Old Movies

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When I watch movies these days, there’s a pretty good chance it’s an old movie. I tell people this, and by old they think I mean classic, but I don’t. I just mean old. I’m no more sitting down to take in Casablanca or Citizen Kane than I am capable of debating the relative merits of Eisenstein, Fellini or Kurosawa. My taste in old movies is no better than my taste in new ones. Which, as even my good friends would admit, is awful.

What I say old movies, what I mean are movies that I grew up with. Because I myself got old somehow, sometime. Some of these movies were out long before I was born, some were out a decade later. Some of them are good, most are not. If I’m really lucky, they’ve found refuge at the back end of Amazon or Netflix catalogs (hello again, Cloak & Dagger and Iron Eagle), but more often than not I have to track them down via used DVD stores (shoutout, Bull Moose).

People who know film will often tell you that movies and TV – TV especially – are in nearly every way fundamentally better products than they were when I was a kid. And while my tastes might betray the relevance of my opinion, this seems correct. Special effects have come a long way, but it’s more than that. Consider the quality of the child actors in movies like Super 8 or series like Stranger Things, for example. With all due respect to the nine year old Drew Barrymore of Firestarter and her contemporaries, the kids today are either better or better directed.

To be sure, not everything has changed – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Movie tropes from my youth, for example – police procedurals, monster flicks, kids rule movies and on and on – are alive and well. But they are infinitely more self aware and better written than they were back in the days when we walked uphill to school both ways in the snow. As a rule, media today is simply more ambitious. In budget, clearly – the production locations for Game of Thrones being Exhibit A. But directors are thinking bigger. When It was filmed in 1990 as a TV miniseries, it was conceived of and delivered as a straight up horror genre entry. When it was turned into a feature film last year, the idea wasn’t to make a great horror movie, but a great movie, full stop.

All of which is an odd setup: if these old movies are objectively worse, why watch them? It’s not like there is or will be any shortage of new content available.

As it turns out, there are a number of reasons.

Some of it, of course, is raw, unfiltered nostalgia. The memories attached to some of these movies are so vivid that I can almost feel my little brother sitting next to me at the foot of our parents’ bed while we eat Swanson’s TV Dinners. No matter how bad some of these movies are, the narcotic effect of the memories they trigger is a far more compelling reward than technically excellent but more distant films of today.

My deep attachment to Jaws, for example, began the day my Dad let my friend Annie from across the street and I watch it on our Betamax set when we were *maybe* five (Annie’s Mom was not thrilled). On the other end of the spectrum, I’m not sure my little brother has ever really recovered from the time we watched Prom Night with our babysitter, Annie’s older brother.

One of those films is widely regarded as a magnificent accomplishment, the first and still best summer blockbuster. The other was considered a derivative, fortunately non-terminal career mistake for a young Jamie Lee Curtis. The memories these movies bring back, however, are not proportional to their critical regard.

There’s also the fact that in these multi-tasking, distracted days, the advantage of an old movie is that I’ve seen it before and therefore only need to devote a portion of my attention to it, much as you might put on classical music while you work.

And then there’s the novelty factor. You never know when someone essential to your childhood will show up in an early role. Why is Indy slumming it as a drag racer in American Graffiti? Is Kevin Bacon really going to be one of the red shirt camp counselors in Friday the 13th?

But the real reason I watch these things isn’t the cameos, the fact that I know some of them by heart or even the sepia trips down memory lane. What I’ve come to realize in watching the movies of my childhood is that all of them, quite unintentionally, are period pieces. Whether fresh or rotten on the Tomatometer, these movies are history. Mine, the cast and crews’, and the country’s.

They’re an answer to a fundamental question: what’s changed between now and then, and has it changed for the better?

  • What the World Looked Like:
    Like any worthy period piece, of course, there are the sets. Stranger Things had to expend incredible effort in making the present look like an approximation of the 1980’s. The films I grew up with just had to show up and roll camera. From old cars to old TVs to old commercials to old clothes to old hairstyles, there is something about watching movies of the past that’s like looking at pictures of yourself as a kid and wondering how in the hell you could have possibly thought Jams looked good. Cars that looked sleek and modern decades ago look quaint and impossibly antiquated. Unless they’re muscle cars like the Hemi Cuda from Phantasm, that is, in which case they look classic and bad ass. But there’s something about watching movies strewn with awful linoleum countertops, garish wallpaper and giant rotary phones that visually and viscerally reminds that you this was a different time, one that had its advantages. Hairstyles were weird, but kids could ride their bikes to school without getting their parents questioned by DHS. You didn’t have every song ever written available wirelessly, but people in general didn’t spend the bulk of their days looking down at a small electronic square, waiting for the next dopamine hit of an alert or inbound email. People smoked on airplanes, but you didn’t have to get virtually strip searched to get on one. It was a simpler time, and while that can be good as well as bad, it had its advantages.

  • What We Looked Like:
    If you watch old movies, particularly the kids rule or slasher flicks, one of the things that stands out most is how normal the kids look. They don’t look like models and they don’t look like they’ve flown in from a Mr or Mrs Universe competition – they look like regular kids. In an era in which obesity levels are climbing and pervasive cameras and round the clock access have led to widespread body shaming issues, watching a bunch of normal teenagers is as refreshing as it is jarring.

  • What We Thought About Teenage Sex:
    A great deal has been written on the moral messages of the early teen slasher flicks – Friday the 13th, Halloween and so on. As with the fixed set of rules that governed Wil E Coyote’s pursuit of the Road Runner, horror films of my generation were formulaic and followed patterns that transcended individual films or franchises. Teenage sex, for example, was punishable by death, while the most virtuous of the group inevitably ended up the lone survivor. So much of a cliché did these rules become, in fact, that the director of one of the series originally responsible for them, Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Wes Craven, went on to lampoon them in an updated nineties franchise called Scream. Joss Whedon did much the same with this decade’s Cabin in the Woods. If you watch It Follows, meanwhile, you’ll get an interesting sense of contrast between the sexual mores of the last century versus this one.

  • What We Accepted as Normal:
    But it wasn’t just attitudes about teenage sex that have changed. When the main character in John Carpenter’s The Fog picks up a hitchhiking Jamie Lee Curtis while sipping on a Bud heavy, for example, neither the hitchhiking nor the casual drinking and driving were treated as particularly anomalous. Same with Teri Garr’s character fleeing her husband, played by Richard Dreyfuss, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind with three kids in a station wagon equipped with a grand total of zero car seats. Maybe the most startling is when Warren Beatty in The Parallax View is asked for his airfare – by the flight attendant after the plane has taken off. As Lou Reed said in 1973, “those were different times.”

  • What We Were Afraid Of:
    Much as values have changed, so have the things that society fears. Growing up, people tended to be afraid of either the existential or the fantastical. The Damoclean threat of nuclear war in movies like Rocky IV, Wargames or even Spies Like Us at one of end of the spectrum, supernaturally evil killers like Fred Krueger or Jason Voorhees at the other. These days, we seem to worry less about nuclear war than we do about plagues, as in the case of movies like 28 Days Later, Contagion or [REC] (though admittedly Michael Crichton, as usual, was ahead of his time with The Andromeda Strain). On an individual level, meanwhile, we collectively seem to be more aware of the fact that we’re a lot more likely to be killed by other people than magical creatures. The cannibals of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre are frightening because they’re monsters, but the cannibals of Snowpiercer are arguably more so because, as Rod Serling once said, the monsters are us.

    Maybe the best evidence for how our fears have changed, however, is 1984’s Red Dawn. A movie about a Soviet-led invasion of the United States set in Colorado, it features a bunch of high school kids turned guerrillas with hunting rifles killing Cuban and Russian soldiers. It did this so well that the Gun Owners of America group honored the director for “dramatically depicting the importance in our time of the Second Amendment,” and the National Review Online places it 15 in its list of “The Best Conservative Movies.”

    Today, however, with this President, many of those conservatives have very different attitudes about Russia. Attitudes which their parents would have found inexplicable and horrifying if not outright treasonous.

  • What We Don’t Do Anymore:
    In movies like The Monster Squad, a typical “kids rule” movie from the 1980’s, the homophobia sporadically on display isn’t the surprise: it’s how casual it is. While 2018 clearly cannot claim a perfect record when it comes to sexual preference or identification, it is heartening to watch movies from a few decades ago and think, “that would never be allowed in a movie today.” Baby steps, but progress nevertheless.

    Also, thanks in large part to Sigourney Weaver, there are many, many more women action stars these days. Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Gal Gadot, Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Beckinsale, Linda Hamilton, Lucy Liu, Milla Jovovich, Scarlett Johansson, Uma Thurman, Zoe Saldana and all of the other women carrying action movies these days owe a debt to Ripley blowing the goddamn thing out of the airlock. Twice.

  • What We Still Do:
    As far as diversity goes, however, movies and TV are still generally awful. The good news is that Black Panther is, financially speaking, one of the most successful movies of all time. Get Out wasn’t quite the same money making juggernaut, but was similarly well received by critics. The bad news is the fact that these films remain the exception, exceptions which prove the rule. We’ve got a long way to go. As a believer, however, that economics are one of the most powerful change agents there is, it’s been absolutely delightful to see Black Panther approach the billion and a half revenue mark.

These are just a small handful of examples – old movies are absolutely littered with history. It seems safe to assume, in fact, that they’ve been the subject of thousands of graduate theses whose readership is measured in single digits. But for my fellow non-film geeks, go watch an old movie sometime. Come for the less cynical, jaded and graphic plotlines, stay for the intoxicating look at how life used to be.
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Our New Network Solution: An Amplifi Review

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Back in early January, the Nest camera that serves as our baby monitor went offline in the middle of the night. By itself, this wouldn’t be noteworthy, but the problem was that this had become routine. And any routine that involves an already sleep deprived parent having to wake up in the middle of the night and mess around with network connections isn’t going to be a routine for long. Devices from Nest units to our laptops would get hung up or knocked off our network entirely, several times a day every day.

Whether it was simply that the Asus NT-66U router we’d bought five years ago had gotten old, had some intermittent hardware failure or simply had never been designed to handle having dozens of devices connected to it all day every day, I never determined.

As I mentioned when we set out to replace the router, there was a time when I would have enjoyed the technical challenge of debugging and remediating an old router. The wifi solution at our last house, in fact, was a series of Linksys devices running DD-WRT as a series of daisy-chained repeaters. But between having a young child and just generally finding other things to do with my time as I’ve gotten older, at this point in my life I want to expend essentially zero effort on networking. I want it to Just Work, out of the box. And if it doesn’t, as was the case with the aging Asus device we used, I’ll find something that will.

