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Burton vs. the Check Engine light

Thursday, January 29, 2009
Here's a tip: Don't disconnect the battery of your car if you don't have to.

Check Engine Light

Now that you know the lesson I learned at the end of the story, let's skip back to the beginning. It was a cold, wintery day here in Salem as I was driving around town. Despite my usual lead-foot ways, I was driving more gently than normal since my car was still warming up (and makes unhappy noises until fully warm.)

As I turned a corner I saw a green light just waiting for me to make it through. I gave the car some gas and, rather than springing into action, the engine hesitated and then surged ahead, accompanied rather suddenly by the warm, friendly glow of the "Check Engine" light.

Not good. Nothing can stress me out faster than car problems.

Nevertheless, I went about my day until I had a chance to do some quick internet research. You should know, dear reader, that I'm a pretty terrible mechanic. I never have the right tools, I know little about engines, and I never seem to fix things quite right on the first try. But, circumstances being what they are, I was looking for any way that this could be very inexpensive to fix.

Somewhere on the internet I came across a tip that said, "Oh, just disconnect the battery. It'll reset the computer and the light will come on again if it's a serious problem." This sounded easy enough to do. I also came across another tip that pointed out that Autozone will read your check engine light code for free. Free is good, so I noted this for future usage as well.

I went out to my car (I wasn't home, by the way) and quickly disconnected the battery. I waited thirty seconds, plugged it in, then started my car. I was quite happy to see that the check engine light was off, but dismayed to see my car idling oddly. Not having much of a choice about it, I started driving home.

About five blocks later, my car hesitated again and the check engine light started staring at me. Remembering hint #2, I turned my car around and drove over to Autozone, which I'd just passed. My car stalled. I restarted it and drove up to the storefront, walked inside, and was promptly greeted by the most amazingly helpful person ever to walk the planet. (At least, in the context of this story.)

He grabbed his little diagnostic tool, went out to my car, and read the diagnostic code for the light. He then went back inside and gave me a printout of the diagnostic code (P304), what it meant ("cylinder four is misfiring"), and probable causes for the error. We then talked it over it determined that changing the spark plugs might fix the problem, and was the only possible solution that wouldn't require a mechanic and a couple hundred dollars in labor and parts. He sold me a set of spark plugs, a spark plug adapter, and showed me where the spark plugs were on my car and how to access them. It was easy. It was so easy, in fact, that after the transaction I moved my car to sit in front of the next business over and quickly changed spark plug number four in the dark.

I then drove the car home, though it was still idling very inconsistently.

The next morning I quickly changed the other three spark plugs and started driving around. Despite the strange idling, the car was otherwise running fine. No hesitations at all. Then I remembered that the last time my car was idling in this fashion was after I'd put a new battery in it. Huh.

It appears that the computer that controls my car holds bits of information about how the engine runs in memory that gets cleared when the battery is disconnected. I speculate that it has to re-figure out how to make the engine idle properly every time it's been cleared, which is why my car is running better and better after every warm-cold cycle.

Now, with the check engine light off and my car idling fine, I'm going to say that I have won this small mechanical battle. For less than $20 and with a lot of help from Autozone, it seems that I have beaten the check engine light. Now I just wish I hadn't disconnected the battery.

Movie Review: Inkheart

Sunday, January 25, 2009
I saw Inkheart last night with a bunch of friends. I'm going to cut this review short and say that it was pretty "meh" and might be fun to rent, but it's not that great.

What the movie made me think about, however, is lack of imagination. The whole concept is that there are people (including Brendon Fraser's character) who can magically bring things to life from books. Having figured this out and having experienced tragedy, he doesn't read out loud anymore, until he's trying to save his wife, daughter, and at the same time fight the bad guys.

So with this talent, you'd think you could recruit a bunch of good guys from books to help you out. But no, the opportunity is missed, and the movie is much worse for that lack of imagination. It's like I've always wondered why characters who could fly always ran away from people. Why not fly? It'll get you out of range a lot faster!

If a character has a certain ability, why not exploit it? I'm not saying over-use it, but it's certainly an advantage that would make a handy addition to any skill-set. Why not use it?

I just don't get it, and that was frustrating me through the whole movie.

