Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

More observations from Arizona

A month makes a noticeable difference in temperature

So Gerald has now been at school for a month, and it’s his birthday tomorrow (Monday). Thanks to the generosity of his grandparents, they and Pat and I are now at a condo-type resort in Scottsdale – not exactly close, but we’ve had an opportunity to see him and enjoy a very nice dinner to celebrate. He and Pat have also gotten in some time on the water in various ways. Pat’s been hanging out with the Arizona Yacht Club, which had race-committee training at Lake Pleasant yesterday in preparation for the fall series racing, and dinghy races this afternoon on Tempe Town Lake, near the ASU campus. Gerald had practice yesterday afternoon with the ASU sailing team, also at TTL, and is sailing with the AYC this afternoon.

This morning we all went to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter outpost, and we found out some fascinating things about him and his school of architecture. One interesting fact was that, even when he was famous, he didn’t typically have a lot of money. So all of the physical labor of building the place was done by his apprentice architects. This served another purpose in addition to saving money – it gave the young architects a grounding in building techniques, so they would have a better grasp of what could actually be done.

Since I have to get back to work tomorrow afternoon, Pat and I plan to leave this afternoon and get some of the journey back to Albuquerque done – probably as far as Holbrook. I’ve been looking at available lodgings, and have narrowed the choices down to two.

There’s the America’s Best Value Inn, a nothing-fancy location of a chain of low-budget motels, somewhat old and shabby, but the reviewers who have been there thought it was all right (not that there were many reviewers), and it claims to have free wireless Internet.

Then there’s the Wigwam Motel, for just about exactly the same price, concrete tepees built in 1950 and refurbished in 2001, a bit small but which got rave reviews from nearly all of the reviewers (and there were a lot of them). Parked next to each tepee is a vintage car, and it might be cool for the Miata to pose with them in the morning. No mention of whether it has wireless, however.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Arresting appearance

When camouflage is about being seen rather than being unseen

I recently saw a car in Albuquerque that, at first glance, presented a certain impression.

It was a Ford Crown Victoria, white, with vivid reflectorized graphics on its sides, bright red and blue, much like the linear graphics on Albuquerque police cruisers. When I first saw it, my immediate impression was that it was a cop car.

But then, it didn’t look quite exactly right. There was something just a little bit off about the graphics. Closer scrutiny revealed that this car wasn’t driven by a cop, but by another sort of emergency-response person. Instead of “POLICE,” the graphic on the side of this car read “I BUY HOUSES,” and a toll-free telephone number was printed on the car in the spot where real Albuquerque cop cars have 911.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Before: frustration. After: pain. During: not too bad.

Adventures involving nearly dead air, then lots of air, multiple spilled soft drinks, a stolen sandwich, and more …

This weekend is the Rio Grande Sailing Club’s signature sailing event, the Sunrise Regatta distance event. Sailors may choose to enter a 10-, 25-, or 50-mile race, although low lake levels in the recent past have meant that this is the first time we have held a 50-mile event in many years – with low lake levels, there’s less lake to race upon, and there’s more danger of boats hitting submerged hazards in the darkness. This year, we have more water in the lake than we have had in a long time.

I am using the present tense “is” because the event is still going on. The 10- and 25-mile racers have finished, but the 50-mile racers are still on the water. I have returned to the motel after competing on one of the 25-mile boats, but Pat is still at the marina, monitoring the finish line as the 50-milers come in. As the regatta’s name implies, the 50-mile race typically finishes around sunrise.

Our original plan had been to race Black Magic in the 10-mile race (boats without cabins can’t do the 25- or 50-mile races) with Zorro as either crew or guest skipper. But Pat couldn’t find another boat to do committee boat duty, so we had to bring Syzygy down from Heron, and we didn’t have the time or resources to de-rig and bring both boats down.

So Zorro and I ended up on Twinkle Toes’ Hunter 34, Windependent, in the 25-mile race. Joining us on the boat were the Dutch track star Blondie and Dino’s roommate, who, based on physical resemblance and sense of humor, I will henceforth call Jack Black. It wasn’t the all-star crew we had had on Windependent last spring for the Anniversary Cup, but at least we had enough people that we could run such a big boat.