All of which explains how I ended up asking for recommendations for networking gear on Twitter:

Based on anecdotes and random reviews of networking gear I had seen, I expected the advice to break down into roughly two categories: hard core geeks pushing Ubiquiti, with everyone else recommending some combination of mesh offerings from Eero, Google Wifi and so on. And with a few exceptions, that’s what I got.

Which wasn’t ideal, because as much as Ubiquiti’s reputation made its gear attractive, just the thought of stringing CAT-6 lines everywhere and having to fine tune complicated network settings was exhausting. A simple, cable-free mesh setup was much more in line with my near total lack of willingness to invest time in our home networking solution.

The obvious solution to this dilemma was to go with Ubiquiti’s mesh system, Amplifi: I’d get the simplicity of mesh with the reputation of Ubiquiti. Unfortunately, however, most of the reviews of their hardware like the one from Ars here noted that Amplifi’s mesh points are extremely attractive for toddlers to take apart and destroy. Which is relevant, because we have a toddler.

Initially, then, it looked like I was going down the Eero or Google Wifi routes (Orbi got good write-in recommendations as well), though with reservations about the future of both hardware lines if for different reasons. But then, in a bit of well timed social media outreach, Ubiquiti informed me that I didn’t actually need the mesh points.

When they subsequently DM’d me to ask whether I’d like some gear to test, then, I said hell yes. They sent over two MeshRouters, and what follows is a discussion of how that’s gone.

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The Net

The tl;dr version is that the Amplifi gear is excellent, and I recommend it without reservation. Basically, with one exception which I’ll discuss, I never think about our network. Given the degree of traffic it handles – which is a lot for a home, as virtually all of our media (movies/music/tv) is streamed and we have a non-trivial number of smart devices from the aforementioned Nest to WeMo on network – its performance has been exemplary.

In short, while kid duty has had me up in the middle of the night many, many times since we switched over to Amplifi, the number of times I’ve had to attend to a broken network connection has been zero.

Which is all I could ask for.

Our House

As houses go, ours is not that big clocking in a bit under 2,000 square feet. The old Asus router could just barely reach across it, but the connection quality at the far end of the house wasn’t great. So while a three device system likely would have been overkill for us, placing one MeshRouter at each end of the house blankets the entire house in a solid connection. This means, for example, that we can run at outdoor Nest cam at the end of the house furthest away from the internet drop – this would have been impossible with the Asus.

The reach of these devices also means that basically our entire yard – front, back and sides – has internet access. Which is pretty great when I’m loading the woodshed or cutting the lawn; I can stream whatever I want with impunity and without worrying about a stuttering internet connection or reverting to my more expensive and slower mobile data plan. It’s also nice to be able to download the latest podcasts from the driveway at broadband speeds before I head into the office.

Installation

Installing the Amplifi system was very straightforward with three exceptions, one which was Ubiquiti’s fault and two of which were mine.

The problems I caused were:

  1. That in conjunction with our replacement of our network setup, the request had been made by a family member who shall go unnamed to change our network ID at the same time. Which was fine as far as the Amplifi setup went, but that change subsequently broke literally every IoT device we had. I’d expected Nest, at least, to handle network changes more gracefully, but I highly recommend against changing your network setup if you have any alternative, unless you enjoy pulling smoke detectors off ceilings and cameras off walls. This has nothing to do with Amplifi, obviously, but in case you get a new networking setup and are contemplating making a change to your network: don’t.
  2. For reasons I can no longer remember, I set our NAS device up with a static IP at some point in the distant past. The problem was that the out of the box IP range for the Amplifi system didn’t match our old router, so the NAS was requesting an IP address that was unavailable. The good news was that as soon as I figured out what the problem was (which took me a lot longer than it should have), that Amplifi made it easy to a) change the default range and b) assign that device the IP address it required. Still, do yourself a favor and don’t set up static IPs if you don’t need to.

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The only issue with Amplifi’s setup was with the second MeshRouter. Setting up the first device was idiot proof, and I had it online within a minute or two. Convincing the second MeshRouter that I actually wanted it to be a MeshPoint, however, was a bit of a clunky process. The UI could use some work in that department, but if you’re using the standard MeshRouter plus MeshPoint system, it won’t be an issue for you.

All in all, discounting the issues in which I shot myself in the foot repeatedly, Amplifi delivered the low friction install experience I’d hoped for.

Maintenance

With the Asus, I used to have to remember to login in to the web console and check for hardware updates. With the Amplifi unit, every so often the display on the router has a notification that an update is available, along with a button to install it. One click, the firmware upgrade is applied and it goes back to being unnoticeable.

Aesthetics

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I’m of the opinion that most routing equipment, and some of the newer mesh systems in particular, are aesthetically mediocre at best and legitimately bizarre at worst. But while I’d definitely lump the Amplifi MeshPoints in that category, the MeshRouters are pretty easy on the eyes. Simple, clean cube design with a highly quality LCD display that doubles as a clock – and that you can configure to power down at night. It’s not exactly Bang & Olufsen in terms of its appearance, but the Amplifi gear is a clear step up from the old Asus, Linksys, etc. routers you might be used to that were oddly shaped and sprouted antennas like a hedgehog.

Management

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The Amplifi gear is installed via and managed with their mobile app, available on both Android and iOS. It’s generally well designed, and distills its telemetery down to the actual questions you’d typically want answers to about your network: is the internet up or down? What is its speed? How many devices are connected? Is the mesh network up? And so on. It even includes a built ISP test you can use.

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If you’re motivated, the Amplifi system gives you some useful management abilities: you can pause the internet across all devices, or on a device by device basis for example. But apart from the aforementioned NAS IP debacle and cutting our DNS over to Cloudflare’s public network, I haven’t had to tinker too much with the network because it just works.

Performance

I’ll leave this question to reviewers who can benchmark the gear against other comparable systems, but I can say that we’ve had zero issues with performance in spite of some heavy network usage requirements. Whether it’s streaming high definition video down from YouTube TV or up to Nest, so far, it’s been so good.

Issues

Apart from the MeshRouter as MeshPoint setup complaint above, the only other real issue we’ve had has been with hand-offs between access points. For fixed in place devices such as our Nest cams, this isn’t an issue. But if you have a laptop streaming video and walk from one end of the house to the other, the connection is likely to stutter if not drop entirely as you’re handed off from router to meshpoint or vice versa. That scenario isn’t a particularly common occurrence for us, but it’s not unheard of either so a solution would be welcome.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Ubiquiti is aware of the issue, and while it’s to some degree dependent on hardware providers such as Apple, the early returns from its updated firmware have been promising.

But do understand that you may experience some connectivity issues if you’re constantly roaming between different access points.

Where to Buy

If you want a system in a box, I’ve got an Amazon referral link for you right here. You can also buy the MeshRouters straight from Ubiquiti here.

Disclosure

Ubiquiti, as mentioned above, was kind of to give me the two review units free of cost.

 

What’s the Deal With YouTube TV?

The last time I had a cable subscription was a decade ago. Which I bring up only because of the context, not as an attempt to claim any moral superiority. We have a local Netflix-like setup in the house, and over the last decade I’ve wasted just as much time as the average cable customer watching the kind of found footage and monster movies that don’t generally end up in theaters.

So no, I don’t think I’m better than you.

I haven’t missed cable for the most part. As with most cord cutters, live sports has been the biggest problem. I’ve found work arounds for most of it, but they’ve all come with significant limitations. I had to use a paid DNS service that fooled geo-lookups, for one, which was compatible with some but not all of the packages I subscribe to. MLB.tv would work but Netflix wouldn’t, that kind of thing. I was generally limited to watching on a laptop as well, and sometimes a 12″ screen just isn’t the right medium.

All of which helps explain why I’ve been checking in every so often on cord-cutting packages like Playstation Vue or Sling TV. The idea of having an internet only TV package that was cheaper than cable was attractive, but every time I looked there was some critical limitation. As was the case when I first found out about YouTube TV, with its crucial NESN (AKA the station that Red Sox games are on) availability in October. After becoming intrigued by YouTube’s cable-ish package, not least because standard YouTube had become a staple of my viewing habits, it turned out that the service wasn’t available quite yet up here in Maine.

On December 11th, I received notification that the service had launched in Portland.

Cut to a few minutes later.

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We’ve been subscribers ever since. When it’s come up in conversation, the number one question I get is “how is it?”
 
The answer is: it’s great. I like it, but since my judgment with respect to TV is questionable, it’s probably more important to note that Kate likes it as well. She’d prefer it have HGTV I’m sure, but the ability to watch the Olympics for the first time in years has been a big win. As for me, I’ll be able to watch the Red Sox on TV in my house this weekend. Everything else – even the incredible Blue Planet 2 from BBC America, or the amazing recent news that MLB Network will be added to the roster soon – is gravy.

If you’re curious about the details, read on.

Price

At $35 a month, it’s a pretty easy sell. NESN by itself was a $12 extra the last time I subscribed to cable, and as a vehicle to be able to watch sports and series not available on Netflix yet (e.g. Blue Planet 2) it’s a fair value, if not the lowest cost option. Even at $40, which is what the price will go up to in March, we probably wouldn’t think twice about it. It’s likely to pay for itself just in the time I don’t have to spend tinkering with DNS settings to get the sports I want.

Content

At 50+ channels now, YouTube has probably 40 more than I’ll ever need. But more realistically, with the recent addition of Turner Channels such as TNT, Adult Swim, TBS, CNN, and Cartoon Network their last obvious basic cable hole was plugged. Most people will find their basic needs met, whether that’s local channels, live sports or movies – no HBO yet, though Showtime is available as an add-on.

Device Support

Something the service was dinged on early, this has not been an issue for us. We used the native Samsung integration until the Roku client was available, but with support for Android, Chromecast, iOS, LG/Samsung TVs, Xbox and now Apple TV and Roku, most of the common options are covered. I haven’t watched a lot on my Pixel or iPad too much yet, but I can guarantee that those get a workout come baseball season.

Family Sharing

YouTube TV supports 6 accounts but only 3 concurrent streams, so that may or may not work for you given the size of your household. For us, it’s more than enough.

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Picture Quality

I’ve seen a lot of debate (for example) around the framerate and resolution of YouTube TV streams, but what I can tell you is that we have a brand new 50″ 4K Samsung LCD, and the picture is excellent. Streams are consistent and don’t buffer for us, either.

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DVR

The DVR feature is simple to use, and works perfectly. Search for a show, or team in my case, and press the “+” button. That’s it. Whenever and whatever channel the Red Sox play on, this will record it.
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Even better? The cloud-based DVR is unlimited, so you never have to worry about maxing out shows. This makes it easy for me to record things like “The Twilight Zone,” which aren’t a priority but that I’ll watch from time to time.

