Conversations In The Car With Alex

On Christmas Eve Alex and I were driving to the airport to pick up his aunt and he had a few Alexisms that were instant classic .


On the way to the airport we hit a lot of bumps in the road (literally not figuratively) and Alex was really enjoying it. Bump Yeah! Bump, bump, bump Wooo-Hooo! When we came to a toll booth on I-90 we zipped right through because we had our EZ-Pass subtly fastened in place. As soon as we went through he asked "Daddy, why don't we have to pay to ride on this bumpy road?"


Later on we were talking about Christmas and Santa.

Me: So where do you think Santa is right now?
Alex: (long pause) He's probably at the mall.

So I start mentally gearing up to deal with the the idea that Santa is shopping at the mall...Let's see... Christmas isn't about shopping... Probably too serious. Stuff doesn't come from malls its made in other places and brought to the mall... Still too serious... Santa's Elves make the toys... Yeah! that's the one. So I start off with a question.

Me: Why do you think Santa is at the mall?
Alex: So that the boys and girls that didn't get to see him yet can tell him what they want for Christmas. (long pause) Daddy, why are you smiling?

Using Comments to Tag Music Files

This is an idea that I've been rolling around in my head for a while. I finally got around to trying it and I'm really happy with the results.

The Problem:
Music systems like iTunes let you categorize music by selecting a single genre for each file or song. So a song can be categorized as a "Christmas" or as "Oldies", but not both.

Take White Christmas by the Drifters off the Home Alone soundtrack. It could be categorized as Christmas, Rock, Oldies, Soundtrack or half a dozen other ways including ones that make sense only to me like snickerdoodle. But in iTunes I have to pick only one category.

This bugs me because music (really life in general) isn't that straight forward. The category music falls into depends on my perspective at the time.

For example, when I'm in the mood for Christmas music I want to hear White Christmas, and when I'm in the mood for Oldies I still want to hear White Christmas. Right now I have to remember which one category iTunes thinks White Christmas belongs to. This idea gives me a way to put & find a song in as many categories as I want.

Tagging has emerged as a really useful method for categorizing things into more than one bucket. It's a simple concept. Simply add free form text that describe an item. Each word becomes a tag and when you want to find something you look at your list of tags and choose the tag that fits. Then you get the list of songs that contain that tag.

Tagging is available in lots of places, but hasn't made it into music players yet.

The Idea
So I came up with a simple way to use tagging with music files by adding the tags to the "comment" field in the music files. The comment field is a free form text field that is actually part of MP3 and M4A music files.

Using iTunes I would do the following to tag a song:
  1. Highlight the song or songs
  2. Right click and choose "Get Info"
  3. Type in my tags in the comment field. For Example: Christmas, Rock, Oldies, Soundtrack, snickerdoodle
  4. Click save

To get at the tags and listen to music by tags, I simply create a smart play list where the comments contain the tag I'm interested in. One for Oldies, one for Christmas, and one for snickerdoodle! And White Christmas now appears in all three!

I'd really like to see a tag cloud layout for iTunes, but for now I'll settle for smart play lists.


  • Allows for multiple categorizations for any song.
  • Tags move with your music files so your categories move across computers and applications.
  • If something happens to iTunes or you get a new computer you don't have to re-find all the music for your play lists.
  • It makes it really easy to categorize and access your music any way you want.
  • iTunes lets you view a smart playlist in "List View" which gives you all the navigation of iTunes filtered on one tag!
Having done this for band music, driving music, work music and a bunch of other stuff, I'm really happy with how it's simplified finding what I want to listen to.

My XO Laptop Arrives

The XO laptop I purchased through the G1G1 program arrived Thursday! The "Give One" half should be delivered to a kid in January.

Until it arrived I had not realized that I have freakishly large hands. The XO is designed for kids so I had some trouble getting used to the tiny keyboard. It's getting easier each day. One of my favorite feature is the lack of a CAPS LOCK key.

As soon as I turned it on Alex and I figured out
how to make a short video using the built in camera and the "Recorder" software. I haven't figured out how to get video from the XO onto youtube yet.

Wireless Networking was amazingly easy to set up! There's this button on the keyboard that brings up a graphical representation of the networks within range (my neighborhood). I moused over looking at the names (SSID) of each network until I found mine. When I clicked on the icon for my network it prompted me for my WEP key. I typed it in and that was it. It connected. That's how easy it should always be, but as many of my relatives can attest, connecting to my home network is often too complicated to be worth the effort.

I have seen a lot of threads on the community support mailer about broken WEP on the XO. I have a hunch that WEP only works if you use 128bit HEX keys. For some reason the shorter keys don't seem to work.

Web surfing with the default browser is a little strange because (as far as I can tell) the browser can only open one page at a time.I've gotten so used to browsing with tabs that it feels very limiting to only have the one.

Even so, Gmail and the integrated Google talk work well and I haven't found any websites that don't work. I downloaded a podcast and was able to listen to it. After I installed flash Pandora started working as well, though it seems to get confused and plays multiple tracks if I try to skip tracks.

On day 2 I installed Opera which has tabbed browsing, bookmarks and lots of useful keyboard shortcuts. Despite a few bugs it works pretty well.

I got to use the terminal when installing Opera and that's when I realized that this little laptop is a full blown open linux machine that I can change any way I want. While the XO is a far cry from the speed and flashiness of a MAC or iphone, the fact that its completely open makes is a much more accessable and powerful platform for creativity. I expect to see some very cool stuff done with the XO by average people over the next few months.

E-Book with Google Reader is possibly the coolest feature.There's a built in ebook application that I haven't tried, but I did surf to google reader, flip the screen over and close the cover so that the XO becomes an ebook for my rss feeds!

Measure is Alex's favorite program. It has an Oscilloscope and he really gets a kick out of watching it as he makes different noises. There are a lot of apps installed by default, and I need to read up on what they do.

As for energy conservation, I don't have any firm numbers, but it seems like it takes a lot less juice than my MAC. It runs off a 12V DC power supply that charges its battery. I'm going to try to build a solar charger for it out of some old solar panels.

There appears to be a bug with the suspend mode. It's supposed to go to sleep when I close the cover, but the battery drains as if it was in use. There was some mention of a feature where WIFI signals wake the XO up. I'm thinking its more of a bug from my perspective, but we'll see.

