Better Living Through Cumulative Engineering

Got these excruciating posts on Deep Topics(tm) that I’m bogging on because  I have a cold and the concomitant even-more-than-usual muddled head. (all together now: “poor baby!”). So: lighter observations:

Lee Iacocca tells the story in his autobiography(1) of his first day at work for Ford.  After getting an engineering degree and a MBA from Harvard, he’s assigned to work on improving the design of a spring. He spent his first day studying a spring used someplace in some Ford vehicle or other, then marched off to request transfer into sales.

What’s striking me today about this story: it is very probable many men spent many hours working on that spring over the years. There were no doubt a set of specs for that spring, such as how big it could be, how long it had to last, how strong and resilient in needed to be to do its job. That was probably a pretty darn good spring. Ford then assigns a highly intelligent, highly trained young man to look at it again.

A generic toilet seat, for illustrative purposes only. Not exactly the model I used.  Like you care.

This story was brought to mind because I, rising from my sickbed (that’s your cue to cry me a river), replaced a toilet seat Tuesday in the front downstairs bathroom. The crummy plastic one that came with the toilets 15 years ago broke a hinge, so I got a slightly less crummy one with metal hinges and a sturdier-looking lid and seat to replace it.

What’s of note here, apart from my manly competence (I even had to use a screwdriver!) is that a crummy plastic toilet seat lasted 15 years in the most-used bathroom in a house of 6-7 people. Not bad, really. Further, the replacement seat used some pretty fancy engineering for the attachment to the bowl. I was impressed.

The spec for toilet seat fasteners includes some fairly stringent requirements, due to the, shall we say, environment in which they are to be deployed. First, they can’t rust. The top of a toilet bowl tends to be a damp, corrosive place. Second, since the bowl is porcelain, the fasteners must hold tight but not too tight, or they will crack the bowl. Third, they must be cheap. Nobody is going NASA-level on toilet seat fasteners.

The traditional approach, at least in my very small experience, is to use brass screws (don’t corrode like steel) and rubber or plastic gaskets and nuts, which will not permit overtightening. The nuts will break first. The nuts are winged, so that, when tightened from above, the wings will contact the underside of the bowl enough not to turn – handy.

And it works – OK. The cheap, 15 year old seat fasteners require regular tightening. This need was evidently anticipated by the engineers, who put slotted bolt heads under little plastic flaps at the back of the seat, so that they can be easily retightened using a screwdriver or a dime (my preferred method, although I’m compelled to wash the dime before putting it back in my pocket).

This new seat, which I’m guessing is heavy duty hardboard with a thick plastic coating, came with something else: stainless steel threaded rods, a force-fitted plastic collar for the top and a long plastic ‘nut’ with an hexagonal cross-section for the bottom. The rods screwed into the hinges and the collars made sure the rods didn’t make contact with the bowl. I’m thinking the engineers thought this separation would reduce the risk of both cracking the bowl and corroding the rod.

The nuts, which are a bit like short straws only threaded in the middle, could only be tightened from below. Too early to tell if this was part of the plan assuming the engineers had solved the loosening over time issues, or just valuing aesthetics over ease. The engineering coolness: the nuts have an hexagonal nub on the end that, according to the instructions, is supposed to break off once you’ve gotten the nuts to the proper tightness, solving the overtightening issue. (A determined monkey could grab the remainder of the nut and keep turning, but that would be stupid.)

This tech might be 100 years old, for all I know. That’s not the point. Somebody still had to notice it, and apply it to something as utterly mundane and as lacking in glamour as toilet seats.

The point of all this: we live in a time and place where real engineers spend real time on issues as utterly trivial as springs in cars and fasteners on toilet seats, and have done so now for generations. There are hardly any aspects of our physical lives that have not been touched and improved by some unknown engineers somewhere improving this or that gadget or tool. Our cars are safer, last longer and are easier and more fun to drive. Our utilities just work. The lines painted on our roads last longer and reflect the light. We guys can get a good shave without committing facial seppuku even when half-asleep. And so on.  All these little changes have made life easier and more pleasant, overall.

While we are perhaps more aware of stupid innovations that fail to make life easier (*cough* Microsoft *cough*), it would be good to also notice all the little improvements that are so easy to miss because they Just Work. Science gets all the attention, and it is indispensable. But without all the endless mundane engineering, science would just be pie in the sky dreaming.

