February 2004


I like airplanes. I have for a long time. Fortunately, the company I work for owns a couple. I am free to walk out into the hangar and gaze at them all I want but I can’t touch. No touchee!

Until today.

Today, we had to run a test and I volunteered to go sit in the airplane and help out with it. Somebody had to since nobody else knows how to run the sensor that we designed. The plane is not configured to carry passengers and so it was kind of basic inside but that made it all the more interesting to me. We sat there and ran our test with the (really loud) engines on and then came home. It was pretty cold today but the airplane interior was pretty tolerable even with me sitting on the metal floor.

Fun stuff.

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The history day expo was last night at the old middle school and it's a toss-up as to who's happiest: us the parents or him the middle-schooler who actually did the project. The topic:

The Wright Brothers

History day is apparently a statewide (perhaps national) program where the students do some in-depth research into something historical. They can do the usual tri-fold board (easy), do a more elaborate group project with a large tri-fold board (harder), or do a video documentary (extremely time-consuming). In a fit of enthusiasm, Evan and his buddy Michael decided to do the documentary.

They've been known about this for months and Melissa has been saying: “Don't you guys need to do some work on this?” that entire time. Several times, she has grounded them both (with the cooperation of the other mom) and forced them to work a few Saturdays on it. It's a good thing too since they had no idea how much time producing a video was going to be. They had all the research and writing to do but then all the scanning, narrating, sound-tracking, and what-not on top of it. They've been working like dogs on it and finished it up yesterday mere hours before the parent-present displaying event.

It came off well and on Friday, they will take it to a city-wide event for some “real” judging. Last night I didn't know whether to greet the teacher responsible for this with a civilized smile or knock her down and kick her for causing all this. As any parent knows, if the kid has a big project, it takes a lot out of the family as a whole even though the kids are doing the acual work. There is still a lot of driving around, buying stuff, coordinating things, and of course, nagging the kids to make them get off their duffs and do the work.

We were able to enjoy the other projects to some extent but I couldn't help saying to myself “these kids and their parents got off easy.” Many kids chose to do a project on a country and to include food with their displays. That was a stellar idea for those of us who came directly from work without eating dinner.
My favorite though (besides Evans of course) was a project on the climbing of Mount Everest. These kids had actually written Sir Edmund Hillary and he had sent them a written response. Now that was cool. Plus, they gave equal time to Hillary's guide Tenzing Norgay who, of course, made the same expedition but for some reason got little credit for doing anything. He's like the Ginger Rogers of mounting climbing.

There was almost a brawl though. Most groups consisted of two students but there was one group of five and the group chemistry was explosive. The parents got involved early on in the project and only made things worse. By the time the project finally came together, some kids were accused of not contributing anything, one parent was accusing another of railroading all the decisions, another parent accusing that one of trying to micromanage and, all in all, nearly requiring diplomatic intervention. Sad.

Note to self: don't let Evan get partnered with any of those kids in the future.

I like these events though even if I don't like all the extra work that goes into getting ready for them. I never get to see many of those parents except on nights like that. I just wish they hadn't volunteered to make a video documentary.

Thank you, thank you, my illustrious son has again made the straight A list.

I'm not sure why I'm so proud – I can take little credit for it. Except for sitting down and checking his homework – all billion math problems that he's been assigned. And helping him study. And going over things he doesn't understand.

OK, so I take some credit.

Here's a tip for all you non-guitar playing citizens. When a guy is playing the guitar (at least a guy like me who is not extremely good at it), he is devoting pretty much his entire brain to the task. He can't listen to what you're saying without derailing his playing nor can he talk back to you.

Plus, when you try and talk to a guy while he's playing it feels an awful lot like someone's interrupting you when you're talking. It really hacks you off actually.

Treat the musical notes like words in a conversation; wait for the pause before you start talking.

As a trained scientist, I have dealt with a large number of engineers and most of them seem to “normal” people. But there are some…

I met a guy years ago was an electrical engineer for a power company. He seemed like a nice guy. We went to dinner with them occasionally. Then one day, he asked me if I'd like to see his guns.

We had been talking of skeet shooting and so this didn't seem unusual but when I said yes, he began to lead me through his house. At each closet and cubbyhole, he would stop and reach way back into whatever hiding place was there and haul out a handgun.

In the top of the hall closet, in the back of the cabinet over the fridge, in the linen closet under the towels, in fact in most places, he would have a handgun stashed. I stopped counting at seven.

Finally, in the bedroom, in a holster behind the headboard of his bed he pulled out a huge brushed steel long-barrelled .44 magnum.

And it was loaded.

I thought that was a little over the top in several ways.

I'm not sure what it is that makes someone get so focused on things like that but it happens often enough to make me wonder if all engineers aren't like that just a little.

