What I Did on my Winter Vacation.

My employer does a ‘shutdown’ twice a year; once over Christmas break, and once around July 4th. This year has been great schedule wise because of what days Christmas and New Years fall on, so there’s a lot of free time.

I decided that it was time to move forward on a project I’ve been thinking about for months. Building a workbench in my office. The goal is to be able to work on electronics, drones, and other stuff without crufting up the kitchen table.

I live in a relatively small 2br house. By US standards, it’s very small (about 900sq ft). Since I’m working from home full time, I’ve been using the second bedroom as an office – it had previously been set up as a guest / kid sleeping room with a loft bed that’s out of the way when I’m officing. I decided to use a similar design approach to building out the workbench. The room is only 11’x7′, so fitting in a spare bed, my standup desk, a workbench, bookshelves, and some storage required some creative thinking.

My office before I started work on the new desk.
Office before work started on the new desk.

The first step natch was clearing out my working desk and hardware so I had space to work. Fortunately I keep my bedroom pretty clutter free, so it was just a matter of moving things down the hall. Then construction began.

I used a similar design to the loft bed, just not quite as hefty. On the loft I used 2×6 boards, but for the desk, I just used 2×4’s. Using a magnetic stud locator, I found the wooden studs in the walls, cut the boards to length, and used 3.5″ deck screws to attach the supporting studs to the walls. I guess the best term for these are ledger boards, since they’ll be supporting the ends of the joists. Anyway, the idea is the desk it attached directly to the wall studs, so no legs needed. It’s custom fit to the room.

Halfway through the build
Halfway through the build

Once the ledger boards were screwed in place (14 screws went in, and I hit the studs on every try. Booyah), I used aluminum hangers to put the joists in. These attached directly to the ledger boards and gave good support to the 2×4’s under the surface of the desk. I had to be careful about spacing due to where the ledger boards were attached to the studs. I needed at least 2 2×4’s under each ‘slice’ of 18″ plywood to support it cleanly.

Once all the joists and ledger boards were done, I laid down 2 strips of sanded plywood, and screwed them down with normal 2″ drywall screws. These are not load bearing, so using the weaker screws was fine – it was just to keep the boards flat and not move around.

The finished project
The finished project

The last touch was adding a kickboard around the top of the desk so things weren’t banging against the painted walls. I also drilled 3 2″ holes in the back of the surface to allow power cords to come up for equipment.

Heightwise, it’s 29″, which matches the older wooden desk I have. I’ll be able to put a plate in to join the two surfaces (I left a 3″ lip under the front)

Some quick lessons learned…

  • Magnetic Stud Finder – I can’t recommend these things enough. They’re dirt simple, inexpensive, and work great for finding nails in walls. Just a big powerful magnet.
  • LED Worklight – I have a set of old halogen lights roughly the same size. I won’t be using them anymore, as these LED lights are very bright, use much less power, and aren’t nearly as hot / dangerous. Really useful to have around.
  • I still love my Ryobi One+ power tools. They’re aging to be sure, and I’ll be replacing my battery packs from NiCd to Li-Ion shortly. I’ve already upgraded the basic drill/driver from the old yellow tool to the new green one, but I’m still using the older jigsaw and circular saw, which were wonderful for this project.

I’ve already used it to work on some home automation equipment, and it’s the right height, setting, and size to make things totally comfortable and useful. I’m looking forward to ramping my projects up again!

Dashcam Catches Tire Blowout on Mass Pike

(“You won’t believe what happens next!”)

I’ve been interested in getting a dashcam for my car(s) for a while, and when Woot had a had an Armorall Dashcam up for $29, I decided to give it a try. The verdict? This thing is worth about as much as I paid for it. Yes, it records video and audio. Yes it datestamps it. Yes it turns on and off automatically when I start the car, and yes it loops data on the MicroSD card just fine. Other than that, I can’t find a lot to recommend it. The field of view is narrow, the interface is painfully obtuse, and the mirror mount is… weird. Works, but weird.

