Blogging about Everything

I specialize in everything.

The Elephant on the Roof

This year I’ve blogged about tables, doors, and drinking while using power tools.  But the elephant in the room is the solar power grid I had installed on the roof.  So I guess it’s about time I write about it and show some photos. First things first: yes, it cost a LOT of money.  But there’s a rationale.  I decided to bite the bullet and install a 6 kilowatt system, which is big.  That will generate something around a hundred dollars a month of electricity on average.  My timing was almost entirely driven by tax incentives.  Which is to say, I’ll get them this year, but won’t be able to get them next year.  NC’s current legislature has, in their infinite wisdom, eliminated tax incentives for things like historic preservation, renewable energy, and other “green” initiatives.  So, here we go! To answer some questions: no, I’m not going off-grid, and I didn’t install batteries.  I’ll feed back into the grid and get a credit, which I can use later.  I plan on building a pottery studio with an electric kiln, so running it on solar is impractical.  Second, yes I financed at 0% interest for 18 months, which is enough time for me to pay off the 35% not covered by tax refunds, and to get that check back from Uncle Sam for the rest.  Third, the return on investment is going to be about 6 years, while the equipment itself is warrantied for 25.  Fourth, there isn’t going to be some magical performance improvement on the solar panels; what I mean is they won’t be obsolete in a year or two.  The... read more

Hungover Carpentry

This last weekend, I made choices.  As adults we all do.  My choices involved a bottle of wine and a wood shop. When the light of day hit some of my decisions, I realized something.  I can’t say those decisions were wrong, but some certainly don’t live up to my usual standard of forethought. Ahem, exhibit A: When I built the shop table, I was pretty proud.  Have some extra lumber laying around? POOF! It’s a workbench.  I had this frayed and water stained piece of particle board in the garage; I used it for the top.  My train of thought was that I’d replace the top with something nicer when I have the resources.   Except that I didn’t cut it to fit a normal sized frame, I built the frame to support the weird sized piece of plywood. So now in order to replace the top, I’d need to use an entire sheet of plywood, with about two-thirds of it left over as waste.  That is to say, I’m never going to do it. Also, ignore that great big lump of asbestos hanging down behind it.  If you don’t taunt asbestos, it won’t go after you. But all is not lost.  I had my carpenter over to prepare a quote to replace the rotted fascia boards and gutters, install stairs to the basement, and run a fence.  Not all at once, because there are only so many dollars in the known universe.  Anyway, it leaves me with a lot to look forward to. The other project on Sunday morning was building and installing the second raised bed... read more

Drunk Carpentry

In preparation for my annual spring party I’ve been building and cleaning, sprinting to the finish line I like to think of as “a presentable house.”  But I’m classy gentleman, so I occasionally sprint with wine. Sometimes reality gets in the way of my plans.  Like when the business end of the corkscrew decides to part company with the handle. I’m resourceful, so after finding the vice grips and a little bit of ire, I got the cork out of the bottle.  I mangled it in the process, so I did what any rational adult would do: I decided I had to drink the entire bottle so it didn’t spoil. Before you look at the next photo and ask me (with an appropriately stern voice) if I was using power saws while intoxicated, no.  Absolutely not.  Safety first.  However, it was a few sips into my first glass when inspiration struck. Actually, it may not have been inspiration so much as an aching back, and the momentary pause to appreciate it.  I’ve been building tables and fixing things on the basement floor, and my back isn’t 18 anymore, no matter what my mind tells it.  So with an aching back, and some liquid smarts on my tongue, I realized I had all the materials to ease my own pain.  At least the pain for my future self. And voila, I have a shop table.  I had some 2×4 lumber for another project, and I recalled there was a chunk of plywood in the garage.  The casters were an addition the next day after my wine super powers had worn... read more

The Mark 2

When I was an undergrad, there was a local band called Occasional Tables.  I’d never heard the term before, and the nascent programmer-nerd part of my brain said, “If they are only tables occasionally, what are they the rest of the time?” Adulthood has filled in the blanks for a lot of terms like “occasional tables,” “Escrow,” and “plausible deniability.” But back to the topic of tables.  When I bought my house, I quipped to a friend that it was going to take 10 years for me to buy enough lamps to light the place.  And by that point, I’d have to start seeing a therapist to treat my lamp-buying addiction.  But the joke is on me; lamps need a place to stand.  Did you know furniture costs money? My house was built in 1929, and came with a state-of-the-art coal-fired boiler.  In front of every window is a beautiful and sleek art deco radiator.  With an army of servants to shovel coal, the whole house could be toasty and warm, even on cold winter nights.  The boiler was replaced with a gas-fired model sometime in the late 1990s, so I only keep the army of servants around for show.  But those radiators are in front of every window, making it tough to place an occasional table upon which I can set a lamp. So I put on my woodworker hat and decided to solve my problem. Taking a cue from the Arts and Crafts movement, I decided that homemade and cottage-chic was the way to go, but with a touch of elegance and lightness in the tapered legs. I... read more

