Saturday, February 22, 2014

Happy sunny Saturday pictures

Mud season begins: Snowmelt in the driveway.

 Expectant mothers relax with some hay. Shaunie climbing the fence as usual.

Snowmobiles at last! Now we can take an easier walk on the snowmobile trail. Never thought I'd be grateful for these stinky noisy things.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The melt begins

Today we will get rain. After that it will get cold again, and the next time the jet stream drapes itself over Maine we may get snow again, but the Canadian air is moving northwards with each passing day. The sun is now up to 35 degrees above the horizon at noon, and the daylight glimmers around 6am and ends at 5.30 pm or so. In less than a month it will be the vernal equinox, and after that we will get frogs. And lambs. Followed by graduation.

Snow, rain, cold, snow, rain, melt, melt, frogs, lambs, tilling, shearing, graduates, planting, the seasons and sub-seasons and microseasons.

(My favorite is still and always will be lamb season.)

So endeth another Maine winter. Slowly, but surely, the world turns.


Here's a reminder of what it will be like later this year:

Saturday, February 8, 2014


I had a nice affirmation yesterday, but one that is less than moderately comprehensible to my American colleagues, friends and relatives (and even some of my British colleagues, friends and relatives), that are unfamiliar with the academic organizations of Britain and the Commonwealth of Nations, and related institutions: I was "elected" a Fellow of the RSA, the "Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce."

This is not a huge deal, as academic honors go. The RSA is easily confused with the Royal Society or RS. To be elected to the RS would be a much, much bigger deal.

RSA fellows are far more numerous than Royal Society Fellows. You really have to be "eminent" to become a Fellow of the Royal Society; whereas the RSA has 27,000 Fellows all around the world, the RS has only about 1,600. I wouldn't be eligible for the RS, because I'm not a particularly eminent academic. And the RSA is more about practical applications of science and philosophy, less about pure research and new knowledge, which are the main concerns of the RS.

There has already been some confusion around campus, which I'm anxious to dispell.

The official line is, "Fellows must have demonstrated achievement or potential related to the arts, manufactures and commerce." By "the arts", they mean the liberal arts, and so science and social science are included. In recent years the RSA has adopted a sustainability mission, which I found particularly attractive. The benefits for me, my students and the college will include access to ideas through conferences, meetings, networks and publications, and access to small amounts of competitive funding for researchers, practitioners and students. There was an application letter and they asked for referees. They must have thought about it somehow, since they kept me waiting for a couple of months.

I think, other than studying their webpage, the best way to understand what this is about if anyone is particularly interested is to watch the following animation from the current Chief Executive of the organization:

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A sloppy mess

Here's today's weather map showing the snowstorm that started to hit at breakfast time. I was lucky. I didn't have to be at work for any scheduled meeting until one pm, so I elected to work from home until the inevitable "snow day" cancellation, which came a few minutes ago.

My colleagues who had early meetings and classes, including Aimee are struggling home right about now.

It's light but slightly wet snow, so it will be especially snotty on the roads. The worst hasn't yet hit, so things are not too bad so far. When that yellow stuff on the map gets over here to Waldo County, it will be pretty bad for an hour or two.

Shouldn't be enough for power outages, but enough for a few accidents.

I hope to see Aimee home soon.

Best to stay home, then. 

If only Atlantans had thought to do that last week!

But I expect when you aren't used to weather-related work stoppages, you don't have snow day SOPs like we do in the frozen north.

Making it up as you go along is not a great way to run weather-related policy.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The discourtesy inspection

Aimee's muffler was making noise, so we made plans to get it fixed. In general, prying Aimee's hands off the wheel of her car to get it fixed can be hard -- she resents the loss of personal freedom. But, with gentle negotiation, and the annoyance of driving a noisy car, she was motivated and more cooperative than usual.

I made an appointment at a nearby place, but before going down there, I took a look at it myself. In general I fix most of the problems on our vehicles that can be fixed with the tools and workspace I have available, and dislike spending money on other mechanic's bills. 

After no more than a moment or two's basic diagnosis I identified the source of the muffler leak as the "flex" pipe, a woven steel joint that most modern cars have between the downpipe and the catalytic converter. It was an easy diagnosis: First thing in the morning, with the current cold atmospheric conditions, and a decent flashlight, you could actually see the exhaust gas spewing out of the hole in the flex pipe.