Anyway. What did happen though was while driving to work this morning, a trailer in front of me had a tire blowout. The sound was funny, a squeaky whoosh (as opposed to a bang), and I missed seeing it happen (it’s at 7:53:17 in the video). I only understood what was going on when I saw smoke and bits of tire flying off the trailer. I backed off and put my my 4-way flashers for folks behind me, and let the guy pull over to the side. The wheel was pretty wrecked, and the sparks and tire debris were pretty dramatic.

If this had actually damaged my car or something more serious had happened, having the recording to show my insurance company and/or police would have been a huge win. But that’s what dashcams are all about, right?

And getting really cool videos like this. ūüôā

Jeep Build Log

As noted in my post “Finding the Balance in Toys and Escape“, I’ve acquired a lovely 2000 Jeep Wrangler TJ, which I’ve taken to calling “Ol Yeller”, for obvious reasons. ¬†I’ve managed to connect with some wicked smaht folks over on¬†the Wrangler TJ Forum, and they’ve been giving me great advice for fixing and upgrading this thing.

I’ve started a¬†build log¬† where I’ll be posting pics, chatting about mechanicals, and probably going over all the points where¬†I screw this up. ¬†Feel free to browse along and be amused.

Lars Anderson Museum Best in Show
Lars Anderson Museum Best in Show

One last bit. ¬†I took Ol Yeller to the Lars Anderson Museum for one of their lawn events (this one on American cars) and… I won Best Jeep in Show! ¬†Go me! ¬†Course, um, I was the only Jeep. ¬†But hey, I’ll take it!

 

Finding the Balance in Toys and Escape

When I was a kid growing up in what most people would call ‘the countryside’ (yes it was New Jersey, but we had horses, cows, hayfields, cornfields, and dirt roads), I had the advantage of being able to hop on whatever toy machine I had that year (snowmobile, ATC, mini bike, whatever), and just… ride. ¬†I could go through the woods, around the fields, over to my friends house, explore new streams… it was pretty much wide open. ¬†My friends and I had made trails between all our houses, and I could be adventurous, finding new paths to local towns or abandoned locations.

Now as a grown adult, I miss those things. ¬†A couple years ago, when my VW Passat was dying, I bought myself a 2012 Jeep Wrangler JK. ¬†It was a beautiful truck, and I took it on fun adventures in the mud and the woods, but… in the end, it just didn’t make sense as my primary vehicle, and I sold it, replacing it with an electric car. I don’t regret this decision, as the Volt has been a wonderful commuter vehicle, and as many say, once you drive full time electric, it’s hard to consider a combustion engine as a primary means of transportation. It just didn’t make sense to drive a Jeep to work every day.

In the midst of this, I was also reconsidering my motorcycles. I had two, my venerable Suzuki GS850 (1976! A Classic!) which I’ve owned since I was 25, and the newer DL650, which I got 5 years ago for more adventurous riding, and perhaps finding an efficient way to get around. Alas, I haven’t ridden either of them in almost 2 years, so they were just taking up space in the garage.

And I missed the Jeep. I missed the woods rides, I missed the fun of having a vehicle to just bang around in, and I missed four wheel drive.

So, I changed things.

I’ve sold both Suzuki bikes. Both went to neighbors – the GS850 has been serviced back into useability and I take great joy in seeing it rumble by. The 650 is going to a close friend as his first bike, and I’m looking forward to it getting a new lease on life.

And I bought another Jeep.

My yeller Jeep
My yeller Jeep
Now, lets be clear here. This is not a ‘new’ Jeep. The JK I mentioned above cost somewhere around $34,000 and was enormous. It was my primary vehicle, and was expensive as heck to drive on a daily basis. I still have my Volt, and that gets me to and from work all on electric. But now I have a lovely 2000 Jeep Wrangler TJ I paid $7k for that has almost no rust, and runs beautifully. The previous owner has done a bunch of work on it, adding things I would have added myself, and setting it up for the next steps.