Usability

While the user interface is a bit different than standard cable, it’s a lot easier for me to navigate. There are just three tabs:

  • Home: This is a mix of recommendations, shows to resume watching and high level categories like News or Sports.
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  • Library: This is the DVR, with everything you’ve recorded.
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  • Live: This is the equivalent of your channel browser on cable, and lists what’s on currently and up next.youtube-live-page-actual
The only real usability issues I’ve had came when we were using the Samsung’s native YouTube TV interface; the base-model TV we got came with a base-model remote, and it wasn’t always intuitive how to pause, rewind or fast forward. But that’s Samsung’s problem, not YouTube’s: once we cut over to the Roku, everything’s been seamless.

Less obvious but no less important than the functional usability, in my opinion, are the aesthetics. From the font to the layout, YouTube’s TV package is attractive and a genuine pleasure to use; whatever they’re paying the designers, it’s not enough.

Wishlist

As much as I like it now, there are ways that YouTube TV could be even better. Note that number one on this list would have been adding MLB Network, but that’s already in the works.

  • PIP on the iPad:
    The YouTube TV app for the iPad is, in general, excellent. Its one primary shortcoming is the lack of support for Picture-in-Picture (PIP). One of the things that makes the latest generations of iPad usable across a wider variety of scenarios is its improved support for multi-tasking. Netflix, for example,
    allows you to play media while using the iPad for something else. Currently,
    the YouTube TV app doesn’t offer this. Would love to see the ability added.
  • Channel Filtering:
    Back when I had DirecTV, you could filter their hundreds of channels down based on the ones you actually watched. Which is how people who came over to my house were presented with a channel lineup that consisted of less than a dozen channels including ESPN, NESN, the Cartoon Network, Discovery and the History channel (this was before the latter turned into the Ancient Aliens channel, mind you). I’d like to be able to do that on YouTube TV. It’s not likely that I’m ever going to watch Fox News, so I’d rather not waste UI space on it.
  • Reviews: Given that YouTube TV is offering me recommendations, it’d be nice to be able to give them explicit rather than implicit signals about what I like versus what I don’t. Even a thumbs up/down button, as on Netflix, would work.
  • Offline Caching: As far as I can tell right now, while the cloud DVR is infinitely capable, there’s no provision for offline storage. Unlike Netflix, where I can store a video ahead of time to watch on a plane, YouTube TV isn’t an option for me offline.
  • Better Integration with Standard YouTube: Given the branding and origins of the service, not to mention the growth, it’s interesting to me that standard YouTube isn’t integrated to the TV service outside of “YouTube Red Originals,” which don’t interest me much. I’ve got a growing number of standard YouTube channels I watch regularly, mostly woodworking and DIY-related, that I’d definitely watch on the service if I could. My guess is that one of the potential concerns is what lower resolution user-filmed content would look like on large screens, but I’d like at least the option to even if the picture quality suffers.
  • More Sophisticated DVR Filters (AKA the Simpsons Filter): This is nit-picking to be sure, but while the existing DVR filters are excellent, as mentioned, I’d love for them to be a bit more granular. In my case, for example, I’m a big Simpsons fan, but I’ll only watch through Season 14. The show lost me after that, so I’d love to be able to tell the DVR to record the show so I had them, but to skip the latter seasons where the quality fell off.

The Net

If you’re looking for an easy-to-use alternative to cable and are willing to pay a slight premium for features like time-shifting via DVR, I’d definitely recommend giving YouTube TV a look.

So You’re Thinking About Using Sears For Service

On January 8th, our dishwasher broke. Technically that isn’t true, because it was still able to wash dishes, it just was no longer able to do so without smelling like an electrical fire. There are many appliance issues one can overlook or live with, but a burning smell isn’t really one of them.

I took a quick look underneath the unit, but it looked pretty much like a dishwasher to me. Time to call in the professionals.

First up was Sears, as they sold us the unit. Took a quick look online, but Sears.com was booking appointments a week out so I turned to Bosch, the manufacturer. Their recommended service person was an hour away. Next up, Google. That found me three local people, who I called. One only serviced the units they sold, one was on vacation for the month of January and the last one never called me back.

Sears then, by default.

I wasn’t thrilled to wait a week, but I was happy that we’d at least booked someone to fix it. A month later when we finally gave up on them after the third no show, I was a lot less happy.

For the masochistic, I’m including a full timeline of events below. Most of you won’t need to read that, or care. All you need to know is that our experience with Sears was by a wide margin the worst customer service experience I’ve had, and I’m a two time Comcast customer.

I take no pleasure in writing this post, because the technician that did eventually show up for the diagnosis was friendly, competent and professional. Much has been written on how one time hedge fund manager and Sears CEO Eddie Lampert has ruined the company – see this piece in Business Insider or this one in Salon, for example. Unfortunately for the thousands of good men and women who work for the company, if our experience was any guide, those articles aren’t hyperbole: the company is in fact ruined.

At a minimum their customer relationship management system – or systems, plural, I should say – are a disaster. No one ever had any record of talking to me, every rep I spoke with gave me incorrect information, and none of the different business units – one located here in the US at a number with a New Hampshire area code, one outsourced to India judging by the accents, and the social media team – seemed to be able to communicate with each other.

The short version of what happened to us was that we were given three dates on which Sears promised to show up. Three times they failed to, and on none of those occasions were we notified. On the latter two occasions, I had actually confirmed the appointments the day before. The last time, in fact, I confirmed it twice via phone and once via Twitter the day before, and then the morning of. Didn’t make a difference: no Sears.

It’s bad enough to not show up when people have to make arrangements to meet you. But not letting the customer know you’ve cancelled and then rebooking a week out demonstrates a comical level of incompetence.

After the third cancellation, when Sears tried to reschedule me for another week out, I asked the representative why I should trust them this time, losing more time in the process? He didn’t have an answer, obviously, so I cancelled the service and ultimately ended up doing the repair myself (thanks, YouTube) – over a month after the dishwasher originally broke.

The lesson here, then, is that until Sears fixes its broken service program, I’d highly recommend against using them, and given that many shops seem to only service equipment they sell, I probably wouldn’t buy from them either.

Timeline

  • Jan 8: Dishwasher breaks
  • Jan 10: Give up on local guy, resort to Sears who only books a week out.
  • Jan 17: I arrange to work from home, Sears doesn’t show up. No call or warning. I call, and without providing any reason for the delay, they rebook me for the 20th.
  • Jan 20: Sears shows up, diagnoses problem, doesn’t have parts to fix it, orders them (but importantly doesn’t tell us what they are) schedules a repair for 1/31 – which means another ten days without a dishwasher. Critical mistake: we pay in advance.
  • Jan 30: Sears calls, asks for confirmation that parts arrived. I call back and confirm that parts did arrive. Receive appointment confirmation.
  • Jan 31: Sears calls while I’m in London asking for confirmation that parts arrived.
  • Jan 31: Kate works from home, Sears does not show. There was no call or warning.
  • Feb 1: An additional Sears part shows up.
  • Feb 1: Kate complains to Sears via Twitter. They write back: “Please confirm in a DM the full name, full street address, and phone number. If you are not the purchaser, please confirm instead their full name and their relation to you, thanks.”
  • Feb 5 (Our daughter had the flu, so we were distracted for a few days) Kate sends them photos of the receipt and an explanation of events via DM.
    > SEARS: Hello, we are having trouble viewing that image. Please type out the requested information. Thank you!
    > Kate: {sends information}
    > SEARS: Can you please provide us the requested information. We will need full name, full street address, and phone number. If you are not the account holder. Please provide their info and relation to you. Thank you.
    > Kate: O_o
  • Feb 6: Sears (via SMS) confirms appointment for tomorrow afternoon. Related: they never asked if we were available, it was just scheduled.
  • Feb 6 (later): Sears (NH) calls. First I get asked if I’m Mr. Trillian, but they eventually find my order, ask if parts have arrived. I say yes and they confirm appointment.
  • Feb 6 (later): Sears (Toll-Free) calls and says I need to call and confirm that parts have arrived.
  • Feb 6 (later): Sears (Twitter) asks me to DM, can’t because DM’s aren’t open.
  • Feb 6 (later): DM them my info.
  • Feb 6 (later): Additional Sears part shows up.
  • Feb 6 (later): Call Sears (Toll-Free), clearly outsourced call center rep asks if I’ve received the parts. I say I think so, but was never given a list. She puts me on hold, comes back and asks if I’ve received two packages. I reply that we have (actual number is 3). She says the technician will be there tomorrow with an additional part, but that I’m confirmed for tomorrow.
  • Feb 6 (later): Sears (Twitter) replies via DM asking if I’ve received all the parts. Here was our exchange:
    sears-DM-3
  • Feb 7: 10:30 AM Sears calls. Call them back: “You’re confirmed, they’ll be there at 1 PM.”
  • Feb 7: 3:30 PM Sears sends an email: “Sears Repair Service is attempting to contact you regarding parts related to your scheduled in home service.”
  • Feb 7: 3:45 PM I call Sears: “We have no record that the parts arrived or that you have an appointment scheduled today, our next opening is the 13th.” Conversation goes downhill from there, and I decide to cancel the appointment entirely.
  • Feb 7: In a back and forth with @Searscare via DM requesting a refund, they asked: “Could you possibly send another screen shot of your confirmation?” Which was funny, because they’d confirmed the appointment via DM the day prior.
  • Feb 7: In one last futile attempt to try and salvage the situation, Sears calls and asks if I have a specific part, which I had received. In an ironic turn of fate, it turns out all of the cancellations were because they assumed I didn’t have a part which had already arrived.

 

Ten Podcasts You Might Not Have Heard

Almost twenty years ago, my parents got me the BBC’s full cast audio version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as a Christmas present. I was ecstatic. Like a lot of people, I enjoyed the books as a kid and was curious to see how they’d translate in an audiobook form. More importantly, however, it was hours of entertainment – thirteen hours on thirteen discs, to be precise. Given that I was reverse commuting out of Manhattan at the time by car, this was a veritable goldmine of fresh content.

It meant that I didn’t have to listen to the shriekers on sports radio at all for almost a week, which was glorious.

These days, it’s difficult to appreciate what a content wasteland commutes were at the time. First, because the advent of digital and then streaming music meant that you went from a music collection limited by physical, easily damaged discs to any version of any song ever, at your fingertips. But these days, for me, it’s more because of the explosion in podcast content available.

It took me a lot longer to get into podcasts than it should have, mostly because I was dumb, but these days they’re a staple of my media consumption diet. In the jobs to be done parlance, podcasts take otherwise dead time – time spent commuting, as mentioned, or chopping wood, or working in the shop – and make it productive. Or more productive, at least.

