Mike Agranoff

Blog - 2017

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March 23, 2017
When Good Organizations Behave Badly

Many of you are aware of ActBlue as a PAC supporting many left-leaning causes such as election of Democratic candidates, a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United, and other political actions which I generally support. They are, however, annoyingly persistent, flooding my inbox with as many as a dozen messages a day loaded with dire predictions and exhortations in ALL CAPS and a lot of exclamation marks!!!!

This has been mildly annoying, and for the most part I toss everything that comes from them in my Junk folder without reading it. But I just discovered that they are engaged in a practice that, while not illegal, is unethical at best and downright underhanded at worst. I did make one contribution to them about a year ago. But I just received an annual accounting statement from them, and discovered that the default setting when one makes a contribution is to make them recurring monthly. I missed that when I made that first contribution, and hadn't noticed in my credit card statements that they've been charging my card once a month. It was my own carelessness on both counts. Yes, one can change that default from "Recurring" to "One-Time" when one makes the initial contribution. But it's a pretty shady way to do business if you ask me. I wonder how many other inattentive people like me they have ripped off with that scheme.

SHAME ON YOU, ACTBLUE!!!!! In the pursuit of a good cause you have alienated me and how many other supporters of that cause. You give a good cause a bad name. You got my 300 bucks, and that's all you'll ever get from me.

I've instructed my server to bounce all their emails in future.



March 4, 2017
The Engineering Mindset

The back yard of my house borders on the Rockaway River. Except when the front yard borders on the Rockaway. Which will happen a few times a year. (See Blog Entry of March 11, 2011, God Willin' an' the Crick Don't Rise.) It's pretty much a non-event these days. I've taken a number of steps to mitigate any damage, the most important of which was to raise the house shortly after my first flood put 3 feet of water in the house six months after I moved in. The photos in that 2011 Blog entry give a good idea of the results of the house-raising. When I moved in, that masonry first storey did not exist; it was only a 16 inch crawlspace. There's nothing in that new lower storey but garage space. The boiler and other such utilities went up with the rest of the house. The floor of the garage is at ground level, so water doesn't collect in there. When the water level goes down, the water all drains out. The house raising has pretty much prevented any further flood damage, even when Hurricane Irene put about 7-1/2 feet of water in the garage.

However, one unexpected consequence of that house raising was that my water pipes became susceptible to freezing. When it was only a crawlspace, it was a much smaller volume of air, and enough heat from the house leaked into the crawlspace to keep it warm enough to prevent that. Once I raised the house and added insulation under the floor, that garage got cold when the outside temperature got into the single digits. And all the heat tape and insulating jackets I could put on the pipes wasn't enough to handle the really cold nights. And I couldn't use the tried and true solution of letting the water drip, because if I did, the drains, which also run down through that cold garage, would also eventually freeze up. And then I'd be in trouble. So I set my engineering mind to the problem.

How to approach the problem? I figured that if I could run the water at a reasonable rate when it started to get down towards 32°, and then shut it off again when the pipes filled with the warmer water from the tank, I could keep the pipes from freezing while still not clogging the drains with ice. The coldest spot in the water lines is right below the kitchen where the imperfect seal of the garage door allows outside air to get to the water pipes. And the kitchen sink was the end of the water line, so running the water in the kitchen would flush the entire line.

1. The thermostat

2. In the garage ceiling just under the kitchen

3. Looking up under the kitchen sink.
(If you think this photo is cluttered and confusing, you shoulda seen me on my back trying to install all of this stuff! Even taking the photo was no picnic.)

(Click photos for full screen view)

So right at the cold spot, where the water pipes head up to the kitchen, I installed a tee into the plumbing (See photo #2). The water comes in at the left, and heads to the sink going up. In the right hand branch of the tee, I installed a thermostat (See photo #1) set to 37°. Then under the kitchen sink, I installed a small electric valve (See photo #3). The inlet of that valve comes from both the hot and cold water supply lines before they go to the kitchen faucet. The outlet of the valve taps into the sink drain pipe. The thermostat controls the electric valve. So when the water in the tee gets down to 37°, it turns on the valve, which allows a small flow of water from both the hot and cold lines into the kitchen sink drain. That flow will continue anywhere from a few seconds to maybe half a minute until warmer water reaches the thermostat, and the flow shuts off. So the water in the in both the hot and cold supply lines never gets cold enough to freeze.

I designed and installed that Rube Goldberg device about 25 years ago, and it's worked perfectly ever since. I wired in a pilot light to indicate when the valve was open, but that turned out to be unnecessary. I could hear the click of the valve as it turns on and off, and the faint hiss of the water flowing though it when it's open. The reassuring "CLUNK...hissssssssss...CLUNK!" would always give me a smile when I heard it on cold nights.

