Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Objectivity, Fairness, & The Academic Life

I used to be taken in by the claims that academics were focused on the pursuit of truth, and that objectivity and fairness were fundamental values in the university. Part of why I believed that was that, with a few exceptions, my professors actually fit that model. Of course, they were ancient--at one point when I was there, Sonoma State University's second most junior history professor had been there 25 years. A little more typical is trash like this:
TOPEKA, Kan. - A University of Kansas professor who angered conservative lawmakers with comments about intelligent design and religious fundamentalism has apologized.

Religious studies professor Paul Mirecki's apology came as his department formally approved a new elective class, titled "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design and Creationism," to be taught in the spring.


The class originally was to be called "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies." Mirecki, who will teach the class, prompted greater anger when an e-mail he wrote to a listserv was publicized.

"The fundies (fundamentalists) want it all taught in a science class," Mirecki wrote in the e-mail. "But this will be a nice slap in their big, fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category `mythology.'''

Conservative lawmakers questioned Mirecki's objectivity and accused him of taking aim at conservative Christianity. Some called for legislative hearings to investigate the course. The Legislature sets state funding levels for public higher education institutions such as KU.

In his apology, Mirecki called his earlier comments "ill-advised" and "offensive."

"My words in the e-mail do not represent my teaching philosophy or the style I use in class," Mirecki wrote. "I have assured the provost of the university that I will teach the course according to the standards this university rightfully expects - as a serious academic subject and in a manner that respects all points of view."
Oh, I believe that. And there are fairies in my garden, too.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

House Project: Some Pictures This Time!

My wife and I went up Saturday about noon and spent two hours collecting debris and throwing it into the dumpster. (Great exercise, by the way.) I guess that I should have taken a before picture, because there was a lot of junk in front and back. By doing the cleanup ourselves, it speeds up the process, and reduces the need for our builder to find unskilled labor--which is no longer available in the Boise area.

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The snow capped mountains all around are really cool, and even the snow blowing off the roof was pretty cool. Those of you who live in, and grew up in snow country may not share this view, of course, but my wife and I grew up in Southern California, and there's still something very picturesque about views like these, especially since some of them are from windows in our house:

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Here's a view from the family room:

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Inside, many of the electrical outlets are installed:

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The empty holes are telephone and coax boxes.

Our electrician seems to have been interrupted while installing this outlet. It almost looks like one of those End Times movies where believers get raptured:

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The toilets are all in--and working--which makes it feasible to move Big Bertha up there one of these weekends, assuming that we get clear skies again. (It's a lousy picture--no lights yet meant a long exposure.)

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The doors are out in the garage, waiting to be painted:

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The carpet and padding for the bedrooms is also sitting out there:

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We need gutters for the roof--snow melt refreezes on the sidewalk, making for slippery and dangerous surfaces. It also looks like we may need to have the front of the property graded so that it slopes a bit to the south, instead of a little to the north--which is causing water to pool at the end of the driveway.

Friday, November 25, 2005

House Project: Toilets In, Lighting Fixtures & Switches Going In

We went by the house today to show my daughter and son-in-law its current state. When they were last down here, there was no driveway--we had to walk from the road to the building site--which at that point was still untouched. The plumber has been up there in the last few days--toilets are now installed in all three bathrooms, and the water heater is now in place. At least if I drag Big Bertha up there for night observing (assuming that we don't get continual cloud cover now), there will be a toilet available.

As we were getting ready to leave, the electrician showed up with a bunch of light switches and outlets; he was getting ready to start installing everything.

The original plan was to put motion detector light switches in all the bedrooms, but I don't know where we got the notion that these could be purchased for about $10 each. The electrician reports that they are $28 each, so we are having him install conventional light switches.

The weather is becoming wintry; there was a light dusting of snow on the north face of the property (the one overlooking Horseshoe Bend). This evening here in Boise we had a real genuine snowfall.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Boise Inversion Layer

One of the down sides of Boise weather is that in winter, it is quite common for an inversion layer to develop. For a few days to a few weeks, you can get this dense, cold fog in the valley--while on top of the mountains, it can be clear and relatively warm. Right now, it is solid gray outside--but click on the Bogus Basin webcam page and you can see that 15 miles away and 4000 feet up, the sky is relatively clear.

