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User Journal

Journal Journal: In Hot Water 1

A few weeks ago, my Lovely Wife said to me one of those things a husband hates to hear: "The water in the shower doesn't seem to be as hot as it used to be." I hadn't really noticed, but the next few times I showered, I checked, and sure enough, while the shower handle used to point to about eleven-thirty o'clock, it was now pointing to something like ten o'clock, or earlier. Maybe it was just because the weather is colder now, and so the water coming into the house is a little colder, requiring a higher mix of hot water. But She wasn't buying it.

I am cheap, so one weekend morning a few days later, I started searching the Web for how to check out what, if anything, might be wrong with our electric water heater. There wasn't as much out there as I would like, but I checked the resistance of the single element, and it seemed to be good. The thermostat was more problematic. Bob Vila's web site was said that I should be getting infinity or zero from the thermostat, and I was getting something in the middle of the scale. (I have an old-fashioned multitester.) I tried draining some of the water from the tank, but that didn't help.

The next step was to consult that other fount of free advice, my buddies. One asked me how old the water heater was.

"It's been in the house since we moved in," I said.

"How long have you lived there?" he asked.

"Ten years."

"Get a new one. Anything you buy will be more efficient than what you have."

I looked at the labels on the side of our old water heater. It was made in 1983. If ten years is borrowed time for a water heater, then what is 25 years?

Next, I turned to my friend who works at the EPA, who is probably the only person in my circle who is more radical about saving energy than I am. (But he's not the cheapest.) He said that I couldn't beat solar hot water, and he directed me to several links at the Department of Energy. (I have since lost them.) There, I read that electric storage tanks like what I have are the worst there is for energy consumption. I read about tankless hot water systems, but they all seemed to be fueled by gas. And the more I considered solar hot water, the less sense it seemed to make for our situation.

The problem with solar water heating, I think, is that our heaviest use of hot water is for showering, which generally occurs before or just after sunrise. If we used a solar heater to pre-heat the water going into an electric storage tank, there would be no sun to pre-heat the water, and so electricity would be used to do it instead. I decided I'd rather save my limited roof space for photovoltaics.

As I started searching for water heaters, I came across a really cool tankless water heater made by Bosch, but there were problems for our situation. The thing requires 120 amperes at 240 volts, and they recommend putting the heater as close as possible to the electrical panel. In my house, the run would be something like 25 feet. Then I read a bunch of complaints on Amazon's web site: most plumbers don't know how to work on it; the computerized flow mechanisms have broken; one guy found that when his heat kicked in while he was showering, the power went out to the entire house, which had the recommended 200 ampere service; and one poor fellow got a good scalding from the hot water when the device's regulating devices failed. So, storage it would be.

I checked the Lowe's, Home Depot, and Sears web sites for what is available. Sears provided the most complete information, including the U.S. government-mandated Energy Guide information that estimates how many kilowatt-hours the appliance will consume during the year. The web site, however, did not identify the source of that number. Lowe's and Home Depot provided some sort of efficiency coefficient but no information on where that came from.

Visiting the stores was no more helpful. Sears had several units on display, but the salesman said they were old models. He provided me with a brochure that gave all the same information that was on the web site. Home Depot had no electric water heaters on display, and none of the cartons containing the electric water heaters had Energy Guide info on the outside. That bright yellow label isn't much good for consumers when it's hidden away in the box. And none of the Home Depot sales people could find the information, either, even though they were trying to be helpful. Lowe's managed to tick me off the most. They had one electric water heater on display, but a magnetic sign covered the Energy Guide label. The salesman didn't know what I was talking about when I asked him, and he didn't much seem to care. But he did at least remove the magnetic sign, which revealed the yellow sticker.

Back at home, I went to the manufacturer web sites for the Home Depot and Lowe's water heaters and eventually found the Energy Guide information. One of the companies had images of the labels but couldn't be bothered to put the kilowatt-hour rating on the web page in searchable text.

Whatever, I crunched the numbers in a spreadsheet and talked things over with my wife. We ultimately settled on a Sears Kenmore water heater; three of their models turned out to cost the least over a span of nine years.

