Saturday, June 30, 2007


"It's only 90 degrees today," said Ames with some surprise. A steamy 90 degrees: it rained last night, and the sun has managed to turn the great outdoors into a sweatbath.

Well, with the Fourth of July on a Wednesday, I decided to just take off Monday and Tuesday too. As a per-hour contractor, I can still do a few hours here and there from home Monday or Tuesday to help pay the bills, but I'm now on a last-minute, unplanned, five-day weekend. Maybe we can get some barbecue and some canoeing in? I hope so...

Last night, after a singularly disappointing visit to a new restaurant we had heard about, we stopped in at Lowe's and I bought some much needed grill maintenance stuff: a can of high-temperature enamel grill paint; some concrete "stepping stones" to build out a fire-proof section on the deck; a grill cover for the Santa Fe (the old one finally wore out); some S-hooks; and another flame-resistant grill pad (one of those little rug-like things you put under a grill to keep the grease and embers falling on your deck).

First order of business was the Santa Fe. It had been getting a little rusty, but a few minutes with sandpaper and the can of grill paint cleaned that up smartly. Here's a before-and-after:

Well... those pictures aren't totally honest. The "before" was shot on a hotter day with my cell phone camera. The "after" was shot with my actual camera. But you get the idea. A little sandpaper and some spray paint make a ton of difference.

Turns out my brother-in-law is interested in my Santa Fe, so I guess the offer of a free charcoal grill is over. But since he has no concrete plans (or at least none that I've heard) to actually claim it; I intend to get some more use out of it until he actually takes it away. So hurry up, bro., if you don't want me to waer it out before you ever see it!

I also cleaned up my Bar-B-Chef a little. It's stainless, so it doesn't require a ton of maintenance, but the hand-crank and the charcoal bed are moving parts. They soaked up a bit of oil today. I also finally removed the vanity cover from the cart, and I can't help but think it's a huge improvement:

I now have a functional shelf under my grill! I'm still thinking of taking the grill off the cart and remounting it backwards: that would let me put the vanity cover back on as a backstop to the shelf. But that grill's heavy, and will require some man-handling.

I also noticed a lot of the grills I see in stores now have S-hooks on towel racks to hang tools. I think that's a brilliant idea. Towel racks on grills are great, but hooks are a bona-fide necessity. I installed the hooks on my Santa Fe (I scavenged the hooks from my gas grill), but my Bar-B-Chef had a few already from the store:

But those hooks are tiny, and too close together. So last night I bought a couple S-Hooks, and they seem to be the barber. Except, of course, I bought them too small. So I'll get some larger ones next go 'round. This one hook took me far too long to coerce over the towel rack:

Still, it's a brilliant idea and a huge improvement.

I also wanted to share thes photos: these are the venturi tubes I melted off my late gas grill. I know I've said several times that I melted them right off the grill, but I think these photos might make that claim more real:

That's the same venturi in both pics. I only ever found one of them, and if you look closely, you can see where there is still a seam from the casting... I can't find a picture of the bottom of the gas grill, but the hoses actually melted from the grill body, and there was a one- or two-inch gap where each venturi had been.

I now treat chicken leg quarters with more respect.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Charcoal Grillin'

Someone emailed me about my review on Epinions of the CharBroil Santa Fe, CharBroil's entry-level charcoal grill. I thought I'd shoot a couple pics of the grill, and try to elucidate a little on my comments for it.

I posted all the pics I took at Picasa:
Grill Pictures

The Santa Fe is a great grill, but it's cheaply made. That's how they can offer it at Home Depot for $100 (give or take a few bucks). But aside from its flimsy construction, it's a good grill; and I recommend it as a great starter grill.

The Santa Fe is basically a box with a hanging bed for the charcoal and a grate for the food. Because the grill body is rather thin, I've beefed mine up with ceramic tile. I tried to cut the tile straight and do a good job of it, but I failed. I do still need to fasten it in with mortar, but I think the idea is actually working. That is, the additional mass of the tile is making the grill "heavier", making the temperature fluctuate less with wind, etc.

Now, the charcoal bed that comes with the grill is basically a sheet of metal that hangs from some hooks on the handles:

This "charcoal bed" is obviously not the optimal solution to the problem. There are holes drilled through the bed in spots, but there is just not enough airflow to the charcoal. Further, the bed doesn't come high enough to get a really good sear on those steaks: it hangs on little hooks on the handles, and there are only three settings. The lowest is actually good for ribs or even pork butts, but the highest is way too low for hot cooking.

