Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Adding a little spark

We have two cars: a 2007 Toyota Matrix with about 80,000 miles, and a 1998 Toyota Corolla with about 140,000 miles. In some ways, the latter reminds me of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree.  It had a salvage title when we bought it in the late autumn of 2005, which meant that it was in a wreck but had been fixed up before being sold again. It was a big mistake though, because in the next few years we had more than our fair share of headaches due to a very poor reconstruction job. Thanks to a great deal of help from my dad, though, we have been driving it ever since and hope to keep it until something really bad finally goes wrong and it's just not cost-effective to keep it around.  I change the oil myself ever three-to-five thousand miles, and we don't really abuse our cars with any crazy driving habits either, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that the Little Corolla That Could will go to 200,000 miles or even beyond.  Last night, though, I finally checked something on the car that probably should have been looked at sooner: the spark plugs.

These suckers should have been changed about 20,000 miles ago
These little thingeys are responsible for igniting the gasoline during after the compression phase of a four-stroke engine, and if they are worn out they can cause a misfire or make it harder for an engine to start.  Ideally the gap between the electrode and the contact on these spark plugs should be about 0.04 inches, which you can test using a gap tester (the millenium falcon-like disc in the above photo) like so:
Most spark plugs have one elctrode. These have two...for twice the craziness!

On these worn-out spark plugs, the gap ranged from 0.05 to 0.06 inches, which might not sound like a whole lot but over time it can result in poorer engine performance, lower mileage, and increased emissions.
Gap tester or movie prop? You decide!
Testing these things is pretty simple: just stick the gap tester between the elctrode and the contact, and turn until it won't move anymore.  I should also note that getting the spark plugs out of the engine is super easy, provided you have a spark plug socket.  I have a Craftsman tool kit that includes such a socket, but I don't know if this is standard for these tool kits anymore. If not, you'll have to buy one separately :( Basically it's just a longer 5/8" socket with a rubber insert to help pull the spark plug out of the engine once it's loosened.

Anyway, once the spark plugs were all out I popped in my new set of  NGK's I bought for about $30, or around $7.50 each. There are less expensive options, but in the dead of winter when I'm trying to get my engine to turn over I'd rather have the peace of mind that comes from knowing I didn't cheap out on spark plugs.

Just to clarify: this is the box the spark plugs came in. Not the actual spark plug.

All in all the operation took less than 20 minutes, which isn't too bad considering it saved a lot of future headaches down the road. Get it...down the road? Bwa ha ha!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cleaning it out

Note: Sorry for the lack of updates recently. I could give excuses about how I was out of town for 10 days, and then out of town for a weekend, and how the semester has been busy, and stuff like that. But instead I'll just blame my lack of updates on my continuing quest to beat Super Metroid.

It hasn't rained a lot in our state recently, and by that I mean that the half-inch of precipitation we got on two separate days last week was the first time it has rained in months.  But when the clouds gathered and the showers came, it was almost like Christmas morning. I stood in the living room and just watched the brown grass in our back yard soak up the water, and could almost feel our big ol' Chinese Pistache tree drinking it all in.  Then I noticed that on one side of the window a small waterfall had formed, and realized it had been entirely too long since I had cleaned the gutters.  So last night I busted out a couple of my trusty tools in the garage and set about making things right, so the impending precipation that is forecast for the weekend might drain properly and away from the house foundation.

When we first moved in I must admit I had no idea how to clean the gutters. This sounds kind of dumb, but it's one of those homeowner things I never really thought about because it just didn't affect me.  I guess when I was a kid my dad must have cleaned the gutters from time to time, but I can't remember helping him.  And when we lived in an apartment up in Minnesota I didn't really have a reason to clean the gutters because the maintenance dudes took care of that sort of thing. So three years ago when faced with this situation I grabbed a ladder, some gloves, and spent an hour crawling around the roof just scooping dead leaves and muck out with my hands. It was crude, but it worked.

Then I found this thing while browsing at Sears:

The Shop-Vac gutter cleaner!
I don't know if I have mentioned it on this blog before, but a shop-vac is one of the most useful objects a person can have in his or her garage.  It's hard to explain exactly why, but there are all kinds of situations in which the best solution is "just get out the shop vac." I once used mine to find a screw that fell out when I was replacing a part on my barbecue grill--by vacuuming about a square yard of the lawn and sifting through the debris on the driveway.  And it turns out shop vacs are ideal for cleaning gutters, provided you have an attachment like the one above.  But if you do, don't use it like the guy in the picture, who is using it with his shop vac on reverse to blow flotsam and jetsam out of his gutters.  I like to use mine to actually suck up all the muck and gunk, because blowing it out means a good portion will end up on the roof and then right back into the gutters during the next rain.

