson #2: check the sizes before cutting any pipes.

That left me (us) in a quandary: I had to shut off the water to cut off the manifold, now the pipe's cut, and as long as there's no manifold I can't turn the water back on. At this point, I was in over my head. So we ran a quick web search looking for a plumber who could solve the problem. Lesson #3: plumbers don't necessarily do irrigation, even though both involve pipes. We eventually found an irrigation person, who may or may not be able to make it here before Tuesday morning. In the meantime, he recommended gluing a cap on the supply pipe. So I've done that, and now I'm waiting for the glue to set up before I turn the water back on. Hopefully it'll hold. I guess we'll find out around 3:30 or 4:00.

So much to learn.

Update: at 4:00, I turned on the water and the cap held, so the situation's stabilized until someone who knows what he or she is doing can fix the problem.

[1] The advice from the ex fireman who used to do plumbing work on his days off and now works in the plumbing section turned out to be very helpful for getting the washer and dryer working, so I'm not saying it's all bad, just that caution is necessary.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

new thermostat

When installing a new Honeywell digital thermostat to replace an old Honeywell round thermostat, keep in mind that the wire labeled "H" on the old thermostat may, in fact, be the "R" wire. Especially if whatever machine printed the "H" on the thermostat just happened to miss ever so slightly and cut off the top of the letter. And you also have a "W" wire, and the instructions don't seem to account for having both a "W" and an "H."

OK, so pretty obvious. But if you don't figure it out, you can spend an hour puzzling over why the fan won't come on.

Trust me on this one.

worst painter evar

I am not a good painter. For some reason, no matter how hard I try, I end up with drips and runs. When it comes time to paint the airplane, my choices will likely boil down to sending it to a paint shop, paying the paint shop extra to teach me how to paint right, or giving up and going for the polished aluminum look.

Anyway, one of today's big jobs was to "do something" about the shower pan in the master bedroom. The shower pan was pretty beaten-up, with dark spots and a rough finish that was going to accumulate more dirt. I was able to clean it pretty well, using a concoction of household chemicals I'm not eager to face again, but the pan was past the point of looking good.

Since we intend to remodel that bathroom in a few years anyway, we opted to try one of those do-it-yourself refinishing kits, which is essentially a two-part epoxy paint, where you put on your goggles and respirator, play mad chemist mixing stuff from can A with stuff from can B, ventilate the hell out of whatever it is you're painting, and the paint fuses with the surface with chemical vice grips closely related to the glues Burt Rutan used to build Space Ship One.

Anyway, after attacking the shower pan with the barrage of household chemicals I mentioned earlier, I spent today sanding it with 400 grit sandpaper, vacuuming it, and then going over everything with a tack cloth. Shower pans, you see, are specifically made so stuff like dirt and soap scum won't stick to them. Which is why the paint has to use such fearsome chemistry. So you sand the pan to roughen up the surface, and then you make sure those little chemical vice grips end up grabbing onto the rough surface instead of bits of dust you accidentally left there.

Here's a picture of the work in progress:

Anyway, it came out looking a lot better than it had before I started, but there are still more drips and runs than I'd like. I'm debating whether I want to let it harden, sand them out, and put on another coat.

RV-7A meet Toyota Prius

One of today's tasks was transporting the horizontal stabilizer for the airplane that's under construction, a Van's RV-7A, to the new house. The horizontal stabilizer is the horizontal part of the tail. On an RV-7A, both sides of the tail form a single unit. A rather long single unit. And like most airplane parts, it's extremely strong, but only in the ways that it needs to be strong, which means I really wanted to move it myself rather than letting guys who are used to moving furniture do it.

Now, the last time we moved this thing, we put down the top on the convertible and tied the stabilizer across the seats, with one end on the dashboard and the other hanging over the back of the car. That worked OK for moving it less than a mile late enough at night so there'd be no traffic, but it wasn't going to cut it for moving the thing twenty miles at highway speeds.

After puzzling over it for a bit, I decided to try it in the Prius. Amazingly enough, it just fit:

With room to close the hatch, even! With the front seat reclined, and the back seat dropped, one tip of the stabilzer's about an inch from the dash, and the other comes right up against the tailgate. Mission accomplished!