Today's Fortune-That-Ought-To-Be-True

Sunday, January 18, 2009
This is one fortune others ought to listen to. I'm not always right, but darn close.

People should seek me for my advice.

Harsh Nature

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I dreamed last night
about lions and gazelles.
The gazelles had banded together
and filed a claim with the lion administration.
"We demand protection," they said.
"It's our right to graze freely without fear of harm," they said.
The lions look at the grievance
growled
and returned to feeding on the dead gazelle in front of them.

Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Saturday, January 10, 2009
I went out with some friends last night to see the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie I'd heard good things about from a variety of sources. Roughly based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story by the same name, the movie is framed through a narrative of a woman named Daisy, now on her deathbed, recalling - with her daughter - the story of a man she knew named Benjamin Button through reading journal entries and postcards. Benjamin Button is "curious" because he's born looking like he's 80 yet progresses through his life getting physically younger and younger while the world around him ages normally.

Let's start with the things I enjoyed about the movie. The cinematography was great, and the visual effects of aging were done almost flawlessly. The aging was done very convincingly, and helped suspend disbelief at the otherwise odd story. The acting is almost entirely well done (more on this later) and the direction is fairly consistent. Furthermore, there are some times in the movie that really make you reflect on your own life (in a constructive way), so I'm going to say that the writing was good as well. Finally, the way the movie's framed was exceptionally well done.

But the movie is far from flawless. One of my biggest complaints is that Brad Pitt, while doing a great job looking older than younger, does a terrible job of acting whatever mental age he's going to be. Honestly, his character (could be him, could be the writer) was exceedingly flat. Also, because age is such a factor in the movie, I had a hard time understanding the characters that were so old all they could do was talk in a hoarse whisper. Both problems were distracting at times.

Thinking about it afterwards, I enjoyed the movie. I'm glad I saw it. But, had I not gone to see it with friends I probably wouldn't have seen it in the theatre - and, at just shy of three hours - it's a long time to sit there. But if it's your kind of movie - and I know I can usually tell when I'm the target demographic for a film - then you should definitely check it out.

Final word on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Worth seeing, but worth waiting to watch on DVD .

A mild proposal

Wednesday, January 07, 2009
My latest idea to stems from an experience I just had. I was having my regular bi-weekly dinner with a good friend and we went to a Thai place we'd never been to. Once inside, I ordered my benchmark Thai plate of pad thai with chicken. When asked for the level of spice, I replied "medium". My friend ordered the same plate.

A generic plate of spicy thai food

So my proposal is this: we need something analogous to the Saffir-Simpson scale for spicy food.

It's well known that I'm not a huge fan of spicy. But when I take a bite of medium and my mouth is on fire and all I can say to my friend is "be careful", there's a miscommunication there. I'll take responsibility for it, but I'll also propose a solution: The Burton Spice Scale.

Burton Spice Scale 0
: A McDonalds Hamburger. Relatively flavorless, relatively harmless.
Burton Spice Scale 1: Fries from Red Robin with some of their seasoning on it.
Burton Spice Scale 2: General Tsao's Chicken from the Safeway Deli. Flavorful without being destructive.
Burton Spice Scale 3: Chicken wings, with whatever sauce is usually associated with them. Spicier than I like.
Burton Spice Scale 4: Whatever I just ate at this Thai place with their "medium" spice. Starting to be painful. See also: Texas BBQ.
Burton Spice Scale 5: Banned by provisions from the Geneva Conventions. Potential substitute for Napalm.

You may freely use this scale; I certainly plan to!

The findings of Alois

Sunday, January 04, 2009
According to Wikipedia, Alois Alzheimer first described what is now known as Alzheimer's Disease in 1906. This wasn't information I really cared about until my grandmother - my mom's mom - was diagnosed about a year and a half ago with the disease.

I'm visiting that side of the family right now in New Hampshire, though I'm wrapping up this trip in about 5 hours. It's occurred to me that this may be the last time I see her as healthy as she is; she knows she's mentally slipping and is planning to move to an assisted living facility in the spring.