Dirty Laundry

Like most older homes, my house has a generous helping of quirks.  I’ve got the plumbing working now, and all but a few power outlets dispense the proper amount of juice.  Hurray for not dying in a fire! But life isn’t all struggle.  Sometimes it’s laundry.  The room I selected as my washroom though- it’s all struggle. Sometime in the late 1960s, the house was cut into 5 apartments, and the back “servant” areas were re-purposed.  Knock down a wall here, cut in a door there, wall-over the entire goddamn stairway, and presto! At any rate, the room that I use for my laundry room was someone’s kitchen at one point.  And in this kitchen was an old 1950s utility sink (installed poorly), and one of those super narrow stoves used in tiny apartments. After wrestling the laundry machines through a doorway that was too narrow by only 1/4 inch, running plumbing and getting them installed, I realized it left me with sort of an odd space- an odd space that was collecting junk for lack of a better place to put it. My solution was this: The Mark I. I built a jig for the table saw to cut tapered legs, and played around with various joinery techniques.  I eventually added a lower shelf, since it’s a laundry room. And like that, a weird and unusable nook becomes... read more

Recovering Cheapaholic

I grew up without a lot of excess.  My parents both lost their jobs when the company they worked for went under, and it took many years for them to fully recover financially.  It just happened that those years were my high school and college years.  It had a big impact on how I approach problems. For one, I come from a long line of cheapskates frugal people.  My dad grew up on a farm, went to a one room school house, and didn’t have indoor plumbing.  My mom grew up in a blue collar family, and her mom sold pies to help pay bills.  I grew up in a much more white-collar manner, and even had indoor plumbing, but the roots of my work ethic are strong. So when my parent’s employment evaporated, we made do, and I learned to make do without.  A friend of mine quipped of her similar situation, “We weren’t the kind of poor who went without food, we were the type of poor who went without pants.”  I never missed a meal, but my wardrobe was pretty thin for a while.  Worn-out things had to last a while longer, school trips were a solid maybe, and extras like movies were off the menu.  It’s not like I suffered, but I noticed the difference between my life and that of my friends. I got through college on scholarships, grants, and student loans.  My parents hadn’t gone so they didn’t coach me on how to pay for college, but I made do.  Oddly enough, I’m still paying for my undergrad, though I’ve paid off my masters... read more

The Tinker’s Dilemma

I have a developing friendship with a gentleman who used to be an HP exec.  To say the least, he doesn’t waste words.  His philosophies on human interaction have given me a lot of food for thought. Know Thyself Like many programmers, entrepreneurs, artists, and creatives, I’m a natural tinkerer.  I like to get under the hood and see how things work, change it up a little, and maybe get a better result.  Sometimes the outcome is something really special.  Or maybe it’s a deeper understanding of how stuff works.  But a lot of the time it is just lost time, or maybe a broken thing. Yes, sometimes I can’t get it put back together again. Are you a tinkerer?  If so, know there’s a cost involved.  Learning and exploring are powerful and compelling experiences, but sometimes if you need to solve a problem, tinkering is the most expensive path.  That’s money and time; the former is in short supply and the latter can never be refunded. Well-Solved Problems “If someone else has found a solution to your problem, buy it.”  That was a comment in a conversation this last weekend with my new friend.  That’s a message we all understand on some level, but he led with it.  And then he stopped talking. Buy-in doesn’t necessarily mean spending money.  Sometimes it’s a matter of changing your point of view.  I’m a big proponent of Open Source software.  It’s free in the financial sense, but truly buying into the Open Source ecosystem takes a mental, emotional, and cultural shift.  That’s hard for one person to do, so getting an organization... read more

