Cutting the Cord with the Amazon Recast

Update Aug 2020: A couple quick updates. 1) YouTube TV increased its price to $65 a month. That’s a significant increase. We’re still going with it for now, but that certainly cuts into the cost savings. 2) after dealing with inconsistent TV reception I moved my antenna from the attic to the roof and reception quality has improved. 3) Data cap has not proven to be a problem (especially now that Xfinity has increased it to 1.2TB).

I did it! This month I called AT&T and cancelled my TV and internet. And to be fair the customer representative was very professional and handled my request efficiently and with no drama (a far cry from some Comcast horror stories of the past).

What am I replacing it with? This right here (monthly cost):

Xfinity 100/5 Internet | $55 ($35 for first year)
 Amazon Recast OTA DVR | $ 0
           YouTube TV  | $50
                 Total | $105 ($85 for first year)

The Amazon Recast (plus TV antenna) gets us our local channels for free. We supplement that with YouTube TV (a live streaming service) for cable channels: primarily sports and lifestyle (cooking, HGTV, etc). Of course not much sports on at the moment!

You’ll notice that this cost is not that much different from a traditional cable double play package with discounts and multi-year agreement. But it is cheaper once you loose those discounts. And some of us are tired of playing the bundle/contract/renegotiate game.

I’m ignoring other on-demand streaming services (Netflix, etc) because those typically supplement your cable TV, so they are out of scope of this article.


Your priorities are likely different than ours. For the record, here were our priorities:

  1. Local major networks
  2. Cable sports channels, including home games of local teams
  3. A few lifestyle cable channels like HGTV, Food Network, Discovery, etc.
  4. Avoiding lock-in and long term contracts
  5. Mitigation of the 1TB data cap most home internet services come with

On to the details.

Over The Air with Amazon Recast

Over The Air (OTA) broadcasts give you the major networks for free if you’re within range of broadcast towers. This means you usually get the following:


Plus a pile of other channels that you’re probably a bit less interested in (Hogan’s Heros reruns anyone?).

Now you may be wondering: why bother? Aren’t those channels also available via YouTube TV and other premium live streaming services? A few reasons:

  • It’s free (after initial purchase of equipment)
  • Watching these local channels does not pull video over the internet, so you’re not consuming much bandwidth. That means:
    • You’re not competing for bandwidth with other family members.
    • You’re not consuming bandwidth that goes against your ISP’s data cap.
  • Your DVR is local and under your control
    • Live stream “cloud DVRs” have various limitations wrt capacity, ability to skip commercials, retention policy, etc.
  • You might be able to save money on your live streaming package because you don’t need a package that has local channels. So, for example, you might be satisfied with Philo at $20 a month, instead of a premium live streaming services at $50+ a month.

Of course to get these channels, you must be able to get these channels. Remember when you cared about TV reception? Then blissfully forgot about it? Well, now you care again. And it’s even more challenging since the channels are digital — and they don’t degrade well with weak signals.

Thankfully there are tools to help.

The first step is to go to and check your address to see what channels you get and find the location of broadcast towers.

I live in the San Francisco bay area. According to TV Fool I’m about 35 miles from Sutro tower in San Francisco, and I should be able to receive the channels I want using an indoor antennae (the channels are coded in green). Most of the channels are UHF, but a couple are VHF.

Since I can get my channels from one direction I purchased a directional TV antenna. If you need to receive signals from multiple towers in different locations you’ll need a multi-directional antenna (or multiple directional antennas). If you live close enough to broadcast towers you might be able to use an indoor antenna. For my case I chose to attic mount since I’m a bit away from the tower. So here is what I got:

RCA Outdoor Yagi HD Antenna Model ANT751E

I chose this model because:

  • Reviews are good
  • It receives UHF and VHF
  • It’s compact enough to fit in an attic
  • Reasonably priced
  • Made in USA

I mounted it in the attic (it comes with a mount) and wired it up with high quality quad shielded coax.

Note that the TV Fool reception codes are based on best-case scenarios. Your results will likely be worse. That’s why I went with an attic mount antenna instead of a simple indoor antenna.

Aiming and Improving Signal

From TV Fool I noted my tower azimuth (compass heading). Since I used a real compass I noted the magnetic heading. If you’re using your phone’s compass you’ll want to check its preferences and see if it’s set for true north or magnetic north. Then make sure to use the proper number from TV Fool.

Using the heading I pointed my antenna. Then back downstairs I connected the coax to my TV and did a channel scan (bypassing the Recast for now). This verifies you can receive the stations you want, and some TVs even indicate signal strength.

If you’re desired channels have a weak signal, here are a couple things to try:

  • Double check your antenna’s compass heading. Try nudging it a bit in either direction to see if that improves reception.
  • Make sure you have no splitters between your antenna and your TV
  • Minimize cable length between your antenna and your TV
  • Use high quality coax
  • You can try adding a low gain amplifier, but these are primarily for overcoming signal loose due to splitters and long cable runs.

If you still have trouble with weak signals, you might have to move your antenna outdoors. That’s beyond the scope of this article.

Generally my reception has been good. Although on some days ABC is weak. Don’t know if this is due to weather (stormy days seem to be worse) or if their broadcast power fluctuates. Thankfully in the evenings it is pretty good.

The Amazon Recast

So you’ve got your antenna up and it’s receiving channels. Now time to hook it up to an OTA DVR.

There are a few choices for OTA DVR’s. I chose the Amazon Recast because:

  • We already have Amazon Prime
  • We already have Amazon Fire Sticks
  • It has no monthly subscription (some OTA DVRs require a subscription to get the channel guide)
  • Reviews are fairly positive

What does the Recast do for you? It provides a few things:

  1. An on-screen guide. Just like you get with your cable box. Much, much more convenient than using a typical TVs interface.
  2. A DVR, just like you get with your cable box.
  3. Ability to view content remotely

Setting up the Recast is pretty straightforward. Just follow the instructions. I ran into a few glitches that were solved by rebooting my iPhone that I was running the Amazon TV app on.

To clarify: there are two apps that are used with the Amazon Recast:

  • The Fire TV app running on your phone/tablet: this is used to setup and manage your Recast. It also has limited support for watching channels and recordings off of your Recast. But it is limited. It does not have a channel guide for example.
  • The Fire TV Stick: this what you’ll typically use to watch TV and manage recordings. The Recast features are fully integrated with the Fire Stick’s UI (more on this later).

Once the Recast is setup,  switch to your Fire Stick.

The Recast UI

The Recast is well integrated with the Fire TV UI on the Fire Stick. You’ll see a new DVR tab, plus current channels appear on the home screen. Arrow over to the DVR tab to access the features of the Recast.

A couple tips for navigation:

  • The “hamburger” (or menu) button on the remote is your friend. Since the Fire remote does not have all those dedicated buttons like your cable remote, you’ll need to rely on the context sensitive menu button for short cuts.
  • Set your favorites! If you click the menu button in the channel guide you have the option to mark a channel as a favorite. This moves the channel to the top of the guide, and features it on the home screen. I receive 100+ channels. I only care about 6 or so. Marking favorites is key.
  • Go to Manage Channels to hide channels from the guide. You can also see channel strength there.

Tuners and Transcoders

Based on the reviews and questions, one area of confusion with the Recast is around tuners and transcoders.

  • Tuners: used to tune into a station from your antenna. Depending on model, the Recast has either 2 or 4 tuners.
  • Transcoders: used to stream a channel or recording to your Fire TV Stick. All models of the Recast currently support 2 transcoders.

So in practice, what does this mean? Best illustrated by showing examples. If you have the 4 tuner model, here are some scenarios

| Recording | Watch Live | Watch Recording | In Use
|     0     |      0     |        2        | 0 tuners, 2 transcoders
|     1     |      1     |        1        | 2 tuners, 2 transcoders
|     2     |      1     |        1        | 3 tuners, 2 transcoders
|     2     |      2     |        0        | 4 tuners, 2 transcoders
|     3     |      0     |        2        | 3 tuners, 2 transcoders
|     3     |      1     |        1        | 4 tuners, 2 transcoders
|     4     |      0     |        2        | 4 tuners, 2 transcoders

As you can see the sum of the Recording and Watch Live columns can never be more than 4 (for the 4 tuner model, 2 for the 2 tuner model), and the sum of the Watch columns can never be more than 2 (because of 2 transcoder limit).

Recast Tips

  • Make sure you have a solid WiFi signal for your FireSticks. The number one cause of pausing/buffering issues is weak WiFi.
  • If you can afford it, get the 4K FireStick. Not because it is 4K, but because it has a faster processor. I noticed it is snappier than my older Fire TV Pendant.
  • If you use a 4K FireStick and 4K TV then set your FireStick to display at 720p (it’s under Video Settings). Crazy I know. Read on.