"But wait a sec," you might be saying. "Won't this ruin the filter of my shop vac?"  No, not really.  Not if you have a handy-dandy air compressor! Just take off the filter and blow it out real nice and good for a minute or two. It won't be as good as new, but it will get rid of much of the dust, grit, and particulate matter that accumulates after heavy use.

This gutter cleaning method isn't as fast as hopping up on the roof and scooping everything out manually, but when paired with an iPod and a fresh supply of TWiT podcasts, the chore can be done in an hour or so, and you might learn a few things along the way :)

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Saving my Wrists

Since I work in an office at a computer, my hands are constantly making small movements for typing and using the mouse. From what I understand, this type of repetitive motion over time can cause Repetitive Stress Injury, increase the likelihood of developing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, make your fingers fall off, exacerbate global warming, and all manner of mass hysteria.  So in an effort to make sure I don't kick the bucket in five years because of workplace hazards, I have tried to engage in some habits at work to keep the ol' ticker going a little longer:

• I ride my bike to work.  It's only 2.5 miles, but it's better than nothing.  Usually I bike in the morning, then bike home for lunch, and drive back in the afternoon.  With a summer of temps above 100 degrees, things get a little too warm to be biking to and from an office in the afternoon.

• I drink lots of water. For years now, I have made a conscious effort to consume one 32-ounce bottle of water before lunch and another one after.  I still drink a can of pop each day though :)

• I use a GeekDesk that allows me to stand all day.  Sitting, as it turns out, is way bad for people so for the past year and a half I have basically stood up at work. Sometimes I lower my desk if I'm having one of those days were standing is just a little too tiresome, but that's generally about a half hour or less.  I could write a whole post on how great it is to stand up in the office all day, but I don't want to get too sidetracked here.  Suffice it to say, it's pretty kewl.

• About a week and a half ago I started using a RollerMouse Pro2, which brings me to the subject of this blog post.
The RollerMouse Pro2. Like I told the guy in their service department, "it looks kind of weird."

Here it is with a keyboard attached.  Whee!
For a while now I've had some minor aches and whatnot while at work, presumably from all the typing and moving the mouse. Back in spring we had an afternoon seminar on workplace health and how to improve our daily habits to stave off atrophy, and one of the things that was mentioned by the facilitator was to get a mouse like this one to reduce the stress of constantly reaching back and forth for the mouse.  She could have been speaking directly to me, because this is exactly what has been hurting my hand for some time now.  I talked things over with my supervisors and they agreed to get me this pointing device on a trial basis to see how it works out.  So here's my thoughts so far...

• It didn't take nearly as long to get used to as I thought it would. Instead of a trackpad, you roll a little bar up and down and back and forth, which seems kind of goofy until you try it. Then something in your brain clicks and it just kind of makes sense.

• It is very comfortable.  Much moreso than moving my hand over to the mouse and back all day long.

• There are seven buttons, which makes it super easy to do just about anything. I'm not kidding either, and they aren't paying me to say this.  There is even a dedicated "Copy" button and "Paste" button. Why don't normal mice have this feature? (On my Logitech Laser Mouse I had to manually map "ctrl-c" and ctrl-v" to two separate buttons)

• I was a little concerned that the bar would not be able to accommodate a dual-screen setup like I have at my work, but it actually does quite nicely.  Let's say your pointer is on the right side of the right screen and you move the bar to bring the pointer over to the Start menu on the left side of the left monitor.  Pretty soon the bar hits the physical edge of its enclosure, and the pointer hasn't made it across the entire screen area yet.  Not cool!  Thankfully, the makers of this little device thought of a solution. Just keep forcing the bar to the left, and it will "click."  VoilĂ ! The pointer instantly snaps to the left side of the screen.  It took me a day to figure this out, and it's a really nice feature that has already saved me many headaches.

• My hands don't hurt as much. In fact, my right hand is just fine and since migrating to this new mouse it has had none of the usual aches that it used to.  Granted, it's only been a week or so but it's an improvement.

So there you have it.  So far so good, but we'll see how this thing holds up in the long run.  Right now I am optimistic though, and my hands and wrists are already thanking me :)