Movie Review: Those Who Wish Me Dead
Once again HBO saves the day. If I had driven to the theater to see this movie and paid for admission, I would have been very upset. Thankfully this movie is one of those COVID-19 era releases that hit both theaters and HBO at the same time.
The cast is strong. The production values are strong. Where this movie falls down is the writing and direction.
The first problem is that, in terms of story, everything is an abstraction. The flick opens with a murder of a district attorney. It's implied that the killing is to stop prosecution of a criminal case, but we don't get the details. Through the course of the entire movie, we never learn what's properly at stake or for whom.
Then we get the first writerly garbage. Despite this being a supposedly high-stakes situation, the people who contract the killing of the DA are too cheap to pay for a separate team to get the accountant who supplied crucial evidence to that DA. There is this contrived sense of tension that the hitmen must get to the accountant in another city before he sees the news of the DA's death and runs. So, immediately, we're in the bush-league. Guess what? The guy sees the news and runs--with his son.
By the end of the movie, the hitmen get instructions about the sky being the limit on what can be done to get their target. It's asinine. The movie opens with a problem that's not quite important enough to pay for proper manpower, but later on, golly you guys need to get on it. Those sort of ham-fisted story chunks litter this entire movie. There's a lot of ungrounded, unspecified, cognitively dissonant chunks of story that lurch through the entire movie.
Where does Angelina come in? Good question. She really has no connection with the main plot. She is the random person that finds the accountant's kid and makes it her mission to keep him safe. However, to introduce her, we get a look at some firefighter camaraderie to give her flavor. It has a bizarrely random set piece where she sits in the back of a pickup truck with a parachute that triggers at highway speed. She gets pulled out of the truck, flails through the air, and lands on the side of the road. It's like watching Adventures in Stupid White Trash. Make no mistake, she looks great for her age--if emaciated--but her introduction is so stupid that it bleeds into her character.
She, of course, is a tortured soul who can't get over those people she couldn't save last year. She's the super tough chick who, when it's convenient, is literally paralyzed by flashbacks of those nice people standing in the woods. She never sees them die, so all her trauma is their imagined deaths.
That thing about Jolie's character's trauma is one of many directorial slips. If she is going to have paralyzing trauma, find a visual for it, otherwise people like me will nod our heads and admit that its a horrible situation but not feel it. That lack of punch in framing her damage makes the moments where its supposed to affect seem off. The trauma onscreen doesn't match the trauma in scene.
Continuing on to the next writerly mistake, random guy connected to unspecified prosecution involving unknown bad guys who might suffer unknown consequences flees to the brother of his dead wife (making him essentially a stranger). See where I'm going with this? Everyone is unconnected, the stakes are unspecified, and the plot points are essentially random and filmed in the least exciting way.
I could go on, but I think you get the theme by now. The characters are unconnected. The motivations are muddled. The direction fails to engender suspense. It's like someone's student film was given a real budget. I'd love to know the backstory about this production. It wouldn't surprise me if this project got a new director at some point, or the studio had to re-edit it into something plausible for release. The problems of this movie are so obvious that I imagine there's a story behind them.
Don't watch this movie unless its as a cautionary tale in film school.
I Built A Raised Planter
Well, it's spring. At least in the desert Southwest it's properly spring. I know plenty of other people around the US are still getting pummeled with snow, but here on the Colorado Plateau it's time for planting.
Last summer we replaced a big area of river rock with soil. You can see the corner of that area in the picture of the planter. I didn't get sod for it, so you can see that it's still a fairly patchy chunk 'o lawn.
Doris wants to grow herbs, and her arthritis makes kneeling down for a garden bed difficult, so she asked me about getting a raised planter.
Having done extensive home renovations on this house and my previous house, I have a moderately robust collection of tools. However, as I've never done much fine woodworking or cabinetry, I don't have any experience building furniture--indoor or out.
So I googled around to see what people were selling. It looked like I'd be spending anywhere from $200 to $500 for a decent sized planter, give or take exactly how big it is and how fancy it is. I'm as averse to work as anyone, but I'm also cheap. If I'm going to spend the money, I figure I might as well consider it an investment in tools and skills. So instead of giving my money to someone else, I spent about $100 on lumber and another $50 on router bits to put my own together.