One thing I found in doing all of this research was that even the cheapest, least efficient electric water heater was going to use only 4,822 KWH per year, while our old tank was rated for 6,042 KWH per year. At $0.0782/KHW, that's a savings of $95 per year. Friend #1 was right. The model we ultimately chose is rated for 4,622 KWH per year, which will save us $111 per year. It will pay for itself (including installation -- I'm not that cheap) in six years. I know water heaters are not as sexy as energy saving computer power supplies and the like, but the energy I will save works out to about 3.9 KWH per day, which is enough to run a desktop computer 24 hours a day. That's something, anyway.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Papers, please?

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) announced this week that they will begin randomly inspecting passengers' bags. According to the press release, passengers who decline to submit to this search will be allowed to leave; however, the Washington Post reported that Metro officials said "police will give extra scrutiny to individuals who turn around or act suspiciously", and that "if illegal items such as drugs are found, they will be confiscated as evidence, and police will cite or arrest the individual."

I guess I shouldn't be surprised by this. After all, the bombings in Madrid's and London's rail systems, and on Israel's buses, show that public transit is a very soft target that terrorists do not hesitate to exploit, and apparently Boston and New York already have such a search program. Still, it disappoints and upsets me. The Metro officials whose comments are reported in the paper are already showing that the searches will be used for other purposes than ensuring the safety of the transit system. Similarly, the Bush administration has shown that they are more than willing to use customs searches to further other objectives.

I can see this being misused to arrest protesters who want to take public transportation to exercise their First Amendment rights, or to arrest people for possessing whatever other item that the people in power consider to be worth targeting. Rolling papers? Mace? Circuit boards? And sooner or later, someone will decide that this is a great way to snag illegal immigrants, with the result that some legal aliens and citizens will be hassled.

There go more of our rights down the tubes thanks to the War on Terror.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Mecca time?

The BBC reported today that some Muslim clerics and scientists have proposed the adoption of Mecca time to replace Greenwich Mean Time, because they believe that Mecca is the center of the earth, and because GMT is an artifact of British imperialism. One bit of proof that the former is true, the article says, is that Mecca is aligned with the magnetic north pole.

I'm trying to suppress my knee-jerk reaction to the ludicrousness of the idea, but I can't. Don't they know that the magnetic north pole moves around? Or that the point of having a true north pole is because that is the axis of the earth's rotation, and it makes everything easier?

The article didn't say whether these people also plan to move the Prime Meridian (0) from London to Mecca. The Greenwich meridian is, of course, one of numerous standards that have been used over the years. The Wikipedia article on the Prime Meridian even indicates that a line around 19 degrees east of Mecca was an acceptable standard in Maimonides' era; Maimonides, though a Jew, was a citizen of Islamic Spain. But whether it's due to British imperialism or not, Greenwich has been an accepted international standard for over a century, and even the French use it now.

It looks to me like the claim that Mecca is perfectly aligned with the magnetic north pole is incorrect. The Canada Geological Survey magnetic declination calculator gives a 2-degree correction between true north and magnetic north for Mecca. If the alignment were perfect, no correction would be necessary. It will change, of course.

Then there's the little matter of the Islamic calendar. I'm no expert, but I don't think it uses any form of intercalation. If it does, it's pretty badly out of whack. The Emacs calendar tells me that January 1, 1900, was year 1317 on the Islamic calendar, but it gives January 1, 2000, as Islamic year 1420. Even the Hebrew calendar, which is lunar-based like the Islamic calendar, has managed to stay within a year of the modern calendar.

If Muslims want to use Mecca time for ritual purposes, then by all means, do so. But forget about trying to use it to stay in sync with the real world.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Compact fluorescent cost savings

The old joke goes something like this:

Q: How do you tell when a salesman is lying? A: His lips are moving.

I feel that way about marketers, too, and I've lately been wondering about how extravagant their claims are concerning energy and cost savings for energy-saving light bulbs. I'm in the middle of an experiment, but so far, the results aren't looking good.

We moved into our home in 1998. It has a finished basement with a total of eleven recessed floodlight fixtures in two rooms. The sellers had installed 150-watt flood lamps, so not only did the electric meter spin, it got hot. As the bulbs burned out, I replaced them with compact fluorescents, and as the compact fluroescents burned out, I began to wonder if I was getting money's worth. The compact fluorescent flood lamps were pretty expensive, easily three or four times as expensive as the incandescent ones.

When Home Depot stopped stocking one brand of compact fluorescent lamps that I liked and that hadn't cost an arm and a leg, I went looking for them on the Internet, and I bought a case of the Sylvania Dulux EL20W, a 20-watt lamp that purported to have an average lifespan of 6,000 hours. As I installed each replacement, I dated it. I replaced the third one today, so I am starting to get some real data.

