How I survived a weekend in July in the midwest without air conditioning

The air conditioner went out this week. Based on the local shop’s estimate, we’re probably looking at $3400 to fix it, which is more than the cost of a newer, better unit.

On Friday they bubble-gummed it together to get us through the weekend. It only got us through Friday night.

Here’s how we survived, and actually stayed halfway comfortable.I actually survived worse earlier in life. My high school wasn’t air conditioned, and unless temperatures reached 100 degrees, they didn’t call off school for heat. So on a day when the high was 87 or 89, I would have had to tough it out.

In college, I lived in a building without air conditioning that my uncle once derisively called "that old barn." School started in August, and temperatures often were still in the 90s, or worse, while I was there. Window air conditioners were banned, because the building’s decrepit wiring couldn’t handle more than a couple of units running at once.

So here’s what I did this weekend to keep things cooler, based on what I learned then and what I’ve learned since about saving energy.

First, any time it was cooler outside than inside, we opened the house up as much as possible and blasted fans as hard as possible to get as much cooler air circulating as we could. Besides running the central air conditioner’s blower (just the blower), we ran ceiling fans and portable fans. I wish we’d had more fans, in retrospect.

But once it started warming up, we actually did something controversial. We closed the house back up again, but that’s not all we did. I took a bunch of white foam-core board left over from a long-ago project and put those in any windows facing the sun. The white surface would reflect heat-causing light back out of the house. Then I pulled the shades down and closed them, and drew the curtains. Any place I could see a sunbeam, I would block it using any means possible. When I ran out of foam, I’d use anything else white.

I think my neighbors already think I’m nuts. Now I’m sure a couple of the busybodies down the street are talking about having me committed. It’s funny how little you care what other people think when you’re trying to keep cool.

Besides, I don’t care what they think because it worked. Today the high was 87 degrees, and the hottest it got in the house during the day was 80. Yesterday, without taking these measures, it reached 82 in the house. Two degrees makes a bigger difference than it sounds.

To determine if it was cooler inside or outside, I religiously checked the local newspaper’s web site and weather.com. A good thermometer would be even better, but I didn’t have one of those. And besides, now I need an air conditioner, so I need to save money.

The temperature is on its way down now, as I write, but some parts of the house are still getting punished by sunlight. We’ve opened the windows on the portions of the house that are receiving shade, and we’ve moved the fans to draw air through those areas. As shade conquered sunlight, we opened more windows. It hasn’t cooled off enough outside to make the temperature in the house come down yet, but getting more air moving made the house feel cooler.

To get relief, during the hottest parts of the day we would get out. Yesterday we went to Costco to stock up on necessities (we lingered in the walk-in produce fridge a lot longer than we needed to). This morning we went to church of course, and then after that we went and ate lunch at the mall food court and walked around the mall for a couple of hours.

Besides that, we also tried to avoid doing things that would cause heat. I kept as many lights off as possible, since light bulbs generate heat (even compact florescents). Unfortunately we had to run a load of laundry through the dryer, but we did that early in the day before things started heating up. When we cooked, we used the microwave. I also turned off anything else I could, since all watts of electricity used have to turn into heat one way or another.

We survived. Actually we did better than survive. I’ll daresay that for most of the day, we were actually comfortable.

I’ll add one other thing, and this is something that came to mind because we’ve been shopping for windows. If you have double-hung windows, you can open them from both the top and the bottom to get a chimney effect. Warmer air escapes through the upper window, drawing cooler air in through the bottom. In the days before air conditioning, this was how people cooled their houses. They fell out of fashion for many years, but now they’re back in fashion because you can open them just from the top, and a child can’t fall out of a window if it’s opened that way.

Today, the chimney effect is just secondary, but it can save you energy in the months when you just barely need A/C. We’ll be getting double-hung windows for that reason.

And as for the air conditioner itself? What we had was a cheap low-end unit, something often used by contractors and people who plan on selling a house quickly. Since we plan on staying in the same house for a good many years, we’re buying a high-end replacement. It will cost a lot more, but doing the math, it should pay for itself in about 10 years. Or, given the way the local electric company has the state government wrapped around its finger, probably a lot sooner.

Plus, the high-end models come with better warranties, which suggests the manufacturers have more confidence in their longevity. Or, it could be that they just have higher profit margins so they can afford to back them with better warranties, but I’d rather pay for higher energy efficiency than for extended warranties.