Dear Fuzzy

Dear FuzzyGalore, I’ve been a follower of  your blog for some time and I have a thousand questions.  The thing is, I haven’t asked them.  Not to you anyway, mostly to myself.  Part of it is that I’m embarrassed to ask questions.  Not for some macho reason, or my sensible and stoic Midwestern upbringing, but because I’m not sure answers will do me any good right now. I recently read your post about things not making sense sometimes, and using writing to pull yourself back into gear.  I know that trick pretty well.  I used to do that all the time, but now when I write it’s about technology stuff, in part for my job, and in part to make me better at tech stuff.  Writing became work and I stopped using it as therapy. I’ve never been one to take photos of my motorcycle rides.  I have an old Honda that I got by bartering tuba lessons with an older student.  I think we both ended up feeling like we got the better end of the deal, which is the way a good barter works.  Anyway, I finished grad school, moved a couple times and eventually hit it good: job, paycheck, bought a house, paying off my student loans… So back to those questions I wanted to ask: all the motorcycles I’ve been tracking for years, you own them.  I know you love your Ural, will I love one too?  I know you love your Enfield, will I love one too?  I need a reliable road bike I can saddle up heavy, like your Triumph, but I think I might... read more

Time is Your Enemy is Your Friend

Stories of Rehabbing an Old Home I haven’t posted about the house in a while.  Part of it is because I’m lazy.  Part because it’s summer and there are other things to do.  Part because I’ve been writing about tech stuff (for fun and profit!).  But really, it’s because there have been so many home projects going on, and ALL of them take way more time, energy, effort, and money than planned.  On the other hand, things are happening so fast it’s hard to say how they happened at all. For instance, I bought a kiln.  I was planning on buying one to get back into pottery.  But that meant like next year, or maybe two years.  You know, when I’m “ready” for one.  Instead, I found one for a great price (a bargain I won’t be able to find next year, or maybe two years…) this week.  So, an eventual thing turned into a now thing. One of the things I heard early on- and believed in my head at least- was that you don’t have to do everything right now.  Do the important things in the order they come, and the rest can happen when it happens.  On my move-in day, a friend offered to help me start stripping paint, but I had to decline because the project at hand was sorting out the weird plumbing issues, and the holes in the roof, and the missing doors. Believing that advice in my heart took a while though.  It took about 6 months of perpetual grinding on projects before I stopped myself.  There must come a time for... read more

That One Time that Flying Didn’t Suck

I look forward to flying about as much as I look forward to sitting on a tack.  Now that I think of it, I’d rather the tack. I’m the proud owner of a 1998 Toyota Camry with 276,000 miles.  That high mileage is due in large part to the active role of airlines in making people miserable.  By people, I mean me.  Miserable enough that I’d rather drive to NY than fly. Now, I can make a rational case for driving over flying.  I work in NY, so when I get up there with a car, I HAVE A CAR.  And buying gas for a Camry isn’t too traumatic, especially compared to a plane ticket, parking fees, cab rides…  But let’s not kid ourselves here.  We all know what I’m really talking about. I’m talking about misery. And powerlessness.  When you go to the airport, you have to accept that you are a leaf on the wind.  You might be a leaf wearing expensive loafers and a $200 haircut, but you’re on the same flight as everyone else.  And yours is just as likely to get cancelled as anyone else’s.  I will never pay that kind of money for a haircut. So I’d rather drive 9 hours than fly 3.  Because it’s never 3.  The cost of that trip is not dollars or hours, it’s failed expectations as well.  3 hours of flying involves 3 hours of air time, plus an extra 3 hours of layovers and TSA molestation.  And you never know how long any of it will take.  At least with driving you can make yourself believe... read more

People Like What They Like

I have a motorcycle.  I love having a motorcycle.  But I don’t love my motorcycle.  Not right now anyways, and that’s something that needs to change. Recently I started reading a blog, fuzzygalore.com, written  by a woman motorcyclist on Long Island, NY.  Her tastes tend toward the retro, the kitschy, but still practical styles of motorcycle: Royal Enfield, Ural, Triumph.  Basically, the stuff I’d like  to own “someday.” But when is someday? And I guess a better question is, when did I fall out of love with my Honda?  Is it the constant mechanical problems? The noise of the aftermarket mufflers?  Is it that the seat is so short that my hips hurt after an hour in the saddle?  (My hips hurt? Since when? I’m not getting old, dangit!) Or is it that I’m finally ready to move on to something else? I remember my friend Mark commenting that it was a great starter motorcycle.  I remember thinking, “Starter? How could I want more than this?” I guess I... read more

