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Thursday, May 21, 2015


Like nearly two thirds of Americans, as a young man I was in favor of the death penalty.  Since I lived in Nebraska, that was an easy position to take - one not likely to cause conflict with friends and neighbors, should the subject come up.  I don't recall anyone asking, but I'm sure I'd have easily justified my beliefs based on a few obvious "facts":
  • The death penalty reduces the crime rate.
  • Some people are so evil the world would be a better place without them.
  • Taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for food, housing, medical care, etc. for convicted killers
If pressed, my principal objection to the practice of executing prisoners would be the long period of time between sentencing and carrying out the sentence.

Fortunately, with age comes wisdom, and I've come to understand that the death penalty is ineffective, expensive, and unfairly applied.  It's impossible to determine cause and effect with statistics, but a comparison of murder rates between death penalty and non death penalty states shows a consistently lower rate in the latter (of course, this statistic is likely skewed by the fact that over a third of the executions since 1976 have been carried out in Texas, and nearly 90% are in the south.

 OK, so maybe the death penalty doesn't actually prevent crime, but at least we're executing only the very worst offenders, right?  Actually, no - do we really think over 30% of the worst people in the country commit crimes in Texas?  Then there's this (from The ACLU Race and the Death Penalty):

University of Iowa law professor David Baldus found that during the 1980s prosecutors in Georgia sought the death penalty for 70 % of black defendants with white victims, but for only 15% of white defendants with black victims.

So, if we aren't necessarily executing the worst offenders, we can at least take solace in our knowledge that all of these criminals deserve severe punishment, right?  Again, no - a recent study estimates that about 4% of death row inmates are innocent!  If you think a 96% success rate is good enough, think about how you'd feel if one out of every 25 airline flights blew up on take off - I suspect you'd be a lot less excited about your next trip to Los Vegas!

Since we aren't always executing the worst criminals - and in fact are almost certainly executing the innocent - it seems kind of silly to talk about how much money the death penalty saves us, but, what the heck, let's do it anyway.  Is this racist, ineffective, inaccurate system really worth it because it just saves us so stinking much money?  Care to take a guess?  How much money does the average death sentence save us?  Accurate costs are difficult to come up with, but most studies show a death penalty case may cost $1 million more than a non death penalty case.  Typically, a prison inmate costs about $50,000 per year to house - a cost that will be somewhat higher for the death row inmate who may take a dozen years or more to exhaust his appeals.  While both sides may claim the economy argument, it's clear there is, at best, little or no cost advantage to executions.

Recently, the death penalty has been in the news in Nebraska.  Although I  no longer live in the Cornhusker State, I still follow the news - or at least read the headlines.  I knew Ernie Chambers had been working for years to try to eliminate the practice in the state, but I assumed he was tilting at windmills.  Much to my surprise, a bill to eliminate the death penalty in Nebraska recently passed by a 2 to 1 margin!  Nebraska's Governor - a Republican, of course - has vowed to veto the bill, but it appears support in the Unicameral is strong enough to override the veto.

If Nebraska does do away with the death penalty, it will represent an amazing victory for progressives in the state.  I've long felt that Ernie Chambers was a great - and largely unappreciated - asset to the state, and this may be his most lasting legacy.  We can only hope this is a trend we'll see repeated throughout the country.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Road Trip - or Don't Blow Bubbles in a Full-Face Helmet.....

I'm a bad influence on my kids, or so I've been told, so when I bought a motorcycle it was no big surprise when my youngest child decided to follow suit.

Kari first talked about getting a scooter - a practical bike with automatic transmission, limited power, and built-in storage options.  She initially planned on a 50cc scooter with a top speed of 35 mph or so.  In my opinion, an underpowered scooter like that is a hazard on streets with a speed limit over 30 mph, since you may not be able to keep up with the traffic, so I suggested to Kari that she look at slightly larger, 150 cc scooters - generally capable of speeds of 55 mph or so.  This would allow her to accelerate and cruise at the speeds generally seen on city streets. 

Kari was open to that idea, and I was glad to hear that she planned to purchase safety gear and had enrolled in a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) class.  She wisely decided to purchase a bike only after completing the class and getting her motorcycle operator's endorsement on her driver's license.

As I suspected, Kari took the MSF class on a 250 cc motorcycle, and loved it.  After that, she was unlikely to settle for a scooter - she'd want a "real" motorcycle!  She started shopping in earnest, and quickly narrowed her list to a couple of favorites.  At this point, I thought it might be fun to make the trip up to Las Vegas (actually Henderson, NV) and tag along for the search.

My bike, while certainly capable of a highway trip, isn't as large as the real "touring" motorcycles.  With that in mind, I decided that before taking off, I'd talk to my mechanic (Mike, at Medusa Cycles) to see if he has any concerns about the bike making a 700 mile round trip.  Mike - a nice guy who's always willing to take a quick look at something and give you his opinion - said, "the bike will handle the trip a lot better than you will."  I took this to mean I'd be OK, and decided to hit the road.

Traffic in the Phoenix metro area is atrocious, so I elected to get an early start to miss the worst of it.  I ended up hitting the road at 5:00 a.m. on Friday morning.  My plan was to get out of Phoenix, then take my time, driving slowly and taking lots of breaks.  The first part of my trip went according to plan - I got in the HOV (carpool) lane - motorcycles are always allowed in the HOV lane - and cruised the freeway for about 70 miles until I was on the outskirts of town.  I admit I gave a big sigh of relief when I hit Carefree Highway and the open road!

At this point, I started to see the problem with my plan.  It sounds good to "drive slowly", but you have to actually do it!  The highway - speed limit 65 mph - seemed designed to make me drive much faster than that.  Virtually every time I glanced at the speedometer, I was traveling between 75 and 80 mph.  Clearly, I was going to need to work on my speed control!

