Sunday, July 31, 2011

Who'd a thunk it? Geometry IS useful!

The time has come at the little shack on the prairie (well, actually it's been long past) to tear off the rickety front porch with its rusted metal roof.  And this past week, that is exactly what D did.

This was a bit of an adventure in which skunks, geometry and suspected survey monuments all played a part.  And you thought I lived a quiet life in the country.

I arrived home from work to find D wielding a sledgehammer and a crowbar, with most of the porch roof already missing.  I asked D is there was anything I could do to help, but he just indicated that my mere presence and moral support were more than enough.  (The level of assistance I can provide on DIY projects is generally on par with that of a five-year-old child.)  So I settled in to watch the goings-on.  At one point, D got an odd look on his face and backed away from the deck, brandishing the crowbar.

"Skunk!" he exclaimed.
 * * *

One evening a few months ago, I called the cats in and caught a pungent whiff of eau de skunk.  A cursory sniff of my feline family members indicated, thankfully, neither of them were in the line of fire.  Further olfactory investigation revealed the event had definitely taken place pretty much on our front door step.  That odor ebbed, but never really went away.  It did seem to be coming from under the porch deck, but I thought perhaps the skunk had sprayed under there after being cornered by the cats and the odor wasn't dissipating because it couldn't be washed away under the shelter of the porch roof.

* * *

Back on porch demo day, surveying the immobile pile of fur from a distance, I said, "Well, at least that explains the lingering smell."

"What if it's only sleeping?" asked the husband.

"Do you really think that a skunk would sleep through 2 hours of porch demolition taking place right above its head?" I asked.  It's easy to be confident when he's the one in the line of fire if I'm wrong.

D wasn't taking any chances.  He whipped a rotten tennis ball he'd found under the deck at the skunk and, receiving no response, assured himself it was indeed dead.  Closer inspection revealed it had been that way for some time.  Thank goodness that skunk up and died under the porch BEFORE we tore it off and built a new one, which would have made recovery and disposal of the vile thing a significantly more unpleasant task.  For D, of course.  Because that's what husbands are for.

* * *

This isn't the first time we've been startled by an unexpected finding of fur at the little shack on the prairie.  The day we bought the house, D was exploring the dark nether regions of the attic eaves with a flashlight.  There was rotten insulation falling from the ceiling, piles of hazelnut shells discarded by some varmint and mouse droppings everywhere.  Suddenly, D recoils and says, "What the F@CK is that?  Is that a creature?"

I'm backing away from the attic hatch thinking, Right, it freaked you right the hell out and you want ME to investigate?  Ain't gonna happen, buddy.  After some poking with a long stick to assure himself the object was well and truly (currently) inanimate, turns out it was a poorly cured, half-rotten full elk hide someone had just tossed up there with the rest of the mess.  Who does that?  Country people, that's who.

* * *

So after clearing away all the porch deck beams and boards, D was left with the concrete foundation blocks, half buried in the soil that had accumulated over the years.  He begins to dig them out and finally reaches the last one, set closest to the corner of the house.  It was ENORMOUS.  Easily three to four times bigger than any of the others.

"Do you think the county surveyor will mind that I've just dug up and disposed of one of their survey markers?" D asked, only half kidding.

I'm pretty sure the porch deck wasn't built over an official county survey monument.  But in the country one never knows.
* * *

When the porch deck was fully dismantled, we needed some temporary steps built to reach the front door, now two feet above ground level.  D had acquired some lumber and was eyeing up the situation, trying to determine how to measure and construct the steps.  I confidently told him that I was sure there would be an internet calculator that would work it all out for us lickety-split.  D made a cup of tea and waited for me to provide him the measurements.

Turns out it isn't as easy as I thought.  There are indeed stair calculators online, but I couldn't make heads nor tails of the results provided.  So I went back to simple geometry.  Measuring stair stringers is merely an arrangement of right triangles.  I'm calculating hypotenuses (hypoteni?), adjacent and opposite angles and diagramming for all I'm worth.  After an hour, on my third attempt at a measurement diagram that D might be able to read, he went straight to his saw and prepared to cut the stringer to length. 

"Wait! Aren't you going to check my work?" I sputtered.  (My math is notoriously unreliable.) "Or at least draw out all my measurements before you cut?  What about measure twice, cut once?"

"Nope - if you got it wrong, we've only wasted $4 in wood.  And we've got to learn to work together to get this renovation done."

Feeling his confidence was entirely misplaced, I nervously hovered over him while he measured and cut wood to my specifications.  If I'd calculated right, that should result in two stringers on which we could affix the stair treads, hopefully level and plumb.

