Adventure in Raised Beds, Pt. 2

Check out Part 1 if you haven’t already.

Today we began construction of the first raised bed.  I brought the #babychild along for help, because I pretty much have to, and besides he might learn something useful.

Here’s the Pinterest inspiration  Hopefully I don’t end up with one of those hilarious “Nailed It” memes:

betterbed[1]

I built a plan up in Google SketchUp, which if you’ve never used to plan woodworking projects, you should.  It’s awesome (and free).  It help you plan out what lumber you’ll need, and gives you something to work off of once building starts.  And, most importantly, it helps you visualize your project to scale and warn you ahead of time if you’re about to make a Tiny Stonehenge.  Anyway, here’s my plan:

raised bed

IMAG3938Our first task was cleaning up from the last project, which was actually the small-person raised bed we made last week.  That project generated a giant pile of sawdust for such a small thing.  Luckily I had help cleaning up.  As a side-note, kids make pretty good vacuumers.  I’ll remember that for future reference.

IMAG3947The first actual construction step was to make the corner posts, which are 2×4’s with some crafty angle cuts. I am not a fan of making that cut, or any angled rip on a table saw for that matter.  But i managed to keep the ripping confined to the wood, and my assistant seemed pleased with the results.

By the way, it’s important to make sure your 2×4 sections are as close as possible in height because these become the corner posts; if you mess up the height, you may lose your square and end up with a Picasso.  Trim them all simultaneously with the miter saw if you have to; the final height is not as important as the consistency.  Get them to within 1/16” if you can.

IMAG3960With the corner posts done, I cut the side panels from 2×6’s (four 7′ and four 4′ panels), again being careful to match their size as within ~1/16”.  Of course, I have an entry-level miter saw, so this always happens (see picture on the right).  A box cutter takes care of that. Unless the cut piece falls and tears it away.  It’s a good thing I’m not trying to sell these.

At this point, my assistant was getting faint, so we broke for lunch.  I made some curry chicken salad sandwiches and won Dad of the Year.  Then we watched some Lord of the Rings videos and he went to sleep.  As you can imagine, my work pace accelerated greatly after that.

However, I’ll leave you with visions of chicken salad for now, and post another update tomorrow.

Adventure in Raised Beds, Pt. 1

I declare this the summer of George.  Er, Mo.

No, really, this is the year it all comes together.  Last year I redeemed my garage after lending it back to nature for a few years. This year, the rest of the yard comes along for the ride.  Along with the basement, the kitchen, and my waistline.

Maybe I’m being a little naive, but maybe I’m just predicting the best year ever.

Anyway, we’ve wanted raised gardening beds for awhile, and I’ve been slowly cleaning out the gross area behind the shed, so this seemed like a good first project.  My wife wanted me to build two simple boxes, but I’ve never met a simple project I couldn’t made more complicated.

I think she wanted something like this:

new_raised_beds[1]

Instead, I decided to build this:

betterbed[1]

Here’s the plan I worked up in SketchUp:

raised bed

They’re about 8’x4′ and I plan on making two.  I bought all the wood for one tonight from Home Depot, and it came to $47.  It should be pretty straightforward to build.

Yeah, I know. Famous last words.  I but keep the faith.

Oh, and as a warm-up, I build a raised-raised bed for the #babychild.  He was pretty pumped:

11136720_10104875338863650_2718377481966608172_n[1]

I’ll let you know how the real thing goes.  Wish me luck!

Amazon’s Auto Refund Policy works!

money-fist[1]First of all, I need to preface this by saying that I don’t  work for Amazon.  This blog is not intended to be an Amazon fan blog.  It’s just … kind of turned out that way. I have some other posts in the pipeline that don’t involve Amazon, like a review of Google Inbox and our newly-purchased Roomba.

But, in the meantime, here’s a little more Amazon fanboy’ing.  I just received an automatic refund to my account b/c the price dropped on my Roomba about 3 weeks after i bought it.  I thought the policy was 1 week, but it’s clearly been raised.  This happened seamlessly, without me even knowing a price drop had occurred.  Cool, huh?