I did find that it was easy to stick to my plan to  make frequent stops.  After 75 to 100 miles, I desperately needed a break.  The drive from Phoenix to Las Vegas is desolate, at times, but there are good stopping points spaced at that approximate distance.  I made the mistake of skipping a break on the outskirts of Phoenix, and ended up needing to go all the way to Wickenberg - roughly 125 miles from home - for my first stop.  I also stopped at Wickiup, Kingman, and a restaurant about 30 miles from Henderson.  At each stop, I gassed up, walked around, got a drink, and tried to waste a little time before I had to get back on the bike.  At the restaurant - thoroughly sick of the motorcycle seat by this point - I decided to take a longer break and have lunch.  Afterwards, refreshed and full, I finished the ride, arriving at about 1:00 p.m.

My bike performed flawlessly - easily keeping up with traffic, even when climbing mountains at altitude.  While I still understand why a larger bike would be better for long-range touring, I now know that my bike would be capable of longer trips, if necessary.  Some music would be a big help - lacking that, I sang every song I know on the trip.  I was hoarse by the time I got to Kari and Suzie's - I'm guessing you won't find too many bikers flying down the highway singing show tunes at the top of their lungs!  If I make a practice of hitting the road on this bike, I'll have to get a more comfortable seat and headphones.  If you're willing to take your time and take a break every 100 miles or so, the stock seat works OK.  For what it's worth, the trip back was better - it was much easier to keep my speed at a more appropriate level than on the trip out.

When I bought my V Star, I knew I wanted a "cruiser" style bike - laid back, low seat, with your feet in front of your body.  Kari initially liked this style too, and started to look at a couple of nice options for starter bikes.  Soon, however, she discovered that she liked "standard" motorcycles - a more upright riding position, with your feet more or less directly under  your body - better than the cruisers.  She did NOT like the sport bikes - more commonly known as crotch rockets.  Unfortunately (and unlike in the 70's, when every manufacturer had multiple small-displacement standard bikes from 100 to 350 cc's) there are few options for new standard motorcycles.  We also had problems since, unlike in the Phoenix area, used bikes are harder - and more expensive - to find.  With all these factors contributing, Kari ended up choosing a new bike - a Suzuki TU 250X - a small, "retro" styled bike with fuel injection and a reputation for rock-solid dependability.

Kari, on her bike in the showroom.  Looks like a good fit!
It's Here - Kari literally dropped her sandwich and ran outside when the truck arrived.

After some hard bargaining, Kari's bike was delivered late Saturday afternoon (you can ride your new bike home from the dealership, but - especially for a new rider - it's dangerous to ride a strange bike in traffic, so the wise person has it delivered).  Now it was practice time!  Kari spent a half hour or so getting used to the clutch, shifting gears, and practicing low speed turns, starts, and stops.  After that came a few laps around the apartment complex before dark - then it was time to put her baby to bed and plan a short practice run on the street in the morning.

Looks pretty good, parked next to mine, doesn't it?

About ready to take off!

We're done riding, and I'm about to head back home.

In the morning, we took a short ride before I headed home.  Over the next couple of weeks, Kari rode her bike to work and around town.  When she finally had to gas up, she needed a whopping 1.2 gallons (91 mpg)!

Oh, one more thing  - there's very little clearance between your face and the inside of a full-face helmet, and gum sticks pretty well to everything.  If you chew gum, try to resist the urge to blow bubbles at 70 miles per hour.......

Monday, March 2, 2015

Pickleball Mania!

Not long after moving to Arizona, I met a guy who invited me to take a pickleball lesson.  I hadn't seen the game in person, but I'd heard of it, and watched a bit on YouTube, so I knew I wasn't interested, but I agreed to go and watch.  Of course, as soon as I watched, I knew I'd have to try it!

If tennis and ping pong had a love child, it would look like pickleball - played on a court the size of a badmitton court, with a net similar to a tennis net, using a wiffle ball and what looks like an overgrown ping pong paddle.  The rules of play are similar to tennis, with a few notable exceptions - it's more of a finesse game than a power game, like tennis. 

Players are ranked based on their skills and tournament results (I'm a 3.5) - the very top players are 5.0.  Tournaments are usually divided by skill group, with 3.5 being by far the biggest group.

Although similar to tennis, pickleball has some advantages for a recreational sport:

  • The court is smaller.  This fact, coupled with the slower wiffle ball, makes it easier for non-athletes to compete (although speed and athleticism is still a big advantage).
  • The rules, in particular the "no volley zone" by the net, help to encourage long rallies - top players may hit the ball back and forth a dozen times or more on a typical point.  This makes the game a lot of fun to play.  The very top players focus on location rather than velocity for winning shots.
  • Games tend to be closer - even players at slightly different skill levels can play and have fun.
  • Since everybody's close together on the court, it's a more social game than tennis - there's a lot of laughing and joking before, during, and after points.
The above may make it sound like this is a sedentary sport best suited for the rocking chair crowd.  In fact, pickleball is about as competitive as you'd like to make it.  I play with a group that is very competitive (I often play with 4.0 and 4.5 players, and one woman just moved up to 5.0).  I'll often play for two or three hours with little or no break - an exhausting workout.  The benefits are obvious - a great aerobic workout that's fun.  At the end of our play, I'm always shocked at how quickly the time went.

When I first started to play, I was only interested in playing with friends for fun.  After playing for a year or so, I started to want to test myself against better players, so I decided to enter a tournament or two.  I teamed up with a woman who started playing about the same time I did for mixed doubles, and also entered a couple of tournaments with a male friend I had met last year.

Tournaments typically have awards for the top three finishers in each division, so of course I finished in 4th place in the first two I entered!  In the third tournament I entered, my men's doubles partner and I played poorly, and were eliminated in two matches (tournaments are typically a double elimination format).  Mixed doubles, happily, was an entirely different story - we advanced through the winner's bracket to the championship game, which we won!  It was a lot of fun - we met a number of new friends, and had a cheering section including our other friends who were competing in different divisions.

