The First Timer’s Guide to Stargazing

Devils Tower Milky Way” by David Kingham is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With Spring just around the corner, Renee and I are regularly checking the forecast and going out stargazing as much as possible. Spring time is one of my favorite times of year for star gazing: the sky still gets dark relatively early, winter constellations are visible but so are spring constellations if you stay out late enough, and the weather is warming up, making it easier to enjoy spending long stretches of time outside. Although stargazing is easy and fun without any previous experience, there are a few things I wish I had known when I was just starting out.

M31, the Andromeda galaxy, can be seen by the unaided eye. The view above is what it looks like through some binoculars. I took this photo in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.

You don’t need fancy equipment

I think the biggest misconception about stargazing is that you need a fancy telescope to be able to go out and look at the night sky. Telescopes are awesome, but you really don’t need one when you are starting out.

What you do need is a good book. I like NightWatch but I’m sure there are other great beginner books. The key is to find one that will teach you the constellations so that you will become comfortable navigating the night sky. Learning to find the major constellations and stars is the first step to successfully finding deep space objects later on. I do not recommend using a sky chart or star finder phone app — these apps ruin your night vision, take away from the fun of finding nighttime objects yourself, and honestly I have never had one that was accurate enough to work well. Just find yourself a good book and read it before you go out for the night — trying to navigate an unfamiliar book in the dark is not easy.

In addition to a book, you’ll want a red gelled flashlight. You can buy lights with red leds, but personally I use a small flashlight with some red Christmas cellophane taped over the business end. If you have a headlamp, use that — it’s definitely nice to keep your hands freed up.

Binoculars are great for stargazing — if you have a pair, bring them with you! They don’t need to be fancy; it’s amazing how much more you can see in the night sky with even a low quality pair of binoculars. The picture of M31 above is the kind of thing you can see with binoculars. Even though I own a great telescope I still use a pair of binoculars just as much.

If you have a telescope AND you know how to use it — bring it along. Otherwise, don’t even both bringing it. Until you are comfortable finding constellations and some of the naked eye objects, it will be too difficult to use a telescope and you will just get frustrated by not being able to use it. Save yourself that frustration and leave it at home until you get some practice without it first.

The Milky Way over western New York state. I took this photo on a camping trip.

Dress appropriately

Stargazing is an extremely motionless activity. You do a lot of standing and sitting and that’s about it. Since you aren’t moving your body much, it is essential that you dress warmly. You will need to dress warm enough to be able to sustain standing motionless in the outside air for hours at a time.

I like to bring way more clothes than I think I need. Having an extra fleece or jacket in the car is the difference between being able to stay out for hours and having to pack up and leave shortly after you have arrived. Layers here are key — they add lots of heat by trapping air close to your body and they are also easy to take off or add on if you need to regulate how you feel.

Also don’t forget gloves, hand warmers, and wool socks. The extremities of your body will get cold fast so don’t neglect them.

Bring snacks

It’s easy to spend long stretches of time outside stargazing especially when the weather is favorable. Add an event like a meteor shower or lunar eclipse and you might be outside for hours. Instead of having to cut your stargazing session short because of hunger, or having to stop at a fast food restaurant on your way home (because nothing else will be open that late) bring some snacks with you. Additionally, if the weather is still cool, bring a thermos of hot cocoa — nothing makes it more enjoyable to be outside in the cold than a delicious hot beverage.

Star trails over Zion National Park, Utah. Some of the darkest sky in the United States.

Find dark sky

Picking a place to stargaze can be as easy as stepping out into your backyard. Depending on where you live though, it might be beneficial to go someplace that has less light pollution. Light pollution makes seeing deep sky objects, and even some constellations, difficult to impossible.

I like using the Dark Sky Finder website. Look for areas that are colored orange, yellow, and green — these are locations that are perfect for viewing stars. Stargazing can be done in red areas as well, but I would highly recommend avoiding any white spots on the map — you just won’t be able to see enough to make it worth it. And don’t worry about going out of your way to get to a green, purple, or black area your first time few times out — it’ll actually be more difficult! I remember the first time I went stargazing in Utah in a spot that appears black on that map: the number of stars in the night sky in a really dark area is breathtaking. However, due to the amount of stars you can see in those dark areas, it’s much more difficult to find certain objects — I’ve even had difficulty finding the big dipper in really dark areas!

Good locations to search for are places like parks that have large open clearings. If you can find a park with a big prairie, a big hill, a lake, or even a large parking lot in the middle of a green zone, you have found a perfect stargazing spot.

Watch for a clear forecast

Most of us our probably get our weather from the local tv news station or online weather app. Although this type of weather report is good for getting a rough idea of temperatures and precipitation, it is incomplete for what we need for stargazing. Since we will be trying to look at the night sky, the two forecasts we really care about are cloud coverage and darkness.

Fortunately, the Clear Dark Sky website provides an excellent astronomical forecast. Simply go to the site and find a location nearby to where you plan to go stargazing. Once you specify a location, you’ll be presented with a forecast that looks like this:

Looks like tonight is going to get good around 1am. Sunday night looks like it might be promising too. Information on how to read this chart is located underneath the chart at Clear Dark Sky.

Although this forecasts provide a lot of information, there are two main things we want to look at. The first is the line that says “Cloud Cover”. Darker blue squares are better here — we want as few clouds in the sky as possible on the night we go out. As a rule of thumb, I’ll go out anytime it’s 40% or less cloud coverage as long as I don’t have to travel far. If I’m going to my favorite observing spot an hour away, the majority of the forecast needs to be 20% cloud cover or better — there’s nothing as disappointing as planning a night of stargazing only to arrive at your location and finding out that you can’t see any stars.