Night before last, I was home and feeling a little quiet and sad… so I hopped in the Jeep and went driving in the night. The doors and top are off it, so it’s wide open. It was the 4th of July, and I drove past fireworks and breezy weather… stopping at the top of a hill and turning off the engine just to listen to the night and distant fireworks. I thought back to the times I did this when I was a kid – I’d take my snowmobile or my ATC out into the woods or fields and just stop… or drive quietly around in the night.

Over the weekend I spent a couple hours with Zach working on it. We fixed a few problems, determined a few other problems, but had some great 1:1 time. Tonight we’re taking the Jeep up to MakeIt to put it up on the lift and do some wheel work. I would never do this with my ‘primary’ ride, but the Jeep is like a big tinkertoy. It’s fun to work on.

Am I reliving my childhood? Sure. Nothing wrong with that. I’m filling a need that my previous Jeep awakened – the want to be out playing in the dirt and woods and having fun. I get some of that hiking, but boy I missed the trailrides and the driving.

I went Sailing Again.

Sailing on Boston Harbor
Sailing on Boston Harbor
This afternoon Zach and I took advantage of a Meetup group in Boston to go sailing on the ‘C’est si bon’, a 46ft Formosa out of Marina Bay, south of Boston. I’d sailed with Ralph before, but this was the first time I was able to go with my son Zach. It ended up being awfully hot, and not much wind, but as many have said before me, a bad day out sailing is better than a good day in the office. We had enough wind to take us from Marina Bay all the way to Deer Island and back again over around 5 hours.

We had a great time, and Ralph was as always a wonderful skipper. We had a crew of 6 total, which was just the right number of people, with skills ranging from newbie on up.

I ended up being completely wiped out by the trip, and once I got home, fell into a zombie-like sleep. I’m still sore and worn from 5+ hours on the water, but it was a great day out.

Vainglory

I’ve been on the lookout for a new game to put my new Moto X Pure Android through, a device that’s extremely high powered and seems perfect for games. Ever since I saw the tablet revolution taking over gaming, I’ve been hoping for a decent, realtime, immersive game that I could get behind. (Why WoW and Eve aren’t on tablets yet is beyond me).

My son Zach was a huge booster of MOBA games before they were cool. DOTA2, and later League of Legends were daily activities. I tried them off and on, but found the complexities and knowledge curve too much for casual gaming.

Enter Vainglory.

Many companies have claimed to make the MOBA experience enjoyable on a mobile device, but this is the first one that’s gotten me completely hooked. I’m still in casual play mode, but I’m finding it intensely enjoyable. The graphics are magnificent, the characters interesting and varied, and the gameplay is perfect. It’s a dead-on implementation of the MOBA ideals (and yes, it has last hits :).

I’ve put in a couple hours so far, getting a feel for 3 of the heroes. There’s so much more to learn – if you watch the videos on the Vainglory channel on Youtube, watch the detailed rundowns of how to play each hero. The technicalities are vast and deep, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever get to that point with more than 1-2 favorites, but I’m ecstatic that the company behind the game (awesomely named ‘SUPER EVIL MEGACORP‘), spared no expense in making the game easy to get into, but also having huge depth to it.

Anyone want to team?

2016 New England Auto Show

Yesterday Zach and I went to the New England Auto Show at the Boston Convention Center. it was right next door to Arisia, so we thought “what the heck, lets take an hour or two to go look at shiny cars.” He’d never been to a commercial car show before, so we trundled over.

2016-01-1717.jpgOn the way in, we ran the usual gauntlet of free coupons, surveys, and other marketing nitwits. The line to buy tickets was super-fast (literally walked right up to the next person selling), but someone had already stopped me in line “Hey, I bought an extra, want mine?” er…. sure! That was $15 not spent.