The first two hours of the race were frustrating. Pat had set the start time for early afternoon because that’s when the winds typically begin to come up. But today they didn’t. They were light but enough to make boats go when he started the race, but then they got lighter and flakier – not enough lighter or flakier to call off and attempt to restart the race, but definitely enough to get really frustrating for people sailing heavy boats like a Hunter 34.

About an hour and 50 minutes into the race, I decided I was hungry enough to eat lunch. One of the great things about sailing with Twinkle Toes is that he always brings sandwiches, really good ones, whether he’s crew or skipper. So I got one of the sandwiches and had taken about four bites of it when, suddenly, the wind showed up. I quickly dropped the sandwich onto one of the cockpit bench seats and got to trimming the jib – by the end of the day, I would be hugely thankful for the super-heavy-duty winches Twinkle Toes had installed when he refurbished the boat last year. The wind hit so suddenly that even Zorro wasn’t completely prepared – the cola that he had been drinking ended up spilled over the compass binnacle and my lap, and for the rest of the day, I had no worries about my shoes slipping on the cockpit floor – there was too much sticky, syrupy soda residue for slipping to be any problem at all.

Once the crisis was over, Zorro picked up my sandwich and ate most of it, sharing a bit with Blondie. I think his own sandwich may have gone overboard.

Finally, we had enough wind to make the big, heavy boat actually move. Twinkle Toes had installed a new, fancy data processing device on the boat, so we could see things like our speed and heading and wind speed and other nifty information. Downwind, we got the boat up to 5.5 knots, in actual winds of about 12 knots. Somewhere along the way, Zorro had another cola, and again, a sudden wind shift threw it off the totally inadequate beverage holder on the wheel pulpit, this time mostly missing my lap but hitting my shoes squarely.

Because of wind shifts, we found ourselves on a broad reach for most of the journey to the mark at the north end of the lake. Once we rounded that mark, the wind had shifted again, so we were on a hard beat for most of the rest of the journey to the finish line.

We had to tack as we made our way back. The way tasks fell, Twinkle Toes was on mainsheet trim, and Jack Black and I were on jib trim. On a boat this size the winches for jib trim are on opposite sides and far enough apart that it works best to have two jib trimmers, one for when the boat is on starboard tack and one for when the boat is on port. It was probably not fair to Jack Black to subject him to having to learn how to tack the boat under competitive conditions – it can sometimes be challenging even under protective lesson conditions. I can give him great credit for doing the best he could, especially when Zorro was getting angry. And his sense of humor really helped him to be part of the crew, even as he was learning.

Upwind, we managed to be even faster than we had been downwind – we got up to 5.8 knots, at least when we were on port tack and I was trimming the jib.

We were in a good position to finish well – we wouldn’t be the first boat across the line, but on corrected time, the big, heavy, clumsy Hunter 34 would finish ahead of the other boats in our race. If we finished less than 12 minutes behind our closest competitor, we would beat him on corrected time. As we approached the finish line, we were only about 5 minutes behind him.

Then the wind died, and the big, heavy boat was nearly dead in the water. The other guy won.

But I don’t really think of it as a failing or shortcoming. We did have a really good day on the water, once the wind came up. We got to show Jack Black how exciting sailing is, and we may have even converted him from stinkpotter to sailing crew – even if he didn’t do perfectly today, he knows he can do better next time around, and he did tell us he had great fun today. He’s promising.

So it isn’t the immense high we got from the Anniversary Cup, but there’s a good feeling.

Of course, there’s the aftermath. Yes, I did put sunscreen on, but still, I have a face that resembles the shell of a boiled lobster. I’ve been rubbing in lots of aloe vera gel. And when the wind went stiff and I was on jib trim, I was doing a heck of a lot of grinding on the winches. I have stinky ointment that can be rubbed on my muscles. I can do the arm and leg muscles. The back and shoulder muscles will have to wait for ointment until Pat gets off committee boat duty.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Options in communication technology

When is it time to move on?

I’m writing this Wednesday night, but you’re not going to be able to read it until Thursday morning at the earliest, because I have no Internet connection right now – more on that later.

