Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Day Hiking Kit, v2.0

A while back, I put together a fairly complete day hiking kit. Alas, I think it may have been too complete, as I found it didn't get much use.

After my last backpacking trip, I got to wondering what a more streamlined kit would look like. I figured it should match the following criteria:

  • Reduce redundancy. I'm already carrying a knife, whistle, compass and other goodies, so those items can be left out of the hiking kit. A smaller setup, means I'm more likely to grab it.
  • Build many. I stashed the v1.0 kit in one of our cars. However, having a kit in each car, as well as with other hiking gear, would have made it a lot more likely to grab.
  • Make it useful. I tried to skimp on the unlikely what-if stuff, and focus on the items that are really practical, like bug repellent and TP.

Here's what I've ended up with:

  • Mylar space blanket. I'll probably upgrade this to a heatsheet, rather than the cheap version. Still, at about $1.00 a piece, they are hard to beat from a cost perspective.
  • 55 gallon drum liner. The classic garbage bag - useful for impromptu rain gear, shelter, water collection and 1000 other uses.
  • Reynolds Wrap Oven Bag. Looks and feels like a regular plastic bag, but is durable and heat proof enough to bake in it. I tested one out by pouring boiling water in it, and it held up just fine.
  • (3) Portable Aqua Tablets. Handy when you bring less water on a hike than expected and want to purify some on the fly.
  • Toilet Paper. No further explanation needed.
  • (3) insect repellent wipes. Again, no explanation needed.
  • (3x3') of heavy duty tinfoil. Learn a little origami and you can create a cup. In a very long shot, could be useful for signaling. That, and dozens of other uses.
  • (6x6') of bright pink cord. I've confirmed that this cord and a space blanket can rig up a fine little shelter. I'm convinced that the pre-cut lengths mean that the cord will be put to use faster. I'm also loving the bright pink, which is useful to avoid tripping over it as well as for leaving as breadcrumbs if you get lost.
  • A Bic Mini lighter. Let there be fire!
  • (5") of Gorilla Tape. Useful for repairs and handy in creating the above shelter I mentioned.
  • Pocket lint. The weigh nothing, free, fire starter that works scary well.

As you can see form the above photo, almost all of the items above come naturally in bulk. Which means that creating a 3 or 4 of these kits should be a no-brainer.

The last piece of the puzzle is to find a cheap container to put these in. For the prototype above, I'm using a heavy duty 1 quart Ziploc bag. And it clearly works:

It has room to spare, and the bag itself is useful. Still, I'd like to find something more durable. Perhaps something rigged up out of Tyvek?

Finally, I think this kit is going to work from a "layering perspective." The above kit, with my usual EDC should work well for hikes. If I were to toss in a sleeping bag, pad and some no-cook food, I'd imagine I'd be all set for a night in the woods too.

So there it is, version 2.0. Now, if I can just get out in the woods and put it to use!

Monday, July 30, 2012

When In Doubt, Add WD-40

The ceiling fan in our library downstairs had started to make a bit of a clicking sound. Other than ignore it, I didn't have much in the way of ideas on how to fix it.

Then it hit me - what if I spray the mechanism with WD-40?

Sure enough, after a few seconds, it was back to being quiet.

WD-40 easily has thousands of uses, so I shouldn't be surprised it took care of this job so easily.

One tip I wasn't aware of, and haven't yet tried, but won't be surprised if I need to: WD-40 can be used to crayon off of wood and upholstery.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Another Reason To Love Bic Lighters

Here's another reason to love Bic Lighters: when the fuel runs out, you can convert them to a spark lite fire starter.

Here's a quick visual as to how it's done:

Read the full instructions here.

My only problem is that I use lighters so infrequently that I don't have any that are low enough on gas to justify tearing it apart.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The 50 Foot School

I stumbled on this video a few days ago on YouTube: The 50 Foot Survival School. It's the creator's answer to a friend who remarked that he liked the outdoors and all, but really didn't have a clue about the details of plant identification and other woodland skills.

The "school" works like this: pick a random spot, drop a stake in the ground and tie yourself to it with a 25ft rope. Now, as he suggests, observe and try making a plan with the extremely limited resources you have in front of you. The video goes into more detail, and it's definitely worth watching.

Seems to me that this exercise would be an ideal one for working on a whole range of skills. For example, pick a random spot and try eek out some beautiful photos, or a sketch or a written story. I even wonder if it could be a time occupier for kids: given a random location, come up with a new game or the like.