Overall I'm really happy with the XO. It's fun to use, and there are lots of mysteries to explore and fun projects to try out.

This post was written and posted from my XO.

Our Christmas Giving Tradition

A few years before Alex was born Christine and I started a Christmas tradition of donating a giant pile of toys to Toys For Tots. It was a shopping bonanza. We'd usually go to the Disney Store on 50% off night and fill up on as many toys as we could carry. Sometimes a little more.

The idea that it was for charity offset the fact that we were running through a toy store like a couple of glutenous kids picking out anything of interest. But by June of this year I'd learned enough about the environmental impact of those toys that I could no longer quiet my conscious with "It's for charity." As fun as it sounds, indiscriminately buying a giant pile of toys isn't necessarily giving something nice to those kids.

That left me with a bit of a conundrum. How do I do something nice without adding to the mountain of plastic and electronics destined for our landfills?

It took a while to figure out an answer but we eventually settled on adopting some families (for Christmas) that couldn't afford gifts for their kids. Through my work and the local Wheat Center we got lists of what the kids in these families wanted/needed. We picked 4 families with a total of 8 kids who wanted/needed a mix of toys and clothes.

The requests were a bit vague and we only knew ages, clothes sizes, and toy interest. (i.e. 3 years old, size 3T, likes trucks.) So it turned out to be a little more work than Toys for Tots because we had to be specific about what we shopped for (no glutenous rush through the store grabbing toys with wild abandon) and then there was a rather daunting sorting effort preparing the toys for drop off.

Maybe it was knowing the stuff we were giving wasn't going to waste, and maybe it was the extra effort that made it seem like we were actually doing something. Whatever the reason, giving this Christmas turned out to be a lot more fun and rewarding than in years past.

When Sons Start Helping

Conner shovels!

We had biblical precipitation this weekend. Christine captured my celebration when I realized that Conner (only 2 years old) was actually shoveling snow off the driveway!

Leading in Bali

Delegates from ~180 countries met in Bali this past week to begin negotiations on a new international climate change agreement to follow the Kyoto protocol which expires in 2012.

The government of the United States of America, of the country that produces the most CO2 in the world, sent its delegates to Bali with instructions to block agreement on setting goals for reducing CO2 emissions.

I am embarrassed by my government as they "go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent."

Al Gore stole the show with a 52 minute speech (full video here on Energy Policy TV). The full speech was hard to find, but it's much more impressive than the dozens of easily found short clips from this speech suggest. The short ones contain inspirational quotes. The parts where Gore said things like "My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress in Bali."

But when you watch the full speech, you'll find a lot more substance. Gore gives examples about how everything from climate change to economics to wars to our standard of living are all tied together. He gives reason for action and reasons for hope. It's an inspirational speech.

About 27 minutes in he mentioned the 350,000 Americans that "contacted him" (I'm assuming he meant via this petition) asking the US government to support action for addressing climate change. I signed that petition before his speech.

While it sounds like a simple thing to do, (compared to changing light-bulbs or switching to tap water) clicking a link and adding my name to a petition is an important and powerful action to take. It's only through citizens voicing their opinions, sharing ideas, and demanding change that the elected officials of the United States will find the political-will they need to change our country's direction, and start acting as a true leader in addressing global climate change.

NPR Democratic Candidates' Debate

NPR held a democratic debate on December 4th that is worth checking out. Here are links to the transcript and the podcast of the two hour session (including short breaks).

The thing that impressed me was NPR only focussed on 3 topics. Iran, China and Immigration. This gave the moderators and candidates a lot more time than the 30 seconds they usually get to provide their answers, challenge each other, respond and even have a back and forth discussion.

Clear differences between the candidates views started to emerge as they got further away from 30 second sound bites. There were still some of the typical evasive non-answers, (primarily by Edwards and Clinton) but there were also refreshing discussions with details about complexities of the challenges the world faces and how the candidates see us dealing with those challenges.

This one it worth the listen. It reminded me of Obama's Senate podcasts when he rose above the morass of vacuous sound bites in the news, and talked about the details and nuances of the situations the Senate was debating.

Ornis Visits and Decides To Stay

A few days ago Christine and the boys discovered a small sick bird on our front steps. It was just sitting very still and had some ice on its tail feathers. They scooped it up into a box, gave it some food water and a small towel for a nest and called a wildlife sanctuary and Teresa for info on how to care for the bird.

The plan was to let the bird rest and see if it would try to fly away the next day. If not the wildlife sanctuary said they'd take it in. Throughout the day the boys kept a vigilant watch over the bird. It seemed to be resting comfortably. It slept a lot and peaked its head up to look around every once in a while.

Just after we put the kids to bed the bird died. This wasn't unexpected. We were warned that these birds are very fragile, but it was still sad. We considered telling the boys that we let it go, but decided the truth was probably a better way to go. Telling Alex we let the bird he was looking after go, while he was sleeping, would be a major violation of the trust he put in us to watch it while he was sleeping.

The next morning Alex asked about the bird. We explained that it was sick and had died. He asked a lot of questions about when the bird would start breathing again and when it finally sunk in he was sad. I needed to get to work, but the boys some closure and more importantly, I wanted to make sure they didn't spend the day trying to hug a dead bird, so we decided to bury it.

After breakfast the boys and I got bundled up in our winter jackets and snow boots and took the bird out to the backyard. The grass was covered in a thin sheet of ice and Conner didn't weigh enough to break through. He kept slipping as he walked. We chose an out of the way spot and I started to dig.

When I was a teenager we used to get a Christmas tree with a root ball and then plant it in the yard after Christmas. As I dug a grave for the bird and I couldn't help but notice what a strange sensation it was to dig a hole through ice and snow without there being 6 inches of permafrost under the surface. Since this was the first snow of the year the ground was still soft. I don't think I'll ever forget those days of planting Christmas trees, in February, by painstakingly chiseling through the frozen ground while my father reminded me that if I had dug the hole in September, like he told me to, I wouldn't need the pickaxe.

The boys didn't seem to notice my flash of reminiscences. We buried the bird in a nice spot under a tree. When we were done saying goodbye Alex lead the way back into the house. Conner was clearly concerned about traversing the ice so I picked him up and was rewarded with a big smile. We went inside, got cleaned up, and life returned to normal.