An explanation on that last item. HD broadcast TV is 720p or 1080i (turns out 1080i really isn’t much better than 720p). If you have a 4K TV the 4K FireStick will upscale the video to 4K, and it does not do a very good job of it so the picture looks soft/fuzzy. Instead you want the FireStick to output 720p and let the TV upscale to 4K because it will do a much better job. I was pretty disappointed with picture quality until I made this change. Helped immensely.

Note that this also means any other content your FireStick streams will be no better than 720p. This is either a negative (because you want 4K) or a positive (because you consume less bandwidth).

Recast Glitches

So how has the recast worked for me? Overall pretty well. I like the UI, and it’s been fairly stable — although not quite perfect. Some glitches I’ve hit:

  • Pausing during playback. My impression is that this is primarily caused by WiFi issues, or issues with my router — although we don’t see this with other streaming services. My hunch is that the Recast software assumes a fast stable network connection and is less tolerant of network issues than, say, the Netflix client. Hopefully Amazon improves this.
  • Playback video goes black. Possibly triggered when a recording starts. Fixed by exiting the playback, then resuming. I’m no longer hitting this so it may have been fixed in an update.
  • Audio synch off on live TV. Restart Recast.

Live Streaming

OK, so you’ve got your local channels. You might want to supplement that with “cable channels”. First make a list of your must-haves. For us that’s:

  • NBC Sport Bay Area
  • ESPN family of stations
  • Cable News: CNN, etc
  • Cable Lifestyle: HGTV, Discovery, Food Network, TNT, TBS, etc

Then go shopping. Here are some popular options. Information is as of this writing and almost certainly will change.

  • Sling TV Orange + Blue: $45.  DVR: 10 hours, skip ads. Enhanced DVR: +$5 50 hours
  • Hulu Live TV: $55.  DVR: 50 hours no skip ads. Enhanced DVR: +$10 200 hours, skip ads
  • YouTube TV: $50.  DVR: Expire after 9 months, skip ads
  • Philo TV: $20,  DVR: expire after 30 days, skip ads?

Hulu, YouTube, Philo also offer some amount of on-demand content. Some have additional add-on packages to tailor your channels. Philo has no sports hence the lower price. Some of these don’t have local broadcast networks (but we don’t care, we have OTA).

One channel of note: DIY. If you’re a fan of the DIY network (soon to be Magnolia Network) pay close attention to what’s offered by the streaming service. As of this writing YouTube TV does not have DIY and has no way to add it. Philo has it. Hulu, Sling, FuBo offer it in an add-on package.

Keep in mind these offers constantly change. And keep an eye out for limitations with the service’s Cloud DVR. And finally, check how easy it is to suspend or cancel your subscription.

YouTube TV

In the end we choose YouTube TV because it has most of what we want with decent reviews. It also has a nice feature where you can pause your account if you’re not going to use it for a while. And it’s easy to cancel. The UI is OK, but still getting use to it.

In fact so far that has been the biggest negative with this setup — inconsistent UIs. When watching our local channels via the Recast you get one experience. Jump into YouTube TV it’s another experience. But that’s the way it’s going to be with multiple streaming services.


Overall we’re pleased. We do get occasional reception problems that I’m trying figure out. I think it is related to weather (stormy days seem to have worse reception). And I might need to move the antenna to the roof. But overall I feel liberated!


The Mai Tai

I recently dined at the Trader Vic’s in Emeryville, CA with the family. Very nice dinner, but you don’t go there for the food. You go there for the ambiance and the Mai Tais. On the way out I picked up a couple Mai Tai glasses from their display case — determined to make the famous cocktail at home.

And so I did.

What follows is the original Trader Vic’s Mai Tai recipe — slightly updated with modern ingredients. Following that is a modified recipe using ingredients you might already have in your liquor cabinet.

Both are terrific. The first is spectacular.

Trader Vic’s Mai Tai

  • 1 oz dark rum (like Myers)
  • 1 oz light rum (like Bacardi Silver)
  • 1/2 oz orange curacao
  • 1/4 oz simple syrup
  • 1/2 oz orgeat (almond) syrup
  • Juice of a lime (about 1oz)
  • Mint sprig or lime slice for garnish
  • Optional: 1 oz pineapple juice — not authenticate, but the ladies like it!

Shake ingredients and pour over crushed (or not-crushed) ice. Garnish.

You can find orange curacao and orgeat/almond syrup at Total Wine and More (and probably BevMo).

Common Mai Tai

If you don’t want to stock orange curacao and orgeat syrup just so you can make Mai Tais, then consider this recipe that replaces them with triple sec and Amaretto. Not quit as good as the original, but still pretty darn tasty!

  • 1 oz dark rum (like Myers)
  • 1 oz light rum (like Bacardi Silver)
  • 1/2 oz triple sec
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup
  • 1/2 oz Amaretto
  • Juice of a lime (about 1oz)
  • Lime slice for garnish
  • Optional: 1 oz pineapple juice

Shake ingredients and pour over crushed (or not-crushed) ice. Garnish.


Apple iCloud: Photo Library vs My Photo Stream vs Photo Sharing

When photo management consisted of taking pictures on your digital camera and uploading them to your Mac for use with iPhoto, things were pretty simple. But then along came iPhones and iPads and Apple’s cloud services. I recall getting confused as to how in the heck Apple’s cloud solutions worked for photos, and to make matters more confusing they were a moving target as they evolved over iOS releases.

Things seem to have stabilized now. So here is an overview of what you need to know.

In iOS 11 when you go into iCloud settings (Settings->Your Name->iCloud) you’ll see three sharing choices under Photos:

  1. iCloud Photo Library: Automatically upload and store your entire library in iCloud to access photos and videos from all your devices.
  2. My Photo Stream: Automatically upload new photos and send them to all of your iCloud devices when connected to Wi-Fi
  3. iCloud Photo Sharing: Create albums to share with other people, or subscribe to other people’s shared albums.

OK — those descriptions help, but how do these impact my iCloud storage capacity? What are the limitations? How are they used in practice? Why wouldn’t I just turn them all on?

iCloud Storage

As of this writing you get 5GB of free iCloud storage when you create your iCloud account. That’s enough for backing up your phone, and storing your contacts, calendars and some documents. But it isn’t enough for any significant number of photos and videos. You can bump that storage to 50GB for $0.99 a month. That is large enough for modest photo libraries. Apple, of course, is happy to sell you more capacity.

So how do the above plans use iCloud storage?

  1. iCloud Photo Library: uses iCloud Storage
  2. My Photo Stream: does NOT use iCloud Storage
  3. iCloud Photo Sharing: does NOT use iCloud Storage

So only iCloud Photo Library will consume your iCloud Storage. Great! Of course that means there must be some limitations to Photo Stream and Photo Sharing.

So, what do each of these plans provide?

Summary of Features and Limitations

Uses Storage  Limitations  Best For
Photo Library Yes Your storage quota Access to all your photos everywhere and a safe backup of all your photos.
Photo Stream No 1,000 photos or 30 days. There are additional upload limits Easy access to recent photos on all devices
Photo Sharing No 5,000 photos. There are additional sharing limits Sharing photos with friends



If you want to have access to all of your photos everywhere and want to have a safe backup of your photos then enable iCloud Photo Library. But be aware that this will use your iCloud Storage, and you will likely need to purchase additional storage.

If you just want easy access to your recent photos on all your devices then turn on My Photo Stream. It costs nothing. But keep in mind this does not ensure all your photos are backed up. You might have some duplicate copies (for example your iMac might have some stored locally) but that is not guaranteed.

If you want to share photos with friends then enable iCloud Photo Sharing. It costs nothing and lets you share photos with other Apple device users. There is even a way to share through a web site. Note that these shared photos are essentially backed up onto Apple’s servers. So you can consider creating a shared folder just to store your important photos (if you don’t enable Photo Library).


These are all tech articles from Apple:

Approval Voting: How to Fix the United States Broken Voting System

The problem with our presidential election system is not the electoral college. It’s more fundamental than that. Our current system uses Plurality Voting (PV) where you cast one vote for one candidate. It’s because of PV that we end up with outlier candidates winning primaries and third party candidates playing spoiler in general elections. PV usually results in selecting the candidate with the largest minority approval, instead of the candidate with the most overall support.

The solution is Approval Voting (AV). With AV you vote for all candidates that you approve of. While this might seem radical at first it is actually very simple and already supported by our voting infrastructure. With AV republicans in the primary that wanted “anybody but Trump” could have voted for everybody but Trump. With AV you can express your protest vote, but then also vote for the mainstream candidate you find most acceptable. With AV third party candidates get more accurate feedback as to their support, since voters are not forced with the dilemma of throwing their vote away to show support for a third party candidate.

