Breaking the Bank for Fun and No Profit
January 17, 2019 2:33 PM | Posted in:

It's been almost eighteen months since we moved into our retirement home, and "we" still have about a dozen boxes in the garage that haven't been unpacked. And by "we" I mean MLB.

The boxes contain items that were in her parents' possession and are difficult to dispose of, for understandable sentimental reasons. Many of those items date back to when she and her sister were very young. The term "antique" doesn't quite apply, but "vintage" certainly does. 

She's now slowly and methodically going through some of those boxes, and is uncovering some interesting stuff: baby clothes, crocheted handwork, recipes, children's books, etc. Among those items was this:

Photo - Piggy bank shaped like a book

Decades before there was such a thing 529 college savings plans, this was apparently the way parents ensured that their children would be financially prepared. It's a piggy (storky?) bank shaped like a book. And this one had contents that made an intriguing jangling sound when shaken.

It was also a very secure.

Photo - Piggy bank lock

Judging by the scratches around the lock, someone had made multiple efforts to abscond with the contents of this mini-safe, but without success. (Or, perhaps, it was just old and scratched up. I prefer the more exciting possibility.)

I have scores of old keys, large and small, without an inkling of what they open, and I was sure that one of them could spring this mechanism. As it turns out, I'm a lousy lock picker, because I couldn't budge it. However, there's more than one way to skin a safe:

Photo - Using a Dremel tool to crack open the bank

My trusty Dremel tool made short work of the locked door hinge (after acquiring MLB's permission, of course), and it was with great anticipation that I pried the little door open. What would we find? Real silver dollars? Truly antique coins? Gold doubloons? The key to Jimmy Hoffa's coffin?


Photo - No one's going to college on these contents

Unless that smooth stone is actually an uncut diamond and those safety pins were originally on Noah's ark, MLB's parents apparently weren't too serious about sending their kids to college.

I'll admit to being a little disappointing. But on the upside, any day where you get to use a Dremel tool to break into something is a good day.

Adventures in Light Bulb Changing
January 12, 2019 12:32 PM | Posted in:

How many Aggies does it take to change a light bulb?

Two. One to climb the ladder and one to dial 9-1-1.
OK, let's get something out of the way first. No one had to call 9-1-1, but rest assured that MLB had her dialing finger at the ready.

A bulb in one of the recessed lighting fixtures in our living room burned out over the weekend. No big deal, right? After all, it's only FOURTEEN FEET OFF THE FLOOR. Fortunately, I have one of those extendable light bulb unscrewer thingies and it easily reached and removed the floodlight. Well, it removed most of it.

You may have encountered this situation before. You start unscrewing a light bulb, feel a light snap, and the glass portion of the bulb comes out while the base remains firmly attached to the fixture. This can occur for any number of logical reasons. The bulb may have been screwed in too tightly, or some slight oxidation over time caused it to bond with the fixture, or the universe despises you and seeks every opportunity to demonstrate it.

Rather than attempt to extricate the frozen base immediately, I chose to take a couple of days to strategize. I did mention FOURTEEN FEET, right? Of all the phobias I don't have, acrophobia isn't one of them. I needed time to decide whether living in the dark was really such a bad option.

A couple of days later, I resigned myself to doing what needed to be done, and that didn't include selling the house and buying one with newer light bulbs and lower ceilings. I was fully prepared to bring in the extension ladder and clamber up there to remove the stuck bulb base and put in a new bulb.

But first...why not use the aforementioned light bulb unscrewer thingie's rubberized broken bulb socket remover attachment (it's genius, really; genius!). Granted, it hardly ever works, but when it does, it's magic. So I attached it to the pole -- it vaguely resembles an invasive medical apparatus -- and inserted it in the light fixture. Miraculously, the stuck base began to loosen until it was finally freed and ... came loose and laid trapped inside the fixture.

So, naturally, I began to attempt to fish the bulb base loose with the pole, because I couldn't install a new bulb until it was removed. I eventually succeeded in knocking it out of the fixture, where it fell to the floor, sending tiny shards of glass everywhere. 

