Building a Trash Garden

My wife wanted to build a raised-bed garden as cheaply and easily as possible. She bought a load of compost, but she didn’t want to buy railroad ties, hay bales, cut granite blocks, or whatever it is that people use for building fancy gardens. She didn’t want to show off; she just wanted to grow vegetables. She instructed me to bring whatever crap we had lying around, and she figured out a way to make a garden out of it. Here’s the process, step by step.

First, she got the compost. This is the only ingredient we actually bought. We had two kinds of compost already — the useless kind made of grass clippings and the disgusting kind made of kitchen scraps — but she wanted real compost. It came with seeds ready to sprout, which isn’t really how compost is supposed to come, but it was good enough.

Next, she invited a friend over. The friend helped ensure that the project would actually get done.

Wife and Friend measured out a big rectangle, laid out a bunch of wire fencing, and formed the fencing into a sort of pan with raised sides. The bottom of the pan is meant to keep groundhogs from burrowing up into the garden from below. I’m not really sure groundhogs do that, but she really hates having groundhogs in her garden, so I didn’t argue with her.

She had originally planned to lay chicken wire on the ground and make the sides of the garden out of nasty old barn wood. We didn’t have any chicken wire, and although we do have lots of nasty old barn wood, it’s kind of hard to build with. The fencing worked much better.

On the north side of the garden, I pounded fence posts in the ground. The posts will support the side of the garden, and we might put lattice or something on them for plants to climb up. Naturally, we had lots of fence posts lying around, to go with our fencing.

For the south side of the garden, I found the perfect set of pressure-treated stakes. On two occasions, we’ve acquired decks from other people’s houses, which we reassembled into a sort of playground. Among the leftovers, I had a pile of wooden balusters, which were basically big stakes with beveled ends. I pounded a few balusters into the ground on the south side, where they support the wire but don’t stick up too high.

For a little while, things got really trashy. My wife had a large quantity of cardboard that she had been weathering… er, saving for just such a project. She and her friend laid the cardboard on the bottom of the garden, then sprinkled some of our festering kitchen compost on top of it, followed by some ash. The ash came from the burnt spot in the middle of our yard where we occasionally burn branches and barn wood.
Finally, we moved many wheelbarrow loads of bought compost into the new garden, and we used children’s feet to smooth it out. Ta-da! The plants are gonna love it.

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Failed project: foam bender

I’d like to bend sheets of foam.  I’m working up to making radio-controlled airplanes, but I’ll write more about that later.

I’m pretty sure I saw a YouTube video about making a foam bender out of nichrome wire and glass beads, but now I can’t find the video.  I’d give you a link to it if I could.  Anyway, the idea is that you run a current through the wire until it gets hot, then you hold a sheet of foam against this contraption, warm up the foam, and bend it.  Here’s my version.

The base, which is two long, narrow pieces of plywood with bolts sticking out, is actually a jig that I made for drilling holes in paper, but that’s another story.  In the photo, it’s sitting on a table that’s also made of plywood. The part that’s supposed to do the bending is a piece of nichrome wire with glass beads on it.  I got the wire at a hobby shop and the beads at a craft store.  I used a car battery charger to provide the current for heating up the wire and beads.

To hold the wire, I made two little clamps.  For each clamp, I drilled a hole in a short piece of brass tubing, threaded the hole, and stuck a tiny machine screw in it.  I used a propane torch to solder the brass tube to the end of the bolt.  Then I threaded the nichrome wire through the tube and tightened the screw to hold it.

I’m kind of proud of my bender, but I couldn’t actually bend any foam with it. The best I could do was cut a groove in the foam. Hot wires are great for cutting foam, but they’re not so great for bending foam unless you can spread the heat out more. In that video I mentioned — the one I can’t find — I suspect that they were bending a different kind of foam, or else it was just a different design.

I decided to buy a heat gun for bending foam, even though that’s kind of boring. I think I’ll use my nichrome wire to make a cutter instead of a bender.

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LePage’s Strength

I guess Governor LePage has at least one strength. I found it in my barn.