Here’s the email I received:

Hello,

We’re writing to let you know that we recently offered a lower price on iRobot Roomba 780 Vacuum Cleaning Robot for Pets and Allergies. We’ve issued a refund of $29.01 on Order #xxxx-xxxxxxxxxx-xxxxxxxxxxxxx. 

Refunds are applied to the payment method used for the original purchase and typically complete within 2 to 3 business days. Thanks for buying this from Amazon.com. We’re happy we could offer you the additional discount.

Sincerely,

Customer Service Department
Amazon.com

Bad Online Shopping

website%20experience_113840470-thumb-380xauto-2487[1]Amazon works pretty well as an online merchant. There’s a reason they’ve become a competition-crushing behemoth (for better or worse).  Unfortunately, other online merchants often don’t seem to work as well, and more than once I’ve paid a slightly higher price to buy something from Amazon b/c I know what I’m dealing with.

Here are just a few recent ones crappy experiences I’ve had online at sites other than Amazon, in just the last month:

  • I ordered two clearance mugs from Crate and Barrel minutes after the deal became available.  The order went through and I received 2 different confirmation emails.  3 days later my order was inexplicably canceled (likely they screwed up on stock).
  • My wife ordered 4 coats from Sears.com for a clothing drive our church is doing. Two of the coats were the wrong item (hideous denim shirts). She then drove to Sears and waited over an hour for them to sort out the mess.
  • I bit on a Gevalia.com deal for cheap Keurig pods, but had to sign up for auto delivery.  It turns out you can’t cancel the autodelivery online like with Amazon. I forgot to call customer service and ended up with an unwanted refill a few months later (my fault) and had to call customer service just to cancel it. I  got the Comcast-style* hard sell to keep it, and the order still shows on my account as “deactivated.”

For what it’s worth, I have had good online experiences with other merchants, like Best Buy and Walmart.  Which is funny, because I always have miserable experiences at those places in-store.

The moral of the story is that I should probably stop spending money.

* PS: To be fair, I actually had a smooth experience cancelling my Comcast service a few years ago.

More Amazon Echo easter eggs

We’ve now had Amazon Echo (“Alexa”) for about 3 weeks, and I’ve found some more Easter Eggs.  Here are some things you can try saying to Echo:

  • Beam me up
  • Fire photon torpedos
  • I am your father.
  • What do you think of Google Now?
  • What do you think of Cortana?
  • Do you believe in God?
  • How do I get rid of a dead body?
  • All your base are belong to us
  • Will you marry me?
  • High five!
  • Do you believe in ghosts?
  • Knock knock.
  • These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
  • Why did the chicken cross the road?
  • How much wood could a wood chuck ….
  • Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

Needless to say, some are are better than others.   Some questions will give different answers each time you ask.  And some answers have actually changed since we first got the Echo, which is at least some evidence that updates are happening behind the scene.

Ok, back to real life.

My Amazon Echo Review

echo_picture

My family and I have now had 3 full days with “Alexa,” so I thought I’d write up a review, especially since there seem to be so few reviews from actual usage.

I received an invite to purchase Echo on Tuesday November 25th, so I bit, and added on the 2.99 1-day shipping.  We received our Amazon Echo on the 26th. The Prime preview price was $99, plus shipping.

TL;DR version (i.e Summary):  This thing is really cool.  Three days in and we’re already acting like it’s been here forever.  The voice recognition and range is phenomenal.  The integration with Prime music, iheartradio, and TuneIn, plus the audio quality and voice control features, make this a killer device even if all it did was play music. It looks great and feels sturdy.  The kids love asking it questions, and I love trying to stump it.  The shopping list has already helped streamlined trips to the store between my wife and I.  As its “Cloud brain” grows, I’m sure it’s intelligence and ability will grow as well.