Even before it settles in fully, we get a lot of gunk in the air--unpleasant to breathe, and unpleasant to look through as well. (The new house will solve this problem.) I managed to find M31 (Andromeda Galaxy) with Big Bertha the other night, but because of the inversion layer and the junk it was holding in the air, the view left much to be desired.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Lots of Positive Feedback From ScopeRoller Customers

They also suggest that I put my creative energies to work on developing new products for the Losmandy mounts. This is a very good idea; as I was looking at Mars this evening, and shivering, I found myself wondering if I can invent something that makes these temperatures tolerable.

Mars was showing some detail--but not much. Unfortunately, there still enough turbulence in my suburban setting from cooling concrete to be a problem. The good news is that this 5" refractor's optics are good enough that if could solve the turbulence problem, I could easy use 381x on it.

Venus is now in a crescent phase, which is at least mildly interesting. Unfortunately, Venus never shows anything to a telescope but white clouds.
House Project: Air Conditioning Compressor Installed

Not much has happened--apparently our electrician is too busy to get to our house until Wednesday. The good news is that the air conditioning compressor is installed!

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The energy efficiency label indicates that this is the least efficient compressor available.

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I don't think this is particularly a problem, however. I am expecting to need the air conditioning at most a couple weeks a year in summer, so it doesn't make sense to spend a lot of extra money for a high efficiency air conditioning compressor that will only get used occasionally.

Why bother with air conditioning if I am expecting only minimal use? If it gets to 85 or even 90 degrees in the daytime around here, that's only slightly uncomfortable because humidity is very low in summer in Boise. In the daytime, you just open some windows and let the cross-breezes take care of you.

The problem is that if it is 75 degrees at night, I can't sleep. This was a problem when we lived in California--hot days are annoying--hot nights are hopeless.

The gas line is in place for the backup generator.

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The generator is still in the box, however, waiting for the electrician to install it.

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It is really quiet up there. If you have a high speed connection, click here to download some video to hear how quiet.

Last house project entry.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The House Project: Stone Cutters, Thermostat

I went up there Wednesday to deliver another of lighting fixtures, and there were enough trucks up there that I could delude myself that the house might be done soon!

These guys were up to measure the counters for the Silestone:

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Here they are measuring the countertops.

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My wife and I goofed on our measures of the kitchen--so instead of about $7000 for these beautiful granite-like counters, it is closer to $7800. If that seems like a lot--even the cheap laminate comes to close to $3000 to do everything--and these counters serve a very important purpose. When the time comes to sell the place, the wife of the potential buyer will walk in, see the view, see these absolutely gorgeous counters--and before you know it, she'll be insisting that a million dollars is perfectly reasonable. If you visit the Silestone web site , click on the Amarillo Palmira (that's the kitchen color), the Absolute Green (bathrooms 2 and 3), and the Kona Beige (that's the master bathroom). Three weeks to deliver, cut, and install these tops.

These guys were up to get the cooktop and water heater operational--but there seemed to be some miscommunication with the plumber, who was supposed to install the water heater--and the cooktop hadn't arrived yet.

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As usual, I was hassling my builder about the type of thermostat I wanted--one that would not just be programmable by the day and hour, but one that would know to transition from heater to air conditioning and back again. Our current house has a very sophisticated thermostat that has such a small display that I can't quite read it--and it still requires you to manually select either HEAT or COOL. The idea that the weather might change enough in a day to require automatic change seems a bit much, I guess. But this is Idaho, and that happens!

Anyway, the heating and cooling guy found a thermostat that does this automatic switchover, and has a nice big display.

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It occurred me that since this replaced an antiquity from the 1950s, I should go ahead and program it to drop down to 45 degrees at night, and not warm up until about 10:00 AM, when the workers arrive. My builder tells me that even if it below freezing outside, the heater only takes about 15 minutes to get the whole house toasty--even with a lot of doorknob holes still letting in the cold.

