Saturday, June 26, 2010

So Many Bands, So Little Music

This is a strange time of year around the university. During the summer, the place resembles a ghost town. I miss the students, the rest of the faculty can stay away a while longer.

There are very few classes, this is a time to rewrite lectures, rebuild the computers in the lab, and read. And read. And read. I love summer reading the way a small boy loves a puppy. I guess that’s sort of obvious. This blog is a year old, and in the previous 52 entries, about every fourth one mentions a book.

The population of the town drops by thousands during the summer; many students go home, and some of the faculty go back under their rocks. Suddenly, I can drive to school without three cars behind me all trying to become my personal proctologist. In total, the town becomes peaceful and quiet.

Well, until next week. Once a year, the university turns the intramural field over to the Warped Tour. It is difficult to use peaceful and Warped Tour in the same sentence.

For those of you who don’t know, Warped Tour is a touring music festival. Bands play for ten hours, thirty minutes each, on ten different stages. Each band has an incredible sound system, by the end of the day; somewhere near a hundred bands will have performed. At any given moment, perhaps a half dozen are playing simultaneously.

I won’t pretend to like the music. Individually, each of the bands sound like someone is trying to break up a pillow fight in a sorority house by banging a bass drum with a cat. When several play at the same time, it sounds like freight trains having sex on Normandy beach. The level of noise causes compressions in your chest, pitiful little birds attempting to fly over the field fall from the sky stone dead, and Hugo Chavez holds a press conference proclaiming to have proof of the American secret earthquake device.

At least, this is what it sounds like to me. I should point out that my office is across the street from this sonic abattoir, I have no idea what it sounds like if you actually attend. I suspect that no one does, since if you were present, you would be deaf for the rest of your life.

I’m sure the event will be a lot of fun. Southern New Mexico in June, a field without a single tree, tickets cost $33, and you cannot bring any outside food, beverage, or water containers into the event. No doubt the concession booths will be manned by cheerful and generous people whose only concern will be to ensure the enjoyment of every person wishing to attend. They will probably give away free cotton balls so their patrons can attempt to staunch the blood pouring from their ears.

Why New Mexico in June? Do they hold a similar concert in Alaska in January? Are misery and pain part of the enjoyment? Why hold the festival when most of the students are out of town? Wouldn’t overcrowding enhance an event such as this?

Unfortunately, most of you will miss the concert. Don’t worry. Amazon sells a compilation CD for $8. Of course, to get the full effect, buy 5 copies and play all of them at the same time. Inside a phone booth.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Its Not That Hot - Part Two

It is the early 1960’s, Saturday night about 9:00 PM; my family is gathered in the living room. Naturally, we are watching television. Have Gun Will Travel just ended and any minute we will get a close-up of James Arness’ butt. For some reason, Gunsmoke, my dad’s favorite show, always started with Marshall Dillon’s ass filling the screen. And every week, my mother would promptly say, “Why don’t his pants have a seam down the middle like everyone else’s?”

For years, that was only half the ritual, first there was an announcement, “The following show is brought to you in LIVING COLOR!” Immediately, my mother, my brother and I would begin chanting, “Color! Color, Daddy! Color!”

Well, I assumed his ass was in color, but this is the way it looked at my house. Look at that picture! Why don’t those pants have a seam?

The horrible situation that we were trying to shame my father into correcting was the family’s lack of a suitable television; a color TV. We were convinced that we were the last family in America still watching a black and white television.

Looking back, I have no idea why we thought we had to see that ass in color. As you can see, it really didn’t look that much different, but my family was convinced that a new color television was a necessity of life.

A similar activity is now occurring at my house, but it involves air conditioning. According to my wife, this is the last house in the in the country south of the Arctic Circle that has not ditched the rusty old swamp cooler in favor of refrigerated air conditioning. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read last week’s blog.

Now, every time my wife hears the weather report, she reminds me of our need for better air conditioning. She does not start chanting, “Air conditioning! Air conditioning!” However, she does give me what I call the Gregor Mendel Look. If you aren’t married, the Gregor Mendel Look is the angry stare a woman gives her husband while remembering that he donated half the chromosomes to their children.

I have a great reason for not wanting to make the change, actually, about 6000 reasons, that being about what it will cost. My wife has about 85 reasons why we should, that being the inside temperature.

“Honey, remember all those pioneers who settled New Mexico.” I say, “They did it without air conditioning.”

“Yes,” she answers. “All those pioneers—they’re dead. That’s what people did back before air conditioning, they just died.”

Frankly, she has a point. I have always wondered about the sanity of those early pioneers. I have this mental picture of a man driving his ox-drawn covered wagon. Day after day he sits in the seat of that wagon, facing the afternoon sun, intent on a better life somewhere in California. Suddenly, he comes to the dried red sand of western Texas. It’s as hot as a pawn shop pistol. There’s no water, no shade, no trees, and no neighbors. This is the kind of land where buzzards pack a lunch as they fly past it.

“Honey,” he yells as he climbs down from the wagon. “Let’s live here!”

I have thought about that moment more than a few times. Why didn’t his wife get down off that wagon and brain him with a frying pan? What route could this wagon have taken from the east where a sun baked desert was the best ground they had seen since crossing the Mississippi? Was this pioneer couple thinking of starting the first commercial lizard ranch?

I suspect my wife will eventually get new air conditioning; I have two good reasons to believe it. First, I’m descended from that idiotic pioneer. Secondly, my father eventually bought my mother a color television.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Its Not That Hot - Part One

It’s summer time in the desert. No clouds, endless sunshine, and perfect temperature. Well, perfect if you normally winter in hell. We also have zero humidity; dogs are chasing fire hydrants, we staple envelopes closed, and the local cactus is moving north for the summer.

Because of this, most houses use two forms of air conditioning, one of which would not work in the rest of the country. We use an evaporative water cooling system, colloquially called swamp coolers. Basically, this is a large box on the roof where water is poured over some form of filter. Fans suck dry air from the outside, force it through the wet filter, and then blow it down ducts into your house. Along the way, the air picks up a lot of humidity. No refrigeration, no Freon, and a very low operating cost.

Surprisingly, it actually works fairly well. It works right up to the point where it doesn't work at all. It will pretty much lower the inside air temperature about 20 degrees. If it is 88 degrees outside, it can make the house a little chilly. As I write this, it is 106 outside and about 86 inside. This is where the second system comes into play; cold beer.

Okay, swamp systems aren’t perfect, but they have certain benefits. They leak until the roof gets water damage, something that otherwise is pretty hard to do in a place where every time it rains, awestruck people double the average church attendance. Swamp coolers have about as many moving parts as ’57 Chevy, one of them is always squeaking, perpetually sounding like a flock of canaries. Most importantly, this is the only way a house around here could develop a serious mold problem. All the fun of living on the gulf coast without the cheap seafood. With endless sand, we have the beach; we just don’t have the ocean.

This New Mexico method of cooling is not exactly efficient. People living anyplace else in the world would probably change over to something that actually works, but here, swamp coolers are actually a sort of hobby for some people.

What fun! Tomorrow, I get to climb on my roof, adjust the float valve, oil the squirrel cage, patch the roof where the idiotic float valve has flooded the roof too many times, and the while wondering why in the world I use a cooling system from the 19th century while living in one of the harshest environments in the United States that isn’t actually on fire.

Why? Well, first off, the damn swamp cooler is simple. If a dust storm rolls it off my roof into the neighbor’s yard, I can probably knock it back into shape with a ball peen hammer. Forty years ago I was an engineering major at the University of Houston. While I can’t say I remember everything, I did learn the cardinal rule of engineers; Bash to form, file to fit, and paint to cover. I can do that.

The second reason to keep the stupid cooler is cost. If my neighbor won’t give it back after the dust storm deposits it into his flower bed, I can buy a new one for $300. Last time I got a quote to convert the house over to refrigerated air, it was roughly $6000. Alternatively, I could buy a new cooler and have enough left over 800 six packs, and still have enough left over for a new book.

The best reason not to switch is… It’s the calendar. We don’t need air conditioning during the spring, fall, or winter. That takes care of two months. During all ten months of the summer, the temperature only rises above 95 for about two months. And there is no way in hell I’m climbing on that roof during the day when the temperature is that hot.

I did that a few years ago. When it is 100 degrees on the ground, it is 130 on the roof. I climbed up to fix one of the endless water leaks, leaned against the blistering metal swamp cooler, and the matches in my pocket caught fire.

That was several years ago, but I doubt if anyone who lives within a block has forgotten the time their neighbor was screaming on the roof of his house waving a pair of burning pants.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Lighning Cooker

My son, What’s-His-Name, taught me a cute trick about nuking a white grape in a microwave the other day. It takes too long to explain, but if you are really interested, you can see how to do it here. It seems the internet is full of ways to turn your microwave into a personal incinerator or self defense weapon.

Not that I’m complaining, I play with my microwave myself. Take a CD you would like to destroy, place it on top of a coffee cup you have turned upside down and nuke it for 5 seconds. You’ll get a better show if you do this with the lights turned off. Don’t think of this as childish behavior, this is a creative process. You are either producing abstract art or Christmas tree decorations for Iron Man.

I showed one of the Munchkins at work how to do this trick, next thing I knew half the video library had been turned into wall decorations.

Actually, I have long been fascinated by microwaves. I can remember the first time I saw a microwave. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what it was.

Forty years ago, during my freshman year at college, I worked at the Shamrock Hilton in Houston. The Shamrock was a great old hotel, it was the hotel featured in the last half of the Rock Hudson movie, Giant. I had a great job; I worked the midnight shift guarding the alley. As a guard, I did such a great job that even today, 23 years after the hotel has been torn down, my alley is still there.

The hotel employed well over a thousand employees, all of us grossly underpaid. Since it was impossible to leave the hotel for lunch, and certainly none of us could afford to eat in any of the hotel restaurants, the hotel had an employee cafeteria in the basement. Every day, each employee was given $1.50 in special tokens to use in the cafeteria. Unfortunately for me, by the time the midnight shift rolled around, the cafeteria was closed, all that was left were special vending machines that only accepted the tokens.

Luckily, one of the machines sold cans of chili. I have to admit that I thought vending machines that could sell you a can of chili were pretty amazing. I had no idea such wonders of sophistication even existed, but that was nothing compared to the incredible box they had to heat up your chili.

Now cold chili is an abomination, something on a par with the weird things that Yankees do to their chili, such as adding macaroni or potato chips. Luckily, there was an oven there. The only way I knew it was an oven was the little plastic sign attached that listed the heating times for the various foods available.  Accordingly, I opened the can, put it in the microwave and turned the dial on the timer to two minutes.

Bzzzzztt! Cool! It cooked the chili with lightning bolts! Bzzzzt! Crack!

I had never heard of such an amazing invention, but there was no denying that it really worked. In two minutes, those little lightning bolts produced a hot steaming can of chili. The machine did leave little black burn marks all over the edge of the metal can, but those little lightning bolts really did a great job. The machine did have one serious flaw, it was a little delicate. In about a week, I had to eat my chili cold, the lightning bolt cooker had died.

A few days later, there was a replacement machine, but within about a week or two, I couldn’t get it to work either. For a while, there was a steady procession of replacements, Wolf Brand Chili and I killed each and every one of them. Eventually, someone put up a large sign, I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it was brief, profane, and educational. I reluctantly learned not to put metal in a microwave. At least not in one I needed to cook my lunch.

I’m still fascinated with microwaves. About a week ago, I was in a local convenience store late one night. Since it was late, the clerk was restocking the store. In the back of the store, on a shelf, was a microwave. Next to it was a small unopened cardboard case of 24 microwave popcorn packages. What would happen if I put the whole box into the microwave and set the timer up to about 10 minutes?

Would the whole machine explode? Would it catch fire? I’ll let you find out for yourself.