So what to do?

I approached the problem by laying some bricks on the bed, and putting a grate across the bricks:

This solves two problems. First, it raises the charcoal an additional inch or so, bringing it high enough to actually touch the grate the food lies on. Second, it gives an inch or so of "empty space" below the charcoal, allowing the air circulation the charcoal desparately wants to get really hot.

The thermometer on the Santa Fe is cheap: measuring "Warm", "Ideal", and "Hot". On my grill, a chimney-full of lump charcoal, raised to the hottest level gets the thermometer past "Hot" and back around to the line between "Warm" and "Ideal". That, my friends, is hot. I couldn't tell you exactly how hot it is (I never measured it to see), but the meat cooks like it's in the neighbourhood of 700F or so. Or at least, it cooks like it cooks on my other grill, when I've measured it at 700+ F.

Now, this guy has done a more thorough job of venting his charcoal, but he doesn't look to have solved the distance problem. (Thanks for the link, John!) But one improvement was his addition of dividers for the charcoal, which let you control the piles better.

My newer grill has those same dividers:

So that's my solution to the height and ventilation problem on the Santa Fe. It cost me a couple bricks I found lying around the yard and a grate I bought at Home Depot or Lowe's. The grate is actually a replacement grate for a gas grill: it was a replacement for the grate in the bottom of an older gas grill, where the lava rocks were put, above the burners. I think it cost me $20.

If I had it to do again, I'd actually buy some steel bolts, drill some holes in the charcoal bed, and fasten the bolts into the bed. Then I'd put some nuts and washers on the bolts about 2" (4.5 cm) above the bed, and fasten the grate there. That would be more "permanent", and the grate would be less wobbly than resting on bricks.

But you know what? It's been fun. And although I've tried to give my Santa Fe away, no one wants it. So I'm enjoying both my grills now.

Speaking of which, I have an offset smoker and my Santa Fe: two good charcoal grills I rarely use since I bought my Bar-B-Chef. I'd like to get rid of the one or the other. So if you live around NC and will provide a good home to a piece of charcoal cooking gear, give me a shout. Two grills is fun, three is getting a bit much... Personally, I'd rather part with the offset cooker and keep the Sante Fe, but let me know if you need either one...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Choose SysAdmin

I've alluded to my career in IT here before. I experienced a sudden whim to elucidate on that, and since this is my blog, I'm going to take some time and do exactly that.

If I had a penny for every person who's asked me for help on their home computer, I'd never need to work again. I suppose if you're a doctor, you have to deal with all your friends asking about their runny noses whenever you go to a party: when you're in IT, you are swarmed with people asking about their computers whenever you go to church.

Now, for all my family and friends who actually read this blog: I'm more than happy to help you with little things like your computers. Really, I'm a rather useless person, when all's said and done. This is one small area where I can be of some use to someone, so I don't mind trying to help. But you need to understand a little about how this world works.

First, I don't do desktop support. When I say "I work on computers", I mean "I work on very expensive stuff that no individual actually owns." I'm not the guy in khakis and a polo shirt who walks around in your office, fixing the computers on people's desks. I'm the guy in ripped jeans, a t-shirt, and hiking boots in the refrigerated server room. No one sees me. That actually indicates I significantly out-rank the khaki-wearer.

I work on real computers, not the consumer-grade stuff you buy at CompUSA or Best Buy. The computers I work on generally lack any sort of graphics or a mouse: text-only interfaces and serial ports, baby!

Now, I might be able to help you with your home PC, but that's not what I do. In fact, I use Macintosh exclusively at home. I have no idea why your Windows PC is doing that thing. I am certainly willing to try and help you figure it out, but that's not what I do.

Second, I didn't write the software you're running. Most recently, I've been making a living as a programmer. No, I don't write video games, or even Microsoft Office. I write highly-specialized applications to help people in manufacturing plants get their jobs done quickly and efficiently. You've never seen a program I wrote, and you probably never will.

So I have no idea what's wrong with your video game or your word processor. That's not to say I won't help you, but I probably have no idea what broke or why.

