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 https://electology.org/approval-voting. 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:


Date

The Honorable Name of Senator/Assemblymember
California Senate/Assembly
Address

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 (https://electology.org/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.

Sincerely,

 

Your Name
Your Address
Your City State Zip
Your e-mail
Your phone number

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.

 

 

2016 Albertsons / Safeway Monopoly Winning Tickets

OK, I admit it. I’m playing that Safeway Monopoly game. Now, you do know how these things work, right? For each prize there is one, maybe two, rare tickets. All those other tickets are just window dressing.

So the question is…which tickets are the rare ones? Well, I’m here to help.

We’ve been playing for a number of weeks now and have filled up our board almost completely. All of the prizes now have one or two empty slots.

So, unless I’m incredibly lucky and already have some “rare” tickets (which I’m pretty sure is not the case), the following is the list of rare tickets for each prize. In some cases I’m listing two. At this point I don’t know if both are rare, or just one. Anyway, here it goes:

  1. A502C, A504E
  2. B505A, B506B
  3. C513D, C514E (just got C514E, so C513D is the rare one)
  4. D515A, D517C
  5. E524D, E525E
  6. F527B, F528C
  7. G531A
  8. H538D
  9. I541C
  10. J544B
  11. K549C
  12. L551A
  13. M556B
  14. N562D
  15. O565C
  16. P568B
  17. Q573C
  18. R575A
  19. S579A
  20. T585C
  21. U590D
  22. V592B
  23. W597C
  24. X602D
  25. Y603A
  26. Z608B
  27. $613C, $618H
  28. ?622D, ?625G

So there you go. That’s your most wanted list. Note that the promotion ends May 3, 2016. On my last visit to Safeway they were handing out fistfuls of tickets.

 

 

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)

HDHP

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

HSA

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!

Timing

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.

Tooling

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?

Specifications

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.

Storage

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.

Display

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.

Camera

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!

Summary

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.

 

A 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).

Manufacturers

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.

Styles

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.

Summary

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!

References

LED Recessed Lighting Shootout: Home Depot vs Lowes

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.

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

Performance

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

Impressions

Both 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 tighter fit against the ceiling than the Lowes light. So ease of installation and fit go 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 Lowes lights turn on instantly, the Home Depot lights have a split second delay. Both have good light quality. The Lowes is a bit brighter, the Home Depot seems a bit more true to color (this is consistent with their lumens and CRI numbers).

Both 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 dimmer — so they get the nod here.

Conclusion

Both of these kits worked well and I would be satisfied with either.

The Lowes was a bit brighter (just a bit) and dimmed lower.

The Home Depot hugged firmer against the ceiling and had a bit better quality light (just a bit).

Pictures

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.

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.

Amari: Life is Bittersweet – Tasting Review of 6 Amari

Amaro is a large category of Italian herbal liquor that is traditionally sipped neat as an apertif or a digestif. Here in the states amaro is more typically used as an ingredient for cocktails or with a splash of soda.  The most common example is Campari — the key ingredient of the beloved Negroni.  Cynar shows up in the spectacular Little Italy, a Manhattan variant. And finally, a friend at work (a newly minted Manhattan lover) shared his Manhattan recipe that tempers Carpano Antica with a little Cardamaro.

So clearly there is something worth looking into here. Having already reviewed some of the more common vermouths,  it was time to turn my attention to amari.

The Supplies

After a little research on the web I chose my lineup and headed off to Beltramo’s Wines and Spirits in Menlo Park, CA. Here is what I came home with (as pictured left to right above):

  1. Fernet Branca, 375ml, 78 proof, $14.99
  2. Luxardo Amaro Abano, 750ml, 60 proof, $22.99
  3. Averna Amaro, 750ml, 58 proof, $26.99
  4. Cynar, 1L, 33 proof, $23.99
  5. Ramazzotti Amaro, 750ml, 60 proof, $21.99
  6. Cardamaro Vino Amaro, 750ml, 34 proof, $21.99

Where is the Campari? I chose to leave it out. It’s pretty familiar to many, and  it would be the odd man out in this lineup — being strongly citrus.

All of these amari are italian. Beltramo’s had many more, including a number from other countries. But six seemed a good number for both my palette and my wallet.

The Method

I started off tasting these head-to-head neat. Then incorporated them into my evening libations over the course of weeks. I also invited others (in particular my brother) to join in the fun.

One of the common applications of amaro is to use it in a Manhattan replacing the bitters and a bit of the vermouth. Depending on the ratios this can be called a Black Manhattan or a Little Italy. I call it one of the best damn cocktails on the planet.

For reference here is the Little Italy recipe I (generally) used:

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 3/4 part Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth (or Cocchi if it’s a special occasion!)
  • 1/2 part Amaro

Stir with ice for 60 seconds and serve up or on the rocks, garnished with a cherry and/or orange twist.

The Results

In alphabetical order.

Averna Amaro

Made in Sicily using a recipe dating back to 1868, Averna is a gentle introduction to amaro. Quite tasty on the rocks, Averna is sweet with a slight herbal orange start and finishes with hints of chocolate and caramel. With little to no bitterness Averna is comfortable and inviting.