It's an excellent way to arrive at a new perspective and perhaps stumble upon a new skill or bit of knowledge.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Batch Of Useful Household Hacks

Not sure how they did it, but Buzzfeed managed to round up a batch of 18 household hacks that are actually quite useful.

My favorites:

  • Use a split toilet paper roll to keep wrapping paper from coming unspooled
  • Use a shoe rack to organize cleaning supplies
  • Use an empty (and clean) bottle of suntan lotion as a place to store your wallet and phone at the beach

Check out the article to see the visual representations of these hacks. Well done.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

CSS3 PIE - Taming IE's CSS Limitations

Tonight, I was stuck trying to persuade some nasty CSS to render properly in IE8. I could kind of sort of get what I wanted done by using the filter and -ms-filter CSS directives, but not quite. The fact that the CSS was on the cluttered side (and naturally, I didn't write it) didn't help.

Then, thanks to a StackOverflow article I learned about css3pie.com.

CSS3 PIE allows you to write "normal" CSS code, and thanks to the inclusion of a single line (behavior: url(.../PIE.htc)), that code will work properly in IE8 and 9.

It took a tiny bit of mucking around to work: I needed to add the correct content-type to my .htaccess and use -pie-background: linear-gradient(...) for the gradient instead of a normal background: ... directive.

Still, compared to what I was facing, this was down right amazing.

Oh yeah, one other gotcha I ran into: I wanted to change the background color on hover. Originally I had:

.button {
  background: linear-gradient(#000,#FFF);
  -pie-background: linear-gradient(#000,#FFF);

.button:hover {
  background-color: #DD0000;

But that didn't trigger the background change in IE. Along with changing background: on hover, I also needed to tweak -pie-background. So the following code worked perfectly:

.button:hover {
  background-color: #DD0000;
  -pie-background: #DD0000;

Yeesh, at this rate, kids today won't know the pain of programming around all the nuances of half a dozen different browsers. It'll all just work. What fun is that? No doubt the age of browser hacks will be remembered like punch cards - a badge of honor to be worn by old timers.

Murphy's Law of Hose Repair

I proudly fixed the male end of our damaged garden hose today:

And after 15 minutes of use, it burst:

Just a little proof that some projects just aren't meant to be!

I did confirm, though, that the tools I carry my keyring really do work: (1) the derma-safe blade cut through the hose like it was warm butter, and the P-51 can opener worked surprisingly well as a Philips head screwdriver. See:

See, it wasn't wasted effort - just an unexpected tool test.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share

On one hand, Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share is a most wonderful book. It's filled with great ideas to tackle with kids, ranging from outdoor games to making your own comic books. If you're a dad, uncle, or just have the occasion to be around kids, it is essential reading. I found it to be real page turning, if only because I'm looking for the next hack to try.

On the other hand, the book is definitely a source of what I call Geek Dad Guilt. "You haven't taught your kid to program yet? You mean, you guys don't know how to solder? You just go outside and throw the football around, why don't you fashion your own set of rules and light ball up with LEDs?" True, no one has ever said these things to me, but it's impossible for me to read a book like this and not have them floating in the back of my head.

In other words, I think an unintended consequence of the Geek Dad movement is to complicate matters. Call me crazy, but we get incredible mileage out of many of the basics: reading comic books instead of creating them, playing board games instead of inventing them, that sort of thing.

Still, the book really is a must read. And I give credit to the author for defining the term 'Geek' large enough that anyone with a strong interest in anything can rightfully claim the title. And from there, be inspired to make their passion kid friendly.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Review: George Washington's Breakfast

After our trip to Mt. Vernon, my Mother-in-Law picked up a copy of George Washington's Breakfast for our 7 year old.

What a wonderful book! Besides cleverly teaching history about George Washington, it does an excellent job of modeling problem solving. Not to mention, it's well written enough that the whole family could enjoy listening to the story.


My only complaint with the book is that after revealing George Washington's simple breakfast, it neglects to give the recipe for the main course: Hoecakes. However, thanks to the power of Google, I was quickly able to find the recipe. So, here it is:

2 cups corn meal
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups boiling water
oil for frying

Put the tea kettle on to boil. In a large bowl combine the corn meal and salt. When the water boils, measure it in a metal or tempered-glass measuring cup. Pour the boiling water over the cornmeal and stir it up. The cornmeal will swell up, absorbing the water, and making a very thick mash.

Heat some oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. You can use as little as two tablespoon of oil per panful, but it is a little easier to use 4 or 5 tablespoons of oil for each panful. ...

Read the entire recipe here.

All in all an excellent book. Can't wait to actually try the recipe.