War Drums For Iran - Do Something

For the past year the US government has been putting forth rhetoric (Bolton hopes we attack) and propaganda (Fox Attacks Iran) in an effort to build support for a war with Iran (Former CIA officer: US to attack Iran within 6 months.)

I've been trying to write a post about this for months, but every time I start I get writers block when I try to describe the insanity of wars like this. I don't pretend to know enough history to extend this to all wars but it seems clear from everything I've read, veterans I've talked to, and the experience of the last 6 years, that the Iraq war and a future Iran war is a horrible mistake.

Many people in my government seem to think of war as... Well I don't know what they are thinking, but it seems to me the moment you start sending people off to kill other people you have already lost; sadness, suffering, loss of life, loss of limbs, separation of families, loneliness, economic hardship, mental illness and neglect... and that's just what we do to our own soldiers.

In the past 24 hours I've received 2 emails from that effectively explain what I've been unable to write. They are well written and provide reliable supporting source links. Here are copies of the mail and links to where you can sign the petition (against starting a war with Iran) and/or write a letter to your local newspaper.

Please give them a read, sign the petition and consider writing a letter. If you're not up for it, consider leaving a comment explaining why. At the very least the decision to allow war to happen should be debated.

[Email #1 Please Sign the Petition ]

Subject: Help me stop Bush from starting another war with Iran

Hi, President Bush may be on his way out, but if we don't pay attention, his last action could be starting another war with Iran. We definitely don't need the President who made such a mess in Iraq opening up another front in the Middle East.

Without a clear line in the sand, Bush's reckless actions could start a war before we have a chance to weigh our options. That's why Congress has to step up and pass a bill making it crystal clear that Bush does not have the authority to go to war with Iran.

There are bills in Congress that say just that, but our reps need to hear from us to move forward.

I just signed this petition asking Congress to stop another Bush war before it starts. Can you join me?


1. "Shifting Targets: The Administration's plan for Iran," The New Yorker, October 8, 2007.

2. "US ex-generals reject Iran strike," BBC News, February 4, 2007.
3. "Cheney urging strikes on Iran," McClatchy News Service, August 9, 2007.

[Email #2 Write a letter to the Editor]

Subject: Bush lied today on Iran

Wow. All year President Bush has been moving America closer to war with Iran. But yesterday we learned stunning news: Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program in 20031—and President Bush has known for months.2

But Bush is undeterred. This morning, he held a news conference where he actually tried to portray the news that Iran isn't building a bomb as yet another reason to confront Iran! 3 He also said he hadn't known about the new evidence—a fact contradicted by his own National Security Adviser.4

It's Iraq all over again. Bush is willing to ignore intelligence and lie to move us towards another war.

We can't let him get away with it again. Will you write a letter to the editor of your local paper reminding folks that we've heard this story before, that Bush is misleading America on Iran just as he did on Iraq? Click here:

The letters-to-the-editor section is one of the most widely read parts of the newspaper—a flood of letters can influence politicians, reporters, and the public. There are a couple key points we have to highlight in this critical moment:

  • Bush has been actively misleading us on Iran. Bush said today that he "only learned of the new intelligence assessment last week."5

    But according to the Washington Post, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley "said Bush was first told in August or September about intelligence indicating Iran had halted its weapons program, but was advised it would take time to evaluate." Here's the Post:

    President Bush got the world's attention this fall when he warned that a nuclear-armed Iran might lead to World War III. But his stark warning came at least a month or two after he had first been told about fresh indications that Iran had actually halted its nuclear weapons program.6

  • Just like he did with Iraq, Bush is ignoring the intelligence and recklessly pushing towards war. We can't afford to let Bush and Cheney start another disastrous war.
  • Congress must act now and make it clear that President Bush has no authority to strike Iran.
  • The new National Intelligence Estimate shows that Iran is not the threat Bush says it is.7

The public is very nervous about the prospect of another war, but the President's bully pulpit is powerful and he uses it to great effect. We need to raise our voices now. Please write a letter today:

Thanks for all you do,

–Ilyse, Tanya, Justin, Adam G., and the Political Action Team
Tuesday, December 4th, 2007


1. "U.S. Finds Iran Halted Its Nuclear Arms Effort in 2003," New York Times, December 3, 2007.

2. "A Blow to Bush's Tehran Policy," Washington Post, December 4, 2007.

3. "Bush: US Must Remain Vigilant on Iran," Washington Post, December 4, 2007.

4. "A Blow to Bush's Tehran Policy," Washington Post, December 4, 2007.

5. "Bush: US Must Remain Vigilant on Iran," Washington Post, December 4, 2007.

6. "A Blow to Bush's Tehran Policy," Washington Post, December 4, 2007.

7. "U.S. Finds Iran Halted Its Nuclear Arms Effort in 2003," New York Times, December 3, 2007.

Explaining the Empire

The other day I watched Star Wars IV with Alex. I guess I was about his age when I first saw it.

It was really funny to get his take on things. He asked a bunch of questions and about 30 minutes in he decided Star Wars was about C3PO and R2D2 getting separated and then finding each other again. Your basic buddy flick.

I've been watching these movies for almost 30 years and my 4 year old is pointing out things I never noticed! Kids have amazing perspective...

The one part of the movie we struggled with was "Who is the Empire?" I eventually got across the point that the Empire was an entity and not a person, but that was where my success ended.

I tried every analogy I could think of to describe the Empire to Alex but he kept responding "I don't get it." Nothing I said made sense to him.

How do you explain this to a 4 year old?
  • Corrupt government disassembled under guise of military security (Episode II)
  • Power-hungry, isolated, self-appointed dictator (Emperor)
  • Creepy half human second in command (Darth Vader)
  • Tortures people in secret (Han Solo Episode V)
  • Uses fear as a governance tool (Episode IV)
  • Fighting rebels (Episode IV-VI)

Then just as the R2D2 was taking off (with the X-Wings) to attack the Death Star/defend the rebel base, Alex asked again. "Daddy, what is the Empire?" Frustrated and tired of answering the same question over and over I went with a blunt answer that I figured would be over his head.

"The Empire is basically the Bush Administration." It hung there in the air while he thought about it... And then I saw the light go on and heard it in his voice. "Oh! Ok." He got it.