You don't have to be particularly handy to put together a 2x4 frame, but a planter has five panels to it (bottom and four sides). I had never done any joinery. Yeah, I could always use a crosspieces to hold together some slats to make panels, but I had visions of water and soil coming through the gaps. Besides, last year I bought a Mikita compact router (about $90), and I love to learn new, useful skills.
I decided I wanted to do 'real' joinery on the planter panels. Specifically, I decided I would rabbet the panel pieces. I write that like everyone knows what that is. Two months ago, I didn't know the word. It's what you might call a 'stair step' joint. The picture below shows you the pieces of the end panels after I rabbeted them. If you look at the upper panel, you'll see how the wood comes together. Those are rabbets:
Unless you're a hand-tool maven, you'll use a router to create those edges. I'd explain the process, but YouTube is full of proper cabinetry experts who can explain it better than I.
On top of the panel pieces you'll see my cheap-ass pin nailer from Arrow. I'm happy to report that the $30 nailer has performed flawlessly for me. The bigger name tool companies want something like $100 for a pin nailer. I used the pin nailer when I glued up the panels. You might ask: Why nail the boards if you are gluing them? Well, the pin nails are so tiny that you can hardly see them, and they make the gluing process a lot easier. Instead of clamping up all the panels carefully, I just glued them and nailed them with 1/2" pins. The nailer is driven by a compresser. I use a Porter Cable pancake compressor. You can get one of those with a couple of nailers for about $300. When I bought mine fifteen years ago, that's what I paid. I was stunned to see them selling the same compressor with three nailers recently for $300!! Those same Porter Cable guys still want over a hundred bucks if you just want a pin nailer. That's why I bought the Arrow one. If you don't have a compressor, I highly recommend one if you do a lot of moulding or door installations. That's almost all I've used mine for until recently.
Getting back to the planter. In my Googling, I found that everyone said to use cedar for the planter body because it resists rot. You can't use pressure treated wood because you don't want the chemicals to leech into the soil and consequently the food you grow. The thing is, good cedar finish wood is expensive, and I'm cheap (frugal really, there is a difference). One piece of 1"x4"x8' cedar is about $12 at Home Depot. I couldn't help but notice that everyone uses cedar for fence pickets, and those are cheap enough to fence a yard with. At my local Depot, a 5/8"x6"x6' cedar fence picket is about $3.50. Bingo. I designed my planter around those. It's about one picket long, three picket-widths wide, and about three picket-width's tall.
The planter pictured is a 2x4 frame holding five cedar fence picket panels. Being eager to do something cool with my router, I didn't just nail the panels to the frame. I grooved the 2x4 frame to receive the bottom panel, and I rabbeted the outside of that 2x4 frame so the four side panels would be flush with it. Since I don't have a router table, it was a huge pain in the butt to do all that. Having never grooved or rabbeted with a router, I enjoyed it. With some scrap lumber and clamps you can set up jigs to get it done. Again, people on YouTube can guide you if you're eager to explore that pain.
Other than the frugal usage of fence pickets for the panels, I incorporated one other cool thing into the design. If you look at the corners, you'll see they are 4x4s that have had 2x2 chunks cut out of them so the frame corners could sit in them. That was surprisingly hard to do without a table saw. The short story is that I used a circular saw. Mine cuts to a depth of 2.25 inches. So on each post, I made long cuts 2.25 inches in from the edge, and then one at the end. Of course, a circular saw doesn't cut a nice vertical line, so when you cut the surface as far as you want to go, the kerf underneath is shaped like a sector of the saw blade. That is, none of the cuts meet neatly to excise a perfect inside corner from the 4x4. A small bit of wood remains, holding the chunk you are trying to remove. Worse, if you try to lever it up and break the wood, you quickly find out that you don't have any space to pull. There's only one kerf (about 1/8 inch) of space before you are jamming the piece into the rest of the 4x4. What I did to solve this was simply make a few extra end cuts. That gave the chunk being removed more room to bend up and snap the little chunk 'o wood holding it to the rest of the 4x4. The only downside is that instead of a perfect little concave corner, you have little imperfections where the blade didn't cut and you ripped the piece out. So I was stuck chiseling that inside corner smooth. It only takes a few minutes per corner.
Anyway, that's my little build-a-planter adventure. The money I might have given to a manufacturer to do the work for me was spent on some nice router bits. The time it cost me to do it I chalk up to educating myself. The satisfaction I get from the finished product is a nice offset for all those story rejections I get.