Mt. Vernon, A Family Affair

Thanks to an especially dense traffic day, we abandoned our plans to take Shira's Mom into the city and instead came up with a quick Plan B: visit Mt. Vernon, George Washington's historic residence.

Mt. Vernon turned out to be an excellent choice, the history and grounds were fascinating for everyone. The kids puzzle map that was provided turned out to be the perfect mechanism for pulling our seven year old in. It didn't hurt that they had various farm animals around to oggle.

It's definitely a must see site in the DC area. I'm also eager to poke around the grounds and parks nearby, as it seems like there would be some fun hiking in the area.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Planning for Failure, Home Edition

Last week we got a fresh coat of paint on the downstairs walls (another excellent job by our go to builder: Odd's N' Ed's), and ever since they finished I've been counting down to the first scuff mark we'd get on the wall.

Actually, I was doing more than counting down: I was preparing! Today I made a Touch Up Kit - nothing fancy, just some well labeled Tupperware containers with each type of paint that was used. I cleared out a spot in one of our kitchen cabinets to store them, and made sure there were a couple of foam brushes stored along with the paint.

Sure enough, as I was preparing this setup, I noted our very first scuff mark. I was also able to quickly identify the right paint and do a quick touch up. It was a thing of beauty. No more promising Shira that I'll get around to doing the touch up work, which of course I won't, because who has the time to wade through the random, unmarked paint buckets in the basement.

Oh, I should warn you: this may in fact be a terrible idea. Maybe Tupperware is the worst place to store paint. I haven't found anything to suggest that yet, but what the heck do I know. I just know I want to make touch ups fast and easy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Proof You're Doing A Good Job Parenting Your 7 Year Old

It's easy: just type in 7 year old into Google and see that none of the suggestions apply:

Good news, eh?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Gear Notes from Our Latest Trip

As always, even with a few days on the trail, I've got a fresh batch of lessons-learned. Here they are, for the Internet and my future self to benefit from:

Outcomes of my Experiments

This trip, I planned a bunch of gear/techniques to try. Here's how they worked out:

  • Front pocket fishing kit: on one hand, I didn't catch anything. On the other, neither did my brother who had a real fishing setup. The fish just weren't biting. With a bit of practice, I was able to cast my line into the creek/pool just as well as if I had a real rod and reel. For use during hikes when a fishing hole is discovered, this setup can't be beat. This is a winner. If I ever manage to catch anything on this, I'll do a full review of it. Though, here's what it looks like (the watch is shown for scale).
  • Blue Diamond Almond Pot: It's small, but was handy to have yet another way to boil water over the stove. This fits nicely into David's nesting cook kit. Another winner.
  • Jiffy Pop Frying Pan: We tried to cook pancakes with this guy over the PocketRocket stove, and withing a few seconds, we had little more than a carbonized mess. Perhaps this would work over a fire, or if we could dampen the PocketRocket. As is, though, this was a definitely loser.
  • Heatsheet Tarp: I spent both nights under heatsheets, and used the technique I had heard about. Worked great, and both nights I was dry and comfortable. You can see the shelters I built here and here. The heatsheet shelter approach isn't particularly durable. But, for a couple of nights, and as a backup to sleeping in a tent I had near by, it was perfect. Notice that one night, I draped a painter's drop cloth over the setup and that definitely helped. Another winner.
  • Improvised Gravity Filter: The improvised gravity filter worked, but we're just so used to treating with iodine, that it wasn't really convenient to use. The iodine takes 30 minutes to work its magic, but is easy to do and can work while hiking on the trail. The setup definitely works, but I've got to give it an Eh rating.
  • Esbit Stove - For the first time, I tried using an esbit stove. At first I was disappointed - is that all it does? But, by the end of the trip I was really sold on it as a backup option or for the specific times when boiling water is the only cooking you'll be doing. 1 Tablet warmed up (almost, but not quite to a boil) 3 1/2 cups of water. It meant a hot breakfast on Sunday, instead of cold tuna fish. A winner.