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Norman Rockwell Meets Jerry Springer: New England-Style Democracy

Here in Kennebunk, like the rest of New England, we take our town meetings very seriously. In other parts of the country, when somebody talks about a “town hall meeting,” they mean a politician drops by to answer some questions. Here, a town meeting is an honest-to-goodness legislative body. The townsfolk — or at least those of us who have the stomach for it — pack into the high school gym and elect a moderator, hopefully somebody who has memorized the Maine Moderator’s Manual. We make motions, debate questions, and make legally binding decisions. We vote by raising our hands or by filing past a big, wooden ballot box. We start at seven PM and go until late at night. It’s government by those who don’t need babysitters.

Last night, we had a school district meeting to vote on the budget. The school district covers three towns, so it’s basically a town meeting times three. We used to vote on the school budget in the normal way, by stepping into a voting booth, but that just wasn’t enough democracy for us. Now we vote twice on the same budget, first at the district meeting and then, two weeks later, in a voting booth.

If you were to attend one of these meetings, you’d think it was an unpredictable mess. But if you go to several of them, you realize that they’re as predictable as a sitcom, because the same kooky stuff happens every time. What follows are the obligatory shenanigans for every town meeting and school budget meeting in Kennebunk and Maine Regional School Unit 21.

Before the meeting, a vocal minority — the same people every year — will write letters to the local papers urging everyone to vote against the budget.

At the meeting, one percent of the people will do ninety percent of the talking.

At the beginning of the meeting, before the moderator finishes his second sentence, somebody will make this motion: Once we’ve voted on a question, nobody can bring it back to the floor. The motion comes from somebody who’s afraid their allies will leave early and their opponents will bring an item back for another vote. Ironically, the person making the motion is always voting in the minority, so a revote could only help them.

On at least one question, and possibly all of them, somebody will move to have a written ballot (also known as a secret ballot) instead of a show of hands. This motion is hugely unpopular, because a written ballot takes about ten times as long as a show of hands. The motion comes from people who have deluded themselves into thinking that more people would vote their way if only they could vote secretly. The system is designed to make this motion easy to pass — on some items, ten percent of voters can force a written ballot.

At least one motion will be so confusing that the moderator will misunderstand the intent.

At least one motion will raise a complicated procedural question, and the moderator’s decision on the matter will invariably piss somebody off.

The moderator will make a mistake in the midst of confusing motions, and people will yell indignantly.

At least one speaker will introduce himself as a member of a town budget board, implying that he has some authority or at least knows what he’s talking about. Budget boards are advisory panels with no authority and no responsibility, a forum for people who like to complain about taxes but won’t be held responsible if the streets don’t get plowed or the kids don’t get educated. Announcing that one is on a budget board is roughly equivalent to putting on a tinfoil hat, in terms of the message it sends to the audience.

At least one person will talk about how long they’ve lived in the community or how many generations of their family have lived here. Translation: “I’m in the minority, but I feel like I should have more say than people who weren’t born here.”

The odds of an article getting passed are inversely proportional to the number of people who speak in favor of it. If almost everybody who gets up to speak is on the same side of an issue, it’s a safe bet that they’re a small minority. As Robert M. Pirsig wrote, “No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow.”

Somebody will speak passionately but will make such a confusing argument that I can’t tell which side of the issue they’re on.

At least once during the meeting, somebody will move to call the question, and the motion will pass easily. In other words, somebody will move to end debate on a question so we can just vote and get on with the meeting. It takes a 2/3 majority to call the question, but since one percent of the voters do ninety percent of the talking, that leaves ninety-nine percent of voters who just want to vote and go home.

When the question is called, somebody will complain loudly that they’re being silenced and that it’s undemocratic. Unfortunately for them, the desire of the many to go home trumps the desire of the few to keep talking.

The moderator will tell several people that they’re out of order, and at least one of them will yell back, “No, you’re out of order!”

On at least one budget item, and probably all of them, somebody will aribitrarily move to reduce the dollar amount by some percentage. Usually it’s either 10% or 100%, but last night somebody surprised us with 1%. At town meetings, the moderator always explains that it’s too late to change dollar amounts, and you can only vote yes or no. At school district meetings, changing dollar amounts is apparently fair game, since we’re going to vote again in two weeks anyway. Last night’s 1% motion failed by a wide margin.