I'd post the plans, but I didn't make any formal diagrams, just a lot of notes and some hand-drawn bits with sloppy dimension lines on them. Besides, if you haven't figured it out yet, I'm not really qualified to tell you how to build a planter.
I found Chuck Wendig because I read his non-fiction book: The Kick-Ass Writer. His writing advice wasn't innovative, but I'm always on the lookout for a new take on the truisms of writing, because it's often the thinking around 'the rules' that reaches me more than the rules themselves. Chuck's book on writing has some hilarious vulgarity in it. The man has a talent for perverse imagery. So I wanted to see how that would manifest in his fiction.
When I got to the acknowledgements for The Wanderers, he commented on how an 800-page book gets a lot of help. I didn't realize just how long the book was as I read because I was on a Kindle, but it explained a lot. The book is, to my taste, bloated. For a successful author with a lot of experience pumping out traditionally published books, I didn't understand how he could let this book go out at its final size.
This enormous novel sits at the intersection of AI Apocalypse and Medical Horror. He develops a few interesting characters. There's Marcy, the Amazonian ex-cop with a mysterious connection to the wanderers. Then there's his take on Satan in human form, Ozark Stover, a white supremacist, homosexual rapist. Properly evil characters always entertain. Then there is the enigmatic Black Swan AI who he doesn't allow to talk until the end of the book (seriously, he hobbled perhaps the most interesting character). The rest of the characters were, to me, boring as hell. Worse, they tended to be the POV characters.
The heart of the plot is the mysterious flock of walkers, ostensibly the wanderers of the title. They are zombies by another name, except they're benign. They don't go hunting for grey matter. They just walk and walk and walk.
For me, that's one of the biggest problems with the narrative. It focuses on a group of uncommunicative, boring walkers. They're in Indianna. Oh, now there in Idaho. For some reason they're now in California, but they're going to head back to Colorado. I didn't care.
Worse is that our POV characters are a CDC doctor named Benjamin Ray, and a farmer's daughter named Shana Stewart. If ever there were two people who had just about the least interesting points of view to put on a page, it's these two. How many pages of 'gotta protect my sister, Nessie' can you stomach? I have a high tolerance, but it goes on forever. Likewise, Dr. Ray has a boring incident in the past where he lied about some disease and ruined his career. How many times can I read about that milquetoast character's regrets over Longacre? Whatever it is, I met my limit.
The third major POV character is Mathew Bird, a pastor in dipshit Farmville who exquisitely defines boring to me. He's got this small world with small thoughts and the most parochial concerns I've ever read about.
I'm not saying these aren't valid or occasionally useful characters. I am saying that they are boring as hell and should only be taken in small doses. As the venue for laying out this story, they did not particularly entertain.
That's the theme of my complaints, focus and length. Among these 800 pages there is a gripping story. Unfortunately, that gripping story is told via the most boring 'through line' of the 'story space' that one might conceive, at a crawl.
Sci-fi fans look elsewhere. Although there is a good dollup of next-level AI going on here, Chuck has chosen to focus on the humanity of the story at the expense of whiz-bang tech intrigue. And, to beat that expired equine, he does so via the most boring humans to live on paper, slowly.
I think those flaccid, boring 800 pages could be cut down to about 250 pages of fairly snappy reading. With some rewriting to focus on the more interesting characters, it could really sing. But as published, it just bored the snot out of me. By the last third of the book, I was skimming extensively. Because even when events were building to a climax, he was slow-rolling the crap out of the plot.
There's no aguing taste, right? If you're the kind of reader that enjoys being immersed deeply in the minutiae, this book may appeal to you. Did you enjoy the long, slow slog of Frodo and Sam through Mordor? Then maybe this book is for you.
Chuck is still in there. I saw a flash of him when Marcy told off Ozark Stover. It was the most enjoyable part of the book to me. The man can write some trash talk.
So, with apologies to Mr. Wendig, whom I like, I have to say I can't recommend this book.
Movie Review: Wonder Woman 1984
This is the first major studio release that I watched from home. That's of course because of the COVID19 pandemic. Sad to say, I didn't enjoy it.
This is one of those books that kept coming up on book lists and reviews. It's hugely popular, so I thought I'd give it a try.