The Gear

  • Nobody's allowed on the trail with plain old cotton socks (yeah, I'm looking at you Dad!)
  • Bring a pedometer. In the past, I found my eTrex was occasionally useful,but more often than not, I'd fight with it to get signal. I thought a pedometer would be a useful alternative, but talked myself out of bringing one as I thought it would be another gimmick. Boy, was I wrong. A relatively cheap, but fancy pedometer would have helped keep us from overdoing the mileage the first day. The clock on it would also be essential for any number of reasons. Even though I didn't need it for navigation, it still would have been awfully handy.
  • Make sure to bring 2-50ft hanks of Paracord for the bear bag. I assumed one 50ft length would have worked, but having 2 would have made setup much easier.
  • Bring your EDC, including cell phone and other goodies. Usually, I leave the non-wilderness part of my daily carry at home (like the cell phone and USK). I didn't this time, and I'm glad I didn't. I found myself using the cell phone and my foldable backpack, both items I would have left behind. Of course, the "E" in EDC stands for everyday, so bringing it along is really a no brainer. With my cell phone in Airplane mode, it was on for 3 days and still had 85% charge left at the end of the trip.
  • Love the Fold Flat Fozzil Dishware. Super light, and the different containers really come in handy during food prep, when clean surface area seems in short supply.
  • Hiking Poles. Next trip, everyone over the age of 39 is bringing them for help navigating nasty trails.
  • Bring a silk liner. I slept outside and the weather was perfect for my sleeping bag. My brother and Dad, on the other hand, were in a warm tent / cabin. They really appreciated using a silk liner.
  • Love the Tiltpod. We brought along David's tiny Canon camera, and he had a Tiltpod attached to it. The result, lots of group shots that were trivial to setup. David's got an eye for finding spots to to leverage this guy, so you may need some practice. Still, give its weight and value, it's worth taking the time to master.
  • Bring at one small fuel canister a day. Somehow I managed to talk David into bringing a single canister and we ran out. We had other options (the stove in the cabin, our esbit stove), but lesson learned.


  • Collecting raspberries and mixing them into our pancakes was among the most brilliant moves we made all weekend. The result: some of the best pancakes I've ever had. We also tried a batch with gorp mixed in - worked well, tasted good. Not quite as good as the raspberries.
  • Baking on a backpacking stove is possible! I tried the technique shown here, and to all our amazement, it worked! Here's what you do: buy a just-add-water muffin mix. Take a pot and fill it half way with stones. Line the remaining section of the pot with tin foil. Add water to the mix while it's in the bag, then pour it into the tin foil. Cook on your stove. To my shock an amazement, the cake was cooked through evenly, with no raw or burnt parts. Best trail desert ever.
  • Mixing up hummus on the trail was a good idea. Though, for future reference, we only needed 1/3 of the box.
  • Whiskey! How could we forget the whiskey?! Can't let that happen again.
  • Just add water versions of beans and rice and hash browns worked great. Though, we need to bring and use a lot more oil to make the hash brows really brown.
  • Freezing a block of cheese and bringing that was a brilliant contribution by David. It lasted the weekend and melted perfectly on tortillas.
  • A green pepper can last the weekend and works perfectly cooked in hash browns.

The Sound of Our Shenandoah Hike

Along with hundreds of photos of our recent backpacking trip, I also grabbed a few sound samples.

Doesn't this just sound like the perfect place to be?

7 Minutes of Terror Makes for 5 Minutes of Awesome Video

In about 20 days, NASA's Curiosity rover will land on Mars. Doing so, involves going from 13,000Mph to 0 in 7 minutes, all done automatically by a per-programmed computer. The video below explains how they solved a number of problems to make it work. The solution is scientific problem solving at its best. Really, it's a riveting video.

My favorite quote:

This big huge parachute that we've got, it will only slow us down to about 200 miles per hour...and that's not slow enough to land...so...we have no choice...we've got to cut it off...and come down on rockets.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Can your backpack do this?

I love the Sea to Summit foldable bag - folds down to nothing, holds a ton and is surprisingly durable. Today, I  grabbed it to hold my usual pocket contents while on a bike ride.

Alas, the 96° temperature made wearing the backpack remarkably uncomfortable.

Not a problem, I hopped off my bike and wrapped the bag around my handlebars. It worked quite well as a temporary handlebar bag, and getting airflow to my back made for a much more pleasant ride. Of course, I'm not going to win any fashion contests with this setup, that's for sure.

Score another point for this great little bag.

Shenandoah Corbin Cabin Adventure

This last weekend, my Brother, Father and Myself had a fantastic little backpacking trip in Shenandoah National Park.

We spent one night roughing it in the back country (after an 8+ mile hike!) and the second at Corbin Cabin. Just how wiped out were we that first night? All three of us slept 12 hours!

Corbin Cabin was really impressive. It's a primitive cabin, so there's no running water or electricity. But, it's in great shape and stocked with all sorts of useful things - from candles to spices. The second day had a bit of rain and thunder in the distance, so the fact that we were in a cabin was especially nice.