Monday, January 21, 2008

where did the time go?

Coppertop claims her old watch is dying: it's running slow, losing time.

I know better.

In the far future, people will have wildly advanced technology. But time, as they say, will still be money. People will be willing to pay quite a bit for a well-placed extra few minutes here, or an hour there. But time, like the other spacial dimensions, can neither be created nor destroyed. So where do you get it?

Easy. Mine it. From the past. From around the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, when people are so distracted by all the social changes that they'll barely notice it. They'll just chalk it up to being busy. Take just a few milliseconds out of every second, or even a good chunk of each second during peak demand periods. Squeeze it there in the past, stretch it out here in the future, and sell it at premium prices.

When you look up at the clock and wonder where your day went, well, now you know. Some future person with cash to burn is enjoying an extra few minutes lingering over drinks, or some desperate student who hasn't been born yet just scored another hour to cram (or fritter away trying to cram) before a final that hasn't yet been planned for a subject that doesn't yet exist.

Somehow, in all the mining, they missed Coppertop's watch. It's not losing time; it's keeping it just fine. It's the rest of us that are losing it.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

working on the master bath

We made more house progress today. The previous owner had removed the doors from the master bathroom, probably to make access easier. We discovered one of the doors in the garage and the other stored in the shelves built along the garage's ceiling. Coppertop cleaned both of them and we re-hung them today. I spent a good bit of time trying various miracle cleaning products on the stains in the shower (and occasionally releasing some really nasty fumes when two products that are never supposed to be used together accidentally came into contact.) After much scrubbing with Lime-Away, Soft Scrub, soap scum cleaner, and whatever else I could think of to try, the stains are somewhat better but still not great. We may decide to put down epoxy paint as a temporary measure until we can afford to do some serious work on the bathroom.

We also met the neighbor on one side of the house and briefly exchanged pleasantries.

Much progress, but much more remains to be done.

so what DO you put in a time capsule?

Long Views has an article entitled How Not to Do a Time Capsule, on a time capsule containing a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere. At the end, Kevin Kelly makes this observation:
One conclusion from this mishap is that time capsules should attempt to preserve not popular items, but things that have no fans, no enthusiasts, no one to care for them. You should stuff them with artifacts that people currently find dumb, stupid, worthless, and insignificant. That’s the stuff that won’t be saved, and will therefore be of prime interest in 100 years.
Fair 'nuff. I remember reading that there are no bread recipes that have reached us from the middle ages because bread was so common that everyone knew how to make it by heart, so they didn't bother to write it down.

But it got me thinking: what stuff today is "dumb, stupid, worthless, and insignificant"? (Ooh, and Kevin scores a point for using a serial comma!) Even further along those lines, what are things we consider dumb, stupid, worthless, or insignificant that won't wind up in the city landfill in good enough shape that future archaeologists can't just excavate them from there. Given these criteria, what would you put in a time capsule? I've been brainstorming a list:
  • A package of disposable ballpoint pens.
  • A package of disposable razors.
  • A coffee maker, filters, half a pound of vacuum-sealed, ground beans, a measuring scoop, and instructions.
  • A copy of the 2008 IRS Form 1040 and instructions.
  • A package of chewing gum.
  • A gift card to a store. Bonus style points if it's one that doesn't expire.
  • A credit card.
  • A 6-pack of major-brewery beer, in bottles. And a 6-pack of microbrew for comparison.
  • Several packages of seeds for garden flowers or vegetables (especially if it's a long-duration time capsule.)
  • A map of the area.
  • The yellow pages.
  • A box or bottle of dish soap or laundry detergent.
  • A new toothbrush and full tube of toothpaste.
Because of the landfill criterion, the inexpensive cell phone you get for free when you sign a 2 year contract didn't make the list.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

a weekend working on the house

We spent a lot of time this weekend working on the house. Right now there are a couple goals. One is to make it feel clean and cozy for when we move in; the other is to get some of the remodeling-type work done that'll be especially inconvenient if there's furniture and the two of us in the way.