The second forecast important to us is Darkness. Darkness measures how “light” it is outside at our location due to the moon or setting/rising sun. Obviously if we are trying to see faint night time objects, it’s better for complete darkness, so I always try to go stargazing during a time when the forecast is dark blue. This doesn’t mean we can’t go star gazing on a night when there is almost a full moon — we just need to go out when the moon still hasn’t risen so the sky is dark (or plan to observe the moon!).

The remaining forecasts of transparency, seeing, humidity, etc… are useful when going out stargazing with a telescope. Feel free to familiarize yourself with these additional forecasts but be aware that they will only affect your stargazing night out if you are bringing a telescope (which you shouldn’t the first few times you go out).

Look for other nighttime objects

You have your star constellation book, dressed appropriately for the weather, brought some snacks, checked the forecast, and found a location that is dark enough for stargazing — that means time to go right? While you are definitely prepared, there are a few more things that you could do to increase your chances of having an awesome night out.

First, check Heavens Above for any flyovers happening in the area you will be stargazing at. This website tracks when satellites and the international space station will be flying overhead. You can check what’s going to be overhead the night you go out stargazing and hopefully be able to see something cool. Depending on the orientation of the satellite and the sun on the opposite side of the earth some of these objects can get really bright — I once saw the space station and it looked about the size of an outstretched thumb in the night sky and it was as bright as the moon; pretty awesome.

Before going out I also like to check this week’s Sky at a Glance. This is a weekly article that notes any cool things going on in the night sky this week. It’s a great resource to check so you don’t miss out on seeing some planets or meteor showers.

Also, look for local astronomy clubs putting on star parties for the public. Often times astronomy clubs hold public events that allow people to come use their equipment to stargaze as well as to help teach astronomy. These events tend to be free and there is no better way of learning about the night sky. You can learn a lot from books and videos online, but nothing is better than having someone knowledgeable point out actual objects in the sky for you or line up their telescope on some distant nebula that would be hard to find on your own. Additionally, once you are ready to buy a telescope, these clubs’ members are great resources for getting advice about what type of equipment to buy — and often times at the star party you can try out someone else’s equipment before you buy your own.

Now that you have all the information you need, get out tonight and enjoy the night sky (just check the cloud forecast first)!

NOTE: Links to products in this post go through my Amazon affiliate account so if you use my links to buy something, a small percentage of that sale will go towards funding my book buying habit.

Turning Waste into Something New

This week I built an end grain cutting board out of white oak. Renee and I have wanted a cutting board like this for a long time, but could never justify the $150+ price tag for one. I like large wood cutting boards because they feel heavy duty, they don’t slide around when cutting or rolling dough on them, and the end grain allows knives to stay sharp because knives slide in between the end grain fibers instead of cutting across the wood. Plus, they usually look beautiful and can act as a serving platter as well.

Although these benefits make end grain cutting boards attractive, the best part about this board is that it was made from scrap wood waste from another project.

My in-laws live in a beautiful 100+ year old home and are replacing their 100+ year old hardwood stair balusters. Using manufactured wood replacement spindles from a big box store wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the their house, so they decided to get some custom made spindles. Fortunately, their neighbor has a wood lathe and can turn the custom spindles for them, but my in-laws would still need to provide him the wood to do so. Buying milled hardwood is extremely expensive though, so my father-in-law and I decided to mill the lumber ourselves.

We started with three 9 foot x 8 inch x 2 inch rough sawn white oak boards. After cutting, jointing, planning, and ripping, we were left with about 36 milled blanks, 1 3/8” square on all sides and about 32 inches in length that they could be used for turning. About 12 of these blanks had defects though (knots, bug and worm holes, cracks, etc…) and wouldn’t be suitable for turning. Originally we were going to throw these defective blanks into the kindling pile but this felt wasteful since it was still mostly good wood, it just wouldn’t be good for turning on a lathe.

Charcoal is carbonized wood that is produced by smoldering pieces of wood for a long time. Charcoal manufacturers can produce charcoal from large logs of wood but this is wasteful since large pieces of hardwood could be better utilized for the construction of furniture and homes. Instead, charcoal manufactures have developed methods of producing charcoal from wood waste products. One of the first companies to do so was Kingsford Charcoal co-founded by Henry Ford in the 1920s. Ford saw that his automobile manufacturing lines were producing a lot of wood scrap waste. Instead of throwing out the scrap wood, Ford capitalized on it and helped build Kingsford charcoal which transformed all of the waste wood into charcoal briquettes that could be sold to consumers.

Instead of letting that scrap wood go to waste, Ford found a way to make a new product from it.

We were left with about 25 feet of milled white oak that couldn’t be turned on a lathe. We decided that instead of burning this scrap, we could cut the blanks into little cubes and glue them into an end grain cutting board.

After I cut all of long blanks into cubes, Renee designed a nice pattern for the cutting board. I then glued all of the cubes together, jointed, planed, ripped, and sanded until I was left with the finished product, a 12 inch x 18 inch cutting board. Retail value, $200 William Sonoma.

It felt good to be able to make use of these beautiful wood scraps and turn them into something functional. And I’m happy to think that plenty of inviduals and businesses do the same thing: Ford used scrap wood to produce charcoal; breweries sell their spent grains to farmers as animal feed; bakeries use the heat from their ovens to warm up their building’s ambient temperature in the cooler months.

If there’s no way to reduce the waste occurring in your processes, is there some way you can reuse that waste to create something new?

