Coleman/Fleetwood Popup Trailer Awning Rail Replacement

We have a 1996 Coleman Cheyenne, one of the first years  with an ABS roof. In this article I will discuss how I replaced the old, cracked awning rail with a new one. In another article I describe refurbishing the roof.

Replacing the Awning Rail

A few years ago the plastic awning rail started to open up and lose its grip on the awning bag. As a stop-gap I drilled some holes in the rail and droIMGP7821ve screws through the top of the rail and into the bag bead. That worked for a couple years, but the awning rail continued to sag and crack. Time had come to replace it.

There were a couple challenges:

  1. How to remove the old awning rail? It was glued to the roof.
  2. How to attach a new awning rail? An ABS roof isn’t really meant to be screwed into.
  3. What awning rail to use? Metal? Plastic?

This is what I did (at the end of the article is a series of photos illustrating the procedure).

Removing Old Awning Rail

I considered a couple of choices:

  1. Pry up the old awning rail and hope the old adhesive lets go before it pulled up pieces of the roof.
  2. Admit prying up the old rail will damage the roof, so cut around the old rail so that as it pulls up the ABS skin it will do so cleanly
  3. Cut off only the C channel of the old rail, leaving the flanged base.

I initially tried #1, gently probing and prying at the old rail with a putty knife. My evaluation was if I was going to pry it up then I was going to damage the roof. I considered #2, but decided it was best to leave the roof as intact as possible, so I went with #3.

To facilitate cutting off the C channel I purchased an inexpensive Oscillating Multifunction Power Tool from Harbor Freight ($15 on sale!) along with the 3/4″ cutting blade. I did my best to cut the old channel off flush without gouging the base and was, for the most part, successful. Any cosmetic issues would eventually be covered up by the new rail or the Grizzly Grip coating.

Attaching New Awning Rail

Research on the web uncovered three techniques for attaching a new rail to the roof:

  1. Glue it on with a suitable adhesive. 3M 5200 Marine adhesive was the most commonly recommended.
  2. Bolt it on by drilling all the way through the roof and using  bolts with nuts and washers on the inside.
  3. Screw it on by embedding drywall anchors into the roof (secured with Gorilla Glue)

I had some concern with #1 especially since it was unclear how well 5200 works with plastics. I initially considered #2, but decided I did not want unsightly washers and nuts on the inside of my roof. So I decided to go with a combination of #3 and #1 — belt and suspenders! Also the 5200 would act as a sealant (in addition to an adhesive).

The Awning Rail and Other Supplies

I considered three replacement rails:

  1. Flanged metal
  2. Flanged PVC
  3. PVC Flex-A-Rail

Since the roof  line curves I figured PVC would be more flexible (although I’m sure a metal rail would have enough flex). I also figured white PVC would look better than metal. One small issue I had was that the flanged PVC rails I found had a base that was a tad bigger than the base I had left behind from my old rail. I was concerned that that would leave a pocket for moisture to collect in. So I decided on the Flex-A-Rail from Sailrite since it was similar to the C channel portion of the old rail I had cut off. And since I was screwing and bonding the rail I was not overly concerned about the narrowness of the Flex-A-Rail base. Finally the screws are hidden in the C-channel improving appearance.

Update: After completing this project and using the awning with the new rail on a camping trip I would NOT use the Flex-A-Rail if I were to do this project over. The reason is that with the Flex-A-Rail the C-channel opening is perpendicular to the base of the rail (see photo at end of this article), while the old rail’s opening was offset more towards the side of the trailer. This means the awning bag bead bends at a sharper angle and the bag itself is about 3/4″ higher than before. I noticed on our camping trip that the horizontal awning poles no longer pressed completely on the flat face of the roof — instead resting a bit higher where the roof side starts to curve. These are not big problems, and I’m still happy with the repair. But if I were to do this over I would used the Flanged PVC rail mentioned above.

To save on shipping costs I ordered 44″ sections. Here is what I ordered from sailrite.com:

  • 3 Flex-A-Rail White 44″ Long
  • 3 10-pack 4 x 6 x 3/4″ screws (special small headed screws are needed to fit down in the rail).
  • 1 #0 square head screw driver (the special screws need a square drive).

Other supplies

  • Plastic Anchors #4-6 x 7/8″, 100 pack (I used 25)
  • Acetone
  • Gorilla Glue
  • 3M 5200 Marine AdhesiveIMGP7842

Tools

  • 1/8″ drill bit
  • 3/16″ drill bit
  • Drill
  • Hammer
  • Blue tape
  • Measuring tape and pencil
  • That square headed screw driver from Sailrite

The Procedure In Pictures

IMGP7831

Cutting the old C channel off with the budget oscillating multi-tool from Harbor Freight.

IMGP7835

C channel all gone. Hey! That worked pretty well.

IMGP7849

Drilling pilot holes through Flex-A-Rail with 1/8″ bit. Let the bit kiss the old rail base to mark it so you know where to drill for anchors. I drilled 1″ from each end and then every 5″ to 5.5″. Sailrite recommends spacing the screws every 4″ to 6″.

IMGP7857

If you look closely you can see the divots in this photo that mark where to drill for the anchors.

IMGP7859

Next drill with 3/16″ bit for the anchors. I used some tape on the drill bit to act as a depth gauge.

IMGP7863

Gorilla glue works best if there is some dampness, so toss the anchors in some water.

IMGP7865

A little glue goes a long way since it expands.

IMGP7867

Anchor glued in.

IMGP7866

Looking good! I let these dry for a few hours before moving on to the next step. As the Gorilla glue expands it might seep out of the anchor. I cleaned that up with a bit of acetone.

IMGP7870

3M 5200 Marine Adhesive Sealant. You can find it at Lowes and Home Depot. This tube was plenty for the job. The 5200 is supposed to provide a permanent bond. But if I ever need to remove the rail I should be able to with the help of heat and a chemical debonder.

IMGP7872

The 5200 was thinner than I thought it would be. Here it is running a bit. You might want to put it on the channel instead of the old base Don’t be afraid to use a decent amount. You can wipe off the excess with a paper towel wet with acetone.

IMGP7873

I went ahead a added tape in between the screws. The 5200 takes a couple days to fully cure.

IMGP7875

Awning bag slipped in for a test fit. Note that since the channel opening is perpendicular to the base (instead of opening more towards the side of the trailer) the bag bead bends at a sharp angle. This also raises the awning bag a bit, resulting in the horizontal awning poles hitting the side of the roof where it curved. I recommend using a channel where the C opening is tilted down towards the side of the trailer.

Vermouth Roundup: A Sweet Vermouth Tasting Review

So many sweet vermouths, so little time!

Until a few years ago my sweet vermouth universe consisted of Gallo and Martini & Rossi. And there really ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. Some of my best Manhattans have been with Gallo and Jim Beam sitting under a pine tree while camping, and M & R is terrific in a Negroni.

But variety is the spice of life, and during the last few years I (along with my brother) have enjoyed trying out different sweet vermouths. The good news is none of them are really bad. Yes, some are more flavorful and sophisticated than others, but the worst you can say about the lower rung vermouths is that they lack depth and character — which for some people is just what they want.

The following are my tasting impressions of over a dozen vermouths. Now tasting vermouths in one sitting is a challenge. You really need to taste them neat, in a Negroni and in a Manhattan. That’s a lot of drinks.  So these tasting notes are based on my experiences over the last few years, plus some dedicated tasting sessions mixed in.

Also, none of these were done blind, although I think I could identify many of these Vermouths when tasted neat. In a mixed drink is another matter. Yes there are at times significant differences, but could I tell a Manhattan made from Gallo from one made with Ponti? Probably not. But between one made with Carpano Antica and Gallo — hell yes.

The Manhattans used for tasting were typically made with:

  • Two parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • One part vermouth
  • Three dashes Angostura bitters

The Negronis:

  • One part Campari
  • One part  London dry gin (often Beefeaters or Trader Joe’s Rear Admiral Joseph’s)
  • One part sweet vermouth

Bulleit Bourbon is a nicely flavorful bourbon with a relatively high concentration of rye that can overpower some of the more mild mannered vermouths. For some of these I also tried them in a Manhattan made with Canadian whiskey — which has a more neutral flavor than American bourbons. That’s called out in some of the tasting notes.

In the Negroni more subtle differences could stand out. In a Manhattan I really can’t tell the difference between M & R and Cinzano — but in a Negroni I can.

OK, enough rambling. Here are my impressions…

1. Gallo  ($2.99 750ml Safeway, not pictured)

I grew up with Gallo. It’s the vermouth you can find when you can find no other — at least here in California. And it’s cheap.

Neat

Very sweet and lightly herbal. No bitterness. Approachable, but this is not a vermouth to drink on its own. No depth. No complexity. No bitterness.

Negroni

Harmless and inoffensive. Yes there are better choices, but at least Gallo doesn’t ruin the drink!

Manhattan

Serviceable in a pinch, especially for those that like a sweeter Manhattan with a tame whiskey (like Canadian). With a bolder whiskey the vermouth is lost.

Best For

Those on a budget. Or if you can’t find any other vermouth.  Or you are not a fan of bitter and like a basic sweet Manhattan.