At this point, it might be helpful to describe the basic layout of a typical recessed light fixture, in case you've never had the pleasure of inspecting one up close and personal. The fixture consists of two parts, one functional and the other decorative. The functional part attaches to a beam above the ceiling and is what the bulb is screwed into. The decorative part, also known as the trim, consists of the baffle (the smooth backing behind the bulb) and the trim ring (the circular piece that rests flush against the ceiling and covers up the edges of the hole where the fixture is mounted). The trim ring may or may not be permanently attached to the baffle. This is a seemingly trivial detail, but it's actually quite important for this story, because...

As I knocked the loose base of the bulb from the ceiling, the trim ring came down with it, exposing an ugly hole. I might as well have aimed a 12-gauge shotgun at the bulb and fixture.

After all of that effort, I was still going to have to get on the ladder to see if and how I could repair the fixture. I've replaced a recessed fixture baffle before and it's not a huge deal, unless you're FOURTEEN FEET OFF THE FLOOR. Also, I'd have to make the twenty mile round trip to Home Depot to get another baffle.

I put the ladder in place and asked MLB to brace it. I slowly and sweatily crept up the ladder and managed to unhook the baffle and remove it. As I inspected it, a happy realization began to dawn on my nervous mind: the trim ring had not broken off the baffle. It simply slipped over the top of the baffle, meaning that I wouldn't have to install a new one after all. Perhaps the universe didn't hate me after all; perhaps I was just unlikeable.

Installing a baffle is a (theoretically simple) matter of attaching two spring-loaded hooks into microscopically small slits in the side of the fixture, using only harsh vocabulary as a tool, and without the benefit of sight and while FOURTEEN FEET IN THE AIR. But I eventually succeeded, and the installation of a new bulb was an inconsequential afterthought.

I would feel much better about all of this if I didn't know that there are six other similarly-situated bulbs of the same approximate vintage, shining down malevolently at me.

Oh, and did I mention that two of them are SEVENTEEN FEET OFF THE FLOOR?!

Death from above
One of my VIRPs (Very Important Retirement Projects) is digitizing my vinyl LPs. I don't have room in our media cabinet for a turntable and there's no point in storing albums that will never be listened to in their original format, so I'm converting them to AIFF files and importing them to iTunes. They still may not get listened to -- I made some questionable musical decisions back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s -- but at least they'll be accessible.

I've almost finished ripping my collection of about 150 records (I didn't deem all of them worth keeping, and some I had already downloaded in digital format, so the actual number is much less), and I've turned my attention to some albums that my parents owned.

My dad had a fairly extensive collection of classical music. I'm not sure why, as I don't recall that he listened to them very much. It could be that he joined one of those "record of the month" clubs and it took a while to get out of it. I confess that other than some Beethoven symphonies and some Mozart emo synthopop (I kid, I kid...but, who knows? maybe for his time, that's what it was), I'm not keeping any of them. Dvořák's music is boring to me, plus I hate having to copy his name from a Google search in order to get all the weird characters right.

My parents' record collection also included many old gospel albums, including Gospel Music's Top Ten for 1971 and an undated live concert recording by Cynthia Clawson at the First Baptist Church of Conroe, Texas (in which she managed to "Christianize" Paul McCartney's Let It Be). I'll digitize some of these albums and put them in my mom's iTunes collection next time I'm home.

They had a lot of other recordings which I'll charitably refer to as "unique," including one I really want to spotlight here. It's a special release ("PREMIUM RECORD PROMOTIONAL COPY ONLY!") by the Columbia Special Products division of Columbia Records, and it's entitled Famous Football Songs of the Southwest Conference

Album cover Back of album sleeve

You remember the Southwest Conference, right? It existed for 82 years, until 1996 when it morphed into the Big 12 Conference and out of the national span of attention. Insert favorite "SEC SEC SEC" chant here.

Thirteen different universities were members of the SWC at one time or another, although most of us who remember the conference remember the eight "core members": the universities of Arkansas, Baylor, Rice, Southern Methodist, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Christian, and Texas Tech.

The aforementioned record contains the school songs and the fight songs of each of the core eight, as played by each university band. Each band is given a paragraph of glowing praise on the album jacket (feel free to click on the small images above to see embiggened versions that you may or may not be able to read). If you're an alumnus of any of these institutions, you may find the descriptions interesting, either from what they do or don't mention (e.g. the Rice University Band is not described as the MOB, which stands for both "Marching Owl Band" and their gameday behavior on and off the field...or so I've been told), or for the dated information (e.g. the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band -- an outfit with which I have some personal familiarity -- now has more than 300 members).