So, cool, and thanks to the unknown army of engineers. The toilet seat failure reminds me, however, that I now have to face replacing pretty much all the appliances we bought 15 years ago, as they march right past their use by dates and start falling apart. Guessing 10 years was probably the engineering target. There’s a dark side to almost everything.

(Would also mention that this cumulative engineering is the sort of thing a free market does well and a managed market very poorly or not at all, but this is a happy occasion! Let’s not bicker about ‘o killed ‘o!)

  1. Yes, I’ve read Iacocca’s autobiography. Hey, I was young and foolish and stuck some place that had a copy of it on the shelf. I probably am not remembering it right. So sue me.

Home Improvement Oops

I learned to measure things at my dad’s sheet metal shop. Two things about working with sheet metal and my dad: metal doesn’t change dimensions much with humidity; and a 10th of an inch is close enough but hardly fussy.

Ever since I started working with wood, I’ve had problems: wood, at least along 2 out of 3 axes, does change dimensions with humidity, and a 10th of an inch is way less than the amount the width and thickness of wood change as it dries and absorbs moisture. I keep telling myself not to cut things so tight, and I keep cutting it too close anyway.

Current case in point: this oak door I made for the brick oven:


Weeeell, I was shooting for about 3/8″ of clearance on the sides, which I more or less achieved – during the heat and dry of summer. Should have shot for 1/2″ at least. One problem is that the old, recycled bricks that form the arch into which the door fits are hardly consistent and smooth. They have uneven surfaces even apart from any inconsistency in my brick work. My 3/8th” theoretical clearance was not achieved in practice.

So: While it rained maybe a week before, had a few nice days over Thanksgiving and the almost 22 year old son was in town only a couple days before his birthday, and so was thinking about firing the oven up. The door, while maybe a bit snug this summer, at the time still fit without too much falderal.

When we last used the oven, we left the door in. On Friday, it had swollen to the point of complete immobility. I yanked. I pushed. I wiggled. Nothing – stuck so that any more force seemed likely to break it.

Found a little fan, ran it for a day straight – nothing. I’m considering seeing if I can whack it from the inside with a sledge stuck down the chimney (kind of doubt it). Seriously getting worried it may destroy the brickwork if it swells any more.

If I ever get it out of there, will trim the sides a bit – and store it somewhere dry for the winter.

Weekend Update: Brick Oven Blowout

On Saturday, the Caboose and I finished up a couple details on the brick oven: the Guadalupana shrine and the oven door.

The Caboose putting on a 2″x2″ framing tile.


Next time I’m doing stucco, I’ll stucco around this, hide the tile set and cinder blocks.

David (that’s the Caboose) was inspired: he tracked down a couple small statues of Mary to flank the big tile, and spotted some Guadalupana votive candles at, of all places, Home Depot. So now the image has candles and little statues, and will eventually have some flowers and plants growing in front.

Don’t think I posted a picture of the little ledge with tiles on it:

Plan to tile around the edges, too – tentatively scheduled for May, 2020. Only slightly kidding.

Next, if you want to do bread in a brick oven (one that isn’t gigantic, at any rate) you need an oven door. Scrounged up some scrap oak, dragged out the trusty table saw, clamps and glue:


What doesn’t show: thin sheet of galvanized steel, 1″ layer of ceramic insulation batting, and another layer of steel bolted to the back of the door. That sucker is heavy! But worked like a charm. Only issue: around the top, the wood is already being charred – heat rising, and the seal not being perfect. All I can see to do is monitor the situation – can’t see an obvious solution at this point, and maybe getting charred is all that will happen?

Fired up the oven a little after noon. By a little after 3, we were cooking. First up: seared flap steak:

Two steaks, One was a little on the rare side, the other a nice medium rare. Tuck a few slices into half a ciabatta roll, add deli mustard – it was good. Later, reheated the meat in a cast iron skillet, and it was all medium to medium-well done. Still yummy.

Per Alton Brown, you liberally salt both sides, then let sit for an hour to warm to room temperature, spread some 1000F coals, and throw the steaks directly on them! Paleo, dude! 45 seconds to a side, knock off any coals that stick, then lay the steaks on top of each other on foil, wrap snuggly, let rest 15-20 minutes, slice thin against the grain – and super yummy.

Also made pastrami for the less bloodthirsty among us:


Next up: the ciabatta rolls. Shovel back the coals, sweep the ash to the back, and throw the raw dough right on the bricks:


Did you know that ciabatta can catch fire if it gets too close to those 1000F coals?