We’ve Been Had

I was raised on 80s movies, 80s music, 80s sensibilities.  I remember movies like Ferris Bueller, The Breakfast Club, and on and on.  Adults were one-dimensional foils for the real center of attention: us.  The kids were the real story. I was raised on that, and so were you.  I remember watching Scooby Doo and hearing the thwarted bad-guy say, “I’d have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for those meddling kids!”  To me, those meddling kids were grownups, but it reinforced the idea that anything past childhood is sort of dead.  Grown ups put on zombie costumes to scare people away from the theme park so they can…  heck I don’t even know why.  But the “kids” were the good guys. Most of the adults I know now would probably not dress as a zombie just for the sake of scaring people.  The cool ones would.  But thank goodness there are other entertaining pursuits, like cooking, or riding my motorcycle, or going to a ballgame with friends.  Even working on my house is fun.  Until it isn’t, and then I go find some wine and a book. What I keep realizing is how awesome it is to not be a kid anymore.  Not only can I drink wine, and cook, and all the other things, I get to keep doing them.  I outgrew Scooby, but I get to do this stuff, the fun stuff, for as long as I want. I guess that’s why it’s so hard to watch TV shows where they glorify childhood.  Let’s admit: it was a mess, and life didn’t head downhill after... read more

Who Are These People

I remember a moment in a grocery store when I was in my 20s.  I was in the produce section and saw this strange looking lettuce-like item.  I thought to myself, “Who are these people who buy things like that, and how does the store sell enough to keep them on the shelves?”  Today I look at it and say, “Oh, they have bok choy, but it’s looking a little wilty and brown.”  I’ve become one of those people. In terms of inventory, bok choy isn’t a particularly adventurous item, but there are a whole range of items on the shelves that are.  For me though, the “adventurous” items are more likely in the snack-food aisle, or the breakfast cereal, or the juice case.  Now that I’ve become one of “those people” (ie. ones that can cook), I have to ask, “Who are the people who buy this stuff?” Some while ago I came up with a sort of test for what I eat.  I call it the Question Mark Test.  In short, the QMT is the number of questions I cannot answer (or don’t like the answer to) about a particular item in my cart.  For instance, I buy a lot of dried beans for cooking soup, hummus, Mexican (yum).  Ingredients: beans.  I’m pretty sure there are no questions here.  Maybe about where they were grown, how sustainably, and all that stuff.  But I don’t really have to worry if they were treated humanely or if they contain some Yellow #5 that will kill me in 30 years. On the flip side, there was that whole “Olestra” thing... read more

Net Neutrality

Many of you have probably heard about the whole “net neutrality” regulations that were just passed by the FCC.  It matters.  It matters to you and to me. The FCC has opened up the ruling to a 60-day  comment period.  If you want to write a short comment, you can do so here: http://www.fcc.gov/comments or http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/upload/begin?procName=14-28&filedFrom=X Here’s the Deal: “Net neutrality” relates to free speech.  In over-simplified terms, the new regulation allows big companies with lots of money to use the internet to speak louder, faster, and to a wider audience than companies or people without that cash.  It’s not that  your free speech is taken away, it’s that no one is allowed to hear it. The reason this is happening is that for the moment, internet access is not considered a utility like phone or electricity.  There is legislation afoot to change that, and you should support it.  Contact your senator or congressperson.  It’s not like the internet is some fringe technology, or reserved for techno-enthusiasts.  It’s how people communicate, how they speak.   UPDATE- George Takei posted this SHARE THIS MESSAGE: Despite receiving 150,000 signatures petitioning for net neutrality, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (former lobbyist for his industry cronies) isn’t listening–yet. His proposal granting big telecom and cable the right to charge different rates and put users who won’t pay up in the SLOWLANE advanced out of his committee yesterday. But there’s still time to act. Let’s flood his email inbox with angry missives. Write to him with the subject line: WE DEMAND NET NEUTRALITY His email is here: Tom.Wheeler@fcc.gov Tell him we’ll also demand his resignation as FCC Chairman... read more