The record is undated, but it must have been issued prior to 1972, because the University of Houston is not represented and that's the year it joined the SWC.

One last interesting tidbit. The record label carries this mention: "Specially prepared for Humble Oil & Refining Company and your neighborhood Enco dealer." I seem to recall that Enco was a broadcast sponsor for SWC football games; those of you with intact minds and memories should feel free to correct me if I'm mistaken.

So, enough of the chitchat. Here's what you've been waiting for. Here's an 8-second snippet of each university's fight song, brought to you in lovely Fire Ant Lo-Fi. If you can't pick out your alma mater's song, it's probably because your pretentious band director went for a fancy-schmancy cymbals-and-flourish intro longer than eight seconds. 

"Bird Box" and Me: A Cautionary Tale
January 3, 2019 10:41 AM | Posted in: ,

By now, unless you live in a non-wifi-enabled cave or have the good sense not to own a TV or computer, you've heard about Bird Box, the Netflix movie starring an up-and-coming starlet named Sondra Bullard, or something like that.

MLB and I streamed it a couple of days ago and found it to be, in a word, meh. [Ed. That's a highly technical film review term that calls for judicious usage.] The plot (uh, spoilage lies ahead, or, perhaps, spoiled lying) can be summarized thusly: unknown entities that are extremely powerful but can't work doorknobs make you go ice-cream-deprived-level insane unless you wear a blindfold so that you can't see their hideous visages although we're just guessing at that since we never see said visages, and a bad-tempered lady recreates scenes from The River Wild to save her birds. Which are in a box. Which should go without saying.

However, in humanity's desperate quest to validate Darwin, the upshot of all of this is that many of us are now wearing blindfolds, presumably in order to avoid soul-stealing demons, but probably just to keep from watching CNN or Fox. Regardless, Netflix itself has -- at the behest of its legal team of soul-stealing demons -- tweeted a timely and heart-felt call for sanity:

This warning has, of course, yielded its desired results, immediately tripling the number of people who are undertaking the so-called Bird Box Challenge (and, only coincidentally, watching the movie).

You can guess what's coming next, right?

I'm not going to do anything as crazy as driving a car while wearing a blindfold, or juggling chainsaws while wearing a blindfold, or putting on my socks while wearing a blindfold, but what I AM willing to try is blogging while wearing a blindfold.

Here I am at my computer, getting ready to undertake this Important Sociological Experiment:

Me, Bird Boxing

The remainers of  withisposst wilkll be donne blidflolded sthaat yoou ca  can see ithat theefres's wreallhy no dnsdanger in tryihtngng this so go aheed and ghet in yhour carr...

Long Range Planning for Dessert
January 1, 2019 11:39 AM | Posted in:

Well, prospero año nuevo, y'all! If you're up and reading this before noon on the first day of 2019, you need to improve your social life.

Just kidding; your social life is exactly what it needs to be, especially if it includes reading the Gazette. Anyway, my cool cousin Pat, whose typewriter ribbon I'm not fit to change, has challenged me via Facebook to post something on New Year's Day. I think it's highly unfair of her to expect me to actually live up to my stated intention of blogging more regularly in 2019. After all, I said that literally days ago. So, Pat...this one's for you. Be careful what you wish for.

How about those crazy squirrels, huh?

We have a bunch of plants in pots on our back patio, and we're constantly sweeping up after the squirrels who tirelessly dig in them, either burying some treasure, or digging it up, or simply amusing themselves as they sit in the trees watching us sweep. Eh, that's life around a bunch of trees, which is a new experience for us former desert-dwellers.

So, we brought a few of those potted plants into the house when the weather turned cold, to protect the contents from freezing. We were surprised a couple of weeks later to see some unusual new occupants sprouting in one of the pots.

They grew quickly, apparently quite happy with the indoor climate, and within a few more days we could make a definitive identification: they are pecan trees. Exhibit A:

Two little pecan trees growing inside our house

It's pretty obvious that the aforementioned squirrels, doing their Johnny Appleseed impersonations, impregnated this pot with a couple of pecans from our back yard trees, and those pecans have hatched [Ed. You're not a botanist, are you?]