I was concerned, a little, about the blackened mess, but – these crispy, chewy rolls were soon gone! Yummy, and I learned a thing or two, mostly about the inflammability of bread dough.

Next up: pizza!

Goat cheese, tomatoes and basil on pesto. It got et.

Made 5 pizzas, one was a dud – you can’t use very runny sauce, tends to boil and dissolve the crust before the pizza is done – the others were quite good.

Also wanted to try baked potatoes, because it seemed weird:

Coat in oil, salt, and wrap in foil. Put the dutch oven on the coals to preheat, add potatoes, slide back up against the fire. Takes about 30 minutes to bake. Didn’t try one, reports are the texture came out very smooth.

Finally, spread the remaining coals over the oven floor, closed up the door, let sit for almost an hour while getting the ciabatta dough ready. Then remove all the hot coals and ash (got a cool lidded metal pail for just this thing) sweep, then mop with a dripping rag, check floor temp – should be around 550F – and throw the bread in right on the bricks.

The mopping not only reduces the amount of ash you going to get on your bread, but also raises the humidity in the oven which, paradoxically, makes for a crisper crust. 20-30 minutes later:

Delicious with a little of the sharp cheddar you can see at the bottom there. Crispy, light and chewy – good stuff! Could have been maybe a little browner. Next time!

To get proper use out of a non-commercial brick oven, one must dedicate half a day to prep, and all of a day to firing/cooking. So, invite a lot of friends over – we did, worked out well, weather was California perfect. Spent Saturday evening making the ‘biga’ – the sponge – for the ciabatta and mixing up some pizza dough.  Then cleaned up and set up and first firing. Guests started showing up around 2, cooking started around 3, and the last guests left after 8. Just hanging out on the patio and backyard, yacking and eating and drinkling.

A lot of fun. It will take me a week to recover.

Brick Oven Blowout: Gearing Up

The last 3.5 posts have been like, heavy, man – death of God, Luther, bad Science!, even quoting Camille Paglia! Therefore, to keep the silly/light quotient adequately high:

Sunday, we’re going to go for a total Brick Oven/Summer’s Over Blowout. Should have the oven door completed by then, which opens up a whole new world of stuff you can bake. Going to fire up the oven around noon or even earlier, heat it for a good 3-4 hours, then, around 3:00 p.m., we’ll start in on pizzas. I’ve been researching recipes that use a brick oven, and have found plenty – not surprising for a 2,500+ year old technology. The goal, such as it is, is just to try stuff, see what works, and, in the process, get to know the oven better.

Been surfing the interwebs in search of ideas. In addition to pizzas, we’ll be trying:

  • Breads – at least pizza-dough style and some light rye, maybe sourdough and ciabatta.
  • Baked potatoes
  • Carrots – saw a roasted honey-glazed recipe that looked pretty good
  • Steaks – skirt steak, if I can find any
Charcoal and ash from a 90 minute burn. Will be shooting for a minimum 4 hour burn. To do real Italian-style bread properly, would probably require a minimum 6 hour burn – need to very thoroughly heat all that brick, mortar and concrete so it will hold the temp long enough to bake the bread. But that’s what this whole experiment is about.

The key to many of the vegetable items is cast iron cookware, of which we have some. You preheat the cast iron pans/pots in the oven, then add stuff, then let it bake/fry.

Saw Alton Brown do skirt steaks by simply throwing them – very briefly – directly onto 1000F charcoal. Sounds like fun.

We’ve invited maybe 15-20 people over. I’ve got 10lbs of brisket normalizing (soaking in plain water to pull some of the salt back out and even things up) after 6 days of brining, to make fresh pastrami. So we’ll need some brick oven bread suitable for sandwiches. There will be homemade sauerkraut and olives (from homegrown olives) as well as a few fresh off the vine tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers (late in the season, didn’t have very good volume this year). Hatch green chile is in the local Safeway, roasted a few pounds, so there will be authentic New Mexico style green chile sauce. What does one put authentic New Mexico style green chile sauce on? Just about anything!

Hatch Green Chile
Hatch Green Chile, grown in and around Hatch, New Mexico, is only available fresh for a few weeks in the fall. In Santa Fe, a couple hour’s drive north of Hatch, people buy it in 40 lbs boxes at the local grocery stores. Guys will set up roasters – 50-gallon drums where much of the sides have been replaced by expanded metal, on a rotating spindle over a fire – in the parking lot. Throw them a few bucks, and they’ll dump your box of chile into the barrel, spin it over the flames for a few minutes, then dump it back into your box (lined with plastic – doesn’t seem to melt it). You take it home, wipe the charred skin off with a cloth, throw the chile into baggies, and toss the baggies into the freezer. You’re now set for all your green chile needs until next year – if you go easy on it, that is. 