Making a curtain rod on the cheap

The boss, er, fiancee, is redecorating. Among the casualties: the curtains that came with the house when I bought it. Along with them, the curtain rods are going, since the new curtains don’t fit on the old rods.

New curtain rods cost $25 or more. Here’s how I made one for her for around $10.First, I scored some 7/8-inch dowels at Hobby Lobby on sale for 50% off. I got four dowels. Three seem to do the trick but I didn’t want to go back. I also bought a single dowel the same measurement as my biggest drill bit. This is for making pegs to hold the dowels together. We also bought a couple of decorative wood turnings to put on the ends. We used the size of the opening on the turnings we liked to determine the size dowel to buy. The total damage was about $4.50.

Next we went to Lowe’s and bought a pair of hangers. Those were 6 bucks.

I measured the center of the large dowels and then punched a small hole. This is just to guide the drill bit. Then I found a small bit and drilled a pilot hole. Then I drilled a larger hole with my biggest drill bit. Then I inserted the small dowel and cut it off to make a peg.

I repeated for three dowels, since that was roughly the length I needed. Of course my measurements ended up drifting a bit. No problem, I just rotated the dowels until they lined up. Then I glued it all together, put it on my sawhorse, which has a grooved end, and set a couple of big pieces of oak plywood on the top to hold it straight and together. Then I set the heaviest thing I could find–in this case, my drill press–on top and let it sit.

After I repeat the process, I’ll have a 9-foot curtain rod. Just cut it to length, put the turnings on the end, stain the rod and the hangers (or you could paint them), put the hangers on the wall, and then put up the curtains. Cheap and easy, attractive and functional. Can’t beat that.

The tightrope of Web design

There are few challenges more daunting than designing a truly first-rate Web site.
And I’m not here to tell you how to design a first-rate Web site, because I’m not so arrogant as to assert that I’ve ever done it. I’ve tried it a dozen or so times. Some of the results have been good enough to be worthy of staying on the Web for a while. Some of them have been so bad that if someone were to hand me a printout today, I’d question what I could have possibly been thinking when I did it, and I might even question whether the design was mine. Yes, I’ve done my best to forget a lot of them.

And a lot of people are probably wondering why I’m making such a big deal out of this, since making a Web site is something that it seems like everybody does. I think everyone I went to college with had a Web site that had pictures of their cats, lists of all the CDs they owned (or wished they owned), their resumes, and links to all of their friends’ sites.

But that’s precisely the issue. Since everyone does it, it’s difficult to stand out.

There are actually three elements that make up a truly first-rate site, and the biggest problem with most near misses is that they only hit one or two of those elements. Other sites, like most personal home pages that populated the Web in the early ’90s, missed them all.

Content. A first-rate site has to have something to say. The biggest problem with those early personal home pages was that people had nothing to say. Finding clever ways to present boring and useless information wears off quickly. Ideally, a site should give some order to that content, so people can find what they’re looking for. A Weblog dedicated to the rebuilding of vintage BMW motorcycles could be extremely useful, but its usefulness will wear off very quickly if there isn’t a good way to find it.

Community. The best stuff comes from the questions people ask, or the answers people provide. Just ask any teacher. Anything that provides opportunity for banter between content provider and reader, or between readers, is a good thing. If there’s a way to organize and search that banter, so much the better. That hypothetical BMW motorcycle blog would be a lot more useful with people asking questions and sharing their own experience.

Design. This is last, and possibly least. Yet for many people it’s the most challenging. This is partly because some people aren’t naturally gifted in this area (I’m not), and partly because of the crude tools involved. There are probably other factors. We’ll concentrate on this area though, because it’s probably the only area that’s debatable.

Some people question whether design is even necessary. This is a sure sign that an awful lot of designers are doing their jobs. Design’s job is to set the mood, present the content in a facilitating manner, and get out of the way.

The challenge the Web presents is that power users are used to setting all the settings on their computer and it staying that way. They set the colors and the font and the window size the computer should use for everything, and some of them resent it when anyone imposes anything different on them. Some of them even seem to resent the use of p-tags to denote the end of a paragraph. They’ll decide when a paragraph ends and a new one begins, thank you very much. What’s the original author of the piece know, anyway?