And I got a little sad and a little scared. Kids have amazing perspective...

* Photo Credit: Star Wars Storm Troopers, a fan-based group known as the "501st Legion" from 22 different countries and 26 US states, march down Colorado Boulevard in the 118th Rose Parade. Photo: AP

Bad Facebook... Bad...

I have relatively low expectations for privacy in general and privacy on the web in particular. Even so I find I need to lower my standards to cope with the creepiness of Facebook's Beacon feature.

If you have a Facebook account make sure you log out before you do any online shopping.

Facebook has partnered with a bunch of online retailers and is publishing your purchase information to your facebook news feed. That means if you buy a Christmas gift for someone from and they look at your facebook page, the surprise is spoiled.

I did some digging to figure out how sites like ebay would be able to figure out who you were on facebook. This post by RadiantCore explains the technical details the details and you can see a demo of how it works here, but the bottom line is when you make a purchase the retail site checks if someone is logged into facebook. If so, it assumes that the logged-in-facebook-user is the person making the purchase and publishes a message on that facebook users news feed that they just purchased a [Insert Inflammatory Gift Item Here].

The ability to do surreptitiously pass information between websites is nothing new, but this does appear to be the first time that a social networking site has partnered with seemingly reputable online retailers to publish your purchasing habits for all to see. Seriously, how does this not violate the standard privacy agreements those sites set up?

Bottom line, to avoid having all your purchases out there for the world to see, stay logged out of Facebook when you're shopping online. As for me I'm staying logged out of Facebook and boycotting online stores that use Facebook Beacon.

How to Fix a Broken Guitar Nut With Baking Soda In Nine Steps

This a guest post by my father. Six months ago I left my acoustic guitar out and Alex and Conner broke it during a game of "Tag You're It". Just as the year was approaching when I'd get around to thinking about possibly asking someone if they knew anything about repairing a guitar, my dad liberated it from my house and worked his magic. He does cool stuff like this a lot.

Through repeated harassment, my brother and I convinced him to start writing down how he does this stuff so that future generations won't have to go 6 months without a working guitar nut.

This post has a little of everything; humor, economics, music, profanity, and even a material density chart!
So without further adieu.

How to Fix a Broken Guitar Nut With Baking Soda In Nine Steps

By James Russell

But first, what is a guitar nut? Lets start with what it is not.

A guitar nut is not a nut that you eat like, for example, pistachio or a walnut or a peanut.

It is also not a piece of metal that you put on the end of a bolt and tighten down.

It is not Reza. Well, Reza is a guitar nut but just not that kind of nut.

A guitar nut is a piece of rigid material (originally Ivory but now often plastic) that sits at the top of the neck of the guitar and supports the strings. It is about 1/4" by 1/4" by 1 3/4 inches with little slots in which the strings sit.

The strings are supported on the other end by a device called a bridge. So basically, the nut and the bridge form a fixed distance between which the strings are constrained to vibrate. By selecting string of different thicknesses and adjusting the tension on the string, each string can be made to play a specific note. But why am I telling you this? It seemed to me that any reasonably rigid material that
  1. will support the string without being compressed as the string is tensioned and
  2. not absorb the vibrations of the string and thereby create a dampening effect should do.
Satisfying those two criteria, the nut should establish an acceptable end point for the string and the physics of a vibrating string should apply and, in the hands of someone who knows what to do with the vibrating strings (this is were Reza comes in), music should emanate. But what do I know?

Step one: Go to the nearest music store that has guitar parts and purchase the only guitar nut they have for the outrageous price of $10.50 plus tax. An important part of this step is to muse over my expectation that there would be a lot of different guitar nuts of different sizes to pick from and wondering whether this store owner was a marketing genius who knew the one and only guitar nut to stock. My original inclination was to walk away and go somewhere else but since I live in the boondocks of Massachusetts, there really isn't a “somewhere else”. So I forked over the $10.50 for the bridge whose package promised improvement to my sustain and bass response. (See my comments above on the attributes of a guitar nut.) I also stopped to by a lottery ticket under the assumption that if this guitar nut actually fit, then my stars must be in alignment and I should jump on the opportunity and make millions on the lottery.

Step two: Return home and remove the broken guitar nut and compare it to the sustain and bass improving $10.50 guitar nut. Not even close. The store owner is not a marketing genius and my lottery ticket isn't worth the paper used to print it. A vitally important part of this step is to put the guitar nut in your pocket and not back on the guitar. The importance of this step will become obvious below.

Step three: Go on the Internet and find that there are a plethora of guitar nuts of varying sizes and made of a variety of materials all offering some amazing level of improvement regarding tone, sustain, response and other things. (See my comments above on the attributes of a guitar bridge and the physics of a vibrating string.) One even promised to take three strokes off my golf game. The price of a particular nut in the Internet seems to be associated with the complexity of the spelling of the material making up the nut. It should be noted that I could not find a nut for anything near $10.50. The prices were much cheaper for even the most exotic material. However, when shipping and handling was added the price jumped to $43.29, which, if I am not mistaken, is more than the guitar cost.

Step three point five: Start thinking about carving a nut out of ebony. As a woodworker, I have some ebony (a really hard African wood) and the tools to do it. An important part of this step is to muse about whether ebony is sufficiently hard to meet criteria one of my two part criteria for a suitable nut (see above). It should be noted that I do not know how long this step takes since I was still in my muse state when I finished fixing the nut.

Step four: Go shopping for Thanksgiving stuff with your wife really far away from where you live and stop at a liquor store to buy some Jack Daniels and Jameson and note that there is a music store next to the liquor store.

Step five: Go into the music store, reach into your pocket (see Step Two above), take out the broken guitar nut and say, “Do you have one of these?” At this point, the guitar fixer guy takes out a box full of many different sizes and types of guitar nuts. Things are looking up. After comparing many different nuts the guitar fixer guy declares, “This one is pretty close.” It was in fact close but not exact. My opinion is that this is definitely close enough and the price of “two bucks” sounded pretty good. Then the guitar fixer guy says, “Ya know ya can fix the one you have with Super Glue and baking soda. Ya need the thick Super Glue and ya mix in some baking soda. Put it on the part that is missing and it gets as hard as a bastard.” I quickly took out my Pocket Reference for Materials Management (which I have with me at all times), looked up “hard as a bastard” and was impressed. (See an extract of the Pocket Reference at the end of this document). Now “hard as a bastard” is pretty hard and at least as hard as both criteria one and two above. I really like the idea of fixing the guitar nut with baking soda because nobody wants to fix anything any more. Just trow it out and get a new one. So I bought the “two buck” nut as an insurance policy and finished buying the Jack Daniels and Jameson.