A move to Approval Voting is not only much more practical than reforming the electoral college, it also results in much greater benefit to our voting system. We now have an opportunity for voter reform. If you want to learn more about Approval Voting check out If after that you are interested in seeing Approval Voting enacted in your state, feel free to use the letter below as a template for writing your own state senator and assemblymember:


The Honorable Name of Senator/Assemblymember
California Senate/Assembly

Dear Senator/Assemblyman,

I am writing you today as my senator (or assemblyman) to encourage you to introduce legislation to enact voter reform in California — specifically to introduce a bill to implement Approval Voting for all statewide offices and presidential primaries and elections.

This year’s presidential election was historic. We had two of the most unpopular nominees in history. We had an outlier candidate win not only the Republican nomination, but also the general election. And we had, once again, a case where third party candidates played spoiler in a presidential election. All of this was caused by the current practice of using Plurality Voting (PV) to nominate and elect officials. PV usually results in candidates with the largest minority winning as opposed to candidates with the greatest overall support.

The answer is Approval Voting (AV). AV is a simple modification to the current voting system where a voter votes for all candidates that they approve of (instead of a single candidate). While this might seem radical at first, it is a very simple change over PV that not only results in much more accurate outcomes, but is easily implementable with current voting infrastructure.

With Approval Voting “anyone but Trump” republicans could have voted for everyone but Trump in the primary, instead of splitting their votes over the field of moderate candidates. Protest voters could have cast a vote for a third party candidate without worrying about “wasting” their vote, because they could have also selected one of the major party candidates that they approved of. In short Approval Voting is much more expressive than Plurality Voting, without being any more complicated to implement.

There have been attempts to implement Approval Voting in other states. In 2011, representatives in New Hampshire proposed HB 240 (2011). In 2013, a Democrat and Republican from Colorado’s state congress proposed SB 13-065. Both of these failed to be enacted in part because voter reform is difficult to pass since the officials in control have been elected using the current system.

But at this historic moment there is renewed interest in reforming a system that clearly has significant flaws, and California has an opportunity to take the lead in this important area. I encourage you to learn more about Approval Voting ( is a good place to start), and introduce a bill to implement Approval Voting for all statewide offices and presidential primaries and elections.



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Why You Want a Passport Card

My wife and I recently renewed our passports and we opted to get passport cards while we were at it. The Passport Card was originally intended as a convenient form of your passport to use when crossing land borders and ports-of-entry. But we don’t do that much. As in, pretty much never.

So why would we get a passport cards?

As identification for local flights

While a passport card can’t be used as identification for international flights, it can be used for local flights instead of your driver’s license. So why use the passport card instead of your drivers license?

First off, some state licenses are not Real ID compliant, but a passport card is. At some point the TSA will require Real ID compliant IDs. While most states will eventually comply, having a passport card removes any question concerning having a valid ID.

Secondly, when checking in at the airport you usually need to show an ID twice: first at the counter when you check your bags, then at security. That means two times digging into your wallet to get out your driver’s license. That means two opportunities to loose your license and two times you have to remember to put it back in your wallet. With a passport card you can leave it easily accessible in your carry-on (like you do with passports) and it can stay with your travel papers instead of your wallet.

Also, if you loose your license and want to rent a car — you’re pretty screwed. If you loose your passport card you’re just out $30. You still have your license for identification and driving.

To use for employment verification

A passport card is considered a “List A” document for I-9 employment verification just like a passport is. So you can leave your passport safe at home when doing employment verification.

To use as an international ID

While a passport is required for international travel, once you are at your destination you can often leave your passport in the hotel safe and carry the passport card as an ID.

And if for some reason you loose your passport, you can use the passport card to help facilitate getting a replacement since it identifies you and your citizenship. Of course you should always have a photocopy of your passport for this reason as well, but the passport card provides some additional redundancy.

To use a backup ID

A friend of mine was on business travel when he lost his wallet the night before his early morning flight. He spent much of the night trying to figure out what to do at the airport, and when he arrived at the airport he was put through the wringer before being allowed to board his flight.

If only he had a passport card in his carry-on bag. Then he would have avoided these headaches.

Now if he had kept his passport card in his wallet, he would have lost both. So it is important to treat the card similar to a passport. Don’t keep it in your wallet. Keep it with your travel documents.

Cheap Insurance

And in the end that’s what a passport card is. Cheap insurance. It is a second form of picture ID that is Real ID compliant, giving you a little bit of extra redundancy that can be very valuable if you loose your driver’s license (or vice versa).



From the Manhattan to the Negroni: A Tour of the World’s Finest Cocktails

Welcome! Today we are going on a little journey. A tour of the world’s finest cocktails — or at least of Joe’s favorite cocktails. And these are not just a random assortment of cocktails. They are a family. Each one is distinct, but they share a common gene pool.  And like any family it all starts with the patriarch. The granddaddy. The king.

The Manhattan

We start with the King of Cocktails. After years of being considered your father’s drink the Manhattan is experiencing a rebirth as more sophisticated drinkers flee from the slums of Appletinis. The Manhattan gives us the core of our cocktail family. Its characteristic boozy, spicy profile is passed on to its descendants. And as is the case with many grizzled old veterans we delight in its straightforward simplicity:

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

The Manhattan wraps you in warmth like a good hug from a loved one. The powerful whiskey flavors are softened by the vermouth and gently melted ice. The vermouth adds depth and a touch of sweetness, which is enhanced by the aromatic bitters bringing a fantastic nose to the drink.

It is bliss. But possibly not perfection. What if you want more off all the good things a Manhattan brings? Can we evolve it? Oh yes we can…

The Little Italy

If the Manhattan is a warm hug, the Little Italy is a warm, lingering kiss from Sophia Loren. It takes the Manhattan and replaces the bitters and a bit of the vermouth with Cynar, an Italian Amaro:

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 3/4 parts Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1/2 part Cynar
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

To quote my brother: “this might be the best damn cocktail on the planet”, and it is tough to argue with that. The Little Italy takes all that’s good about the Manhattan and raises it. It’s a touch sweeter. A touch more herbal. And a touch more bitter.

It is spectacular.

But what if this is a bit too dark and earthy? What if you want to lighten things up a bit? Well, let’s just look to our friends in New Orleans for a little help…

The Vieux Carre

While the Little Italy is dark and sultry, the Vieux Carre is smooth and sophisticated. Some of the bourbon is replaced with cognac making for an accessible and easy taste — just like the Big Easy itself. The sophistication is provided by a double dose of bitters and a splash of Benedictine that provides an almost honey-like finish:

  • 1 part Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Cognac
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
  • 1 dash Peychaud Bitters
  • 1 splash (tsp) Benedictine liqueur
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

The Vieux Carre is smooth and tasty, but it is a little fussy for me. We seem to have strayed from the simple salt-of-the-earth roots provided by our beloved Manhattan. And I find myself longing for the bittersweet presented by the Little Italy. So let’s get back to basics.

The Boulvardie

The Vieux Carre introduced us to the delightful symmetry of three equal parts. The Boulvardie continues with that theme, but replaces the pretentious cognac with the rambunctiously bittersweet Campari. Dispensing with the other accouterments makes for a delightfully simple, vibrant cocktail:

  • 1 part Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 part Campari
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with an orange twist

Yes! This is delicious. One wonders how the heck Campari  pairs with bourbon, but it works.  I very much enjoy a Boulvardie when I want a change of pace although the drink does have some uneasiness to it.  It’s a bit of an in-betweener.  If I want a whiskey drink then give me a Little Italy. If I want brightly bittersweet then give me a Negroni!

The Negroni

Oh. My. God. There is absolutely nothing like it. Nothing. I still remember my first sip. I heard angels sing. I remember my brother’s first sip. He heard angels sing. The Negroni takes The Boulvardie and replaces the oakey bourbon with crisp, lightly  medicinal, gin:

  • 1 part Beefeaters Gin
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 part Campari
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with an orange wedge

The Campari is the star of this drink, so you will either love it or hate it. And I’m a lover. A Negroni starts sweet and clean and brightly citrus. It has a pleasant herbal medicinal quality  and a sturdy bitter finish. But like its star ingredient it is polarizing. Those of us that love it consider ourselves blessed.