How I Learned to Love the Long and Cold Cleveland Winters

It’s possible to have fun in the cold

Gray and Depressing

I used to hate Cleveland winters — unlike winters on the east coast where you would have snow and sunshine, Cleveland winters are cold, cloudy, and extremely windy. Every year I would feel sad about summer’s end while our region’s brief 3 week stint of fall weather quickly transitioned to winter. During my first few years in Cleveland winters seemed never ending. I could remember being one of those people that would count the days down until spring and then get severely disappointed when the first day of spring resulted in a blizzard. There were some things I liked about winter — having a reason to stay home and wear sweats all day, being in the mood to make and eat hot and hearty meals — but at the end of the season I was always longing for warmer weather. This is not the case anymore.

So what changed? I quickly realized that I was incapable of changing the weather, so the only thing I could do was change my attitude. Basically, I realized that if I was getting depressed by the winter weather, it was my own fault and not that of mother nature. I knew I had to learn to love the winter weather so much that I would be sad to see it go in the spring — and that’s exactly what I did.

Learning to love the winter outdoors

First thing I did was find some activities that I could enjoy doing year round. One such activity was star gazing. The initial excitement of taking my telescope out to some park on a cold and clear night is what got me through my first couple sessions. At that point I realized star gazing is still fun, regardless if there is snow on the ground or if it’s a warm summer night. In fact, I found that I liked star gazing in the winter even more than in the summer because of the objects visible in the northern hemisphere winter sky as well as having better star gazing weather (cold air typically means clearer viewing through a telescope). The first few times I took my telescope out though I learned that I could only last about 15–20 minutes standing still in the frigid winter air. I knew that if I was going to learn to love being outside in the winter I would need to learn to dress warmer.

Dressing warmly isn’t actually as difficult as it sounds. Our mothers used to help us with this when we were young — now I embarrassingly had to relearn how to do it myself. I quickly realized that dressing warmly doesn’t require going out and spending money on expensive mountain climbing jackets or special snow boots. Dressing warmly in the winter is all about non-water absorbing layers. Basically when I started, I just wore a couple polyester shirts, wool and fleece sweaters, and my regular jacket. Add a hat, scarf, gloves, and some hand warmers and I could happily and warmly stand out in the cold winter air for a couple of hours. Over the years I have bought some more specialty clothing to stay warm with less bulk, but you definitely don’t need that when starting out. In either case, moisture wicking layers are the key to staying warm in the cold.

After learning that I could stand still in the cold for hours at a time and feel comfortably warm, I started to investigate what other activities I could do in the winter. I started by thinking of what warm weather activities I liked doing and seeing how I could adapt them to the cold. I discovered that hiking and bird watching are excellent winter activities, so Renee and I started doing those in the winter too. To our great benefit, we discovered that hiking is a better workout when walking through powder and bird watching becomes much easier because there is no foliage in the trees. Two more great activities that we could now enjoy year round.

At this point, I felt like I had learned how to dress appropriately for the cold weather and decided to try even more activities out in the snow. I loved running outside in the summer time but absolutely hated running indoors on a treadmill during the winter. So I tried running outside. The first few times I went I overdressed (but thanks to layering my clothes I could easily shed items off when I got too warm) but I quickly adapted to how to run in cold weather. And I loved it! Running through the park on a snowy day is unbeatable. There are very few people outside, and the people who are generally look happy to be enjoying the cold with you. The air feels fresh and clean, the trees and ground are covered by beautiful snow, and really after the first 5 minutes of running you aren’t cold anymore. Awesome!

Eventually I got back into skiing and tried out some new winter sports too like cross country skiing, snow shoeing, and ice climbing. All of these activities are only available in the winter and now that I’ve tried them out, I look forward to doing them every year. Having to stop enjoying these activities once the warmer weather rolls in is what now makes me think that winter is always ending too soon.

Indoor winter activities become more meaningful

I don’t want to give the wrong impression that now that I’ve found outdoor winter activities that I love doing that I totally ignore what I used to love doing indoors during the colder months. It’s the opposite. I have more appreciation now for staying in at home sometimes, sitting next to the fire, reading books, programming code, and cooking hearty meals. I still enjoy doing all of these activities, but balancing them with outdoor activities makes me enjoy the indoor activities even more.

Spring and summer eventually come

Although many people still think winter has a strong hold, I can see it disappearing. Skiing opportunities are diminishing, there are more rainy/sleety days than snowy ones, and the birds and wildlife are starting to become more visible. Soon it will be time to put away the winter gear in storage, sharpen and wax the skis so they’re ready for next year, and start on spring cleaning. I never thought I would miss winter but now that I’ve found reasons to enjoy the cold I am sad to see the winter weather begin to disappear. And although there are plenty of summer activities that I love as well like camping, hiking, and kayaking, I’ll still be sad to put the skis away until next winter.

When Does Visiting a Website Become Illegal?

library” by Bethany Petrik is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the gray area that exists with web scraping. Web scraping involves programmatically downloading a webpage and parsing the page’s content in order to extract information of interest.

For example, let’s say you are in the market to buy some new headphones and want to do some research. In order to compare the features of different headphones, you might go to and run a search for headphones. Let’s pretend you aren’t interested in filtering out the results by reviews or price — you are interested in purely comparing the features of all headphones so you can make a decision as to which pair you want to purchase.

One option you have is to go through Amazon’s search results for headphones, open up each resulting link, and copy and paste the name, description, and price of each headphone into a spreadsheet. Since Amazon organizes the name, description, and price information in a standard way on their pages, you get pretty fast at copying this information from your browser to the spreadsheet, maybe 10 seconds per page. Eventually you copy enough information from Amazon, do your comparison, and purchase the headphones that best suit your needs.

