Friday, July 27, 2012

Good Thing #34: OS Updates

I'm a total sucker for operating system updates. I don't really understand why because I know better. We're long past the point where there's anything significant to even do to the Windows or Mac operating systems, so new versions are nothing like the paradigm shifts of the days of yore. Linux appears still has some excitement to it, but unfortunately I'm not well versed in it enough. I'll update my Linux partition when new versions of Ubuntu come out, poke around for a while and think, "This is lovely. When I retire I'll switch over to it completely, but today I still need OS X and Windows to do the work I'm getting paid to do." But with the mainstream operating systems, it used to feel like you were getting a whole new, improved engine put in your car. Now it just feels like putting on a fresh new pair of underwear. But you know what? It's still really pleasant to put on new underwear. So I'm right there when the new release comes out, downloading and installing as soon as it's available.

This might be my version of standing in line, waiting for to be at the first showing of that overhyped new movie. I suspend my disbelief for a few days, read the previews, let myself get caught up in all the excitement over the 200 new features (none of which will be significant). In a few days I'll be one of those people ranting about how the company has lost its direction and how one day I'll make the switch to Linux.

But it's completely insignificant and doesn't matter at all, and that's what makes it fun.

Good Thing #33: Natural Gas

We switched the whole house over to natural gas. The furnace, water heater, stove and even our dryer all run on natural gas. In the wintertime, we used to spend hundreds of dollars a month just to keep from freezing. That's not altogether hyperbole. In the winters when all you have is oil heat, you set the thermostat to just warm enough to keep from shivering when you've got a sweater and long johns on. Now we have a warm house all winter, and our fuel bill, even in the coldest months, is rarely higher than our cell phone bill. In the past it's always been a bit scary going into winter. A cold winter with high oil prices can be financially ruinous, and there's no predicting how bad it can get. Fortunately, we don't have to worry about that as much anymore.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Good Thing #32: These New Fangled Lightbulbs

Incandescent lightbulbs are 90% inefficient. 90%! So 10% of the energy you're using goes to making light, while the remainder makes heat etc. It's technology that hasn't changed much in a century. I can't really think of any other technology that we'd put up with if it performed that badly and was that outdated. Fortunately, we don't have to. There are now fluorescent lightbulbs and LED lightbulbs. In the state of Maine, Efficiency Maine subsidizes fluorescent lightbulbs so they're crazy cheap. Even before this, I'd been buying them as soon as they came, and I've honestly never replaced one. They last forever. LED lighbulbs use even less power than the fluorescents and last even longer. If there's a down side it's that some of our lampshades don't fit anymore. So, they save me money, they save the hassle of blown bulbs, and they're better for the environment. What's not to love?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Good Thing #31: Shaving with a Safety Razor

I wasn't lucky enough to have a male role model to teach me how to shave. I had to learn this from my mom and my sister, who assumed that what worked on women's legs would also work on a man's face. It doesn't. A man's face is more complicated and much more sensitive than a woman's leg, and that single-bladed, non-pivoting disposable razor cut my face to shreds, and caused razor burns over what was left of my flesh. Thankfully, through the wonder of advertising, I learned about the Gillette Atra, with 2 blades and a pivoting head that made shaving so much less painful than before. Then came the 3-bladed Mach 3, the 5 bladed Fusion. Each one seemed more comfortable than the one before.

The problem was the cost. Buying new blades for the many-bladed Gillettes cost so much that it often came down to a choice, "Do I buy new blades, or do I put up with the pain of dull blades for one more week?" Seriously, $40 for a 12-pack of Fusion blades is just outrageous! 

Fortunately, I discovered it was all just a gimmick. The ever-escalating number of blades really don't give you a better shave. They just compensate for lack of technique, lack of proper prep, lack of a decent shaving lather. 

All I really needed was an old-school safety razor, a shaving brush and some shaving soap. Shop around and you can find all these things for cheaper than a pack of Fusion blades. Do a search for "How to shave with a safety razor," and you can learn how to do it from the Internet. I'm using a single blade in a non-pivoting head, but the shaves are more gentle and more smooth than I ever got from the fanciest Fusion. Better still, for the cost of a 12-pack I can buy enough double-edged safety razor blades  to last for years. Plus, there's a real joy in shaving with hot lather made by soap with natural ingredients, vs. a cold chemical foam from a can. I'm getting better results, having a more enjoyable experience, and spending less money doing it, all while putting less garbage into the waste stream!

And yes, I do get a smug satisfaction knowing how much better I have it compared to all the suckers shaving with the many-bladed cartridge monstrosities. 