The real mission of the trip was to do some fishing. Alas, the weather has been really dry so the main river was really low on water. We did find a couple of pools we could fish, and my dad showed off his serious skills by actually catching a fish each day. Still, it was plenty of fun just trying.

One highlight of the trip was the food. We had pancakes for lunch on Saturday. We realized we forgot the syrup, but made up for it by hand picking raspberries and mixing them in. It was heavenly. For the second batch of pancakes, we were out of berries, so we mixed in gorp. It totally worked. The blue M&M's that I dropped in did turn the pancakes green'ish blue, but that totally added to the effect.

For Saturday evening, I wanted to try a technique I had seen on YouTube (which I can't find the link for now!), baking muffins on a stove. It works like this: you fill your pot half way with rocks. You then line the rest of the pot with tin foil. You then mix up a just-add-water muffin mix and pour it into the pot. We put the pot on the cabin's wood burning stove and waited. About 40 minutes later, to my shock and amazement, we had a perfectly cooked cake. The rocks apparently keep the bottom from getting too hot and burning.

I wanted to maximize my time in the woods, so I spent both nights sleeping outside. The first night was dry, so my little shelter was more or less for decoration. The second night, we had a fair amount of wind and rain, and my shelter (again, to my amazement) held up well. It was nice knowing that I could have fled to a tent/cabin if my setup had gone South.

Sunday morning, at 5:20am I heard a loud crunching noise next to my shelter. I tried to convince myself it was nothing, and then I heard another crunch of breaking branches, only this time, closer. I got out of bed, and sure enough, 10 yards away was a deer, trampling through the woods. Whew.

What a trip! One thing I've got to say about backpacking: you definitely pack a lot of adventure into a short span of time. Everything from cooking meals to going the bathroom has the opportunity to be memorable!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Advice for the ladies

You're welcome.

All packed and ready to go

The checklist says I'm good to go, so I must be good to go.

5 (mostly) YouTube Inspired Backpacking Hacks To Try

Tomorrow, my Brother, Dad and I head into the woods for a weekend of backpacking and fishing. To prepare, I've been browsing various videos at YouTube for gear/technique inspiration. Here are a handful of hacks that I'm hoping to attempt to try this weekend. Not sure if I'll pull any of them off, but considering that they are almost all zero effort projects, it certainly doesn't hurt to try.

A Front Pocket Fishing Kit - there are lots of examples on YouTube of fishing kits that are super tiny. Turns out, line, a few hooks and a couple of other do-dads really don't take up any space. While this trip I'll be doing almost all my fishing with real gear (Thanks Dad!) I hope to spend a little time trying to make a pocket kit work. Then, I'll have no excuse for not doing a bit of fishing anytime I'm out for a hike and discover a possible fishing hole.

A Blue Diamond Almond Pot - I can forget buying that overprice titanium cook pot and just use this $3.00 hack. Apparently, Blue Diamond Almonds come in a metal tin suitable for cooking with. I picked up a can of almonds (which went into my gorp, yum!) and sure enough, it's the cutest cook pot ever. Sure, it's more like a mug than pot - but it's so lightweight, I've got to give it a try.

A Jiffy Pop Frying Pan - we want to cook pancakes on the trail (the just-add-water mix is easily available), but we didn't have a frying pan to cook it with. David, however, had picked up the classic Jiffy Pop popcorn on a whim. We decided against bringing it, but realized that it should work as an improvised frying pan. This one I haven't seen yet on YouTube, so we'll just have to try it and see how it works.

The Frontier Water Filter Gravity Filter Hack - Like the Jiffy Pop, this is another case of serendipity at work. A while back, I'd picked up a Frontier Water Filter, which usually works by plopping one end into the dirty water, and using a straw to drink through. It was neat enough, but wasn't going to bring it on this trip. That is, until I saw how it can be trivially be plugged into a Vapur flexible water bottle to make a trivial gravity based water filter. And the best part? CVS is selling knock-off Vapur bottles for $1.50. For, that price I don't mind slicing up a bottle or two to give this setup a try.

A Heatsheet Tarp - I'm a huge fan of heatsheets, a sort of upgraded emergency blanket. Thanks to YouTube I've got yet another use for them - as an ultralight tarp. The solution involves duct tape, so how can it be bad?

Of all the videos, I watched, I found Intense Anger's selections to be among the best. Lots of high quality information and well done video work (much of it shot by himself, of himself, in the back country). His series on ultralight gear is really impressive.

OK, enough talk. Let's go into the woods and make stuff happen.