Today, technology has not been my friend. Normally, machines like me. I’m the person who puts money into a vending machine, gets the soft drink, and then gets the money back, or I get two soft drinks, or some other bonus. I’m the one who can make computers and printers and other electronic devices do my bidding. I can play a photocopier the way Emmanuel Ax plays the piano – I’m a virtuoso with duplexing, hole-punching, collating, and stapling – not to mention that most important skill, queue management.

But not today. Today, even the elevator that I must use to get to my office (since construction on the new bookstore has blocked the building entrance right next to the office door) was misbehaving. I never have to wait for that elevator, and sometimes I don’t even have to push the button for it; it just opens its door as I approach. But today, I had to push the button, and then I had to wait. That was an omen.

Before that, I had another problem when I first set off to go to work. My son’s vehicle, the Gila Monster, has an alarm system. I had noticed last night that the system was slow to respond to commands from the remote, and today, it wouldn’t respond at all. No problem, I thought … I’d just use the key instead to unlock the vehicle and then go on to work. Not a good idea. I set off the alarm, and since the battery in the remote was dead, I couldn’t shut it off. The alarm system also disabled the engine so I couldn’t even start the vehicle. Pat told me that Gerald told him that somewhere in the house, there’s supposed to be a spare key and alarm remote, but Pat and I couldn’t find it, so we ended up going to Radio Shack for a new battery. It was very frustrating that just because of that little-bitty battery, the Gila Monster was disabled. (Well, at least we know that the insurance discount Gerald gets for having the alarm system is backed up by the ability of the system to keep the vehicle from getting stolen!)

So … once I got to the office, I found that my friend the copier was on the blink. It just sat there, displaying “Call Service” on its little screen, and the card on top had been turned around to show that service had been called. I had a huge amount of copying to do – some fairly hefty handouts for my Essay Writing class. So I went to the office in the other building (navigating around areas fenced off for the construction). The copier there is very, veeerrrryyyy sssslllooowwww, and it doesn’t do stapling or hole-punching, and I didn’t have much time before class, especially given the volume of copying I had to do. But I gave it a try. About halfway through the first batch of handouts, with only 10 minutes to class time, it simply stopped copying. No error message, no paper jam, nothing like that; it just stopped, as if it had completed everything it had been asked to do, and it said “READY” on its screen. There was no sign of the remainder of the first batch of handouts, and no indication that it remembered the rest of the queue.

There’s a reason a photocopier figures heavily in my novel Murder at the Community College.

I was able to salvage the situation because the second hour of both of my classes this evening was scheduled in the computer lab. I was able to show the students where to find the handouts on the course homepage and have them print out their own copies. That didn’t necessarily please the computer lab staff, who want to minimize wear and tear on the printer and consumption of paper and toner. But it worked, and some of the students chose to save resources by reading the handouts online, so that’s a net gain for the planet.

And then, at home, there’s the telephone. About three months ago, we awoke one morning to find the line was dead. Using the cell phone, we called service, and by the end of the day, service had been restored. However, things weren’t working perfectly – sometimes when there was an incoming call, the phone would give a brief “ping” rather than ringing normally. One time when I phoned home from the office, I found out what the callers experienced – the “ping” followed by a faint humming sound that lasted several minutes before getting cut off for the dial tone. But the problem was intermittent; I immediately phoned again, and the call went through just fine.

Monday, the phone line was dead again. We called service. Toward the end of the day, the service technician called our cell … he reported that three months ago, the company had been working on equipment upgrades in our neighborhood, and our line had been damaged; although it had been repaired, it hadn’t been repaired properly. But this time, it had definitely been repaired properly, although he said he had checked the phone lines where they entered the house, and it looked like also a phone might have been left off the hook.

This morning, we once again got an indication that all was not well – we got an incoming call that just went “ping.” Then this afternoon, when Pat tried to go online using our dial-up connection, he found the line was dead again. It’s still dead this evening, and we went through the house thoroughly to make sure that there weren’t any phones off the hook – besides, if there were a phone off the hook, incoming calls would get a busy signal, not a “ping.” So we have used the cell to put in another call for service on the landline.

