Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Good Parts Last Week

The past week and a half have been chaotic in Boston, with somber moments. But I'm an eternal optimist, and I can never focus on the negative.

Good things happened last week as well. Mostly it was about coming together with friends who share the joy of building things.

The Live Free Or Die Antique Tool Auction was Friday and Saturday in Nashua, NH. I stopped by to pick up some items for Jim Parker, one of my students after taking one of my classes at the New England Home Show, and I was looking for a small rip panel saw to match my small crosscut.

While this is always a fun event, like being a kid in a candy store, what made it really fun was running into people I've met through woodworking. First I ran into my favorite Internet tool dealer, Patrick Leach. Then Stewart, a fellow member of the Guild Of New Hampshire Woodworkers.

Then I saw Herv Peairs and his wife Margy. You may recall they also took my classes at the New England Home Show. Herv had printed out my tool list and was making his way around the dealers at the tailgate sale in the parking lot. I helped him pick out some good deals. I meant to get a picture of him grinning with his new acquisitions, but forgot to.

Then I saw Dwight, one of my private class students from last summer, followed by Roger Meyers, another GNHW and SAPFM member. It was a regular party!

To cap it off, I found exactly the saw to match the one I had. I've been wanting to put together a shorter portable toolbox that wasn't quite so awkward to carry around as my current one.

The saw I already had is an excellent 18" Disston 10 PPI crosscut that I believe is from the late 1800's. The etch is almost illegible, but it clearly has "Disston" centered over the keystone, along with the "Warranted Superior" eagle medallion.

The new one is an 18" 8 PPI crosscut that I'll re-file to rip. The marking on it is just barely legible stamped "Browne 3 Warranted cast steel"; there's no medallion. I found one reference from Pete Taran that says Brown's (mine is clearly BROWNE) was acquired by Disston in the 1860 time frame. As you can see, the handle is virtually identical to the somewhat worn Disston.

Disston top, Browne bottom. The handles are almost perfectly identical from all angles except for the wear on the Disston.

Woodworking is truly a universal endeavor, but sometimes the world is amazingly small. I've known Federico Mena-Quintero for a couple years now on the Sawmill Creek Neanderthal Haven forum. He lives in Veracruz, Mexico.

After I got my new job at Akamai Technologies in Cambridge, he sent me an email telling me he had worked in that very building back before Akamai occupied all the floors! He's one of the cofounders of the GNOME project (if you use Linux, you may be familiar with GNOME and GTK).

Federico was in Cambridge last week for an annual GNOME hackfest held at the One Laptop Per Child office, though it was partially disrupted when Boston was locked down Friday. We met for lunch on Monday and talked about woodworking and programming.

Federico and I enjoy the sun in Cambridge.

Speaking of Akamai, Atin, one of my former colleagues from Redstone/Unisphere/Juniper Networks started there Monday. We worked together on the ERX router; if you go online almost anywhere in the world, you're probably tickling our code. Such a small world!

Finally, what better celebration of life than a new puppy? Sadly, we had to put our 10-year-old German Shepherd Dog, Trudy, down the day after Christmas due to cancer. That was like losing a family member.

This weekend we picked up a partially trained puppy from the same breeder. She's not quite 9 months old, just the sweetest thing! I do appreciate being past the really high-maintenance young puppy stage and it's sleep-interrupted nights.

Gypsy in the car on the way home.

She's ready for bed. That's our chihuahua on the pillow. Note how we've artfully mixed the bed linens.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Moment Of Silence In Boston

Today at 2:50PM I joined a large crowd outside the MIT Stata Center at the corner of Vassar and Main Streets in Cambridge.

We were there to observe a moment of silence for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings exactly one week ago and the subsequent violence last Thursday, the dead and the injured.

This is where MIT Police Officer Sean Collier was killed.

The memorial for Officer Sean Collier. Among the flowers, flags, photos, candles, and hard hats were runners' bib numbers.

These events touched close to home. My wife is an operating room nurse at Brigham and Women's Hospital, where a number of victims were taken Monday, 2 miles from the site of the bombing.

She spent that day as a member of the surgical teams operating on them until the hospital stood down from alert status at 8PM. More teams continued through the night there and at other hospitals.

The Akamai Technologies building where I work is on the adjacent corner around the block from where Officer Collier was shot.

As I walked to Vassar and Main, people were converging from all directions. A long line had already gathered, starting at the makeshift memorial for Officer Collier and running for blocks down Vassar. Many of them were MIT students and staff holding "MIT Strong" signs.

I made it as far down the line as Massachusetts Avenue. Then it was time to stop.

Bells tolled.

When it was over, the police officers manning the intersections thanked the crowd.