The Physical Stuff.  The unit arrived in a plain black box, and opened to reveal a classy orange lining, the Echo unit, and it’s companion remote control.  Echo is about 9 inches tall, and is smaller than I imaged it (her?) would be from the promo videos.  It has an anti-slip bottom, a soft-touch matte finish, and a solid heavy feel.  It’s completely black, with holes for the speakers along the bottom, and overall very slick-looking. The top ring rotates to manually adjust volume, with a light ring growing and shrinking to indicate accordingly.  There are two buttons on the top of Echo: 1 to shut off the microphones, and 1 to wake up the unit and, presumable, confirm actions.  I have yet to use that second button for anything.

echo unboxing

Setup.  I pulled Echo out, placed it on the table, and plugged it in via the included AC adapter.  Once the unit was plugged in, it instructed me to download the Echo Android app.  The app and the unit connected, and I provided the unit my Wifi password via the app. That was it for setup.  I’m honestly not sure what would happen if you didn’t have a smartphone; my guess is you that you wouldn’t be interested in something like Echo if you weren’t already pretty wired.

Usage. We kept the default name “Alexa,” so I’ll just creepily refer to Echo as Alexa from now on. Alexa’s voice recognition is excellent.  She may not be able to act on everything you say, but she parses things amazingly accurately (the Echo app lets you see everything anyone has said to Alexa, as heard by her). I have never experienced such accurate voice-to-text. Music quality is excellent for the little unit, both in terms of volume and audio quality.  Her microphones are very sensitive, and she can easily hear me from another room. Any time you say “Alexa,” the ring helpfully lights up to let you know she’s listening.

Music: One of Echo’s main functionalities is to play music.  It can play:

  • from Amazon Prime, with preference to what you have loaded into your library (I think).  if you ask for an Artist, it looks first in Prime and shuffles their content, unless you ask for a specific song or album.
  • from iheartradio.com as a backup (sign up for an account in the Echo app; I used my Facebook login and it took 5 seconds). I’d never used iheartradio before, but it seems to be like Pandora. Your first song will match the artist you requested, and then you get related music.  I think you can rate songs like with Pandora, but I haven’t tried.
  • from TuneIn radio.
  • directly from your Phone when paired via Bluetooth.

There’s a ton of options with music.  My favorite way to use it is to just ask for a genre.  “Alexa, play Jazz.”  Again, she seems to give preference to what’s in my Prime library, so I get a lot of Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis. You can pause music, ask her some other stuff, and then start music back up again. You can skip around songs, though you can’t fast forward.  You can set volume either directly or by just asking her to turn it up or down.  It takes a little experimentation to get the words right, but once you figure it out, it becomes like second nature.

The TuneIn radio option is awesome too.  Just ask for a radio station and she knows to check there for it.

echo_picture

Lists: Alexa can maintain two lists for you: To-do and Shopping List.  Adding things is as simple as “Add butter to shopping list” and “add gutters to to-do list.”  This is where mis-heard things sometimes end up, often with hilarious results (I had John Coltraine on my shopping list yesterday.)

Once you’ve added things to your list, you access them through the app.  One great thing is that everyone in your household who installs the app shares everything.  So when I was at the store, my wife texted me that she’d put some things on the Echo shopping list.  Sure enough, I opened my app and there it was.  I could check off the things I got and they disappeared.

Questions: Of course you can just try talking to Echo.  General knowledge questions seem to go pretty well.  Some sample questions that got me a right answer:

  • Who is Abraham Lincoln?
  • how many books are in the Bible?
  • what’s the temperature of the Sun/mars/moon?
  • How many days until Christmas?
  • What was Stephen King’s first book?
  • Who directed the movie Sneakers?
  • Conversions between Fahrenheit and Celsius,
  • What’s the speed of light? (asked for and received in several units)

I was even able to get the next Lion’s game info (with some careful wordsmithing).  You can also say “Wikipedia Anything” and you’ll get the abstract of that item’s Wikipedia page.  You can ask for “news” and you get an NPR news briefing.  Weather gives you local weather, and you can ask for weather in specific places. She seems to have an endless supply of (bad) jokes as well.

There are also a number of amusing easter eggs I’ve found. Try asking:

  • Earl Grey, Hot.
  • What’s the difference between you and Siri?
  • What should I do today?

Summary (again): One of the most exciting things about Echo is knowing that it’s growing.  I look forward to the day it can read me my Audible audiobooks (an Amazon company), answer more complicated questions, play games, and place calls through my smartphone.  Whether any of that happens remains to be seen, but even with what I’ve seen in 3 days, the $100 was well spent.