Our first impulse was to pull them up; the other occupant of the pot might not be happy sharing its little condo with strangers. But I got to thinking: what is a pecan tree after all but nature's way of making pecan pie?

Taking the long view of things, my plan is to transplant these pecan kidlings on the bank of the creek that runs behind our house, once the weather warms up, and then let things take their course. If my plan works -- and, really, it's as flawless as all my other ones -- I'll be enjoying a tasty pecan pie on New Year's Day 2025.

Well, assuming the squirrels don't get to the pie seeds first.

[I really need to brush up on my botany.]

Phoning It in at the End of the Year
December 31, 2018 2:39 PM | Posted in:

You know, when I retired mid-year 2017, I thought I have lots of time to blog, and I did. What I overestimated was my commitment to doing so. There are a lot of reasons for this, and none of them are worth discussing now.

I've toyed with the idea of shuttering the Gazette, but I keep coming back to the fact that I really do enjoy the writing aspect, as well as the interaction with those of you who are kind enough to waste spend some of your precious time on these pages. So, heading into what will be the 17th year of the Gazette, I will try to be more faithful in sacrificing pixels to the divine deity of doofus doggerel. [Note: This is NOT a New Years Resolution. It's purely coincidental, timing-wise. Really. Probably. Possibly.]

Anyway, we've made it through a challenging year, and my wish for you is that you and yours enjoy a health, happy, and prosperous 2019. And keep using those Oxford commas!

P.S. Y'all are the best!

It's A Repair Of The Heart
November 29, 2018 11:29 AM | Posted in:

In retrospect, I understand that the problem began last spring.

Since moving to Horseshoe Bay, MLB and I had gotten acclimated to running in the hills that give this part of Texas its name. We weren't fast by any stretch, but we were able to consistently run five miles or so along courses that had elevation gains of about 100' per mile without suffering too much.

That began to change - for me, anyway - in the late spring, as the heat and humidity of this region started to make their appearance. I found myself "hitting the wall" and having to walk up some of the steeper inclines. I chalked it up to the aforementioned weather conditions and was confident that it was just a matter of acclimation (there's that word again). To my chagrin, things didn't improve. 

Along that same time, something else began occurring more frequently. Over the past couple of years, I had occasionally experienced a racing heartbeat. It didn't last long, sometimes only a few seconds but never more than a minute or two, and it was infrequent...maybe once every six months of so. But starting earlier this year, that frequency increased to the point where I experienced it once or twice a week. It still didn't last long, and again I rationalized it away as just another age-related challenge.

I lost that rationalization on the afternoon of Sunday, September 2nd. My heart started racing...and it didn't stop. I laid in bed and felt it pounding. It's a disconcerting thing to be constantly aware of your own heartbeat. According to my watch, my resting heart rate (which, to be honest, has always been high) was in excess of 120 beats per minute. Despite all of this, I exercised my male pigheaded prerogative and never mentioned it to MLB, figuring this too would end and things would return to normal.

They didn't, and on the following Thursday morning, I told her that something was wrong and I needed to see a doctor. We drove into Marble Falls and I checked in at the generic medical clinic. Fortunately, I was the only patient in the waiting room and between that and my description of why I was there, I was almost immediately put in a room. A nurse hooked me up to an EKG machine and within two seconds of starting the test, she gave me a firm diagnosis.

"You have atrial flutter."

I had never heard of atrial flutter, but I soon learned all about it. It's the less serious cousin of atrial fibrillation (a-fib, which we ALL know about thanks to the endless drug ads on TV), and in effect, it's when the upper chambers of the heart lose their rhythm (insert white guy dancing joke here) and leave the lower chambers to do all the work. As the cardiologist later explained, it causes a horsepower loss of around 20%, although I felt like I was working at a lot less than 80% of normal. 

The cardiologist said that I could continue to do whatever I felt like doing, so we continued to run and bicycle. Cycling wasn't too hard on me, but running was an entirely different matter. I often walked as much as I ran, and never did more than 45 minutes of both. I was also continuously tired; if I could read a book for more than ten minutes at a time without dozing off, it was a small victory. Worst of all, I had to cut back significantly on dancing.