In the Little Italy the Averna was good, but easily over-powered by the whiskey. It added some sweetness but not much more. When paired with a lighter whiskey, like Canadian, it might prove to be a good match. I’ll have to give that a try!

Overall a friendly, tasty amaro, but if you want something with a bit more character then there are better choices.

Cardamaro Vino Amaro

I first heard of Cardamaro from a co-worker who uses it in his Manhattan recipe along with Carpano Antica vermouth. Cardamaro differs from other amari in that it is wine based. Sweet, with subtle vegetal flavors Cardamaro is lighter than the other amari here with very little bitterness. On the rocks Cardamaro is easy sipping and refreshing.

Cardamaro was fine in the Little Italy, but the resulting drink tasted more like a stock Manhattan than something special. My co-worker might have had it right — using the Cardamaro to complement a bold vermouth like Carpano rather than using it to enhance a milder vermouth like M & J or Cocchi.

Cynar

Cynar is based on 13 herbs and plants including artichoke and was the winner of Best Herbal/Botanical Liqueur at the 2015 San Francisco Wolrd Spirits Competition. While some reviews I’ve read claim it is less sweet than many amari, I find the opposite to be true. Quite sweet and pleasantly vegetal with a sturdy bitter finish. An no — it doesn’t taste like artichokes. Cynar finally brings the bitterness I was looking for, but on the rocks is not where it shines.

In the Little Italy? Brilliant! The sweet/bitter/earthy flavor rounds out this Manhattan variation perfectly. As I said, this might very well be the best cocktail ever.

Update: Cynar 70: My wife came upon this and bought me a bottle — gotta love her! This is a 70 proof version of Cynar and tastes a lot like normal Cynar but with the warm bite of additional alcohol. As you’d expect it was very good in the Little Italy, but were it shined was on the rocks. Less cloying and more substantial than it’s lower proofed sibling  Cynar 70 makes for an excellent digestif. The downside is the cost, running about $10 more than regular Cynar. Might be worth trying a 50/50 mix of regular Cynar and brandy to see how close it comes to Cynar 70.

Fernet Branca

I don’t get it. Apparently San Francisco is the #1 Fernet Branca market in the US. Go into any Safeway or liquor store around here and you’ll find this strongly bitter elixir. Averna? Nope. Cynar? Nope. Fernet? Yes. Why? Who drinks this stuff?

Fernet is actually a sub-category of amaro, but when used informally it usually refers to Fernet Branca. Fernet Branca is not bittersweet. It’s just bitter. Bracingly bitter. With a touch of menthol. Bitter menthol. That’s it. On the rocks it is awful. The only reason I’d drink this is to settle my stomach. It tastes like medicine. It is medicine. Or poison. I’m not sure.

I knew I had to approach the cocktail portion of my tasting with caution. Use Fernet with a heavy hand and it will run roughshod over the other ingredients — ruining perfectly good whiskey and vermouth. With this in mind I chose to forgo the Little Italy and instead simply replace the bitters in my standard Manhattan recipe with 1/4 part Fernet (2 parts whiskey, 1 part vermouth, 1/4 part Fernet Branca).

And it was terrible. Even at these ratios the Fernet made the Manhattan taste like Fernet. So I’ve learned something. With all the great spirits out there I don’t need to waste any more time on Fernet Branca.

Luxardo Amaro Abano

Luxardo is known for their Maraschino Cherries. Their cherries cost $20 a jar. And no, they are nothing like the ones you just got at Safeway. Luxardo also makes liqueurs and amari. On the rocks the Amaro Abano hits you with flavors of blackstrap licorice and a long bitter finish. On its own I found it a bit unpleasant.

But in the Little Italy the Luxardo was tamed and actually worked pretty well. I still prefer the Cynar with its extra sweetness, but it you want to try something a bit different then the Luxardo is worth a try.

Ramazzotti Amaro

From Milan since 1815, Ramazzotti is one of the oldest amari — and heck, I like saying the name.  On my first tasting of these amari the Averna was my favorite. It was tasty and accessible. But the Ramazzotti stood out as interesting. As I continued to taste these over the course of a couple of weeks the Averna started feeling “ordinary” and my affection for the Ramazzotti grew.

Ramazzotti Amaro starts out with bitter orange and finishes with a touch of licorice and a hint (just a hint) of mint. It’s moderately sweet with a nice bitter finish. This fits my stereotype of what an amaro should taste like, and the Ramazzotti has become my clear favorite on the rocks. It is really good.

But in the Little Italy those flavors that make the Ramazzotti a delight on its own fall to the background, and the resulting drink is good but not quite as good as with the Cynar.

