Saturday, March 29, 2008

Rescuing the Kubota

Unexpected prerequisite to cooking dinner: de-icing the tofu. The refrigerator in our RV is great, but temperature stability is not its strong suit, so for some reason the tofu freezes. Oddly, other stuff in the fridge seems fine.

I didn't measure distance today - it's pretty clear that I'm making good progress, and in fact I had to stop today because I'd gone far enough that I need to do some serious orienteering to get the plans straight. Up until this point, I was just getting the trench down to where we're building, but at this point I'm in—or at least near—the footprint of the house, and so precision actually matters for a change.

I had an interesting experience with the Kubota today. Because I'm now tunneling through brush, I decided to back the Kubota out along the trench I'd dug. Problem is, you have to back up very precisely to avoid a wheel going into the trench. Apparently I am not that precise. I was nearly to the bridge I'd left when I backed the front wheel into the trench. The Kubota tilted hard to the right, although it didn't go over. It was actually quite happy perched there, but obviously there wasn't going to be any moving it in that position.

Fortunately, when Keith was telling me about the Kubota, he mentioned that it can self-rescue in situations like that, so I figured I'd give it a try. I was able to lever it up out of the trench with the backhoe, and then move the wheel back over solid dirt again. I'm oversimplifying, but the bottom line is that with a bit of fiddling with the bucket and the hoe, I managed to get it back up out of the trench and drive it away.

I think I'll just cut a path along the rest of the trench line so that I don't have a repeat of this fiasco. I'm going to have to shovel out a few spots in the trench because of the damage caused by all the fussing around there.

In other news, the OLPC battery runs down pretty fast if you plug in an external hard drive... Shocking, I tell you. Shocking. :')

Friday, March 28, 2008

Digging the trench, Part 5

60 feet today - I made it almost all the way to the underbrush. At this point the sharp end of the trench is much closer to the trailer than to the well. It really only looks like two more days of digging to get to the level of the trailer, which is pretty cool (if true).

However, the ground leading up to the trailer is a lot rockier - the dirt I was digging in today was mostly just dirt - it looked like a field ready to be tilled. In fact, I'm tempted to propose planting stuff there once the trench is covered up. I worked for 2.9 hours, which included some time re-burying a test trench I dug a while back, which turned out to be in the wrong place.

If you're wondering why I'm writing about this progress, there are two reasons. The first is that I need to remember how much work this was a year from now or five years from now when I consider doing a similar project. I mean exactly how much work it was, not "I seem to remember that that was a lot of work." Blogging faithfully when I do this sort of work is a great way to make sure that that happens (assuming Google doesn't go under and take my blog with it).

The second reason is that I had no idea at all how long this project was going to take when I started it. I imagine that there are probably other people out there who don't know how long it would take to dig a trench with a Kubota like the one I'm using, and need to know so that they can budget for renting one. I can't promise that you'll go as fast (or as slow) as I've been going, but at least this gives you a ballpark idea of how hard it is.

I made it to the next ten-hour maintenance window, so I got to grease the Kubota again after today's work. Man, that's a dirty job. Especially when you have to do it outdoors, without any real facilities.

If I forget and brush the tip of the grease gun against the ground, I have to stop and carefully clean it. I frequently have to clean out the nipples to which the grease gun attaches, because they're covered in dirt and grit, and I don't have any appropriate tools, so I've been using a piece of 10 gauge electrical wire.

And we're really short on rags, and I have no idea how to dispose of the used grease containers. Hopefully guidance will materialize soon.

Not much else that's exciting (!) to report, other than that I could really use a nap.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Digging the trench, part 4

55 feet today, in about two hours forty-five minutes. This is kind of my production target - if I can keep going at this rate, it makes sense to do the job with the Kubota. Sure, it would get done faster with a full-sized backhoe, but it would cost more for the backhoe and I'd have to pay someone to run it. So I'm pretty happy with how things are going.

One thing I noticed toward the end of the day (why never at the beginning?) is that if I run the engine a little faster, the shovel moves a lot faster (not digging, just dumping). Since dumping takes up most of the time, speeding up the process of dumping should make the digging go faster. We'll see next time. I'm going to take a couple of days' hiatus from digging for a variety of reasons which I may discuss in a laster entry.

One worry about this process is that I'm getting close to the house site now, and we haven't actually laid out the foundations. If I don't get a foundation plan soon, I'm going to have to stop digging and do something else during my allotted three hours...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Digging the trench, part 3

Today I went about 45 feet in about two and a half hours. Why not three hours, you ask? I learned some important lessons on Kubota maintenance today. First, you can't check the fluid level in the automatic transmission if the thing is on a slope. Pretty obvious, but it took me running down to the temple to read the documentation before I realized what I'd done wrong. It was a panicky moment, too - you really don't want to run the tractor with no transmission fluid.

Next problem is that the fuel gauge isn't accurate when you're parked on a hill. No surprise, but I didn't realize *how* innaccurate until the engine skipped with the fuel gauge reading half. Fortunately I was sitting down to move it at the time, so I just quickly shut it off, drove back down to the temple (again!), got some diesel fuel, drove back up, filled the tank, and got going.