For everyone who slept through your materials engineering classes on the Brinell Hardness Measures of particular materials:

As a woodworker, I am very familiar with cyanoacrylate glue. It is the real name for Super Glue only it comes in much larger bottles and in different thicknesses. I always have the thick stuff on hand so I was eager to get into the shop and try it out.
Step six: On the way home, stop at the original music store and return the $10.50 guitar nut and watch as the store owner puts the nut back on the wall in its lonely place and wonder how many times it has been through this process.

Step seven: Get about 1/8 of a teaspoon of baking soda and a few drops of thick cyanoacrylate glue. Mix them together. Put the paste on the part of the guitar nut that is missing. Spray on some accelerator (so it gets as hard as a bastard faster). Repeat until the missing part is more than filled in. File down the excess glue/baking soda mound to the exact shape of the guitar nut. File in a new track for the string.
Step eight: Put the repaired guitar nut on the guitar and tighten all the strings (fully expecting the pressure of the string to fracture the glue/baking soda mix). Be amazed that it holds together and that the string that is sitting on the repair has improved sustain and improved bass response.

Step nine: Play the guitar.

Think Outside The Bottle and Save Elle!

This weekend an old sigh school friend (we'll call her Elle) told me "I gave up bottled water after I read your blog post, and now I'm severely dehydrated."

Since I wrote the My Water Bottle post a surprising number of people have shared their experience with "Giving up bottled water." I'm thrilled by how many people the post reached, and at the same time disappointed that the message I got across was to "Give Up Bottled Water" instead of to "Switch to Tap."

I think the reason the switching to tap water has been so easy for me is I never really thought of it as giving something up. To the contrary I've always thought of switching to tap as getting something.

  • The $2 per bottle that I keep in my pocket to buy DRM free music from amazon.
  • Sticking it to the corporations that marketed brainwashed me into thinking I needed bottled water.
  • The knowledge that the air is a little cleaner for my kids.
  • The ability to drink clean water without having to sponsor oil producing middle east governments that like to lash and jail women for being raped.
Fortunately there's a new group called Think Outside The Bottle that has found some great ways to explain why people should switch to tap. More importantly, they let me set up a Think Outsite the Bottle pledge page we can use to save poor Elle from her severe dehydration.

Click on the image below to learn more and (optionally) take the pledge to switch to tap water and save Elle. If you decide not to take the pledge and Elle dies of dehydration its on your head. I already signed it.

XO Laptop Camp Out

Some people camp out for movie tickets. Other people camp out to be one with nature. I camp out for the chance to play with a staggeringly overpriced $100 laptop before Christmas.

Today camped out on my couch and placed my order for an XO laptop (A.K.A $100 laptop) through the XO Giving Program just after 6am when the ordering system opened.

Paying $400 for a $100 laptop sounds really silly but there are a bunch of reasons I'm really excited about it.

  1. A Good Cause: The OLPC program provides a mechanism for education to the poorest kids in the world. By purchasing a laptop I'm also paying for a laptop donated to a kid that can use it to learn.

  2. Mass Production Goal: The $100 laptop currently costs about $200. They can only bring the costs down by mass production. That means 3 million laptops need to be made before they get the costs down to $100. My conspicuous consumption is actually helping the program.

  3. The Geek/Eco Factor: The specs on this thing are really impressive. It runs on only 2 watts! Besides getting to use a seriously optimized laptop, I'm interested to see what its like to use a machine powered by a hand crank or solar power.


Halloween was a lot of fun this year. While Allison stayed home to scare smile off intruders, the boys did some serious trick-or-treating.

Conner was particularly impressive. He refused, under any circumstances, to let hold of his bag of candy. When it got to heavy he used two hands and dragged it. When he lost his balance and started falling down a stairway he grabbed onto his candy bag with both hands, instead of reaching for the banister. Fortunately I was there to catch him.

Alex was a consummate professional. He went for density of houses with their lights on, and even conserved energy by insisting that Conner do all of the knocking on doors. At one house, Conner wasn't knocking hard enough to get the attention of the homeowners. Alex, stood right next to Conner and yelled encouragement to knock harder. After a few seconds Alex, not having lifted a finger, turned and asked me to help knock because "Conner wasn't strong enough." As a parent I've come to recognize requests like this as "Teaching moments" and I did my part to teach him by laughing at his request.

When we got home the boys dug into their loot. After a few pieces candy the most amazing thing happened. They asked for apples... Christine and I just stared at each other in disbelief as an unspoken "Holy crap we are good parents!" passed between us...

And that's how the boy's ended up eating apples after trick-or-treating...

For the leaves they are a-changin'

It occurred to me that people come from all over the world to see the colors I see every day on my way to work. So this year I stopped to enjoy them and took a few pictures.

Flickr Set Page
Flickr SlideShow Lite Slide Show

The Great Pumpkin

Linus said it best, "Welcome Great Pumpkin!"

Somehow we managed to farm our way through something like 200 feet of pumpkin vines, dozens of pumpkin flowers, and the attack of the leaf eating mold. The result...

A pumpkin...

There it is...

Just one...

Apparently the numerous vines were too busy trying to overwhelm our house and then fight off the mold to bother with lots of pumpkins.

Even so, it's a lot of fun knowing we grew this one.

Catalog Choice

A few weeks ago I came across It's a free online service that lets you eliminate unwanted catalogs! They have an easy to use website where you decline catalogs you don't want, and they take care of the rest.

Their site has useful info about the environmental impact of catalogs as well as how their funded and why catalog distributors like this idea.

I've started looking forward to getting catalogs in the mail so I can decline them. It's strangely reminicent of when I used to star wars cards as a kid.

Open Responce to Draft Carbon Tax Legislation

OpenCongress posted an article about energy policy noting that US House Representative John D. Dingell posted Draft Carbon Tax Legislation on his website. Dingell is making the draft available for public comment before he brings it to the floor.