2. Ponti  ($3.99 1ltr Trader Joe’s)

One of two sweet vermouths carried by Trader Joe’s in our area.

Neat

Sweet and marginally more herbal than Gallo. No bitterness. This will offend no one, and excite no one. It’s pretty much a slightly better version of Gallo.

Negroni

Works in a pinch. If you’re picking up your liquor at TJ’s then it is fine.

Manhattan

Like Gallo, it is serviceable. No problems — but no fireworks either.

Best For

You’re shopping a TJ’s and you need some vermouth. A better alternative to Gallo.

Update: Trader Joe’s in our area has stopped carrying Ponti as of summer 2016.

3. D’Aquino Rosso  ($3.99 1ltr Trader Joe’s, not pictured)

The other sweet vermouth carried at our Trader Joe’s.

Neat

Very sweet and pleasant. No bitterness. There is nothing wrong with this vermouth, but Ponti has a bit more flavor. In any case, you probably aren’t buying this stuff to drink on the rocks.

Negroni

Serviceable.

Manhattan

Serviceable.

Best For

You’re shopping a TJ’s and you need some vermouth and they are out of Ponti.

Update: As of 2016 this product appears to have a new label: Sole Vermouth Rosso. This is what Trader Joe’s now carries in our area. Sole is imported by D’Aquino and tastes the same as D’Aquino Rosso, so I think it’s the same product.

4. Martini & Rossi Rosso ($7.99 750ml Safeway)

The world’s most popular sweet vermouth. Tasty and reliable, this vermouth is a straight shooter. No bar should be without a bottle of M & R.

Neat

Moderately herbal and jammy. Very slight bitter finish. This is the quintessential all-arounder sweet vermouth, but not a great choice for drinking on the rocks.

Negroni

My favorite. Yes, I said it. Plain old M & R is my favorite vermouth for a Negroni where it provides a solid foundation without competing with the Campari. I don’t like flowery gin nor overly bold vermouth messing up my Negroni!  M & R hits the right balance for me.

Manhattans

Perfectly good in a Manhattan. Nothing you would rave about, but totally acceptable.

Best For

Best bang for the buck sweet vermouth. Every bar should have a bottle. And makes a terrific, balanced Negroni!

5. Cinzano Rosso ($7.99 750ml BevMo)

The other moderately priced contender, from the makers of Campari.

Neat

Initial cola taste and nicely herbal with a slightly more bitter finish than M & R. Cinzano has just enough personality to be tasty on the rocks or with soda.

Negroni

Quite good in a Negroni, but pushes it slightly off balance. I prefer M & R.

Manhattan

Just fine, just like M & R.

Best For

Everyday on the rocks. That touch of extra character and bitterness over the M & R makes this a better choice for drinking on the rocks or with a splash of soda (hence the near empty bottle in the photo).

6. Vya Vermouth Aperitif ($ 12.99 375ml BevMo)

A relative newcomer from California.

Neat

Initial slight cola flavor followed by an herbal finish of somewhat mysterious makeup — maybe coconut? I find Vya interesting, but not necessarily tasty.

Negroni

Not my favorite. Adds a subtle distinctive flavor that I don’t necessarily appreciate. This is a case where I’d rather have Gallo in my Negroni than a “better” vermouth.

Manhattan

The Bulleit dominated anything distinctive in this vermouth, so in a Manhattan it was serviceable but not special.  Wanting to give it a second chance I tried it with some Canadian and found it did better with a lighter bodied whiskey (if you like its taste).

Best For

Try it neat. If you like it then it would be good on the rocks or in a Manhattan with a lighter bodied whiskey. But for me, I will look elsewhere.

7. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino ($13.00 375ml BevMo)

Top shelf we are here! One of the more popular high end vermouths.

Neat

Luscious and delightfully herbal with notes of cocoa and citrus. Little bitter finish, but enough herbal depth to still be complex and interesting. This is a delicious vermouth that can easily be appreciated on the rocks — even by non-vermouth lovers.

Negroni

Good, but nothing special. The delicate flavors that are so tasty neat are somewhat lost in the Negroni and the lack of bitterness doesn’t help either.  I wouldn’t use this vermouth in a Negroni — not that it is bad, but it can be put to better use in a…

Manhattan

Spectacular! This warm, flavorful vermouth makes for a balanced Manhattan with depth. Really, really good. I mean — really good.

Best For

Sipping on the rocks and in a Manhattan. A great choice if you like a vermouth with depth, but low in bitterness. A perfect choice for Canadian Manhattans.

8. Carpano Antica Formula ($31.99 1ltr BevMo)

This is the vermouth that is currently all the rage, and is generally considered the best sweet vermouth out there. Pricey, but top notch.

Neat

Bold herbal profile with hints of vanilla and licorice. Strong, pleasant bitter finish. This is a big, complex vermouth with lots going on. Might be a little bold for some.

Negroni

While the Cocchi was a little tame in a Negroni, the Carpano is a little unbalanced. The vanilla pokes through the citrus base of the Negroni in a distracting way. It’s not bad, but not my favorite. Again, a Negroni is not the place to use this vermouth. Instead…

Manhattan

Now you’re talking! The forwardness that hurts in a Negroni shines in a Manhattan as long as you have a bold whiskey to stand up to it. It is fantastic in the Bulleit Manhattan: bold, deep and complex. But pair it with a lighter bodied whiskey and the balance is lost. Canadian lovers should reach for Cocchi.

Best For

On the rocks if you like the bold flavors and in a Manhattan when mixed with a suitable whiskey.

Tip: If you like the boldness of a Carpano Antica Manhattan, but balk at the price (or worry about the bottle of Carpano loosing character before you finish it) then try using a cheaper vermouth and adding a splash of Cynar amaro. Delicious!).

9. Carpano Punt E Mes ($26.99 750ml BevMo, not pictured)

Carpano Antica’s rambunctious little brother.

Neat

Pow! Wham! Zowie! This is a flavorful vermouth with a big bitter bite. Delicious on the rocks or with soda if you enjoy herbaciousness with a strong bitter finish — and I do!

Negroni

I’m not sure what you call Gin, Campari and Punt E Mes …. but I wouldn’t call it a Negroni. Not that it’s bad, but the Punt E Mes is like a bull in the china closet fighting the Campari to be top dog (how’s that for a mixed metaphor).

Manhattan

Haven’t tried it yet, but I predict it would be quite good — maybe at 1/2 dose.

Best For

On the rocks, or with soda.

10. Cinzano 1757 ($29.99 1ltr, Zanatto’s Market, not pictured)

Cinzano’s attempt at a premium vermouth.

Neat

A little less sweet than normal Cinzano with a bit more herbaceousness and a sturdy bitter finish. Herbal notes are more floral and less complex than Carpano Antica — and the bitterness seems a bit forced. This is a fine vermouth, but if you are in this price range and want a bold vermouth then Carpano Antica is a better choice.

Negroni

Works fine in a Negroni, but isn’t really any better than M & R. Maybe adds a touch more bitterness — but not worth the premium.

Manhattan

Meh. Does not add the depth and complexity of Carpano Antica nor the deliciousness of Cocchi. If you’re going to spend for a premium vermouth for your Manhattans then I would not spend it on 1757.

Best For

In a Negroni if you want to look fancy. But I won’t be buying any more of this vermouth.

11. Noilly Prat Rouge ($12.00 750ml, Safeway, not pictured)

French sweet vermouth. Our local Safeway started carrying it so I decided to give it a try.

Neat

Sweet, light bodied. Low herbal. No bitterness. Touches of clove and prune. Reminds me a bit of Gallo, but a tad more pleasant.

Negroni

OK, but nothing special. Definitely inferior to good old M & R.

Manhattan

Pedestrian. Did not stand up to the Bulleit. As with other light vermouths might work well for those that prefer a lighter Manhattan made with Canadian.

Best For

Those that like a basic, light bodied Manhattan. Me? I’ll pass.

12. LeJon ($3.97 750ml, CVS, not pictured)

I was in CVS buying a birthday card and, of course, wandered down the liquor aisle. I recognized this label from my youth. It was $1.99 on sale — so I had to pick up a bottle.

Neat

A bit winey and not very vermouthy. No bitterness. Not very herbal. Rather unpleasant.

Negroni

First attempt resulted in no detection of vermouth whatsoever. So I tried doubling the portion, and the Negroni became barely drinkable. But why bother.

Manhattan

I haven’t tried yet. Not sure I’m going to.

Best For

Uh….nothing comes to mind. If you want a cheap vermouth then both Gallo and Ponti are clearly better. This is the only vermouth on this list that I would consider truly bad.

13. Sole Rosso ($3.49 1ltr, Trader Joe’s, not pictured)

Recently our local Trader Joe’s stopped carrying Ponti and D’Aquino, and now carries only this brand. Sole Rosso is labeled as being imported by D’Aquino and it tastes just like the D’Aquino Rosso described above (#3), so I suspect it is the same product. See the D’Aquino tasting notes.

14. Rivata Sweet Vermouth ($6.29 750ml Total Wine & More)

We just got a Total Wine & More in our area and they carry this as a mid tier vermouth. (BTW, Total Wine & More destroys BevMo in terms of prices — bye, bye BevMo).