Here's a series from our championship match - a pretty typical exchange for us in this tournament:

 I'm hitting a "Drop Shot", intended to land in the no-volley zone.

Vicky and I are at the no-volley line, waiting for our opponent's return.

The return - a "Dink" was a soft shot hit to me.  I've just dinked the ball back into their "kitchen"(the no-volley zone)

They made a mistake, hitting the ball high to Vicky's forehand.  She's putting it away at their feet in this photo.  I'm starting to smile, because I know this point's in the bag!

We won this one!

The champions, with gold medals!
On that day, we played really well.  We're good players, but not elite.  Check out the video below to see pickleball played at the highest level.  Jennifer Lucore is, I think, the best woman player in the country.  She teams with Phil Bagley - a top men's player - and lose a close one to a team that includes Steve Wong, who has been ranked #1 in the country.  Vicky and I play a similar style to Lucore/Bagley, albeit at a lower level.

I'll never be an elite player, but I've had a lot of fun and made a lot of friends playing the great game with the funny name!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The (Not So) Easy Rider

41 years ago, I met a girl.  Girls being what they are, I soon found out I needed money for essentials - dates, presents, etc.  I had two options - get a job, or start selling stuff.  Being the ambitious fellow I was, I decided the best choice was to sell my beloved motorcycle.

I had a dirt bike when I was a kid.  When I turned 16, I asked my dad if he'd cosign on a loan for a motorcycle.  He, of course, said NO.  My natural response was to go out and find a cheap enough bike that I could buy without the loan.  I found a 1964 Suzuki 250 street bike, a little rough around the edges, but it could do almost 90 on a straightaway, so I jumped at it.  For years afterward, I remained puzzled that my father was so mad when I brought it home!

Through the years, I'd occasionally miss riding a bike, but I managed to convince myself that it was a part of my past not to be relived.  I was too old - too sensible - to get back on a motorcycle again.  All that changed a couple of months ago.

Living in Arizona, I was struck by the fact that this is nearly perfect motorcycle weather.  Sure, it's blazing hot in the summer, and winter mornings can be cool, but there's virtually no weather that makes it impossible to ride (unlike Nebraska, where large portions of the year are absolutely out of the question).  I also realized how practical a bike could be as an alternate form of transportation - virtually any motorcycle will be more efficient than almost all cars on the road.  I decided to take the leap.

Before purchasing or operating a motorcycle, I researched my options.  Since safety was a priority, I registered for a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) new rider class.  This class combines classroom work with practical operation instruction on a closed course with provided motorcycles.  An additional benefit was that passing the class would qualify me to get the motorcycle endorsement on my driver's license without testing at the MVD.  I registered and took the class in late November of 2014.

After passing the class, my next step was to determine what bike to buy.  In the 70's, my 250 cc bike was "mid size" - plenty large enough to haul my relatively large (6', 165 pound) frame around.  After 41 years, I discovered that things change.  60 pounds had been added to me.  That didn't help, but an even bigger factor may have been the change in the bikes themselves.  My old bike was a 2 stroke, high revving, "standard" motorcycle.  It didn't weigh much, and it got pretty much all the performance possible out of it's small displacement.  Since I now wanted a "cruiser" style (a more relaxed, laid back type of bike), it soon became apparent I'd need a little more horsepower.

Motorcycle salesmen - close cousins to used car salesmen, as it turns out - were quick to assure me I'd need a large motorcycle.  The recommendations I got ranged from 600 to 1800 cc's minimum.  Since I didn't have plans for any long trips, I decided to go towards the lower end of the range.  After looking at a few bikes and studying online, I decided to go with a Yamaha V Star 650.  The V Star seemed a good compromise between power and agility - easy and fun to handle in town, with enough power to handle the freeway.  As a bonus, the air-cooled Yamaha has a reputation for reliability, and some great deals can be found on the used market.

My V Star, after adding the saddle bags.

With my decision made, I set out to find my new (to me) bike.  I ended up buying a 2007 Custom 650 V Star with about 18,000 miles from a young guy who had his bike listed on Craigslist.  He had originally listed the bike for over $4,000, but had reduced it a few times until it was down to about $2,800.  After looking it over and taking a short test drive, we agreed on a price of $2,200.  Since it needed a new speedometer cable and a clutch, I'd end up with about $2,600 invested - about half the price of new, and less than comparable machines I'd seen advertised.

With the purchase of the motorcycle, I needed to spend some money on a few other things - safety gear!  When I was young, I jumped on my bike wearing whatever I happened to have on that day - shorts, t-shirt, tennis shoes, and I was good to go.  As an old guy, I knew I'd have to wear something more appropriate.

The first thing I'd need was a helmet.  I'd only worn a motorcycle helmet a couple of times in my life, but I'll never ride without again.  In addition, I'd want gloves, a jacket, and pants for added protection.  Although you can buy all this stuff online, I knew I'd need a bit of help selecting the proper gear.  Fortunately, there's a store in Mesa called Cycle Gear that has pretty much everything you need in stock at fairly reasonable prices.

For a helmet, I decided on a full face helmet for maximum protection.  As appealing as riding with the wind in your face can be, facial contact with asphalt can be disastrous - I may not be handsome, but I look better with my face still intact!  A helmet can cost upwards of $600, but there are some less expensive options out there that still provide the same level of safety.  I ended up buying a Bilt (Cycle Gear's store brand) for around $100 - a bargain, considering it has all the safety agency approvals.

I bought some leather gloves with armor on the knuckles, an armored jacket (mesh, with zip out windbreaker liner), and some Kevlar-lined jeans with armor in the knees to complete the look - all told, I spent about $350 for protective equipment, plus another $100 for the saddlebags.  For a little over $3,000, I was ready to hit the road!