In addition to making the door, I might make a little expanded metal grill-on-legs that one can put into the oven to suspend foods over the coals (some people seem to like that, others throw everything right on the hot bricks or coals) Also got a metal pizza peel with too short a handle for reaching breads toward the back – got a long wooden handle, which I’ll need to swap out.

Got some shopping to do. Should be fun.

On an entirely different and more serious note: my wife heard an interview on NPR (the CD player in the car was giving her trouble, turned on the radio and that’s what was on) wherein a reporter who wrote a book on the Trump campaign opined that denying the results of a Pew study, which Trump is said to have done, was the same as denying gravity – anti-Science! Oh no! Couldn’t find a transcript, just the audio of the interview – and haven’t the time nor stomach to listen through to get the exact quotation. Will try later, time permitting. Suffice it to say that anyone who thinks polling data demands anything like the agreement an honest man gives to the theory of gravity and all its beautiful and useful math is a helpless babe in the woods, to be lead wherever her betters choose to lead her.

And then she presumes to lead us. With a sneer. O dolour!

But the party will be fun!

The Pizza Has Landed!

Finally. It’s really only been 15 months since I started this project, it just seems like forever. Anyway, not *done* done – still need a door and a roof and to install the Mexican tiles, but: we made pizza tonight in our very own brick oven!

The Caboose with the first pizza from the oven!

When we last left our intrepid yet reckless home improvement maniac, we had just put the first coat of stucco on over the ceramic insulation batting and chicken wire. The next day, the Caboose and I got up early and threw that second coat on before heading off to Sunday Mass:

Then, this morning, we put on the finish coat:

Since we were done well before noon, figured a new pizza oven needed an epic pizza peel, so I gathered scraps and drug out the table saw and clamps:

Around 6:00, we started the fire:


The dough was on its second rising:


Let the coals burn on the area where we’d be putting the pizzas for about 20 minutes, then shoved them to the back, swept the ash to the back as well (more or less) then started in with the pizzas:

That’s mine – made the crust far too thin, got wadded up getting it off the peel. Tasted good, though.

We ended up making 4 medium-small pizzas, which proved plenty for five people. Things I learned:

  1. Should have let the coals burn longer on the spot we’d be cooking. As it was, by the 4th pizza cook time had more than doubled. Maybe need to heat with coals for 30 – 45 minutes? Maybe allow 1.5 to two hours of total heat time?
  2. No super-thin crusts unless you’re going small.
  3. Got to make a door. Helps keep the smoke out of your eyes.

Way fun.


Reading/Writing/Home Improvement Saturday Update

Daughter of Danger: The Dark Avenger's Sidekick Book One (Moth & Cobweb 4) by [Wright, John C.]

A. Reading Daughter of Danger out loud to the Caboose. He is a big fan of the Swan Knight’s Son series, which I’ve previously read out loud to him. Highly recommend the whole Moth & Cobweb series by John C. Wright, especially if you have children, who need to hear stories of people being good and heroic in the face of implacable evil. Characters wrestle with their consciences, and their consciences win!

I’m halfway through Machiavelli’s History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy, which is free on Kindle at the moment.

Swan Knight's Son: The Green Knight's Squire Book One (Moth & Cobweb 1) by [Wright, John C.]

The first part was fascinating, covering the Fall of Rome, the murder of Stilicho, his family and the families of the Goth legions and the subsequent sack of Rome by Alaric. I’ve now recently read Belloc’s, Lafferty’s and now Machiavelli’s accounts of the same events – very nice to compare and contrast.

Then Machiavelli covers the 6th – 13th centuries, a period that is to me and I imagine many people a bit of a blur – the various Germanic conquerors staking claims to Lombardy and Naples, emperors and would-be emperors coming to the pope to be crowned or not, popes getting involved in worldly affairs, the Avignon Captivity, rise of the Guelphs and Ghibellines, then the White and Black Guelphs –  I hope by the end of all this to at least remember which was which (and perhaps spell the words correctly).

One striking thing is how often the popes come off as sympathetic, as being forced to take action, of acting as peacemakers, as sending legates to try to prevent violence. Sure, Machiavelli, who no one ever has accused of being a softy or wearing rose colored glasses, tells plenty of appalling tales of greedy, worldly and violent popes – which is what one would expect. But he’s also willing, in passing, to acknowledge the good or at least well-intentioned actions of popes. I did not expect this.