Neat

Sweet with a touch of cherry cola. Low bitterness. First sip on the rocks is tasty, but then it wears out its welcome.

Negroni

Similar to Cinzano in that it adds a slightly different note to the drink. Acceptable.

Manhattan

Not bad! The hints of cherry cola worked pretty well with Bulleit. Not spectacular, but not bad either.

Best For

You’re shopping at Total Wines and you want an inexpensive change of pace. But really you should reach for M & R or Cinzano instead.

15. Dolin (11.99 750ml Total Wine 7 More)

A French vermouth that confirms my impression of French vermouths: while Italian vermouths strive to make a statement, French vermouths are more reserved and prefer to rest in the background of a cocktail.

Neat

Light and mild, Dolin is not too sweet, not too medicinal, low bitterness. Dolin is nicely restrained which makes it very good on the rocks with a twist of lemon.

Manhattan

If you’re a bourbon Manhattan drinker then Dolin seems pretty run-of-the-mill to me. Bold whiskey benefit from a more substantial vermouth backbone.

On the other hand, if you’re a Canadian (or brandy) Manhattan drinker, then Dolin hits the spot. Pleasant, restrained, tasty, it makes for a nicely balanced Canadian Manhattan — although I would still put Cocchi ahead.

 Negroni

A pass for me. Dolin is a bit tame for a Negroni.  Viva l’Italia!

Best For

Canadian Manhattans with a French slant, and on the rocks with a twist.

Summary and Recommendations

  • Best for a Bulleit Manhattan: Carpano Antica Formula
  • Best for a Canadian or Brandy Manhattan: Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
  • Best for a Negroni: Martini and Rossi Rosso
  • Best on the rocks: Punt E Mes
  • Best on the rocks everyday: Cinzano Rosso
  • Best on the cheap: Ponti Sole Rosso (Trader Joe’s)
  • Best everyday/all-around: Martini and Rossi Rosso

Tip: keep your good quality vermouths in the refrigerator and consume them within a couple of months.

And the fun doesn’t stop here.  If you want to go beyond the world of Vermouth see my review of some popular Italian Amari. And for some great cocktails made with sweet vermouth see From the Manhattan to the Negroni: A Tour of the World’s Finest Cocktails

Converting Protected iTunes Audio Files So You Can Play Them Anywhere

Music purchased in iTunes in Mid 2007 and earlier can’t be played on any non-Apple (iOS/MacOS) device. These music files are protected with Digital Rights Management (DRM) and are labeled in iTunes as Protected AAC audio file and have a file suffix of m4p. Apple introduced iTunes Plus in 2007 — a DRM free, higher quality format. These files are labeled as Purchased AAC audio file and have a file suffix of m4a and can be played on (most) any device. By 2009 Apple stopped selling DRM encumbered music and all was iTunes Plus.

Since we were an early iTunes adopter our iTunes library had a lot of protected files. Over a thousand. In the last year or so I’ve started using the Amazon ecosystem more and more. We use Amazon Prime music, we have an Amazon Fire TV Stick and Echo, and I’m considering getting an Amazon Fire tablet. With Amazon Prime I can upload my purchased iTunes music — yeah! — but NOT if it is Protected AAC. Boo! And if I do get that Fire Tablet, those protected iTunes files won’t play. The more recent stuff will — but not most stuff purchased before 2009.

Bottom line is: you do not want any DRM protected music in your music library. So how do you get rid of the iTunes DRM?

There was a period of time where you could upgrade protected files to iTunes Plus for a fee. But that option is no longer available. Fortunately there is still a way — it’s just a little indirect and will cost you $25.

Before doing this process you should check your iTunes library and see how many protected music files you have. One easy way to do that is to create a smart playlist where Kind contains “Protected AAC audio file”. You can then see how many you have and if it is worth the $25 to convert them.

iTunes Match

Apple introduced iTunes Match in early 2013. The concept is simple. iTunes Match scans your iTunes music library. Most of your music files Apple already has sitting on their servers (“in the cloud”). For those that don’t match, iTunes uploads them to your own private corner of the cloud. Once the scanning/uploading is complete your music is available to you on any iOS device. You no longer have to sync the music files from your Mac to your phone. And you don’t even need to keep local copies of the files on your Mac if you don’t want to.

The catch? It costs $25 a year. But for the $25 you get another bonus. Since all the music in Match is iTunes Plus (DRM free) you can convert your m4p files to m4a by simply forcing a re-download of the files. Once you do that you can upload them to Amazon Prime, copy them to your Android tablet, etc.

Here’s How

1) Subscribe to iTunes Match

You can do this in the iTunes store. It will cost you $25.

2) Turn off Auto-Renewal

If you are primarily using iTunes Match to convert your library, then go to your iTunes Account settings and turn off auto-renewal now so you don’t forget. When iTunes Match lapses in a year you won’t get the cloud benefits, but all the converted files you have downloaded will stay converted.

3) Click on the Match tab in iTunes

After subscribing to Match it will go through three phases:

  1. Gathering info about your iTunes library
  2. Matching your music with songs in the iTunes Store
  3. Uploading artwork and remaining songs

I stopped the process after it finished #2. I will likely go back and start it up again to finish #3, but it’s not critical at this point.

4) Examine Your Library

Now click on My Music. Bring up the Songs menu in the upper right corner and make sure “Kind” is checked in the Show Columns menu.

Next click on the Kind column to sort your music by file type. Scroll down to your “Protected AAC audio files”. These are the files you want to upgrade.

5) Delete a protected file and re-download it

First try just one file to make sure things are working as you expect. Do this:

  1. Select one of your Protected AAC audio files
  2. Press the Delete key
  3. Click Move to Trash
  4. In iTunes the song will now be labeled “Purchased AAC audio file”. There will be a ready to download icon next to it: available
  5. Control-Click on the selected song and choose Download off of the menu
  6. The music file will download as an m4a file! Yipee!

6) Repeat for the rest of your library

I did it this way:

  1. Sort by Kind to identify Protected AAC audio files
  2. Some of my protected songs had the Waiting cloud icon: waiting. From what I could tell these are songs that did not match and iTunes wanted to upload them. This seems like a bug, since one would think that any song I purchased in iTunes would match, but for some reason they did not. Less than 1% of my Protected songs had this icon, so I decide just to ignore them for now.
  3. For the other protected songs I selected large chunks of them and hit Delete then Move to Trash.
  4. Once I was done deleting the protected songs I sorted the song list by the cloud icon column, then selected all the “ready to download” songs and downloaded them
  5. It took a couple hours to finish the downloads

7) You iTunes Library is now DRM free!

I then uploaded some Nirvana to my Amazon Prime account and listened to it on my Echo (Alexa! Play Nirvana). Something I could not do before the conversion

References

  1. Subscribe to iTunes Match
  2. iTunes Match: Understanding the iCloud Status icons
  3. About iTunes Plus and Converting DRM music

Amazon Echo Review

Introduction

Last fall Amazon announced the Echo:  a combination personnel assistant (think Siri) and bluetooth speaker. For some reason I found the cheezy video strangely compelling, so I signed up for one (and at $99 for Prime members it seemed pretty reasonable). And here we are in February and it just arrived.

Unbox and Setup

IMGP7806The unit arrived in a nice compact box. The internal box followed Amazon’s Fire branding: low key black outside with a pop of orange on the inside. Contents of the box:

  1. The Echo tower
  2. Power adapter
  3. Remote control
  4. Batteries for remote control
  5. Getting started guide and Echo tip sheet

The Echo tower itself is nicely finished and pleasantly hefty due to the two speaker drivers with large magnets. On top of the tower is a light ring that is both a volume knob and a visual indicator that changes color/pattern depending on what’s going on with the Echo.

So I plug it in and it powers up, first flashing some blue, then changing to a sweeping orange. Echo then speaks, telling me that it’s time to start the setup app. My dog is slightly spooked.

The companion app for the Echo runs on iPhones, Android phones, and browsers on your computer. I decided to do the setup using my iMac and Safari, so I went to http://echo.amazon.com and the app loaded. So far so good. I advanced to the connection screen where I’m informed that the Echo has set up a WiFi network, and it was time to turn on my iMac WiFi and connect to Amazon-XXX. I did, and the Echo pleasantly informed me that my client had connected and to continue with the setup app.

And then I hit a problem. The application was stuck on “Connecting….”. My iMac had joined the temporary wifi network just fine (according to my network settings), but it couldn’t connect to the Echo. I tried all the normal things you try in this situation: power cycling the Echo, trying the app on an iPad, etc. Nothing helped. So I called Amazon support.

Initially I talked to a general support engineer in some far away country, but he quickly transferred me to an Echo specialist, Stephanie, who sounded like she was right next door.  After going over some basics, Stephanie had me reset the Echo by inserting a paper clip into a small hole in the base of the Echo. And to make a long story short — that did the trick. I was able to perform the setup process. So to highlight this for others:

If your Echo setup application hangs on “Connecting…”, then turn your Echo over, insert a paper clip into the small hole in the bottom of the Echo, hold for 5 seconds to reset the Echo to factory defaults, and then re-do the setup process.

OK! So now our Echo was up and running.