What I soon found out was, buying everything was the easy part.  After over four decades out of the saddle, I was a bit nervous on my first ride.  To start off, I took a side road - 45 mph speed limit - to head out of town.  I figured a weekday morning ride would be best, traffic-wise, so I headed east of town about 12 miles to meet some friends to play pickleball (more on pickleball in a later post).  The ride involved several miles through town, a short (1 mile) stretch of freeway, then 4 or 5 miles on a 4-lane highway (55 mph).  The first half of the ride was sheer terror - after my training class and on-line reading, I was convinced every car was trying to murder me.  On the freeway, it felt like someone was grabbing my legs and trying to pull them from the pegs.  When I hit the end of the freeway and slowed down to about 60, I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders - suddenly, I felt at home on the bike.  60 mph seemed a nice, comfortable cruising speed, and I felt like I could handle the road, traffic, motorcycle, and anything else that came my way.  Since that moment, I've not felt overwhelmed on the bike. 


In a way, I now feel as though I never took a break from riding.  In other, very important ways, I feel as though it's been a lifetime.  As a youth, I felt invincible - I can distinctly remember seeing a car about to pull out in front of me and thinking, "it's OK - if he hits me, it'll be his fault".  Seeing potential trouble, I didn't slow down - I just plowed on ahead, trusting in my youthful reflexes and the maneuverability of my bike to keep me alive.  Amazingly, it did - I never had an accident on a motorcycle (not counting dumping a dirt bike racing my buddy at night in the snow).  Now, I know I'm not quick enough to ride myself out of trouble.  My head's on a swivel, always looking for potential trouble.  If I even think a car MIGHT turn into me, I slow down, move over, or do whatever I think will keep me upright.  I'm not afraid on the bike, but I'm definitely cautious.


After just a month of riding, I'm much more likely to take the freeway than before.  I still don't LIKE riding at 70+ mph, but I recognize it's actually safer to ride fast on a limited access road than it is to ride at 50 on a city street.  By the way - forget about staying under the speed limit - If you drive at or below the limit, you'll get run over.  It's way safer to move with the flow of the traffic.


In any case, short (15 miles or less) trips at freeway speeds aren't a problem for me or the bike - it can easily handle 75 mph for extended miles.  I'm not sure what the top speed is, but at 90 it was still accelerating.  I know I wouldn't want to ride at that speed for anything other than passing a car or getting out of a tight situation.  I have a windshield, which helps, but at freeway speeds the wind is fatiguing, and I still feel like my feet are being pushed off the pegs.


Around town, my bike's a dream to ride.  Although it weighs close to 500 pounds, it feels very light and maneuverable - much like my old 250, in that regard.  With a very low seat height and low center of gravity, I never feel as though it's going to get away from me.  Speed and acceleration are more than adequate for my needs, but it's not a "fast" bike, like a "crotch rocket". 


I've only checked the gas mileage on two tanks, but both gave virtually identical results - between 49 and 50 mpg - good enough for me to round it up and say I get 50 miles per gallon.  This represents my typical use - warming the bike up, with a combination of city, freeway, and highway driving.  While nowhere nearly as economical as the smaller scooters and motorcycles, it's over three times as economical as my car, and compares favorably with most cars on the road.


What don't I like about my new ride?  There are just a couple of things:


  1. Maybe it's just because I haven't had a car without fuel injection for 25 years, but this thing is the most cold blooded contraption I can ever remember driving.  It has a carburetor (two, actually), with a manual choke.  If it's less than about 80 degrees outside, plan on using the choke to start it, then letting it run for 4 or 5 minutes before attempting to ride.  Once warm, it runs flawlessly, but it just won't go when cold.  If/when I upgrade, I'll get a fuel-injected bike
  2. As I said, the top speed on my bike is over 90 mph - fast enough to break every speed limit in the country.  That being said, I understand why you'd want a bigger bike for extended highway travel.  Operating at continuous higher speeds would be fatiguing - there's a lot of vibration, both from the engine and the bikes interaction with the road.  A larger, heavier bike with a bigger engine would be an improvement in this regard.
  3. I'll rarely, if ever, ride 2 up.  If you plan to do so regularly, you may want a bigger bike.  While this one is certainly capable of carrying you and a passenger anywhere you want to go, larger, touring model motorcycles will have more secure and comfortable accommodations for passengers.


Of course there's a lot I really love about it, too:


  1. The looks - it looks like a bigger bike than it is.  It's also drop dead gorgeous - I love the color and lines of the bike.
  2. Performance and maneuverability.  There's plenty of pop from the line - more than enough to get away from cars, when necessary, but it's small and light enough to handle like a smaller bike.  While it wouldn't be my first choice for a long range touring bike, it COULD serve that purpose, while still being an effective around-town commuter.  As I've said - a good compromise between "too small" and "too big".
  3. Economy.  Just as in the performance aspect, I get decent economy, along with enough performance to keep me happy.
  4. Design.  I like the simplicity of this motorcycle - my bike is virtually identical to those made a decade earlier.  It's air cooled, so there's no radiator to worry about or maintain.


At this point, I'm still learning how to ride again, so I don't know how (or how much) I'll ride in the future.  I'd like to take some local trips - 20 to 50 miles or so - with a friend or two on two-lane highways or into the mountains.  I'm not sure if more extensive traveling is in the cards, but, if it is, that may change my outlook on things.  For now, I'll concentrate on cruising around and enjoying the ride!




Thursday, July 17, 2014

Goodbye Old Friend

The end came with shocking suddenness.  Cassie had refused food for the first time in her life about a month earlier.  We put it down to a reaction to some medication she was on, and concentrated on finding something she would eat.  After several weeks, with only middling success, we took her back to the vet for more tests.  This time, they decided to do some x-rays, and found the problem.  Cassie had cancer - everywhere.  It probably started in her pancreas, but had spread to her lungs, stomach, spine, and other spots.  Our vet told us to take her home, let her eat whatever she would tolerate, and call when she got worse.

Amazingly, she started eating and showing some life again.  We managed to convince ourselves that the cancer was slow growing, and that we'd have a few months left with her.  A week later, the truth was obvious - in the space of one night, she went from outwardly healthy to barely breathing, and unable to walk.  We didn't want her to suffer, so we went to the vet and had her put to sleep. 