Update: See how these experiments worked out here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Quote of the Day

"Even Superman had foster parents"

As seen on an Arlington County Social Worker's tote bag. The internet has the quote attributed to anonymous.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Manliest Bead Project. Ever.

Last year, I discovered Ranger or Pacer beads and promptly did nothing about it. Recently, I'd seen a couple of references to ranger beads and the idea popped back into my head.

Still, I didn't have any beads lying around, and the thought of spending money on something that would almost certainly get no use irked me. I thought about using pennies (moving one from my right to left pocket, every 10 steps, sort of thing), but even that never happened.

Today, while looking at a craft project on my desk from our 7 year old, I realized I did indeed have an ample supply of beads. Bazillions of them. They are the small kind that you put on a pegboard and then melt.

I gathered together a handful of beads and some pink cord, and I was off and running. I quickly realized, however, that threading these beads was going to be tricky. I grabbed a needle and thread, and that served to allow me to easily thread through a loop of the cord. Within 10 minutes, I had my self the cutest (and brightest) set of ranger beads ever.

It took me longer to find the tape measure to measure my stride (about 7 spaces = 10 meters), then it did to build out the project.

I'm still not convinced I'll actually get any use of these guys. And the smaller bead size seams that they are more fragile. Still, given the time and effort to make them, I'm glad I did. They may be handy for measuring other things, besides strides. For example, how often I go through a water bottle.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Which color should this room be? A Painting Hack

We're having the first floor of our house painted, and the guys who are doing it have obviously been doing this for years. They need a minimum of instruction and just get efficiently to work.

I made an appearance to help show them which type of paint when into which room. Rather than depend on me putting the right paint cans in the right spot, or remembering anything, the guy in charge scribbled on the wall appropriate color number. And what fancy tool did he use to accomplish this? A plain old quarter.

The chances that they'll apply the wrong color are now much slimmer.

There's just something about watching folks who know what they are really, truly, doing. Whether it's a programmer, car mechanic, chef, Doctor or anyone else...the hacks that they use are almost a work of art.

Meanwhile, While I was baking in DC...

...David and Maryn where in Rochester, visiting family. They went fishing with my dad, and check out this bass She caught?!

I'm so psyched for her!

Friday, July 06, 2012

Farewell Old Friends, You'll Be Fondly Remembered

These may look like an old couch, chair and table - but what you're really looking at is sacred history. Well, perhaps not sacred, or we wouldn't be donating them to make room for more up to date replacements.

The Couch. 14 years ago, when Shira I moved into our very first place (the cutest, loveliest rental-town home, for which we paid $690/mo or so) we had no furniture. Well, perhaps not *no* furniture: we had a bed (thanks Mom and Dad!), a folding bridge table and some folding chairs. That was it. We dutifully went and picked out a brand new couch (which we still have). As we were paying, we casually asked when delivery we be - assuming a few days. Nope, our couch would be ready in 12 weeks. 12 weeks?!
One day, during those 12 weeks, we were in a massive furniture store, that had a massive selection of clearance/one off pieces. I found this incredible "couch" in the bunch - it was a recliner, had vibrating seats and was super comfortable. It even had a speaker phone built into the center console! Oh yeah, it was this unfortunate green color. And it had one other minor flaw, it was only 2/3rds of a couch. Apparently, it was part of a sectional at one point in its life. Like a 5 year old, I begged and pleaded to allow Shira to let me buy it. She did so, on the condition that we would get rid of it shortly after our real couch arrived. Like I said, that was 14 years ago.
Ahhh, 2/3rds of a couch. You fit perfectly in our apartments and house. Nobody ever judged you for missing one side. Children of all ages had such joy climbing on you and turning on and off your vibrating seats and pressing your defunct telephone buttons. You will be missed.
The Table. Again, you have to go back 14 years or so to appreciate this table. Picture it - a house with no furniture in it. While we were getting settled in our new city, Shira took a gig doing temp work for an office furniture store. One day, an employee came in and quietly pulled Shira aside. In a hushed whisper, she explained that a mismatched table top had come in, and if she wanted it, it was all hers. The employee was also able to produce a mismatched, but perfectly acceptable table base to go with the table top.
That table top and base served first as our kitchen table, then as our dining room table and finally as a computer desk. It's turned out to be one of the most durable pieces of furniture we've ever owned, looking as good today as it did the day we were gifted it. I look at that tiny table and wonder how that was ever our main eating surface. But it was.
The Chair. Good news, you don't have to go back 14 years to learn the history of the chair. You just need to go back 12 -- back to 2000, when the tech bubble was going strong. I worked at AmazingMedia, where, like every other tech company, we had lots of employees and all the infrastructure we could ask for. That is, until the bubble burst, and people started getting laid off. As the company shrank, we downsized not just people but stuff. The result, I took home both my desk chair (which I sit on to this day), as well as this extra chair.
In some respects, this chair remains a cautionary reminder of what happens when you live beyond your means (people end up getting laid off). Since the fast and furious days of the 2000's, where designers creating (dare I say, "cranking out) templates sat, to many a quiet morning where I'd drink tea and catch up on e-mail, to sitting with our 1 year old and watching Pete Seeger's perform Skip To My Lou about a million times, to our 7 year old doing his homework on it, this chair has seen quite a bit of use. And through it, it's been rock solid.
The furniture we'll be replacing this with may be more polished, and, sure, the new couch may not be missing a side. But, still, these new pieces will come to us without soul. Still, I'm optimistic: given time, (say, 12 to 14 years), I expect the new pieces will be just as storied as the ones we're giving up today.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