Speaker Quality

The first thing I was interested in was the speaker quality. One of the primary uses of Echo is to play music so it better sound pretty good. And it does.

The tower contains two downward firing drivers: a 2″ tweeter and a 2.5″ woofer.  Clearly you’re not going to get window shaking bass, but the Echo does produce a full rich sound. Since it is a point source of audio, it’s not going to fill your room like a good home system does. But for background music while you are cooking dinner? Perfect!

Overall the Echo played louder and sounded better than the Cambridge Soundworks Oontz we have (a small decent sounding bluetooth speaker). But it likely lacks the punch of higher end ($200) speakers. I do wish the Echo had some way to support adding external speakers — maybe a headphone out.  But it does not.

In general I have no complaints with the sound quality. It sounds great for what it is.

Voice Recognition

To get the Echo’s attention you use a wakeup word — “Alexa” by default (you have an option to use “Amazon” for those families that already have an Alexa). In general the voice recognition works well. Both my wife and I had no problem using the Echo, and even when it is playing music it easily recognized me without needing to shout. The Echo comes with a remote control with a microphone for those cases when the room is too noisy, or you are too far away. The companion app contains a voice recognition training feature, but so far we’ve felt no need to use it.

In terms of range — it is quite good. The Echo seemed to easily hear us from any point in a large room — and even a room away (with no music playing).

In fact, the voice recognition might be too good! We were watching American Idol one evening, and there was a contestant named “Alexis”. I’m not sure exactly what Ryan Seacrest said, but in the middle of the show our Echo announced “Adding Books to your shopping list”.

Music Streaming

Currently the primary use of the Echo will be to stream music. The Echo has access to your Amazon Prime music, as well as the streaming services iHeartRadio and TunieIn. Some example of requests you can ask Echo:

  • Play my “Dinner Party” play list
  • Play Journey
  • Play KNBR radio
  • Play Taylor Swift
  • Louder
  • Softer
  • Next
  • Volume 4
  • Mute

Generally Echo first tries to satisfy your request using your Prime Music library, then falls back to free content on Prime Music. At times it has also fallen back to iHeartRadio and TuneIn. For example Amazon Prime has plenty of Journey, but apparently no Taylor Swift. So “Play Journey” played stuff from Prime, and “Play Taylor Swift” went to iHeartRadio.

iHeartRadio also streams live radio, so “Play KNBR” plays our local sports radio station. And of course you can explicitly pick an iHeardRadio custom station by saying “Play iHeartRadio My Jazz”.

TuneIn has a variety of podcasts and NPR shows, so “Play This American Life” will play the latest episode.  Unfortunately I have not found a way to select a specific podcast episode via voice command. For example I want to listen to Episode 1 of the Serial podcast, but I can’t get the Echo to do that unless I use the companion app to select it.

Overall the music streaming works pretty well, but it is not without frustration. There have been times that I just can’t get the Echo to understand what I’m requesting. For example, I have some tracks from the soundtrack to Whiplash in my Prime music library, but no matter what I said it kept playing some song name Whiplash. I had to resort to creating a specific playlist — at which point “Play playlist whiplash” did the trick.  Also, sometimes requesting specific classical pieces does not go well. It just has no idea what I’m asking for.

But these frustrations have been relatively minor, and we find ourselves using the music streaming capability often.

Other Features

In addition to streaming music Echo has some additional features:

  • Sports: The Echo has some integration with sports results. It’s very handy to be able to ask: “Alexa, when do the Warriors play next” or “What was the score of the Giants game?”.
  • Setting a timer: we love this feature! If you’ve just phoned in your Japanese take out order and you need to leave in ten minutes to pick it up: “Alexa, 10 minute timer!”. Our your hands are covered in bread dough: “Alexa, 15 minute timer!”.
  • Shopping and ToDo list: You can add and remove things from these lists by asking Alexa. These lists are made available in the companion app so you can access them on your smart phone. “Alexa, add Almond Milk to the shopping list”.
  • Flash Briefing: You can get a brief update on news and weather by asking: “Alexa, flash briefing”. We have ours configured to use NPR for the news.
  • General info: I was concerned that the Echo might be a temptation to cheat on my Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle — after all, I’m used to asking my wife questions. Why not Alexa? Well no worries there — the Echo is not as smart as some of the other digital assistants — at least not yet. For example it did not know the largest lake in South America. And in general, these type of queries are hit and miss. But the Echo does know about local sports teams, which is huge! So this does work: “Alexa, when do the Warriors play next?”.  And I get the answer in Pacific Time  (which is better than Yahoo Sports which seems to list everything in ET).
  • Spelling: oh yes, the Echo can spell. So now my family can ask Alexa instead of me!

Conclusion

So why is this better than Siri on your iPhone plus a bluetooth speaker?

It’s better because the Echo is always on, and always there. You don’t have to find it. You don’t have to touch it. You just talk at the room and voila — you have your answer or your music. So for $99 bucks I think it’s a bundle of fun for Amazon Prime members.

Backyard Landscaping: Paver Patio

My wife hated The Deck. We had lived in our house 18 years, and every single summer she asked “when are we going to tear out The Deck”? The Deck was dirty, high maintenance, and was elevated 18″ which, although not a great height, still made you feel like your head was poking above the fences — further reducing any sense of privacy. We really didn’t use our backyard — which was a shame — in large part because of The Deck.

Each year I mumbled something non-committal. Tearing out the deck is the easy part. But then what? We would need a new patio, and after fits and starts and high estimates from contractors I continued to avoid that endeavor.

Finally the spouse had had enough. She hired my son and his friend to tear out The Deck. They were quite efficient. It was gone in a couple days.

So that was that. We were getting a new patio. And we decided to do it ourselves.

There are lots of DIY articles on installing a paver patio. They make it look so simple. And really, it is not rocket science. But there is a big different between laying a 10′ x 10′ patio and a 20′ x 30′ patio. And there are lots of details the DIY articles gloss over.

In this article I’ll go over how we did our patio, and highlight some mistakes we made.

Materials

We wanted a fairly large format paver which ruled out the smaller pavers found at your big box store. After looking around we chose Calston Quarry Stone Versailles (the same manufacturer we used for our garden retaining wall materials) in Sequoia Sandstone using the Versailles 3 pattern. Along some edges we used a border of 6×9 Quarry Stone.

One thing to keep in mind when doing a large landscaping project is the weight of materials. For exaIMGP7635mple, I think the 16″x16″ pavers were around 40 pounds each. You have to haul those around, try to set them delicately, and then sometimes remove them and reset them. I would not have wanted to work with any larger of a paver. And I’m glad “only” 40% of our pattern was the large paver.

Once you have picked the pavers, pattern and know your square footage your supplier can help you determine how many pavers of each size to get. Also most manufacturers have estimation guides that you can use for budgeting purposes.

In addition to the pavers you will need baserock, bedding sand, and grouting sand. Again, your supplier can help you determine how much you need of each.

And finally, you will need some sort of edge restraint. There are various products. We ended up using a couple of different brands of flexible plastic edge restraints that are held in place with metal spikes. This was especially helpful on our one curved section. The professionals often pour cement footings with a little rebar, but I didn’t want to mess with that.  So far the plastic restraints have held up just fine.

Tools

The tools you will use most are good old fashioned, hard working hand tools. I also rented a mini loader since I had a fair amount of dirt to push around (and yes, part of the benefit of DIY is being able to rent fun equipment). You’ll want to rent a plate compactor twice. Once for compacting the base rock and once (with a rubber pad) for compacting the pavers after laying and grouting them. A brick saw is necessary if you have cuts to make (which you will if you have any curves).

Rentals

Hand Tools

  • Shovels, pick axe, digging bar
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Two 4′ x 1″ external diameter iron pipe
  • Hearing protection
  • Buckets
  • Various hand trowels for leveling sand, etc
  • A few straight 2×6’s for screeding sand
  • Wooden stakes
  • Hammer
  • Rubber mallet
  • Hand plate compactor
  • Levels: 4′ and short
  • String for doing layout

Layout and Pitch

Layout seems simple — you know where you want your patio after all, but there are some things to keep in mind:

  • The dimensions given for the pavers are typically “nominal”. That means they are not exactly that size. Just like a 2×4 isn’t 2″ by 4″. The pavers will likely be a bit smaller than their nominal dimensions.
  • Think about where you want full pavers versus cut. You might have some fixed sides — against the house for example, or against a sidewalk or retaining wall — that prevent you from rounding to the next whole paver. In that case you will have to make some cuts. In our case we wanted hole pavers on the outer edges of the patio and cuts up against the house.
  • Remember, not everything is always square! In our case we had the garden wall that ran parallel to the house. But not exactly parallel!  We choose to keep the patio square to the wall which means it hit the house slightly skewed.

The recommended pitch for a patio is 1/8″ to 1/4″ per foot. And you want to pitch it away from your house (so water runs away from your house).

We pitched our patio 1/4″ per foot (or 1″ per four feet) and this was our first mistake. Pitching this much caused two problems:

  1. The slope is perceptible. It’s not a big problem, and you certainly don’t feel that the patio is sloped, but you can still perceive it (or at least I can!).
  2. On one section of our house the stucco comes down fairly low. Our reference elevation point for the patio was the base of our retaining wall, and the patio rose up from there to meet the house. Since we had a decent pitch, the patio rose nearly 6″ from that point. That resulted in the top of the pavers hitting the house above our stucco line. If we had done a more gentle pitch the pavers would have met the house below the stucco at the foundation.

I think if we had done a gentler pitch, like 3/4″ per four feet I would have been happier with the results.

Excavation and Grading

First you need to plan your grade. For our patio it went like this:

  • The thickness of our patio is: 6″ baserock + 1″ bedding sand + 2.5″ paver = 9.5″
  • We wanted the top of the patio to intersect our garden wall at a certain spot at its base. This became our reference point.
  • I hand dug a shallow trench along the garden wall that was about 9.5″ deep. I then hammered in a stake such that the top of the stake was 3.5″ below where I wanted the top of the patio. The top of the stake represented the top of the baserock layer so about 6″ of stake was exposed. This was the reference point for laying out our grade.
Excavating with the SK350

Excavating with the SK350

To dig out the rest of the soil I rented a Ditch Witch SK350 mini skid steer loader. It was fun. The entire family took turns. A couple tips while excavating:

  • Tape a 3/4″ wood block (in our case it was a 1″ wood block — see mistake above) to one end of a 4 foot level.
  • As you excavate, use this to check your grade. Place the end of the level with the wood block on the downhill side, and when the level is level, you have the correct pitch.
  • Your pitch doesn’t have to be perfect, but if it is close it helps
  • We used the mini loader to dig the grass up in the rest of our backyard too
  • We distributed the dirt around the rest of the yard to generally raise the grade of our backyard up a bit
  • Wear hearing protection if use something like the SK350. It was pretty loud.

We were able to excavate in one day. And yes, it was a long day.

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Pushing dirt around

It is recommended that after excavation you compact your base soil with a hopper or vibrating plate compactor. I have to be honest that I did not do this. Our soil has a high clay content and is really dense and compact as it is. So I took a shortcut and skipped this. This has not proven to be a problem, but if your soil is loose you’ll definitely want to compact it.

After you finished excavating it’s time to set the rest of the grading stakes. These will help you lay your base rock to grade. The idea is to have the top of the grading stakes be at the level that you want the top of your baserock.

Use that first grading stake as a reference. Hammer in stakes every four feet across the pitch from your reference stake. The tops of these stakes should be level with each other. So for us these ran parallel to our garden wall.

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Grading stakes installed

Now off of each of those stakes run a row of stakes up the pitch four feet apart. Use your 4′ level with the 3/4″ wood block to check the height of the new stake: place the end of the level with the wood block on the downhill stake and rest the other end of the level on the uphill stake. When the level is level your uphill stake is the correct height. Repeat this process until you have a grid of stakes 4′ apart.

When you are done do some sanity checking by running a line down a row of stakes and ensure the total drop from top stake to bottom stake is what you expect.

You might also want to spray paint the top of the stakes with florescent orange spray paint. This makes the stakes more visible and helps you not to trip over them.

Base Rock

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Tucker the Cavalier helping lay baserock

Now it’s time to lay down the base rock! The recommendation is to do this in multiple 3″ lifts, compacting between the lifts. Once again I took a short cut. During the week my family hauled baserock and spread it until it was even with the top of the stakes (all 6″ at once). Then on the weekend we compacted it with a plate compactor and hauled and compacted more as needed.

Once you think the baserock is done, you need to double check it to make sure it is even. And this is where we made our second mistake.

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Tucker inspecting

To check the baserock  get a nice straight 2 x 4 and lay it on edge on the baserock and check for low and high points. Make sure to keep turning the 2×4 90 degrees so you are checking both across and with the ptich. If you have a gap (that a pencil will slip through) under the middle of the 2×4 then you have a low spot If the 2×4 wobbles on a high spot, then you have a high spot.  Fill, level and recompact as needed.

Our mistake is that we rushed this and ended up with some low spots that we did not detect until too late. That caused problems later (see below). So do a good job and make sure that base rock is even!

Compactin

Compacting baserock

Edging

Where you have exposed edges of your patio you need some form of edge restraint to contain the pavers. Professionals often do this with cement and some rebar. We used a couple different brands of plastic edging product that you secure in place with metal spikes. The plastic edging is especially helpful if you have any curves as the edging makes it easy to get a smooth even curve.

I don’t recall the specific brands we used — but I don’t expect there is much difference.

Since it is difficult to exactly predict where the edge of the patio will end up (due to variations in pavers) we did not install all of the edging to start.

Laying Pavers

Once we had the baserock compacted we started to lay the pavers. We did not install edging on one edge of our patio, since we knew we’d need to adjust that to fit tight up against the pavers.

Before you start laying your pavers make sure to do some dry fitting to confirm your layout and dimensions. Think about where you want full versus cut pavers. For example on our patio we wanted full pavers on the outer edges of our patio, and cut pavers against our house. We also did a border along those edges (and not against the house). IMGP7625

Laying the pavers is the fun part of the project. First lay down those two iron pipes parallel to each other (see photo). Next dump sand between the pipes and rest a 2×6 on the pipes. Then pull the 2×6 along the pipes to screed, or level, the sand. Once you have a nice area of sand gently remove the pipes and fill the gaps left by the pipes with sand (using a small trowel).

Once the sand is down start placing pavers following your pattern. Make sure to drop the pavers flat — try not to let a corner dip and gouge out the sand. Tap the paver with a rubber mallet. Periodically check the pavers to make sure they are pretty even and none are sitting low.

This was our third mistake! We were behind schedule at this point and rushing and did not carefully check for uneveness. After we had laid most of the pavers we could tell we had low spots — all caused by not double checking our baserock (see mistake #2). We ended up going back, pulling up pavers and re-leveling with sand. This was a huge pain — especially with the larger pavers. Rookie mistake. We were able to correct the most egregious of the low spots, but it was no fun.

After laying the main field you might have to cut pavers for some edges. We needed to cut pavers against the house, as well as the pavers in the curve. For this I rented a brick saw.

Compacting and Grouting

At this point all your pavers are laid, and it looks pretty darn good. But you’ll notice that the pavers aren’t completely even (even if you did a nice job leveling them). No worries — compacting smooths that out.

When you rent the plate compactor this time, make sure you get one with a rubber pad that is designed for running over the tops of the pavers. Even with the pad we had a couple pavers chip. Once the pavers are compacted it’s time to grout.

You can use plain old grouting sand — but the latest thing is polymeric sand. When activated with water this sand hardens and binds together. It makes for a great, durable, weed resistant grout. The down side is it will be more work if you need to repair or replace pavers. But we used it and I am pleased with the results. Just make sure to follow the directions on the bag.

Enjoy

Ready for a party. Note the ugly white post. We later wrapped with a sythetic stone post wrap.

Ready for a party. Note the ugly white post. We later wrapped with a sythetic stone post wrap.

When we did our patio we had a deadline. We were throwing my daughter a going away party on the day we planned on finishing the patio. We had until 5pm! I was just finishing activating and rinsing the grout when the first guests arrived. Just made it!

So make sure to throw a party to celebrate your new patio!

Stock Tank, Rain Chain Fountain

No backyard landscape job is complete without a water feature. This was high on my wife’s list both to provide some pleasant ambient sound and to act as a focal point.

The common DIY water feature is a flower pot fountain, but we wanted something different. Inspired by the corrugated metal on our tool wall and a stock tank we’re growing bamboo in, we came up with the stock tank rain chain fountain. Check out the video on YouTube to see it in action. Instead of going through detailed build instructions I’ll let the photos do the talking and then provide some tips.

550 GPH submersible pump. Turned out this was just the right size.

IMGP7771

PVC pipe frame to support plastic disk that was then covered in cobbles. You can also see the hose and power cord coming in for the pump.

Weather proof outlet on back of 2x6. You can also see the remote control dongle. The pump and some (temporary) lighting is plugged into it.

Weather proof outlet on back of 4×6. You can also see the remote control dongle. The pump and some (temporary) lighting is plugged into it.

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Tubing running up back of fountain from pump. I used 3/4″ until I got to the top, then reduced to 1/2″ for the final run to the PVC pipe manifold.

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End shot of the PVC manifold. You can see the hooks that the rain chains are attached too. I drilled holes into the PVC pipe above the rain chains. I actually drilled them too big and wrapped some electrical tape to reduce the size of the holes.

IMGP7793

Top shot of the 1/2″ tubing running to the PVC manifold. I had water flow into both ends of the PVC pipe. The PVC pipe is attached to a 2×4 sandwiched between the 2×6’s. Another option would have be to just run drip irrigation tube off of the 1/2″ tube to the top of the rain chains.

IMGP7773

Plastic disk in place.

IMGP7779

Stones covering plastic disk. The disk is 1/4″ thick and is sturdy enough to support a thin layer of stones. Since the disk is black you don’t have to worry too much about coverage.

All done!