Summary

Other than the Fernet I found all these amari enjoyable to one degree or another. And I will continue to enjoy them until the bottles are empty. Then I plan to keep Cynar and Ramazzotti stocked in my liquor cabinet. In summary:

For drinking on the rocks:

  1. Averna if you want tasty and easy drinking
  2. Ramazzotti if you want a little more flavor and bitterness
  3. Cardamaro if you want light and refreshing

In a cocktail:

  1. Cynar for the best Little Italy ever
  2. Luxardo if you prefer it a bit drier
  3. Cardamaro if you’re pairing with a power-house vermouth (like Carpano Antica)

If you have a stomach ache:

  1. Fernet Branca

Repairing A Scratched Bumper

While camping at Pismo Beach this summer I backed into the wooden rail that lined our campsite. Not hard enough to dent the bumper, but hard enough to scratch off a good chunk of paint. Faced with a $500 insurance deductible I, after some consulting with my son, decided to attempt the repair myself.  I had never done any automotive body repair or painting before. But he convinced that with the proper supplies and a little “self training” I could do it. And he was right!

He recommended products from automotivetouchup.com plus they have good information on their website, including a collection of short how-to videos. So I decided to go with them for supplies.

Supplies

Here was my order from automotivetouchup.com:

  • 12oz Aerosol Spray Paint, 2006 Honda Pilot: Taffeta White NH578
  • 12oz Aerosol White Sandable Acrylic Lacquer Primer
  • 12 oz Aerosol High Gloss Clear Coat
  • 12 oz Aerosol Plastic Parts Adhesion Promoter
  • Assorted Wet Sandpaper Pack (180/320/600/1000/1500)
  • Grey Fine Scuff Pad
  • CANGUN Spray Can Tool
  • 2oz Prep solvent
  • 1.5″ 3M Green Auto Grade masking tape
  • 3/4″ 3M Green Auto Grade masking tape
  • Bondo Gold Tack Cloth

This came to under $80 delivered to my door. Note that it takes a while for them to mix the paint and get the order out, so make sure to order a couple weeks in advance of when you need it. Additional supplies/tools:

  • Hand block sander
  • Paper cups and small paint brush for additional touch ups
  • Various drop cloths, tarps, etc for masking and tarping
  • Tunes: you absolutely need music when working on your car

Overview

  1. Prep
    1. Wash car
    2. Clean panel to be repaired thoroughly
    3. Mask panel to be repaired
    4. Scuff entire panel (to be clear coated) with scuff pad or 1000 grit sandpaper
    5. Sand damaged area with 180 then 320 grit to feather all edges
    6. Wipe panel off with damp rag
    7. Clean panel with prep solvent
    8. If bare plastic exposed, coat plastic with plastic parts adhesion promoter
  2. Prime
    1. Spray damaged area with primer
    2. Let dry 5 minutes, wipe with tack cloth, then repeat for 3-4 coats
    3. Let final coat dry 30 minutes, then wet sand with 600 grit sandpaper
    4. If any imperfections, then add more coats of primer, and wet sand again
    5. Wipe area with damp rag
  3. Color coat
    1. Wipe area with tack cloth
    2. Spray color coat over primer making sure to blend with surrounding paint
    3. Let dry 5 minutes, wipe with tack cloth, then repeat for 3-4 coats
    4. Let final coat dry 30 minutes
    5. If imperfections then wet sand with 1000 grit sandpaper and apply one more coat. Do not sand final coat.
  4. Clear coat
    1. Wipe area with tack cloth
    2. Spray entire panel with clear coat
    3. Let dry 5 minutes, wipe with tack cloth, then repeat for 3-4 coats
    4. Do not sand between coats
  5. Final polish
    1. Let clear coat dry for 24 hours
    2. Polish and wax

Tips

  1. Masking and prep
    1. Tape hard lines at panel seams
    2. Use backtaping if you need to tape across a panel
    3. Automotive Masking Tape Techniques video
    4. After masking around the panel to be repaired, make sure to extend the masking/tarping over the rest of your car. Overspray gets everywhere.
    5. For applying the plastic adhesion promoter, I sprayed it into a paper cup and used a small paintbrush to paint a light coat on the bare plastic (instead of spraying it).
  2. Sanding and priming
    1. Your scratched area must not have any hard edges. You need to feather the edges by sanding. Don’t be shy.
    2. After the final primer coat the surface must be perfectly smooth with no imperfections. Remember, the color coat just adds color, it won’t hide imperfections.
    3. Wet sanding is awesome. The sandpaper cuts smoothly, there is no dust, and it just works great. Make sure to wet sand when you sand the primer and (optionally) the second to last color coat.
    4. It’s import to wipe with the tack cloth after every coat. This not only picks up any dust that has settled, but more importantly picks up light overspray.
  3. Take your time. Recovering from a mistake is much more costly than going slow and getting it right. Don’t rush to get that color coat on. A good paint job is all about the prep and getting the primer coat nice and smooth.
  4. The Cangun spray can tool worked fantastc. Well worth it.
  5. automotivetouchup.com has collection of short videos that I found very helpful

Conclusion

Overall I was very satisfied with the repair. Was it perfect? No. I have a little bit of orange peel if you looked real close — but even the pros get that. And the color match isn’t perfect, but it is very good. Good enough not to be noticed by anybody but us.

Overall I am very happy and, more importantly, the spouse is happy.

Photos

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The Supplies

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The damage

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Masking job

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Scratches sanded down and edges feathered

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White primer applied and sanded smooth

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Completed repair