Adding to the complexity of all this was that we hadn't considered (or at least, hadn't communicated) to the vendor of sinks that we would want undermounted sinks. This adds some cost, of course, but it also meant that our sink vendor would be at least four weeks getting us the sinks we needed--in the color Bone. Much excitement, many calls, but the plumber seems to have found a more immediate source.

I really want to get this done--both for reasons of locking in interest rates, and because I want to move Big Bertha up there for deep sky observing. It has been so crisp, cold, and clear these last few nights--and Big Bertha a place where she can go for the deep sky objects.

Last house project entry.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The House Project: When Am I Allowed My Nervous Breakdown?

Because it has taken so long to get to the point where we are ready to put countertops on the kitchen cabinets and vanities--we had to start all over on the decision process about the countertops. Since we started over, we made an entirely new set of selections--but run through the following complexities:

1. We decided that the Silestone cultured granite stuff looked so cool, and it wasn't much more expensive than the Corian ($60 per square foot instead of $43 per square foot).

2. The kitchen and the master bath get the Silestone; we'll use Corian in the other two bathrooms, because it is a bit cheaper.

3. My wife decides to use Silestone in the other two bathrooms--$17 per square foot difference when you only have about eight square foot total isn't that much money.

4. We forgot about the utility sink in the laundry room. Okay. We'll Corian that.

5. Nope. That's below the minimum order for Corian. So we'll use Corian in bathroom three.

6. What's the size of the counters? The builder has clearly the wrong dimensions for the master bath vanities, so we drive up there to remeasure everything.

7. Gee, if we are getting Corian, we can get the sink and the countertop as a single unit. Won't that be cool? Besides, undermounting the sinks we had specified over at Consolidated adds $195 to the cost of the Corian, and the Corian sink included is about $305--so it comes out about the same or cheaper to go for the Corian sink as part of the countertop.

8. But there's no utility sink or even close to that size in Corian.

9. I call the builder from Home Depot, and tell him what we are planning. Then he reminds me that the utility sink is so large that there isn't going to be much of a Corian countertop around it--why not just go for cheap laminate around it, and save the $498 that we would be spending for the Corian countertop and undermounting of the sink? Great idea! Now go back and revisit item #5 above.

I think, if I can ever get hold of my wife on the phone, we're going to do Silestone everywhere now. What we save on the utility sink will be more than the extra cost of doing the third bathroom in Silestone instead of Corian, and keeps a consistent and very sharp looking interior design.

Of course, it is three weeks to get the Silestone ordered up--and of course, that holds up not just the countertops, but also installation of the sinks that undermount the counters. Groan.

I've learned so much from this project. And I hope that I don't have to use that knowledge again!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Scott Adams on Evolution vs. Intelligent Design

It rather surprises me:
I’ve been doing lots of reading on the subject, trying to gather comic fodder. I fully expected to validate my preconceived notion that the Darwinists had a mountain of credible evidence and the Intelligent Design folks were creationist kooks disguising themselves as scientists. That’s the way the media paints it. I had no reason to believe otherwise. The truth is a lot more interesting. Allow me to set you straight. (Note: I’m not a believer in Intelligent Design, Creationism, Darwinism, free will, non-monetary compensation, or anything else I can’t eat if I try hard enough.)

First of all, you’d be hard pressed to find a useful debate about Darwinism and Intelligent Design, of the sort that you could use to form your own opinion. I can’t find one, and I’ve looked. What you have instead is each side misrepresenting the other’s position and then making a good argument for why the misrepresentation is wrong. (If you don’t believe me, just watch the comments I get to this post.)
And my oh my! He was right! I used to understand when the Young Earthers would get frustrated, nasty, and vicious. (Well, okay, that's just Ken Hamm.) But now it seems to be the defenders of the True Church of Darwinian Evolution (which doesn't include all evolutionists) who are having a little trouble keeping their tongues in check.
House Project: Lighting Fixtures, Countertops

Apparently when we picked out lighting fixtures at Grover's Pack and Pay in Boise several months back, we didn't give them the detailed list of stuff that our builder would need--so we had to FAX that over to Grover's on Friday. They didn't have everything in stock, but they had most of it. To speed up the process, because there was a real possibility that the electrician would be back from elk hunting in time to get started Saturday, we picked up everything that was ready Saturday morning at Grover's and delivered it.