I can change a flex pipe and indeed did so on the old Ford Escort wagon about a year ago, but in the winter, with my workshop full of woodworking tools, no lift, and no wire spool welder, this would be more trouble than it was worth. Without the wire welder I'd have to clamp the new pipe with muffler clamps, not weld it. This was not a procedure likely to outlast the Camry, while on the Ford, it almost certainly would -- and has -- just because the Ford has less useful life in it than the Camry. 

My electric "stick" welder is too harsh a device to weld the thin sheet steel on a muffler, unless I have the whole muffler off and on the bench, where I can better control the heat.

So, the best bet would be to have someone else do this job.
Even so, it was with some trepidation that I put myself in the hands of the so-called mechanics at our local place. I'd already explained over the phone that the diagnosis was done and all I needed was the flex pipe. I'd asked them to make sure they had the flex pipe on hand, and asked them to be sure they could get the job done before close of business, since the appointment was for two in the afternoon. They said yes to all, but insisted that they would have to do their own diagnosis. That would be fine, I said, as long as they had the flex pipe on hand. But I again reiterated that all I wanted done was the flex pipe.

So I went down there and signed the form and gave them the key. And waited. And waited. The shop was completely empty, the staff nowhere in sight. There was no coffee for the coffee machine, and the waiting room coffee area was unkempt and dirty. Nothing to do but wait. After about thirty minutes, another car was finally pulled into a work bay, but this one belonged to a lady that arrived after I did. Her work got started, though. Mine didn't. 

Finally, after about forty minutes, they pulled my car into the far bay. I could just about see what was going on.

I then watched as the mechanic toured the car with a clipboard, checking just about every damn thing but the exhaust system. Then the service manager came over with the following piece of paper, taken from the clipboard. On it was detailed the so-called "courtesy inspection". 

This paper told me I supposedly needed a transmission and power steering "flush", an alignment, a throttle body clean and "bronze", a new sway bar link, a new rear bumper cover, and finally, a flex pipe for my muffler.

I hit the roof.

I told the so-called service manager that I wasn't going to pay for anything but the flex pipe, I'd already told him I wasn't going to pay for anything than the flex pipe, and could he kindly get on with the job of changing the damn flex pipe, having wasted already an hour of my time. 

He said, "but it's just the "free courtesy inspection." 

The kid was about fourteen years old and pimply. I expect that if I'd still been in the service, I'd have given him a proper British NCO's bollocking. I certainly felt like doing so.

I explained that it was not at all courteous, at least as far as I could see, and that they'd already wasted my time, and, again, could they please just do the job I'd asked them to do.

Then I went for a long walk to cool off.

Here's the offending piece of paper. Click to enlarge, and use control-plus to make yet bigger, forensically. The green highlighted areas are the extra stuff. I expect that the total of all these "repairs" and procedures, had I been foolish enough to allow them, would have been in excess of $1,000. 

I wonder how many inexperienced car owners fall for this BS. Probably enough to make it worthwhile for the franchise owners to make it an SOP. 

Even the price of the actual job, when they finally got around to doing it, was inflated.

A flex pipe could be bought at the Auto Zone down the road for less than $20. With the equipment these guys had in their shop, it would have taken me no more than half-an-hour to change it. I was charged $160. Here's the actual bill.


Finally, they charged me an extra $40 for pulling the check engine codes. I never asked them to pull the codes and indeed the check engine light wasn't even on when I took the car to the shop.

There is a stored code. I know this, because I read the codes myself whenever the check engine light comes on. There's a tiny Toyota sensor in the emissions system that senses the fuel tank pressure. This sensor is wonky, and works intermittently, goes on and off. I know all about it and have decided not to change it because a new one is $200, and the car runs fine even when the sensor is on the fritz.

So they charged me an extra forty bucks to diagnose a sensor that I already knew was bad, that I never told them to look at.

I've had enough of these clowns. It seems that every time I engage a so-called professional to do a job around here, I finish up paying through the nose and thinking at the end that I would have done things better myself. As soon as I can afford to, I'm getting a bigger workshop and a lift.

Here are some other examples: