Thanksgiving at the ranch

Our friends Mike and Kristi invited us to spend the Thanksgiving weekend with them at their ranch in Ranger, TX.  We’ve visited there the past two years on my birthday, and I went up there with Mike back in September.  But this time we had most of four days to enjoy.

Mike and Kristi bought the place–50 acres–in the summer of 2007 as a weekend getaway, a hunting area, and with the idea of eventually moving up there.  They’ve been slowly improving the property.  The first year we visited, we slept in a pop-up camp trailer.  Now they have a 400 square foot cabin complete with a toilet and “almost running” water:  you fill a bucket from the rain barrel and pour the water into the tank.  Believe me, that’s much better than going out behind the cabin when it’s 40 degrees (or colder) outside.

The primary goal of the long weekend was to relax.  But with four days to kill, I couldn’t spend all that time just carving by the campfire.  Mike’s been slowly removing a lot of the underbrush and dead trees near the front of the property, chopping firewood, and taking the smaller stuff to the burn pile.  So I grabbed a chainsaw and joined in.  We had a grand old time on Friday and Saturday, and by the time we left the view to the south had been much improved.


While Debra and Kristi were cooking on Thanksgiving day, I decided to try my hand at something I’ve been wanting to do:  carve a sweet potato.  The photo at left is “Yaman” (yam man).  The sweet potato carves very easily, but it’s important to have a sharp knife or you’ll end up breaking the potato.  This isn’t the best face I’ve ever carved, but I’m betting it’ll be okay.  Now I just have to wait six weeks or so for the thing to dry before I can paint highlights.  The drying process will introduce wrinkles, and it will turn brown.  I’ll update here when it’s sufficiently dried.

I didn’t do as much carving as I had envisioned, but I did manage to complete a few projects:  another little dog, this one from a piece of cherry wood that a friend gave me, a small bowl for Debra, carved from a piece of ashe juniper (what they call cedar around here), and a little drink stir stick from a piece of oak whiskey barrel.  The last has a wizard face on the top and a finger at the other end.  I wish I had a picture of that thing, because I’m pretty happy with the wizard face carved in a piece of oak that’s about an inch tall and 1/4″ square.

I also learned of a new art form:  beer bottle art.  I idly wondered whether I could melt a beer bottle by throwing it in the fire, and Mike assured me that it’s possible.  So I put a few bottles in the coals (after consuming the bottles’ contents, of course), and left them overnight.  Of the half dozen bottles we put in the fire, only these two survived mostly intact.


They give some idea of what’s possible, but they’re flawed because they have cracks and holes.  The key seems to be having the patience to let them cool very slowly.  I’m thinking that I’ll have to experiment with this art form.

Even with the hard work on Friday and Saturday, it was a very relaxing time up at the ranch.  The food was excellent, we very much enjoyed spending time with Mike and Kristi, and I really needed the time away to recharge.  It’s hard to worry about too much when you’re sitting in the sun whittling on a stick and laughing at the Guinea fowl running around.  Noisy dang birds, though.

Still, as relaxing as the time was, it was good to get home Sunday afternoon, take a hot shower, and sleep in our own bed.  Wouldn’t want too much of a good thing.

Maple and Squite

Last week I thought I’d see if I could get a little more detail in my dog carvings.  Maple (on the left) was the first experiment, carved from a piece of maple (at least, I think it’s maple) that I found in the discard pile at Woodcraft.  That turned out so well that I tried something similar with a piece of mesquite that I picked up at Mike’s ranch back in September.  Both carvings are two inches tall.


I’ve heard it said that there are two kinds of maple, “soft” and “hard”.  But I was told that even the “soft” maple was incredibly hard.  I found it to be quite nice to carve, certainly easier than the oak whiskey barrel.

Mesquite, too, is said to be hard to carve.  This piece wasn’t terribly difficult to cut, but it did have a tendency to splinter a bit.  Getting clean cuts requires a very sharp knife, and perhaps a bit better technique than I currently possess.  Still, I think it turned out quite nicely.

I’ve cut one of these dog patterns from a piece of black walnut (same stuff as the whale).  I’m hoping to carve on it sometime this week.

Oak Reindeer

As I mentioned the other day, I have a lot of oak to carve.  I typically carve small things, so those whiskey barrels are going to last me a really long time.  A few months ago, somebody posted a neat little reindeer carving on the message board, so I thought I’d give it a try in oak.


The resulting reindeer is about 4 inches tall.  Unfortunately, that makes it slightly too wide for the oak board, and cutting it out on the bandsaw was quite difficult.  I managed not to break anything, but one side of the reindeer is flat rather than rounded.  Still, I figured I could use the pattern in its original size (9/16″ thickness rather than 3/4″) and create Christmas tree ornaments for family and friends.

The thinner piece makes it impossible to cut out on my bandsaw.  So I found a friend with a scroll saw and tried it on Saturday.  I managed to get one reindeer cut out without breaking anything, but it was very difficult.  The scroll saw didn’t like the oak.  Perhaps I could do it with a better blade, or maybe somebody with more experience using the scroll saw  could do a better job.

So now I have 18 pieces of oak, 3 inches by 2 inches, and 3/4″ thick, all with reindeer patterns taped to them.  Some of those blocks will undoubtedly become little dog carvings, and I’ll have to find something else to do with the rest.

Risk of death

I sometimes wonder if newspaper reporters and editors actually think about their use of language.  I’m not talking about obscure grammar or punctuation rules, but larger issues like what words actually mean.  Nowhere is this more evident than in newspaper articles that mention “risk of death” when reporting on health studies.

A good example is a two year old Seattle Times article titled, Getting in Shape Reduces Death Risk.  The headline itself sets off a big warning bell in my brain.  After all, it’s a given (Ray Kurzweil‘s predictions notwithstanding) that the risk of death is 100%.  You are going to die.  So I immediately look with suspicion upon any report that talks about reducing my risk of death.  I give newspaper headlines the benefit of the doubt, though, because they have limited space and need to make a bold statement to attract eyeballs.  But I expect the article to be more explicit.

A newspaper article that has such a bold statement in the headline should make it clear in the first paragraph exactly from what.  That is, if the headline says, “Vitamin C Reduces Risk of Death,” then the first paragraph better say, “…from scurvy.”  Otherwise I’m going to think that I’ll live forever if I take enough Vitamin C.  Wouldn’t the snake oil nutritional supplement industry love that?

Not only does the Seattle Times article fail to point out from what in the first paragraph, it fails almost entirely to qualify the statement about reducing the “risk of death.”  The risk being mitigated by being “in shape” is never explicitly identified.  But there are plenty of statements implying that being “in shape” means that you’ll live forever.  Here’s the first paragraph:

The more fit you are, the longer you’re likely to live, according to a large study of veterans that applies to black men as well as white men. The Veterans Affairs researchers found that the “highly fit” men in the study had half the risk of death as those who were the least fit. Being “very highly fit” cut the risk even more, by 70 percent.

[This is sounding good.  If I’m ‘very highly fit,’ my risk of dying is 70% less.]

Third paragraph:

“A little bit of exercise goes a long way,” said Peter Kokkinos, lead author of the study. “Thirty minutes a day, five days a week of brisk walking is likely to reduce the risk of mortality by 50 percent if not more.”

[Oh, wow.  I just have to take a walk every day and there’s a 50% chance that I’ll live forever?]

Halfway through the article, there is this paragraph:

A treadmill test was used to determine the fitness level of the veterans at facilities in Washington, D.C., and Palo Alto, Calif. The men _ who had an average age of 60 _ were then put into four categories ranging from “low fit” to “very highly fit.” Researchers followed up for an average of eight years to see who was still alive.

Aha!  So the risk being mitigated is … what, exactly?  That if you’re “in shape” at 60, you have a higher probability of living to 68 than if you’re not “in shape” at 60.  What a let down.  That’s the only paragraph in the entire article that even comes close to identifying what risk is mitigated by physical fitness.

The rest of the article is full of statements that, taken literally, are totally misleading.

The study also sets itself apart by looking at how exercise affects blacks, whose death rates are higher than whites. 

The study showed that as fitness levels went up, the risk of death dropped for both blacks and whites.

The researchers themselves didn’t even know the cause of death of those who died.  Nor did they know how physically active any of the participants were.  All they knew is how well the person scored (“low fit”, “moderately fit”, “highly fit”, or “very highly fit”) on the treadmill test, and whether that person was still alive eight years later.  In other words, it shows a correlation between fitness and lifespan.  But hardly conclusive evidence.

Normally I’d call an article like this shoddy reporting and an indication of laziness on the part of the reporter and the editor.  But with the “risk of death” silliness, I’m forced to conclude that the reporter and/or editor decided to sensationalize the report, forgetting entirely that words have meaning.

Gingerbread haka

The New Zealand national rugby team, called the All Blacks, performs a traditional Maori war dance (a haka) prior to international matches.  They first did this in 1884 during the team’s first trip overseas, and they’ve been doing it ever since.  It’s something of a rugby tradition.

Today I ran across an animated version with gingerbread men doing the haka. It was apparently an ad for the New Zealand bakery challenge. Quite funny. Assuming, of course, you’re familiar with the whole haka thing.

Whiskey Dog

Debra got a bunch of whiskey barrels for the garden a few years back.  They smelled strongly of alcohol when I set them out.  But wood rots over time, especially when it’s sitting out in the open and filled with dirt, keeping it moist so the bugs and fungus can do what they do.

I pulled all 10 whiskey barrels out of the garden back in September.  Most of them were so badly rotted that I just threw the wood in the shredder and then used the resulting chips for mulch.  But the staves from three of the barrels, and parts of several others were sufficiently intact that I saved them to be used for carving wood.  Here’s the stash:


The staves are approximately 16 inches long, one inch thick, and vary from one to five inches in width.  The outer layers (about 1/16 inch) are a bit crumbly (especially on the inside of the barrel).  The wood inside of that varies:  some of it is very soft and other parts are very hard, as you would expect oak to be.  I carved a few hair sticks from one piece over the weekend, and was happy enough with the result that I thought I’d try something else.

Stubby (named because he lost his tail in a freak coping saw accident) is about two inches tall, two inches wide, and an inch thick.  I cut the pattern out with the coping saw (I need to replace the blade on my bandsaw), and spent a couple of hours carving.  I’m pretty happy with the result:


I did most of the rough shaping with a utility knife, and the final detail with my detail knife.  There are a few things I’ll do differently the next time, but I’m very happy with the way this one turned out.

More pics in the gallery.

Soccer Bear

Today is my niece Maggie’s 17th birthday.


Soccer Bear is carved from a basswood block, three inches tall and one inch square.


I’m not a big sports fan.  I enjoyed watching football when I was younger, but I stopped watching even that about 25 years ago.  I like playing sports, but watching them generally leaves me cold.  That said, I do enjoy watching the highlights of some matches.

I ran across rugby again few weeks ago.  I’d of course seen rugby when I was younger, but at the time my impression of the game was a bunch of guys playing what we used to call smear the queer.  (And please note that at the time “queer” just meant “the guy with the ball.”)  In any event, I’ve become somewhat fascinated by this game that is considered the national sport in New Zealand, Lebanon (by law!), Papua New Guinea, and South Africa, and very popular in many other countries.  It’s not as popular as soccer in most countries, but it has a huge following throughout most of the world.

Rugby is kind of like full contact soccer, except that you can pick up the ball and run with it.  The game looks to be faster than soccer, though, with a lot more movement up and down the field.  Think of American football without the huddle.

There are several things that interest me about the game.  First, although players do specialize, the degree of specialization is not like football.  Every player on the team must be able to run with the ball, pass the ball, kick, and tackle.  There is no blocking in rugby, so there’s no need for the big offensive linemen.  Speed, stamina, and agility are the keys.

As I said before, the game is action-packed.  Rather than a huddle after each tackle, and then the players lining up like 16th century armies before a battle, the ball is placed into play almost immediately.  There are short breaks after scoring, for penalties, and out of bounds, but for the most part the game goes on non-stop.  Two 40-minute halfs with a break between them.  This might be one reason the game hasn’t caught on in the U.S.:  there are no convenient places to insert commercials.

Although rugby is a full contact sport, there’s little in the way of protective equipment used.  Some players wear what look like padded leather helmets, but I get the idea it’s more to protect the ears.  You still see hard hits, but most tackles involve arms around legs rather than shoulders or heads slammed into armored bodies.  Perhaps I’m being naive, but to me the game looks much more civilized than American football.

It turns out that there are two forms of rugby widely played:  rugby union, and rugby league.  The games share the same origin.  Rugby league was created in 1895 and the rules changed to encourage a more spectator-friendly game.  Rugby league is a faster and more exciting game with fewer breaks in the action than rugby union.

I don’t know that I’ll become a fan or even sit down to watch an entire rugby match, but I’ve certainly enjoyed watching the highlights videos on YouTube.  Here’s one example from the recent Four Nations Rugby tournament:

Budget neutral?

In a speech before a joint session of Congress in September, the President said that his “preferred” package for health care finance reform legislation would carry a price tag of around $900 billion. He also said that he will not sign a bill that raises deficits.

On October 29, the Congressional Budget Office released a preliminary analisys of the Affordable Health Care for America Act (H.R. 3962). According to the summary in that analysis, “enacting H.R. 3962 would result in a net reduction in federal budget deficits of $104 billion over the 2010-2019 period.” Sounds good, right? Let’s take a look.

On page 2, under Estimated Bugetary Impact of H.R. 3962:

According to CBO and JCT’s assessment, enacting H.R. 3962 would result in a net reduction in federal budget deficits of $104 billion over the 2010-2019 period (see Table 1). In the subsequent decade, the collective effect of its provisions would probably be slight reductions in federal budget deficits. Those estimates are all subject to substantial uncertainty.
(Italics are mine)

That section goes on to summarize the costs and benefits of the bill. Total costs are estimated at $1,055 billion, partially offset “by $167 billion in collections of penalties paid by individuals and employers.” (Penalties for not maintaining the mandated health insurance coverage.) The projected net cost is $894 billion. So how do we get from a net cost of $894 billion to a surplus of $104 billion? “[S]pending changes, which the CBO estimates would save $426 billion, and receipts resulting from the income tax surcharge on high-income individuals and other provisions, which JCT and CBO estimate would increase federal revenues by $572 billion over that period.”

So the President and Congress weren’t entirely truthful when they said that they’re going to pay for this program by cutting waste, fraud, and abuse. They’re going to do what politicians always do: raise taxes and hope for the best. Oh, and they’re going to force employers to either offer health insurance coverage or pay a penalty equal to eight percent of their payroll. What used to be an incentive–an added benefit of employment–has now become a federal mandate. If employers were smart they’d just pay the 8% penalty. That has to be less expensive than the health insurance plans most of them provide.

What the press, the White House, and members of Congress won’t tell you about is what else the CBO report says. For example, under Effect of H.R. 3962 on Discretionary Costs, the report says:

CBO has not completed a comprehensive estimate of the discretionary costs that would be associated with H.R. 3962. Total costs would include those arising from the effects of H.R. 3962 on a variety of federal programs and agencies as well as from a number of new and existing programs subject to future appropriations.

In other words, there are hidden costs. What are they? The report doesn’t say in detail, but it gives a few examples:

  • $5 to $10 billion to the Internal Revenue Service for “implementing the eligibility determination, documentation, and verification processes for subsidies.
  • $5 to $10 billion to Health and Human Services for “implementing the changes in Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP as well as certain reforms to the private insurance market.
  • “Costs of a number of grant programs and other changes in Divisions C and D of the legislation. CBO has not completed a review of those provisions.”
  • And the big one:
    As noted in the previous section and in Table 1, funding for the proposed Public Health Investment Fund and Prevention and Wellness Trust would also be subject to future appropriation action. The bill would authorize appropriations totaling about $34 billion for those purposes (of which approximately $33 billion would be spent over the next 10 years). The Committee on the Budget has directed CBO to count such spending as direct spending for purposes of budget scorekeeping in the House of Representatives.

I like that last sentence. The Committee on the Budget told CBO not to count $34 billion of costs associated with this legislation. At least the CBO is up front about it. It’d be interesting to ask the Committee members about that one, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, if you add up those costs, which the CBO identified as “major”, but not all inclusive, you end up with an additional $44 to $54 billion, plus whatever those grant programs would cost. That $104 billion “savings” is now $50 billion. Even less when you include the grant programs and other costs that this preliminary report doesn’t specifically mention.

Oh, and then there are Important Caveats Regarding This Preliminary Analysis. The first item is particularly interesting. The report is based on preliminary legislation rather than the bill as actually introduced. Also, “the analysis does not reflect all of the provisions of the bill.”

In other words, there are MORE hidden costs.

The final section, estimating effects of the legislation beyond the first ten years, says that it will decrease deficits slightly. But it also has a few caveats of its own:

These longer-term projections assume that the provisions of H.R. 3962 are enacted and remain unchanged throughout the next two decades, which is often not the case for major legislation. For example, the SGR mechanism governing Medicare’s payments to physicians has frequently been modified to avoid reductions in those payments, and legislation to do so again is currently under consideration in the Congress. The bill would put into effect (or leave in effect) a number of procedures that might be difficult to maintain over a long period of time. It would leave in place the 21 percent reduction in the payment rates for physicians currently scheduled for 2010. At the same time, the bill includes a number of provisions that would constrain payment rates for other providers of Medicare services. In particular, increases in payment rates for many providers would be held below the rate of inflation (in expectation of ongoing productivity improvements in the delivery of health care). Based on the extrapolation described above, CBO expects that Medicare spending under the bill would increase at an average annual rate of roughly 6 percent during the next two decades-well below the roughly 8 percent annual growth rate of the past two decades, despite a growing number of Medicare beneficiaries as the baby-boom generation retires.

The long-term budgetary impact of H.R. 3962 could be quite different if those provisions generating savings were ultimately changed or not fully implemented. If those changes arose from future legislation, CBO would estimate their costs when that legislation was being considered by the Congress.

In other words, any projected savings is wishful thinking.

Honestly, you should read the report. It’s only 27 pages long, and about half of those are tables of numbers. Just reading the report without the numbers should be enough to convince you that this bill, like all the others, is a budget buster.

And, of course, that analysis was based on the bill as introduced on October 29. It was hailed as an “894 billion dollar” package. Today, the press is saying a “1.2 trillion dollar” package. I’m unable today to find any information about the additional $330 billion or how it’ll be offset by revenue so that the legislation remains budget neutral.

Not to be outdone, the Republicans published their own plan for health care finance reform. It has no chance of being passed, which is a good thing. The CBO estimate says that it will cover fewer people and will save $68 billion over 10 years. In other words, it’s just a way for Republicans to say, “See? We have a plan!”

Nobody in Congress has the courage to stand up and say, “Stop!” Where’s the voice of moderation here? Congress will mandate billion dollar multi-year environmental impact studies before doing something trivial, but now wants to push through, without sufficient study, legislation that will have a huge impact on every citizen in the country. Why? Because they can and because they think it will get them votes. For all their pronouncements about it being “good for the country” and “the right thing to do,” that’s all they’re really interested in: re-election. Otherwise they’d be much more concerned about the real costs of what they’re so eager to support.

The President has said publicly that he will not sign (or did he say that he would veto it?) a bill that “adds one penny” to the budget deficit.  It’s probably too much to expect the President to subject any legislation to extensive real world analysis, so I’ll have to be content with the CBO’s final report.  But if, as I suspect, the bill that will be presented for a vote in the House on Saturday turns out to require deficit spending, I will expect the President to keep his word.