On the other hand, you have users who are still trying to figure out what that blasted mouse is for. (This is in contrast to the people like me who’ve been using a computer for 20 years and are still trying to figure out what that blasted mouse is for.) They don’t know where those settings are and don’t care to set them themselves; they expect to be able to go to a Web page, and if it just looks like a raw data feed, they’ll go on to the next place because it looks nicer.

Those power users have a difficult time with this concept, but mankind has learned a few things in the thousands of years since the first time someone applied ink to parchment. Most of it was through trial and error, but most of that wisdom is timeless. Throwing that away is like deciding you don’t like the number zero. For example, in the case of Roman alphabets, a line length of between 50 and 80 characters reads much faster than any other length. If reading a page makes you feel tired, check the line length.

Knowing that, a browser window expanded to full screen is too short and too wide. Books and magazines and newspapers are vertically-oriented for a reason. So the primary navigation goes along the side, because there’s horizontal room to spare and vertical room is too precious to waste on something not content-oriented. Most computer users don’t want to think about this kind of stuff.

When it comes to font selection, things get a little bit easier. Fonts with serifs (feet and ears, like Times) look elegant and they’re easy to read because the serifs guide the eye. Sans-serif fonts (like Arial, which is a Helvetica ripoff) look really good when you blow them up big, but when you run them too small, the eye gets confused. The problem is that computer screens don’t have enough resolution to really do serifs justice. So the best thing to do in most situations is to run a sans-serif font with lots of line spacing. The extra space between the lines helps to guide the eye the same way serifs will. If you notice the typography, the designer has probably done a poor job. If you feel physically tired after reading the piece, the designer definitely has done a poor job.

Brightness and contrast are another issue. The rule is that for short stretches, you can read just about anything. That’s why you’ll see photos run full-page in magazines with the caption superimposed on top. But for reading anything more than a paragraph, you need a fair bit of contrast. Our society is used to black text on white. White or light grey text on black should theoretically work as well, but we’re used to light backgrounds, so we struggle sometimes with dark backgrounds.

But contrast done well can extend beyond convention. It’s possible to make an eye-catching and perfectly readable design with orange and blue, assuming you use the right shades of orange and blue and size elements appropriately. If you don’t feel physically tired after reading it, the designer did a good job, even if you don’t like blue and orange.

The problem with Web design is multifaceted. Not all browsers render pages the same way. This was a nightmare in the mid-90s, when Microsoft and Netscape sought to gain advantages over one another by extending the HTML standard and not always incorporating one another’s extensions. Netscape and Opera deciding to release browsers that follow the standards regardless of what that does to pages developed with Microsoft tools is a very good thing–it forced Microsoft to at least act like it cares about standards. So if a designer is willing to work hard enough, it’s possible to make a page that looks reasonably close in all the major browsers today.

HTML never helped matters any. HTML is a very crude tool, suitable for deliniating paragraphs from headings and providing links but nothing else. You can tell from looking at the original standard that no one with design background participated in its creation. Anything created in strict HTML 1.0 will look like a page from a scientific journal. To adjust line spacing or create multi-column layout, people had to resort to hacks–hacks that browsers will react to in different ways.

XHTML and CSS are what journalism students like me toiling in the early ’90s trying to figure out what to do with this new medium should have been praying for. It’s still not as versatile as PostScript, but it’s very nearly good enough as a design language.

The final design hurdle, though, has always been with us and will only get worse. You could always tell in the early ’90s what pages were created on campus with $10,000 workstations and which ones were created on computers the student owned. Lab-created pages used huge fonts and didn’t look right at any resolution below 1024×768. Meanwhile, I was designing for 14-inch monitors because that was what I had. That 14-inch monitor cost me 300 bucks, buddy, so I don’t want to hear any snickers!

Today, you can buy a decent 19-inch monitor for what I paid for that 14-incher. But as monitors have gotten larger, resolutions have only varied more. A lot of people run 17-inch or even 19-inch monitors at 640×480. Sometimes this is because they haven’t figured out how to change the resolution. Sometimes it’s because they like huge text. Flat-panel displays generally look gorgeous in their native resolution but terrible in any other, so it’s not fair to ask a flat-panel user to change. These displays became affordable within the past couple of years, so they are more common now than ever. A typical flat-panel runs at 1024×768 or 800×600. And on the other extreme, a 21-inch monitor capable of displaying 1600×1200 comfortably (or higher) can be had for $700.