The following is an open letter I sent in response.

Representative Dingell,

Thank you for making this draft legislation available for public comment. Overall the Carbon Tax Draft Legislation you posted looks like a good first step. I'd like to share four topics that stand out as questions, issues, or possible omissions.

1. Carbon Tax Numbers - Where's the math that explains $50 per ton?

I like the idea of the per ton carbon tax that places a dollar cost on pollution, but I'm curious how the $50 number was chosen. $50 doesn't pass my smell test because it is a neat, rounded, simple denomination sort of number. I'd like to see the formula that determines the value of carbon disposal and then phase in the tax to that value. If we impose a carbon tax that is too low it will fail to have the desired effect. If we choose a carbon tax that is too high it will artificially over-inflate prices and could hurt the economy. There's a balance needed and it we to make a data driven decision on the price point. Please reach out to the scientific and economic communities to develop a formula for determining the optimal carbon tax rate. We should be transparent about why we chose this price so that we can adjust it appropriately as circumstances change.

2. Bio Fuels - Why the carbon tax exemption?

Bio fuels are a complicated issue. While bio-fuels reduce our dependency on foreign oil, they raise the cost of staple foods and still contribute to pollution. I am not clear on weather or not bio-fuels reduce green house gases (I haven't taken the time to research this yet). What I have read is that bio-fuels have a serious negative effect on the land where they are produced and refined, and a serious negative impact on the air quality in areas where they are burned. What is the reasoning behind the exemption of a carbon tax on bio fuels?

3. Earned Income Tax Credit - We need to solve the cash flow problem

Phase out limits - I am fortunate to be ineligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EIT), but from what I've read it appears only marginally effective at its original purpose. The phase out levels seem staggering low. As a father of 3 I can not fathom a way to raise a healthy family on $15,000 a year which is the highest number at which you suggest beginning to phase out the EIT. Moreover, 25% of it goes unclaimed each year. This is probably because tax law is to complicated and time consuming for a family that by my estimation is both struggling day to day to eat, and probably already cold at night.

A Problem of Cash Flow - Even if the Earned Income Tax Credit (EIT) reached more people, it doesn't really solve the cash flow problem created by higher energy costs. If a family is living paycheck to paycheck (which is a reasonable assumption even at $30,000) they will need cash on hand to cover the interim increased energy costs created by the carbon tax. Using the EIT to offset increased energy costs means that the family needs to front money for the increased energy costs for more than a year before they get the money back. For example they start paying increased prices in January of 2008 and you get some money back in April of 2009. At best this will lead to more predatory lending against expected tax rebates like we've seen in recent years.

Alternatively we could address the cash flow by reducing the costs for low income families up front. This could be done by creating a simple same day process for families to qualify (similar to the EIT qualifications for a rebate) and require energy companies to provide two payment options on the bill. One with the EIT qualification and the one without it. Bills should also clearly display information on how to get qualified for the lower cost. By showing the different values on the bill you create an obvious incentive to follow the qualifying process to immediately reduce costs to the family.

This moves the logistical and cash flow burden from low income families that don't have the cash flow or the time to navigate complex tax laws into the responsibility of the energy industry and IRS. These two organizations will be motivated by their P&L and law respectively to streamline the process without requiring anything from low income families.

4. Shifting Subsidies from Oil to Renewables - An Omission?

The one thing I see missing is subsidies for renewable energy. Specifically solar, wind, and wave power. Since the time of the new deal, large shifts in our countries infrastructure have always been subsidized by the federal government. We currently spend billions subsidizing the oil industry which is showing record profits while polluting the environment. Why not use the oil subsidies to stimulate the renewable energy market? I'd propose a 5 year plan to phase all oil subsidies over to renewable energy research and consumer cost reduction.

I appreciate the opportunity to comment on this draft legislation and hope you are able to take these comments into consideration.

Paul Russell

Image Credit: Image:Uscapitolindaylight.jpg w:United States Capitol in daylight, taken by Kmccoy w:2004-05-04.

Blog Action Day - The Environment

This is one post in a series that started here, describing what I've learned while attempting to understand my ecological footprint.

Blog Action Day is a pretty cool idea. It aims to get lots of people (~15,ooo at present) to share their thoughts on one topic in the hopes of getting a discussion going. On the surface it may seem silly (a bunch of people sitting at their computers typing) but over the last year I've learned first hand that sharing and discussion is a powerful catalyst for change. Especially when you compare it to the result you get by
quietly stewing in a festering bath of contempt for the way things are... There is simply no contest.

Today the topic is "The Environment" which means my ecological footprint posts fit nicely with the theme. I was a bit stumped as to which topic to write about so I asked my brother. He
suggested that given the amount of time I've invested in the research for some of the my ecological footprint posts, recapping the series might be my best bet.

So with out further gilding the Lilly, and no more adieu, here are a few of the more interesting topics I've covered so far...

My Watter Bottle talks about the impact of bottled water and my experience getting over the marketing hype and switching to tap. This is my favorite post in the series because it resulted in change outside my immediate control. I never expected my sharing ideas to have any tangible impact but a few people sought me out to tell me that they read it and decided to switch to tap water. How cool is that!

What's the Deal With Recycling Pizza Boxes? was a lot of fun to research. Did you ever wonder why some recycling center employees get really angry if you try to recycle a pizza box? It's as if the pizza box was made out of some mythical cardboard that would cause puppies to die if it were recycled. Mystery solved...

The Scientific Method vs. Truthiness was born out of frustration for the fiction passes for reality in today's media (TV, Internet). At the same time that there is perpetual fountain of useless data on every detail of celebrity life we appear incapable of discussing more complicated issues, such as foreign policy or the environment, in anything more than bullet points or buzz words. Top that with the complete lack of fact review of the bullet points that get played on TV and you get a steady stream of half truths and outright lies that become part of the collective consious. Frankly the stuff that passes for facts in our public dialog is an embarrassment to our civilization. This post talks about how to separate fact from truthiness.

Other posts covered the positive impact of the fall of DRM, replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs, and stuff about batteries (One way to eliminate wasteful battery use, Fact Checking on the Hummer vs Prius Article, and details on Plug in Electric Cars).

As I've learned just a little bit, the way I look at everyday life has changed. I'm both amazed at what mankind has achieved and stunned by the staggeringly wasteful ways we spend our energy. The bottled watter in America one still slays me.