Nothing wrong with performing those navigate, copy, and paste actions for personal use right? I mean, sure it’s an inefficient way of doing research to determine which pair of headphones to buy, but there’s nothing illegal about it.

But manually scraping all of this information takes a lot of time. However, you and your four coworkers are all interested in buying some headphones so you decide that you can split up the manual scraping work. Assuming all of your coworkers are just as fast as you at copying and pasting information from Amazon into a spreadsheet, you can accomplish the same amount of scraping in 20% of the time. Personally I still think this is clearly on the side of legal.

What happens if you have 1000 friends though? Let’s say you are active on an internet forum for audiophiles and all of the forums users are interested in comparing and finding the best pair of headphones on Amazon. If you split up the work among 1000 friends, you’ll get the scraping task done 1000 times faster than if you were doing it yourself — leaving you with more time to listen and enjoy the headphones instead of doing research. Is this legal to do? I think this is where we start to enter a gray area. After all, you are still performing the same action — navigate, copy, and paste — but now you are coordinating it en masse so it might disrupt the website’s performance.

Okay, let’s say you don’t have a thousand friends and you don’t want to manually scrape all of those headphone pages on Amazon. You are a computer programmer however and realize that you can write a scraping script that does the same thing — downloads the name, description, and price information of each headphone in the search results on Amazon and saves it into a spreadsheet. You write your program so it basically mimics your on screen movement so it still takes 10 seconds to scrape each page, but at least now you can have your program run 24 hours day. You don’t get your final spreadsheet of results any faster since your requests are still taking 10 seconds each, but is this legal? Assuming the site’s terms of service don’t specify anything about scrapers, and you’ve dutifully checked the robots.txt file to see if scraping is allowed, I think you’re ok. Basically you’re doing the same thing as the first scenario, but you are now just automating the task.

A computer is a powerful machine though, and it can run more than one program at a time. In fact, you could probably run 1000 instances of your program with little difficulty, especially if you divide up the work across multiple computers (everyone has multiple personal computers at home, right?). Is this ok to do?

What if you find a better way to write your program so that it just takes 1 second to scrape each headphone page — after all computers should be able to do this type of work faster than humans. Is that ok? What if you take that 1 second/page scraping program and run a thousand instances of it? Is that ok?

What if you write a program that scrapes a page in .1 second, and you run thousands of instances of it, and you accidently degrade service to Amazon’s other customers with your scraping program. Essentially what you’ve accomplished to do with your scraping program is a denial of service (DoS) attack. If you were running multiple instances of your app on all of your personal computers (or even better, on a cloud computing platform where you can get hundreds or thousands of virtual machines to run your code for pennies) and you manage to take down Amazon, you essentially performed a distributed denial of service attack (DDos). In these instances, what you are doing is clearly illegal — you have wrote a script that, although its primary goal is to scrape headphone information, has accidently taken down Amazon. Time to get a lawyer because you are probably going to be sued.

So obviously that last example is extreme and most everyone would agree is illegal for good reasons — you are negatively affecting Amazon’s ability to do business with other customers. What about all of the other scenarios though? Where is the line drawn if you want to collect all of this information legally? Does scraping, either manual or programmed, only become a problem when you start degrading the website’s service to other users? Or is there some other way to identify what is and isn’t an acceptable way to scrape?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. Vendors of screen scraping services try to anonymize their scraping attempts as if they are doing something bad — and obviously they are doing something bad if they are taking down servers with their high volume of requests. What makes writing a program to replace what you can legally do via a manual copy and paste process wrong?

It feels like web scraping, along with other technologies that don’t have clear legal precedents defined yet, includes a lot of gray area that programmers have to consider and operate in.

My 2003 VW Golf: A History and Love Story

My VW just keeps going and going and going, even without regular dusting.

I love my VW Golf. Even though it’s showing its age (2003) and it’s been around the block a few times (216k miles), I have never thought about trading it in for something new. Out of all the cars I have owned through the years, the VW is easily my favorite. To better understand what I love about it, it helps to review a history of all my vehicles to date.

My 1993 Mazda Protege had off-road capabilities.

My first car was a green 1993 Mazda Protege. I believe someone my mother worked with sold it to me for $700. It was an excellent first car. It was beat-up on the outside and simple on the inside, but everything about it was great because — it was my own car! I had a tape adapter to play songs off of my Discman and the car had those awesome seatbelt buckles that would slide around the door frame when you got out of the car; what more could a sixteen year old ask for?

Sadly, I only had the car for a few months before the transmission went out. I remember trying to back out of a parking spot and instead of going in reverse, the car lurched forward into a slight ditch where the car stopped itself on a tree trunk. I somehow managed to rock the car off the tree back into the parking lot where I then began my excruciatingly slow and loud 10-mile drive home in first gear.

Me and my green Civic in front of the Quick Stop (from the movie Clerks) in New Jersey.

My second car was a beautiful green 1997 Honda Civic. I remember I had paid around $3600 for it using money I had saved up from performing magic shows and building websites. It had a manual gearbox and I was excited to learn how to drive stick. My father’s technique for teaching me to drive stick involved stoping on the incline of the hill and then practicing driving forward. Once I got the car moving and proved I wouldn’t stall, he’d have me stop on the hill again and repeat. After a couple hours of going up a single hill over and over again, I felt comfortable enough to be able to drive the Civic on my own.

I really liked this Civic.

I upgraded the stereo (it played mp3 CDs!) and wired up an “ah-wooooo-ga” horn into it. My friends and I would drive around and blast the ridiculous sounding horn in tunnels, by golfers in mid-swing, and anywhere else we thought would be funny. This car was what I drove all through high school so it held lots of memories for me with hanging out with friends after football games and taking it on road trips to go camping and skiing in Vermont.