Tips

  1. Key parts:
    1. 32″ diameter by 24″ high stock tank
    2. 10′ redwood 4×6
    3. Two 5′ redwood 2×6
    4. Two large galvanzied carriage bolts with nuts and washers
    5. 550 GPH pond pump
    6. Miscellaneous 3/4″ and 1/2″ tubing and fittings
    7. Two 8.5 foot rain chains  (we got ours from Monarch Rain Chains)
    8. 3 hooks for hanging rain chains
    9. A 31″ diameter (or whatever size fits inside of your tank) disk of 1/4″ black plastic
    10. Cobbles
  2. General construction:
    1. Sink 4×6 post where you want it
    2. Cut decorative ends on the 2×6’s and attach hooks to inside face of front 2×6. You can also attach the hooks later, but it’s a little tougher once the 2×6’s are bolted to the 4×6.
    3. Bolt 2×6’s to 4×6 post
    4. Cut hole in the back side of stock tank about 9″ from the bottom to run power and tubing to pump.
    5. Run tubing from inside tank, over to post, up post, across rear 2×6. Cut hole in rear 2×6 and run tubing to above the hooks. I ended up using a two foot piece of PVC pipe to act like a manifold above the hooks and drilled holes in the PVC to feed the rain chains. See photos.
    6. Install pump in tank. Connect to tubing. Fill tank with water up to hole. Hang rain chains and give it a test run.
    7. Build a PVC platform to support the plastic disk (see photos). Set platform in tank. I used 1/2″ risers as the legs of the platform.
    8. Drill a 1/2″ hole some place in the disk to help lift it when you need to remove it for maintenance. Drop disk into tank. Cover with cobbles.
  3. For power I tapped into an outdoor outlet and ran conduit to the back side of the 4×6 to a weatherproof outlet box. I then got a cheapo remote controlled dongle that is typically used with Christmas lights. Got it at Lowes. That way we can turn the fountain on and off with a remote.
  4. I purchased the pond pump from Amazon. See photo above. It had pretty good reviews and seems well made. For the flow rating (size of pump) I just took an educated guess, and it worked out nicely.
  5. I wanted to put a rubber grommet in the 2″ hole I cut in the tank for the tube and power cord, but I couldn’t find a grommet of the correct size. So I wrapped the tube and cord with some foam to protect them from the sharp edges of the tank.
  6. The rain chain was pretty easy to break apart and reassemble to turn two 8.5 foot chains to three ~5.5 foot chains.
  7. We had the plastic disk cut at a local plastic store. It was a bit of a splurge, but was worth it. I was originally going to kludge something together with plastic lattice, but the disk worked out great.

The Negroni Cocktail

“I like my cocktails like I like my women — a little bit bitter”

My Negroni loving brother.

A couple years ago I was reading one of my favorite cycling websites and came across an article titled The Negroni Report. Turns out that Richard Pestes, the proprietor of Pez Cycling News, is a lover of cycling, Italy, and the Negroni. Intrigued by his description of the cocktail I bought some Campari and oranges and that weekend made me my first Negroni.

And that first sip was bliss. Pure heaven. I kid you not. I was hooked.

Excited I ran outside and held the glass to my wife. “You gotta try this!”. She took a sip. Made a face. “Tastes like cough syrup”.

The next evening our good friends Scott and Betsy were over. Betsy is a fellow Manhattan lover. I was excited to share my joy with her. Negroni in hand I offered her a drink. She took a sip. Made a face. “Wow. Bitter”.

What the hell?

Thanksgiving comes around, the whole family is at my sister’s in Arizona. My brother is there. We hit the liquor store for Campari and some decent vermouth. I mix him a Negroni. He takes a sip. He need not say anything. I see it in his face. He’s hooked.

And that’s how it goes with the Negroni. It is polarizing. Those of us that love it can’t imagine how anybody could resist it. Those that don’t….well, they don’t.

I’m just happy I’m a lover.

The Negroni is a classic aperitif. Meant to cleans your palette and sharpen your appetite it is traditionally consumed before a meal. But believe me, if you love ’em they are good any time. The Negroni is bittersweet and boozy with a citrus/herbal pop. And if you initially find it a bit too bitter don’t give up. Try again in 6 months. And then 6 months after that. For some it is an acquired taste — but once that taste is acquired you will never let it go.

Like the Manhattan the Negroni is rising in popularity as folks start to turn their backs on appletinis and embrace bolder cocktails with more character. That said, ordering one in a bar is still a bit of a crap shoot and can result in a blank stare. Fortunately it’s an easy recipe to recite to your bartender.

The Negroni

  • 1 part Campari
  • 1 part Beefeater’s GinIMGP7705
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth

Orange for garnish.

Place ingredients with ice in a shaker or large glass and stir gently but briskly for 60 seconds.

Strain over the rocks and garnish with an orange wedge or twist

As with most beloved cocktails, a Negroni lover will have their favorite recipe. So it’s worth looking at the ingredients in a bit more detail.

The Campari

Yes, you must use Campari. There is no substitute. Some prefer to cut the Campari with 50% Aperol, Campari’s tepid cousin. I don’t. I like my Negroni’s bold and brash.

The Gin

I have to be honest. I am not a big gin drinker. My preference for the Negroni is a basic London dry gin. I don’t want flowery overtones messing with my Negroni! The gin is there to support the drink, not make a statement in its own right. So the simpler the better as far as I’m concerned. Beefeater’s is solid and basic. Some also like Gordon’s for similar reasons. But if you have a favorite gin, then by all means give it a try!

The Vermouth

My brother and I have tried eight different sweet vermouth’s in Negronis. We have enjoyed them all. I spec M&R here because it is my every day go to sweet vermouth. I also like Cinzano which is a bit brighter and slightly more bitter than M&R. Some folks swear by Carpano Antica, but I find the vanilla overtones that work so well in a Manhattan are distracting in a Negroni. Others like the extra bitterness of Punt e Mes, but I find the resulting drink, while tasty, not exactly a Negroni.  That said — please experiment! Lots to try

The Garnish

The traditional garnish in the old country is a fat wedge of orange. Here in the states an orange twist is also common — just make sure it is a nice big twist. The extra citrus really compliments the drink.

Shop at Trader Joe’s?

Me too! In our neck of woods the cheapest Campari is at TJ’s. And their Rear Admiral Gin and Ponti sweet vermouth make a darn good Negroni for a darn good price.

Nothing beats a Negroni at Christmas

The Manhattan: The King of Cocktails

Nothing brings a smile to my face like a good cocktail. Yes, I enjoy beer and wine as much as the next guy, but a good cocktail is special in a way that those other beverages are not. Cocktails are almost always enjoyed in a social setting. They involve some degree of preparation and ritual. And they taste so damn good!

Cocktails seem to be experiencing a renaissance of late. No longer are gin and whiskey just “old people” drinks. Even the younger generation seems to be weaning itself off of vodka-tini drinks and enjoying cocktails with a richer palette.

As for me, I have two favorites that stand head and shoulders above the rest. Growing up my dad was a gin martini drinker, but he always had a great appreciation for bourbon. And while I have fond memories of eating gin soaked olives on his lap, my first cocktail love was (and is!) the Manhattan.

The Manhattan is known as the King of Cocktails because….well just because it is. It is rich and spicy and delicious. It packs a kick and is honest about that with its luscious booziness. I love a well made Manhattan. Heck, I even like a mediocre Manhattan. In fact I’ve only had two Manhattans in my life that I did not like. Both were at restaurants. Both were watery messes. Both bartenders should be ashamed for such offensive disregard for their craft (you can’t mix a good Manhattan? Really? Then what the hell can you mix?). But I digress.

Thanks to the recent surge in the popularity of whiskey, the Manhattan is also experiencing a rise in popularity. And it is about time! The following is my go-to Manhattan recipe. But I know that Manhattan drinkers are a passionate bunch, and even though it’s a simple drink there are an infinite number opinions on how to make a great one. After the recipe I go into some detail on each ingredient to acknowledge the wonderful diversity of the Manhattan drinker.

The Manhattan Cocktail

Manhattan

The King of Cocktails

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Rosso sweet vermouth
  • 3 shakes Angostura Bitters
  • Bada Bing cherry for garnish

Place ingredients in a tall glass or shaker with ice.
Stir gently but briskly for 60 seconds.
Strain into a martini glass and garnish with a cherry

That’s it! But let’s look at the details:

The Ratio

2:1 is the most common Manhattan ratio. Those who prefer their Manhattan a bit sweeter may go closer to 1:1. Those who like it drier drift towards 3:1. But 2:1 works for me!

The Whiskey

I can already hear the objections…yes, yes a “true” Manhattan is made with rye whiskey. I specify bourbon because it is more common in today’s liquor cabinets (including mine) — although rye is becoming more available. Bulleit Bourbon is a bit higher in rye than most bourbons and is widely available (Costco!) so I find it a great choice. But what about other whiskies? Canadian? Tennesee? Yes! Absolutely! If you have a favorite whiskey then by all means use that in your Manhattan. But not Scotch — since that will make it an entirely different drink.

The Vermouth

Unlike the gin martini,  where vermouth’s contribution is subtle, the Manhattan has a healthy dose of it. So its contribution is as important as the whiskey’s. Martini & Rossi is the standard bearer for sweet vermouth and it’s widely available and tastes great. If you want to splurge then try Carpano Antica. It has rich, herbal flavors with a note of vanilla that is just spectacular in a Manhattan (but be careful — it easily overpowers milder whiskeys). The vermouth field is growing quickly so feel free to experiment. My brother and I have recently tasted at least 8 different sweet vermouths so there are lots of choices out there.