Losing a dog is very upsetting, and I've been terribly sad each time it has happened.  In many ways, losing Cassie is the worst of the bunch - but this isn't a post to make you sad.  When you bring home that puppy, you know this day is coming.  About the only thing that makes it worth while are the memories you're left with, after they're gone.  Here's my "Top Ten Cassie Memories":

Here's Cassie, locked in a deadly battle with a stuffed toy at the lake!

10.  Cassie was skinny.  When we first got Cassie, she was about a year old and weighed 47 pounds - on the same frame that would scale out at a lean 93 pounds about 5 years later.  She was the skinniest dog you can imagine - her ribs were prominent, her hips stuck out, and her head looked enormous.  She looked deformed.  To make matters worse, she lost 7 pounds over the next two months while I tried in vain to find a food that would agree with her.  Even with all her health problems, she was a sweet dog - walking nicely beside me, stopping to throw up, then continuing the walk as though nothing was wrong.  When we finally got her to hold food down, she packed on weight and was as healthy as a horse.  For the rest of her life, she was lean and healthy, her weight staying between 90 and 93 pounds.
9.  Cassie almost wasn't our dog.   I had gone alone and looked for another dog at the Humane Society, and liked Cassie.  Since Theresa wasn't completely on board, I wanted her to see her before making a final decision.  They agreed to put a hold on her while we were deciding.  After seeing her, Theresa was OK with her, so we went to the office to complete the paperwork.  When we got there, another couple was at the counter, saying they had decided to take her.  They were disappointed to miss out on her, but quickly walked back to find a different dog.  Had we not gotten her, I doubt if she would have survived - she was to be an outside dog for these folks, and I doubt if they'd have been willing to spend the money I did to get her healthy.  For the first month or so, I sometimes wished I'd have let her go with them.  I never felt that way after that, though.
8.  Cassie pees and poops on command.  We often traveled with the dogs, and it's pretty easy to get frustrated if they won't do their business quickly when you make a stop.  I got in the habit of saying, "Go Potty" when I was waiting for them.  Soon, both dogs would squat and pee when I said this.  Cassie would also poop on command - an ability I've never seen in other dogs (or humans).  On her last day, deathly sick and barely able to walk, I took her outside so she wouldn't get sick in the house.  She walked out, looked at me, and squatted to pee - even though she didn't have to go.  She believed that's what I took her out for, and she still knew what to do.
7.  Cassie is an obedience class star.  Soon after I got her, I enrolled Cassie in an obedience class.  I've found it's a good way to socialize dogs, bond with them, and give them some basic skills that are useful.  As the first class started, Cassie was terrified of the other dogs, tried to attack several, and was generally about as bad as you can imagine a dog to be.  Embarrassed, I took her to a corner of the room and worked with her alone.  Much to my surprise, she almost immediately learned sit and heel, and by the end of the first session she could heel right by the other dogs without a bad reaction.  By the end of her first course, she performed better than the instructor's dog!  I ended up taking her through a number of advanced classes, and she was amazing - her eyes would be riveted on me, and she would follow my lead without error.  I never worked with her more than about 15 minutes per day, and never entered her in any competition, but she was always the best dog in every class.  After a couple of courses, I even had her take the Canine Good Citizen test, which she passed.
6.  Cassie lets the bunnies live.  A few years ago, I was mowing the lawn, and I noticed a nest of rabbits under a bench in the corner of the yard.  They were very tiny, about the size of mice.  Cassie saw them too, and was just about to go - as dogs will - and kill them.  Now, I don't really care all that much about rabbits - there's no shortage in Nebraska - but I really didn't want to see the carnage.  I was also less than enthusiastic about her eating them and getting sick.  I yelled at her, and said, "Cassie, NO!  Leave It!".  She sat down about twenty feet from the nest, and looked at me.  I repeated my words, and she just sat there, staring at the nest.  I assumed they'd be safe until the moment I turned my back.  To my surprise, she didn't bother them the rest of the day, even when I went to mow in the front yard.  Amazingly, she never went and cleaned out the nest - when I'd let her out in the yard, I'd say "Leave It", and she'd go sit about twenty feet away, watching.  Over the next several weeks, the bunnies got bigger, until they were gone, and she never touched them.
5.  Cassie dodges the water spray.  When she was young, Cassie used to "go off" at times in the car - barking at cars, drivers, other dogs, cows, or whatever she decided bothered her.  We got the bright idea to cure her of this habit by spraying her with a water bottle each time she acted up.  She quickly learned the proper reaction - bark your head off, then duck!  Needless to say, the only thing we accomplished was to end up with a wet lab - unfortunately, it was Charlie, not Cassie, who took the spray.  I guess we did teach her to duck after barking!
4.  Cassie owns the paddle boat.  When we bought our lake home, we decided to get a paddle boat.  It was virtually impossible to get on that thing without Cassie.  We had to keep a leash on her, because if she saw someone on the other side of the lake, she'd just jump in and swim to them.  With the leash, she'd sometimes pull the boat backwards, trying to go see  kids.
3.  Cassie the fisherman.   Once we started fishing, we learned that Cassie liked nothing better than to go on the boat and "help".  We used a large cooler as a live well, and Cassie would try to grab the fish as they swam in the cooler.  We sometimes fished for catfish using floats made from "fun noodles" - foam swim aids.  Each float would have a line attached, and we'd throw around 30 of them in the lake and wait for the catfish to bite.  When they'd hit it, one end would go under water, while the other popped up.  With Cassie along, we didn't have to worry about missing one - she'd see it and get very excited.  If you didn't watch out, she'd jump in to fetch it.
2.  Cassie the lifeguard.  Cassie loved to swim.  She also loved to jump in and fetch your fun noodle - sometimes almost drowning you in the process.  If you managed to hold on, she'd tow you back to shore.  Sometimes, I'd jump off one side of the dock.  Cassie would jump off her side, and be there when I came up for air.  If I went to the other side and didn't jump right away, she'd bark at me until I jumped.
As I'm writing this, my mind is filling up with great Cassie memories.  I could easily go on with this - talking about my big, brave dog who was deathly afraid of flys, or how she'd trick Kodak into giving up his side of the couch, or even how she could fly - jumping off the deck to the yard 13 feet below, but I decided to make  this a top 10 list, so I'll stick to that, for now.  So, with no more fanfare, here's my number one memory of Cassie:
It's a tough life, but somebody's got to do it......
1.  Cassie the lap dog.  As a general rule, we don't allow the dogs on the furniture.  The exceptions were:  the downstairs couch (when we had a downstairs), our bed (only when it was unmade), and my recliner.  Amazingly, Cassie understood each of these restrictions - she'd often stand at the foot of our bed and loudly demand it to be unmade, so she could go to sleep.  After we moved to Arizona, I'd often find her lounging in my recliner when I came home.  The best part, however, was when she'd crawl up in my lap.  There she'd lay, gazing up at me with those eyes that said, "I think you're wonderful".  That's the image in my mind when I think of Cassie, and what I  think I miss the most about her.   