Saturday morning, I met our general contractor and our decorator first thing in the morning. We're trying to figure out what the 5-year plan for the house is and prioritize the work that needs to be done. A bit later, my parents came to the house and were a tremendous help with cleaning and taking care of odd fix-it jobs. I replaced a second outdoor faucet that'd been leaking, something ever so much easier to do in the daylight. The master bathroom had both a curtain on a rod and an enclosure for shower doors, but the doors themselves have gone AWOL. My dad and I removed the enclosure. We also removed several grab bars that the previous owner had mounted around the house, changed the toilet seats in a couple bathrooms, and removed the washlet, which, all-in-all, seemed a better solution than trying to teach guests how to use the thing. (If you're interested, I can cut you a great deal on a washlet. Remember, Clean is Happy!) We measured the whole house to lay out a floorplan, which will feed into a master plan for remodeling and decorating over the next several years. My mom also cleaned the ovens (go mom!) and did a ton of clean-up around the kitchen.

Today, Coppertop and I were there again. I climbed up into the attic and discovered the gas to the furnace had been shut off, which is why the furnace wasn't working yesterday. I turned it back on and re-lit the pilot, leading to a much warmer day of housework. We changed the seat on the remaining toilet, re-caulked the shower pan in the master and the holes left by removing grab bars, got the shower somewhat cleaner where we'd removed the door enclosure, polished the chrome in the bathrooms, and tried but failed to clean the shower pan itself. I'm not sure yet how we're going to deal with that shower pan. We also put in new shower heads, replaced an outlet cover, cleaned and polished the outsides of several cabinets, and changed several more burned-out lightbulbs.

After cooking tonight's dinner and preparing the ingredients for tomorrow night's dinner[1], we're both pretty much pooped. But at least the house is coming along.

[1] Tommorw's dinner's homemade pizza. A busy schedule means we had to measure out the ingredients and prepared the toppings tonight.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

adventures in plumbing

Today's big housing adventure was dealing with a leaking outdoor faucet.

One of the hose faucets has a worn-out washer that's leaking. To replace the washer, you need to turn off the water to the house. It turns out the new place has a quick shutoff valve (which I finally found in a cabinet in the garage), but after some experimentation it became clear that valve shuts off the supply to the house itself, not to the outside faucets. A call to Parental Tech Support (thanks, Dad!) turned up the right answer: shut off the main valve to the house, which is under the rectangular cover marked "water" (as opposed to being under either of the round covers also marked "water.")

The faucet itself is stuck behind the sort of over-sized geranium you only get in Southern climes. Trying to damage the plant as little as possible, I removed the nut at the top of the faucet and discovered I couldn't get access to the washer that way. That triggered another Parental Tech Support call, which resulted in my removing the entire faucet.

At that point, I could see the washer but couldn't figure out how to get it out of the faucet. So it became necessary to replace the entire faucet. Which meant I needed to buy a faucet. Which meant I needed to wash the crud off my hands from messing around with the plumbing. Which meant I needed to turn on the water again. Which meant I had to put the worn-out faucet back on the pipe or suffer a geyser as soon as the water came back on.

So, faucet back on and geranium looking a bit the worse for wear, Coppertop and I headed for a quick trip to Home Depot. Quick because it was getting dark and starting to rain. Long story short, we got back after it'd already gotten pretty dark and the rain was coming down pretty hard, but I wasn't going to put off replacing the faucet because removing the old one and putting it back on had left it leaking worse than before. So Coppertop, who hates rain, bravely volunteered to hold the flashlight while I installed the new faucet. It was a damp job, but the new faucet seems to be holding up well, I now know how to control the water to the house, and we were still able to clean up, change clothes, and make it to dinner on time.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

the ambiance of a spa in your own private retreat

Oh, the things you learn.

In the new house, there is a funky electric toilet in the guest bath. After some research, we've determined that it's an older model of a Washlet, a device the Toto company created "to help you create the ambiance of a spa in your own private retreat." The "clean is happy" link (which is not cube-safe in many work environments in the U.S.A.) is most enlightening.

All of which is great, but if we want to keep this thing around we may have to put a laminated instruction sheet next to the remote (yes, the toilet seat has a remote) so guests know how to use it. And having an instruction sheet for your toilet seat strikes me as being right up there with putting instructions on a box of toothpicks.