Once on the show floor it was acres and acres of carpeting with shiny cars and trucks parked on them. I realized quickly that Zach knew more about modern car lines than I did, so I let him identify some things. I helped out with things like “Yes, that really is a Bentley, and yes, they really do cost a quarter million dollars, and no, I can’t tell you why.”

There were some important wins that made the show worth while. I was able to look at the 2016 Volt, and in particular, whether I could fit in it (spoiler: yup). I also love that Chevy redesigned the Volt’s center console, which was a mess. That plus the new battery layout and longer range (about 53 miles on battery, as opposed to the 41-ish I get with my 2015) makes me want to see about changing my lease over.

Two other high points of the show. Zach has decided that his dream car is the Mazda MX-5 Miata. I’ll admit that when it first came out as the Miata 25 years ago, I was pretty taken with it. No way I could sit in it though. 2016-01-1715.jpgZach had never had the opportunity to ‘try one on for size’, so now was our chance. He fit! The soft top closed comfortably over him, and he was over the moon. If you’re going to be in love with a car, at least he’s picking a stylish, not stupidly over the moon expensive one.

The one other bit of fun we had was Zach was able to climb into a real live Modified-class track racecar. We were gaping at it when the owner said “Want to try it on for size?” “Not me”, I said, “But could he try?” I pointed to Zach and he said “heck yeah!”. So after some wriggling in through the window, he socketed into the drivers seat (which was conveniently sized about right for him), and he got a feel for what real racecars feel like.

All in all, a nice 2 hours spent with my son geeking about cars. For me, it was also a chance to try out my lovely new Canon 11-16mm ultra wide angle lens. Here’s the full gallery. This was my first time doing any decent work with such a short focal length, and I was pleasantly surprised with the results. I like it!

Visualizing Content Flow on Social Media

About two years ago, I re-launched this blog. Since then it’s become my primary “I gots stuff to say” mechanism. For quite a while I hoped Google Plus would reign supreme, but it’s become readily apparent that platform is buckling via “Death from a Thousand Cuts.” Google is destroying any hope it had of dethroning Facebook one feature at a time..

Realizing that, I put more effort into making Planet Geek my main sounding platform. I re-launched the site, imported all the old content into it, gave it a facelift, and started writing again. Sadly, with the most popular services not supporting RSS, just having the blog there means many people I’d like to keep in touch with simply won’t ever see the content. I needed a way to stay in touch with my friends, family, and social connections, without having to repost the same thing over and over and over again.

By far the industry leader is Facebook. I briefly considered using it as my primary soapbox, but I just can’t bring myself to subscribe to their “We will capture all the content, all the clicks, and all the users, and share none of it outside our walled garden” approach to media. The final straw is their constant tweaking of “We will only show you what we think you should see” (more rants on this in another post). So, no Facebook for me… so where should I go?

In the end, with respect to which social media platform I should settle on, I’ve chosen none of them, and all of them.

Planet-geek, running WordPress, is my go-to platform. I do 99% of my writing here, and whatever writing I have that passes for “creativity” is created¬†using WordPress content tools. But that isn’t enough, is it? Our online social circles are fragmented and isolated. One group lives on Facebook, another lives on Livejournal, some are still on Plus, etc etc. ¬†They would never see the posts unless I manually reposted either the entire article or direct links to everything I write.

socialmediaflow
Visualization of Social Medi

There’s no way to cover all the bases, so I’ve done the next best thing. I chose carefully where I create and publish content, but I’ve also built links that automatically share, if not the entire content, at least a notification to all the media channels I want to reach. I have to shout out to Nextscript’s SNAP tool for making this as painless as possible. SNAP (Social Network Automatic Poster) can link my blog to just about every social network out there. I’ve set up many links, and the tool works flawlessly.