So, since you can’t predict the resolution or window width people will be using, what do you do? CSS and XHTML provide a bit of an answer. It’ll let you create a content column that scales to the screen size. And if you’re really, really careful, you can specify your elements’ sizes in relative terms, rather than absolute pixel measurements. But this messes up if you have lots of graphics you want to position and line up correctly.

And some designs just stop working right when you mess with the font size. Mine don’t, primarily because I’m a disciple of Roger Black. I don’t have any really strong feelings about Black, it’s just that the first book I read by a designer that I really understood was co-written by Black. And most of Roger Black’s techniques work just fine when you crank up the font sizes. If anything, they look better when you make the fonts big enough that your neighbor can read them when you have your curtains open.

Drag racing!

My friend Sean is getting married. His fiancee, Brenna (it annoys her when you call her “Brenda,” but it’s funny, she reminds me of another cool person I know named Brenda) has already taken over.
I was over at Sean’s last night when he showed me. It was Sean, our buddies Jon and Wayne, and me, standing in Sean’s bedroom, doing our best to ignore the girly lavender curtains. I think the color’s called lavender. Whatever it is, it’s a girly shade of light purple.

Jon’s married, so Jon understands. I’m not married, or engaged, or even seeing anyone at the moment, so I haven’t had to cave yet on such things, but I know my day will come. Still, whenever I see it happen, a little piece of me feels bad.

So I suggested Sean needed something manly for his bedroom. Get a lawnmower engine, or a motorcycle engine, and start rebuilding it in there. Brenna shot me a dirty look. Sean liked the idea. So after we talked about it in the kitchen with the women around, we went back in and sketched it all out.

Sean actually has more than enough room in the corner for a big-block V8 on an engine mount. Jon and I started tossing ideas around. A big, rolling Craftsman toolbox where his dresser is now, a nail where he can hang his oily apron (he’ll wear an apron while working on the engine so that if Brenna comes over, he can just wipe his hands on the apron and go straight to the kitchen to make her something to eat), and…

“Right up there, over the bed, you can put a [turning to the other room and raising his voice] DRAG RACING poster,” Jon said.

Jon and Bethany are pregnant. Well, actually, Bethany’s pregnant. Jon, being Bethany’s husband, is just responsible. Whenever people ask what the theme of the baby room is going to be, Jon deadpans, “Drag racing.” Keep in mind they don’t know the baby’s gender yet. I can tell Jon’s rooting for a son, so he’ll have someone to play with again (most men never really grow up, you know).

Then we talked about interior decorating theory. Jon used to use a tire as a coffee table. No, this wasn’t a worn-out tire from a Honda; it was a racing slick. Jon and a friend drove up to a Trans-Am race in Iowa when he was in college, and someone said something about how you can go buy a tire for something like three bucks. Jon’s eyes got huge. “No WAY!” So they walked over to this fenced-off area, where a guy asked if he can help them. Jon asked if it was true they could buy a tire. The guy said sure. Jon asked how much. “Three bucks. What size do you want?” Jon said what any true male would say. “I want the biggest tire you’ve got!”

Later on, Jon also acquired a tire off one of Bill Elliott’s cars.

Years later, when Jon was dating Bethany, he put the tires away. (It was probably the night of their first date that he put them away. At least I hope so.) And one day, Bethany was helping Jon move, along with some of his other friends. Jon went down to the basement with one of his friends, got a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Watch this.”

He put a tire under each arm, then waltzed upstairs, right past Bethany, without a word, and put the tires in the back of the truck. Then he walked back in the house and walked past the bemused Bethany.

“Wha-What were those two black things?” Bethany asked.

“Tires,” Jon said matter-of-factly.

They talked about the tires later. Jon eventually gave the Bill Elliott tire to a coworker. But after driving the Trans-Am tire all the way back from Iowa in a Honda Civic (and there isn’t enough room in a Honda Civic for Jon’s 6’2″ frame, let alone Jon, a friend, a cooler, and two racing slicks), Jon swears up and down that he’s keeping that tire forever.

I know what room it would look great in, even though it’s not really a drag racing tire.