It was powerful to see the outpouring of support as we defied the message of terror. Of course it's easy to be defiant when it's not us or our loved ones lying bleeding, but that's the strength of the city and the nation. Those of us who are uninjured care for the fallen and carry on for them.

There will always be the petty disputes among us. That's just human nature. But there will also be strength in the face of adversity. That's also human nature, the best of it.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

History Channel Tourism In Las Vegas

The highlight of our trip: Cat and me backstage at Count's Vamp'd with the Count, Danny Koker, and his buddy Kevin Mack, stars of the History Channel's Counting Cars.

Last week my wife Cat and I took a short vacation in Las Vegas to celebrate her birthday. She's been trying to get me to go for ages, but the gambling-glitz-and-glitter, excess-for-the-sake-of-excess, what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas ouvre just has no attraction for me. Neither do the shows, other than Cirque du Soleil.

What finally got me out there was the History Channel. We're fans of several of the network's shows that take place there. It started with Pawn Stars, then spun off to American Restoration, and most recently Counting Cars, which has become Cat's favorite.

I like Pawn Stars because they really do get all kinds of random interesting stuff in. Rick Harrison is a treasure trove of fascinating trivia, and he brings in local experts to augment his knowledge. And of course I like American Restoration and Counting Cars because they're People Building Stuff.

View of the Aria hotel from our room on the 22nd floor of the Vdara. The hotel was very nice.

We spent the first day in the center city strip where our hotel was located. The masses of people and noise exhaust the senses. Everything's outrageously expensive, though just a couple blocks down the strip things are priced for normal humans. The competition for your attention is relentless. Why I had resisted coming to Vegas for so long.

My kind of vacation is the place we used to have near the Damariscotta River in Maine, where I had a small sailboat, a sea kayak, and a rowboat with an outboard, plus Cat's boat with 225-horse outboard. The Damariscotta drains to open ocean, and there are times during flood tide where the tidal current exactly counteracts the river current, leaving a surface like glass. Each stroke of the paddle carries you 30' in a smooth glide across the water. Pure serenity!

But the strip never was our real destination. Friday afternoon we rented a car and headed out to Hoover Dam for some quieter sight-seeing. The dam is on the Colorado River along the border between Nevada and Arizona. A highway bypass bridge was completed just downstream of it in 2007. Prior to that traffic would actually have to cross the dam after winding down the access road, taking an hour to do what now takes a minute.

The 4 intake towers behind the dam. You can see the visitor traffic along the top of the dam, what used to be the only crossing.

The view back to Lake Mead.

In the distance, the highway bypass bridge.

View from the bridge down the face of the dam to the generation station.

Then we embarked on our tour. Our first stop was the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop in north Vegas, where Pawn Stars is filmed. We had read reviews of tourist visits there, so knew what to expect. It's an unassuming place, nothing fancy, with a quarter of the public space now given over to gift shop for the show. The stars are no longer able to work the shop during normal business. The line outside can get big. We got there late in the day, so it was down to normal chaos.

One of the counter staff was telling someone how they managed the show shooting schedule. They have to close the shop and turn off the overhead music. As the line builds outside, they bring in some people, then shoot a few quick scenes with the stars. A single episode may take a week to shoot in little bits.

It can get hectic. He said Chumlee had come into the store earlier in the day after filming, and they almost had to close the place down. I wonder if these guys can even do normal mundane things any more, like go grocery shopping!

It was fun to see the items we had seen on the various episodes. We gawked and took photos like everyone else.

Inside the store.

Cat puts on her pawn shop 'tude.

Outside as night falls.

Saturday we headed back to the north side to Rick's Restorations, site of American Restoration. Glenn was out front greeting people and directing them to the public areas. He was the perfect ambassador, calm and laid back.

We went on a brief tour inside the shop area. They have sliding doors with windows where you can watch what's going on, though it was quiet that day. Once again, it was fun to see some of the things from the show.

Out front at Rick's Restorations.

Rick Dale, owner of Rick's Restorations, is popular on woodworking forums for his focus on building things with pride and making the old new again. I like to see the restoration processes since I restore old tools for use, like these and these.

From there we headed over to Count's Kustoms, where Counting Cars is filmed. The showroom is filled with big boy toys, cars and motorcycles restored or tricked out.

With the Shelby Mustang Cobra GT350. For our daughter Shelby, who's birthday is April Fool's day. Photo by Shawna at Count's.

Fame is a fickle thing. Every sword cuts both ways. Each of these businesses has had to bring on extra staff and rearrange their space to manage the tourists, increasing the cost of overhead and interfering with their work.

But it's helped create a few new local jobs, and they've added good revenue streams selling merchandise. So while the increased foot traffic hasn't necessarily done much for their primary businesses, the secondary businesses appear to be doing well.