I ran into two veins of cobblestone along the way, which slowed me down quite a bit. I suppose they won't be the last. However, I'm pretty happy with my progress today - the big question is whether I can get to the point where I'm not wasting part of my three-hour window on maintenance - that is, can I do a full three-hour day or not?

While I was digging through the cobblestones, I was noticing just how good the soil is here - it's a lot like the soil at the farm in Claremore. Just drier. The dirty rocks reminded me of a time when I was probably five or six years old and I went digging potatoes with my great grandfather, Grampa Gene.

It's a really fond memory - I remember the smell of the freshly turned earth, and I remember the feeling of triumph when I found a potato, or better yet a clump of them. I remember cutting one potato with my shovel, and Grampa Gene telling me not to worry about it.

But what brought the memory back was the brief feeling of triumph I remember when I got a stone, which looked exactly like a potato until I picked it up and realized it was just a stone. The cobblestones I found today were just that sort of stone. It brought a smile to my face as I dug through the cobblestones, which didn't hurt, because they were slow going.

Actually, I might have been older than that - I was thinking that he died when I was seven, but I think I was twelve. So maybe I was nine or ten when that happened. His passing was a very weird thing for me - I made a big fuss when they told me he was gone, because I thought I was supposed to, but it was a complete sham. Actually I had no idea at all how to feel. I was sorry he was gone, and I miss him still, but the fact of his going was no surprise to me, and it didn't upset me. I don't really know why I kicked up such a fuss about it - I think I felt guilty for not being upset.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Today I drove back out to Bowie (we had to go back to Tucson for my dentist appointment) and did another day of digging. There was a massive backup on I-10, and since I hadn't left any wiggle room (we've been keeping way too late hours), I didn't get to DM until nearly 1:00. Fortunately, the Kubota was right where I left it, so I didn't have to do much to get started - just a quick fluids check, a quick check for visible problems, and then get on it and drive it back up to the trench, which is extra fun because I have to back it most of the way up the hill so that I have the right tool pointing toward the trench.

Today I dug another thirty feet, which wasn't too bad for two hours, but was a bit disappointing. I think the three things I'm doing wrong that are really costing me a lot of time are: trying to keep the bottom of the trench free of rocks; digging about a foot deeper than I need to; trying to make too much progress per hop.

By per hop, I mean that when you're digging a trench, you back the backhoe up so that it just reaches the bottom of the place where you last dug; you then dig a new trench from there to the closest you can get to the tractor; then you move the tractor again and repeat the process. It's possible to dig a perfectly square trench right up to the back of the tractor, but it takes almost as long to square off the end of the trench as it does to dig up to that point. So it's better to make the hops a little shorter, and clean up the excess at the beginning of the next dig. Who knew digging a trench could be such an intellectual feast?

I've been eating a lot of pineapple since the surgery. It started when Andrea asked me what I wanted to eat and I couldn't think of a thing that sounded like it wouldn't just make me feel worse. And then I thought, maybe something with a high water content. So I asked for watermelon and pineapple. The watermelon was a bust, but the pineapple is really great - I've been eating it nearly every day since. What a fantastic food it is. I don't mean the canned stuff, which is pleasant. I mean fresh-cut pineapple. Yum. Highly recommended. I eat it with yogurt, which is ayurvedically questionable, because yogurt is a milk product and milk doesn't interact well with pineapple, but it seems to work, so I think the fact that yogurt has been cultured must make a difference.

Thought for the day: is it different for me to be happy that you are in my world, than for me to be happy that I am in yours?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

People often say that religion is unscientific. But one of the primary thrusts of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judiasm and Hinduism is that helping others is the road to happiness. A recent study confirms this. For a quick laugh (or a sobering reality check), read the last paragraph in the article.

This doesn't prove any of the other stuff, like Jesus rising from the dead or reincarnation, but it's something to think about. The religions I know about give you a basis for acting against common sense; common sense being that I should take care of myself in preference to others. One way to look at this study is as a confirmation of that; another is to just use it as another mechanism for getting yourself to act against your common sense (if you didn't already get that generosity was good).

Friday, March 21, 2008

Digging the trench, Part 1

I started the backhoe work today. I only have a three hour window to do it in, so my day went something like this: get up at 7:30 AM for a conference call with a protocol development team. Read mail, hack, drink coffee. Go get backhoe. Dig trench for two and a half hours.

Get suspicious about how recently the Kubota was lubed, and drive it down to the temple where the tools and grease gun are. Realize the grease in the grease gun isn't the kind the service manual calls for. Go looking for Bert. Find him at the top of the highest mountain at Diamond Mountain, where they are building a retreat house for the Lamas. Wave to the Lama dome building team. Chat with Bert about what kind of lubricant to use.

Go back down the hill. Discover that the grease gun is empty. Learn how to load the grease gun without any guidance, because I don't want to have to climb back up the mountain (forgot to ask Keith about that when he showed me how to use the grease gun).

After much tweaking, finally get the grease gun working (no idea what I did, probably will have to re-learn next time). Lube all the lube-able joints on the Kubota (there are quite a few of them). Test to see if the squeaking has gone away. It hasn't. Take off the cover on the boom control unit and lube all the bearings inside. Close cover. Re-test. Squeak gone. Success!