But I do create content in other places. My photography needs a creative channel, and WordPress just isn’t the tool for it. So, Flickr and Instagram come into play. Wait, but sometimes I post to Twitter directly, what about that? Yeah, okay, that’s there too. ¬†Fortunately, many of these sites (unlike Facebook) allow for¬†external notification / sharing of content. ¬†If I post a picture to Flickr, it has an automatic notification mechanism to Facebook. ¬†Instagram does the same thing. ¬†Sadly, Google Plus has none of these tools, and also has no easy API for posting content, so it tends to be the last thing updated (I need to do it by hand).

Thinking about this, I realized that my ‘communication flow’ would make a nice visual. The graphic above¬†is a map of the public sites I use for social media / interaction. I’ve deliberately left off chat systems and email (I use IRC, Slack, Hangouts, Skype, and of course Email). For the most part, all these services notify me back via Email, so in theory, I should be able to just watch my inbox for interactions. A lot of times that doesn’t work so well. ¬†Still working on that part!

This was a fun chart to put together. It shows the results of months of tool configuration, auto-linking, loop detection (yeah, don’t set up auto-posters to one service that is auto-posting back to the original), etc.

Am I missing anything? Let me know… er, on the blog if you can. ūüôā

Holiday Giftings – Thinking it through

As we slide down the last stages of the gifting season, I feel it’s a good time to step back and take a meta-approach to what’s around us. For me, that means taking a look at my friends, family, relationships, and community and getting a feel for how we’re doing in relation to the rest of the world..

Traditional gift-giving has always been an oddity to me. Giving ‘things’ to other people in the past was special and heartfelt. I have wonderful memories of a childhood full of delight on Christmas morning (yes, we did Christmas, don’t ask) – and opening up gifts and things that were magical and special. But in this modern world, where everything and anything you could ever want is an amazon- or ebay-click away, what’s the point of buying something online, having it Prime shipped, and handing it to someone right next to you? “I clicked this mouse button just for you.”

Further, I have to recognize that I am in a privileged position in a wealthy society. I’m on the “benefitted” side of almost every metric. I’m white, living in an affluent part of the US, and full-time employed. I’m healthy, tall, and male. I live in a safe, strong, wonderful community. I don’t really need ‘things’, and most of my family doesn’t either.

But there are plenty of people in the world who DO need things, and there are plenty of places and needs that could do a lot more with that $100 I was going to spend on a smartwatch. So I thought I’d post today talking about the things I’m doing with that privilege to make the world a better place for others.

Lets start with the easiest, and, for me, most stark indication of inequality and unfairness. I am constantly horrified that, in this modern world, and in particular the US, one of the richest nations on earth, that people go hungry. And despite what certain political factions say, they are not hungry from laziness or indifference. They go hungry because affluent societies like America look down on those who are unable to provide for themselves and their families, no matter what the reason. I can’t fix our culture, but I can make food as available as possible to those who need it.

I used Charity Navigator to select an organization that is highly ranked at turning contributions into meals for people who need it. I chose Feeding America and set up a monthly donation. For what is essentially the cost of a dinner out for me, I’m giving 361 meals, per month, to people who need them. Talk about underlining disparities.

After that, I targeted organizations I feel are doing work that is important for our culture and society.

  • EFF – Electronic Frontier Foundation
    Right from their mission statement: “EFF champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development. We work to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as our use of technology grows.” They are the people countering the fear-speak so prevalent in government circles.
  • Freedom From Religion Foundation
    Religion in politics is a poison. It skews logic and clear thought into ideology and dogma. Separation of church and state is a critical core concept that needs defenders.
  • National Public Radio
    The last 20 years have seen news organizations corrupted into silos of spin and commercialism. The network news programs that presented well thought out stories (such as 60 minutes – and even they got things wrong sometimes) are gone. NPR is the only balanced, sane news source left.

Are these all the groups that need support? Not even remotely. There are hundreds of thousands of organizations out there that can benefit from donationst. But for me, donating to these groups does far more good in the world than the latest gadget from Best Buy could ever do.

Soylent – An update.

It’s been a while since I posted an update in my experimentation with Soylent as a food substitute, so here’s what’s new.