It's worth remembering that these are not manufactured celebrities. These were all established businesses that have been built over years. The pawn shop has been in Vegas for over 20 years, Rick's nearly 30. Count's Kustoms has been operating for 15. They're real people who've worked hard to build something. The shows and resulting fame are a nice payoff for all that effort.

For lunch, we headed over to Count's Vamp'd. This is a rock bar and grill owned by the Count, Danny Koker, star of Counting Cars (he also has a tattoo parlor). Cat had made dinner reservations there back in December, and she was vibrating with excitement to see the place. Danny's band, Zito77, was going to be on stage that night.

Then we headed out to the Clark County Heritage Museum. Administrator Mark Hall-Patton is a frequent expert examining historical items on Pawn Stars.

Cat with the air-raid siren at the Clark County Heritage Museum. Restoring the siren was an episode of American Restoration.

Saturday night, we got our booth at Vamp'd at 9:30. Of course, our bodies were still on Eastern Time, so to us this was dinner after midnight. The food was great while we watched the opening act. I think they dedicate an entire spillway at Hoover Dam just to power the bar's sound system.

Then at local midnight, Zito77 came on stage. Danny is 3 years younger than me, and you can tell we grew up in the same musical era, sharing similar tastes. They played Golden Earring, a bunch of Doors and Led Zeppelin, ending with Aerosmith's Train Kept A Rollin'. I was in 10th grade when I bought that album used from a buddy.

Danny on stage. Livin' the dream, brother!

During the 2-hour set, Danny mentioned that it was also Kevin Mack's birthday weekend. Kevin is Danny's right-hand man. Kevin was up on stage with the tambourine and circulating around the tables. He had actually been the one who had responded to Cat's emails setting up the reservation.

Cat went over to wish him happy birthday, and he came over to talk for a few minutes. He asked if we were staying for the whole show, then said he'd see if we could meet Danny afterward since we'd come all the way from Massachusetts and waited all that time.

So at 2:30AM, Kevin came back to the booth and took us backstage. Danny came up and we all shook hands and started talking about the show. They're both the nicest guys, very down to earth. Ok, yeah, badass with all the tattoos and bikes, but Danny's a happy guy, always a big smile on his face. I'll just note that I don't think I've ever been mistaken for a Bad Ass Dude.

I told him he's got to be the hardest working guy in Vegas, running three businesses and playing music half the night. He appreciated that. I also told him what I really like about American Restoration and Counting Cars is that they're shows about people building things with their hands, with pride and skill and craftsmanship.

I said I could see it was a labor of love, and I was glad he was able to make a living at it. He said he had turned it from a hobby to a business 15 years ago.

Danny and Kevin both couldn't say enough about the History Channel. They said the network has been very supportive getting the show going and letting them do their thing. Now they're even busier with a promotional travel schedule.

I couldn't pass up the opportunity for some shameless self-promotion of my own, so I gave Danny my website card, as one builder to another. I'm not particularly a car guy, but I love to see anything being built, the more so by hand, one piece at a time. Hand-cut dovetails or hand-welded steel frame, it's all cool.

We got photos and I told Danny he'd really made Cat's birthday. Big thanks to Kevin and Danny!

Season 2 of Counting Cars starts next week, and they said episode 1 is really looking great. We have the DVR set.

Easter Sunday we headed out to Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area. I had backpacked through similar territory at Philmont Scout Ranch with my son as a Boy Scout Scoutmaster back in 2005. In addition to a scenic drive and hiking trails, there's lots of fantastic looking rock climbing, single- and multi-pitch routes, though my climbing days are pretty much over.

View 3 miles across the valley at Red Rock Canyon.

See the little white specks in the middle of the rocks? Those are climbers.

A briefly-used quarry area from early 1900's.

One of the amazing things about this area is that distances appear to be nothing in the clear, dry desert air. It's a large flat valley, so the view across is unobstructed. On the highway, you can see downtown Las Vegas and the mountains beyond as you drive past a sign that says downtown is 19 miles away. It completely screws up your sense of perspective.

View back to the red rocks above, 2 and a half miles. The ridge in the right background is the Black Mountain area of the McCullough Range, 30 miles distant.

The other thing that threw me was getting used to the landscape. There's very little vegetation, mostly rock and clayey-looking dirt and sand. So what to my eyes looked like an abandoned lot was actually a city park. I had to reset my esthetics looking around. Outside the suburban area, it gets barren fast.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Arguing About Woodworking More Popular Hobby Than Woodworking

I recently spoke with two researchers from the The National Association of Argumentative People (annual membership $40 or $50, they can't agree on the amount), David Stanley and John Preston, about their statistical analysis of online woodworking resources.