So the results for the day are that I dug about 30 feet of trench. The first fifteen feet took most of the time, because I was still learning to operate the boom; by now I'm pretty smooth with it, so I figure I can do at least 50 feet a day. The trench is 500 feet long, so that's ten days at three hours a day. Probably less, I hope.

David thought I ought to hire it done, but it would be quite expensive; this is a lot cheaper, and it's a chance to get good with the Kubota so that when I dig the foundation I won't make any expensive mistakes. Plus, it's really fun. Kind of like Wii golf, only I'm actually accomplishing something as I do it.

So this is the first really constructive thing I've done on the house, and it's going pretty well so far. Of course, digging ditches is a lot less complicated than putting in foundations and plumbing, so I guess we'll see how it goes when I get to that part.

Andrea's been really nice about letting me do all the digging - she lopped underbrush to clear space for the Kubota to dig, and helped me to figure out how deep to dig, and got fuel. At some point she may want to do some digging, I don't know. I guess I will have to relinquish the toy and let her have some fun.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Maybe it's time for an update, I don't know.   In the latest news, I went in to see Dr. Butler today, and he told me my arm is doing well, and he doesn't need to see me anymore unless I have some specific complaint (this was my last followup).   He says the bone is about 90% healed at this point.   I'm still not feeling confident enough to do yoga, but soon.   Soon.

The OLPC arrived today.   It is ludicrously cute.   It's obviously an MIT hack, too - only MIT geeks would put a cokebottle key on the keyboard and make C-M-Cokebottle bring you to the console.   (They call the cokebottle key the Neighborhood key; I identify it as the cokebottle key because the icon on the key looks like the bottom of an old-fashioned coke bottle).

My initial impression of the OLPC is that it's a really nice piece of engineering.   A lot of hard work went into this thing.   People complain about the keyboard, and it's true that you're not going to be able to touch type on it if you don't have very delicate hands, but I can type pretty quickly and accurately on it - it's by no means unusable. 

The GUI isn't very quick; one could excuse this on the basis that there's a lot going on and not much CPU to do it, but in fact I think the main problem is that a lot of the basic software in the machine was written on fast machines, and the authors simply didn't realize that they were writing slow code.   I suspect that if someone has time to go in and really trim out the fat, this machine could perform quite nicely - it's certainly quite a bit faster than anything I had up until about five years ago.

The Sugar GUI itself is very useable, and took me about an hour to really get - the people who are complaining that it's obscure are probably not expecting to have to learn a new GUI at all, which is fine for them, but this is a machine for kids.   The new GUI will not be a barrier for kids.   The GUI could use a little flow analysis - it doesn't take enough advantage of edges, and sometimes the guide tags get in the way of navigation, but these problems are definitely fixable.   I wonder if the trackpad can be tweaked to do two-finger scrolling.   I'm eager to get in and play with the hardware a bit.

We're out in Bowie today.   We've been trying to get started on some pre-house projects, but I got a bit sidetracked in Tucson because some friends were visiting, and I wanted to hang out with them - we usually only see them when things are really busy out here.   So today I cleared a path for the Kubota (you don't want to just drive it over cacti, because the tires are expensive and not puncture-proof), so that tomorrow I can start digging the trench for our water line.   The seriously handy folks here think that the Kubota isn't powerful enough to do anything efficiently in the rocky soil here; I'm hoping to prove them wrong, although I'm by no means certain I'll succeed.   It's a long trench.

Andrea bought a new game for the Wii yesterday: Tiger Woods Golf 2008.   Weirdly, this scratches the same itch that the Matrix Online used to, although without the stupid pizza delivery missions that you have to run to get to higher levels (I wasted a lot of time on MxO because of the leveling problem).   Basically, it's relatively mindless compared to programming, but requires a certain amount of thought and concentration to do well in.   There are lots of different golf courses, and the problems at each one vary depending on the wind.   So like MxO, the scenery changes a lot, you have something to do, and it's a nice break.

I wonder if there's an advanced Wii tennis game...

Weirdly, golf and tennis are not sports I'd be likely to play in real life.   I now see the attraction of golf, but still have trouble reconciling the tremendous waste of water and destruction of habitat and (particularly in Asia) wetlands.   Tennis is fun, but kind of hard on the joints.   Although I am tempted to pick up a racquet again now that I've been playing Wii tennis a bit - what's really stopped me from actually doing it so far is simply my fear of stumbling and having to catch myself with my recently-broken wrist.   Plus of course the fact that the sun in Arizona is completely merciless.

It seems that my policy of trying to avoid the news was effective this week - Perry chatted me up and was surprised to hear that I didn't know Bear Stearns had collapsed.   Sigh.   The Tibetan situation has been somewhat unescapable, for bizarre karmic reasons I can't entirely explain.   These are both news stories that I feel completely powerless to affect.   It feels wrong to just say that I needn't have heard of them at all, and yet what good did hearing about them do me or the people who are actually suffering?   All I can do is hope that the current Chinese government is more forgiving than previous governments have been.