DollarShaveClub.com - Hilarity Meets Business Advice

Check out this DollarShaveClub.com commercial:

Far funnier than anything I saw during the Super Bowl, or since. When my current batch of Cost Co razors run out, I may very well have to give them a try.

The commercial nails two other points that I'm constantly telling my customers about:

1. Embrace your limitations and use them as a strength. "Stop paying for shave tech you don't need" -- the flip side of this is, our razors aren't as flashy as the competition. Rather than lamenting this, embrace it. Say you're building a web app, and because you're a start up there isn't as much functionality built out yet. Use that as a good thing. Force your software to be simple and easy to use, and free from all that junk nobody really uses.

2. Solve a real problem, and everything else takes care of itself. The value proposition for DollarShaveClub.com is easy: save money, save time. DollarShaveClub.com doesn't need a fancy website, or packaging, or or even amazing customer service - they just need to deliver on this simple premise. If they do, then their customers will have the incentive to stick around as they grow to finally put out a fully mature product.

My favorite example of this to tell my customers about is eBay. When eBay started, there was no Buy It Now, or Make an Offer or even a way to schedule the ending of an auction. If you wanted an auction to end Sunday evening, you had to start it Sunday evening. And the interface was terribly clunky - no way your grandma could ever use it. But, eBay solved two real problems: (a) how can I sell the junk in my basement and (b) how can I trust the people I'm doing business with (aka, feedback). Because they delivered on those items, people hung around while eBay matured into a real product.

Is That A Weather Report...

or baking instructions?!

According to weather underground it feels like 121° outside. That's not a typo - that's 1-2-1. Yeesh

Time to bust out the solar cooker, no? Or better yet, just put your car to work.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Celebrating the 4th - A Roasting Good Time

I really should have spent more time working today to make up for our most recent vacation. But, how could I resist not playing on a day when Shira and our 7 year old were home all day?

They both humored me this morning, and let me take them on a hike through Potomac Overlook Park, which I'd previously done personally, but not with them. This hike really is a blast. The stream crossings and scenery make it feel like you're really in the wilderness, yet you don't have to leave Arlington County. As Next Door Nature opportunities go, this is definitely a hidden gem.

There was quite a number of downed trees from the recent super storm, but none stopped us from making it from the parking lot down to the Potomac. We did see one especially large tree blocked a section of the White Trail we didn't need to travel on. Man, that storm was powerful.

The other big activity for the day was hitting Long Bridge Park for a 4th of July celebration. Alas, it was a feels like over 100°, so there wasn't much of a crowd and we didn't stay long to celebrate. It brought to mind a cook-out, except we were the ones on the Bar-B-Q.

We finished up the evening watching the fireworks streaming live from whitehouse.gov and listening to the sounds of them in the distance. This turned out to be the most brilliant way ever to watch the fireworks: no traffic to fight, no worrying about arriving early to save a spot, a perfect view, and all from the comfort of our air conditioned house. Seriously, this may become our new tradition.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Alaskan Adventure Gear Review

OK, I can't resist one post about our Alaskan Adventure. Just like I did for our Cape Town trip, here's a run down of gear that worked well.

In no particular order...

Overall, my gear list served me well. I used almost everything on it, which to me is the mark of a good packing list.

Everything that I wrote about in my Cape Town recap still holds true: loved the netbook, loved the REI travel pants, the Canon T3i and Overdrive. I didn't use the clamp for my camera, instead, opting to use the table top tripod instead. Part of me thinks it might be time to take the clamp out of my standard photography kit. We'll see.