Apparently, budgets, school boards, and boards of selectmen get worse every year, because somebody always says this one is the worst they’ve ever seen. Examples from last night: “I’ve been a voter in Arundel for over thirty years, and I’ve never been so disgusted with the process.” “This is one of the biggest travesties I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Somebody will say something rude, and people will clap and cheer.

If we’re discussing a school budget, more than one person will say they don’t understand how the district could possibly spend so much on administration.

By the time the meeting ends, at least half of the voters have already gone home.

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Welding the Sproingy Dryer

A few days ago, my wife told me she had killed the dryer. I recently killed her laptop, so now we’re even. She managed to resurrect her computer by opening it partway and blowing in it (it’s a long story). I managed to fix the dryer by similarly unorthodox means.

The dryer’s symptoms were cartoonish. With no warning, there was a loud bang followed by sproingy sounds. My wife shut it off immediately. Whenever the drum rotated, even if we just pushed it a little bit by hand, it sounded like somebody was dragging a Slinky over a sawblade.

It took me a long time to figure out how to disassemble the dryer. The key was when I found out that you have to push in two clips like this one:

Dryer Clip

To open the top of a dryer, use a flat piece of metal to push this clip and its friend.

This dryer — a stackable Kenmore 417.83142300, in case you’re curious — has a heating element that runs in a big circle around the back of the drum. Our heating element broke in two places and somehow got wrapped around the bearing that the drum turns on.

The coil used to go all the way around, but now it's taking a detour.

The tangled mess.

I noticed some burnt spots where the heating element had grounded and sparked as it flailed around. I suspect that the element first broke in one place, then grounded and got so hot that it melted in a second place, at which point the current stopped flowing. In other words, it acted as its own fuse.

The dying element tried to weld itself to the inside of the dryer.

The heating element broke and shorted on the left, then melted on the right.

If this were a do-it-yourself blog, at this point I would tell you to buy a new heating element and turn the old one into a percussion instrument. A heating element isn’t the kind of thing you can fix, or at least it’s not the sort of thing that any self-respecting appliance repair technician would fix. But this is the Do-It-Myself blog, and I didn’t want to spend a hundred bucks or wait for a new heating element to get shipped from who-knows where. I started thinking about how one might fix a heating element, which of course you, Dear Reader, shouldn’t try at home.

Soldering was out of the question, because solder would just melt as soon as I turned the dryer on. I wondered if I could rig a mechanical connection somehow. I looked online to see if anyone else was crazy enough to fix a heating element. I saw plenty of Web pages about replacing a heating element, but that’s just not the same thing at all. Then I saw an interesting page about fixing a toaster oven by welding the heating element back together. This guy basically just put some flux on the element, plugged it in, and let it weld itself. Brilliant!

Of course, plugging in a dryer element, which runs on 220 volts in the US, is more complicated than plugging in a toaster oven. Since I have actual welding equipment lying around, it would be easier to take a more conventional approach to welding my dryer. I thought about clamping an arc welder to the element, but I wasn’t sure I could pull that off. I decided to use an oxyacetylene torch.

Just like the guy on eHow, I looped two of the broken ends together and coated them with borax. I don’t normally use borax when I’m welding steel, but it seemed like it might be a good idea. Then I got out my torch and, um, blasted the looped ends into oblivion.

I tried using a regular oxyacetylene torch, but it blew the broken ends away.

Clearly, the torch was too big. This was a job for the Little Torch.

The Little Torch

Since I wasn’t using the toaster oven method, I decided it would make more sense to hold the broken ends parallel to each other, rather than looping them around each other. I tried welding them again, this time with the Little Torch, and voila! The first joint was done.

The first successful joint. The background is a ceramic square that I used to protect the sheet metal.

Before I could weld the second joint, I had to turn the misshapen heating element — i.e. the little sculpture I found inside my dryer — back into something resembling a helix. To do this, I wrapped it around a piece of electrical conduit and bent it a bit with my everpresent multitool.

My misshapen element.

Making a wiggly helix.

The wiggle is complete.