You can see an archive of all the posts in this blog under the my ecological footprint label or subscribe to the RSS feed for the my ecological footprint label.

Image Credit For each post I make an new logo by combining the GNOME footprint logo with other creative commons images. I read somewhere that images help to increase the attention span of readers. As a big fan of Peanuts I have to agree. Thanks to
David Vignoni and the authors of the artists who worked on the Crystal Clear icon set.

Great Environment Resources

This is one post in a series that started here, describing what I've learned while attempting to understand my ecological footprint.

I've found a lot of great online resources (blogs, podcasts, online libraries, communities groups, etc.) while researching my ecological footprint. All of these resources are free, and most of these have RSS feeds to you can get little information at a time via a feed reader.

Of all the different resources I found, a few really stand out. I'm a big fan of these because they are useful, interesting, and sometimes even fun! So here they are. My favorite environment resources...

NoImpactMan is a blog by Colin Beavan where he chronicles his yearlong project have no net impact on the environment. The philosophy and plan behind this project are very well thought out. Over the past few months, this has become one of my favorite blogs. Colin shares the good along with the bad as he and his family go through daily life striving for no net impact.

NPR Climate Connections is a podcast that is jointly produce by NPR and National Geographic. Episodes come out a few times a week and usually run just under 7 minutes. It "series takes you on a year-long global voyage, exploring how the Earth's climate shapes people, and how people are shaping the Earth's climate." It's a great source of information on a surprising range of topics. Best of all its in nice bite size pieces, and you can always visit their website for links and more information on any story.

Plugs and cars is a blog by Marc Geller, a well known activist and long time supporter of electric and plugin hybrid electric cars. This blog is updated irregularly but is a great source for news on the effort to make plugin cars available to the average consumer.

LighterFootstep is a blog that has short posts with suggestions on how you can reduce your negative impact on the environment and improve your positive impact. The posts are usually short and contain simple ideas on things you can do right now.

The Massachusetts Climate Action Network maintains a list of local climate action groups, organized by town. I've recently gotten involved with the Harvard Local and Groton Local groups. Their motto is Solutions for a Sustainable Community. They bring together people interested in environmental topics. They coordinate seminars on sustainable energy, group mailers for sharing information, and farmers markets. The thing I find the most fun is that group members often kick off community activities like cider making or building a solar powered house water heater. Most of the time people are trying this for the first time so its a learn by doing experience.

QUEST is a TV, radio, web, and education series by KQED that explores science, environment and nature in Northern California. I've been listening to the podcast which is short (5-7 minutes) and always interesting. Its a lot like climate connections except its specific to Northern California's environment.

CMARS is a website that provides access to all of the public, academic, school, regional, and special libraries in Central and Western Massachusetts. With a library card you can go online and reserve any book, CD or video in the network and have it delivered to the library of your choice. They email you when it arrives. From both from a cost and a footprint perspective, it's a great alternative to buying books that I'm only going to read once. (image credit)

Tree Hugger has both a blog and a . "TreeHugger is the leading media outlet dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream. Partial to a modern aesthetic, we strive to be a one-stop shop for green news, solutions, and product information." Treehugger about page. The blog is a bit like drinking from a fire hose. They average ~33 posts a day which is sometimes more environment news that I can stand. Still its interesting stuff. The Radio Podcast comes out a little less than once a week. Its a bit overproduced, but has interesting content.

"ecoTumble is a companion site for Lighter Footstep. It’s a quick read: bite-sized pieces of green news, tips, and trivia." - their about page. It's a fun blog that doesn't take a lot of effort to follow.

The Garden of Dr. Moreau

The other day I found this red pepper growing one of my bell pepper plants. It was a little wrinkly and smelled a little bit like a hot pepper.

Working on the assumption that I had planted green bell peppers (they were green in the picture at the store), I stared at my garden in disbelief. How did I get a red bell pepper?

And then I saw it... My Red Hot Chili Peppers (yes the ones that almost killed me) were right under the bell pepper plant. If a bee had cross pollinated the chili pepper and the bell pepper, a red spicy smelling bell pepper seemed like a logical result.

And so I started thinking about all the ways I was going to revel in my unintentional, and yet monumental, genetic manipulation success. Just think about it! In the midst of a global pandemic of pollinating-bee colony-collapse I managed to create new strain of pepper!

Thoughts of grandeur floated about my subconscious. Watson and Crick were a couple of melodramatic hacks! Mendel was a number fixing punk! And don't even get me started on Mephisto and his four assed monkey.

After a few days I decided to do some research on peppers to determine if there was any precedent for cross pollinating peppers to achieve new characteristics. The search was cut short by the following discovery.

To quote from the wikipedia page on bell peppers:
The color can be green, red, yellow, orange and, more rarely, white, purple, blue, and brown, depending on when they are harvested and the specific cultivar. Green peppers are unripe bell peppers, while the others are all ripe, with the color variation based on cultivar selection.

Ugggghhhh.... While very unlikely I guess it's still possible the pepper was the result of a cross pollination. Fortunately Alex had the forethought to save the seeds after we ate the pepper.

I guess next year we'll have test our pepper seeds Mendel's way.

Trip to Drumlin Farms

Alex and I spent Sunday afternoon at the Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. They were having their fall fund raiser festival just down the road from Walden Pond.

Alex and I went on a nature walk through the woods (twice), took a hay ride, saw a sheep herding demonstration with a real sheep dog, listen to a live dixieland band, painted a pumpkin, used a hand powered drill used for building barns, toured the gardens and did a bunch of other stuff. It was a blast.

Drumlin Farms uses electric cars on their farm. We passed a few while we were walking around and we both mentioned how quiet they were. They make as little noise as a tire rolling on the ground!

The most memorable part of the day was during the nature walk. Throughout the walk there were casts of different animal footprints on the ground. Each one had a barely legible name of the animal that made the print carved into the cast. We slowly sounded out the word FOX and then moved on...

The next one was labeled RABBIT. Seeing another opportunity to sound out a word I asked Alex what the footprint was. He instantly replied. "Thats a bunny rabbit!" Surprised by his certanty and accuracy I asked him how he knew. Without missing a beat he said. "Because I'm so smart!"