Good Thing #30: Flea Markets

I used to love going to yard sales. Then eBay happened and now we have career eBay-ers who descend like locusts at 7 am to yardsales that don't start until 9 and they buy up everything worthwhile, not because they want it, not because it will bring them joy, but because they intend to sell it for more money. Their presence has turned yard sailing from a pleasant way to ease into the weekend into something more of an annoyance.

Fortunately, there's flea markets. Flea markets are a little more expensive than yard sales, but they tend to be better curated. After going to the same flea markets a few times, you start to recognize the vendors and you know what to expect to find at their tables. They'll also give you better deals once they get to know you.

Flea markets fill a nice niche for me. I'm always on the lookout for antique paper goods. I'm looking for design inspiration, though, not as a collector. It doesn't matter to me if the page is slightly damaged, so long as the graphics are intact. I don't need the quality I'd find in an antique shop, and don't want to pay antique shop prices for it. These are the kind of things I like to find at flea markets.

Flea markets are fun because you never know what you'll find there. Our past is vaster and stranger than we realize. Antique shops will sell you the high notes. Truly great products and designs get remembered in books and websites. The worst things ever made also get special attention. So much of the stuff in the middle just falls through the cracks and the only way you'd know it existed is when you find it at a flea market. Then you wonder why it was made, who bought it, why it was worth hanging on to... and then it winds up coming home with you!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Good Thing #29: Dean's Bean's Ahab's Revenge

Dean's Beans roasts some of the best coffee out there, and they were organic and fair trade before it was cool. All their coffee is good, but Ahab's Revenge deserves special attention.

How quickly we forget. There was a time when decent coffee was hard to come by in this country, and the only options were things like Folgers and Chock-Full-O-Nuts, bought pre-ground in giant cans from the supermarket, or in jars of instant powder.

It tasted awful, but we drank it anyway because enough sugar and cream could make it palatable, and because it gave us a buzz. It tasted awful because of shoddy preparation and horrible growing practices. It also tasted awful because there are actually two types of coffee bean: robusta and arabica. Arabica is what we get in good coffees, but it's picky about where it grows, and is more difficult to grow in large quantities. It likes difficult terrain like mountains, and grows more slowly. Robusta, on the other hand, is perfect for factory farming. It may not taste as good, but it'll grow in the flatlands and it grows fast, so you can get large quantities of bad coffee. The other thing about robusta is that it has more caffeine in it than arabica.

Robusta doesn't need to taste bad, however. It just lends itself to bad growing practices that would kill arabica bushes. With Ahab's Revenge, however, Dean's Beans has brought us the only organic robusta on the market. It's wonderful. It's got all the flavor of a good arabica with that late night diner coffee punch that can even get my caffeine saturated heart racing faster. 

Post #28: Monogamy

I'm surprised to be writing this. Before I met my current partner, I really thought monogamy was a big mistake. Oh, I'd try it, usually because monogamy was a precondition for continuing having sex with someone I was attracted to. But after that first flush wore off I'd start feeling like something was broken. As if that insane passion of the first days of a relationship was the natural state and should last forever, and if it went away there was something wrong, and nothing would ever be good again. That, and a dozen other reasons both rational and irrational would lead me to ending relationships, usually as painfully and selfishly as possible.

In retrospect, I probably should have embraced the idea of open relationships, and been continually honest with my partners that there were, or would be, other people. I think I thought if I did that I'd never get laid again. There's also the idea that you're a bad person if you want that. We're either supposed to be celibate, or with a single partner in a monogamous relationship. So I kept on trying to be monogamous, failing, lying about it. It had it's fun points, but it wasn't good, and it wasn't healthy, and it wound up hurting people I cared about.

But then one day I met someone who I cared about more than myself, someone who I feared losing more than I feared missing an opportunity for passion with another woman. With her, monogamy is easy. I've discovered something I never stuck around long enough to learn before. Yes, that crazy passion of the early days of a relationship goes away, but better things take its place if you work at it, and it's worth the work. I also discovered that there's a whole lot of extra hassle, baggage, headache and heartache that goes along with those early days of a relationship and I'm so happy that I don't have to deal with all that, ever again.

Good Thing #27: Vintage Hi Fi

There is a plus to the fact that the current tastes in audio gear favor convenience and quantity over quality. There's a lot of really good stereo components out there going unappreciated, and if you keep your eyes open at flea markets and yard sales you can put together a really good stereo system for very little money. A lot of the old stuff was built very good, with quality standards that you really only find in current audiophile gear. A receiver from the 70's that you picked up for $5 at a yard sale can sound better than the best thing you can find at Best Buy. 