I was careful to make sure the coil wouldn’t touch itself or the pan behind it, because that would cause it to short. Shorting to itself probably wouldn’t matter, but shorting to the pan would cause a repeat of the whole fiasco.

The second joint was closer to the sheet metal than the first, and I was afraid I’d burn a hole through the sheet metal if I tried to weld it. I needed to separate the end of the heating element from the pan so I could move things around a bit. I saw little tabs on the connector, so I bent the tabs back and pulled the connector out through the back.

The connectors have little tabs that hold them in.

Pulling a connector out. Yeah, it's out of focus.

After separating the connector from the pan, I held it up so the broken bits were together. Now I was ready to weld again.

I'm holding the broken end up to the coil.

Here's a closeup of the broken end.

The second joint is done!


I put some new grease on the bearing and reassembled everything. I checked the fire extinguisher, since I wasn’t totally convinced that this would work.

This would look really cool if it was glowing.

Back in action!

The extinguisher is in the green.

I pulled out the damp, stinky towels and cloth diapers that had been festering in the washing machine for three days while my wife waited for me to fix the dryer. I turned the dryer on, and it didn’t make horrible sproingy sounds. Whew!

I warned my wife that since there had been bearing grease on the heating element, it might smell like smoke at first. My wife informed me that the damp, stinky towels and cloth diapers hadn’t been washed, and they were damp because they had urine in them. Sure enough, there was an odd smell in the laundry room, but it wasn’t smoke. I was heating the urine. It was heating! The dryer worked!

We washed the towels and put them in the dryer again, and soon they were gloriously dry.

The Towels of Victory

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Do It Myself (DIM)

I thought about creating a “do it yourself” (DIY) category. Then it occurred to me that the things I do myself aren’t actually things you should do yourself. Repeating my antics is likely to cause bodily harm, divorce, disfigurement, ostracism, freak accidents, fire, mechanical breakdown, uninsurability, bankruptcy, and death, all at the same time. Then your heirs might sue me and claim that I encouraged you.

What do I mean by freak accidents? I’m thinking of the time I almost electrocuted myself while holding a lit oxyacetylene torch inside our house. To my parents and my insurance company: I’m much wiser now.

Bankruptcy? How about the time I set out to replace my clutch and ended up lighting the car on fire, breaking the windshield, and spending as much money as it would have cost to hire a real mechanic who doesn’t light cars on fire or break windshields?

I hereby discourage you from actually trying any of this stuff. Hopefully you’ll think it’s entertaining to read about, though.

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The Kookiest Governor & the Conspiracy Party

Here in Maine, the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature just passed from Democratic control to Republican control. Paul LePage, who just got sworn in as governor, earned the support of the Tea Party by proving that he was the was the kookiest candidate on the ballot. And judging from the Maine Republican Party’s official platform, Maine is passing into an age of wingnuts.

Granted, there were kookier candidates in the governor’s race, but they dropped out or ran as write-ins. Take, for example, Democrat Peter Truman, formerly a Republican named Peter Throumoulos, who had already run in a previous election and ended up in jail. But of the seven Republicans, five Democrats, and three independents on the primary and general ballots, there’s no question that LePage was the kookiest.

I’ll write much more about the governor in the future, but for now, here are some excerpts from the state Republican platform:

  • We have let rot from within, the foundation upon which freedom and prosperity must be built…
  • Years of neglect have allowed factions detrimental to the core principles of this nation, to entrench themselves in both political parties, and undermine the education of Constitutional principles vital to the survival of the republic. [Wait a minute — does that mean the Republican Party is undermining the survival of the republic? Was this written by Tea Party activists?]
  • The Tea Party movement is reminiscent of the principled revolt that led to the birth of the Republican Party in 1854… This year it is incumbent upon those Republicans who strive to protect and defend our Constitution, to reclaim that heritage. [Oh, I guess it was.]
  • National sovereignty shall be preserved and retained as dominant over any attempted unconstitutional usurpations of such by international treaty. [How can a treaty be unconstitutional? And who’s usurping our sovereignty, anyway?]
  • Direct the State of Maine to join with other states in asserting our 10th amendment sovereignty rights which protect us from unconstitutional federal government intrusions. [In other words, sue to get rid of the health care law.]
  • Oppose any and all treaties with the UN or any other organization or country which surrenders US sovereignty. Specifically:
    1. Reject the UN Treaty on Rights of the Child.
    2. Reject “LOST” the Law Of The Sea Treaty.
    3. Reject any agreement which seeks to confiscate our firearms.