I have noticed a trend over the ten years that I have been teaching at the community college. At the beginning of every term, I have my students fill out an information card with their phone numbers and email addresses, so I can reach them if I need to, and so, if they give permission for information to be shared, their classmates can contact them. I originally had blanks for “home phone” and “work phone,” but as time went by, many students would squeeze in a cell phone, or fill both blanks but cross out either “home” or “work” to replace with “cell.” So I changed the form to add a blank for a cell phone number. Now, the conversion to cell phones is dramatic – of the 84 students I have this term, only about 14 have a conventional land-line home phone. And there are only four whose only telephone number is a land-line home phone.

I have seen statistics that say that about 16% of Americans now use a cell phone as their only telephone. Now, college students are far more likely than most Americans to rely solely on the cell phone, but most of my students are “non-traditional” students – they’re older, and they have jobs and families to take care of, and they’re not so mobile, so they don’t fit the usual profile of a college student.

Now I’m evaluating whether Pat and I really need a land-line home phone. There are three reasons we have a land-line: 1. It’s more reliable than a cell phone.2. It’s cheaper than a cell phone. 3. We use it for cheap Internet access via dial-up.

Over the past three months, our land-line phone company has shot reason #1 to hell. I can remember in the old days, after such catastrophes as Hurricane Alicia, the electricity was out, the gas was out, the water was out – but the telephone kept on going. Pat remembers the aftermath of a hurricane (I don’t remember for sure, but I believe it was Beulah), in which the trailer on South Padre Island that was the family’s vacation home was blown over on its side, but the phone still worked. That’s not the case any more. Land-line telephone service used to be that one thing that could be counted on no matter what. Now, it’s not. I’m guessing the equipment upgrades that led to our line being damaged in the first place were for higher-paying customers, to improve the quality of the DSL they’re paying for. We lowly skinflints who pay only for basic service, and not even any enhancements such as Caller ID and Call Waiting, are not high priority.

Reasons #2 and #3 are also getting rethought. I am seeing advertising for companies that offer not just any Internet access, but high-speed Internet access, for as little as $10 a month. Sure, the bargain-basement access is slower than the nicer services, but still, it’s faster than dial-up. At this point, it’s a question of whether we can afford the hook-up charges – I don’t even know what those may involve, but presumably a wire has to be run into the house from somewhere to connect to our computers. (We’re not even THINKING about using the local cable television service, which now charges more than $100 a month for basic service.)

We’re currently paying about $35 a month for our land-line telephone service, plus additional charges for any long-distance calls we make. For $10 a month, we can add a cell phone for Pat to the service we currently use for me and Gerald, with no extra charges for long distance. We pay about $20 a month for dial-up Internet access that’s available anywhere in New Mexico. We pay about $15 a month for landline service at Five O’Clock Somewhere; we can’t cancel that, since cell phone signals don’t reach there – but the phone company up there is now offering DSL for about $20 a month, so we could dispense with our dial-up ISP.

We may soon be reconfiguring the way we communicate with the world.

Update: Thursday morning we had a dial tone and were able to make outgoing calls, but an incoming call still just got the “ping.” The service department left an automated message on our cell phone voice mail that the line had been tested and no problems were found.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Reservoirs – providing places to sail no matter where you are

Is a sport elite if you can do it in the middle of Oklahoma?

Over at Proper Course, Tillerman has begun another group writing project: Describe what you believe to be “the best sailing innovation ever.” My nomination is reservoirs.

Allow me to tell some history. The ancient Romans discovered means of moving great quantities of water around, via complex systems of aqueducts, to improve their quality of life. Before the Romans, the Greek philosopher/scientist Archimedes invented a primitive water pump that could carry water uphill to where it was needed. And there are rumors that the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon used something similar to Archimedes’ system to get water where it needed to be.

Since ancient times, humans have been hard at work taking water from where it is and moving it to where it’s needed, and in many cases, storing it somewhere along the way.

Fast-forward from ancient Rome to the early 20th century. The United States and Mexico signed a treaty allocating the water in the Rio Grande – each country was entitled to a certain amount, and in order to make sure the treaty could be carried out, a massive dam on the river was authorized, to hold water when it needed to be held and dispense water when it needed to be dispensed. The result was Elephant Butte Dam, completed in 1916, at the time the largest dam ever built – it made the cover of Scientific American magazine. The reservoir, Elephant Butte Lake, was the largest human-built lake in the world for the next two decades.