The Bitters

Angostura is the bitters for Manhattans. But if you are fortunate enough to have a well stocked liquour store with other bitters feel free to give them a try. I’m pretty heavy handed with the bitters in my Manhattan recipe since I enjoy the herbaciousness it brings to the drink. A side note: a few years ago there was an Angostura bitters shortage that drove fear into the hearts of Manhattan lovers nationwide. Thankfully that was eventually resolved and we could all rest easy once again.

The Garnish

If you want a cherry then I highly recommend you try to find Badda Bing cherries. They are much tastier than those neon red maraschino cherries you find in the grocery store. For a change of pace I sometimes prefer a healthy orange twist — and I mean healthy. With a paring knife cut a thin, broad swath of orange peel (avoiding getting too much white pith). Then fold it lengthwise over the glass to release the oil and wipe it around the rim before dropping it in. If you want to impress your friends you can flame the orange oil as it squirts out of the rind with a match.

Stir vs Shaken

The general rule is that you stir cocktails that contain only alcohol and you shake cocktails that have mixers or fruit juice (no offense intended Mr. Bond). Shaking tends to result in a cloudy drink, and chips the ice causing more dilution. I love the dark, amber color of a stirred Manhattan, and while a little dilution is good (it softens the drink) too much results in a watery mess. Note that stirring takes longer to cool a drink than shaking — that’s why I suggest a full 60 seconds.

On the Rocks?

Happy Hour while camping

Happy Hour is an important part of camping.

While the classic Manhattan is served up in a martini glass, it is absolutely acceptable to have it on the rocks. In fact some of the best Manhattans I’ve had have been on the rocks, in a plastic glass, during happy hour while camping. The best!

Shop At Trader Joe’s?

I love a good bargain as much as a good drink. Trader Joe’s in our area stocks Bulleit Bourbon, and their Ponti sweet vermouth is a fine substitution for Martin & Rossi.

Look at that! An entire blog post dedicated to one grand drink. At the start I mentioned I had two favorites. My second? That will be the subject of an upcoming post.

Backyard Landscaping: Garden Retaining Wall

We had neglected our backyard long enough. It was time to do some landscaping. The first project was to build a short but long retaining wall along our back fence. The neighbors plot behind us is a couple of feet higher than ours. The fence splits the difference with the bottom acting as a retaining wall of sorts. But it was time to address this head on with something that looked good.

To save money we decided to DIY. I also knew this wasn’t going to be an easy job. Even though the wall is only around two feet tall, it is over 75 feet long. That’s a lot of dirt and materials. Plus we wanted something that looked substantial — so the block size would be large. This was going to be physically taxing, but with some help and wise pacing it was doable!

Materials

AllenBlock

Our pile of Allen Block

The first decision: what materials to use? After some research we decided on Calstone Allen Block Classic. It had the large form factor we wanted, looked good, and Calstone is a local company — so availability was excellent in our area. The “Classic” was also cheaper than their tumbled “Europa”, and we liked the look.

Note that the largest block sizes were 60 to 65 pounds. This is a consideration when you do projects like this. Your going to be carrying those blocks all day long. Clearly I was going to need help. Thankfully my wife and son pitched in.

BaserockAndGravel

Base rock and gravel

In addition to the blocks themselves we needed baserock for the wall’s footing and gravel for filling the blocks. Plus a bag of sand to help with leveling blocks. Your block supplier should be able to help you with estimating the amount of materials you will need for your project. Also your block manufacturer should have installation instructions (Calstone has a pretty thorough installation guide).

And of course all this stuff had to be moved into the backyard. We borrowed a friend’s hand truck to move the blocks, and an extra wheelbarrow helped for the gravel and base rock.

Tools

DiggingTools

Digging tools. The digging bar and soaker hose were very helpful.

Large landscaping projects require lots of water, sunscreen and advil!

Water, sunscreen and ibuprofen are key to a successful landscaping project.

No sophisticated tools here. Most of this job is digging, shoveling, leveling, compacting and hauling. I did need to cut some blocks for a  curved area at the end of the wall — for that I improvised with my circular saw, a masonry blade and the garden hose. You’ll also need some string and stakes for doing layout and I made a depth gauge that I’ll discuss later. And don’t forget lots of water, sunscreen and ibuprofen!

Layout

TestWall

Test wall and soaker hose

The first thing we did was to decide on our layout — since that affects everything else. We decided we wanted the wall 20″ tall (including the top caps). We wanted the face of the wall to be 44″ from the fence which left a 32″ bed. For our blocks that meant a two course pattern plus the 4″ top cap plus the wall footing. For our wall we went with 4″ of baserock plus the 4″ AB Lite stone for the footing. That means we had to dig a trench ~8″ below grade for the wall footing.

We built a small section of test wall to make sure things were working out as we expected. In the picture on the right you see the section of test wall. This helped us visual what the completed project would look like and also confirmed the height was what we wanted.

Once this was confirmed we used stakes and string to set a line that represented the face of the wall. Down at the far end of the wall I used a garden hose to layout my curve. I then sprayed along the line with landscape marking paint to outline where we needed to dig. Then the trenching commenced!

Trenching

Most of the DIY articles just say: dig a trench. Well, to dig the trench requires doing a few key things:

  1. Dig the trench in a straight line
  2. Dig the trench the proper depth
  3. (Possibly) dig the trench through hard soil

The first was easy. As I said during layout I used landscaping string to layout the line for the face of the wall and outlined it with marking paint.

DepthGauge

My son using the depth gauge to check depth. Looks good!

The second wasn’t as easy. The ground isn’t perfectly level, so how far down do you dig? What is your reference point? To solve this I made a depth gauge out of a piece of PVC pipe and an old 2×4. I set a line along the fence that represented the top of the wall (using string and a bubble level — I marked the fence posts where the top of the wall would lie).

Trench

Trenching complete! Test wall in foreground.

We then temporarily screwed a 1×2 on the fence with the top of the board aligned with this line. The depth gauge rested on the 1×2 with the PVC pipe set to be the height of the wall plus the 8″ we needed for the wall foundation. When the depth gauge was level, the trench was the correct depth. Hopefully the picture above helps to clarify this.

To help dig through the hard soil we used the power of water. I bought a soaker hose and snaked this back and forth along each section to dig and we let it run for a couple of hours. We repeated this as needed, and it was a huge help. After soaking we used a lawn edging spade (red handled tool in photo in Tools section) to create a clean line along the face of the trench and then a digging bar and pick axe to break up the soil. Then a square nosed shovel to dig out the dirt. Periodically we’d check the depth with the depth gauge. We continued this until we had our trench! The photo on the right shows the finished trench along with our test wall in the foreground. You can just see the curve at the far end of the wall.

Footing

GradingSteaks

Grading stakes

Baserock

Laying baserock. Tamping tool in foreground.

Next step was to building the footing, or foundation, for the wall. Your requirements will vary depending on the product you are using and the height of the wall. See the recommendations from your manufacturer. For our 20″ wall we put down 4″ of base rock, and then a course of 4″ blocks. This is a critical part of the project. You want that baserock and first course of block to be nice and level.

To help with this I hammered in some grading stakes, the tops of which were 4″ above the ground. I used a long level to make sure I was level from stake to stake. Then we filled with base rock in multiple passes, compacting in between with a hand tamper. When we got to the top of the grading stakes we pulled out the stakes, filled the holes and checked for low and high spots using a long level.

Foundation

Laying first course. That kneeler was indispensable, and the deck would get torn out the following summer.

After the base rock went down it was time to lay the first course of block. This is a critical step as that first course determines how well the wall will turn out. So it needs to be straight and level! I laid a string line to line up the backs of the blocks, then used the level and sand to make sure the blocks were level. You can see this in the picture to the right. And a rubber mallet helped to get things seated or to nudge a block one way or the other.  And of course it is always nice to have a Cavalier Spaniel helping out.

TuckerTheCavalier

Tucker the cavalier helping to move blocks

The Wall

TheWall

Standard Allan Block two course pattern.

Once the foundation is down the fun part starts. Building the wall! For this phase you just stack the blocks according to the pattern you chose from your manufacture. In the case of our blocks we had to fill the voids in the blocks with gravel. So we’d stack some blocks, then fill. As you stack the blocks check for rocking. Even if you got your foundation course nice and level, there are imperfections in the blocks themselves. Use sand to fill low spots and help keep the blocks from wobbling.

The curved section of the wall was a little more difficult. The problem is as the wall goes up it offsets back a bit, which changes the radius of the wall which means things start not to fit as well. This meant a lot of fiddle and some trimming with a saw. I don’t have a photo of it, but I rigged up some PVC pipe and the garden hose to provide a trickle of water that allowed me to use my circular saw as a wet saw (with a masonary blade). In hindsight I just should have rented a brick saw. So if you are doing a curve you will be cutting block (especially the top caps) so rent a brick saw!

Pace Yourself

One thing to keep in mind when doing a large project is to pace yourself. This took us multiple weekends over a summer. The work is physically demanding, and when you get tired is when you start getting sloppy and make mistakes. We would start early in the morning, then knock off by mid afternoon — and took plenty of breaks.

