Archive for February, 2010

Rumination on changing the oil

February 28, 2010

This morning I took advantage of a break in the weather to change the oil in our car. [05 Corolla, “hairshirt edition”.  I think I’m the only person left without power windows or locks.  Despite all the recent Toyota acrimony, I’m still a fan – great mileage, great reliability, brakes and gas pedal work fine. ]  I confess that I relish the funny looks I get from passersby on the brick sidewalks of Harvard street in Cambridge, who are not  accustomed to seeing guys in coveralls grubbing around under cars in their neighborhood.  But it’s honestly cheaper, faster, and more convenient than driving over to some shop and getting it done.  The whole project takes less than half an hour, costs around $15 ($4 for the filter and $11 or so for the oil), and I can do it whenever I feel like, without making an appointment or wondering whether there will be a line at the Jiffy franchise.  Despite the low clearance, there’s plenty of room to get a socket wrench on the drain plug without jacks or ramps, and the filter is accessible from above.  I buy the oil and filters several at a time when I happen to be passing by an auto parts store, and the used oil goes back to the same place.  All in all an entirely satisfactory solution.

I got to thinking as I was working on the car about how central the availability of effortless travel is to our sense of possibility.  Obviously, from “go West young man” to Rt. 66, the ability to hit the road, visit new places, and maybe make a fresh start there is part of the American mythology.  But even without the frontier mentality, I wonder what sort of subtle changes to the modern psyche will result if it becomes significantly more expensive and less convenient to get around.

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Low-impact forestry, and a good weekend’s work

February 21, 2010

Beautiful late winter weather this weekend, and I took advantage, making a solid dent in the remaining selective thinning for the high-octane maple trees.  This is an ongoing project to plant a string of sugar maples that have been specially selected by researchers at Cornell to produce a higher concentration of sugar in the sap.  We’ve located these trees along the south side of a stone wall heading down towards the water, with a sufficient slope that eventually we will be able to run a tube system to collect the sap.  Now, I will be an old, old man by the time these trees are ready to be tapped, but somehow that doesn’t seem to dissuade me.  Besides, in the meanwhile, the project improves the woodland, produces firewood for low-carbon heating, and gets me much needed exercise.   We’ve got our low-impact forestry technique pretty well worked out at this point, so I thought I’d describe it in some detail.

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A moment on San Francisco Bay

February 7, 2010

I was in San Francisco for work last week at a photovoltaics exposition that proved remarkably underwhelming.  After the floor closed, Holly and I walked north to the bay, on our way to dinner with some MIT friends.  The city is beautiful; green grass from winter rains and remarkably warm compared with February in New England, despite the overcast sky.  As an engineer it’s hard not to feel a sense of vicarious pride on contemplating an achievement like the Golden Gate bridge, its massive orange towers spanning nearly a mile of deep, cold water.  Given the era of construction, the audacity and can-do spirit that made the project happen seem at least as striking as the technological achievement itself.  As we took in the scene with the daylight fading I had the sinking feeling that the nation today may lack the optimism and sense of purpose to build the 21st equivalent of the Golden Gate bridge or the Apollo program – and indeed the president recently announced that he was scrapping plans to go back to the moon.  Now, we’ve got no shortage of roads, and I’ve often thought that there are more urgent needs for our billions than sending humans on fact-finding junkets to nearby lifeless rocks, but it’s less the worthiness of the goal than the missing sense of destiny that had me discouraged.  And as if on cue, a giant Hanjin container ship ghosted in silently under the bridge from the west, moving fast and laden with layer upon layer of multicolor corrugated steel boxes, by appearance extending forward off the bow and piled unnaturally high from stem to stern.  And I thought – The spirit didn’t die: it just kept on moving west.