Getting ready to go camping.

Eventually one summer the radiator started leaking like a sieve. I spent that summer driving around with 2–3 gallons of water in my trunk at all times, so I could refill the radiator when it inevitably ran out of water. I was planning on getting the radiator fixed before winter, but unfortunately an old man slammed into the side of my Civic in broad daylight and my car was totaled. I loved my Civic as much as I love my Golf now and if it didn’t get totaled who knows how long I still would have driven it for. Anyway, I ripped out the stereo and took my insurance money and went and got…

Apparently I never loved my Nissan enough to take an exterior picture of it. This interior shot is all I got.

A champagne-colored 1998 Nissan Altima. I never really wanted this car, but after the Civic was totaled I needed to get something fast so I could get back on the road (the Civic got totaled when I was on summer break a couple weeks before heading off to college in Ohio, so I needed a car). Someone my father worked with was a mechanic on the side and made a hobby of flipping cars. He had just fixed up this Altima and it was a manual transmission, so that met my qualifications and I went ahead and bought it. The Altima was an ok car, but it was nothing like the Civic. It didn’t steer as well, it felt like it was built more cheaply, the gear box didn’t shift as smoothly as the Civic, and I didn’t really like the styling. Plus, someone had done a poor of adding DIY window tint that was bubbling up all over the place, so that didn’t add to the appeal. However, it was a mechanically solid car and I never really had any issues with it. I honestly didn’t drive this car nearly as much as my Civic because I got it when I was going to college. Besides weekend trips to the grocery store, this car mostly sat parked in a garage.

My 2003 VW Golf.

My current car is my beloved candy-white 2003 VW Golf. As I was about to graduate college, my father was in the market for a new car. As a graduation present he offered me his 110k mile VW Golf. I accepted and gave him the Altima to trade-in. I loved this car when my dad drove it around, and I was even more thrilled with it when it was finally mine.

2014’s brutal winter caused my back window to explode when I turned on the rear defroster.

The 2003 VW Golf is a perfect car. You can look at auto review websites and magazines and they will all agree with me. There is something about this car that is magical. In no particular order, here are the things I absolutely love about my car:

  • The shifting is amazingly smooth. Unlike my Nissan where I had to constantly struggle to get the shifter into gear, it’s effortless in the VW.
  • Although it’s not the fastest car (just got the 2.0 “too slow” model, no turbo like the GTI) it is insanely fun to drive. It handles well and being able to bomb through corners makes up for any lack of speed.
  • It looks good. The 2003 is still part of the MkIV revision of the Golf, which I think is the last great looking Golf. Starting with the MkV I think the outside design of the car got too smooth and offers too many curves. I like cars that are boxy — they look good and make the car look unique. Every year, cars become more curvy and harder to distinguish from each other. Fortunately with the MkVII VW went back to adding some hard angles, making the Golf look good again.
Fixing some rust and painting the hatch.
  • It looks good on the inside too. Blue and red lights make it feel sleek in the dark. Solid feeling plastic and rubber parts everywhere. The thing that I hate most about new cars, in particular American made cars as well as certain models offered by most manufacturers, is how cheap and flimsy interior components feel. The inside of my Golf feels solid and I love that.
  • Lots of cargo space. I have the 2-door model, and this thing can haul anything. It helped me move about 5 times when switching college dorms and apartments. It can haul most things back I buy from the store. The seats fold flat and I’ve fit mini fridges, snow blowers, lawn mowers, 8ft 2×4 lumber and a lot else into this well designed space.
  • German attention to detail. My cup holders are spring-loaded and awesome. When folding the back seats flat, there are built in spots to hold the headrests. The trunk cover is solid and works well. There are so many small things in this car that could have been an afterthought but instead were given a lot of attention by the designers which makes it a pleasure to drive in this car.
Disassembling the dash to install a USB port and an audio jack.

In addition to the features I love about this car, this was the first car that I really learned to work on myself. Although there are plenty of things that I hate about working on this car (special torx screw and triple square bits, lug bolts instead of nuts, rust under the rear window which I can never get to go away), overall this car has been pretty easy to service. There are a number of great forums online that offer help and knowledge about fixing VWs, being my favorite, the likes of which have helped me gone from knowing nothing about repairing cars to being able to:

-Change oil and filters

-Rotate tires

-Replace wheel bearings

-Replace brake pads and rotors

-Disassemble and clean the starter motor

-Replace the headlight assemblies

-Clean up rust and paint

-Replace the struts

-Replace the clutch

-Add an in-dash powered USB and stereo line-in jack

Overall, I really love this car. I love it so much that I don’t want to trade it in to get a new one. Even if it’s old, it is an awesome car and I want to drive it for as long as possible. With 13 years of age and 216k miles, it still is solid and drives great. Hopefully it lasts me a while and that when I finally do need to get a new car, I will be able to find one that is just as awesome as my Golf.

Book Notes: The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business — by Josh Kaufman

The Personal MBA Master the Art of Business by Josh Kaufman

I highlight and take notes when I read nonfiction books. Once I finish a book, I format and edit my notes so that I can easily remind myself of what I learned without having to reread the book. These notes are not a substitute for reading the book, they only serve as a reminder of key concepts.

The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble. — RALPH WALDO EMERSON

If you put the same amount of time and energy you’d spend completing an MBA into doing good work and improving your skills, you’ll do just as well.

Whoever best describes the problem is the one most likely to solve it. — DAN ROAM, AUTHOR OF THE BACK OF THE NAPKIN

What you need is a latticework of mental models in your head. And, with that system, things gradually fit together in a way that enhances cognition.