But it was worth it! We saved thousands of dollars and have tremendous satisfaction that we did the job ourselves.

The Final Product

Here’s a shot of the final product a year later. You’ll notice we tore out the deck and laid a patio (the topic for a future blog post). It was a lot of hard work, but it came out great!

PatioAndWall

Using a Password Manager: I did it. So can you.

With the recent disclosure of ShellShock, a serious security vulnerability that likely impacts many web sites on the internet, we are once again reminded that the internet is a fragile place. The bug exploited in ShellShock is likely decades old. Face it. software is buggy, and it will always be buggy. The internet will never be 100% safe. And other than choosing not to use it, we have little control over it.

But there is one area we do control. And that’s our passwords. You have to assume that there is a real chance that one of the online services you use will be compromised. A common target of compromised web sites is the password database. And even though any legitimate website will encrypt (or hash) that data, that does not stop crackers if either the encryption or your choice of password is weak. And what if your username on a compromised site is your e-mail address? And what if your e-mail password is the same as the one that was compromised? Then the cracker has the family jewels, because once you hack somebody’s e-mail you are well on your way to resetting passwords on other sites.

So the number one defense is good password practices. And that means:

  1. Using unique passwords on different web sites (especially critical ones like banking, e-mail, etc)
  2. Using strong passwords. And these days that means a combination of length and randomness.
  3. Change them periodically

And we know that no human can do this without some help. You need a password manager.

Like many, I had objections to the thought of relying on a password manager…

But I Have A Scheme!

Before adopting a password manager I had a scheme. And most “smart” people I know have a scheme. They have a couple of tiers of passwords (one for e-mail, one for banking sites, one for social media, etc) that they base on some nonsense words and throw in some punctuation and numbers. That’s much better than many folks. But the fight against password crackers is an arms race, and our only weapon is length and randomness. So odds are your scheme isn’t good enough. At least not for your critical sites.

That’s what I finally decided after I read that a Russian hacking ring had 1.2 billion username/passwords. And even if many of those accounts are old and previously compromised, it was still sobering.

But It Will Complicate My Life!

I had resisted adopting a password manager because I was sure it would make my life more complicated. It is another piece of software to deal with, and what happens if I’m stranded on a desert island and a notebook computer washes up on the beach and I want to log into g-mail and I have internet but not my password manager? I’m much better off in that case if I memorized my password!

But then I realized I had already been using a password manager. A cruddy one. The one built into the browser (that saves passwords for you). I realized this when I borrowed my wife’s iPad to check my email while on vacation. I realized I had forgotten my password. My scheme had broken down.  My password was stored (in browser data) on devices not with me. I had all the downside of using a password manager (depending on it), without the upsides of a good one (security and ubiquity).

So my life was already complicated. And maybe a good password manager would make it simpler.

But I Already Use a Password Manager (sort of)

As I said above, I was using a manager of passwords of sorts already. Many folks are already using some form of ad-hoc password manager.

For example some people write-down passwords in a little book and store that at home. This is actually not that bad — assuming this enables you to use strong passwords and you don’t carry that book in your laptop bag!  But it is not necessarily convenient, nor ubiquitous.

Others use the browser’s “save my password” capability. Again, not too bad as long as you are encrypting those with a master password (which many folks don’t do).

And others might use something like Apple’s iCloud Keychain or FireFox Sync.

But many of these solutions have shortcomings or limitations. The most common limitation is lack of ubiquity. I want my passwords available on all my devices, regardless of platform, and on any browser. I would also prefer that my passwords be managed by software whose only job is to securely manage my passwords and by a company whose entire business is based on helping me securely manage my data.

So I Took The Plunge

So I decided to take the plunge. But which one? There are a number of options.

I decided to limit my choices to the two most popular: LastPass and 1Password. My plan was to try one for a couple weeks, and then the other. I picked 1Password first because, believe it or not, I liked their video. And after a week I was hooked, and never got around to trying LastPass. What I like about 1Password:

  1. Their engineering effort is focused on making their password repository (they call it a vault) impenetrable. They assume the worst — that bad guys are going to some how get a hold of your vault. And they have engineered the encryption so that If you pick a strong master password, then a 1Password vault is practically uncrackable (everything is theoretically crackable given enough time, horsepower and luck).
  2. They do not provide a web service. Unlike LastPass, 1Password is not a service. It interacts directly with the vault on your local system. You are guaranteed that your password and keys never go to a 1Password server, because there are no 1Password servers. Because of this they have reduced their attack surface area, which means they have been able to avoid an entire category of attacks. It also makes the system easy to understand. Update: 1Password now offers the 1Password for Families and 1Password for Teams services, which are hosted services.
  3. You choose how to synch your vault between multiple devices. You can do it by manually copying files around, or by local synch over wifi, or by DropBox or iCloud. Your choice. You are not forced to use a 1Password service for this, because there is none!
  4. You can store any useful info you want in your vault. Not just passwords. Bank account info, social security numbers, pins to ATM cards, etc. You can even attach files — for example I have scans of our passports stored in the vault. It provides a secure, convenient place to store import information.
  5. Ubiquity. I have access to my vault on all my devices. I never have to worry about forgetting a password. When signing up  for a new service I don’t have that extra burden of deciding what password to use and how to remember it. I also have access to other info I keep in the vault.
  6. Their website and blogs have great information provided in a simple, transparent, easy to understand fashion.

That said, I have also heard many good things abut LastPass. While they did have a vulnerability (and to be fair 1Password  had a design flaw) it was fixed almost immediately. They also have some interesting features, like the ability to share accounts while keeping the password hidden.

The point of this post is not to sell folks on 1Password, but on using a password manager, and to share my experiences.

But What About All Your Eggs in One Basket?

Yes, this is a concern. If all my secrets are in my vault, then I’m screwed if somebody cracks my vault. Some thoughts on that:

  1. Pick a strong basket. I am trusting AgileBits (makers of 1Password) to make a strong vault. I have given them that trust based on research I’ve done, their clear and transparent documentation/blogs, and the fact that the survival of their company solely depends on them providing a safe and secure password store.
  2. Pick a strong master password. This is huge. Adopting any solution is dangerous if you don’t encrypt your data with a strong master password.
  3. The practical dangers of poor password hygiene outweigh the theoretical dangers of using a good password manager. It is far more likely my accounts will be compromised from weak passwords or some other hack than from somebody compromising my vault. It is so much easier to use social engineering or exploit web vulnerabilities (that seem to show up monthly!) than to crack a well encrypted data store.
  4. I have no choice. At this time I don’t see a better solution. We are stuck with passwords (and password managers) — for now at least.

My Adoption

The good things about adopting a password manager is that you can take it a step at a time. You don’t have to change your passwords until you are comfortable using the password manager. Here were the phases of my adoption.

  1. Pick a master password. This is the most important step, and Agile Bits has a good blog posting on it.
  2. Install on my home Mac and import passwords from Firefox. BTW, this import step is cumbersome for 1Password at the moment — I expect they will improve that. I had to install a plugin into Firefox to export my passwords into a comma separated value (CSV) file. Then edit that file to match 1Passwords CSV schema, then use the 1Password import operation to import it.
  3. Use the 1Password app to clean up my stored passwords since there was lots of cruft that had built up over the years.
  4. Install the 1Password browser plugins and experiment with the browser integration.
  5. Turn off my having my browser remember passwords.
  6. So at this point I’m fully using 1Password on one machine. I used it for a few days until I was comfortable with it.
  7. Then I installed it on my laptop and synched the vault.
  8. Erased all “saved passwords” from the browsers I was using.
  9. Then purchased the app for our iPads and iPhones and set that up
  10. Started changing passwords on web sites to be random strings. 1Password has a password generator to help you with that.

And now after using it for over a month I can say I love it. And it has actually simplified my life, not made it more complicated.

Update: One Year Later

We (wife and me) have been using 1Password for over a year now. One of my early concerns was that a password manager would complicate things, but exactly the opposite has happen. A good password manager simplifies your life! How? Let me count the ways:

  1. Never forget a password again. No more racking your brain to remember a password for a little used site. Or going through the hassle of a password reset.
  2. New site? New password? No problem. Signing up or registering at a new site no longer has that extra burden of deciding what password to use. Just generate one with your password manager and it remembers it for you.
  3. Piece of mind. We made sure all of our critical sites now have unique, secure, random passwords.
  4. Securely sharing passwords. My wife and I share a vault. No more coordinating on passwords. If something happens to me she has piece of mind that she knows the location of our accounts and can access them.
  5. Safe place to store information. In addition to passwords we store other sensitive information in our vault. Really handy. No longer wonder where you should write down this type of stuff — just put it in your vault.
  6. Helps recovery when something does go wrong. My wife succumbed to a phising attack and potential exposed one of her passwords. Because we used a password manager, the number of sites where she re-used that password was limited. And with the password manager we could quickly find all sites where she used that password or similar ones (so we could change them). So we were able to recover from this much more easily and more safely than if we had not been use a password manager.
  7. Reduces brain clutter. By taking a task that our brains are bad at (creating and remembering random string of information) and turning it over to software that is much better at it — we have free’d ourselves of mental clutter.