But what if you aren’t a lover? And what if all of the above drinks are just a bit too much: too bourbony, or too medicinal, or too bitter. What if you want something full of flavor, but showing some restraint. Well, we have a drink for that too…

The Old Fashion

The Old Fashion takes a Manhattan and removes the vermouth, replacing it with a touch of water, a sugar cube and some muddled orange. While still boozey the Old Fashion stays pleasant and easy drinking. And the following recipe makes it even more accessible by using Canadian whisky:

  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • splash of water
  • 1 orange wedge
  • 2 shots Canadian Whisky
  • Muddle the sugar cube, bitters, water and orange wedge in an old fashion glass. Add whiskey and a little ice. Stir well, add more ice and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

A traditional Old Fashion does not muddle the orange wedge, but I like the extra citrus flavor this provides. The bitters and sugar provide the nose and sweetness of a Manhattan without the extra herbalness of vermouth. Using Canadian whisky further mellows the drink making it very easy drinking.

And with that, we are at the end of our tour. I’ll finish with a few notes on the drink recipes.

A Note On The Recipes

I am not holding up the above recipes as definitive. They are just the ones I use. You should consider them as a starting point. As to the ingredients:

  • Bulleit Bourbon. Many of the above cocktails are traditionally made with American rye whiskey, but many of us don’t stock rye in our liquor cabinets. Bulleit is a nicely flavorful bourbon that works terrific in these drinks. And Costco carries it!
  • Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. Carpano Antica is a bold, flavorful vermouth that makes for a spectacular Manhattan because it brings so much to the table. There are lots of vermouths out there. Please try them all. You might want to see my vermouth tasting blog
  • Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth. The worlds most popular sweet vermouth, and my favorite in a Negroni and other cocktails where the vermouth is in a supporting roll. Makes for nicely balanced drinks.
  • Cynar. One of the more common Italian Amari, Cynar is bittersweet and pleasantly vegetal. I recommend you try some others (see my Amari tasting blog).
  • Campari. Another Italian Amari, but different in that it is highly citrus. Wonderfully bittersweet, Campari is polarizing and, alas, not for everybody.
  • Beefeaters gin. I prefer basic London dry gin in my Negronis. No flowery or boutique gins please.
  • Canadian whisky. Canadian whisky is a blended whisky usually containing some amount of neutral spirits. This makes for a whisky that is less bold than American bourbon and more approachable for some.
  • Luxardo Maraschino Cherries. The original and very pricey. But these are spectacular, and you don’t go through them very fast. Consider this one of life’s luxuries that you should indulge yourself in.
  • Benedictine. An herbal liqueur that adds medicinal sweetness to a cocktail. Also fantastic when mixed 50/50 with brandy.



High Deductible Health Plan + HSA: A Practical Guide

Warning: I am not a financial or insurance professional. The following is my experiences with medical insurance and is not professional advice nor guidance. You are responsible for understanding all specifics and conditions of any medical plans you are considering!

I did it. This past fall I switched from my normal medical insurance to a High Deductible Health Plan plus Healthcare Savings Account (HDHP + HSA). I had been considering making the switch for a couple of years, and this year the numbers seemed to work and I convinced myself it was the way to go.

The biggest problem with HSA based plans is that they are complicated — or at least seem complicated. So people are wary of making the switch. I mean, who wants to research medical insurance? Most folks rather have a root canal.

Now that I’ve lived with an HSA plan for a few months I figured I’d write about my experiences making the change. And that might help you decide if HDHP + HSA is the way to go. So let’s get started:

What is an HDHP + HSA?

HSA based plans have two parts:

  1. A high deductible insurance plan (HDHP)
  2. A healthcare savings account (HSA)


The HDHP is a lot like normal insurance, but instead of a deductible of hundreds of dollars the deductible is thousands of dollars. And, unlike most plans, almost everything hits the deductible.

You can think of this deductible as a bridge that you must cross before the insurance kicks in. Almost all medical costs count against this bridge and you must pay out of your pocket until the bridge is crossed (the deductible is paid off). I say “almost all” because health maintenance items like physicals and mammograms often do not get charged against the deductible and are therefore covered by the insurance.

Once you cross the bridge the insurance kicks in.

For example, let’s say you go to the doctor because you’re sick, and you get a prescription. Under traditional insurance you would pay a co-pay (say $20) for the doctor’s visit, and a co-pay (say $15) for the prescription. So $35 out of pocket. Your insurance pays for everything else.

But under an HDHP it all goes against the deductible and therefore comes out of your pocket. So maybe $150 for the doctor’s visit and $50 for the prescription. $200 out of your pocket that counts against the deductible.

So if your deductible (bridge) is $3000, you have paid down $200 of that, and are left with $2800 more to go before the insurance kicks in.

Now you may be thinking: WTF? This sounds terrible! Why would I ever want this type of insurance?  Two reasons:

  1. It has lower premiums, so each month you will pay less for this insurance
  2. It allows you to have an HSA, which is a hugely beneficial financial tool


OK, so you have this awful bridge you must cross before your insurance kicks in. Now if you never get sick and only have physicals you never need to worry about crossing the bridge. But what if you do get sick? How do you pay for those bills?

This is where the HSA helps. You contribute pre-tax dollars to the HSA, and when you take the money out to pay for medical expenses it is also tax free. Plus any investment income earned by the account is not taxed. That’s called triple tax free. That’s really good.

And the HSA is yours for life. Any time you have a HDHP you can contribute to your HSA. And all the money in an HSA rolls over year to year. And it is yours for life, so you can use it 10, 15 , 20 years from now to pay for medical expenses. And many HSA’s offer investment options like mutual funds if your balance is over a certain level.

So in many ways an HSA is like a medical 401k. But it is even better than a 401k. Why? Because in a traditional 401k your money is taxed when you take it out, but for an HSA the money is not taxed when you use it to pay for qualified medical expenses. And after age 65 those medical expenses can include premiums for medical insurance. Finally, even if you don’t use it for medical expenses, after age 65 there is no penalty for making withdrawls — you just pay income tax on the money you pull out (just like you would for a 401k).

And as a bonus, your employer might give you seed money each year for your HSA! That’s right, free money! Another benefit is you can, one time, rollover IRA funds into an HSA. So if you want you can seed your HSA with funds from an IRA.

Note there are limitations. There is a cap for how much you can contribute to an HSA, and in order to contribute to an HSA your must have a HDHP.

But what about FSA’s (Flexible Savings Accounts)? You might already have one of those without needing a HDHP. Yes, FSA’s are good, but they are not as good as an HSA: they are use-or-loose  (don’t rollover year-to-year), typically no employer seed money, you can’t “take them with you”, and no investment options. Keep in mind that having an HSA does not completely eliminate the option of having an FSA. There is something called a “Limited FSA” that you are allowed to contribute to even when you have an HSA. A Limited FSA is less flexible than a typical FSA, but can still handle a number of expenses like dental, etc.

So HSA’s are really good things. In fact some financial advisors recommend funding a 401k just up to the company match limit, and then put any additional savings into your HSA.

Got it? An HSA is fantastic,  but even so there are a number of other things to consider before jumping into an HDHP.

The Math

OK, so we have an HDHP which looks pretty awful due to that high deductible, and an HSA that sounds great. How do you decide if it’s the way to go?

First start by doing some arithmetic. You need to take into account  4 things:

  1. How large is the deductible (the bridge)
  2. How much will you save each month in premiums
  3. How much HSA seed money does your employer offer
  4. How much out-of-pocket expense do you usually have under your current plan

For example, let’s say:

  1. The deductible is $3000
  2. You will save $150 each month in premiums
  3. You will get $1000 in HSA seed money from your employer

Doing the math:

$3000 – $1000 – ($150 * 12) = $200

Hey, that’s not so bad! Your exposure to the deductible is just $200 because your employer is covering $1000 of the deductible, and your premium savings is covering another $1800.

So now you can take into account your out of pocket expenses under your current plan. Odds are your current deductible is more than $200 (although fewer things probably hit that deductible), and you are making co-pays. So depending on your situation that $200 deductible exposure under the HDHP might be AOK.

And obviously if you have a generous employer who gives you $1200 in seed money then it is a no brainer. Or if your premium savings is $170. In those cases your bridge is fully covered by the seed money plus premium savings.

Other Considerations

The dollars and cents arithmetic is a very important consideration, but not the only one. Some other things to look at.

The HDHP + HSA requires more work on your part

Under a traditional plan you go to the doctor, make your co-pay, and then forget about it. With an HSA plan you don’t pay anything at the doctor’s office, but you will get a bill after the visit. So you need to watch for the bill, make sure it is processed by your insurance company and applied to your deductible, and then make the payment (hopefully out of your HSA).

This means you need to be more involved with your medical expenses. In general this is a good thing, but it requires more work and planning. For some folks this is not a good fit. I know one guy at work that tried the HSA and hated it: “I get all these damn bills!” Well, duh, yes you do. He switched to Kaiser and is much happier!