They've concluded that arguing about woodworking is a more popular hobby than actual woodworking. "We ran hundreds of thousands of forum and blog posts and tweets from all over the world through Google Mock for automated analysis, since mocking language has a high correlation to argumentative behavior," said Stanley.

Preston explained they also ran field studies. "We used focus groups of 5-year-olds reading online postings aloud in the schoolyard. The argumentative tones stood out clearly, allowing us to classify the various viewpoints."

This method had some challenges. "We had to terminate the program because it invariably led to shouts of 'Your mother!' and shoving matches, and fisticuffs would ensue."

However, through this combination of analytical and empirical methods they were able to score postings with a 20-variable differential equation to come up with their Argument Rank. The exact algorithm is a closely-guarded secret.

Stanley said, "We wanted to explain that much because the American Association of Argumentative Persons disagrees with our methodology. They feel simple mocking language isn't an appropriate measure, and they prefer middle-school girls as their field readers. But they're idiots."

Preston said, "It really should be 19 variables, not 20. Everybody knows a prime number of terms produces a more reliable standard deviation."

"I'll show you standard deviation!" Stanley said heatedly.

The interview terminated at that point as the two researchers slammed their laptops shut and fisticuffs ensued.

Fortunately they had given me their list of the most popular argument topics for hand tool work, summarized below. Certain common themes start to emerge.

Hand Tools and Power Tools
  • Power tools are cheating.
  • Hand tools are too laborious.
  • Hand tool users are elitist snobs.
  • Using power tools isn't craftsmanship.
  • Power tools are unsafe.
  • The government should/should not mandate power tool safety features.
  • Old-time craftsmen would have dropped their hand tools for power tools in an instant.
  • Old-time craftsmen would never have permitted such abominations in their shops.
  • Only an idiot would do everything with hand tools.
  • Only an idiot would do everything with power tools.
This could form the basis for an entire argumentation society on its own. There are just so many arguments to choose from.
  • Hand sharpening is best/worst.
  • Powered sharpening is best/worst.
  • Oilstones/waterstones/diamond plates/sandpaper are the best/worst for sharpening.
  • Oilstones/waterstones/diamond plates/sandpaper are the fastest/slowest.
  • Oilstones/waterstones/diamond plates/sandpaper produce the best/worst edge.
  • Leather strops should be smooth side/rough side up.
  • Strops are a waste of time.
  • Using a jig is the best way to sharpen.
  • Using a jig is cheating.
  • People make sharpening too complicated.
  • People don't pay enough attention to their sharpening.
  • Polishing the entire back is required/a waste of time.
  • The bevel angle must be accurate to 1/10th degree.
  • The bevel angle can be anywhere within a couple degrees.
  • Edges should be sharpened to one atom thickness.
  • Edges should be sharpened only enough to do the job.
  • A double bevel is best/worst.
  • A micro bevel is best/worst.
  • A convex bevel is best/worst.
  • That's not how I learned to do it.
  • Only an idiot would sharpen that way.
  • Pins first.
  • Tails first.
  • Hand-cut dovetails are better.
  • Machine-cut dovetails are better.
  • Chop the waste with a chisel.
  • Saw out the waste with a coping saw.
  • Use exactly 1-to-6, 1-to-7, or 1-to-8 pitch on the tails.
  • Use any pitch on the tails that looks good.
  • That's not how I learned to do it.
  • Only an idiot would make dovetails that way.
Mortise and tenon
  • The tenon should fit perfectly right off the saw, anything else is cheating.
  • You should saw the tenon a little fat, then pare it down to the line.
  • Drilling mortises is cheating.
  • You can't use that kind of chisel for mortising.
  • That's not how I learned to do it.
  • Only an idiot would make mortise and tenons that way.
  • Bevel down/up planes are best/worst.
  • Metal planes are better than wooden planes.
  • Wooden planes are better than metal planes.
  • Brand x planes are better than brand y planes.
  • Brand x planes are too heavy/too light.
  • A couple planes can handle all jobs.
  • You need a bunch of different planes to handle the different jobs.
  • Lay planes on the their sides, not down on their irons.
  • Lay planes down on their beds, not on their sides with their irons exposed.
  • Set planes bed down on a plane strip with their irons off the bench.
  • O1/A2 irons are best/worst.
  • That's not how I learned to do it.
  • Only an idiot would plane that way.
Bring up any of these online and virtual fisticuffs will ensue. If you exhaust this list, there are plenty more to keep you occupied; it's an extremely long-tailed distribution. You can have a fulfilling hobby without ever touching tool to wood again.

What showed the highest statistical significance? The ever versatile ad hominem argument: "Only an idiot would do that."