We saw rabbit prints 3 times and he recognized them instantly each time. It's a strange feeling when your kid tells you something and you don't know where he learned it.

Replacing The Light Bulbs

This is one post in a series that started here, describing what I've learned while attempting to understand my ecological footprint.

Back in January we swapped out most of our incandescent light bulbs for Compact Fluorescents. The CFLs use about 1/4 the power of the old incandescents, and while they cost more up front, I haven't had a single one blow out... Or do they fade away... If one of them ever stops producing light I'll let you know what that looks like.

Overall the change to CFLs was nearly painless. The main downside is the ridiculous form molded plastic packaging the lights come in. It takes a pair of pliers and a blowtorch to open it.

There were some odd side effects:

Dimmer Switches
The dimmer switches I installed in a few rooms became obsolete. The standard CFL doesn't dim gracefully. Instead it flickers angrily as if it is spitting at you while saying "Hey cut that out! I don't dim!!!" This turned out not to matter much because we never actually used the dimmer switches with the incandescents either.

Less Circuits:
The other strange thing relates back to the basement project. Over the past two years I've been finishing my basement with the help of my family. Actually the latter half of the project was more my dad finishing my basement with my help. More on that in a future post.

When we first worked out the electrical, we determined that the ceiling lighting for the entire basement would require 2 15Amp circuits. This was based on the total number of incandescent bulbs at a maximum of 100w each. But we did the math 2 years ago, and long before I started the my ecological footprint project.

Now that I'm using CFLs I could fit the power to light all of my basement lights on half circuit! Of course that wouldn't be up to code so 2 circuits it is. Still, when I realized the reduction in infrastructure that CFLs would enable the reality of cutting lighting power by 75% really hit home.

New Light Bulbs in Plain English
Today CommonCraft released a great video on why switching to CFLs is a good idea. As usual, another great production!

Garlic & Arts Festival

This year we made our second annual trip to the Garlic and Arts Festival. It's my favorite festival of the season. They have great food, great music, and the vendors have actual local crafts!

The largest vendor groups were a toss up between renewable energy groups/companies, and local farmers markets with lots more than just garlic. One place had this amazing Pesto! All the same, I taste tested all sorts of garlic and while I'm a big garlic fan I'm pretty sure your not supposed to eat raw garlic all by itself. At least not as much as I did. Vampires beware.

The festival has a very eco-friendly atmosphere as a result of their clean and green minimal impact policy. In 2006 they had over 10,000 attendees and only generated 2 bags of trash! They require that food vendors use all recyclable or compost-able plates, napkins etc. The festival provides recycling & compost collection containers instead of trash bins.

This year there was a new eco-friendly twist. Water! The festival provided free drinking water from temporary water fountains and non refrigerated coolers. They even had pamphlets explaining the impact of bottled water and how this free water was a step in reducing that impact. As a result no one was selling those silly water bottles and there was plenty of free water for refilling my bottle.

I do feel like a bit like a hypocrite though. All that eco-friendliness is great, but in order to get there our only realistic option is to pile the family into the Honda Odyssey and drive 45 miles both ways. Someday we'll make that trip in a solar powered electric car.

The kids had a great time. There was a table with wood and tools where the kids could drill and saw. We could have stayed there all day. Conner and Alex took turns hanging out on our shoulders. Having my parents there really makes corralling three kids much easier.

After the festival I asked Alex what he liked most. He thought for a second and then said "The pesto and the chicks!" I racked my brain to remember who he was flirting with. Then I remembered this...

Update 2007-09-27: It has been brought to my attention that there is a "chick" bending over in the background of this picture. If you look closely at Alex's hands you will also see him holding a baby chick (as in bird). It was the latter that I was suggesting was the focus of Alex's attention. I'd also like to note that I didn't take this picture.

Peppers, Pumpkins, Tomatoes, and Salsa

We harvested a few green peppers from the garden. They taste great and are so fresh that when you bite into them they spray water/pepper juice.

The pepper plants started falling over lately. I'm not sure if that's because there wasn't as much rain, or because pepper plants like tomato plants, are designed to fall over as the produce seeds. Either way, next year I need to give them more space as the tomato plants basically smothered them all season.

The mold killed all but a few pumpkin leaves, but our lone pumpkin is holding on and looks like it may be turning orange.

Overall the garden is producing lots of food even if it looks like a jungle trying to strangle itself. A lot of people have mentioned that their tomato plants did not do well this season. I suspect our success is due to my Uncle Sam's gardening strategy: raised garden, compost base, two phase fertilizing and Epsom salt.

The other night Christine and I made Salsa based on a recipe from the food network. We improvised because we couldn't bother to go out an get the stuff we were missing.

Paul & Christine's Salsa [Take 1]
3 large cloves garlic
1 garden fresh red hot chili pepper (NO SEEDS!)
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley (lightly packed)
4 large garden fresh tomatoes (remove seeds & puree the rest)
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup diced Vidalia onion

Puree 3 tomatoes and strain out most of the really thin stuff. Keep the thicker material. Dice the red hot chili pepper very small and blend it in with the thicker tomato puree. Dice up everything else including the last tomato and mix it all together. Add more red hot chili pepper to taste.

Avast! It's Talk Like A Pirate Day!

Hello, shipmates, relatives an' loyal readers. Today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Its an important tide when we celebrate sea dogness. As ye know from previous posts I spend a lot o' time learnin' about global climate change. Here`s a tidbit (from Th' Church o' th' Flyin' Spaghetti Monster) that highlights th' importance o' Talk Like a Sea dog tide from th' perspective o' our environment.

Th' followin' quote be translated into Pirate Speak fer th' purposes o' clear an' Sea dog like communication:

"Ye may be interested t' know that global warmin', earthquakes, hurricanes an' other natural disasters be a direct effect o' th' shrinkin' numbers o' sea dogs since th' 1800s. Fer yer interest, I be havin' included a graph o' th' approximate number o' sea dogs versus th' average global temperature o'er th' past 200 voyages. As ye can be seein', thar be a statistically significant inverse relationship between sea dogs an' global temperature."

- Excerpt from Bobby Henderson's open letter t' th' Kansas school board translated into Sea dog Speak.

As ye can be seein' one o' th' best way`s t' combat global climate change be t' talk like a seafarin' hearty.