You can’t borrow ahead against your HSA (like you can with many FSAs). That means if you get in a car accident in January and have thousands in medical bills you might not have enough money in your HSA to cover your out of pocket expenses. You will need to pay those bills somehow, and then re-imburse yourself later from the HSA after your HSA contributions catch up and fund it (there is a way to “pay yourself” from the HSA to reimburse you for qualified expenses).

This also means you might defer medical visits because you won’t have enough money in your HSA until later in the year. This might not be a good thing. If your employer gives you seed money that helps, but not everybody is that fortunate.

The Insurance

Another consideration is what is the HDHP coverage that your are bridging to? Is it comparable to your current plan?

In my case the insurance plans were comparable, but not identical. Instead of co-pays my cost under the HDHP is 10% for most procedures. Turns out that 10% is a bit less than many of the co-pays I had under my old plan. So that made the HDHP coverage a hair better for me.


I mentioned that the HDHP + HSA requires more work on your part, so it is important to understand what tools are provided by the insurance company and HSA provider to help you manage these things.

In my case those tools are pretty good. I have two online accounts. One with the insurance provider and one with the HSA bank. The insurance is tightly integrated with the HSA, so a typical scenario for me is:

  1. I log into my insurance company account
  2. I review new claims to see what the costs were and that they were applied to the deductible
  3. I pay new claims/bills right there from the claim summary. It lets me pay electronically from my HSA with just a few clicks.

The HSA bank also provides a debit card that can be used to pay for prescriptions and other qualified medical expenses.

Periodically I will log into my HSA bank account to verify my paycheck contributions are going in and what funds are available and what has been paid out.

Overall I find the tools to be good, and I expect other major insurance companies would provide similar online tools.

Your Age

I am well into middle age, but if I was young, healthy, and typically only went to the doctor for physicals (which might be %100 covered under your plan) — then I would consider HDHP + HSA very seriously. You possibly get free seed money from your employer, you can put your premium savings into the HSA, and voila! you are saving for retirement!

401k Tradeoff

Another buddy at work is considering reducing some of his 401k contributions and putting that money into his HSA. He is being careful to make sure he still maximizes the company match on the 401k, but he is viewing the HSA as a long term savings plan for retirement like his 401k is. Note he is NOT reducing his 401k contributions to pay current medical bills, instead he is shifting some of his retirement savings from the 401k to the HSA as part of his long term plans. Why? Because as stated earlier, you pay no taxes on money pulled out of an HSA to pay medical bills. You do pay taxes on money pulled out of (most) 401k’s to pay medical bills. So in your retirement years the money in the HSA has more value (assuming you will have medical bills).

Is It Right For You?

My brother, who had an HSA based plan for a number of years, commented to me that during the bridge “I was the insurance company”. He became more aware of healthcare costs, and he felt more empowered to question things — since he was the insurance company!  So he would question his doctor if that full panel of lab tests was necessary. Or if a more cost effective prescription option was available.  And he found that yes, there were often other (less expensive) options.

Maybe that appeals to you, maybe it doesn’t. But even if it doesn’t the arithmetic does not lie.  If your effective exposure deductible is low, and you are reasonably healthy, then you can come out far ahead with an HSA plan.






Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8 Review

Update: This review is for the original Fire HD 8, not the updated model that was just introduced in Sept 2016. The new HD 8 is faster and cheaper, which makes it even more compelling. Now if they could just improve what is offered in the Amazon App Store!

For the past couple of years I’ve been using a hand-me-down Apple iPad 1 as my tablet, and while it might have been revolutionary in 2010, today it is pretty archaic: slow, low-res screen, and a web browser that crashes more often than not.

So I decided to get myself a new tablet for Christmas. My requirements were modest, and I decided I did not want to pay the “Apple Tax” for an iPad. Android would be fine. And being an Amazon Prime user, there was some appeal in getting a Fire OS device. So when Amazon put their HD 8 tablet on sale I pulled the trigger.

After using the device for a few weeks, here are my impressions.

What I Got

  • Fire HD 8, 8″ HD Display, Wi-Fi, 16 GB – Includes Special Offers, Black:  $169.99 $149.99 (on sale)
  • AmazonBasics 8-Inch Tablet Sleeve:  $6.79
  • SanDisk 64 GB micro SD Memory Card: $22.99

So I got an 80GB, 8″ tablet with sleeve for $179.77 ($198.49 after tax delivered to my door). I chose not to buy a case for it, since who wants to spend $40-$50 on a case for a $150 device? ( I will be keeping an eye out on refurbished cases).

By comparison a 64GB iPad mini4 is $499. A 32GB iPad mini2 is $319. Yes, those are better tablets — but that much better?


Let’s see how this device compares to my old iPad 1, and the current iPad Minis.

Fire HD 8 iPad 1 iPad Mini 2 iPad Mini 4
Screen Size 8 inches 9.7 inches 7.9 inches 7.9 inches
Screen Resolution 1280 x 800 1024×768 2048×1536 2048×1536
Screen PPI 189 132 326 326
RAM 1 GB 256 MB 1 GB 2 GB
Processor 1.5/1.2 GHz quad-core MediaTek 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A8 1.3 GHz dual-core Apple Cyclone 1.5 GHz dual-core Apple Typhoon
Back Camera
5 MP/1080p N/A 5 MP/1080p 8 MP/1080p
Front Camera
720p N/A 1.2 MP/720p 1.2 MP/720p

So the Fire holds its own against the current Mini’s on most specs, except for the screen (and it soundly trounces the old iPad 1). Also, Apple devices are known for  good quality cameras, so while the specs here are similar, one has to assume the Apple cameras would out-perform the Fire’s — something I believe is true based on informal comparisons.


One fantastic thing about the Fire is that it accepts micro SD memory cards, so it’s cheap to upgrade from 16GB to 80GB. But there is some confusion as to how this add-on storage is used. So to clarify:

  1. Not everything can be stored on the add-on SD card. According to Amazon: audio books, books, Silk Browser downloads, email, and some apps must be stored on the internal storage.
  2. For other stuff you control use of the external SD card in Settings under Storage. This lets you store movies, TV shows, music, photos, videos and some (“supported”) apps to the SD card.

So the internal storage is always used for some stuff. Because of this I got the 16GB model instead of the 8GB model. Fortunately large things, like music and video, can be stored on the external SSD card.


One of my concerns with the HD 8 was the display. The specs are OK, but nowhere near Apple’s retina displays. So would the HD 8 display be sufficient?

In short, the answer is yes. The HD has an IPS display that is bright, with vivid colors and good viewing from off-angle. It is very good for games and video.  It is fine for photos, and is sufficient for book reading if you are not doing lengthy reading sessions.

This last point is important. If you intend to use the HD 8 as a primary Kindle e-reader, then you might be disappointed due to it’s fairly low (by Apple standards) PPI.  The HD 8 is fine for casual reading, but if you want a serious e-reader then I’d get a Kindle Paperwhite. Fortunately you can get an  HD 8 and a Kindle Paperwhite for less than an iPad mini!

So overall the display, while not fantastic, is sufficient — at least for my use.


So far I’ve only used the rear facing 5MP still camera. Based on initial results I’d say the camera is fine for Facebook posts and other casual snapshots, but there is some degree of softness and lack of detail. This won’t be replacing your iPhone 6 or dedicated digital camera, but it is perfectly fine for quick social media shots.

Fire OS 5.5

If you’ve used a Fire TV or Fire Stick then the Fire operating system will be familiar. While the home screen has the obligatory set of app icons, the rest of the user interface is oriented around content — especially Amazon content. Swiping vertically on the home screen scrolls through your apps. Scrolling horizontally takes you through content types: Books, Video, Games, Shop, Apps, Music, AudioBooks, Newsstand.

This works fine, although results in multiple ways to get to the same content, and the content is presented in different ways. Want to play music? You can open the Amazon Music app from the Home screen, or you can tap on the Music category. Why would you want to do one over the other?  Generally speaking the categories tend to focus on Amazon content with recommendations for you, while the apps focus on your content more specifically. But still, it’s two different ways to get to the same stuff, and any UI based on that is bound to be a bit sub-optimal.

One nice feature is that swiping to the left of the home screen shows a “Recents” page that summarizes apps and content that you’ve recently accessed. Very convenient.

So overall the user experience is fine, but this would not be my first choice for my mom where the simpler and more consistent Apple iOS experience would be easier to use.

Which brings me to my next point. Much of Fire OS focuses on Amazon Prime content. That’s one of the appeals of a Fire tablet for Prime members. But if you are not an Amazon Prime member then that takes away a large portion of the benefit of using Fire OS.

Basic Apps: E-Mail, Silk Web Browser

E-Mail works fine. Simple to set up. Runs and performs well. No complaints.

