Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Heavy Machinery

I hate vacuum cleaners. Not vacuuming; the OCD part of me has always found the patterns vacuums make in low pile shag carpeting very soothing. The devices themselves, though, confound me.

In seventeen years of marriage, we have owned two vacuum cleaners. (Did I own a vacuum cleaner before I was married? Don't be silly.) Both were light weight uprights, constructed almost entirely from plastic. The more recent is one of the bagless, HEPA filter equipped machines that are so popular these days. It also comes with an automatic retractor for the power cord, an excellent way to take out an eye.

Both vacuums offered multiple height settings, various attachments to enable the removal of schmutz from crevices nobody ever sees, and the new one even had a light, perfect for those times when you are vacuuming at night with the lights off. They also shared another, damning characteristic: they can't pick up a darned thing. They both sported stiff-bristled brushes that whirled noisily and made those nice patterns on the carpet, but whose purpose appeared to be mostly to collect hair, string and carpet fiber until the accumulated mass choked the machine to a smoking halt. Or wound up the entire hall carpet from one continuous fiber, whichever came first.

Even more vexing was their propensity to clog their innards with whatever it was that they were supposed to be removing from the carpet. The dust, hair, hole punch circles, glitter and bread crumbs that were supposed to be deposited neatly in the bag or cannister routinely gave up their journey somewhere in the middle of the various hoses that connected the business end of the vacuum with the bag. In machines that moved air as well as an asthmatic kitten on a good day, ten minutes of vacuuming closed down the airways enough to render them capable of little more than indifferently relocating life's sloughings from one part of the room to another. Leaving behind a satisfying pattern in the carpet, granted, but that is only a mild comfort. More than once, as I blindly probed the vacuum's intestines with screwdrivers or repurposed coathangers, searching for the last clot of debris, I wished for something to just suck all the dirt out of the hose. Like, a good vacuum. Too bad I didn't have one handy.

The really don't make them like they used to. I grew up with my Mom's Electrolux cannister vacuum. It required a team of horses to haul it through the house, and imprecise aim with the metal extended tube could rip the curtains off a wall. I was a church janitor in high school, where I wrestled with an fifty pound industrial upright every day. Not only could it inhale inattentive cats from across the room, it toned my pecs as well. When it came to actually doing the job they were purportedly designed to do, our recent feature-laden, plastic vacuum cleaners couldn't hold a candle to these beasts.

With the new dog in the house burying us in a cloud of sheddings, I finally could take it no more. Our vacuum cleaner hid in the front closet and refused to come out (I know this is true because when I did force it to go to work on the carpet, it spit the dog hair everywhere, just for spite). We gave up, and resolved to do what so many other defeated homeowners have done: we bought a Dyson.

Buying a Dyson vacuum cleaner is a little like going to the hospital with a splinter and insisting on seeing the world-famous heart transplant specialist: you don't really know if he's right for you, but everyone says he's great -- at least, you're pretty sure that's what you've heard -- and he costs orders of magnitude more than anyone else, so he must be perfect for the job. We went with the biggest model Dyson makes, with the additional "Animal" features. That screams of marketing hype, but it does come with a handheld powered head for cleaning upholstery in houses where pets are allowed on the furniture. Ours is not such a house, so that's clearly money well spent.

After one usage, I have to admit that the carpets did look noticably better. The garbage can was also full of several cannister-loads of grit and hair, one of those things that we are sometimes better off not thinking about. Best of all, the machine has not burned out a motor or flung paper scraps everywhere. Yet. After three days of ownership, I consider that a victory.

Begin the Begin, Again

If it's almost Labor Day, the kids must have been in school for a week already. It's a mildly momentous year. Third grade is often a pivotal year, when students start to develop their intellectual skills beyond the most basic primary tasks. It was a year of tremendous growth for me, and for Kelly as well. We anticipate the same from Michael. He is excited about the year because as a third grader, he now has access to the larger part of the school playground. It is important to have priorities.

Kelly has started eighth grade, our last pre-high school year. Her schedule worked out well; she was assigned to the English teacher that everyone has recommended for two years now, she is a last-period teacher's aide for her sixth grade language arts teacher, and, well, she's an eighth grader. That alone is cause for celebration. The first week of school has brought a slight shift in her lunch and brunch social groupings, and a new level of confidence that comes from being at the top of the school food chain. The homework load has not hit yet, but it cannot be any greater than what she has had the last two years. Academically, this year will be a step up, especially in English and math (algebra). Kelly has proven that she can handle anything the school can throw at her so far; we will do our best to give her the same support as she tackles this year's challenges.