Then came the Great Depression, and a lot of national malaise. One of the ways for the country to get out of the Depression was development, and one of the big projects was the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was about providing electric power for rural residents by building dams, and therefore reservoirs, in narrow valleys. The dams produced electric power, and they also created lakes where once there were valleys.

I have a sewing machine that I inherited from Pat’s grandmother. The owner’s manual for the sewing machine is copyright 1919, and it advises the reader to find out what sort of electricity the local company provides, and then order the appropriate transformer in order to be able to use the machine – the power might be AC, 50 volts, 110 volts, 220 volts, or something else altogether, or it could be DC, anything from 6 volts to 500 volts. But Pat’s grandmother acquired the machine in 1932, and it took AC 110 volts – because of the TVA, the electric power grid had become standard.

Then later in the 20th century, there was another reason that reservoirs got created. A couple of years ago, I picked up a book in a thrift shop in Pagosa Springs … the book was a 1960 celebration of Colorado, and the advances that had been made in that state in the past hundred years. The last essay in the book was titled something like “Correcting God’s Mistakes: Redistributing Water in the Front Range.” According to this article, God made a big mistake when he put lots of really rich topsoil on the east side of the mountains, but he made the rainfall patterns drop most of the rainfall on the west side. So the way to correct this mistake was to construct a vast system of reservoirs and tunnels to hold water and then to deliver it to the side of the mountains where it’s needed.

So, I hear all of you asking, what does this have to do with sailing?

All of these reservoirs, no matter the reason they were constructed, provide places to go sailing. Without reservoirs, there would be no sailing in New Mexico. Without reservoirs, there would be no sailing in the southeastern United States, except maybe where there was a naturally occurring lake – and even then, such a lake might not be suitable for sailing. Without reservoirs, there would be no sailing in Oklahoma or Nebraska or a lot of other places in the Midwest and Great Plains. Without reservoirs, there would be no sailing in Colorado, no Dillon Open, no Cherry Creek.

Yeah, the folks who built the reservoirs had no thoughts about whether those reservoirs might be good for sailing. But even if they never had that intent, they have done much to promote sailing in the U.S.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Gift shopping puzzler

What to get for the college student who has everything?

Two weeks ago, Pat and I installed Gerald in a dorm at Arizona State University, where he plans to study architecture. Two weeks from now, he has a birthday, and we’re at a loss to figure out what to get him that will be both useful and special.

His dorm room is already well furnished with the basics – he and his roommate between them have covered all the necessities: television, fridge, microwave. Stereos aren’t the necessity they were when Pat and I were students – their computers have speaker systems, and they also have iPods for personal entertainment. We went on a shopping spree for most of the less glamorous stuff, too: desk lamp, wastebasket, laundry hamper, and so forth.

And speaking of computers, Gerald got a nice one from his grandparents as a high school graduation present, so that’s taken care of, and his roommate has a nice printer the two can share. The other big-ticket item that’s taken care of is a bicycle – Gerald bought himself a nice, heavy-duty mountain bike last week.

He has expressed a wish for accessories for his vehicle, the Gila Monster, such as new fender flares that will accommodate the larger tires. But he doesn’t have the Monster with him, and since I’m now the primary driver of the vehicle, getting anything for it would really be getting it for me and not for him.

I thought of the possibility of dorm-room décor – the place was pretty bare when he moved in. It seemed that when Pat and I were in college, just about every men’s dorm room had the obligatory Farrah Fawcett pin-up poster. If you grew up in that era, you know the one that I mean. But I don’t know what pin-up Gerald would go for, and besides that, he brought his own wall décor – replicas of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and I think maybe the Magna Carta too. (Gee, maybe he should be studying law, or perhaps journalism, rather than architecture, especially since his favorite class, judging by how much email space he gives it, is English composition/rhetoric.)

So, what’s a gift for a college freshman who pretty much has everything he needs – something a little bit special and perhaps offbeat, something he wouldn’t just go out and buy for himself, but that he would appreciate? I was originally going to add the criterion that it be small enough to fit into (or get towed behind) a Ford Expedition, but then I realized the dorm room is smaller than the Expedition’s interior and is shared with a roommate, so the size restriction is more like what would fit into a small station wagon.

So, faithful readers, especially those of you who have been in college more recently than I, what’s a cool gift for The Gerald?

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