The technological conceit of this book is personality uploading. Bob is super-rich and buys a cryogenic preservation insurance policy. It's not a spoiler to tell you that, surprise surprise, he ends up needing it. He lands in a dystopian future, denuded of all his riches, and quite literally the property of a religiously zealous government. What ensues is a novel based on Bob becoming the heart of a Von Neuman probe (self-replicating, galaxy exploring).
As is hinted at by the title, the tone is very light. Even the darkest bits of the narrative, which aren't particularly dark anyway, aren't very affecting. That's not a complaint, but in terms of your emotional engagement with this book, don't expect intense emotion or drama. Expect a light-hearted, safe romp.
Since the nature of these probes is to be self-replicating, over time Bob builds more of himself--hence the legion bit in the title. By an unexplained quirk of the technology, none of Bob's clones is exactly Bob. They're all Bob variants. That makes for some fun self-loathing bits.
The Bobs are smart, funny, nice guys that constantly make late 20th century cultural allusions. For instance, one uses Homer Simpson as his avatar. One names himself Riker after the ST-TNG character. In that sense, these books have a Ready Player One flavor to them. It constantly mines those cultural references to good effect. Eventually it got old to me.
Because all the Bobs are shades of the original, it didn't hurt much to see a few of them get destroyed. There is never a situation in this book where there is real jeopardy for Bob or his interests. There is very little conflict or resolution to speak of. With all their computing cycles, the Bob's never invent anything more than some of the very old sci-fi standards like FTL communication. That is, even with years of inter-stellar travel time, the Bobs don't evolve in interesting ways.
Plot wise, this book in the series sort of focuses on what happens when one of the Bob's goes back to Earth. I say sort of because that sub-plot is one of many. The book bounces between Bobs with each chapter. Chapter headings list the Bob variant that serves as the POV character, his location, and the date. So the book, rather than one coherent story, is really a collection of Bob vignettes broken into pieces. By doing this, the author has robbed us of a lot of the fun of a strong novel. There are no great story arcs or character arcs. It really is more like a collection of linked short stories.
My point is that although the multiplicity of Bobs is cute, it got old quickly for me. The inter-Bob banter got stale. The technology likewise was boring. For instance, the only weapons he builds are ballistic masses (fast moving things that destroy via kinetic energy), both for ship battles and on planets. We never get anything innovative, it's just Bob-as-fanboy getting to build some of his sci-fi favorites. The plots, likewise were stale to me: simplistic ship battle, simplistic first-contact, simplistic refugee politics. In the end, everything works out. To me it was the afterschool-special of sci-fi.
I won't finish the series because I'm not that interested in where this author will take things. From the title of the third book, I can make a pretty good guess.
It's extremely popular, so I seem to be in the minority. This book simply didn't appeal to my taste. If you want a breezy, upbeat, quick read that evokes a lot of cultural nostalgia, you could do a lot worse.
Eridium comes in purple bricks in Borderlands (I'm only talking about Borderlands 2 here, but I'll leave out the 2 to avoid going nuts) that you use to upgrade your character at Crazy Earl's in Sanctuary.
When I first started playing--years ago--I figured out that you could use the slot machine's at Moxxi's to build up Eridium. If you had the cash, you could build up a big stash and upgrade your character attributes. For low level characters, those upgrades are crucial: backpack slots, ammo limits, grenade count, etc. Of course, building up the cash to build up one's Eridium is difficult in normal game play.
The "Assault on Dragon Keep" DLC or what is sometimes called The Unassuming Docks (of potentially little importance) changed all that. That DLC is designed to be done after the main story. As such, the minimum recommended character level is 30. Even at 30, it can be a tough slog to get through the Unassuming Docks to Flamerock Refuge. I used to not care so much, but it turns out that Flamerock Refuge is crucial because of the Tiny Tina slot machines in that Ren-Fair incarnation of Moxxi's (which doesn't exist until a Torgue mission summons the tavern into existence). Tiny Tina's slot machines in that tavern are the crux of what I alluded to in my title.
The thing about Tiny Tina's slot machines is that they run on Eridium, 2 per pull. But, crucially, they have a frequent 3-rainbow payoff of cash, lots of cash. The payoffs of cash are so over-sized that it creates a loophole in Borderlands economics. You can spend all your money in Sanctuary's slots to get Eridium to spend at Flamerock Refuge's slots, but in the process, you will more than win back whatever you spent to get that Eridium. This means you can, ad infinitum, go to Sanctuary, build up Eridium, and then go to Flamerock Refuge to spend it, simultaneously recovering all your cash in the process.