Finally, about 40% of the way in, we reach another period of Italian history where the names and some of the stories are familiar to me. Dante, Brunelleschi, and, of course, the Medici. All those family names and many of the characters from the Divine Comedy put in appearances. Cosmo di Medici comes off as a near-saint – but the bar is pretty low among Florentine politicians. Still, his generosity and failure to hold grudges are in sharp contrast to the other leading historical characters – even if he’s doing it as part of a strategy to keep his head down and his family in power. That’s Machiavelli’s take, at least in part. Haven’t gotten to the attempted murder of Lorenzo and successful murder of his brother yet (a Murder in the Cathedral!) and his extraordinarily adroit handling of the situation which left him and the Medici much more firmly entrenched than they already were.  I’m eager to get Machiavelli’s take, which I assume he would have gotten more or less first hand as a young man.

Otherwise, I get the same general sense from Machiavelli as I do from Tacitus and Thucydides – hubris, blood lust, petty egomania and the violence, political failures and brain-dead stupidity they engender are eternal – as is the desire for the well-governed city.

B. Collected my first rejection letter. I will therefore not be joining the ranks of authors who got their first submitted story published. Feedback was promised, which I eagerly await. Then, as soon as things calm down a little (they will, surely) I’m getting back in the submit stuff saddle! Right now, things truly are extraordinarily complicated, I’m not just being a sissy.

C. At the moment, it is 102F outside with a bullet, on its way to a forecast 113F. This not only harshes my mellow, it seriously hampers my ability to work on the Brick Oven of Doom. Even I, a maniac of epic proportions, won’t try to work in the sun when it’s over 100 outside – at least, not for long.

Nevertheless, got up early and, with an hour break for Mass, worked until 11:45 A.M., when it hit 98F – and got the first coat of stucco on!


Getting the insulation on and especially the chicken wire on and tight enough was a bit of a pain, but the stucco itself was about the first part of this project that actually went better than I’d anticipated. I’ve stuccoed a bunch of walls when I’ve gone house building in Mexico (church groups build small tight houses for the folks working at the machiadores just over the border) so I knew how to do it. It just went really, really smoothly, especially with the Caboose helping with the stucco supply – didn’t need to climb down and up to reload.

If things go perfectly – ha! – we might have pizza as early as Monday!!

More Home Improvement Updates: Bricks, Trees and the Heat of Hell

Will review Riverworld, the novella, when I get a minute. I picked it up from Half Priced Books the other day as it is listed on John C. Wright’s list of essential SciFi reading, but I suspect he probably meant to include some or all of the 5 novels set in Riverworld, not just this one story. In the meantime:

Took Thursday and Friday off after we returned from our epic eclipse trip, mostly to work on the Brick Oven of Doom! In the last episode, I’d gotten the more or less decorative clay brick arch done, complete with a hand-cut stone keystone, and was feeling pretty good.


Next step: install ceramic insulation, chicken wire and 2-3 coats of stucco. On a roll…..

Weeeell, seems I miscalculated, mismeasured, or maybe used inside instead of outside dimensions, or something – because I came up a couple feet short! AHHHH!


What you see is a nice 2″ thick layer of high temp ceramic fiber insulation coming up short. What to do, what to do? Had some perlite left over from an earlier stage, sooooo – mixed it with a little Portland cement (5 to 1 perlite to cement ratio) built a little form, and cast a 2″ thick, 6″ high wall of insulation around the base. Don’t think perlite has anything like the R-rating as the ceramic fiber insulation, but I’m not ordering more since it takes a week and money to get it.

Effectively lost a day. Then, yesterday, tried to continue – and temps hit 105F. Even I, a madman, am not working in the sun under those conditions. Today, more of the same. So my dream of finishing this frustrating project this weekend died. I only need 2-3 days more!

On the other hand, my little orchard I planted end of winter/early spring is doing great:

And a couple of our 4 avocados:


13 trees in total. 2 of the 4 avocados are doing great; the other 2, planted in winter, are showing signs of recovering after looking so sad I almost yanked them up.

Following close planting – 18″ between related trees in a single bed, maybe 7′ between beds – because I don’t want big trees, I want small trees, and close planting (and relentless pruning!) gets you there.

Sigh. Maybe next weekend will be cooler?