Third, this is a highly specialized industry. Much like there are very few people who are both proctologists and dermatologists, there are very few Jack-of-all-trades people in IT. A lot of people just can't seem to understand that I have no idea what's wrong with their computer. I mean, they can't even grasp that I don't run Internet Explorer. The conversation goes something like this:
Other person: You know when you open up Internet Explorer and it... ?
Ox: I don't use Internet Explorer.
Other person: Really? Wierd. Anyway, you know how it... ?
Ox: I don't use Internet Explorer. I haven't used it in years, I have no idea what you're talking about.
Other person: Really? Wierd. Anyway, you know how it... ?
Ox: I don't use Internet Explorer. I haven't used it in years, I have no idea what you're talking about.
Other person: Really? Wierd. Anyway, you know how it... ?

Those conversations can go on for a long time.

Fourth, enterprise computer guys are expensive; please don't try to pay me for helping you. People insist on asking me how much I charge for my help; then they get upset if I tell them I can do it for free. Here's how it works: if you would rather get me to fix your computer than just replace it, you can't afford me. Let me re-iterate that: getting me to help you for an afternoon at fair market value would cost you more than just replacing the computer.

Please don't take this as boasting, I don't mean it that way. But freelance work pays very well. The rate's lower for a long-term gig (say working a month or more), and higher for more complex skills; but it's still expensive. I know one guy who stays busy at $250/hr, and there's at least one person in the region making more than $1000 per hour. Rumour places one individual at $3000/hr, but I can't confirm that number. If you buy the current Dell bait-and-switch offering, then you'll pay me more for helping you for 4 or 5 hours at fair market value than you would to just replace your computer.

Now the guy at Best Buy, CompUSA, or Geek Squad won't charge you that much; but that guy specializes in home PCs: he's in the low-end price range. The guy at CompUSA is the equivalent of a mechanic down at Jiffy Lube or Tire Kingdom: he works on low-end, consumer-grade stuff. I'm not a guru yet, but I'm in the class of people equivalent to mechanics working on heavy equipment: say Mack trucks and bigger. You pay the heavy mechanic more than you pay the Yugo mechanic.

The good news is, if I agree to help you, I understand I'm doing it as a favour. Please just accept it that way.

Fifth, this is "dressed up". I only wear ties to weddings: job interviews are a casual affair as well. IT is one of the last places in America that's roughly run on meritocracy. No one cares how we look, except to look on us with suspicion if we dress too well. I am expected to stumble in late with jeans, a t-shirt, and hiking boots. And yes, I've earned the right to wear a beard: that's a right not lightly bestowed by the Unix community.

I'm at the office right now in Vans, a t-shirt, and shorts. The CEO expects that of me, and would be concerned I was "job hunting" if I dressed better. I've earned the right to dress this way.

And if you think I'm coming in late, consider that you weren't at work at 3:00 AM when I was fixing your problems.

Sixth, if you ask me what kind of computer you should buy, at least have the courtesy not to tell me I'm wrong. I don't care what your 14-year-old nephew says about it. If you want his opinion, ask him, not me.

I recommend Macintosh, because my experience has demonstrated they are easier, cheaper, and more reliable to operate than a Dell, HP, or whatever else you're interested in. I know they cost more, but I honestly believe they're the best. I believe that based on experience and some level of expertise.

I personally run Mac because I got tired of fixing the computer every night when I got home from work. I want you to buy a Mac so we can talk about something else when we meet. You only think a PC is as cheap to operate as a Mac because you're not paying me for my time to help you; but you're wrong.

OK, so I ranted a little. I wasn't trying to get all aggressive or anything. The fact is, I'm more than happy to try and help you out if you're having trouble. But I'd really appreciate you not looking at me funny when I say I have no idea what's wrong with your computer.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Slaving away

Well, I'm up in the middle of the night again. Apparently the "24/7 Datacenter" was neither 24 nor 7: we lost power, generator, and UPS. I used to work there, so I won't throw too many stones, but they cost me a lot of sleep tonight. Since I left the SysAdmin gig and work as a developer 90% of the time and Oracle DBA the other 10%, this happens a lot less frequently. As a SysAdmin, I was working all hours of the night, all the time.

Developers whine about admin staff, but the fact is, I've done both; and the developer life is definitely cushier.