School volleyball for Kelly starts soon, community league soccer for both kids will begin this week, and Michael has already started fall league baseball, with basketball to follow in a couple of months. The now-customary fall frenzy has begun.

These are the days we'll remember.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Swimming 2010 Finale

The swim season finished on a dramatic upward trajectory. Our four youngest divisions (6-and-under boys and girls, and 7-8 boys and girls) dominated the league finals; our swimmers won three of the four high point awards, and the fourth came in third while setting a league record along the way and finishing behind the high point winner of the entire meet. Our young guns lifted our team to a highest-ever fourth place finish, just ahead of our rival, the local country club. We were a very spirited group, and it was a tremendous feeling to be a part of the historic effort the kids achieved.

Michael did his part. He improved his times in each of his events (free, back and fly). Butterfly was his last event of the year. At the beginning of the year, his goal was to do a "no-breather" in free (no breaths for the entire 25 yard race) and earn "bronze" times. By two thirds of the way through the season, he had achieved those goals, consistently improving his times as he went. As we prepared for the league finals, he announced that his final goal was to earn a silver time and do a "no-breather" in fly, something almost nobody attempts. I normally guide him toward lofty goals, but the morning of his final swim I let him know that one strategically taken breath would be just fine, and a bronze time would be just fine, too. Michael insisted on a silver with a no-breather.

For his heat, he had an outside lane, so I found a good spot to take pictures as he swam toward me. I snapped pictures as he steamed toward me, but it dawned on me, as he approached the flags (about five yards from the end of the pool) that I had not seen him take a breath, which he ordinarily would have taken by then.

I watched in disbelief as powered full speed into the wall, finishing his no-breather. Incredible. Try it sometime. Try taking even four butterfly strokes without pulling up in exhaustion. Michael, barely four feet tall, went 25 yards without a breath.

On top of that, he won his heat, from the disfavored outer lane (indicating a lower seed time), by .02 of a second.

Oh yeah, and it was a "silver" time, by a good margin. He swam nearly four seconds faster than his prior best, earning his silver just like he said he would. Like us, his feet hardly touched the ground for days afterward, he was so proud of himself. Last year, his name would appear very nearly last on the list of 140 or so swimmers in his division. This year, he was solidly mid-pack for free and back, and 43rd in fly, appearing on the first page of the leaders as posted on the board at the meet. Not a bad way to finish a great year: three "popped" times, no-breathers in free and fly, two bronzes and a silver time, and a heat win in the league finals.

But it wasn't over. At tonight's awards ceremony, Michael won the "Coaches Award" for the second year in a row. The award is given to a few kids in each age group who work hard, swim well and are generally good kids. Kelly and Michael have won these kinds of awards in soccer; as a parent, this is a nice award to see your child earn this kind of award. It tells you that your kids act the way you always hope they will act when you are not there to monitor them.

Any reservations we may have had a year ago about joining a swim team have long since been abandoned. Michael has learned a crucial life skill (and Kelly has as well through swim lessons, even though she is not on the swim team itself), and has developed another athletic skill, while we have greatly enlarged our social group. The experience has been nothing but satisfying, even without meet wins, "gold" times or any other indicia of superior performance. Mere participation truly is enough to be fulfilling.

But we're pretty proud anyway.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


This post is for the benefit of anyone who, like me, was driven crazy by dust that got under the glass of their iPhone. Welcome, Google travelers.

Not more than a couple of months after I got my iPhone 3G (nearly two years ago now), a large speck of dust settled into residence under the glass. It was soon joined by another similarly sized speck. As time passed, many more flecks of dust made their way under the glass. After I dropped the phone one time, an entire cloud of tiny dust particles lightly powdered half of the screen, as if I had bumped a bottle of talcum powder. The last straw for me was a relatively huge chunk of dust that found its way to the very middle of the camera aperture. At that extremely close focal length, the dust did not prevent me from taking pictures, but it caused some unwanted shading and coloration problems, and killed any hope of low-light (i.e., indoor) photography.