The next couple of months were filled with a series of tests to rule out any additional issues: echocardiogram, stress echocardiogram, thyroid scan (an abnormal thyroid can cause cardiac arrhythmia), more EKGs than I can recall. There was also lots of body hair shaving. I was put on the first longterm prescription meds of my life, a blood thinner and a blood pressure regulator. Along the way I picked up a cardiologist, an electrophysiologist (heretofore unheard of in my experience), and a personal care physician (PCP). I also finally realized the importance of an Advanced Directive and Medical Power of Attorney. And, last but by no means least, I experienced firsthand the total chaos and impenetrable arbitrary obfuscation of the medical insurance industry.

The latter merits a quick anecdote. In the process of getting a PCP, MLB and I both had blood tests. Our insurance paid for the blood tests themselves, but denied the cost of drawing the blood. I'd love to hear an explanation for that. (OTOH, it does beg the question of why the lab even separates out those charges.)

Muppet AblationThe end result of all of these tests was that everything about me was normal (insert "oh, yeah; let me tell you a thing or two about yourself" joke here) except for the atrial arrhythmia. Fortunately, atrial flutter is easily cured via a procedure known as radio frequency catheter ablation. That's just a fancy term for "burning to a crisp the nerve pathways that are causing the arrhythmia." They basically run an extension cord through your groin up to the heart, plug it into a wall socket, and flip a switch. After the smoke clears and the sprinklers shut off, you're cured. The procedure is extremely effective and low risk, and I was deemed an ideal candidate, and not just because I had insurance.

I also learned that ablation is extremely common. Almost without exception, people I talked to either undergone the procedure themselves, or knew someone (and often multiple people) who had. And in every case, the procedure had fixed the problem.

So, yesterday I checked into the Austin Heart Hospital around noon, went into the operating room at 2:30 p.m. and was back at home before 9:30 (the hospital is 50 miles from where we live, and we stopped for a quick bite of supper). As I write this, my heartbeat is comfortingly unobtrusive, although the true test will come in a few days when I'm able to return to exercising.

I can't say enough good things about Austin Heart Hospital. Its staff was without exception kind, caring, professional, and efficient. I'm willing to forgive their refusal to bring me a cheeseburger to lift my spirits before the procedure.

The other positive outcome from this experience was the touching outpouring of support from friends and family with whom I had shared my predicament. I'm pretty sure that God doesn't scale His response based on how many prayers are lifted up to Him, but those expressions of love mean the world to me.

In closing, I want to say something to those readers of the male persuasion who, like me, seem genetically predisposed to ignoring the blaring sirens and atomic-powered neon flashing signs that something is wrong. Don't be like me and wait months or even weeks to get it checked out. Some things will get better on their own, but others just don't improve when left untreated. The problem is that you really aren't smart enough to know the difference.

DIY: Installing Soft Close Drawer Adapters
October 10, 2018 2:26 PM | Posted in:

A few weeks ago, we and another couple spent a few days in Santa Fe at a very cool B&B a few blocks away from the downtown plaza. The B&B was a remodel with nicely updated interior features, including soft-closing bathroom and kitchen drawers.

Our almost-20-year-old home in Horseshoe Bay has nice custom cabinetry, but the drawers do not have the soft close feature. Our stay in Santa Fe got us to thinking about how feasible it would be to add that to our existing drawers.

As it turns out, it's a pretty straightforward process, and by "straightforward" I mean "it will take all the tools, time, and swear words in your possession to accomplish." But, it is possible.

A quick search turned up these highly-rated soft close adapters, and I ordered ten of them to test the concept - and my ability to install them (to be honest, probably more the latter than the former).

I immediately ran into a problem challenge. Most of our cabinets are what are referred to as "face frame," meaning that the rails that the drawers glide along are not mounted flush against the cabinet wall; there's a gap between the cabinet wall and the rail, and this can change the way the soft close adapter is mounted. The adapter is mounted via two screws, one at each end. The adapter sits on top of the drawer rail and the front is screwed into the cabinet frame, flush with the drawer rail. But the back end will "float" since it's not flush against the cabinet wall.

The adapter installation instructions say that you don't have to affix the rear of the adapter...but I'm not sure how that might affect the stability or longevity of the mechanism, especially for heavier drawers. So, I took the alternate route of creating a spacer that first attaches to the cabinet wall, and then the rear part of the adapter is fastened to it.

I don't know if this makes for a better installation, but I do know it increased the installation time and effort by a factor of ten. About half of the steps shown below can be eliminated if you decide to attach only the front part of the adapter.