The good news is that your options are basically infinite. From business to history to horror fiction, there’s a podcast for pretty much everyone. The bad news is that discovery, however, remains a pretty major problem. If you’re content with what is essentially the podcast incarnation of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40, you won’t have any problems. And to be fair, many of the shows that make those lists (and there are one or two on here there are probably on there towards the bottom) – shows like 99% Invisible or S-Town – are creative, exceedingly well produced and deserving of the attention they receive.

But if your tastes are a little more specific and a little less mainstream, it can be hard to find new shows – hence the ubiquitous pleas for ratings “so that new listeners can find us.”

My own tastes are undoubtedly a bit eccentric and very unlikely to match yours perfectly, but you might find one or more of the following (sorted alphabetically by category) worth a listen – I certainly do.

Enjoy.

Baseball: Effectively Wild

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It’s embarrassing to admit this, but something like a quarter of the podcasts I subscribe to are about baseball. Maybe a third. Anyway, they run the gamut. Some are hosted by local writers or media outlets, others MLB itself. But the show that best balances relevance for a wider audience while being entertaining and informative is probably the current incarnation of Effectively Wild. It’s nerdy and stat-oriented, but covers the game with a critical eye. Episode 1165 with Jeff Passan, as but one example, is a must listen if you care about the game itself.

Business: Postlight

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As long as I’m confessing my podcast subscription sins, I should acknowledge that for someone who works in an industry where there’s a podcast for literally every subject, I listen to very few technology podcasts. Part of it is a format thing: a lot of these are panel type shows, which aren’t my favorite. But a lot of it is that given that I spend most of my day immersed in industry news and analysis, it’s nice to take a step back. Postlight’s Track Changes show, however, is an exception to this rule. It’s a great show run by founders Paul Ford and Rich Ziade, and while they’ll occasionally rant on subjects such as their hate for LinkedIn, they have a remarkable and diverse assemblage of talent come through their studio to talk about aspects of technology I don’t hear anywhere else.

Fiction: Magnus Archives

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There are a great number of fictional podcasts out there, with more arriving by the day. As with most published fiction, the quality of these varies, whether it’s the production or the writing. The most common trap that series fall into is one familiar to fans of Lost or The X-Files: the writers, not having a predetermined ending in mind, get themselves so tangled up narratively speaking that they can’t extricate themselves. One of the best currently going is a little show out of the UK called The Magnus Archives. The episodes are ostensibly stand alone horror vignettes, but if you stick with it a narrative emerges. More importantly, a cohesive narrative, one that is consistent with the individual episodes, and one in which the writers clearly have thought everything through ahead of time. If you grew up reading Stephen King short stories, you’re likely to enjoy this show.

Ghost Stories: Spooked

spooked
If you need straight up ghost stories told by real people – for Halloween, maybe – the Snap Judgment produced Spooked is your huckleberry. The quality of the stories varies pretty widely, but the natural, “regular person” deliveries definitely gives these a bump.

History: Slow Burn

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With apologies to perennial favorites – but already massively popular – history shows like Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History or Mike Duncan’s Revolutions, my favorite new history podcast is one with a subject of more recent vintage. Slow Burn is produced by Slate, and is a show that revisits Watergate. Even if you’re familiar with the history, as I (falsely) believed I was prior to listening to the show, you’ll learn something new. The host Leon Neyfakh and team have done an excellent job sourcing original material, and then interviewing the original participants in the affair. In between John Chancellor segments from the NBC Nightly News are interviews with people such as Bob Woodward, Dick Cavett, and Leslie Stahl. This is one of the podcasts I most look forward to listening to, even if the events – such as those covered in the episode “Why Did So Many People Stand With Richard Nixon For So Long?” – are sadly relevant today.

Home Improvement: Fine Homebuilding

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If you spend any time working on your house, this show is for you. The three hosts discuss everything from tool reviews and recommendations, thoughts on various building materials, recommended construction approaches and even field questions from the audience. It’s not fancy, and it’s definitely geared towards people with some familiarity with terminology, but I’ve gotten quite a bit out of it.

Media: Recode Media with Peter Kafka

recode
I’m not much for media watching in general, except in cases where it reads on other concerns of mine such as politics or the technology industry, but this show is worth it for the interviews alone. I skip celebrities ones like Jimmy Kimmel, but Kafka’s interview with Ken Burns, for example, was fascinating. Having the opportunity to hear the documentary filmmaker discuss everything from how the Vietnam documentary was made to why he continues to choose PBS as an outlet educates me on issues and topics I hadn’t realized existed.

National Security: Bombshell

bombshell
In a perfect world, or even the world a few years ago, podcasts like Bombshell or Lawfare wouldn’t be – at least for me, an ordinary citizen – a must listen. For the world we live in, however, they are. Bombshell in particular has carved out a spot in my top podcasts list, both because it brings me up to speed on issues of national security, foreign relations and military strategy and because it does so in style. Hosted by three highly competent women – and regularly featuring strictly female subject matter expert guests, with an emphasis on the expert – the average show might cover everything from our changing relationship with Pakistan and its impact on the logistical challenges of supplying Afghanistan to high quality bourbon selections. Also? Two thirds of the hosts are stat geeks. It’s sad that the world we live in demands a heightened understanding of the topics covered on this show, but that’s where we are.

Politics: FiveThirtyEight

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As with technology podcasts, I have a generally low tolerance for their political counterparts. Some are too strident, others are more opinion than fact and still others are functionally equivalent to powerful sedatives. The FiveThirtyEight show generally manages to avoid the hot takes common to the genre while remaining fairly objective, fact based and dispassionate – if slightly too contrarian for my taste at times. For me, it’s an opportunity to get a rational take on today’s irrational events, often with a dose of hard polling numbers along with the appropriate caveats about sample sizes or likely regression. If you’re looking for context and an objective take on the political news of the month, day or sometimes, hour, this is a pretty good bet.

Survival: Outside Magazine

outside
This one’s kind of morbid, but I’ve found the Outside Magazine podcast’s Science of Survival series riveting. From being adrift on a surf board out at sea to freezing to death to backcountry falls to being treed by a jaguar, the stories are part adventure story, part cautionary tale and part survival training. If you’ve ever been curious at how the body and the mind handle extreme conditions or injury, this podcast is for you. Many of the shows interviews are excellent as well: Ep. 11 “Doc Parsley Solves Your Sleep Crisis” changed the way I thought about the importance of sleep, for example.

 

 

 

 

How to Make an End Grain Cutting Board

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As some of you may have seen, I made a few cutting boards as Christmas gifts for family and friends this year. The boards were certainly not perfect, which irks me, but they at least came out well enough that I didn’t have to scramble at the last minute and swap in alternate gifts. This was actually the second batch of cutting boards I’ve made. I made two for my parents and my in-laws last year as well, and they were serviceable.

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Because woodworking is not the most common hobby, people are maybe a little more impressed than they should be that boards like these are homemade. That being said, if you’re starting from rough sawn lumber as pictured above and you lack real, full size power tools some of the steps involved in making these can be a little tricky.

For anyone that’s interested but might lack some of the fancy tools common in other How To videos, then, here’s how I make cutting boards like these using the more basic tools I have in my shop. The tl;dr: if I can build one of these,
you can too.

The Type

First, it’s important to understand what kind of cutting board you’re making. The boards above are what are called end grain cutting boards. This means exactly what it sounds like: the surface of the cutting board is the end grains of the wood. This is in contrast to most wooden cutting boards, which are edge grain.

In theory, the advantage to end grain boards is that they don’t cut across the grain, which is hard on both the board and the knife. Instead, each cut lands between individual wood fibers which naturally reseal themselves post-cut, in a manner which is impossible for severed edge grains. End grain is also supposed to provide less surface area for bacteria and other contaminants.

Whatever their functional advantages, however, end grain boards are, in my opinion at least, aesthetically superior. Exposing and contrasting the varied grain patterns of different sections of wood gives each board a unique and visually interesting appearance.

The process below will work for either type of board, however. If you prefer edge grain boards, you simply skip a few steps at the end.

What Actual Experts Can Do

If you really want to see what’s possible with these boards, check out this Instagram account. This guy’s boards are legitimate works of art, and while some of the more complicated designs are rendered via a CNC machine, he’s able to make incredibly complex pieces using nothing more than basic power tools.

YouTube Can Help

Like everything else I build, when making cutting boards I started with YouTube. You’ll probably want to too. My playlist of cutting board videos, which includes one from the Instagram account mentioned above, is here. The best balance between depth of content and accessibility, however, is probably this one from the Wood Whisperer.

Notes on Wood Choice

There are dozens of types of wood that make for good cutting boards, so while I prefer walnut because it’s distinct from more traditional maple boards, you can certainly get creative and use different woods and even different combinations of wood to achieve your desired look. Three quick caveats.

  1. Hardwoods are preferable. There are some manufacturers that produce cutting boards using softwoods like larch, but in general you’ll get much better life out of a hardwood.
  2. Certain hardwood species are no no’s for cutting boards, either because they have large pores like oak or because they have potentially toxic oil and resin issues like teak. Do your research if you’re using something exotic.
  3. You may see videos on making cutting boards out of scrap wood such as wood that came from pallets. Personally, while I use pallet wood for a variety of projects, I wouldn’t use it for anything that touches food because I don’t know what the pallet wood’s been exposed to.

What You’ll Need

In a perfect world, you have a full size cabinet saw for rips, a compound miter saw for crosscuts, jointers and planers wide enough for the boards, and an industrial drum sander. If you have access to all of that, skip the below and just go watch one of the videos. You don’t need this.

My shop, however, has none of those things. The following is what I used, and just FYI therse are Amazon referral links.

  • Cuts: SawStop Jobsite Saw
    I saved up for a SawStop mostly because I like having all of my fingers. If you haven’t seen it, their safety technology is like a magic trick. But it’s not just the safety; these are well designed saws, period. SawStop’s thoughtful about how the saw is put together, how accessories are attached and made available, etc. And while the included miter gauge is terrible, the fence is great. I would love to have one SawStop’s big cabinet saws, but even if my budget would have accommodated it my space wouldn’t: I just don’t have the room. Plus, there’s nothing better than working outside in the summer, and the jobsite saw lets me do that.The only question for this project was whether the smaller jobsite saw would have the horsepower to rip the thick, heavy 8/4 (2″) walnut stock I was working with. Turned out to not be an issue, the saw cut it up just fine.All of that being said, most tablesaws will be fine for this. They just might lop off a finger or two.
  • Flattening: Bosch Colt Router with included Edge Guide and not included Plunge Base
    Like my jobsite saw, this router was in part a budget driven purchase as I was just getting into woodworking when I bought it and I couldn’t justify a full size router so I picked up this cheaper trim router. The shocking thing is that for a tiny little trim router, it’s incredibly powerful. I used it to cut dadoes with a 3/4″ bit this summer – which the guy at Rockler bet me I couldn’t do – and it was used to do all of the actual board flattening. I might have been able to go a bit faster if I had something with a bit more juice under the hood, but I’m not sure that would have been advisable in any event.
  • Glueing:
    Most important, make sure your glue is food safe. I use Titebond III for my boards; this is pretty standard. As for clamps, I’ve got a mix of bar and pipe clamps, and for the jointer sled (see below) I used these toggle clamps.
  • Sanding:
    I have an old hand me down random orbit sander, so you don’t need anything particularly sophisticated for this job.

How to Build the Boards

1. If you’re lucky enough to get your lumber dressed on four sides (i.e. flat on the sides, bottom and top, skip all this nonsense and go to Step #3). More likely, you’re picking it up from the lumber store rough sawn, which means you have to joint and plane it. Step one for me was jointing or flattening the sides. Normally, you’d do this on a jointer but I don’t have one. So instead I made a sled for my table saw that pinned the wood down so I could cut one clean edge that I could then place against the tablesaw fence to give me two clean sides. Here’s a YouTube describing this process. And here’s the sled.

IMG_20180108_210943
As you can see, this is exceedingly primitive, and like the other sleds I used on this project it’s made from melamine plywood scrap I had left over from this summer’s closet organizer build. Basically, it’s a board wide enough for your lumber, with toggles on it to make sure it doesn’t move while being cut. 

2. With the sides addressed, next up was flattening the boards top and bottom. Luckily for me, I have a small 10″ benchtop Ryobi planer. This worked, because my stock was between 7″ and 8″ wide. The only issue was that the infeed and outfeed supports for my small planer were nowhere near long enough, so I had to make a planer sled.

IMG_20180108_210821
This was even more basic than the jointer sled. It’s literally a long piece of flat material, which a lip on to keep the material from sliding off the back. Here’s a useful YouTube on building one of those.

The end result of the “jointing” and planing of these boards looked like this.

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3
. Next up is ripping these into strips using the tablesaw. This should be uncomplicated: you simply rip the individual boards into strips – 1″ strips in the case of my design. Note that this is not related to the ultimate thickness of the board.

The ripped strips will look like this.

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You might notice the pencil marks on the above. This is because I personally prefer to try and keep the stock matched with the strips it came from, so this lets me reassemble them in exactly the correct order. You may prefer a completely random assortment, in which case don’t bother marking the ripped stock.

4. At this point, you’re probably left with strips that are much longer than your board requires. Which means that they must be cut down to length – 15.5″ in my case. In this case, you’re cross cutting the wood, which means that you either need a compound miter saw to crosscut your material, or as in my case, a crosscut sled for your table saw. To build my crosscut sled, I mostly followed the design here, though my materials differed significantly. This allows you to use a table saw to make consistent cuts across the grain of the wood, and cut your lengths down to what you need.

IMG_20171216_095043

On the sled, the process is simple. You measure out your required length, clamp down a stop block and start cutting.

5. Eventually, you’ll be left with a bunch of strips. These are then laid out for the first glue up. In my case, I select 12 strips that are 1″ wide and 15.5″ long, and come from the same stock. I then rotate every other strip 90 degrees, so that the grain patterns now run against each other for visual contrast.

The primary rules for a successful glue up, from what I’ve learned, are a) make sure to use plenty of glue and b) make sure to use plenty of clamps.

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Glue everything up, and let it drive overnight.

6. When you wake up the next day, your boards will look weird and ugly like this.

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After you’ve chiseled or scraped off the excess glue residue, you need to clean up the edges with your crosscut sled. That done, it’s time to flatten the boards.

Unfortunately for me, these boards were now much too wide for my small planer, so I needed an alternate way to flatten them. Enter the router sled.

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Basically, this is a flat surface with a non-skid pad (some people actually glue the boards down, but that seems like a major hassle) and two edges of exactly equal height. On top of that, you have a flat base for your router which allows the router to travel over the surface of the boards removing material until the surface is flat. Use the biggest straight bit you have and/or your router will drive. That was 3/4″ in my case.

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At first, I followed the advice in this video, but this left me with the grooved surface you see above. I eventually figured out that the uneven, looping clockwise circles left me with a smooth, flat surface.

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The good news is that this router sled approach works: it will flatten your boards effectively. The bad news is that it generates a shitload of dust. So be prepared for that.

7. Once you have your boards edged and flattened, it’s time to cut them up to expose the end grain. Throw them back in your crosscut sled and cut to a thickness slightly larger than what you intend for the board. I typically go for 1 1/2″ to 1 5/8″ to allow for a nice thick board even after losing material to planing and sanding.

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Once you’ve cut up your strips, rotate them 90 degrees to expose the end grain. Then flip every other strip lengthwise to further break up the pattern on the board and introduce visual contrast.

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Glue up the result.

8. Now you’re on the home stretch. Re-flatten the newly glued board using the same process from Step #6.

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You should have something that looks like this.

9. The board should be big enough to be somewhat difficult to handle, so you’ll want to carve out some hand holds. Pull your router out of the plunge base on its sled, and drop it into an edge guide set to a depth of 1/2″. I use the same 3/4″ bit as from the planing. The size of the hand holds isn’t terribly important, so I just cut two stop blocks that will give me a reasonable enough size, clamp them on, and route out my hand holds.

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Get ready for a lot more dust.

10. With a flat board with hand holds cut, it’s time for the first sand. Assuming you don’t have a large drum sander, use a random orbital sander. Start with 80 grit, then work your way to 120 grit.

11. Now it’s time to swap out the straight bit on your router for a roundover bit. Pick your preferred size; personally, I like a minimal look so I stick to 1/8″, but 1/4″ is also common. Important note: be sure to test out your bit placement on a piece of scrap first. It has to be seated exactly right or you can carve out too much material. Once that’s down, roundover all edges on the board to make it more comfortable to handle.

12. Time for the final sand. Hit the board with 180, then 220 until it’s perfectly smooth. This will take longer with end grain than edge grain.

13. Now comes the fun part. You’ve put all this labor into a piece of wood that looks dusty and unimpressive. Like so.

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But then you hit it with a coat of food grade mineral oil – commonly sold as “butcher’s block oil” or “cutting board oil” – and the grain pops and the board looks like an entirely different animal.

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This is always my favorite part of the process. Anyway, you basically have three choices as far as finishes.

  1. Food grade varnish, e.g. salad bowl finish
  2. Mineral oil
  3. Wax and oil combination

I’ve done all three, but generally go with mineral oil because it’s the simplest and easiest for those receiving the board to maintain.

For a mineral oil finish, I hit the board four days in a row, and allow it to dry overnight in between.

14. After the fourth day’s oil has dried, I rub the board down with microfiber cloth to remove excess oil and dust, then screw on feet to keep the board off the counter and make it easier to pick up. These feet specifically.

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And you’re done. Enjoy your new cutting board!

 

My 2017 in Pictures

As with last year’s edition, this year’s annual year in pictures post is arriving late. Due to a combination of daycare germs, furnace outages and bomb cyclones this year’s “holiday” break was busy. But given how much I look forward to the exercise of looking back on the year past, I’m happy to be getting to it, delays notwithstanding.

For most of the world, 2017 was a year of unfortunate development after unfortunate development. Every time it seemed like rock bottom had been hit, the show reached a new low. Rinse, lather, repeat.

But rather than focus on the trainwreck of world events, my purpose here is to revisit and capture for posterity the personal highs and lows. If you want in the moment reactions, the newsletter archive is available at your leisure. This post is the pictures that captured moments that made up my year, large and small. Mostly small.

Before we get to the pictures, however: a couple of statistics from 2017.

Travel

Travel in 2017 was a bit of a good news / bad news situation. On the positive side, thanks in large part to a travel schedule that featured a large number of events on the east coast, my mileage was down significantly from 2016, which was in turn down from 2015. This was the fewest miles I’ve flown since I’ve been on TripIt, in fact. As with last year, I didn’t qualify for JetBlue’s loyalty program until my last trip of December. Most years, I’ve cleared that bar by June.

The bad news was that the low mileage was largely an artifact of geography and not reflective of my overall travel load. A trip to New York, for example, adds thousands of less miles to my ledger than one to San Francisco, but it’s still time away from home. At one point this fall, in fact, due to a series of unrelated factors, I was on the road eight weeks in a row. Typically, I try not to exceed three.

That kind of stretch I would rather not repeat, but here’s hoping I can keep the mileage down again in 2018.

In the meantime, a few other tidbits courtesy of Cemre’s TripIt Year in Review tool and Openflights.org.

  • Distance: I flew 56,447 miles, down 18% or so from 2016.
  • 100K: This was the fourth time in seven years I failed to reach 100,000 miles. Will try to keep it up.
  • Carrier: After a couple of years of trying to make it work with Virgin America (who got bought by Alaska) because their loyalty program is much better than JetBlue’s, the former’s lack of routes finally killed off that experiment. With the exception of routes to London and one hop on Virgin, effectively all of my travel was on JetBlue. I still think their loyalty program is non-competitive and light on benefits, but that aside it’s a pretty good airline.
  • Airport: Because I wasn’t flying on Virgin anymore, I spent more time this year in Portland than Boston in a reverse of 2016.
  • First Time: Didn’t travel to any cities for the first time this year, though I did return to Richmond for the first time in almost twenty years.
  • Where To: For the first time in a few years, New York narrowly tipped San Francisco as my most popular destination. Fingers crossed that repeats in 2018. Nothing against San Francisco, which I enjoy visiting, but a 45 minute flight is a hell of a lot more palatable than a six and a half hour one.

Personal Stats

  • My Top 5 non search-engine referrers to the work blog were 1) Twitter, 2) Reddit, 3) Android Apps (new category?) 4) Hacker News, 5) Facebook.
  • For the first year in a while, I don’t have meaningful stats regarding my step count. The first problem was that my Fitbit Charge broke for the second time – they’d replaced it once already – and this time it was out of warranty. On the Wirecutter’s recommendation, I replaced it with a Garmin Vivosmart HR+ which includes heartrate – which I’ve found you have to take with a grain of salt. The bad news is that for two important use cases for me: 1) walking with a stroller and 2) working on a treadmill desk, it substantially underreported steps for me relative to the Fitbit hardware. So not only did I not have device continuity, there are significant observable differences in capture. Which means no step counts this year, alas.

With that, on to the pictures.

January 5

Started off the New Year on a down note, with my faithful ten year old Volvo S40 picked up at the crack of dawn and donated to charity due to a mechanical issue more costly than the car was worth. It was a fantastic car, and I still have no idea why Volvo killed the model.

thank you for ten great years of memories, my friend. you were loved.

A post shared by stephen o'grady (@stephenogrady) on

January 26

Over in London for Monki Gras. Epic and bar-raising, yet again.
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February 9

Ran out of our initial drop of wood. We’re on track to run out even earlier this year thanks to the weather.

before, after

A post shared by stephen o'grady (@stephenogrady) on

February 15

Preferring to not have our roof caved in with snow, reluctantly brought out the roof rake.

about as fun as it looks

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February 22

I’m not entirely sure, but I believe this was the first political protest I’ve attended.
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February 25

Continuing the baseball education.

pretty nice little saturday

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March 11

Courtesy of an event, I and a few thousand other people had the run of the Giants park in San Francisco. It’s gorgeous.

pretty nice little park you have there, san francisco

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March 29

Last time I was at this PATH station, I was in high school, working for my Dad. They’ve done an amazing job with the rebuild.

haven't been here since high school

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April 15

Love having this park ten minutes from the house.

five minutes from home

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April 29

And this lobster pound even closer.

it's nice to live within walking distance of a lobster pound

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May 3

First appearance at Fenway this season.

very few complaints

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May 6

Continuing the baseball education.

pretty nice little saturday

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May 16

Having been located on Newbury Street in Portland for the better part of eight years, RedMonk HQ officially moved across town to High Street. There were a number of reasons for the change: construction in the old neighborhood, crowds from the nearby cruise ships, an overall upgrade in aesthetics and function (new office has a shower). The best part of the move, however? Pai Men is now three blocks away.

happy moving day, @redmonk HQ

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May 22

Having realized a while back that a) I needed a table saw and b) my track record of injuries suggested that I invest in safety, I’d been saving up for a while to get a SawStop. Fortunately, the only one that would fit in my tiny shop was the cheapest model, their jobsite saw. It’s been a fantastic purchase, one I wish I’d saved up for years ago.

June 10

For the first time since my fifth reunion, maybe, a group of friends and I went back to our college reunion. It was a great time, particularly since we made the decision to get a house of our own rather than stay in the dorms. The Purple Pub that I once knew so well, however, has been replaced by something a lot more corporate.

this place was a lot different before it burned down

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June 29

This was the first speakeasy I’ve ever seen on a client site. The bartender within was competent to the point of being intimidating; I was glad I wasn’t the woman in front of me who asked what cocktails they had and was bluntly told, “everything.”

i enjoy clients with a speakeasy in their offices

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July 1

On a visit to my wife’s Uncle, we hopped the St John’s ferry.

found a bigger boat

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July 4

Spent the fourth of July in Nova Scotia – Chester, to be precise. Great little town.
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July 11

One of the folks in our local tech community had an excess of downed trees that I tried to assist him with.

lunch hour

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August 19

I didn’t make it down in time for them, but I was heartened by the response of the city of Boston to the Nazi “free speech” demonstrators. The Nazis were outnumbered by something close to 1000 to 1, and yet no violence ensued. These news trucks lined every side of the commons in the aftermath.
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August 20

Everybody deserves to retire at some point.

circle of life

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August 21

Worked outside throughout the eclipse, though I did get to view it quickly thanks to glasses from another member of the tech community.
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August 22

This closet organizer wasn’t any better than the one I made last summer, but at least it didn’t almost amputate the tip of my finger.

no fingertips lost building the closet organizer. this year.

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August 26

Knocked out a couple of quick and easy chairs made from nothing more than dimensional lumber.

next up, pickling

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August 26

We weren’t there for very long because it turns out toddlers – or at least, our toddler – doesn’t like to wear hearing protection, but during a visit of the Blue Angels I got to see my favorite plane of all time, the Cadillac of the Skies.

p-51, cadillac of the skies

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August 31

The weather wasn’t ideal, but I managed to sneak in my annual pilgrimmage to the Houston Brook Falls.

twenty degrees colder than usual, still worth it

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September 1

Four or five years after creating the holes by ripping out a closet, I finally got around to patching the floor. Before you say it looks like crap, which it does, let me just say in my defense that that whole section of floor is likely to be ripped out so trying to match it wasn’t worth the effort.

September 4

Continuing the baseball education.

solo parenting at its finest

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September 7

Toured the new Monktoberfest venue that Kate found. William Allen farm has a gorgeous barn and great people.
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September 12

Over in London for our annual ThingMonk conference. Excellent experience.
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September 20

Three cords of wood – which we are burning through both literally and figuratively – was dropped off.

this weekend's beers will be earned

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September 23

Made it up to the Common Ground Fair for my favorite part, the sheepdog demonstration. These dogs are crazy smart. They can identify twenty plus different verbal commands, and can parse their individual names as part of the command. You can tell one dog to walk clockwise, in other words, and another to counter.
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September 30

It’s not pretty, but the homemade cider press I made for Kate did in fact produce cider.

not pretty, makes cider

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October 3

Finally got the woodshed loaded.
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October 5

Made it through yet another Monktoberfest. Humbled by the experience, as always.

it begins

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October 12

Stopped by Atlantic Hardwoods to pick up some rough 8/4 walnut stock. This will become relevant shortly.

there's just something about walnut

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October 21

One of my favorite beer festivals anywhere. Tough to beat drinking great and funky craft beers outside on a beatiful fall day.

the goods were good

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October 21

Leaf peeping, from Kate’s parent’s house.

tough to beat fall

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October 23

Had never been to an Alamo Drafthouse, but a dinner cancellation in NYC left me with just the opening I needed to pop over to Brooklyn to take in It. Both the venue and movie were worth every penny.
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November 3

A huge windstorm unexpectedly hammered Maine, and in our neighborhood alone four or five houses were hit by downed trees. Took CMP five full days to restore our power, in fact.

half a dozen reasons our power was out for five days

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November 11

First Williams homecoming win of her lifetime.

the biggest little game in america's tiniest fan

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December 1

We’d never bought anything on Black Friday before, but my brother talked us into a $399 50″ 4K Samsung model. I didn’t think our 2005 Sharp was that bad until I set up the Samsung.
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December 4

I flew out to San Francisco for my last work trip of the year only to spend most of it throwing up in my hotel with a stomach bug, then having to hop an early flight home while weak as a kitten because the same bug was wiping out the family at home. On the good news front, I confirmed that you can have nothing but bottled water and Gatorade delivered to you in San Francisco.
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December 11

Remember that walnut lumber?

filters just don't do this gorgeous wood justice

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December 24

Eventually, I’m sure it will be assembling bikes or something, but this year, we spent Christmas Eve furiously trying to put the finishing touches on a dollhouse for the little one.

December 25

The pictures are dated this week, but these were all done before Christmas. Those two slabs of walnut were milled down and then cut up to make end-grain cutting boards. I’ll document that process later because it was weird and unorthodox, but I was almost pleased with how they came out. Mistakes were made, but at the very least, the folks on the receiving end were unlikely to get another one of these in their stockings for Christmas.

remember that secret walnut project?

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So You’re Going to Have a Kid

dad-elno

One of the things that happens when your wife is pregnant is that people give you advice, whether you want it or not. Parents of one kid, parents of lots of kids or parents of zero kids, pretty much everyone has something for you. This sounds overwhelming, and it is at times, but I actually appreciated it. Not all of the advice, of course, but a lot of it. Which is why, because one of RedMonk’s own is expecting, I feel obligated to share a few lessons learned about parenting in spite of the fact that I’ve been doing this job for less than two years.

I have nothing close to wisdom to offer, but I promise two things:

  1. I will not say “your life is over” or “see you in twenty years,” because I found that flavor of “advice” spectacularly unhelpful.
  2. This will be a lot longer than it needs to be.

With that said, here are ten things I’ve figured out about having a kid.

  1. The Good News/Bad News About Sleep Deprivation
    After my daughter was born, one of my friends whose wife was expecting asked what the fatigue is really like. I told him that there was good news and bad news about that. I asked him whether he remembered what it was like to get up at three something to catch a flight out at five in the morning – that disorientating and debilitating fatigue that makes you feel hollowed out. He said that he did. The bad news, I told him, was that it’s essentially like that all day every day for the first few months. He took a moment, then asked about the good news. The good news, I said, is that after a day or two, that will seem totally normal. You’ll only dimly recall a time in which you slept like a normal person. The human body is an amazingly adaptable thing, and while sleep deprivation is not its favorite condition, it will do what it must.

    Even better, a few months after the baby sleeps through the night, you won’t even remember how awful that initial sleep deprivation was. Until the baby has a sleep regression, that is, but best not to worry about that now. In fact, forget I mentioned that.

  2. Trust the People in Your Life To Cut You Some Slack
    One of Kate’s childhood friends Lucy is a nurse at the hospital my daughter was born at. So she was in to see us the day after the delivery. At this point we were all sleeping at the hospital, which is another way of saying that none of us were actually sleeping. While I enjoy Lucy’s company, then, when she showed up, I guessed that my presence was less essential than baby or mother, and so after saying a weary “Hi Lucy!,” I curled up and slept in a chair for the duration of her visit. Under other circumstances, this is massively rude. But this time I believed that Lucy, both a nurse and a mother herself, would understand our situation. She did, and couldn’t have been sweeter about it later.

    This understanding is important, because the baby will have very unpredictable impacts on your life. I, for example, was raised to believe that early was on time and on time was late. I’ve had to (temporarily) lower my standards, however, because post-kid we are basically always late. We apologize, of course, and try not to be, but trust our friends and family to understand.

  3. Routine is Everything
    One of the pieces of advice I didn’t receive but wish I had was around routine. Specifically, that routine is the most important single tool in managing your life post-kid. Everything you can reduce down to a simple, repeatable set of steps should be. When my daughter was a newborn, for example, I had what I called “evening chores.” This meant bringing in firewood, tending our fire, doing the dishes, cleaning bottles and prepping the next set of bottles. Bottle cleaning and prep, in fact, was its own set of subroutines. I washed the pieces in groups because it was faster, and laid them out to dry in exactly the pattern that you would assemble them in.

    The routines evolve, of course. These days it’s about making sure that while my daughter is running around playing in the early evening, I’m getting her covers pulled down, her stuffed animals in the places she expects them, her PJs laid out on the changing table and her blankee laid out on the chair we rock in before bedtime.

    Basically, the more you can operate on autopilot the better, particularly when you’re likely to be down a cylinder or three mentally.

  4. You Will Fight
    From a family member who shall go unnamed came the warning that, due to sleep deprivation, even the closest of couples will argue. The story he told me was of a fight that began because his wife asked him if he “wanted” to get up and check on the baby at 2:30 in the morning.

    Turns out the answer to whether someone “wants” to do that is a very emphatic no.