FroggToggs DriDucks Rain Pants - I'm pretty convinced that all rain pants are awful. From my experience, they're bulky, sweaty and costly. This time, though, I brought along a pair of DriDucks pants. After spending a wet and cold day in them in Juneau, I've got to say, I'm impressed. They're really compact, do appear to breathe and are dirt cheap. I found that they held up just fine for the stress I put them under. The only downside is that they were quite baggy which made them an absolute fashion disaster. Still, from a functional perspective, they worked well.

For my rain jacket, I used the REI Ultra Light Jacket, which worked well. After hours of rain, I felt like it was beginning to get waterlogged. Still, it worked well in nearly all conditions and packed up nice and small when I wanted to bring it along. We also got plenty of use out of a pocket umbrella I brought along. This was key for making a dry space to shoot photos from.

Salomon X Ultra Hiking Shoes - These are the fanciest footwear I've ever owned, and they are just awesome. The trail runner style of shoe means that I was able to wear them around the ship and while we were in town without looking like a lumberjack. Yet, the Gore-Tex material kept my feet dry even as we hiked through puddles and rain at Mendenahall Glacier. I usually hate hiking boots. These, work.

Helios Hat and Buff - instead of carrying a sun hat and knit hat, I've switched to this combination. The Helios did a great job in the sun and while hiking and paired perfectly with the Buff to provide warmth while we were doing glacier watching from the deck of the ship.

Flip & Tumble 24/7 bag - This bag did was put to work nearly every time we went ashore. I'd toss it in my day pack, and after stopping by a number of shops, I'd find it filled up with souvenirs and other goodies. The shoulder strap design worked great because I was already schlepping a backpack.

Long underwear - on a few of the days, I wore long underwear and it definitely helped make the whole adventure more comfortable. Shira has a fancy set of long underwear from REI, but my generic set worked just fine. I definitely wouldn't leave these at home.

The only two items I'd bring on the cruise next time, but didn't this time were: (a) a pedometer and (b) a travel coffee mug. Both of these are probably obvious, but what the heck, I'll explain the logic.

The pedometer: the ship is large and you do a lot of walking. Also, the buffet is always open, and you do a lot of eating. It would have been nice to have some simple metrics to know how much exercise we were doing on the boat, and perhaps set some goals before pigging out at the next meal. Shira has a pedometer which is both inexpensive and highly accurate.

The travel coffee mug: it sure would have been nice to have an easy way to fill up a big 'ol mug of tea and take it out on deck or around the ship.

Hope these tips help if you're heading up North. The advice I was given ahead of time really does apply: wear lots of layers and bring rain gear!

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Alaskan Adventure - The Last Post

Technically, our vacation isn't quite over as we're sitting in the Seattle Airport. Our flight is already a couple of hours delayed, so who knows when we'll actually be back in DC. Still, we're off the boat, so for all intents and purposes, we're back to reality.

All in all, the cruise really went great. We continue to be impressed with Norwegian Cruise Lines, and their Freestyle Cruising schtick. The ports were all great, with Skagway being my favorite and Juneau being the one that least matched my expectations (the rain, I'm sure, didn't help). We were promised amazing views, and NCL delivered. The fact that the ports were such small towns helped make the relatively short stay there a lot more bearable. The only exception to this was Victoria, where I'd love to return for a couple of days of exploring the town.

The entertainment on the ship was solid. Second City, while funny, did more or less the same act we saw 4 years ago. But, the juggler/comedian was great, and the Frankie Valli tribute band was surprisingly fun to listen to. The food was good, and I ate myself into a food coma nearly every meal.

This really was the perfect way to celebrate our anniversary. If you've never cruised before, you really should check it out. It's got something for everyone.

Here's a small fraction of the photos we took this trip. Hope you enjoy!

Alaskan Adventure: Day 6 & 7

Day 6 brought us to Ketchikan, a fishing village of 8,000 people. It's totally picturesque. We walked 3 miles out of town to the Saxman Totem village, where we browsed one of the largest collections of totem polls around. By 1pm, we were back on the boat and on our way of out of town.

Most of day 7 was spent at sea. However, we did pull in to Victoria, British Columbia for a few hours in the evening. We hopped a bus to the Butchart Gardens, where we were amazed at the beauty of the place.

Butchart Gardens started its life as an open pit mine, and was converted to a gardens over 100 years ago as a way of reclaiming the area. It's truly an example of amazing foresight.

By 10pm, we were back on the boat for our last night at sea.