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It just barely fit.

Most of the painting has been done in the evenings, and we noticed a couple of rooms that, in the cold light of day, need a bit more painting, so we whined to the builder.

We also discovered that the counter tops we picked out at another store seem not to have made it onto the order list. I'm not sure if that was our fault or theirs, but my wife noticed that the selection and pricing was better at Lowe's. Our builder already has an account at Home Depot, however, and the selection there was even a little more attractive.

We had originally planned to use laminates for the countertops, but after more examination of the choices and prices, we decided on Corian for bathrooms two and three, and one of these cultured quartz stone surfaces that looks like granite (okay, granite on acid) for the kitchen and the master bedroom. Our current house uses a granite tile on the kitchen counters which, while quite dramatic, requires a bit more maintenance than the cultured stone surfaces--and is harder to keep clean, because of the grout between tiles. This cultured stone surface is a single sheet cut to dimension, and three centimeters thick.

Oh yeah, here's one of the lesser views from our house, of Bogus Basin ski resort to the east.

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Last house project entry.
House Project: Topless Cabinets

We ran up to the house last night to make some last minutes decisions about countertops and backsplashes for the jetted tub and the kitchen sink. There are cabinets in the kitchen and vanities in two of the three bathrooms--but all lacking tops, of course.

The kitchen:

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Looking down into the island where the cooktop goes, I don't see where the downdraft exhaust exits the building.

Bathroom three is tiny, and has a correspondingly tiny vanity.

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We have long felt that too much space is wasted on a huge master bathroom. We may have gone a bit far the other direction!

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Utility room sink cabinet.

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Last house project entry.

Friday, November 11, 2005

National Propaganda Radio Reported This?

And Instapundit, as much as he is "deeply unimpressed" with Intelligent Design critiques of evolutionary theory, admits that this is scientific McCarthyism.

It's time to start carrying an umbrella, to deal with the results of the pigs relieving themselves as they fly overhead. From NPR:
Richard Sternberg, a staff scientist at the National Institutes of Health, is puzzled to find himself in the middle of a broader clash between religion and science -- in popular culture, academia and politics.

Sternberg was the editor of an obscure scientific journal loosely affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, where he is also a research associate. Last year, he published in the journal a peer-reviewed article by Stephen Meyer, a proponent of intelligent design, an idea which Sternberg himself believes is fatally flawed.

"Why publish it?" Sternberg says. "Because evolutionary biologists are thinking about this. So I thought that by putting this on the table, there could be some reasoned discourse. That's what I thought, and I was dead wrong."

At first he heard rumblings of discontent but thought it would blow over. Sternberg says his colleagues and supervisors at the Smithsonian were furious. He says -- and an independent report backs him up -- that colleagues accused him of fraud, saying they did not believe the Meyer article was really peer reviewed. It was.

Eventually, Sternberg filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which protects federal employees from reprisals. The office launched an investigation. Ultimately, it could not take action, because Sternberg is not an employee of the Smithsonian.

But Sternberg says before closing the case, the special counsel, James McVay, called him with an update. "As he related to me, 'the Smithsonian Institution's reaction to your publishing the Meyer article was far worse than you imagined,'" Sternberg says.
The letter from the Office of Special Counsel is here.

Look, being persecuted and retaliated against isn't proof that Intelligent Design is correct, but the evolutionary establishment's foaming at the mouth suggests that ID has hit a nerve that "Creation science" never did. That's because Intelligent Design has a few proponents who are legitimate scientists, working in the fields of biochemistry and microbiology--and some of its criticisms are very powerful.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

House Project: Cabinets Going In!