    Even in a best case scenario, where you have help from family or otherwise, and you’re managing to sleep for reasonable stretches of time, tensions will run higher. The good news is that because most of the fights are over stupid shit, they’ll blow over quickly and the baby has the power to make all of that go away quickly. But in general, always do your best to be empathetic and give the benefit of the doubt. Even if you don’t “want” to get up at 2:30 in the morning.

  5. Baby Germs Are No Joke
    Generally speaking, I’ve been pretty lucky with my health. It’s pretty rare that I get the flu, stomach bugs or anything worse than a minor cold. Or more accurately it was rare, until my daughter started at daycare and our house became a Hot Zone.

    In the short span since my daughter arrived I feel pretty confident in saying that I’ve been sick more than I was in my entire life up to that point. I spent Christmas Day vomiting up anything that wasn’t Gatorade. I had a miserable fever and my sinuses were a brick for two weeks in February. I even had to cancel a client video call two months back because I got pink eye. However good you think your immune system is, it’s no match for daycare. Trust me. If you’re the kind of person who never uses their sick time, you’re going to get a lot better at it.

  6. Get Out of the House
    One of the things that several different friends with kids recommended we do – and they had always done themselves – is to take the baby out early. The sooner they can acclimate to different types of environments, with people and sounds and weather, the better.

    Our daughter has been going to a friendly local restaurant since she was a month old, and while she’s too high energy at the moment to sit still for an entire meal, she at least has been introduced to the concept and has some idea of how to conduct herself in a public setting. The sooner you start this the better, in fact, because when they’re really little they’ll just sleep through dinner if you time it right. Once they’re older, they’ll want you to walk them up and down stairs a hundred times.

  7. It’s Fucking Terrifying
    There’s no way around this: having a kid is legitimately, and regularly, terrifying. As Tim Bray said in a post he pointed me to the day my daughter was born, “I’m sure every parent has stroked a sleeping baby’s face, or tickled its finger, just to make sure it’s breathing.” This is true, and literally every parent ever has done this.

    But it’s not just the breathing. The first time they run a fever is scary. Same with a bad cough. The first time they vomit up a full feed on you. The first time they tip over and smack their face on their little red Radio Flyer wagon. All scary.

    But the thing to remember, and that your doctors and nurses will remind you of if they’re good (and ours is excellent), is that kids are generally pretty resilient little creatures. Experience also makes things easier; the first time your kid can’t keep any food down, for example, it’s paralyzing. Once you learn how to handle it with Pedialyte, the BRAT diet and popsicles, things aren’t good, exactly, but they’re more manageable.

  8. You Can Do It
    One of the things that I think most prospective parents struggle with on some level is the question of whether or not they’re up for it. The short answer is: it’ll be fine. All of the things you don’t know how you’ll manage – from something as basic as changing a diaper to the ultimate responsibility for a tiny human – you’ll manage. A week after having a kid you’ll doing things you had no idea you could do, which is great, but more importantly you’ll take these new abilities for granted. You’ll wonder why you ever wondered whether you could do them, in fact. So when you ask yourself “can I do this?” the answer is yes.

  9. It Gets Better
    One of the most accurate pieces of advice I was given was simple: “it gets better.” Having a baby is an incredible, indescribable experience. But as my Mom told me when she came down to the hospital to meet her grandaughter for the first time, what you’re working towards when they’re a newborn is the first real, purposeful smile. I didn’t really understand this, because babies have a tendency to rocket through a wide variety of facial expressions with zero connection to any actual internal emotional state. When I got my first actual smile, though, I remember thinking, “Damn, Mom was right.” Babies are great. Babies that can smile at you are even better.

    Now imagine what it’s like the first time the previously helpless little baby can give you a high five. Take a few wobbly steps. Learn the sign language for shark. Say “I love Red Sox.” Give you a tiny cheer from the back seat after a Pearl Jam song.

    The point is that while babies are great, they get even better. So when you’ve slept for ten hours in two days and you’re rocking the baby wondering if it will ever go back to sleep, know that it will. And that it gets better.

  10. The Days Are Long, The Years Are Short
    The most counter-intuitive observation I heard after my daughter’s birth, and I can’t for the life of me remember who it was who relayed it to me (see #1), was that the days are long but the years are short. Kids are fun and amazing and rewarding, but the days can be very long indeed. From an early start in the morning to bedtime if you’re lucky, and much later if you’re not, kids are basically operating at full speed. They have no throttle like adults; there’s no notion of energy conservation, no concept of pacing oneself. Everything is all out, all the time. Which means that sometimes it takes everything you have just to get through a day. And the next day. And the one after that.

    Then one day you look around, and – impossibly – a year’s gone, and all you can think is, “how did that happen so fast?”

    The answer, of course, is kids.

Bonus Takeaways

  1. Do whatever it takes to find yourself a good pediatrician: they’ll make your kid feel better, and you as well.
  2. The Moro Reflex is the best reflex. Enjoy it while it lasts.

I Have Squandered My Days With Plans of Many Things

This summer’s vacation was unpredictable, as could have been predicted. Rather than the usual three week stretch to close out the summer, it was one off at a cottage up north, a week back in the office, than two more of staycation, where staycation means working as a general contractor on our house. And as with most best laid plans, things didn’t quite go according to schedule thanks to some fun daycare viruses.

For all that, however, it was a great break, one that allowed me to recharge the batteries with the Monktoberfest looming and the usual fall travel slate right on its heels. I didn’t get to about half of my to do’s, and the world beyond the great state of Maine had a rough few weeks as is typical, but any vacation that ends without a trip to the ER is a good one in my book.

Here’s how things went.

For week one, we rented a cottage just around the corner from where our wedding reception was and across the street from the Atlantic.

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Just across the water on the other side of the peninsula from us was Coveside, one of our favorite restaurants on the water. And by on the water, I mean that while sitting at the bar you get to hear the hostess scrambling to find out a new mooring for an incoming vessel over marine radio because someone was parked in the wrong place.

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One peninsula over is Pemaquid Beach, which reminds me a bit of the beaches I grew up going to on the Cape, just with thousands fewer people.

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While, unlike the cape, there are no white sharks at Pemaquid (yet), we weren’t completely lacking in sharks.

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If you’re up that way, visiting places like Fort William Henry is a nice combo of colonial history with a lot of room for kids to run around.

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And as long as you’re there, might as well eat out on the dock at the Contented Sole which is less than half a mile away.

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After a week up north that went too fast, as it always does, it was back to work for a week. Though to be fair, some of that work involved visiting breweries, so it wasn’t all bad. Either way, the following Saturday I headed down to Fenway to see the Red Sox play the Yankees. It was the first time I’ve seen Chris Sale throw live.

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The game was the same day as the massive anti-Nazi counter-protests in Boston, which if I’d had time I would have come down early for. As it was, however, the TV trucks were out in force wrapping things up when I walked over to Fenway from South Station along the south side of the Commons.

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While at Fenway, I secured my annual replacement hat. Fun bit of SOG Trivia: any Red Sox hat you see on my head was bought at the park. There has never been an exception to this rule.

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Bright and early Monday morning, I made the first of several trips to Home Depot to pick up lumber.

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First up was ripping out the crappy wire shelves in our kitchen pantry and replacing them with slightly less crappy melamine coated alternatives. Because a kitchen remodel is on the table at some point, we didn’t go nuts with anything terribly fancy (though the sliding shelves I looked at were cool), just something basic that would be better than what we had originally.

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Next up was a closet organizer for the bedroom. As with the kitchen, the bedroom is likely to get torn up at some point so we kept the plans simple. The good news is that I learned from last year’s disaster which nearly cost me the tip of a finger, and things went much more smoothly this time around.

Not least because I finally saved up enough to buy a very pricy, but safe, SawStop tablesaw a few months ago. The larger cabinet models have a lot of advantages over the jobsite model I got, but there’s not much that beats working outside in the summer, so portability is huge.

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While I didn’t injure myself this year, assuming a minor burn with an iron doesn’t count, my execution was not without incident. While cutting the dadoes (read: grooves) for the closet organizer shelves, an enormous wasp landed on my arm. I jerked the arm, the arm knocked the guide for the router and, well, it didn’t end well. Except that I didn’t get stung, which was nice.

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But as these shelves are not intended to be permanent, I didn’t sweat it and just put a shelf right above it. Note that after last year’s debacle, I have a far more reasonable number of clamps for assembly.

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The final product is not going to win any awards, but makes far better use of the tiny closet than the single bar and shelf that were in there previously.

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In the market for some new deck chairs but short on time, I turned to a simple design based on regular old dimensional lumber. These are dead simple to build, to the point that you could knock several out in an afternoon pretty easily. We’ll see how the pine holds up outdoors, but the plan is to pickle and then seal them with poly and epoxy feet. Worst case and they don’t hold up, I’m out less than fifty bucks worth of lumber and an afternoon. Best case is that I have two new roomy deck chairs for less than a hundred bucks.

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The last home improvement project I was able to get to was one that has been planned for years. One of the first things we did when we bought our house was rip out an unfortunately located closet that was smack in the middle of the living room. With the help of our friend Corey, we demoed the closet and later sealed it up with sheetrock. We’d ignored the strips of missing flooring, however, punting on that and leaving holes like this one.

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The first problem with patching the floor was finding someone who would sell me less than dozens of square feet of flooring. I eventually ended up at Lumber Liquidators, where they had a lot of oak flooring in the right size for $8 or so. After purchase, however, they apparently discovered that they didn’t actually have a lot that small, so shipped me four times as much as I ordered. The good news is that it was still $8. The bad news is that I have a shitload of 3/4″ x 2 1/4″ oak flooring left over that I don’t need.

But either way, I was relieved to finally, years after ripping out the closet, be able to cross “patch flooring” off of my house projects to do list. And before someone says “why didn’t you try and match the existing flooring, that looks ugly AF,” note that a) the majority of these patches are covered by carpeting and b) if we relocate the stairs as we expect to this is all going to get torn up anyway.

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Lest you think it was staycation was all DIY all the time, I did manage to get out and about. My brother and his kids were up the first week, which was awesome. My parents have saved literally everything everything Nick and I played with as kids.

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Along with her cousins, Eleanor got to pick fresh blueberries from my parents garden. Not too many actually made it back to the house, but she enjoyed it.

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The day before my brother and his family headed home, we all went over to the former naval airbase in Brunswick because the Blue Angels were in town.

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But while I got to see my favorite aircraft of all time, it turns out that toddlers that refuse to wear their hearing protection are not super excited about jets that roar past a hundred feet off the deck. Our time there, then, was regrettably brief.

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We also got the chance to visit Five Islands while my brother was up. It’s always rated as one of the best lobster pounds in Maine, and is picturesque enough that it’s been featured in a couple of national commercials. It’s also a couple of miles from where my parents live.

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One of the days Eleanor was out from daycare, we got to visit her happy place.