I was up all night last week too: we lost a Streamed Oracle instance last Tuesday at 3:30 PM, and I got an emergency maintenance window to fix it at 1:05 AM. We finished 5:15 AM. I worked a lot that night: I started on recovery at 3:30, broke for an hour to drive home, then prepped for my window until 11:00. I called kingjaymz at 11:00 or 11:30, and we chatted until 1:00, when I got back to work.

It's all part of IT in the post-dot-com world.

A couple years ago, I wrote a little piece in the wake of a terrible troubleshooting session with a user. This guy really rubbed me the wrong way: he was clueless, and tried to throw me under the bus to cover his own ignorance. It didn't turn out too well, that's what happens when a mediocre "Java Developer" attacks a seasoned Solaris Guru. I'll post it here for your enjoyment:

Come not in thine arrogance to the Unix guru: neither with pride in thine heart nor insults on thy lips.

But thou shalt come in humility and with purity of heart:

Lest he smite thee in his wrath and recursively delete thy data.

For great is the wrath of the sysadmin: his anger burneth hot and his displeasure woundeth to the quick.

For he can delete thy files; yea, and corrupt thy backups. He can hack thy system, and destroy thy work.

And verily covereth he his tracks so that thou canst not prove his sin.

But gracious is the Unix administrator, and patient. If thou hast sinned, thou canst repent. Then must thou own thy fault and acknowledge thy sin.

For the sysadmin will surely forgive the humble and repentant. Yea, the lowly fill his soul with pity. The poor he heareth: their Perl will he help debug.

But the arrogant and the scoffers doth he spurn: their files doth he delete, and their volumes doth he newfs. He sealeth up their firewalls, he deleteth their backups, his ears are deaf to their cries, and his eyes blind to their emails. They go down into unemployment in shame and frustration.

Well, it's 4:00 AM here; I'm going to bed.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Good evening, friends, and welcome!

My ten-year-old read Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. In three days. Four years ago. And she understood it: I had a little tete-a-tete with her when she was done, and asked her some basic comprehension questions: "Who was Aragorn?", "How did Denethor die?", "Where did they meet a balrog?" "Who was the brown wizard?" questions like that. She got them all right. We won't let her watch the movies, but she's read the books.

And like me, she liked Tom Bombadil the best. I can never forgive Peter Jackson for completely ignoring the most interesting character in the whole story.

Last year, she wanted to read A Christmas Carol by Dickens. I gave her permission to read my Charles Dickens "omnibus": a single volume containing four or five of Dickens' novels. She seemed to be taking quite a while to read A Christmas Carol, so I asked her how she liked it. She liked it a lot; but she liked Hard Times better, and Great Expectations was good too, although A Tale of Two Cities was too depressing, so she didn't finish it.

She occasionally refers to Ames and me as the "A. P. s"

The hardest thing with having a bona fide reader in the house is, finding age-appropriate material. She loves the Redwall books by Brian Jacques, but he's not writing them fast enough. So now I scour used-books-stores, looking for the wonderful novels I read as a kid. I found a used copy of The Mad Scientists' Club, which was a wonderful find. We also found The Egypt Game, and a bunch of sundries I read as a kid. And I obtained a complete set of The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper in a single volume a few years back. My ten-year-old's put quite a dent in that too.

But the real treasure was this:

That, friends, is a partial set of Children's Classic Library. We had a set when I was a kid: I think they were a gift from Uncle Mel. At any rate, I've been slowly piecing together a whole set from various used-book sources.

My favourite volumes as a kid were: Arabian Nights, King Arthur, and Robin Hood. I don't know how many times I read "The Genie and the Merchant", or "The Man with Two Hinds". I loved that book. In fact, I read it through the other night, and it was everything I remembered.

Gift idea for clumsy: a complete, "adult" (i.e. not a kids') edition of 1001 Nights (Arabian Nights). Just a helpful hint there...

A lot of people are shocked to learn we don't have T. V. Sure, we can watch DVDs on the computer if we need to: and it's a decent system. Or at least, it's convenient enough to use, and inconvenient enough to not become a habit. But people always ask "What do your kids do?". Well, reading is high on the list.

And you know what? They seem to like it that way.

For my own part, I've tried to gather good kids' books from before we had any kids, or before I ever met my wife. It's nice to be able to walk into a library and have an idea what books and authors my kids will like. Frankly, it's nice to know I got at least one thing right...