Another example would be a man I knew in California. I didn't know him well but when California was dealing with a drought of several years, this guy began to obsess over water usage. Everyone out there was encouraged to conserve water but usually what was meant was to not water your lawn and not allow faucets to drip.

This guy put a bunch of bricks in his toilet's tank to prevent it from completely filling. I imagine it also severely impaired it's flushing ability. He also kept a bucket in the bathtub. He had forbidden the taking of an actual bath – insisting on short showers for everyone in the house but the bucket was to catch the initial cold water that comes out before the hot water gets to the faucet. Rather than wasting that, he collected it and set the resulting bucket next to the toilet so that when it came time to flush, you just dumped the bucket into the toilet bowl thus avoiding the tank refill cycle.

This struck me as extremely annoying to his family and also equivalent to killing ants with a hammer – no matter how much time you spend whacking ants with a hammer, you aren't going to kill even a small fraction of the ants that are present and he wasn't going to make much a dent in California's water usage by flushing his toilet with a bucket. At least I didn't think so but I kept my mouth shut.

Another guy I met seemed totally normal: he had a nice wife, he loved his children and all that “normal” stuff. Then he began one day to tell me about his plans for “Y2K”.

“Oh No…” I thought. “Here it comes – a trip to the lunatic fringe.”

Sure enough, he told me that he was good friends someone who had, in anticipation of upcoming collaps of society that he expected with the coming of the new millineum, bought quite a lot of remote rural property and outfitted it with survival gear. My friend, being an engineer, was involved to the extent that he could design the emergency electrical systems and what-not. This place apparently was chosen for its defensability and he hinted at the quantity of arms that were stored there up to and including anti-aircraft guns.

That wasn't all. He hinted at a verbal agreement that, when society needed to be rebuilt, he (my friend) would be allowed or expected to impregnate this man's daughter and start building a commune of the proper sort of people.

How scary is that?

Is everybody out there a little crazy and some just admit it or is it just engineers? Is there something about intelligence that once you cross a certain threshold of IQ, you become vulnerable to certain psychotic excesses? If I hadn't married an excellent woman who will offer resistance to things if she doesn't see the benefit, would I also drift into such arbitrary excesses? Would I begin to invent my own rules and mores? Would I start buying power tools or electric trains or some such?

Sometimes I really wonder. Am I a closet freakshow like that? How many of are like Gollum in that they get obsessed with something to the extent that they become a schizophrenic freak living in a cave eating raw fish?

Please…. somebody tell me I'm normal!

He's decided to start a bit of carving. This wasn't a bad start. Pretty darned good I thought.
Carved Guitar

Ah! Sit back and relax while I wax nostalgic about my weekend in the garage.

The weather warmed up a bit this weekend and made the garage a more tolerable place. This coupled with our desire to build a new fireplace mantle and surround let me to head to the wood store. We went to the fireplace store recently to look at pre-made mantles and discovered that what we wanted was going to run upwards of $500. Do-it-youself time! I'm not sure what happened when my house was built but our fireplace is bigger than most. When I went to buy some gas logs for it about seven years ago, I discovered that they didn't even make gas logs of that size. I've got a little extra space in there as a result. Therefore, I need a larger than standard sized mantle.

This place was up near downtown in an old part of town where the streets are narrow and the buildings are old with names like “D&B Foundry” and such. I found the place newly opened for the day with an old Model A Ford parked outside. The guy said “Yeah that's mine. It's been in my family since it was new.” Wow. No chance of ever getting the cigarette smoke smell out of that one.

He let me follow him back to the shed where the red oak was stored. It was a treasure trove of wood that was wider than any available at Home Depot and at half the price. It was rough so he shot it through the planer to smooth it out and make the thickness I wanted.

I wanted some that was a bit thinner – no problem; just toss it through the planer a couple more times.

I love places like that; friendly, helpful, reasonable prices. Total cost: $85. That's considerably better than $500 but of course, it isn't built yet. And that isn't chicken feed either but it's really pretty stuff – not a mark or a knot in it anywhere.

I got it home and proceeded to start building and such was my level of concentration that I was surprised when it was lunch time and moments later (or so it seemed) was surprised when the sun began to set. I got to use just about every tool I had and, in the process, clean the place up considerably. I've been working on building a new workbench as well and so got lots of work done on that too. I even found a couple of things to sell on Ebay so if you're looking for a square chisel morticing bit, there's one for sale right now.

I didn't finish but I kind of reached a logjam. I need to borrow a tool from a friend and I can't find those little fancy doohickeys to pretty up the mantle front. At least I can't find ones made out of red oak so I wrapped the project up for the weekend. But not after actually making some of my own molding to decorate parts of it with.

At the end of the weekend, I had dulled two blades, generated a ton of sawdust, fabricated most of the parts, made some progress on the workbench, and listed two items on Ebay. It doesn't get much better than that for me.

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