The biggest change is that Soylent has released what they’ve dubbed “Soylent 2.0” – this is a premixed version that comes in 12oz-ish bottles. The mix has been revised to be smoother, creamier, and has lost much of the ‘grainy’ issues that were in previous versions.

Soylent 2.0
Soylent 2.0
I still have a box or two of 1.5, the last version of the powder form (which Soylent has said they will continue to produce). That’s handy when I know I’m going to do an entire weekend worth of work, and want to be able to top off at any time.

The new handheld bottles sure are convenient, and I’ve taken to tossing one in my backpack as my ‘snack food’ for when I’m out and about. The new mix doesnt’ have the strong need to be refrigerated that the powder did – in fact, it seems just fine at room temperature.

My usage goes in cycles. Some weeks I’ll do 10 meals purely on Soylent. Other times I’ll go an entire week without having any. It really depends on where I am and how busy things are. For example, I’ve been home sick the last 2 days, and having ready-to-consume food right at hand has been super-helpful.

It’s a little odd to toss away a plastic bottle after every use. Granted the bottles are as recyclable as they can get, but I somewhat enjoyed the “I’ve had 3 meals from this bag of powder, and I’m throwing away one small bag”. Yes, us americans have been hard wired to place ‘tossing out a plastic bottle’ in the same category as ‘stepping on kittens’. So it’s a hard feeling to shake.

Sick.

Colds suck. Colds that aren’t really colds but just make your life uncomfortable suck. Colds that aren’t sniffly, but just something sitting in your throat making you sound like James Earl Jones suck… well, okay, the JEJ part doesn’t suck that much… kinda cool actually.

This has been rattling around since last Wednesday (5 days now). I’m at work, but have the energy of an overweight cat on a midsummer day. Just wanna lie around and meh.

Hopefully I’ll be back to full functionality soon. This cold has the weird pattern of a) I’m sleeping really well at night, and b) I want to eat CONSTANTLY. The latter is both good and bad. Good because I have an appetite and it makes me feel good when I eat. Bad because, well, yesterday I ate half a box of donuts. Hmm.

I’d like to be better soon, plz.

Retreating a bit from the world

I’m going to be pulling back from social media, particularly Facebook, for a while. The level of bigotry, hate, willfull ignorance, and just flat out stupidity is just getting to be too much. I found myself browsing today and got depressed and furious at the same time. Not only in government, but also in people I thought knew better. I don’t need to sit down to relax and check in, only to find a complete loss of rational, critical thought.

The entire dialog makes me very sad, and in the end, we as ordinary citizens have almost nothing we can do to change the course of government or policy. I’ll still see direct mentions or shares, but I probably won’t see general “Here’s what’s up in my life” sorts of things, so if you really want my attention on something, feel free to reach out. I’ll be using my blog to post, feel free to subscribe to it via Feedly.

Want to do something good that will directly help people in need? Support a charity. I support Feeding America, because no one should ever be hungry …

“Feeding America is the nationwide network of 200 food banks that leads the fight against hunger in the United States. Together, we provide food to more than 46 million people through 60,000 food pantries and meal programs in communities across America. Feeding America also supports programs that improve food security among the people we serve; educates the public about the problem of hunger; and advocates for legislation that protects people from going hungry. Individuals, charities, businesses and government all have a role in ending hunger. Donate. Volunteer. Advocate. Educate. Together we can solve hunger.”

Travelling to Tennessee

Over the next few days I’ll be travelling with my Mom to Knoxville, TN to visit relatives neither of us have seen in many many many years. I’m both looking forward to and nervous about this trip, as there’s lots of chances for things to go off the rails.

I hope to be tweeting fairly constantly during the trip, checking in, posting pictures, etc. Please follow me! ūüôā

I’m also going to enable Facebook cross-posting from Twitter. If you’re on Facebook, hopefully whatever they use for an algorithm will allow you to see my tweets.