When you're buying old gear, pick it up. Is it heavy? That's usually a mark of quality. If it is made of real things, like wood, metal and glass that's also a good sign. If you're buying speakers, take the grills off and check the cones. Make sure they're not brittle, and that there are no holes. I've set up several stereo systems this way. I always wind up giving them away to friends. Half the fun is in the building of the system. Once I've gotten it to the point where I say, "Wow, that's great sound! I can't believe I only spent $20 on that!" I remember I already have two stereo systems, and don't really need one for every room in the house. 

I just started on a new one. The first part is a TEAC A400 tape deck from 1976, bought for $7. It has VU meters with needles that bounce instead of LEDs, and metal levers and knobs that turn instead of plastic push-buttons. It is a wonder to behold and a joy to fiddle with. One day I'll crack it open and clean out the rust and replace the belts and make it actually work again. Then I'll probably wind of giving it away, but that's OK because for $7, I'll have gotten my entertainment value out of it. 

Good Thing #26: Hi Fi

I finally managed to get my stereo system hooked back up this week. Sadly, it's been years since it was all together. It's an old-school system of many parts (pre-Klipsch Aragon and Acurus components hooked into Magnaplanar speakers, if you care about such things). I spent more on it than I have on most cars that I've owned. But really, I've been working on it for more than 20 years, and I bought the most expensive pieces when I was a bachelor, working jobs that paid me far more than I make now. I was very aware that I had a window when it would be OK for me to spend such extravagant amounts on pure entertainment. But I was also aware that if I invested the money it'd be a one-time buy. Good audio equipment lasts. The Magnepan speakers I bought more than 15 years ago sound every bit as fantastic as when I bought them and with any luck will continue to do so until I lose my hearing. 

I don't consider myself to be an audiophile, however. In fact, I blame audiophiles for destroying the audio industry by fetishizing the equipment while losing sight of the fact that the whole point was to be enjoying music. MP3s with their compressed range, crappy earbud speakers and car stereos helped to nail the coffin shut, but even before those came about, the audiophiles made it possible. If you stepped into a high-end audio shop in pre-iPod days, you could expect to be belittled and scorned if you didn't identify as an audiophile. You were treated like an idiot if you didn't think spending $7,000 + on a pair of speaker cables was a good idea when there was no real evidence showing that they sounded any better than lamp cord from the hardware store. The general public had already been alienated and when MP3s came around, nobody was there to make the argument against it. 

The argument would have gone along the lines of, "MP3s are OK, but you're trading convenience for quality. You're only hearing maybe 10% of what the artist intended for you to hear." Then I might have brought you over and sat you down in a chair strategically positioned for optimum listening, and I would have played for you the same piece of music on your MP3 player and on the stereo, and hopefully you would understand that both convenience and quality have their place.

That should have been the role of the audiophiles, as defenders and educators of what quality music really means, gently guiding people to make informed choices about their listening. Instead audiophiles copped an attitude and insulted anyone who didn't get it. Now we have a generation who have only heard recorded music through headphones attached to MP3 players or from car stereos. And the audiophiles have become even more insular and elitist.  

But I digress. The point is, my stereo brings me pleasure because when the music is playing, it's as close as I can get to hearing it live. Even better in some ways because I can set the volume to levels that are comfortable for my ears, and I don't have to deal with crowds. While I love the convenience of my iPod/headphone arrangement, when I hear a note I might know it was plucked on a guitar. On the stereo I can hear the differences between the kind of guitar, that it was made of wood and had a hollow body. I can hear the differences between the acoustics between a small, warm room and a large, cold room. With the MP3, music is just the background soundtrack to my life while I do other things. That's important and has its place, but when I hear that same music on the stereo, I'm aware of the music as a work of art created by an artist, or many artists, who are trying to communicate a message and share a feeling that's important to them. 

It's a simple joy to sit back and listen, really listen to music. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Good Thing #25: Pennies

Some people hate pennies. One of the chief complaints is, "It costs more than a penny to make a penny." That's a stupid argument, though. All our money could cost more to make than it's denomination and it wouldn't matter because it's not the physical value of the actual object we're trading  when we give someone money in exchange for goods and services. The monetary object is just a tool, a symbolic way to keep track of the amount of value we're trading for something. A single penny may be exchanged tens of thousands of times during its lifetime. If something that useful only cost pennies to produce then it was a bargain.