The Silk web browser works and preforms ok, but overall it feels less mature than Safari on iOS. For example the Southwest Airlines web site doesn’t load on my Fire HD 8, but it loads fine on my wife’s iPad. My wife has confidence that she can do any web browsing on her iPad that she would do on a iMac. I do NOT have that confidence with Silk. It’s fine for most uses, but it does not replace your laptop.

Performance and Stability

Performance of the tablet is tolerable. It performs well for games and media. Surfing the web is ok for many sites, although on occasion Silk is sluggish to respond to taps on links, and more complex sites can bog down (Note: the extra memory in the updated version should help this).

The tablet has been pretty stable except for one incident that could have been part user error. After using the tablet for a couple weeks I started getting random messages about the SD card being removed improperly — even though I never touched the SD card after initially installing it. This led to the tablet failing to launch apps, and eventually getting into a reboot / filesystem repair loop.

I then removed the SD card, did a factory reset on the tablet, reinstalled the SD card and erased it, then re-downloaded apps. That seemed to do the trick and I have had no problems since. My theory is when I initially installed the SD card I did not seat it fully in its slot.

Update: The SD card has continued to be an issue with the tablet occasionally having issues reading the card. I suspect it is my SD card, but it has not happened often enough for me to try another card to verify this. I’m now thinking it might be best to always have apps installed onto the built-in storage, and use the SD card only for media (music and video). This is controllable via the Settings.

Other than that the tablet has been pretty stable. I do end up power cycling it once a week or so to keep issues at bay and it running smoothly.

The Kindle App Store

One of the advantages of Fire OS is easy access to Amazon Prime content. But one of the disadvantages of Fire OS is the relatively weak Kindle App Store.

You want DropBox? Not there.

1Password? Nope.

Instagram? Snapchat?  Sorry.

These are all available in Google Play. But not in the Kindle AppStore. And this can be frustrating.

There is a way around this — it’s called sideloading. Basically you

  1. Change a setting on your Fire tablet to allow applications installed from untrusted sources.
  2. Go download the app’s software package from somewhere
  3. Install it on your Fire tablet
  4. Hope it works

#2 can be the hard part. In some cases it’s not bad, for example DropBox provides an Android download on its website. But 1Password does not — I ended up signing up as a Beta user to get an Android download.

There are ways to trick Google Play into letting you download packages onto FireOS, but it gets fairly complicated.

This is the big tradeoff with an Amazon Fire tablet. You get easy access to Amazon Prime content, but you loose easy access to some number of Android apps. Also, the Kindle Store has a fair amount of cruft in it. For example, there actually is a version of Instagram in the App Store, but it is old and doesn’t support the current tablets.

So once again, if you don’t have Amazon Prime then you probably don’t want a Fire tablet. In that case a more vanilla Android tablet would be a better choice.

Update: Amazon seems to be making a renewed push for developers to use their App Testing Service to verify their Android apps for Fire OS — touting that 85% of all Android apps “just work” on Fire OS. Let’s hope that this starts bringing new content to the Amazon App Store.

Security / Encryption

As expected you can set a pin or password that is required to unlock the device after it has been idle — a highly recommended precaution to take.

But as far as I can tell, there is no device encryption. Apparently this was available on some earlier fire tablets, but I don’t see this option on the HD 8. Maybe it doesn’t have the hardware necessary to support (fast) encryption, or maybe it will come in a later OS update. But depending on your use this could be a deal killer.

Update: It’s confirmed. Amazon did remove device encryption from Fire OS 5 and they now have announced plans to bring it back in the spring.

Special Offers

I opted for the Special Offers edition to save a few bucks. A couple observations:

  1. The offers only appear on the lock screen. You don’t see them otherwise (well, except for the next bug).
  2. On rare occasions I’ve had the “special offers” screen saver linger in the background after I switch to the Home screen. This problem seems to have gone away after I set my own wallpaper — fingers crossed. Update: since setting my own wallpaper this problem has gone away.
  3. While unlocking the tablet, once in a while I inadvertently tap something concerning the speical offer and end up getting more information on the offer or playing a video concerning the offer. Annoying.

You can disable special offers after purchase by paying $15. Due to #3 above I am now considering this!


Overall the tablet works pretty well, but there are some drawbacks:

  1. The Kindle App Store is weak compared to Google Play
  2. No full device encryption, but hopefully that will be remedied in a few months.

If you have Amazon Prime and you are looking for a cheap tablet to access Amazon content, then the tablet is good choice. Otherwise a generic Android tablet might be a better way to go.


Introductory Guide To the Joys of a Tandem Bicycle

So, you’re interested in riding a tandem? Fantastic! Owning and riding a tandem bicycle is a unique and rewarding pastime. There is lots of good information out there on the web (see Reference section at the bottom of this posting). This article attempts to bring a lot of that information together, so that you — a tandem neophyte — can quickly get a leg up.

Before We Start

I want to get one thing out of the way before we start. Tandem teams come in all flavors: from all male racing teams to older retired couples. In this guide I will do my best not to stereotype, but I will at times generalize. It is very common for a tandem team to consist of a male captain (the rider in front that pilots the bike) and a female stoker (the rider in back that provides power and a second set of eyes) — with the captain usually the stronger more experienced cyclist. Often this team is a couple.

But this is by no means universal! So I want to acknowledge right up front that there are plenty of female captains, and same sex teams, and parent/child teams, and teams of friends that are in no romantic relationship whatsoever.

So I ask in advance for your forgiveness if I, at times, slip into generalizations. When I do so it is simply for the sake of conciseness — which is often at odds with completeness.

Why Ride a Tandem?

A couple years ago I was sitting at my computer following a trip our good friends were taking cycling down the coast of California.  We were transitioning into empty-nest mode, and I was thinking how wonderful it would be to cycle more with my wife. And wouldn’t it be cool if we could, someday, do a trip like our friends?

I am a long time recreational cyclist. My wife a bit less so. We suffered from the same issues trying to cycle together that many couples do. My pace and range was different than my wife’s, and she did not like feeling that she was holding me back. So the idea of doing a multi-day cycling trip together seemed like a distant possibility.

Then it hit me: a tandem. Perfect! No matter what, she’d be right there with me.  And more importantly this was something we could do together — hopefully for a very long time.

And it’s not just that a tandem is a great equalizer — it’s also a lot of fun. There are plenty of teams that enjoy riding singles together, but they still like to get out on the tandem for the unique experience it provides.

And unique it is! There is a special bond in the tandem community — I guarantee that as you get out on your tandem you will be aware of every other tandem you see. And you’ll exchange a friendly wave with each and every one of them.

A Tandem State of Mind

Yes riding a tandem is fantastic, but is it for everybody? After all, they are known as “divorce bikes”. So what’s up with that?

Like any activity, riding a tandem is not for everybody. Both the captain and the stoker need certain mindsets. Some good friends of ours are avid cyclists and love riding their singles together — but they have absolutely no interest in riding a tandem.

So what is the tandem state of mind? It’s a bit different for the captain and the stoker:

  • Captain: you have full control of the bike, and therefore full responsibility. The stoker can do no wrong, and you must be willing to adjust your riding style to accommodate the team. You must be relaxed, confident and understanding, and do everything you can to earn the stoker’s trust.
  • Stoker: you must trust the captain fully. You must be able to give up control and be able to relax and enjoy the ride. You need to understand the captain is human and may at times make mistakes, and will greatly appreciate your patience.
  • For Both: you are a team, and you need to work together, to compromise and to be considerate of each other. If you want to do your own thing, at your own pace, and be fully independent then a tandem might not be right for you. Oh, and keep a sense of humor — because at time things will go wrong.

But keep in mind — a tandem isn’t all or nothing. Maybe some weekends you ride the tandem, and others you ride the singles. It’s all good.

Also, renting a tandem a few times first is often a good idea before you make a serious investment. Many bike shops that sell tandems also rent them.

So, do tandems cause divorces? No they don’t. But as we say in the tandem world: wherever your relationship is headed, a tandem will get you there quicker!

Buying Your First Tandem

OK! You are ready to take the plunge and buy a tandem! The first thing to keep in mind is your first tandem is likely not your last. You want to make sure to get something you will enjoy riding — but don’t feel like it has to be perfect. For your first tandem it is often best to look at the used market with an opportunistic eye — and not get too hung up on brands and components. That said, it is a good idea to be educated. So lets dive in.

New tandems range in price from $250 for a “department store” tandem on Amazon to $10,000 or more for carbon/titanium high end machines. Assuming you want to do somewhat serious recreational riding (say rides of 25 miles or more), then you’ll likely want to avoid the department store class of tandems. That means spending some money, although you can save a ton by buying used (more on that later).