Waste to Save

I think too much about too many things.  Sometimes it’s annoying.  But other times it makes my cheapskate tendencies into a superpower. People throw a lot of stuff away.  I guess I do too, but when I throw stuff away it’s either to the worms, the recycling bin, or at last resort, the dump.  I know that the whole “reduce, reuse, recycle” thing is relatively recent (to the point that my parents don’t recycle at all).  That gives me a great opportunity at thrift stores and craigslist.  Now that I own a house, the opportunities are even better.  And kinda weirder too. Thank you Craigslist.   But before I get to craigslist, let me get to The Spring.  Not just Spring, but The Spring.  This was a long and miserable winter.  Especially for those of us who were without heat for portions of it, or encountered rain in their kitchen in December.  But those problems are dealt with, and now it’s warming, it’s greening, it’s The Spring.  So I aimed my thinking-too-much at the outdoors, the yard, and all the problems that exist out from under my new roof. First, because I’m a dirty hippie, I needed a garden.  My house used to be five apartments for college students and vagrants (or whatever overlap therein), so the yard is full of broken beer bottles, caps, little chunks of aluminum cans…  50 years of parties.  And that’s less than great for the love of my life: tomatoes.  So I built a raised bed.   And I started raking the yard for broken bottles and scrap metal.  But that’s not fun,... read more

Final Prep for My House Warming

I’m having a house warming party this weekend.  You should come.  But the real reason for this post is to gather together some of the photos and captions I’ve posted on facebook so that I have them here. Back to the party: my objective was to have the house ready for guests by the time guests arrive.  Not after.  It’s fun to work toward a good goal.  In this case, “ready” meant putting doors and knobs everywhere you’d expect, no holes where youngsters might fall and die, and adequate tables for food and booze.  Getting my backdoor puzzled back into shape was the last big goal before the show, and this post is about that. I have a complete back door now.  My original back door was cut three inches too short and left in a puddle in the basement to rot. When I moved in, I found old doors everywhere, so I put them up, even if they were incomplete, rotting, or had profane poetry on them.  In order to slow the travel of the wind through my house, I pulled this original door out of the basement and stuffed towels under it. The wood shavings on the floor are from hanging and fitting another door just a few feet away.  After riding out the winter with a layer of towels at the bottom, I got to work restoring it. Holes plugged, rot treated or cut off, new bottom created from pieces of another rotted door. Most of the bottom was rotten, but especially the rails (side boards), where the rot extended almost 2 inches up the (already... read more

On Roofs, Loved Ones, and Other Things We Take for Granted

You usually don’t notice the condition of your roof until there’s a problem.  In my case, the problem was that it was raining in my kitchen.  And it’s still raining on my front porch, but that will be addressed in the next week or so.  Anyone who knows much about houses knows that a little water you see means there’s a lot of water you don’t.  And on an old wooden structure such as my house, that means rot. My house, being a big house, has a big roof.  But, being an old house, it also has different sections of roof that aren’t connected to other parts of roof.  The second story roof isn’t connected to the porch roof, which bumps out from the first floor.  The kitchen bumps out of the back, and it has its own roof, and the garage is detached.  So, four roofs, each in poor condition, and each in poor condition in its own way.  Some of it was replaced properly, probably 30 years ago or more, and other sections were repaired at that time, and may be 50 years old.  All of it leaks, or leaked before my roofer Tony got to it. Over the years, the previous owners did the minimum to keep the roof on the house, or to do any repairs whatsoever.  The place had been chopped into 5 apartments, one of them a rooming house.  That means plumbing for five kitchens and six bathrooms: that’s a lot of water and potential leaks.  It was designed to maximize profit, at the cost of maintenance, at the cost of honoring what... read more

Know Your Tools

As a programmer and developer, I spend a lot of time thinking about tools.  Some tools are things like compilers, coding IDEs, or inspectors.  But other tools include things like a pen and paper for notes, stackoverflow for answers to questions, or samples of other people’s code for inspiration.  I’m currently renovating a house, and the process is remarkably similar, with the same sorts of tool-based musings.  A friend gave me some masonry tools that had been out in her garage, and my dad gave me a book he used a lot when he built the houses I grew up in.  Good tools come in all shapes and sorts. I had a conversation with a coworker recently where we were designing the moving parts of a REST API.  We got to talking about one approach versus the other.  His approach was to formalize everything so that our tools could work with the program in a very tightly-bound manner and in theory save us time.  My approach was to use the strength of the framework underneath to provide what we needed and leave things fairly simple so the syntax would be expressive.   The downside of his approach in that case was that we would have to change the output type, in essence change the product to fit the tools.  The upshot of mine is that we would have to write a bit more code by hand, but it would be easier to understand the whole picture be reading the code.  Our two approaches were at philosophical odds: rely on the intelligence of the human beings or rely on the intelligence... read more