That's my Girl!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Cool, Clear Water, or Why You May Need a Reverse Osmosis Water System

The other day, I was listening to a comedian (sorry, I don't remember who it was) talk about the progress we've made in this country:  "In the 1950's, blacks and whites couldn't drink out of the same water fountain.  Now, NOBODY drinks from a water fountain"  All funny business aside, bottled water is huge in this country - according to Statistic Brain, an estimated 30 BILLION bottles of water are sold every year in this country, at a total cost of  $11.8 billion dollars.  That's a lot of money, and a lot of plastic sent to the landfill every year.

I've never been a big bottled water drinker, using it mainly to grab a sip when I'm out and about.  Since I never think about it when I leave home, I often pay $2 or more to purchase it from a vending machine.  Our move to Arizona changed all that.  The first thing we discovered was that tap water is room temperature only if your room is quite warm - no matter how long you let it run, it's more like bath water (especially in the summer).  In addition, our water had an unpleasant taste, and while I'm sure we could deal with it if we had to, it changed the taste of soft drinks (due to the ice cubes made with tap water), lemonade, and, if my wife is to be believed, coffee.  This last problem was the important one, in my house - I was informed that I would be dragging home gallons of water to keep the Keurig stocked.  It was also clear we'd have to buy bottled water for drinking, and it was obvious that we'd drink a lot more water out here than back home in Nebraska - the hot, dry weather can cause you to be dehydrated much more quickly.

If you buy water by the gallon, it's relatively cheap - less than $1.00 per gallon.  Even the 16 ounce bottles are fairly reasonable at Costco - a case of 24 Nestle brand bottles sells for $8.29 ($2.60 per gallon).  If you watch for specials, you can get it a bit cheaper than that, even at your local supermarket.  If we each drink the equivalent of 4 bottles per day - a ridiculously low estimate, since we average over twice that amount - drinking water would cost us in the neighborhood of $900 per year.  Since our real usage is at least double that, even purchasing exclusively bulk water wouldn't bring the cost down to an acceptable level.  I needed to look at a better option.

I toyed with the idea of a water distiller.  For around $200, you can buy a countertop distiller that requires virtually no set up.  These small units can produce about 4 gallons per day, so it could, in theory, supply our two-person household with enough drinking water.  One issue - at 4 gallons per day, it takes 6 hours to produce a single gallon, or 90 minutes for a quart.  To make this work, we'd have to be constantly filling and storing distilled water.  If we ran out, I'd be running to the store.

A better solution is an automatic distiller.  For a little over $600, you can get a unit that's hooked up to your water line, and has an integrated, 4 gallon storage tank.  It could produce water at any time (without human intervention), so it was a much more practical solution - I wouldn't have to run to the market three times a week because I forgot to add water.  The downside?  Well, there's the initial price tag.  There's also the 750 watts of power it requires when running - assuming the distiller ran for 10 hours per day (a low estimate, since it only produces a maximum of 5 gallons in 24 hour period), the electric cost to distill water each year would be around $150.  That's not outrageous, but remember the actual cost would almost certainly be higher.  Add in the cost of maintenance - not insignificant, I suspect - and, although acceptable, it's not free.  All that power causes another, bigger problem, however.  750 watts is a big power load, and just plugging this thing in to an existing circuit is not a great idea.  If I put it in the kitchen - the obvious location - what happens virtually every day?  Let's see - 750 watts for the distiller, 1200 watt for the microwave, maybe 150 for the coffee pot, and another 100 or so for lights or something else - we've got maybe 2200 watts on one 15 amp circuit (all I've got in our tiny kitchen).  By my figuring, that's around 19 amps - causing me to run out and reset the circuit breaker.  Of course, I could add another circuit.  This place is small, but to run cable from the breaker box to the kitchen isn't an easy task - figure $300, plus my wife would have to listen to me swear after crawling around under the house for a whole afternoon.  I decided to rule this option out.

What's left?  The drinking water solution chosen by most homeowners is the Reverse Osmosis System.  I talked to a water treatment company - they offered to install and maintain a system in my home for only $70 per month - I decided to just buy a system from Home Depot and give it a try. 

I chose an inexpensive, 3-stage system marketed under the GE label.  It's a simple system that comes complete with a pre-filter, an identical post-filter, the reverse osmosis membrane filter, a 5 gallon storage tank, necessary water tubing, and a faucet.  The system will filter up to 11 gallons per day, with the pressurized tank holding about 2 1/2 gallons - plenty for our needs.  About the only things I had to add were Teflon tape and a needle valve to hook into my existing water supply pipe under the sink.  The system was $149, so I ended up with about $165 total in the project. 