The following is a list of popular tandem manufacturers. This list is by no means exhaustive, but covers the most common bikes you’ll find on the used market.

  • Santana:  Santana is one of the “big two” tandem manufacturers in the US. They have a wide variety of models and are known for marching to the beat of their own drum. This means Santanas tend to require more specialized parts than some other tandems (for example Santana  uses a 165mm rear spacing while many other manufacturers use the more common 145mm spacing). But parts are readily available because of the popularity of the brand. For the record we currently own a Santana and love it.
  • Co-Motion: Co-Motion is the other “big two” tandem manufacturer. Like Santana they also have a wide variety of models in various price ranges, and make a fantastic product.
  • Cannondale: Cannondale is known for making a great bang-for-the-buck tandem. They have a limited number of models, but do hit the sweet spot of what most riders are looking for.
  • Trek: Alas, Trek no longer makes tandems. But they are still fairly common on the used market and have a reputation for being a solid well built product.
  • Burley: Burley also exited the tandem market after being a long time builder of reasonably priced, solid tandems. Still pretty common on the used market.
  • Calfee: Calfee is a producer of high end carbon bikes and builds one of the most popular carbon fiber tandems on the market.
  • daVinci: DaVinci is known for their unique Independent Coasting System and the wide range of gearing it provides.
  • KHS: KHS is the least expensive of the “decent quality” tandems.
  • Bike Friday: Well known for their folding travel bikes, Bike Friday also makes folding travel tandems.

In addition to the above there are a number of other, smaller, tandem builders: Rodriguez, Tandem’s East Hokitika, Paketa, Bilenky, and more.

The rule of thumb is that a tandem costs 2x the cost of a similar quality single bike. When you start looking, it might seem more than that! But many tandems come with high quality components and frames, and with that in mind the 2x rule is usually pretty close.


Before purchasing your first tandem, you’ll want to decide what type of riding you are going to do. Tandems come in three basic styles:

  1. Traditional drop bar road
  2. More upright flat bar road (sometimes called enduro)
  3. Mountain bike

You’ll also find that the road tandems come in both 700c (road size) and 26in (MTB size) wheels. Which is better? It’s a matter of personal preference. 700c wheels have more tire choices, generally roll faster, and look a little less funky. 26″ wheels have more wide tire choices, resist flats better, and offer a comfortable ride. They are also more convenient if you travel with your tandem since 26″ wheels occupy less space when packing.

Once you have a style in mind you can start shopping around.

Buying Used

The number one recommendation for new tandem riders is to buy used. You can get a good deal, and if the tandem life doesn’t work out, you can re-sale that tandem for about what you paid for it. Some tips for buying used:

  • Be flexible. Don’t get too hung up on brands for your first tandem. Whether it’s a Santana or a Co-Motion or a Cannondale or a Trek doesn’t matter as much as the fit and condition.
  • Don’t get too old. Unless you enjoy tinkering on old bikes you’ll probably want to stay with late 1990’s or newer. Some features to look for: threadless headset, 9sp or better gearing, 145mm (or 165mm for Santana) rear dropout spacing.
  • Be patient!
  • Some places to look:
  • How much will you need to spend? It’s tough to say. The used tandem market is highly volatile and highly dependent on local market conditions because there are relatively few buyers and sellers. But rest assured you will save a lot of money vs. buying new.
  • After riding your used tandem a year or two you’ll have a much better idea what you want in your next tandem. At that point you can decide what to upgrade to — whether in the used or new market.

Your First Tandem Ride

Successfully riding a tandem is as much mental as physical and this is reflected in the seminal article on the topic by Bill McCready of Santana: The Proper Method. Go read it now. Yes, I’m serious. Now. Read it.

Not everybody necessarily agrees on the mechanics of The Proper Method (some teams actual do prefer to put both feet down), but most everybody agrees on the first rule of tandeming: The Stoker makes no mistakes. That said, the stoker can do things to help the tandem experience:

Tips For The Stoker

  1. If you’re a Captain don’t read this. Because as far as you are concerned the stoker makes no mistakes.
  2. Ride quietly. And I don’t mean be silent. I mean try to peddle smoothly, and try not to jerk around. Let the captain know when you are going to reach for your bottle or take off your jacket or otherwise make some extra movements. The captain can feel everything you do and sometimes a wiggly stoker feels like something is going wrong with the bike, so try to stay smooth!
  3. Communicate. The captain can’t read your mind. If the cadence feels wrong, our you’d like a coasting break, or you’d like to stop for a stretch, speak up!  Also, if you have your hands off of the handlebars (while changing your jacket) it’s good for the captain to know so they can avoid sudden maneuvers.
  4. Remember, the Captain is only human. Despite trying their best, the Captain might make an occasional mistake. They are human after all. When that does occur some patience and a sense of humor can help immensely. As a Captain I’ve made many small mistakes, and some big ones (yes, I committed the ultimate tandem sin and dumped the bike in a parking lot — dropping your stoker is never a good idea). Thankfully my stoker is patient with my fallibility.

And for the Captains…

Tips For The Captain

  1. The Stoker makes no mistakes. I’m sure you’ve got that by now.
  2. Communicate. The Stoker can’t see what’s ahead, and certainly can’t read your mind. So let them know what’s going on. Some cues we often use:
    1. “Bump!”: I see a bump ahead so be ready
    2. “Coast” / “Pedal”
    3. “Red Light” / “Green Light”
    4. “Granny”: shifting into the granny gear, this is usually the only shift I call out since often it is a clunky one with a large change in cadence.
    5. “Go! Go! Go!”: stale green light ahead and we are going for it!
    6. “Ready?”: are you ready to start? “Go!”: here we go!
  3. Communicate. In addition to the cues above make sure to check in with the stoker regularly. I have a bad habit that when a ride gets difficult — like when grinding into a head wind — I get silent and go into my pain box. And that’s exactly when I should be checking in with the stoker: “how you doing?”, “is this cadence OK”? Just remember you are not on a single — especially when the going gets tough.
  4. Ride smoothly and anticipate. Sudden maneuvers on a tandem don’t work well. First you are piloting a long heavy bicycle that doesn’t turn or stop like a single. Second, you have another person behind you that has no idea what your are doing unless you clue them in. So think ahead. Brake gently. Turn gently. Start/stop pedaling gently. Don’t toss the bike around. Be predictable.

And some general observations:

  1. Pacing: when you first start riding your tandem with friends on singles, you’ll find that the pacing between the two is different. On the flats and downhills tandems tend to go faster than singles. On the uphills, tandems tend to go slower than singles. That means on group rides tandems can be a nuisance if you constantly oscillate up and back in the group. So keep that in mind. There are times when you can be in the front driving the pace, and other times when you need to chill and sit in. Just don’t constantly bounce up and back.
  2. Braking: if you live on the flats you’ll have no concerns here. But if you ride hills you will discover that tandems build speed very quickly downhill and require good brakes and good technique. I’ll discuss brakes further in the equipment section, but here are some tips:
    1. If you have a drum or drag brake apply it for long fast descents and leave it on.
    2. Don’t ride the brakes. Better to do short firm squeezes allowing the brakes and rims (or rotors) to cool in between.
    3. Alternate front and back. Again, this gives the brakes more time to cool
  3. Shifting: try to predict your shifts earlier than on a single. It is difficult to make a last second shift since you have two people pedaling. This is especially true when approaching a steep climb: shift into that granny early! There is nothing worse than throwing the chain on a last second granny shift on a tandem. On a single this is no big deal, on a tandem it can mean falling over.
  4. Climbing: tandems tend to climb slower than singles and it is why tandems are usually equipped with lower gears. Why do they climb slower? First, it requires a little more energy (both mental and physical) because you are coordinating with another person. Second, your power to weight ratio is usually not as good as a fit person on a single. Why? Because one of the common reasons for riding a tandem is to bridge a performance gap between the two riders which usually means the tandem will climb slower than a single would with the stronger rider. That said, a fit, fast tandem team can go uphill very quickly.
  5. Sitting: one thing you’ll notice on a tandem is that you tend to stay seated in the saddle more than on a single. You probably don’t realize it, but you’ll rise out of the saddle on a single pretty often: for a coasting butt break, to punch over a little rise, etc. You tend to do that less on a tandem because it requires a bit more coordination of the team. That means you have to make an effort to get out of the saddle once in a while.

OK, I fear I’ve made this sound more complicated than it is. So the most important thing: Relax! Riding a tandem is fantastic fun. The first few rides might feel a bit awkward, but you will quickly get used to it. Start off with a few laps around the neighborhood practicing your starts and stops. Then venture out on longer rides. Before you know it you will feel more comfortable on the tandem than on your single.