The past couple years have been sad in a way. We've never been "close" in the traditional sense of the word. My grandmother and I only ever saw each other every year or two. (My grandfather died when I was about 10.) Still, she's always been sweet and loving in her way, and I've tried to return it as best as possible. One of my personal goals on this trip was to spend time with her and let her know I cared - even something as simple as just sitting next to her and putting my arm around her at my cousin's wedding was important to both of us.

She's been good at hiding it in public, and, though she takes it with great humor, I've been able to spot bits of decline. She remarked that she found today's paper this past afternoon, and I said, "Oh, I thought you'd have read it already... but then again, maybe you did. Who knows? It'll be a surprise again." (We both smiled.) The first time I noticed it, however, was about 6 months ago when she was visiting Oregon and we played Scrabble as we tend to do. For the first time in my life I was able to beat her. Not that we were extremely competitive, but she's always been very good at the game and I could tell her vocabulary had diminished a bit.

It will be sad watching the disease progress. I'm very similar to this grandmother in many ways; we're both shy, reserved, introverted people. She's been lucky enough to be surrounded by friends for the past 20 years, but, from what I understand, those friends have been slowly succumbing to age-related issues.

I got to sit with my grandmother tonight and listen to her reminisce about her father (my great-grandfather), who was apparently a doctor in New York. She could remember all sorts of details, and yet she'd occasionally repeat the same phrase with the same emphasis. Afterwards, she gave me a lingering hug, knowing that we were parting ways. I didn't cry, but I really wanted to.

The "New" Hampshire

Saturday, January 03, 2009
As previously mentioned, I'm currently bumming around the great state of New Hampshire. One thing I noticed is that, sometime in last decade or so, the state issued a new run of license plates.

The old license plate:

old NH licence plate

The new license plate:

new NH licence plate


It struck me as I saw this that the new license plates emphasize the word "New" in "New Hampshire". In my mind, the word "New" has always been part of the title; it's a name, not a descriptor. I don't think of New Hampshire as the new one versus the old one.

Of course, this led me to think of other cases where the adjective has stopped being such for me. New York, New Mexico, New England... heck, even "Los" and "Las" have become part of the title for me, such Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Maybe it's just the way I think, where I see a group of letters and associate that with a place without putting meaning behind it. When I read, sometimes I'll come to someone's name that's going to be hard or bizarre to pronounce and, instead of trying to pronounce it, I'll just recognize that grouping of letters as the name for the person, without associating a sound with it. (When I hear it pronounced in conversation later I do a pretty good job of hiding my momentary confusion.)

Anyway, this all boils down to titles at some point. Is this "New Hampshire" now, or is this the new Hampshire? Does it even matter anymore?

New England

Friday, January 02, 2009
So far I've been in New Hampshire for about two days. My internal clock is a little off; I didn't sleep New Year's Eve until I was on the plane at 6 AM on New Year's Day, then I napped from PDX to O'Hare and then again to Manchester for about three and a half hours total. I barely saw daylight as I took off before dawn and landed after dusk, plus moved forward three time zones. I've been having a series of Lebowski-esqe "is today a... what day is it?" moments. Good times.

I've finally had a chance to meet a little girl I can only describe as my "first cousin, once removed". I think I got that right - she's my cousin's daughter. She's fairly delightful, and we've had a fun time meeting.

my first cousin, once removed and me

As I'm visiting here for my other cousin's wedding, I've spent a lot of time reconnecting with family (I don't see them very often) and meeting out-of-town guests - and while my family's all visited Oregon at some point or another, most of the other folks are a little fuzzy on where Portland is - or even Oregon, for that matter. Of course, I still have to look at a map to figure out where all the little states are, so I'm not in much better shape.

As there was recently a pretty major ice storm (and another smaller one a few days ago), flights into the area are still occasionally delayed. As such, I was forced to stand in for one of the groomsmen at the wedding rehearsal, which was fun. I got to meet the wedding party, joke around, and play the part of a "warm body".

Since I'm here for one reason, really, I don't have a lot of independent time. But, since I'm without a car and my schedule's pretty set, it's strangely relaxing. I just go where planned, offer to help where I can, and all I ask in return is a little bit of internet access. It works out nicely.

And, on a weird final note, apparently there are wild turkeys roaming around in the woods behind my aunt and uncle's home.

wild turkies

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