Every successful business (1) creates or provides something of value that (2) other people want or need (3) at a price they’re willing to pay, in a way that (4) satisfies the purchaser’s needs and expectations and (5) provides the business sufficient revenue to make it worthwhile for the owners to continue operation.

At the core, every business is a collection of processes that can be reliably repeated to produce a particular result. By understanding the essentials of how complex systems work, it’s possible to find ways to improve existing systems, whether you’re dealing with a marketing campaign or an automotive assembly line.

There is a difference between (A) what an MBA does to help you prove your abilities to others and (B) what getting an MBA actually does to improve your abilities. They are two different things. — SCOTT BERKUN, AUTHOR OF MAKING THINGS HAPPEN AND THE MYTHS OF INNOVATION

College: two hundred people reading the same book. An obvious mistake. Two hundred people can read two hundred books. — JOHN CAGE, SELF-TAUGHT WRITER AND COMPOSER

3 problems about MBA programs:

  1. Often times not worth the cost.
  2. Too much theory, not enough real world problems.
  3. MBA programs don’t guarantee high paying jobs.

Business schools don’t create successful people. They simply accept them, then take credit for their success.

Business school is a big risk. Should you choose to enroll, the only certainty is that you will shell out about $125,000. Such a figure correlates to a $1,500/month non-deductible loan repayment and a ten-year period of time in which you will not be able to save a red cent.

According to Pfeffer and Fong’s study, it doesn’t matter if you graduate at the top of your class with a perfect 4.0 or at the bottom with a barely passing grade — getting an MBA has zero correlation with long-term career success. None.

The quickest and easiest way to screw up your life is to take on too much debt.

Financial stress can destroy relationships, threaten your health, and jeopardize your sanity.

When you first start to study a field, it seems like you have to memorize a zillion things. You don’t. What you need is to identify the core principles — generally three to twelve of them — that govern the field. The million things you thought you had to memorize are simply various combinations of the core principles. — JOHN T. REED, REAL ESTATE INVESTMENT EXPERT AND AUTHOR OF SUCCEEDING

Your job as a businessperson is to identify things that people don’t have enough of, then find a way to provide them.

Some businesses thrive by providing a little value to many, and others focus on providing a lot of value to only a few people.

So often people are working hard at the wrong thing. Working on the right thing is probably more important than working hard. — CATERINA FAKE, FOUNDER OF FLICKR.COM AND HUNCH.COM

10 ways to evaluate a potential market for a new business. Rate on scale of 0–10. Sum of 75+ is potential for an idea.

  1. Urgency
  2. Market size
  3. Pricing potential
  4. Cost of customer acquisition
  5. Cost of value delivery
  6. Uniqueness of Offer
  7. Speed to market
  8. Up-front investment
  9. Upsell potential
  10. Evergreen potential

The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time. — HENRY FORD, FOUNDER OF THE FORD MOTOR COMPANY AND ASSEMBLY-LINE PIONEER

When any two markets are equally attractive in other respects, you’re better off choosing to enter the one with competition. Here’s why: it means you know from the start there’s a market of paying customers for this idea, eliminating your biggest risk.

Some ideas don’t have enough of a market behind them to support a business, and that’s perfectly okay. That doesn’t mean you should ignore them: side projects can help you expand your knowledge, improve your skills, and experiment with new methods and techniques.

Don’t be shy about showing potential customers your work in progress.

Nobody — no matter how smart or talented they are — gets it right the first time.

Pick three key attributes or features, get those things very, very right, and then forget about everything else… By focusing on only a few core features in the first version, you are forced to find the true essence and value of the product. — PAUL BUCHHEIT, CREATOR OF GMAIL AND GOOGLE ADSENSE

Any engineer that doesn’t need to wash his hands at least three times a day is a failure. — SHOICHIRO TOYODA, FORMER CHAIRMAN OF THE TOYOTA MOTOR CORPORATION

People don’t buy quarter-inch drills; they buy quarter-inch holes. — THEODORE LEVITT, ECONOMIST AND FORMER PROFESSOR AT HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL

Most drivers don’t buy expensive off-road-capable vehicles because they actually drive off the road. They buy them because off-road capability makes them feel adventurous and bold, capable of meeting any driving challenge.

Believe it or not, it’s often wise to turn away paying customers. Not every customer is a good customer: customers who require more time, energy, attention, or risk than they’re worth to your bottom line aren’t worth attracting in the first place.

Your job as a marketer isn’t to convince people to want what you’re offering: it’s to help your prospects convince themselves that what you’re offering will help them get what they really want.

Raising your prices can increase demand by appealing to a more attractive type of customer.

The best salespeople are the ones who can listen intently for the things the customer really wants.

If you discover why, how, and how much your offer will benefit the customer, you’ll be able to explain that value in terms they’ll understand and appreciate. Understanding the value you can provide your customers is the golden path to a profitable sale.

Present yourself to the prospect as an “assistant buyer.” Your job is not to sell the prospect a bill of goods: it’s to help them make an informed decision about what’s best for them.

Accepting this small offer creates a psychological need to Reciprocate, subtly stacking the deck in the salesman’s favor. Prospective car buyers who accepted this free offer were far more likely to purchase a vehicle, add optional accessories, and agree to less attractive financing terms. As a result, these customers spent thousands of dollars more than the people who did not accept anything from the salesman while negotiating. That doesn’t make rational sense, because the coffee or cookies cost the dealer very little, but Reciprocation makes it more likely that the buyer will “pay back” the favor with a much larger concession.

Colloquially, this approach is sometimes called the “take the puppy home” strategy. If you visit a pet store and meet an adorable puppy, but you’re not sure whether or not you’re ready to commit, the pet store will tell you to take the puppy home on a trial basis. “If it doesn’t work out,” the salesman says, “you can always bring it back.”