Why? I mean one slot machine is as good as another, right? No. Not at all. Tiny Tina's slot machines in Flamerock Refuge not only give out great weapons, shields, and grenade mods, but also legendary and teal weapons. The legendary part is true of the Sanctuary slots as well. Get the vault symbols in Sanctuary and you get a legendary weapon. But in Flamerock, if you get the vault symbols on the slot machine, you get a teal weapon (sometimes called pearlescent). These are usually the best weapons in the game, often with attributes that you just don't get anywhere else. For instance, some teal weapons will automatically regenerate ammunition.
Also at Flamerock, there is a 'spinny ball' thing wherein if the machine comes up three dice (literally 20-sided D&D dice....the whole DLC is a D&D campaign), the drawer opens and a die spins in the air before dropping onto the drawer. The 20 is replaced with a vault symbol. If you roll that vault symbol, you get a legendary weapon. But most important of all is that if you roll a 18 or 19, you get three Seraph crystals. This is the only place in the entire game where you can quickly and reliably farm Seraph crystals.
Seraph crystals are the only things that Seraph Vendors will take. They are the only way to buy an Antagonist shield as well as some other remarkable gear. If you haven't found any of the Seraph vendors, google it. There's one in each DLC. Each specializes in different kinds of gear. The one in Flamerock sells Antagonist shields.
Do you start to see what I'm getting at now? Access to Flamerock refuge gets you the ability to infinitely farm Eridium to get legendaries, teals/pearlescents, and Seraph Crystals.
I consider this Sanctuary/Flamerock slot-machine arbitrage crucial to building a strong character. So crucial, in fact, that I will go to the Unassuming Docks and rush the gate to Flamerock Refuge even though I have no hope of fighting anyone in the docks. All I need to do is to get Bony Pants Guy to spawn, opening the town gate so I can run through to the Flamerock gate. Once you get there, Flamerock Refuge will appear on the fast-travel menu for the rest of the game. You can come and go as you please.
That's not to mention that the Assault on Dragon Keep is the most entertaining DLC, and loot-riffic. Once you complete the story missions, you gain access to Murderlin's Temple which...is a discussion for another post.
After getting generally positive feedback about this story from a few venues, I finally sold it to Abyss & Apex. Of course when I write 'sold' that is to say they bought the first rights to it and four-month exclusivity. Magazines don't buy stories outright, simply the right to print them.
That is my third acceptance this year. So far they are all token markets (as opposed to Pro or Semi-Pro), but you have to start somewhere, right?
Some of you reading this might get the impression that there is a proper payday involved with selling a story, so now is a good time to disabuse you of that notion. The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) is the organizing body for American sci-fi writers. They're the folks that give out the yearly Nebula Awards. They provide advice and standards to writers. Regarding payment, the SFWA says that the minimum professional rate paid for a story is eight cents a word. So a story like Rick's Legacy, which is 5,600 words, paid the pro rate would make $448. That's for a work product that requires many hours of toil. Semi-pro markets are ones that pay three to seven cents a word. The rest are called "token" markets.
Most moderately successful sci-fi writers have a day job. One must be very near the top of the industry to make a living off of sci-fi.
The point being that this sale is a spiritual victory, not a financial one.
Six weeks after I submitted it, I got a nice note from the editor saying that she really enjoyed my story, and was holding it for further consideration. That's always nice. When you workshop stories, you get a ceaseless stream of negative feedback about every little part of a story. You need a thick skin to be a writer. So, just having her say that she enjoyed it was a thrill. It's always better to be looked over than overlooked.
Of course as the obsessive, data-driven person that I am, I spent the next four months looking at the Submission Grinder for what I call "tea leaves". That site lets you see all the active submissions at a venue, what their recent responses have been, and so on. Slowly the field whittled down to about fifteen open submissions. Three acceptances had already gone out, so I wasn't hopeful. As of yesterday, there were fourteen open submissions on the Grinder. I know that might sound hopeful, but I've been through this many times. I've made over 500 story submissions. It's just torturous watching the field narrow, and hoping. It hurts every time, but I always do it. Like I said, obsessive.
Then, today, after returning from the grocery store, I got the acceptance email and a contract. It feels wonderful, after trudging through this national nightmare, to get some good news.
So, to sum it up: sci-fi writing is a vast plain of poverty and frustration interrupted by a few spots of awesomeness. Your mileage may vary.