The first three of these things lasted 32, 25, and 30 months. They are predicted to last 18,000 hours total, and I got 87 months, or 2,610 days of use from them. That works out to an average of 6.9 hours/day, every day. I am not sure if we actually use these rooms that much, but I am at least suspicious.

The new batch of bulbs is Commercial Electric's EDXR-40-19 a 19W R-40 lamp (avg. life 8,000 hrs, 85W incandescent equivalent), purchased from Home Depot. The the marketing verbiage includes this: "This package saves you $53.00** in energy costs per bulb". The footnote reads: "**savings based on 10 cents per kilowatt hour". I just checked my most recent Dominion Virginia Power bill, and it gives the "cost to compare" for electricity rates as $0.06/kilowatt hour. So, while I'm saving 66 watts over an 85-watt bulb (Is there such a thing?), for a total savings of 528 kw/hrs over the expected life of the bulb, it looks to me like a more modest savings of $31.68 (before utility taxes).

I'm not saying compact fluorescents are a bad idea -- I think I'm getting my money's worth -- but I think the marketers are definitely hyping the savings. What a surprise.

User Journal

Journal Journal: How to deal with unintended racism at work? 1

So... I'm sitting in the break room eating lunch with three of my colleagues, all of whom are close to twenty years younger than I am. We're talking about long commutes, and I tell them about my two years of commuting into the District of Columbia from western Fairfax County. Somewhere in the conversation, one of my co-workers uses the phrase "black guy" in the way one would use "mugger" -- almost as if the two terms are synonymous. A bit later, she jokes that after dark, the only two white people in D.C. are President and Mrs. Bush.

I didn't know what to say. I thought, "Are you ****ing nuts?!!!" Then I replied, in a jesting tone, "I detect a bit of a cultural bias that you need to lose", and explained that I had spent a lot of time in D.C. after dark, and that while there are neighborhoods that are unsafe, it wasn't like what she sees on the news. The conversation went on and was more innocuous, but I'm still upset.

You see, I've been in variations of this scenario before. I grew up in the Southern U.S., where we capitalize "Southern" and attach the name "Yankee" to people from points north of Virginia. I'm white, and I'm old enough to remember racial integration in the 1960's and 1970's. Sometimes there'd be a joke told; other times, just a passing remark or tone of voice -- the conspiratorial wink -- we understand each other, you know? Being a conflict avoider, and being taught to be polite, I'd usually just change the subject. I grew up and moved to a more urban environment. When my next door neighbor moved in a few years ago, I didn't bat an eye when I saw that he was black and his wife was white. They fit right in with the Pakistani family across the street, the Japanese-American man two doors down, and the African-Chinese family next door on the other side. Even back in my hometown in South Carolina, people are generally civilized enough to keep their opinions muzzled.

But now I'm at work, and here's this young co-worker who hasn't absorbed this culture yet. She is a native of China, a classless, and (to my eye, at least) monocultural society. I'm sure she didn't mean anything hurtful, but what she said at lunch is the kind of thing that could poison a working relationship and possibly even sink her career. I'm not sure what to say to her, but I need to say something, perhaps as much to salvage my own self-respect as to help her fit in here.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Reloading OS's

A recent Slashdot poll asked "How often do you reload your OS and software?". The some of the participants in the ensuing verbal slugfest suggested that it was aimed at Windows users. My own answer was "not very often", for I ran a Windows 98 box for about four years before converting it to a dual-boot Linux system. I only last fall removed the second disk and reset the master boot record so it would run solely on Windows 98 again. Say what you want to about Windows 98, Bill Gates, and Microsoft, that box, an HP Pavilion, still ran when I put it away. Using Netscape mail and Mozilla mail, and a little bit of judgment about what I opened, it never caught a virus, and the Blue Screen of Death only appeared very rarely.

I've been living very happily on my Dell laptop running Debian "Sarge" since January of 2006, and the installation went nearly without a hitch. Except for having to find the Windows driver for the Broadcom wireless card and put it where Linux could find it, everything just worked, right out of the box. I felt that Linux had finally made it to prime time for desktop users.