Do whatever you can do to provide something that unexpectedly delights your customers.

Finance is the art and science of watching the money flowing into and out of a business, then deciding how to allocate it and determining whether or not what you’re doing is producing the results you want.

Accounting is the process of ensuring the data you use to make financial decisions is as complete and accurate as possible.

The Cash Flow Statement is straightforward: it’s an examination of a company’s bank account over a certain period of time.

The Income Statement contains an estimate of the business’s Profit over a certain period of time, once revenue is matched with the related expenses.

A Balance Sheet is a snapshot of what a business owns and what it owes at a particular moment in time. You can think of it as an estimate of the company’s net worth at the time the Balance Sheet was created.

Believe it or not, there are only four ways to increase your business’s revenue: Increase the number of customers you serve. Increase the average size of each Transaction by selling more. Increase the frequency of transactions per customer. Raise your prices.

If you want to do good work, taking care of yourself isn’t optional. Nutrition, exercise, and rest are the inputs your body converts into productive energy. Poor (or too little) input inevitably reduces the quantity and quality of your output.

People respond twice as strongly to potential loss as they do to the opportunity of an equivalent gain. Eliminate this perception of risk by offering a money-back guarantee or similar Risk Reversal offer, and people will feel the decision is less risky, resulting in more sales.

Great management is boring — and often unrewarding. The hallmark of an effective manager is anticipating likely issues and resolving them in advance, before they become an issue.

Some of the best managers in the world look like they’re not doing much, but everything gets done on time and under budget.

The problem is, no one sees all of the bad things that the great manager prevents. Less skilled managers are actually more likely to be rewarded, since everyone can see them “making things happen” and “moving heaven and earth” to resolve issues — issues they may have created themselves via poor management.

Limit scarcity by:

  1. Limited Quantities
  2. Price Increases
  3. Price Decreases
  4. Deadlines

It’s perfectly okay to change your Goals. Sometimes we think we want something, only to find out later that we don’t want it so much anymore. Don’t feel bad about that — it’s called learning.

The more people know your capabilities and respect the Reputation you’ve built, the more Power you will have.

Comparative Advantage also explains why diverse teams consistently outperform homogenous teams. Having a wide variety of team members with different skills and backgrounds is a major asset: it increases the probability that one of your teammates will know what to do in any given circumstance. If every team member has the same skills and the same background, it’s far more likely the team will get stuck or make a preventable error.

There’s a reason high-performing surgical teams, military units, and sports teams tend to be small and focused: too much time spent in communication and coordination can kill a team’s effectiveness.

Everyone has a fundamental need to feel Important. The more Important you make them feel, the more they’ll value their relationship with you.

People will be more receptive to any request if you give them a reason why. Any reason will do.

The most effective testimonials tend to follow this format: “I was interested in this offer, but skeptical. I decided to purchase anyway, and I’m very pleased with the end result.”

Dale Carnegie recommends “Giving others a great reputation to live up to.” He was a wise man — raise your expectations of others, and they’ll naturally do their best to satisfy those expectations.

Here’s the golden rule of hiring: the best predictor of future behavior is past performance.

Checking references at this point is a good use of time. Question should be simple: Would they work with the candidate again? If they hesitate or talk around the question, it’s a no. If you can’t reach a reference when you call, leave a message and ask them to contact you if the candidate is extraordinary. If they are, you’ll receive a return call. If they aren’t, you won’t.

Finally, give promising candidates a short-turnaround project or scenario to see how they think, work, and communicate firsthand. Small projects tend to work best for skilled technical employees, while scenarios work best for candidates who will be responsible for product creation, marketing, sales, business development, finance, and management roles. The outcome of the assignment should be a deliverable of some kind: a report, a pitch, an asset, or a process.

If you want to build a system that works, the best approach is to build a simple system that meets the Environment’s current selection tests first, then improve it over time. Over time, you’ll build a complex system that works.

The more tightly coupled the processes in a system are, the more likely failures or delays will affect other parts of the system.

Self-education, whether it’s about business or anything else, is a never-ending process.

NOTE: Links to products in this post go through my Amazon affiliate account so if you use my links to buy something, a small percentage of that sale will go towards funding my book buying habit.

Pallet Wood Picture Frame

Last month one of my photos was selected for the biennial employee art competition at my work. As excited as I was to have my photo selected for the show, I quickly came to the realization that I would need to frame the photo. I found this irritating, because on one hand I was proud of my work and wanted to frame it as nice as possible, but on the other hand I know that quality frames are expensive and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a frame that I wouldn’t get to keep!

I tried to think of how I could elegantly, but frugally, frame the photo and then I got a brilliant idea — pallet wood! I know pallet wood typically is weathered, cracked, full of rusty nails, and generally not something that is seen framing artwork in a gallery, however I think based on my description of the photo for the show it would be the perfect material:

Once home to amusement park rides, summer cottages, and miles of sandy beaches, Pleasure Beach became a ghost town in 1996 after a fire destroyed the wooden bridge connecting it to the southern Connecticut mainland. I began exploring the remains of Pleasure Beach ten years after the Coast Guard evacuated its residents. Bicycles with flat tires, cars sitting idle in garages, and houses with storm battered screen doors opening and closing with each gust of wind give the area a horror movie feel. In addition to the dilapidated cottages, there are larger structures in disrepair such as the Polka Dot Playhouse. Sitting in the theater’s main hall it is easy to picture a sold-out crowd watching a performance on stage — a dream that is quickly broken by way of pigeons flying overhead. Instead of a lively auditorium filled with theatergoers and a spotlight following actors across the stage, all that remains of the Playhouse today are moldy seats and sunlight shining down from the holes in the ceiling.