To install the system, first make sure you've got room under the sink for all the components.  That shouldn't be a problem, unless you've got a very tiny space.  Make sure your space allows good access to the filter assemblies, since you'll be changing filters a couple of times per year.  I left extra tubing, allowing me to pull the filters out from under the sink for maintenance - no bumping my head on pipes! 

You'll need a water supply.  The easiest way to get water is to put a "T" fitting from the water shutoff leading to your COLD water faucet.  Just remove the water supply tube, install the fitting, then hook up the supply tube to the top of the fitting.  Put a small shut off valve in the extra spot for the RO system - consult your directions to see what size output you need - mine used 1/4" tubing.  Your instructions will tell you which tube gets hooked up to the water supply.  Mine are color coded, but yours may be different.

Next, you'll want to install the faucet.  My system came with a faucet that looked OK next to my other fixtures.  If you don't like the included fixture, a plumbing supply store should have one that will work, but it's much easier to use the included faucet.  I changed my sink at the same time I did the installation, so I made sure I had an extra hole for the faucet.  If you don't, you'll have to make some decisions.  If you have a sprayer or soap dispenser, the easiest solution is to remove that and use it for this installation.  If you don't, you'll have to cut a new  hole in the sink for this faucet.  This may be impossible with certain types of sinks, so don't try this unless you're sure!  Remember, getting a professional to help or even do the whole project will be cheaper than causing a bunch of damage to your house! 

The faucet will typically have two or more tubing connections coming from it - one of which must be connected to the drain line.  My kit had a connector that was easily attached to my existing plumbing - be sure to follow the directions for the drain, so you don't have drain water drawn into the fresh water system!

After installing the faucet and drain, you've just got to finish hooking up all the tubing (again, most of mine was already routed and color coded, so there wasn't much to do), and mount the tank and filter assembly under the sink.  Now is a good time to turn the water on and check for leaks - fix any leaks before you finish the installation.

Before you install the filters, follow the sanitation instructions recommended by your manufacturer.  Mine required me to run a small amount of bleach through the system.  Make sure to remove the reverse osmosis membrane before you add bleach - failure to do so will ruin the membrane!  After sanitation, install the filters and membrane, and turn the water back on.

After reading the reviews, my only concern was with leaks under the sink.  Fortunately, I was familiar with the plastic push-on connectors supplied - they work fine if you use them correctly, but poor technique will cause a leak virtually every time.  I took special care to cut the tubing square, and insert every connection fully, and I had no leaks in the system.  If you don't like these connections, you can buy conventional connectors that may be less troublesome - as I said, I didn't have problems, but I understand some people did.

Some components are stored in a substance to reduce or eliminate mold or bacterial growth.  This goop isn't harmful, but it may affect the taste of your water.   After  installation is complete, you'll want to run some water through the system to flush out any remaining contaminants.  Other than that, you're done!

So, what do we think of our system?  We've been very happy with it - our water tastes just like bottled water (most of which is produced from a reverse osmosis system), and we have plenty of water for our needs - we even use it to fill the dogs' water bowl!  You should be aware that most RO systems flush excess water down the drain - if you use 5 gallons of RO water per day, you may very well use 50 gallons or more producing that water.  I believe there are a few systems out there that claim not to waste water, but I don't know much about them.  About the only thing I'd do differently is I would spend a bit more upfront and get a system with "snap in" filters.  All that does is make your filter changing a bit easier and eliminates the danger of leaks from removing and reinstalling filter caps or other fittings.  Not a huge deal, but it's probably worth the money to make life easier in the future.

Maintenance is minimal - you just have to change the filters about twice per year.  At some point, I'll need to change the RO membrane, but that will probably be after at least two years of service.  As I said, my system is set up so I just pull the whole assembly out from under the sink and do my work on it before I put it back.  I've only done it once, but the whole thing only took me about 1/2 hour. 

If your tap water tastes good and you're comfortable that it is safe and free of contaminants, you don't need a reverse osmosis system.  If you're not sure - or if you just like the taste of bottled water but don't like the cost or environmental concerns - install an RO system under your sink.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Are the Ten Commandments the "Basis for our Laws"?

From time to time, I hear someone - usually a conservative Christian - make the claim that the Ten Commandments should be displayed in schools and government buildings, since "that's what all our laws are based on".  That brings to mind a question - Is that true, and, if so, is it right?  Are these ten statements worthy as the basis for society's norms?

As usual when I'm pondering some deep moral issue, I turn to the foremost expert on the subject:


With all due respect to George, I think this subject merits a bit more discussion.  Let's break down the list, and see which, if any, are relevant to our lives today.  Should these commandments also be laws - should the state command our obedience to them?

ONE: 'You shall have no other gods before Me.'

OK, this one is blatantly unconstitutional.  The constitution clearly states that no particular religion may receive preferential treatment, so this one doesn't serve as the basis for our laws.  Should it?  Not from my perspective - why should we care what, if any, god you worship.  One down, nine to go!
 TWO: 'You shall not make for yourself a carved image--any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.'

This one is just stupid!  If this were the law, all art would be illegal - even the crucifix seen in virtually every Christian church would be reason for the arrest and prosecution of church leaders.  I have a picture in my mind of a swat team crashing through the doors to churches, smashing statues, breaking stained glass windows, and hauling pastors out in handcuffs.  Can you picture the black market value of the few remaining works of art?  This is clearly one of those commandments in the bible that are just plain ignored by just about everybody.  This is not a basis for any of our laws, nor should it be.

I should point out,  however, that when the right wing pushes for laws against flag burning they are breaking the spirit of this commandment - the flag becomes an image they are worshiping.
 THREE: 'You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.'

Easy - a clear violation of free speech - it seems like this is (correctly) directly contradicted by our constitution.
 FOUR: 'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.'

Here we have one that actually has influenced our laws - many states and localities have laws banning drinking on Sunday.  It used to be common to mandate the closing of auto dealerships on Sunday, although that is starting to change. 