Pennies are nice, though, in that they are almost worthless, but not quite. When I have the opportunity to leave pennies in the, "Leave a penny, take a penny" bowls by cash registers, I do, and I feel good about it because I've made someone's life a little less annoying by doing so because now they'll be able to make exact change. The times when I've had to use that bowl, I've been very grateful to the person who left their pennies there. It's a win/win!

I also don't carry pennies with me. If there are any in my pocket at the end of the day, they go into the penny jar. And they keep going into the penny jar for months, even years, until we're short on funds. Then we roll them up and there's always a surprising amount of money we didn't realize we had. So, yay pennies!

Good Thing #24: Antiques

Some good things you just want to keep to yourself because if everyone knows about them, they're not going to be as good. Fortunately, nobody reads this so I think I'm safe.

I used to think things like antique furniture was something only the wealthy could afford. That may have been the case a while ago, but now it's the way to go. The majority of new furniture seems to have gone the way of Ikea. Cheaply constructed, semi-disposable laminated particle board, with no charm and no longevity. Ikea could get away with it because the price reflected the quality. But now even cheap furniture isn't all that cheap, and good furniture is ridiculously expensive.

We like having nice things in our lives, but we're on a budget. So we've been buying our furniture at antique stores. Surprisingly, you can find many pieces there for less than what you'd buy the equivalent new. The big difference is that the piece you buy at the antique shop is made from solid maple. You know it's going to last, because it's been used for a hundred years or more already. Most likely it was hand made. Only the wealthy could afford to buy new furniture of the quality that you can find in antique shops for short change if you look around.

If you're willing to accept the fact that your night stand might not match the bed, you can fill your life with hand-crafted, American-made hardwood furniture without breaking the bank! That's the route we're going, and it's very satisfying.

Good Thing #23: Masterchef Australia

If there was a way to legally watch Masterchef Australia in the US, I wouldn't advocate pirating it. Unfortunately, as far as I know, that's our only option. Do it. Go to Pirate Bay and search for Masterchef Australia and torrent it right now. It's the gold standard for what reality programming can be. If you're into cooking or into competitive reality TV, go get it now. If you've ever watched such shows and it seemed like they weren't living up to their potential, go get it now. Here's reality programming raised to the level of a true artform.

A word of warning, though. After watching Masterchef Australia, it's hard to watch the US versions of Masterchef, or even Hell's Kitchen. They just seem embarrassing now.

The key difference is that Masterchef Australia understands drama. The US version too often reverts back to the comfortable, understandable standards of sex and soap opera. Masterchef Australia understands the real drama is in the food and in learning to become better chefs. You can actually learn to be a better cook and to better appreciate the food you eat by watching the show.

Masterchef Australia dispenses with the hero and villain cliché of the US version, where there's cooks you route for and cooks you hate. Instead, all the cooks are likable and we really want to see them all succeed. The cooks actually support and encourage each other as well, and become friends as show progresses. The approach really notches up the drama. Instead of the "I'm not here to make friends," line we get the victor's conflict because their victory is at the expense of someone they care about.

There have been episodes that made me exclaim, "THAT'S how you do drama!" because the show frequently goes beyond what makes good reality programming and into themes that make good cinema, or good novel writing. It has that kind of power to make us engage emotionally with the characters and feel triumph and heartbreak as they do. That's a remarkable thing in any medium, but for it to happen in what's typically the lowest point in our culture is just amazing.

Good Thing #22: Bruce Campbell

Bruce Campbell was born at the wrong time. In the 30's or 40's his heroic good looks and mighty chin would have cast him as a Hollywood leading man. Sadly, we're living in a post-heroic age, so when Bruce Campbell is cast in a heroic role, it's with ironic or humorous intent. Fortunately, he's gets the joke, and it's a role he plays very well. Everything he stars in is better for having him in it. From numerous B-movies to classics like Evil Dead and Army of Darkness, to his current supporting role in the TV series Burn Notice, Bruce Campbell is like salt. Almost every recipe is better with it. Even really bad movies like Alien Apocalypse are better because he's in them.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Good Thing #21: The Deli

The deli section in the supermarket is too easily overlooked. After all, you can get most everything in the deli in the refrigerated sections of the supermarket, so why take the extra time?

First off, it's often cheaper. The deli section often has specials on things that aren't discounted in the cooler. I think it tastes better, too. A hunk of cheese cut of a big block has a better flavor and texture to it than those small, shrink-wrapped vacuum sealed bricks. I also like the human interaction. The people who work the deli counter tend to be friendly and cheerful. If I remember correctly, the deli section is somewhere you get promoted into. It's a desirable position to have. So the people who are there are the supermarket "pros" and they want to be there, so they're great to deal with. You can also get your cheese and meat sliced exactly to the thickness you want.