I spoke to my builder this morning. He confirmed that except for some touch-up work in the master bedroom and my office, the interior painting is done. The cabinet installers were in today, and may be done tomorrow. We are working on details of counters (the vendor where my wife carefully picked selections seems to have lost the information) and backsplashes for the jetted tub and kitchen sink. These are the sort of details where I don't have an opinion--even a weak one. I just let my wife call the shots on color and shapes, since she has much better taste than I do.

We are still looking for a solution for how to surround the tub--and yet still have access to the pump, in the unlikely event that it ever needs repair or maintenance. Oddly enough, the makers of this jetted tub haven't a clue about access--they say that just about everyone just tiles it all over, on the assumption that it will never require maintenance. This seems unlikely to me, but then again, I'm one of those guys who uses screws or hex head bolts, not nails. One possibility is to use greenboard (the water resistant form of wallboard) with tiles mounted on it, and then a wooden trim piece at the corner that uses two screws to mount the trim piece--and the trim piece holds in the greenboard-mounted-tile surround panel.

We still have not received an estimate for the sprinklers. The only guy my builder could find wanted about $3900 for what is really a tiny lawn area. The sprinkler guy that we used at our current house seems to have a much less exorbitant notion of the value of his time, and he did a good job, so we are having him come take a look as well.

There's definitely need for more road mix, both to even out some areas where water is collecting, and to enlarge the area in front of the house where people will park. (Since we have effectively no friends in Boise (we've only lived here about four years), this is a source of considerable humor between the builder and me--the enormous parking lot that may never get used!)

I also heard from the appliance store--somehow I managed to ask them to spec a GE Profile front-loading washer (saves water, generally cleans the clothes more thoroughly) and a GE Profile top-loading dryer (didn't know they made them). We straightened that out quick enough.

Last house project entry.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Things That Don't Scale: ScopeRoller Manufacturing Experiments

You are probably aware (or at least, should be aware), that lots of objects don't scale up or down the way that you expect. There's a reason that eight foot long ants that can pick up automobiles (as you might expect, if ants were eight feet long) don't exist. It is this amazing thing called the square-cube law.

If you double the length of an object, and change no other design characteristics, its surface area quadruples, and its volume (and therefore its weight) octuples. That ant's muscle attachments have gone up with the square of its increase in linear dimension--but the amount of mass involved in moving those muscles has gone up with the cube of the increase in linear dimension--so it is no longer so amazingly strong for its size as the ant you can step on. If you have any question as to whether this is a good thing or not, go watch the 1950s science fiction classic Them.

This is also why the smaller and less oxygen-demanding insects can get by with surprisingly unsophisticated systems for distributing oxygen through their bodies--the surface area of the breathing tubes in the thorax is, relative to the total number of cells, huge. An eight-foot long ant couldn't get enough oxygen distributed to all of its cells without the complex system of lungs and blood that us larger creatures use, or a vastly more complex breathing tube system.

This square-cube law applies in all sorts of unexpected ways. Mars has a much smaller diameter than the Earth--about 45% of Earth's diameter. This means that Mars has about quite a bit less material inside it, relative to its surface area than the Earth--and is probably why Mars is a dead planet--there's more surface area relative to the contents to let heat leak out.

I've been selling this clever (if I do so say myself, as do my customers) Quick Release Toe Saver gadget for Losmandy mounts. I'm starting to look at making versions of it for other equatorial telescope mounts, and my first experimental victim was a Celestron CG-4. The same design doesn't work here, partly because the diameter of the plastic component that holds the quick release pin is much smaller, and so there's a bit less rigidity to the part. The other problem is that instead of a 3/8"-16 threaded stud, I have to use an M6-1.0 threaded stud, which has much smaller threads relative to the diameter of the stud. The total surface area grabbing onto plastic is quite a bit smaller.

The "let the counterweight slam down the shaft under gravity" test caused the plastic carrier to separate from the threaded stud--not because it stripped the stud out of the plastic, but because the plastic flexed enough for the threaded stud to slip out--even though it is a tight fit under ordinary conditions.