Saturday evening, though, I accidentally told aptitude to upgrade everything, and it did. Several packages offered to make backup copies of the config files and told me where they put them. The package, which seems to have replaced XFree86, did not, and I've got no GUI any more. Ndiswrapper doesn't seem to be able to find the wireless stuff any longer, and so now my laptop has to be tethered to a cable to do anything. I've spent several hours mucking around with the X configuration files and even went so far as to remove and reinstall without XFree86, but I'm still jodido. It looks like the easiest path forward is to format and reload. <sigh> It's times like this that I really hate computers, and sometimes I think maybe I could live life just fine with a Knoppix CD and a USB memory stick.

Update 18-jul-07 I'm happy to report that the installation of Debian Etch went well, except that there didn't seem to be any option to keep the old disk partitioning. I'd have liked to have saved the Windows XP partition that was there, but it's been months since I booted it, and I didn't want to mess with it. The installation "just worked", with the exception that the installer detected the wireless interface and loaded (or tried to load) a driver that resulted in repetitive errors. Following advice on an advice website, I blacklisted the module, and I may be out of the woods soon. Tonight I have to reassemble the 5 gigs of data I stashed on another box on the network.

I guess the point of this is to say that Windows isn't the only OS that can result in needing to reload after some seemingly innocuous action. And I should also mention that I am extremely grateful to all the people who have made Linux a usable OS.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Guns and drugs

I bought some pseudoephedrine hydrochloride tablets yesterday. I had to show my driver's license to the pharmacist and have my name and address entered in a book, like I was buying some dangerous drug, maybe Oxycontin or morphine. Until a year or so ago, these cheap little tablets were freely available in bottles of 100 right there on the shelf with all the other cold and allergy remedies. Now they're blister-packed and kept behind the counter the way they used to keep the condoms, because some jerks out there figured out they could make "crystal meth" with these tablets. The pills are a godsend for people like me with allergies and sinus problems. But the largest box CVS will sell me contains 96 tablets, which is not quite a ten-day supply.

Coincidentally, yesterday was also the day that my kid's math teacher returned to school. The teacher lost her daughter in the shootings at Virginia Tech on April 16th. As you know, the shootings were perpetrated by a deranged university student who legally bought his handguns and a bunch of ammunition from gun stores in Virginia.

Watching the druggist fill out the blanks in the book, I mused on the facts that here in Virginia, any idiot without a criminal record can buy one gun a month and ammunition enough to kill thirty people, but I can't even buy a fortnight's supply of non-prescription decongestant tablets. And I also mused on the fact that Virginia gun dealers object to sting tactics intended to weed out the bad gun dealers, who will happily sell firearms, no questions asked, to Virginia residents who will in turn sell them to people who cannot legally buy them in Virginia. Some of these "straw purchases" end up being used by criminals, just the way some of the little red tablets I take for sinus problems end up being used to make dangerous illegal drugs. Is this screwed up, or what?

I further mused on another fact that came out in the papers last fall, that the number of people hunting in Virginia is declining. I haven't, however, heard anything about gun sales being flat or declining. The divergence of the two curves implies that more guns are being sold that will never be used for the honorable practice of putting meat on the table, but may be used to kill people instead. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association and the gun industry fight tooth and nail against anything that would make it more difficult for the wrong people to get guns.

I know that even something like gun registration or a waiting period would not have prevented the tragedy on April 16th, but I also know that it would have been less likely had guns not been so easy to obtain. The more guns there are, with no accountability to the owners, the more of them can fall into the hands of criminals and whackos. It ticks me off.

The next time you have to sign your name to get your non-prescription drugs, remember the absurdity that in Virginia you can buy a gun to knock over the drug store, without a waiting period. And if the guy ahead of you in line is fuming about having to wait and present ID to buy a common non-prescription medication, it's probably me.

User Journal

Journal Journal: OhHellWithIt / Friends & Foes

My SlashDot login wasn't my first choice. It wasn't even my fifth choice. After trying a bunch of different logins that I thought were clever, they had all been taken, so I typed "OhHellWithIt" in exasperation. It's just my luck that it stuck, and I can't change it without losing my SlashDot identity. <sigh> Consequently, everyone who reads my posts must think I'm like Eeyore, but I'm not.

I haven't thought much about friends and foes here. A friend is someone who has been nice to me in some way, and a foe is someone who has attacked me personally. I don't normally go out of my way to tick people off, so if I've offended you, please re-read my post before you assume it's intentional.

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