I found this an unusual book. On the one hand it's typical space opera wherein the main character gets a band together and goes on a quest. On the other hand, the cosmology of this book is so abstract that the plot is completely ungrounded, making it completely unaffecting to me, emotionally.
Vivian Liao is a billionaire bitch entrepreneur who gets pulled from Earth by the Empress. The universe she lands in is based on 'the cloud' which is very ill-defined. But that cloud seems to allow for communication, exercise of huge energies, and holds the souls of all people (except Vivian who is said to have no soul). People that are particularly adept at interacting with the cloud can teleport themselves (Xiara does it explicitly); there is constant talk of travelling 'in the cloud'.
My problem with that cosmology is twofold. First, the phrase 'the cloud' is what we call the internet, so it constantly reads as though everything is a simulation online. Second, the author never explains the cloud, even a little. So, after reading the entire book, I still have no idea how the cloud works, what are its limitations, etc. That means that, as a plot device, its just hand-wavery. Need something to happen? Say it's got something to do with the cloud, and leave it at that. It's lazy writing, boring writing, and in the end, emotionally flat writing.
Before I bought it, I saw a dichotomy of reviews. One chunk of readers thought it was brilliant and wildly inventive, while the other chunk felt it was abstract goobletygook. My reading was somewhere in the middle. I respected the author's audacity to throw us into that world without explanation and hit the ground running. I was patient, hoping that my faith would be repaid, but it never was.
Vivian's frenemy, Zanj, was a particularly vexing character to me in that she had what amounted to limitless powers. She could fight any number of opponents and recover from nearly any damage. She could travel through the cloud, and she bore a weapon that had even vaster, less defined powers than she. There was never a question of Zanj losing. She was briefly defeated once, but by then it was clear that the author would find a way to reverse that. He did.
Another way of summing up my complaint about the cosmology was that 'the cloud' was a poor magic system. It had no limits per se, no rules, no cost for usage. It existed as a plot device that solved every problem. By halfway through the book, the cloud had made everything so ungrounded that I lost all sense of tension. I finished the book, but mostly to see where the plot would finally end.
Stylistically, I didn't enjoy Max's psychoanalysis of his characters. He would drop in these long bits of navel-gazing that I started to skim by the latter part of the book. Mostly, it was a character musing on their relationships, usually non-binary ones. Maybe the non-binary nature of a lot of it was supposed to punch up the entertainment value, but it just bored the crap out of me. Vivian, for instance, had no philosophy per se, no parental trauma, no great yearning in her life, except for relentless ambition. So every few pages it was how her relentless ambition impacted this or that relationship. I just didn't care after a while.
Together, the cosmology and the characterization made the book very 'meta' for me--ungrounded, abstract, however you care to say it.
I respected this book for its creativity, but found it nonetheless unsatisfying.
Tuning-Up Your Swamp Cooler
For those of you not familiar with the term, it refers to an evaporative cooler. I live in the desert Southwest where the summer humidity stays between 15-19%. When you blow dry air over water, that air will turn some of the water into vapor. That process is endothermic. So the result is that the hot air is cooled considerably. It also provides a side-benefit or humidification. Perhaps most importantly, for the price of running a half-horse electric motor and some water, you get cooling to rival air conditioning at a fraction of the cost.
Anyway, at the start of the season, one must:
WHENEVER YOU HAVE YOUR SWAMP COOLER OPENED, BE SURE IT IS UNPLUGGED. YOU COULD BE SERIOUSLY INJURED OTHERWISE.
I'm going to assume that everyone can handle changing the pads.
Lubrication is required for the roll cage, the big round thing that the motor drives (via the belt). On either side of the axle there is a small, spring-loaded cap the size of a nail head. You have to hold it open and squirt oil in there. You can't use household oil, you need high-performace machine oil; I recommend the "Zoom Spout" turbine oil that the home stores sell (in the ecaporative cooler area). There is often lots of crud around these ports. Be sure not to let any of it get into the lubrication port. You may have to wipe the area around the port with a rag before you open it.
Each unit has a specification about the belt, but you need to look at it for cracks and check the tension; it should deflect about 3/4 of an inch when you push on it. Belts are like a once-every-five-years sort of thing.