Even though this commandment may have caused the creation of a law, it's not rational - why should my Sabbath be protected, while those of another religion are not?  What if I work six days per week - shouldn't I be able to go shop for a car on my day off?  Are police and fire fighters doomed to Hell, since they work every day of the week?

How do we keep this day holy, anyway?  Who decides if my activities are providing the proper amount of respect to the Sabbath?  No - this commandment should be scrapped, as well.
 FIVE: 'Honor your father and your mother.'

This one sounds great, but what if your parents are awful, evil people?  Should we honor them just because of an accident of birth?  For that matter, even if your parents are perfectly wonderful folks, why should the government stick its nose into how we interact?  If you're adopted, do you honor your birth parents or your adoptive parents?  No, this one doesn't deserve the force of law.  Give your parents  - and everyone else, for that matter - the respect they deserve.
 SIX: 'You shall not murder.'

OK, we're halfway through the list, and I finally found one that deserves to be called a commandment.

Of course, as valid as this may be, it's kind of unnecessary, isn't it?  I mean, EVERY country has a law against murder, right?  And how about all the state-sanctioned killing - executions, wars, self-defense - aren't those violations of the commandment?  I guess you can get around it by saying it's not murder to execute a murderer, but how about those who are wrongly convicted, mentally handicapped, or mentally ill - is it OK to kill them?

Regardless, this is the first of the list that legitimately belongs in our laws, so we'll call this a win for the commandments.
 SEVEN: 'You shall not commit adultery.'

I agree - if you're married, you shouldn't have sex with someone else.  Should it be a law?  No,  this is a private issue between adults.  It's a little slimy to cheat on your spouse, but I don't want the police involved.
 EIGHT: 'You shall not steal.'

We're on a roll now - this is the second in the list that belongs in our legal system.  Legally, morally, and in every other way, it's wrong to take something that belongs to another, and I'm fine with the full power and authority of the government backing it up.
 NINE: 'You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.'

I can get on board with this one.  I don't think lying should be against the law, but lying in court certainly should be (and is).  To the best of my knowledge, every state has laws against perjury, and making false statements to police can also land you in hot water, so I'd have to say this commandment has been written into our laws.
 TEN: 'You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.'

Sorry, I can't get on board with this one.  I'd like to say I'm not envious of other's relationships or possessions, but that would be a lie (breaking a commandment, but not the law).  It would be nice if we could all appreciate what we have and not make ourselves crazy with envy over the things we don't have, but our laws shouldn't reflect that.  How would you even enforce this, anyway?  No, the government needs to stay out of my mind - if I act on my envy by stealing my neighbor's ox, arrest me.  Leave me alone if I just wish I had one like it!

 So that's the list.  I'm a little more charitable than George Carlin - I can live with three of them posted on the wall of the courthouse, but is that necessary?  Are we really going to improve our lives if everywhere you look there's a placard on which is printed:

  1. Do not Murder
  2. Do not Steal
  3. Do not Commit Perjury
As for the Ten Commandments, I don't think they're worth the paper they're printed on (or stone they're etched into) - four of them are bad ideas, actively contrary to our country's founding principles, and three are general moral guidelines that may or may not make sense, depending on your particular circumstances.  Only three are worthy of being codified into law, and all of those would be in the law anyway, even if they were left out of the list.  If more Christians actually looked at the list, fewer of them would be in favor of tacking this junk up on the wall.

If we really want moral guidelines (not laws!) to help improve our behavior, why don't we tear up this bunch of drivel, and create a list that actually helps improve our lives.  Here's my take, just off the top of my head:

  1. Respect the rights of others to believe as they wish.  Everyone is entitled to their own thoughts and beliefs.  You don't have to respect those beliefs - in fact, if they're evil or cause damage to others, you should speak out against them.  They're still entitled to believe what they wish.
  2. Don't treat things as though they're more important than people.  Symbols - flags or statues - are just representations of the important stuff.  Nothing is hurt if they aren't universally revered to the degree you'd like.
  3. Don't use language that denigrates others.  Racist, homophobic, vulgar, or discriminatory language should be eliminated from your vocabulary.  Make your point with reason - if you can't, maybe your point doesn't deserve to be defended.
  4. Take time to be with the ones who are important in your life.  Whether it's family, friends, or some organization with which you're affiliated, do something on a regular basis to make a connection with others.  If you're too busy for once a week, make it once a month.  If you're too far away, call, email, or write a letter.
  5. Do something for the next generation.  If you don't have kids, you may think you're off the hook on this one, but you can still do your best to help a child - volunteer to read to kids, donate to children's charities, or just do what you can.  Heck, just vote consistently in favor of school bond issues in your community. 
  6. Life is important, respect it.  Support the right to a less painful, dignified end of life for everyone.  Support a woman's right to control her own body.  Eliminate capital punishment.
  7. Be true to your word.  Don't lie.  Don't cheat.  In both personal and business interactions, be the type of person that others may depend on.  Don't lie, cheat, or sneak around - be open and honest in all your dealings.
  8. Be generous.  If you're fortunate enough to have a lot, help others.  That doesn't mean you give them things - give advice or encouragement.  Someone else succeeding won't diminish your accomplishments.
  9. Don't be cruel.  Don't take pleasure in others' pain.  Don't kick the dog (or the child). 
  10. Leave behind a positive legacy.  Some of us don't believe in Heaven or Hell - when I'm gone, I'll be gone.  Be the person that others miss when you're gone - maybe they'll even tell some great stories about you!  But most of all, try to make sure the world is a little better place for you having been in it.
As I said, I just wrote this list off the top of my head - I'm certain they could be improved (but I think they compare pretty favorably with the original ten).  Of course, they're not commandments (I don't really have the authority to command obedience by anything but my dogs, and they're not always cooperative).  I'd call these The Ten Suggestions.  Feel free to follow them or not - there's absolutely no reward in the afterlife, but you may find they make your time here on Earth a bit more pleasant.