If you read some of the reviews for these adapters, you might run across some people who were able to use a standard size of board, such as a 1"x4", as a shim for all the adapters. This is a great idea IF your cabinets are all of uniform dimensions. Ours, of course, are not. The drawer rails are mounted with gaps varying in width from 1/2" to almost 2", and often the left gap is different from the right gap on the same drawer. (Fortunately, for most drawers, only one adapter is needed.) As a result, I had to create each individual spacer from scratch. Here's how I did it, and how the adapters were then installed.

Step 1 - Measure for the spacer

I went to Home Depot and bought an eight foot length of 2"x2" furring strip. The 2"x2" area is sufficient to permit both the mounting of the spacer against the cabinet wall, and the mounting of the adapter to the spacer. To determine the required spacer width, I simply placed a length of the furring strip flush against the cabinet wall and marked it along the line where the drawer glide rail is affixed.

Marking the width of the soft close adapter rear spacer
Marking the width of the rear spacer

Step 2: Cut the spacer

I used a miter saw to cut the spacer along the marked line. The lettering on the spacer indicates on which side of which drawer it will be mounted.

Cutting the spacer
Cutting the spacer; the numbering helps keep track of which drawer it belongs to.

Step 3:Drill a mounting hole

After cutting the spacer, I drilled a mounting hole using a countersink bit. It's not essential to countersink the mounting screw; I just like the cleanness of a flush screw. However, if you need a little extra screw length, the countersink might provide it. But in any event, since a furring strip is probably not the best quality wood, drilling a pilot hole will prevent splitting when you mount it.

Drilling the countersunk screw hole
Drilling a hole with a countersink bit

Below is the drilled spacer with the wood screw that will be used to mount it to the cabinet wall.

Rear spacer with wood screw
Rear spacer with mounting wood screw

Step 4: Mount the soft close adapter (front)

Below is the adapter that mounts to the cabinet wall. The metal end (shown in the lower left corner of the photo) is the front of the adapter. The two "legs" on the bottom of the adapter sit on top of the drawer rail (see next photo, below).

The soft close mechanism is pretty ingenious. The two gray tabs on top of the adapter are spring loaded. When fully installed, an "actuator" mounted on the side of the drawer pulls the tabs to the front of the adapter and the front tab folds down flush with the adapter body. The action of pulling those tabs back pneumatically loads the small gray tube along the back of the adapter. When the drawer is closed, the actuator engages the rear tab, pushing it back, and the front tab pops back into place. Together, they hold the drawer while the pneumatic tube pulls the drawer shut.

There is a bit of resistance when opening the drawer, as the actuator pulls the adapter tabs back. Some people take issue with this, but it's not enough to cause a problem. It's also possible to lift the drawer off of the tabs when opening it, thereby defeating the soft close action. But as long as the drawer is pulled straight back, this won't (shouldn't?) happen.

Soft close adapter
The soft close adapter

It's hard to discern in this photo, but the rear of the adapter is about a half inch away from the cabinet wall. A spacer placed behind it will address this issue.

Soft close adapter set in place, ready for installation
The adapter is in place for permanent mounting. Note the tab that allows precise spacing from the front of the cabinet.

Step 5: Mount the spacer

The photo below shows the spacer screwed into the cabinet wall, and the rear of the adapter screwed into the spacer. If the rear leg of the adapter is flush with the top of the drawer rail, you've [probably] got it mounted just right. (An exception is discussed below.)

Depending on the width of your drawer, mounting the spacer can be a chore best suited for a professional contortionist. I can't recommend this DeWalt cordless gyroscopic screwdriver strongly enough; it's like having a third hand, and it's probably the tool I reach for most often.

Soft close adapter in place
The adapter has been screwed into place. The spacer was attached to the cabinet wall, then the adapter was affixed to the spacer by a second wood screw.

Step 6: Mount the actuator

A plastic actuator will be mounted flush with the face of the cabinet, and positioned so that the rear of the actuator (shown below) sits just on top of a plastic "bump" on the adapter. It's really important to get this mounting position right. If the actuator is too high, it won't engage the adapter; if it's too low, the drawer will jump noticeably when opening or closing it.