The water system is the thing that that gets a little tricky. Start with an inspection. Remove the three panels and run the unit on "pump only". Observe the water flow out of the water distribution ( "spider" ) lines. If you get a steady flow out of all of them, you're fine. If not, there are two possibilities: the line(s) are fouled, or the pump is bad. In some areas with hard water, you have to change the pump every season.
If your flow isn't good, buy a spider-line snake (about six bucks) at the home store. It's basically a short, thin plumbing snake. Snake each line, starting from the pad side. Then retest the flow. If the flow still isn't good, then you either need to install new lines or a new pump. Usually it's the pump. Installing a new one is literally just one slide-on connection and a plug into an electrical socket. If you have to replace the spider lines, there is a fifteen dollar kit at the box store that gives you everything you need. Consult YouTube for videos.
All of the preceding is pretty generic advice. My personal innovation was to check the flow more technically. I mean, you can eye it and say it seems to look okay, but how do you know if it's providing enough water for your cooler to achieve maximum cooling?
If you look online you can find a temperature chart for evaporative coolers that, given the temperature and humidity of the outside air, will show you the expected output temperature for your unit. My trick is to use an infrared thermometer. They used to be expensive. Cooks like to use them, especially for chocolate work because you can get instant readings from a distance. You put the red dot on the target, and it tells you the temperature. Nowadays you can get one of these thermometers for about twenty-five bucks.
Given one of those thermometers, you can check the output temperature of your swamp cooler by taking the temperature of the grating the air comes out of (make sure its been running long enough so that all the start-up transient effects have worked through). Once you have that temperature, you can compare it to the chart entry for your current weather. It should be within a degree of it. If not, then you're back to troubleshooting. If everything looks otherwise okay, it's likely that your water pump is failing. Don't be shocked. These pumps last maybe two or three years, much less if you have hard water.
The important thing here is to not look at the temperature on your wall and wonder WTF. What temperature your house achieves has a lot of confounding factors involved. Not achieving the desired interior temperature doesn't mean your swamp cooler isn't working. Judge the cooler by its output temperature, NOT room temperature.
The last thing worth noting is that some people don't balance the house air flow correctly. Swamp coolers require that you open your doors/windows to let air flow out of your house. What people often screw up is what they open and how much they open it. Champion recommends that you open a window and hold up a piece of paper to the screen. If the outflow is strong enough to hold the paper to the screen, then your flow is nominal. You can open the window more and more until the paper drops. However, to get cooling into other parts of the house, one usually opens two or more windows and/or a screen door. Air flows towards those openings, introducing cooling. So there is some artistry to cracking a few windows in different rooms to get cooling to flow how you like it. In most cases, its maybe two or three inches per window. The paper rule still holds. Once you've cracked a few windows, you need to make sure the flow is still strong enough to hold a paper on each screen. So you're likely to walk around checking and adjusting until you've got things balanced as you like it.
This is my third season with a swamp cooler. I grew up in the Northeast where the humidity is too high for these things. Natives of the Southwest grow up knowing swamp coolers, but I had no clue.
For those of you transplants to the Sothwest, I hope this helps.
I have a house that is 117-years old. So I am constantly renovating it. I've swapped out all the galvanized plumbing for copper, installed new entry doors, much fencing, a garbage disposal, tile, and on and on. That's just to say I'm not a complete idiot. I'd go as far to say that I'm quite handy.
That said, I found something out the other day that was disturbing to me for just how long it took me to discover a very simple fact: Phillips-head screwdrivers have numbered sizes.
Torx-head fasteners have become very popular here, and often one finds a driver provided inside such boxes of fasteners. Those boxes always say quite clearly the exact driver needed for the fastener, like: #22 Torx. That got me in the habit of never simply grabbing any old Torx driver, but always checking that I had the precise one needed.
So the other day I was mounting some drywall and the driver bit on my drill was camming-out a lot--slipping off the screw head and making that awful noise. Experience had told me that if it were a torx-head, I should verify that I had the correct size, but I was using phillips-head drywall screws. For the first time I wondered if there wasn't a specification for these fasteners. Sure enough, right there on the box was tiny text telling me that it needed a number two phillips head. Taking my glasses off I squinted at the tiny text on my driver bit and was shocked to find that not only was the thing labelled with a number, but I had the wrong one.
I scrounged around in my big DeWalt drill-bit set and found a number two Phillips bit. Surprise, surprise, everything worked much better with the proper driver bit--facepalm.
It's the same old story: RTFM, even if you think you know what you're doing.