My exploration of Apple message boards on this problem was less than satisfactory. Few people seemed to have experienced the problem to the degree I had, and fewer still had a definitive confirmation of the cause, which seemed obvious enough to me. The data/charger port is a large rectangular opening that collected a ton of dust. I suspected that it was not sealed off from the rest of the innards of the iPhone (since dust seemed to be gathered more heavily at that end of the glass), but nobody online confirmed it. Some speculated that dust could get in around a rubber seal that runs around the entire screen, but that seemed unlikely. The tightly fitting screen or a gaping wide hole? I had a pretty well developed theory about how the dust got in. All it would take was actually opening the case to know for sure.

Opening any Apple product designed in the last decade is a difficult exercise, and one that will almost certainly void any product warranty. The design of Apple’s products has become one of the company’s hallmarks, but with the fabulous form comes an almost complete prohibition on tinkering under the hood. Other than the motherboard and the box that contained it, almost no original parts of my first PC remained by the time I finally discarded it. I frequently changed video cards, sound cards hard drives and monitors as the technology improved, and replaced a hard drive and power supply when they broke down. Modern day Apple devices, in contrast, are not intended to be opened by the consumer. It can be done, however. I have replaced the hard drive in our iMac, and after getting to the point that I could hardly take pictures and could barely see the screen in normal sunlight because of the layer of dust under the glass, I was finally determined to crack open the iPhone as well.

To all those who have had the iPhones for a long time and have become frustrated with the dust: you can solve the problem, if you are willing to open the case. Opening the case and the components inside is not difficult, if you are willing to accept a little cosmetic imperfection on the case thereafter.

To open the iPhone case, I followed the clear directions found here. Everything is as described. Undo the two screws at the base, insert a knife between the top surface and the silver rim (this is where a small amount of cosmetic damage may occur), pry up, and you are in. Disconnect three leads near the top of the phone, and the phone splits into the glass/LCD portion and the battery/phone portion. Great care should be taken when working with the glass and LCD screen. Don’t lose the tiny screws that hold them together, for one thing. Also, the LCD must be pried out of the glass casing. It does not take much pressure, but it must be done delicately. Finally, use extreme care when handling the exposed LCD screen itself. I did not touch the screen with my fingers; I only lightly wiped a lint-free cloth (the kind specially made to clean LCD computer monitors) across the screen. I supplemented that with a blast of compressed air. I cleaned the underside of the glass thoroughly, then mated the glass and LDC together again to prevent any ambient dust from returning. I took on the slightly trickier task of removing the camera lens to clean the aperture, but if you are deft with tiny screws, it can be done relatively easily. Putting the phone back together was as simple as reconnecting the leads and squeezing everything shut again.

Remarkably, the iPhone worked after I put it back together, but not without some drama. For some reason, the screen did not turn on again, even though it made the same noise it always did when I put it on the charger. I stewed on that overnight, and had to shut the phone down using the hard reset technique when my alarm went off the next morning (without a screen, you can’t tell the alarm to stop). When I plugged it back into the iMac, the startup screen reappeared, just like normal. Although I had already started to investigate replacing my phone with a 3GS (I’m going to wait for the next version of the 4G), I was delighted to get my old phone back. Even better, the newly cleaned screen was a revelation. I did not realize how obscured it had become until I saw again how bright and clear it could be. If you are out of warranty and reasonably adept with small screwdrivers and knives, recommend this bit of maintenance highly. Also, back up the phone before you start.

In poking around the case, my suspicions were confirmed. The dust flooded in through massive openings around the charger port, as well as smaller openings in the SIM card dock and perhaps the headphone jack. I consider this a design flaw. There are a couple of solutions. One would be to seal the openings somehow. A simpler solution would be to use something that Apple appears to favor in its machines: black electrical tape. I found large quantities of it in the iMac to seal seams, which is a problem for the do-it-yourselfer because tape does not return to its original position the way a screw will; every invasion weakens it. Very thin strips of the stuff were also inside the iPhone, but not one place it could do some good: the seam between the outer glass and the LCD. If I get inside the phone again, I will lay in strips of tape along the top and bottom edges of the glass to prevent anything from getting between the glass and the LCD. Unless the glass itself were to crack, there would be no need to separate the two in the future.

Poking around inside Apple products is not necessarily recommended, but it can be done, with significant benefits to the user.

Friday, August 06, 2010

"Cheese Clogs Major Artery"

That should have been the headline on this story: a truck carrying 39,000 pounds of shredded cheese caught fire and blocked traffic on Interstate 10 in Florida for five hours. If only a Tostitos truck had rolled through at the same time ... mmm, nachos.