The thing I like to do when I go to the deli is to request "about a pound" of cheese in a solid block. I'm okay with a little more or a little less. I just don't want them to be timid with their cut. Invariably, they almost always spot on, never more than a hair's weight off. It's really impressive since they're cutting by eye.

Go to the deli on your next trip to the supermarket. It's one of life's small joys.

Good Thing #20: Administrative Assistants and Custodians

It's a Good Thing 2 for 1 special today, because I couldn't find a concise way of saying, "The people who matter a lot more than most people realize."

If there's a word of advice I'd give to young people starting out on their careers, it's, "Suck up to the boss, but make friends with the administrative assistants and the custodians." The first part is obvious, and many people stop there in their relentless pursuit to get to the top. These people typically make more than me, so maybe you should pay attention to them. However, I think I've had a more enjoyable life by paying attention to the second part.

Custodians and administrative assistants tend to know a whole lot more about what's going on in any organization than most people realize. For a lot of people, since they're not going to help you "get ahead" they're invisible unless they're needed to staple something or clean up a mess. And so people are a lot freer with their information around them. Custodians also know what people are throwing away. Administrative assistants handle the flow of information across their bosses' desks. So they're often plugged in in ways that people don't realize. Administrative assistants sometimes have magic powers they can use in your favor if they like you. They might be able to enter hours you were out sick as hours you were working in payroll, for example.

In my experience, I've found that custodians and administrative assistants are there for you in ways that upper-level employees can't or won't be. They've got your back and will put a good word for you in the right ear if they can. They'll also help you jump your car if your battery is dead. If you drop your security pass they'll get it back to you instead of giving it to security like they should, saving so much hassle.

The catch is, my advice said make friends with them. You can suck up to the boss and it's socially acceptable for this to be completely superficial because you're only doing it to get ahead. It's not OK to do that with a custodian or administrative assistant. They'll know. Instead you're going to have to do things the old fashioned way. Get to know them by name. If they need help with something, give it to them. If you need something done, ask nicely, saying "please" and "thank you" even if according to company hierarchy they're your subordinate. Don't leave messy, sloppy stuff in your waste basket that's going to be a pain for somebody to clean up. Be a friend and you'll make a friend.

So anyway, thanks to all the custodians and administrative assistants who've been so helpful to me all these years. You are truly appreciated.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Good Thing #19: Chocolate


Do I need to say any more than that? If you agree than I don't need to explain. If you don't, there's nothing I can say that will change your mind.

Someone once said, "The best things in life aren't things." Probably a 1%-er, trying to find a myth that will keep the rest of us from rebelling and tearing this whole sick system down.

They're obviously wrong. Chocolate is absolutely one of the best things in life.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Good Thing #18: Bone Folders

Using the right tool for the job makes a huge difference, no matter what that job is. To most people, folding paper probably does not seem like an act that would require a special tool. You just fold the paper in half and run your finger along the fold to make the crease, right? 

When you use a bone folder, that crease it tight, even, and clean, and it stays folded. It turns a task you never really think about into a pleasure. When you can turn the ignored corners of your life into enjoyable acts, then your life is that much better!

You can find bone folders at most art supply and all book binding supply stores. Unfortunately, it has to be bone. There are plastic folders out there, but they're just don't work as good as the real bone does. We have several in our house, and we keep them in those little nooks where the pens and pencils accumulate, because you never know when you're going to need to fold something. When you do, it's good to do it right!

Good Thing #17: The Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated book of about 240 pages, written most likely in Italy in the 1400s. That's about all anyone knows for sure about it. It's written in something that has the attributes of a language, but over the past hundred years none of the world's top cryptographers have been able to crack it. Many of the illustrations are of plants that have never been known to exist. It's been dubbed "the world's most mysterious manuscript." Just Google it. There's a wealth of information out there on it, and all of it will just make you wonder more. 

That's why the Voynich manuscript makes me happy. We live in times where it feels like everything is defined, regulated, understood, put in neatly labeled compartments. And here's this object that has defied all that for almost 600 years. Maybe it's just a hoax, but what a hoax! A hoax that has kept people wondering for more than half a millennium is a wonder itself.  Or maybe it's not a hoax at all, but an actual record of places and things that only the author had access to.

Either way, it's a reminder that there are still wonders in the world.