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On the second to last day of my vacation, I got to visit mine. Temps were in the mid-sixties rather than the eighties that characterize my visits usually, but as an O’Grady I’m obligated to swim regardless of what the air or water temps are. Cold or not, there’s nothing like closing out the summer by drying yourself on a rock next to a waterfall drinking a nice craft beer.

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Time to start planning for Summer 2018.

Everything You Need to Know About Firewood: The Q&A

Four years ago, my wife and I bought a house. In a first for us, the house included a fireplace. This was how I got started down the path that ended with me reading books about how Norwegians stack wood and watching YouTube videos on everything from A/B testing fire building methods to chainsaw bloopers.

Also, I’ve covered half of the front lawn with piles of air drying lumber.

The fireplace has long since given way to a fireplace insert – essentially a woodstove that fits in a fireplace. After debating at length about a variety of heating options, we decided to double down on wood due to the economics, the vastly improved efficiency of modern EPA-approved stoves, its independence from the power grid and a family affinity for sitting around a roaring fire on cold nights.

While it’s a relatively cheap fuel in the economic sense, however, wood comes with other costs. Wood requires a lot of preparation and physical effort, while other fuels typical to the Northeast like oil, natural gas or propane are never touched by human hands (unless something has gone terribly, terribly wrong). The learning curve can also be steep.

Which is why, while I’m no expert, I wanted to capture a few of the things I wish someone had told me when we first started down the path with wood. Queue the firewood Q&A:

Where’s the best place to learn about this stuff?

Two recommendations. First, read Norwegian Wood. Easily the best resource I’ve found, and a surprisingly entertaining read. Second, as always, YouTube is your friend. This channel in particular has a ton of useful information, and the production quality is unexpectedly impressive.

Where do I get firewood?

Obviously, wood is either going to come from your property or someone else’s. Most of us don’t have enough property to provide us with free fuel, which means that we have to buy it from someone else. Your best bet in sourcing wood is to ask around or check lists of the Angie’s or Craig’s varieties. If you live somewhere cold enough to have a fireplace or woodstove, there will be someone selling wood.

What am I looking for in firewood?

You want to know about the quality of the wood delivered (is it largely intact or a bunch of kindling?), whether they’re accurately reporting the level of moisture (is it seasoned or kiln-dried as ordered?), whether you’re getting the species promised (did you expect hardwoods but get soft?) and whether or not you’re getting the number of cords agreed upon.

When do I get firewood?

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The short answer: as early as possible. The longer answer is that it depends on what kind of wood you’re getting. There are three types:

  • Green: The cheapest option, this is wood that has just been cut, and should not be burned until it’s been dried. If you can, get this early in the spring and dry it all summer and fall and it will be ready by winter (unless it’s Oak, which can take two full years to season).
  • Seasoned: This is wood that’s been left outside to dry – seasoned, in other words – to a moisture content of 20% or less (we’ll get to how to test that). Should be burnable as soon as you get it.
  • Kiln-Dried (KD): The most expensive option, this is wood that’s been baked in a kiln to reduce the moisture content quickly, with the side benefit of killing insects. This is burnable right away.

If it’s green wood and it’s not oak then, it needs to be drying by early spring. If it’s properly seasoned, summer or even fall/winter is fine. Same with KD.

How do I measure the moisture content of wood?

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Ideally, with a moisture meter like this one.

If you don’t have one, or if the cursed thing’s nine volt battery has died on you (again), you can take two splits and knock them together. If they crack, the wood’s dry-ish. If they thud, it’s too wet to use.

What kind of wood am I getting?

There are two kinds of wood to burn: hardwoods (e.g. ash, oak, elm, etc) and softwoods (e.g. fir, pine, spruce, etc). The former are generally preferred because they offer more energy on a per unit basis, but either will work. You’ll read from time to time that you should only burn hardwoods, but according to most stove manufacturers, you can burn all of the above.

Here in the Northeast we’re generally burning hardwoods, but in other areas of the country pine and other softwoods are used exclusively.

In Scandinavia, stove owners will often use softwoods to start a fire because they light more quickly and then transition to slower, longer burning hardwoods to keep the house warm overnight.

How much wood do I need?

This is an impossible question to answer precisely, but here are a few of the variables you’ll need to consider.

  • Is wood your primary heat source, or a supplementary system?
  • How efficient is your stove or fireplace?
  • What type of wood are you burning?
  • How cold do the winters get where you live, and how long do they last?
  • How warm do you want to keep your house?

For a rule of thumb, however, this is pretty reasonable:

So, if you just use your fireplace for romance and relaxation, buy a half cord of firewood each spring and let it season until fall. If you supplement a heating system with a woodstove or fireplace insert, buy two cords. If you heat exclusively with firewood, you’ll need about 4 to 5 cords, depending on the severity of your winters.

We go through between three and four cords per season with our fireplace insert, however.

What the hell is a “cord” of wood?

Firewood is generally ordered in units called cords. A cord is 128 cubic feet of wood, or a stack around 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide by 4 feet deep. The weight varies depending on wood species and moisture content, but is generally well over a ton ranging from 3,500 to over 5,000 pounds. It’s not going to fit in a pickup bed, in other words – it’s usually delivered by a large dump truck.

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This wasn’t even close to a cord, for example.

How to process the wood?


For those purchasing firewood, it most commonly comes already split. In this case, your only job is to store the wood, which admittedly is the worst part of dealing with wood heat.

If you get your hands on unprocessed trees, however, you need to cut them down to size and split them. That process is actually pretty simple.

  1. Determine what the maximum length of log is for your fireplace or stove. Our Jötul, for example, can accept 24″ inch lengths. Not everything needs to be 24″, and it can actually be beneficial to have different lengths, but nothing can be longer than that.
  2. Cut the tree into the segment lengths you need.
  3. Split those segments using an axe, splitting maul or wedge and sledgehammer.

What should I know about splitting wood?

Many things. Here are five specifics, however.

  1. Do not aim for the center of the log. The wood is strongest in the center, aim for an edge.
  2. The safest approach is to aim for the edge directly opposite you. The bad news is that if you miss you’re going to impact the log with the handle, which hurts like hell. The good news is that the axe cannot continue its arc towards your feet.
  3. Don’t overswing, but if you snap your wrists on the downswing you can get some extra acceleration and a better angle for the blade strike. See the video here for a demonstration.
  4. Have a stump or chopping block that’s the correct height. According to Lars Mytting, assuming logs between 12-16″, axe manufacturers recommend that “your chopping block should be no higher than your knees, and probably even lower.”
  5. It’s fun. There is no domestic task more enjoyable than splitting wood.

What are these splitting mauls and wedges and so on?

You’ll need a couple of things. Here’s my setup, and for full disclosure most are Amazon affiliate links, simply because I’m curious which recommendations are most useful.

  • Splitting Maul: Fiskars 7884 X27 Super Splitting Axe, 36-Inch
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    This thing is basically Thor’s hammer. The combination of its axe blade and wedge shape simply destroys wood. If you have relatively straight wood without a lot of knots and branches, this will make short work of it. Even without swinging at full strength, I’ve had logs literally explode with large pieces ending up ten feet away (so make sure no one else is around, and/or use the bungee cord or tire methods). Really can’t recommend this thing highly enough. It’s so good that even traditional axe fans reluctantly acknowledge its effectiveness.
  • Chainsaw: Husqvarna 141
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    You can spend a lot of money on chainsaws, but for most homeowners, you want something that’s light and will start easily. I’ve generally used a Husqvarna of my Dad’s, a model 141, but they don’t make this one anymore. If I was buying a saw today, I’d get another Husqvarna for three reasons. One, Scandinavians know a few things about chainsaws. Two, Husqvarna dealers are everywhere which makes service and getting parts trivial (the case bolts are $0.94 per, in case you were curious). And last, because this one’s been great. I’d probably get the model 440E.
  • Sledge Hammer: Truper 10 lb sledge
    IMG_20170717_160901Nothing fancy about this sledge. It’s the same length as the axe, so moving from one to the other is easy. Mine’s a 10 pounder, but lighter would be fine for splitting wood: mine has to do double duty as a demo tool.  Again, nothing fancy about the wedge. I picked this one up mostly because I like my Estwing hammer.
  • Gloves: Carharrt Flex Tough:
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    I go through a lot of gloves, and for winter you’ll want an insulated pair, but these Carharrts have been good to me. They breathe, the padding in the palm is useful if you mis-strike a log, and I’ve discovered the cowhide fingertips will work a smartphone touchscreen.

What about kindling?

If you’re interested, there are literally hundreds of videos on YouTube about how to split kindling. Personally, I’ve never needed to split much. First, because I save all the scraps from the cords dropped off or the wood I’ve split myself. And second, because I strip each log of smaller splits or pieces before tossing them onto the fire and collect them in a bucket.

What’s the most important thing to remember?

In a presumably apocryphal story, triumphant returning Roman generals would have servants whisper memento mori – remember that you have to die – in their ear to keep them grounded and remind them of their own mortality.

Similarly, it’s useful to remind yourself every time you pick up an axe or chainsaw that these are tools that can kill you. And death would hurt badly and probably not come quickly.

So be careful.

Where to store the wood?

If the wood is green, it’s best off being stacked in loose piles like the ones at the top of this piece to provide better airflow for drying.

If your wood is seasoned or KD, it can be put up immediately wherever you plan to store it during the winter. Generally, storage inside the house is not recommended for reasons that vary from allergens to insects. There are a myriad of options for outdoor storage, from basic 2×4-and-bracket setups like the one pictured here:

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to woodsheds:

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to artistically crafted woodpiles. We opted to build a shed, your mileage may vary.

Do I store my wood bark up or bark down?

Before we moved into our house and became a wood burning family, I would have assumed the following quote from Norwegian Wood was a joke.

In Norway, discussions on the vexed question of whether logs should be stacked with the bark facing up or down have marred many a christening and spoiled many a wedding when wood enthusiasts are among the guests.

I understand now. If you store bark-down, you are dead to me.

How do I build a fire with my firewood?

If you’re starting fresh, my preferred method is top down. As a national campaign from Norway in 2010 argued, this is reliable and reduces emissions. It works like this:

  • Bottom layer: logs
  • Middle layer: large kindling or wood strips
  • Top layer: newspaper and/or small kindling/shavings

You light the top and it burns its way down.

If you have coals from a previous fire, the easiest way to relight them is to rake them forward and put a piece of kindling behind it and then larger logs behind that. That way, the fire will burn from front to back, improving the aesthetics if you have a fireplace or your stove or insert has a glass door, and it burns more slowly than if all of the wood is exposed at once.

You said this would be everything I wanted to know about firewood, but I have other questions.

Then fire away in the comments and I’ll update the post accordingly.