Whoa, sanity break! We’re getting into serious conspiracy territory here. Is the UN trying to confiscate our firearms, or is it some other “organization or country”? Is it the Illuminati? The Zionist Conspiracy? The Axis of Evil?

Okay, take a breath. Let’s read some more.

  • Restore the process of assimilation of immigrants to preserve the benefits of an advanced educated and prosperous society… Arrest and detain, for a specified period of time, anyone here illegally, and then deport, period. [Wouldn’t it be more efficient to send people to reeducation camps? That way, we could detain them and assimilate them at the same time.]
  • Pass a Congressional reform act which includes the following provisions… Congress participates in the same health care plan as the general public. No preferential plans or treatment.[Oh, cool! Does that mean everybody gets to be on the congressional health plan now? Oh wait, I guess it means members of Congress should have crappy insurance like everybody else.]
  • Restore “Constitutional law” as the basis for the Judiciary. [In other words, replace Constitutional law with “Constitutional law.”]
  • Reassert the principle that “Freedom of Religion” does not mean “freedom from religion”. [What part of “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” don’t they understand?]
  • Discard political correctness, make public the declaration of war (Jihad), made against the US on 23 Feb 1998, and fight the war against the United States by radical Islam to win. [Don’t get too carried away, or you might accidentally say “fight the war against the United States.”]
  • Defeat Cap and Trade, investigate collusion between government and industry in the global warming myth, and prosecute any illegal collusion. [Not only is global warming a myth, it’s a conspiracy! Let’s prosecute people for talking to each other about it!]
  • Clarify that healthcare is not a right. It is a service.

And let’s not forget the grandest conspiracy of all:

  • Repeal and prohibit any participation in efforts to create a one world government.

These aren’t all the crazy parts. I should have just copied the entire text.

The first time I read this, it made me wonder if the Democratic Party’s platform was as paranoid and nonsensical as this one. Alas, their platform isn’t nearly as entertaining. It’s six pages of specific positions on real issues, with no mention of world government or political correctness. They must be part of the conspiracy.

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To begin my blog, here’s a quiz about first lines. Each line below is from the beginning of a work of literature, if you’ll allow me to use the word “literature” loosely. I’ve tried to put these in order of difficulty, from no-brainer to impossible.

The answers are in the previous post, which is below, so be careful not to scroll down willy-nilly.

1) In the beginning God created the Heaven, and the Earth.

2) In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

3) The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

4) `Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…

5) You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter.

6) In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing.

7) Rosebud!

8) Call me Ishmael.

9) Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

10) Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…

11) Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York…

12) Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

13) Who is John Galt?

14) There are many copies. And they have a plan.

15) Hi there! I want to talk to you about ducts.

16) Squad 51, this is Rampart. Can you send us some EKG?

17) Marley was dead: to begin with.

18) Listen! We have heard of the glory in bygone days of the folk-kings of the spear-Danes, how those noble lords did lofty deeds.

19) All states, all powers, that have held and hold rule over men have been and are either republics or principalities.

20) 3 May. Bistritz.–Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late.

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Don’t look!

These are the answers to the quiz above. I won’t bother underlining or italicizing the titles.

1) The Pentateuch. Okay, you can say Genesis, Bible, Torah, or Old Testament, if you prefer.

2) The Koran (or Qur’an, if you insist)

3) Dragnet. There were different versions of this intro.

4) Jabberwocky (part of Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There)

5) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

6) Don Quixote

7) Citizen Kane

8) Moby Dick

9) Anna Karenina

10) The Raven

11) Richard III

12) Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (Chapter 2)

13) Atlas Shrugged

14) Battlestar Galactica (2000s TV show)

15) Brazil (1985 movie)

16) Emergency! (1970s TV show)

17) A Christmas Carol. Were you thinking of Vinyl Cafe?

18) Beowulf

19) The Prince

20) Dracula

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