Debugging a water heater

About a month ago, Debra and I started noticing that hot water pressure was lower than normal.  At first I thought it was my imagination, but it steadily got worse.  My first hypothesis was sediment in the tank, which fit with what others online will say.  So I hooked up a hose, drained the tank, flushed it a bit, and then refilled it.  Still low pressure.

My next thought was to verify that the problem was with the water heater and not somewhere else in the pipes.  So I connected the cold water input directly to the hot water output, removing the water heater completely from the system.  The resulting high pressure from the hot water side confirmed that the problem was indeed with the water heater.

It took a little looking around, but I finally found the problem:  the 3″ brass nipple that connects the water heater with the hot water pipes in the house was clogged with sediment.  It was so clogged that I’m surprised any water was coming out.  I’m a little embarrassed that it took me so long to check that out.  But since I had so much time in the project and it looked like I wouldn’t have to replace the water heater, I decided to refurbish it a bit.

Electric heating elements for my water heater are about $10 each.  Those and two replacement nipples, plus gaskets for the input and output, and the special tool for removing the elements set me back a total of about $25.  It was a pretty big time investment, though.  Draining the water heater takes a long time.  A few things to keep in mind (some of which I learned from experience):

  • Before you drain your electric water heater or do any other work on on it, turn off the circuit breaker.
  • If you don’t open a hot water faucet somewhere in the house, or open the T&P valve on the water heater, it’ll take almost forever to drain.  (I knew this one before, but thought I’d throw it in because a friend of mine ran into this problem.)
  • Do not try to remove the elements with pliers or a pipe wrench.  Pay the $8 for the element removal tool.
  • If the screwdriver you’re using as a handle for the element removal tool starts to bend, stop.  It’s likely you’ll break the screwdriver before the element comes out.  Find a longer and stiffer piece of metal to use as a handle.  Or dispense with the handle and wrap a pipe wrench around the element removal tool.  Works wonders.  (I was smart enough to stop when I saw the screwdriver shaft flexing.)
  • Be absolutely sure the water is below the level of the element before you try to remove it.  You will not believe how fast water can come pouring out of that hole, and you will not be able to screw the element back in with the water pouring out.  And the water is hot. (Yes, I’m guilty of this one.)
  • You can clean corrosion from heating elements by soaking them in vinegar.  If you decide to re-use your elements after cleaning and inspecting them, be sure to replace the rubber gasket.  Otherwise they will almost surely leak and you’ll have to drain the water heater again to remove and replace them.  The way I figure it, if I’m going to the trouble of draining the water heater, I’ll just replace the elements.

One other thing.  Electric water heaters contain a sacrificial anode rod that helps prevent corrosion of the tank.  The idea is that the anode, being a more active metal than what the tank is made of, will corrode first.  As long as there’s a more active metal than the tank’s metal, the tank won’t corrode (or will do so much more slowly).  Water heater warrantees are typically based on how long the manufacturer thinks the anode rod will last.  You can replace the anode rod.  I haven’t tried it yet.

Most manufacturers recommend that you drain a few quarts from your water heater every three months (some say every month).  That will prevent sediment buildup in your tank.  They recommend draining the tank and inspecting the elements annually.  They also recommend an annual inspection of the anode rod.

By the way, elements that are covered in corrosion don’t work very well at all.  They require a lot more electricity to generate the same amount of heat as new elements.  Especially if you have very hard water, you’re probably money ahead if you replace the elements annually.  The money you save in electricity will more than offset the cost of the new elements, and your water will heat much faster.

Most people (myself included, usually) never think about their water heater until they have no hot water or they notice a leak.  That’s too bad, because with a little periodic maintenance a water heater can last 15 or 20 years rather than the five or so years that they typically last these days.  Considering the cost of a replacement water heater and installation (sometimes over $1,000) and the aggravation of a leaking heater or no hot water, you’re much better off with the periodic maintenance.

If you’re having a problem with your water heater, a good place to look for a solution is  Whereas it’s true that they’re trying to sell you things, they have very good information about common problems and simple solutions.  Oh, and in case you’re interested in how this stuff works: How Water Heaters Work.



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