Positioning the soft close actuator
The actuator is positioned on the drawer so that it just touches the "bump" on the front end of the adapter.

The instructions that come with the adapter suggest removing the drawer and placing it on its side to install the actuator. I did that for the first few drawers, but then I realized I could mount the actuator without removing the drawer (and thereby avoid having to empty and refill it). I found that marking the position of the mounting holes with a pencil, then using a spring-loaded center punch to ensure that the screws didn't "walk" made the actuator installation a breeze. (As an aside, if you don't have a spring-loaded center punch, I highly recommend getting one. It is, as my father-in-law used to say, handy as a pocket on a shirt.)

Soft close actuator screwed into place
The actuator screwed into place on the drawer.

I mentioned above that if you mounted the adapter properly, the soft close function would work as advertised. I found that wasn't necessarily the case, as on one drawer I had to put a shim behind the actuator to make it engage the adapter (yay for custom cabinetry). This proved pretty simple, as we happened to have some popsicle sticks that seemed to have been designed with shim capability in mind.

Soft close actuator with spacer shim
For this installation, I had to shim the actuator with a couple of popsicle sticks so that it would engage the adapter.

Not every drawer in our kitchen required a rear spacer. The bigger lower drawers, where we store our pots and pans, are frameless, meaning that they have the glide rails mounted flush with the cabinet walls, so that the adapter can be mounted without a spacer.

Also, most of our drawers required only one adapter. If you have a particularly big or heavy drawer, you can mount adapters on both sides, but even some of our drawers that I predicated would need two are working just fine with one. Try using just one first; you can always add the second one later as needed.

While this whole process was fairly tedious and time-consuming, we're quite happy with the result. The adapters really do work as advertised.

Animated GIF showing drawer soft close action
If the installation goes as planned, here's how the drawer will close.

Learning Spanish to Teach English
August 30, 2018 7:47 PM | Posted in:

¿Hablas español?

Solo un poco. Pero quiero apender más.

MLB and I are volunteering as teachers in an English As A Second Language (ESL) class sponsored by our church. We inherited a class comprised of adult students primarily from Mexico. Since they are all native Spanish speakers, we are trying to improve our fluency in their native language.

There's a great deal of debate about whether ESL teachers should use Spanish (or any non-English language) in class. I won't attempt to debate the pros and cons, but I will say that when you get less than two hours per week with students, you need to be as efficient as possible in communicating concepts, and being able to set the context in their native language has been invaluable. I have yet to find a picture card or a pantomime that accurately depicts the concept of "enough."

In addition, our sometimes-bumbling attempts at Spanish provides two intangible benefits. First, I believe it demonstrates some respect for the students' culture. Second, it gives us as teachers a perspective on just how difficult learning another language can be for adults. And if we aren't afraid to mess up when we attempt Spanish, maybe the students won't fear making mistakes in English.

We've actually been working on our Spanish skills for almost a year, using two different self-paced programs. The first is Duolingo, which bills itself as "the world's most popular language learning platform." Duolingo's "active learners" count seems to support this claim, with almost 22 million English speakers taking Spanish, and 29 million Spanish speakers taking English. In all, Duolingo has about 100 English-to-xxx and xxx-to-English courses. We have downloaded the app to our tablets and phones and do lessons every morning as a part of our normal routine.

The other program we're using is Fluencia, a web-based curriculum focused solely on Spanish. Again, daily lessons in Fluencia are a part of our morning routine.

The two programs share some features. Both offer "starter" lessons for free, but their usefulness is extremely limited. The paid versions of each unlock the full potential of the programs. Both track your progress and provide daily reports via email or notifications. Both programs provide immediate feedback during the lessons about whether you're succeeding. And both allow you to provide your own feedback about the lessons themselves.*

However, the two programs are quite different in their approaches. Duolingo is more self-paced, and arranges its lessons by narrow topic (e.g. Animals, Time, Directions, Adverbs, etc.). You can pick whichever topics appeal to you the most, and each provides a series of lessons of [theoretically] increasing difficulty. Duolingo's emphasis seems to be on building vocabulary. You're on your own to figure out the grammatical rules, unless you want to exit the lessons and use Duolingo's extensive online resources.