When the last piece was measured and cut, and it all fit perfectly onto the lengths of wood I specified, I was elated.  I raised my arms in the universal gesture of victory and said, "I don't care what happens now, that was a math WIN!"

Turns out I did have a small logic error regarding the interplay of tread depth and stair rise, which means those three steps now measure 8", 6.5" and 9.5" high to get to the front door, but the damn math WORKED.  They're only temporary stairs anyway, so I'm still claiming a victory.  Anyway, I won't ever make that mistake again when I'm designing stairs; sometimes an error is the most effective way to learn.  

Given this small taste of success, I'm now ready to conquer the DIY world... as long as D is around to run the power tools.
* * *

So tell me about your DIY experience.  Are you afraid of power tools too?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Slow like Honey: Adventures in Molten Glass

I have long been fascinated by the art of glass blowing.  There is something completely mesmerizing about watching a clear, brittle substance morph into a glowing orange viscous mass that can be formed into fantastical shapes.  So when I recently spotted a groupon for a glassblowing lesson for two, I jumped on it.

I was slightly nervous as D and I arrived at the glass blowing studio.  For one, I had no idea what to expect, and for two - as I lack hand eye coordination - I was afraid I might make some spastic move and cause myself or someone else a serious injury, or at least cause some damage to my dignity by, say, dropping my masterwork just as it reaches completion.

But Corey, the owner of Portland Glass Blowers, put me right at ease.  Corey is a super cool dude, and as D is wont to say, "You know you're in good hands when you see a beard like that."

Rockin' the Specs
First, we got kitted up with some stylish purple goggles that shifted the visible spectrum and made it easier to see the flame.  The type of glassblowing we were doing didn't involve using a big furnace and putting glass in the "glory hole."  (I'm not kidding; that's what Corey called it, which made me inwardly giggle like a schoolchild.)   

No, we were using a propane torch that fired at upwards of 4000 degrees F.  Okay folks, that means I've got a stinking HOT flame mere inches from my hands.  Oh yes, and I have to keep the glass spinning evenly or I end up with a hot gooey mess dropping to the work bench.  Concentrate much?  You bet I did.

That set up affords some very cool pictures.  I was able to capture my favorite image while Corey set D up on his torch before I got started:

Our first task was to create a little paperweight by first heating a 1-in. rod of clear Pyrex until it forms a ball of molten glass at the end of the rod.  This takes some time, and you must keep the rod spinning slowly and evenly.  There is something almost meditative about the process.  When it is ready, you dip it into powdered colored glass and continue applying heat until it all melds together in a sort of lens shape.  This is an exercise in chaos theory.  The colored glass crystals often look nothing like the finished blown color, and you have no idea what shape is going to form inside the lens as you fuse the glass, but I'm pleased with this effort.  It brings to mind some kind of blooming coral on a reef.

Next up, making a stemless wine glass.  We heat a tube of pyrex glass and, when it reaches the desired consistency, blow slowly and evenly through the tube while spinning to keep the shape blown out symmetrically.  That's the idea anyway.  Here, D demonstrates the technique with his usual flair for doing things perfectly:

 I, on the other hand, managed to get a tendril of my hair in my mouth while trying to blow the bowl, which promptly spiraled around the tube and restricted the spinning motion.  In an effort to get that sorted out, I stopped blowing for a critical couple of seconds (as the glass cools very quickly) and ended up with a sad, oddly pregnant-looking shape.  Corey took over, put the piece back into the flame, and valiantly tried to rescue it, with decidedly mixed results:


So what have we learned here? 1) Glass blowing is as mesmerizing when I'm doing it myself as it is when I watch someone else; 2) I shouldn't quit my day job because it turns out I'm not going to be the next DaVinci of glass blowing; 3) Much like in life, it's about the journey, not the destination. (a.k.a. whatever, my glass looks like it was blown by a wonky troll, I still had a good time.)

* * *

So tell me, what new thing have you tried out recently?  Did you surprise yourself with success?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Fourth of July

View from my office: Rose Festival Fireworks, Portland Oregon.  May 27, 2011
Happy 4th of July to my American friends and Happy (belated) Canada Day to my friends up north.  To the rest of the world - have a great week!

P.S.  I'm finishing a four day break which also served as a kind of honeymoon for me and my new Android smartphone.  My online activity has been almost exclusively devoted to learning how to best take advantage of its capabilities.  Regular blog commenting will resume shortly.  I've been reading, but I couldn't figure out how to accurately type on this @#$^% touchscreen keyboard, 'til I discovered "Graffiti" which lets me write out the characters like the old Palm Pilot days. Sweet!

P.P.S.  Do I dare download Angry Birds?  I hear it's crazy-addictive.

* * *
So tell me, how did you spend your weekend?