Tandem Equipment

Generally speaking tandem’s have all the same parts as a single bike, but there are some areas that are frequent topics of conversation. I’ll highlight a couple of these:

  1. Shifting: due to the longer cable runs, and wider rear end spacing of tandems, shifting performance tends to be a bit more finicky than on a single bike. Not bad, but you might find yourself needing to lubricate and adjust the gears a bit more often than on a single.
  2. Brakes: tandems weigh close to twice what a single bike does but doesn’t have twice as many brakes! Braking is a  challenge on tandems especially if you have big downhills. Some notes on brakes:
    1. Many older tandems have a rear drum brake. This is most often used as a drag brake that is controlled by an extra friction shift lever. You set it at the start of a descent, and leave it on. You then use your normal brakes as needed.
    2. Many newer tandems come with large rotor disk brakes. These have the advantage of not heating the rim (which can lead to tire blow-outs — and yes, we have had that occur), but have the disadvantage of less braking leverage since a rotor is smaller in diameter than a rim. That’s why tandem disk brakes will spec larger rotors than a typical mountain bike.
  3. Tires: twice the weight and only two tires means that you’ll want beefier tires on your tandem than your single. Here are my thoughts on tire sizes (these are for 700c road tires):
    1. 700×25: only suitable for very light teams or those that prefer performance over comfort/safety
    2. 700×28: the most popular size for tandems. OK for most average sized teams, but larger teams (or teams that want more comfort/safety) should go larger
    3. 700×32: our preferred size. Great for most teams. Big enough to give a good ride and flat protection without being overly fat
    4. 700×36+: for large teams or those that want a plush ride. Make sure your frame has enough clearance.
  4. Stoker Seat Post: you’ll notice that many tandems come with a suspension seat post for the stoker. Why is that? A stoker does not have a clear view of the road ahead, and therefore can’t see upcoming bumps. You might not realize it, but on a single you brace yourself for bumps and irregularities in the road all the time. You might lift yourself off the saddle a bit, or maybe just brace your muscles a bit more. The stoker can’t do this by sight — the captain must call out bumps. And we know that captains aren’t perfect. So the suspension seatpost gives the stoker some additional protection and comfort.
  5. Saddles: as mentioned previously you tend to stay seated more on a tandem than on a single. This means saddle comfort is even more important than on a single, so be prepared to invest in some high quality saddles.
  6. Peddles: When first starting out some stokers that are not experienced cyclist might prefer riding with flat pedals and sneakers. This is OK for those first trips where you are getting used to the tandem and having the option for a fast bail-out is appealing. But you will quickly notice that once you get into more serious riding you will want to use a “clipless” pedal system and real cycling shoes. On a tandem it is easy for the stoker to “loose the pedals” if the captain accelerates suddenly, or maybe misses a shift and the cranks spin. If the stoker is clipped in then feet won’t slide off the pedals in those situations.


I hope this document has helped. If you are at all curious about riding a tandem I strongly encourage you to give it a try.

Oh, and that long bike ride I always wanted to do with my wife? Well, about a year and a half after getting our first tandem we did a week long bike tour with PacTour and we loved it!


LED Recessed Lighting Shootout: Home Depot vs Lowes vs Costco

Update (13-Aug-2017): Costco in our area has started carrying a soft white retrofit kit. I had a chance to buy a couple pairs and try them out. I’ve updated this review, and I now  feel that for the price the Costco Feit Electronic lights are tough to beat.

Update (12-Apr-2017): Shortly after writing this I installed 12 of the Home Depot Commercial Electric kits, and 4 of the Lowes UtiliTech Pros. My recommendation is now clearly for the Home Depot CE kit. Out of the four Lowes lights one has developed a hum and another occasionally flickers. Out of the 12 Home Depot lights I have had zero issues.

When we remodeled our house in 2000 we installed recessed can lighting. A lot of recessed can lighting. As in 69 6″ halogen cans. Oddly enough, we don’t use much of that lighting. In the bedrooms yes, but otherwise not so much. Why? Because the halogens use so much electricity and put out so much heat that we were reluctant to turn them on.

Now that LED retrofit kits have come down in price I decided to get serious about replacing the old halogens. There are lots of choices in LED kits. I wanted bang-for-the-buck. That quickly led to the house brands of Lowes and Home Depot.

So I decided to do a shootout. I bought a pair of each and compared.

Why a retrofit kit instead of just replacing the bulbs? Because the retrofit kits:

  1. Look nicer, especially if you have old yellowing trim rings on your cans.
  2. Help to seal that big hole in your ceiling. Old style cans are notorious for allowing airflow between your attic and your living space. Most kits come with a rubber gasket and seal tight against the ceiling helping to reduce that air flow.

What I Bought

Before I start keep in mind that Lowes and Home Depot continually update their products using the same “item number”. So by the time you read this things might have changed. But this will give you an idea of what to look for.

Note: the Lowes lights were purchased in a two-pack. Price is for one light. I recently purchased the Costco Feit light.

Lowes UtiliTech Pro Home Depot Commercial Electric Costco Feit Electric
Item 0599032 (SKU 8 22985 51130 8) SKU 0 46335 97939 0 ITM 1136343
Model MQTL1017-LED11.5K827 CER6730AWH27 CELEDR56/927/2
Date Code 0415 Unk Unk
Color Temp 2700 2700 Soft White
Lumens 700 670 850
Watts 11.5 11 11.3
CRI 80 90 90+
Beam Angle Unknown 96deg 101deg
Made In China China Unknown
Price $17.49 $15.97 $7.50
Notes Back of light says Type LB012CM-160C Back of light says Model CDLPS35OR15


Lowes UtiliTech Pro Home Depot Commercial Electric Costco Feit Electric
Ease of Installation B+ A A
Fit B A B+
Appearance B+ B+ A
Speed A B A
Brightness A B+ A
Color Quality B A A
Quiteness A A A
Dimming A B B+


All products were very easy to install. The Home Depot lights were a bit easier because the torsion springs were pre-set into a V and required less compression to slip into the tabs in the can. Also, the Home Depot springs had an improved profile — a bend in the spring that caused it to “snap” into place as you pushed the light up into the can. This resulted in a tight fit against the ceiling. The Costco lights lacked the rubber gasket that helps seal against the ceiling, but seemed to fit well otherwise. Overall the products were easy to install and fit well, but I’ll give a slight node to the Home Depot light.

Appearance is a matter of taste. The Lowes lights are recessed farther into the can and have a stair-stepped bezel. The Home Depot lights have a cleaner look, but when staring directly into them you can see the yellow of some of the leds — once installed this is not as obvious. The Costco Feit Electric lights have a very clean look that I had a slight preference for.

The Lowes and Costco lights turn on instantly, the Home Depot lights have a split second delay. All have good light quality. The Costco light was the brightest — almost too bright for some applications. Lowes was in the middle, and the Home Depot seems a bit more true to color (this is consistent with their lumens and CRI numbers).

All lights dimmed well using my 15 year old Lutron dimmer, and I could detect no noise or buzzing. From low to bright the color stayed consistent. On the lowest setting the Lowes lights were dimmest — so they get the nod here.


All of these kits worked well and I would be satisfied with any of them.

But the price of the Costco Feit Electronics light is tough to beat. In our area there is an instant utility rebate that brought the cost of these lights to $5 each! Very tough to beat that.


Which is the Home Depot light? The one with the yellow LEDs showing through. Once installed in the ceiling it doesn't look this bad.

Which is the Home Depot light? The one with the yellow LEDs showing through. Once installed in the ceiling it isn’t  this obvious.

Note the profile of the tension spring on the Home Depot light. It really helped to hold the light firmly against the ceiling.

Note the profile of the tension spring on the Home Depot light on the right. It really helped to hold the light firmly against the ceiling. Also you can see that both lights have a rubber gasket to help seal against the ceiling.


The Feit Electronic light from Costco has a very clean look, performs well and is cheap. Note the lack of rubber gasket to seal against the ceiling. Otherwise they fit very well.

Old fixture with yellowing trim ring.

Old fixture with yellowing trim ring.

You can see the tabs that the tension spring legs slip into. On some cans these are pressed against the walls and you need to bend them out.

You can see the tab that the tension spring legs slip into in the bottom of the photo. On some cans these are pressed against the walls and you need to bend them out.

One of the Lowes lights had a bit of a gap between the ring and the ceiling.

One of the Lowes lights had a bit of a gap between the ring and the ceiling. Others fit better, so this was in part an issue with our ceiling.

The Home Depot lights sucked firm against the ceiling thanks to the spring design.

The Home Depot lights are held firmly against the ceiling thanks to the spring design.


The Costco Feit Electronics light has a very clean look and fit well despite its lack of rubber gasket.