Screen capture of Duolingo's lessons
Screen capture of Duolingo's lessons

Fluencia has a structured curriculum that you work through in linear fashion; you can't advance to the next set of lessons until you've mastered (or at least stumbled through, in my case) the previous set. Fluencia's lesson plans are built around social situations (e.g. "Explore household chores and items, celebrity, and gossip"; "Learn words for your first apartment, job interviews, banking...and describing a city"). Fluencia does a much better job of explaining grammatical rules as a part of the lesson, and it also provides lessons on Spanish culture, customs, idioms, geography, etc.

Screen capture of Fluencia's lesson
Screen capture of Fluencia's lesson

Both platforms have their drawbacks. You can download Duolingo lessons to work offline but Fluencia requires a connection to the web. Some of Duolingo's lessons seem excessively simple and repetitive, even at the advanced levels (most people really don't need to see "el hombre" twenty times to remember that it means "the man"). On the other hand, some of Fluencia's lessons are brutally hard, especially the reviews that require absolute mastery of all the lessons included in each level. My aging brain seems incapable of absorbing everything that Fluencia expects, and that gets frustrating.

One of the most puzzling aspects of Duolingo is the way it "punishes" you for not answering questions correctly. Once you miss three questions, you are locked out of the program for 24 hours. This seems like an odd way to encourage learning. The workaround is to upgrade to the paid version, then turn on a special setting that stops that ridiculous approach.

In the end, I can't recommend either program over the other, as they each provide useful tools via their different approaches. Duolingo's strength is building vocabulary; Fluencia's is providing grammatical context. 

Nevertheless, fluency is not coming easily. I feel like I have a pretty good working vocabulary, but grammar is probably still on a first-grade level. I can read Spanish pretty effectively, but speaking anything but the most rudimentary sentences is a struggle. Worst of all, listening to native speakers is completely frustrating, especially with the Latin tendency to speak quickly. (In fairness, our students often tell us that we're speaking too quickly.)

One additional resource I highly recommend is SpanishDict, a translation resource that is reliable and comprehensive. It's done more to help me understand Spanish verb conjugations than either Duolingo or Fluencia. You can access SpanishDict as either a standalone app or via its website.

*I mentioned above that these programs allow students to provide feedback about the lessons. In Duolingo's case, you can report a question for which you believe the provided answer is either wrong or excessively limited (Spanish provides multiple ways to say the same thing, but the program doesn't always recognize that.) I've discovered that this feedback actually works. I've submitted several suggestions and received prompt responses from Duolingo to the effect that they will update their program to accept my suggestions for acceptable answers.

Gazette 'Gramming
August 7, 2018 4:20 PM | Posted in: ,

Alert Gazette readers have no doubt noticed the new icons in the right-hand sidebar of each page.  In an attempt at shameless self-promotion, I've stolen repurposed these social media icons from the interwebz and linked each one to my corresponding account. So, if I'm not posting enough on this site for your taste (in which case you need to seriously reconsider how you're using your spare time), you can check out Twitter (for mostly unoriginal content), Vimeo (for mostly wild animal video content), Facebook (for non-Russian-influenced content, as far as you know), and Instagram (for non-moving visual content).

Really, though, the main reason for this post is to plug the Instagram account. I've had the account since at least 2012 (according to the date on the first photo I uploaded...Instagram doesn't tell you exactly when the account was created), but I ignored it for years. Recently, I've started uploading more images to Instagram, and since I'm getting some pretty positive feedback (Thanks, Sandy! Thanks, Kristi!) about them, I plan to continue doing so.

Partial screen grab of the Gallery index pageBut in the interest of complete transparency, I confess that a lot of what I'm putting on Instagram isn't new. Many of the images that show up there have been on this blog for years, before there was an Instagram, in the Image Gallery (also linked at right). I created that section as sort of a sandbox for experimenting with different photographic and image manipulation techniques. I haven't paid a lot of attention to it, and posting images to Instagram is much easier (especially since I discovered the workaround that lets me do it via Safari or Chrome on my desktop computer).

I still like the Image Gallery concept, because it allows for more flexibility in image description, context, etc. It also isn't as restrictive in terms of image size and format, although Instagram has gotten a little better in that regard. Also, I like not being dependent on a third party for how my content gets displayed.

So, if you see something I've uploaded to Instagram and want to know more about it, you can either ask in the comments section of Instagram, or check the Image Gallery. I might have already provided the answer in the latter section.