Decrepit old building shown in a deteriorated wooden frame, perfect!

I had never built a picture frame before, but I figured it’s just four pieces of wood and some glue, it couldn’t take more than a few hours to build, right? (hint: I was wrong)

I started my build by searching Craigslist to find someone who was throwing out free raw materials. I found a business getting rid of a whole stack of pallets so I took a drive over to them, picked over what I thought would be suitable, and came home with this:

Next, with a jigsaw and a hammer I took apart the pallet into its individual boards. Free wood! I also removed all nails at this point since I would not want them dulling any of my blades in the subsequent steps.

I wanted to maintain the weathered appearance of the boards as much as possible, but I did need to joint the edges of the boards with my router table so that I could have a flat edge to use when I cut the boards down to the correct width on my table saw. Here are the boards with jointed edges:

Next, I cut rabbets into the edges of the face of each of the boards so that the plexi + photo + mat would have a sill to rest on. Up to this point, everything had gone smoothly. It was only when I started increasing the depth of my rabbets that I realized that all of my boards were not of equal thickness. I thought “No big deal, I’ll just align the face of the frame parts flush and have the thicker parts of the boards show in the back”. This is where I should have planed everything down to the same thickness, but I went ahead anyway…

In my last post I built a 45-degree table saw miter sled. I used this sled to cut the angles on the frame corners and it worked great. After all of the pieces were cut, it was time to glue. I bought a fancy belt clamp that was supposed to make gluing frames a snap, however due to the varying wood thicknesses, the pressure of the belt on the frame was uneven and I couldn’t use it. I chalked that up as a loss for this project and I’ll just have to use it on the next frame I build where I will have equally thick boards.

I ended up building a basic jig with squared piece of board screwed into a piece of plywood. This gave me a 90-degree angle that I could clamp my corner pieces against for a perfect fit. The varying wood thickness still affected me here though, since I needed to shim one of the clamps to ensure that the face of the frame would lay flat. Take a shortcut early on, pay for it multiple times down the road.

Eventually I got all four corners of the frame glued, and the frame was done! Renee was gracious to model the finished frame for me.

All that was left to do after this was insert the plexi + photo + mat, screw on a 1/4″ piece of plywood to the back to hold everything in place, and install some photo wire.

Originally published at on December 1, 2014.

Photo Frame Miter Sled

Recently I won a photo competition (more on this in a future post) and needed to have my print framed so that it can be displayed. While I was very excited to have my submission chosen as a winner, I was not looking forward to having to pay to frame my 16″x20″ print.

After discovering that buying a decent frame at the store would easily cost $100+, I figured “hey, I have a table saw and some woodworking experience, why don’t I just make my own photo frame?”

And with that thought, I started to think about how I would build the frame. I decided that the hardest part of the build would be cutting precise 45-degree angle cuts for the corners of the frame. Fortunately, Steve Ramsey’s miter sled how-to video saved the day. In one afternoon I was able to build the sled shown above, and now I can get perfect corner cuts like in the test frame shown below.

Now to just build the actual photo frame. Stay tuned.

Originally published at on November 14, 2014.

Recycling a Thrown Out Mirror

Renee and I are constantly on the lookout for items that we can hang on the walls of our apartment to make them look less empty. We have no problem finding things we like, it’s just that when we check the price tags we end up deciding we don’t like those things that much.

As fortune had it, we recently found a nice large mirror that someone was throwing out. The glass was in good shape, but the frame was painted an ugly brownish purple, like the rest of our apartment. Although it wasn’t perfect, the price was right, so we loaded it up and went to work.

At first we had the idea that we would strip the ugly paint off of the wood and then we could just stain it some natural color. Well, fast forward three months, two different types of gel and liquid paint stripper, and lots of gunked up sandpaper and scraping tools, we decided that stripping wasn’t the way to go (side note: I am never stripping paint again. If I absolutely have to recycle some poorly painted wood, I’m either painting over it or getting it chemically dipped somewhere).

Although the above section LOOKS promising, it had paint in the moulding crevices that just would never come out. At that point, I decided that it was time to scrap the frame and build something new. I had some beautiful white oak that we received as part of a wedding gift (yes you read that correctly!) lying around and I thought it would make for a perfect frame.

After ripping the boards and then cutting them to length, I lined everything up to make sure it was going to work.

Next I took the four pieces of framed board and ran them across the table saw to create rabbets that the mirror would sit in.

With rabbets done, I went to work making some loose tenons and mortise holes with the router.

The loose tenons and mortises were dry fitted to make sure everything was snug.

Once I verified that everything was fitting correctly and all of the corners square, I added glue and waited for it to dry.

All that was left to do after that was sand and stain before we could put it up on our mantle.

Originally published at on November 1, 2014.

Adding an Aux In and an USB Charger Into the Dash

For a long time I have compromised with terrible sound quality in my 2003 VW Golf by using an FM transmitter to listen to music and books through my car’s stereo. Not only did the audio sound bad, but I had phone charging and transmitter audio cables hanging around everywhere. I finally decided to clean up this mess and get better audio quality by installing an inline FM modulator.

The biggest part of this project was removing the dash from my car. Fortunately, a great guy on YouTube, BMAC VAGS, has a detailed video on how to remove the dash from an MK4 VW.

With the dash panel on my dining room table, I drilled some holes and installed the iSimple IS32 TranzIt USB Universal Car FM Radio Modulator

After the inputs were installed in the dash, I just reversed the process to put everything back together!

Originally published at on October 25, 2014.