I may have to go with either a single piece of Delrin for this, or make it out of brass or aluminum, to avoid the problem of flexure under dynamic load.
House Project: Interior Painting Complete?

I'm not sure. We went up there this evening, and all the windows and door frames were masked, and it appears that everything had been painted--at least one coat, perhaps more--hard to tell.

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Capturing color with any camera can be a struggle, especially with artificial lighting. The walls really aren't white, but bone (and the toilets and bathroom sinks have been ordered in bone as well). The dining room is the only exception--it is a light pink--much less pink than it appears in this picture!

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Cabinets, toilets, sinks, vanities, and carpets are next!

Oh yes, we were up there about 7:00 PM, so it wasn't utterly dark yet--and the Moon is just reaching first quarter, so it is still putting out a lot of light--and we could just make out the Milky Way running through Cassiopeia. That's dark!

Last house project entry.

Sunday, November 6, 2005

House Project: Interior Painting Under Way

We drove up there this afternoon, and it was a gender-transformational moment--just about the entire work crew was teenaged girls. Apparently, our builder's daughter recruited all of her friends at church to come up and finish the prep work.

At this point, they are painting the interior trim. I was expecting them to do the walls first, and then come back with a brush to do the door frames and window trim, but no, they sprayed the trim. After it is dry, they will mask it off, and paint the walls.

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It was wet and rainy up there--as our builder put it, an opportunity to figure out where we need more gravel, and whether we need roof gutters or not! My wife has wanted more land around us, so that we don't have neighbors looking in our windows. On a day like this, I would not know if we even had neighbors. We could be the last people on Earth.

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Last house project entry.
House Project: The Importance of Insulation & Preparing To Paint

I drove up Saturday to see how things were going. It has been cold and rainy here in Boise--and if there was any question as to whether spending the extra $1400 to raise the insulation level in the roof from R-38 to R-50, and insulating under the floor, these pictures of the surrounding mountains should tell you the answer--and it is only November!

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My builder tells me that when arrived Saturday morning, it was 32 degrees outside, and not much warmer inside. He turned on the thermostat, and within 15 minutes, had to go turn it down, because it reached an uncomfortably warm temperature inside. I guess that tells us the furnace is highly effective, and the insulation is holding in the heat once produced.

You can see prep work around windows in the master bedroom:

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I was both pleased and just slightly surprised at the attention to detail as the builder and his family went around preparing all surfaces for interior painting, using wall patch to seal gaps between moldings and walls, and removing door hinges to make sure that the paint went everywhere.

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The plan was to paint the interior Saturday afternoon, and have the kitchen cabinets, vanities, toilets, carpets, and appliances done this coming week. He is waiting for the temperatures to rise a bit so that he can finish the exterior paint. If the electrician ever gets back from elk hunting, he can install the outlets and light fixtures.

Last house project entry.

Thursday, November 3, 2005

Business Jargon Humor

Overheard in a meeting today, after the last(?) of many, many reorganizations of a certain unnamed corporation's laser printer division:
Are they listing reorganization as one our core competencies?

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Distributed Research & Development

I've decided to start making the ScopeRoller Quick Release Toe Saver for mounts other than the Losmandy--but I don't have ready access to any other mounts, except for a friend here in Boise with a Celestron CG-4 mount. So I've decided to do a "distributed research and development" activity. I'm advertising on that:
I've decided to start making them for other mounts as well--and if you are the first customer to request a quick release toe saver that fits your particular mount, and if I decide that there is likely to be enough future sales, you, being the first customer (and guinea pig), get it for free. All you pay is shipping charges, which will be under $1.50 in the continental U.S. (I ship these by first class mail.)

I already make these for the Losmandy mount, and the Celestron CG-4 mount or similar. I would especially be interested in hearing from those of you with any of the mass market mounts.

If you aren't the first customer for your mount, well, it's still a bargain at $30, postage paid in the U.S.
One lucky person per telescope mount type will get to beg or borrow a micrometer to measure the counterweight shaft diameter, and determine the threading of the slow to remove factory toe saver nut. In exchange, they get one free!