The thermostat had come from a local small manufacturer of industrial controls. It was one of their standard designs, and I ordered it calibrated to the 37° setpoint. And, being a good engineer, of course I ordered two of them, so I'd have a spare in case the device failed. I then carefully documented the plumbing and wiring, filed it away where I knew I'd be able to retrieve it. I stashed the spare thermostat inside the electrical enclosure shown in Photo #2, and felt proud of myself.

Fast forward to Friday of last week. I wandered into the kitchen, and noticed the pilot light was on, and I could hear the water flowing through the valve. And it wasn't particularly cold outside. And as I observed it, it never turned off. Something was wrong. I turned off the power to the device, and sure enough the valve shut off. I went to my file drawer and found the documentation. I went down to the garage, and poked around with a meter, and discovered that the thermostat had failed. It was stuck in the "on" state, and keeping the valve on even when the water was warm.

But this engineer had prepared for such an eventuality. I had a spare!! I shut off the water, got out my tools, pulled out the old thermostat, installed the new one, and in a few hours I was up and running again. (Fortunately it was warm that afternoon, and comfortable in the garage.) But I had to wait over a week before the temperature outside got cold enough to actually verify that the system worked as it should. But last night, with the outside thermometer reading 10°, I was gratified to hear that familiar, and oh so satisfying "CLUNK...hissssssssss...CLUNK!" Life is good!

And I even went so far as to call up the manufacturer of the thermostat. I had the manufacturer's name and the model number in my documentation, and was able to order up another spare to use in 25 years when the replacement fails. I feel damn proud of myself!



February 15, 2017
Geezer Talk

Some years ago, I had the occasion to be on the phone with veteran folk singer-songwriter, Bill Staines in my capacity as Programming Chairman for the Minstrel Acoustic Concert Series. We were trying to find a date for him to perform at the Minstrel. And he said, "We have to avoid such-and-such a time period, because I'm getting a hip replacement" "A hip replacement?" I said. "Yes, the cartelage this, and the nerves that, and so on and so forth." And when we exhausted that topic, he asked, "And so how about you? How are you holding up?" I slammed my fist on the table, and said, "NO!!" When our prime topic of conversation becomes our conditions, and our meds, and our pains, and our procedures, it becomes Geezer Talk! And I refuse to engage in GEEZER TALK!!" He chuckled and said, "Good for you!"

That was then, this is now. I have some geezer talk for you.

Back in October of last year, I was stricken one evening with a pain in my lower back that persisted overnight and got worse. The following morning, I called up my doctor, described the symptoms, and asked his advice. He said what I described sounded like diverticulitis (whatever that is), and I should go to the Emergency Room. I did so, and they sent me for a CAT scan, and came back with the diagnosis that what I had was a very small (1mm) kidney stone that looked like it was just about to pass. They gave me some pain killers, and sent me home. And sure enough, sometime the following night, the pain subsided, and was gone. But they had also suggested I see a urologist.

I did so, and he prescribed some more detailed CAT scans, which showed another larger stone in a place he felt was somewhat precarious, and liable to give me trouble in the future as it grew. By that time, I was in no discomfort, but I agreed that the wise course was to remove the stone. So, we settled on a surgical procedure to remove the stone, rather than trying to break it up with ultra-sound as the safest course of action. And two days ago, I had that procedure done.

As surgery goes, it was relatively minor. There was no cutting. Rather they went in an existing orifice with a probe (Ewwwwww!) to remove it. It wasn't too bad. On the discomfort scale it ranked somewhere between root canal (And if you've had root canal sometime in the past few years, you'll know that ain't like having root canal any more.) and listening to the news. One minute I was concerned that I couldn't scratch an itch on my nose because I was strapped in, and the next minute, I was opening my eyes and it was done. There's been some discomfort while urinating over the past few days, but that's decreasing as time goes on, and I didn't even need to take the Percoset that was prescribed. I got a printed sheet describing what post-op things were likely to happen, and it's all going perfectly on schedule. I'm real glad that I'm not living 100 years ago with the medical technology available at that time.

Post Script: February 22.
Just got back from the post-op visit to the urologist. Some weird stuff had gone down. The CAT scans had indicated a dog bone-shaped stone in the right kidney. But when he had gone in to remove it, it wasn't there. He did, however put a stent in to dilate the passage so he could look around. He figured as long as he was there, he might as well look in the other kidney. And lo, there was a stone in the left kidney that had not shown up in the CAT scans. He did remove that one.

And in the post-op visit, he removed the stent, which had been the primary source of my discomfort in the intervening days since the initial operation. He did that under local anaesthetic, and even offered to let me watch the removal process on the video monitor as he was doing it. I took a pass on that opportunity, thank you very much. Too much information. (Maybe too much information for you too, dear reader.) At any rate, I am no longer stoned, and was given leave to go and sin no more.


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