Saturday, July 8, 2017

How do I want to live?

I was given a little book about the Kondo approach to clutter-free living.  There's a bit of irony there because in general, I've concluded that books are one of the areas where I could really improve my clutter management - so I have been getting rid of many.  But it seemed worth reading the thing first, before passing it on.

So at the start of the book, she says that the first step to managing your belongings is to decide how you want to live.

And... wow.  That's a really smart starting point.  Decide how I want to live.  Then arrange my home and life to support that.  

Right now, I have pockets of ... stuff ... all over my home that I consistently don't do anything about because they make me feel utterly helpless.  I don't know what they are or why we have them.  I don't have a logical and consistent place to keep them.  And they just sit there, and they fill up rooms with visual distraction, and my sense of helplessness about them has some tiny but real impact on my psyche every time they cross my vision.


I want to live in a home where every item that my eye falls upon has a purpose, a story, and a role in my (or my husband's) life.  I want the lines to be simple and clean, where things that are visible out in the open are there because they are pleasing to the eye, or because we use them so constantly that it doesn't make sense to box them away.  

I want to be able to walk comfortably through my small home, with ample space between furniture items so there's no need to navigate carefully to avoid bumping into things.  

On the flip side, I want it to be easy and quick and simple to get to the things I use, without complicated rules and systems for stacking and arranging things.

When I get up in the morning, I want to make my cup of coffee and drink it in a space that is clean, well lit, visually appealing, and open to the world.  

I want decorations to be things that are beautiful or thought-provoking or evoke happy memories for me.

Family photos make me happy but when I hung a lot on the wall, I found they overwhelmed me.  I felt a need to update them to match the kids current ages.  And they got crooked all the time.  Maybe family photos need to be screensavers instead?

When I come home at night, I want to have space that is (again) clean and uncluttered - to have a bite to eat, catch up with my husband, and sprawl with a puzzle or a good book. 

I want spaces for the cats to play and explore and snooze, integrated in among the people spaces.  It pleases me to look  up and notice a cat on the bookshelf.

I want to be creative, which means I need spaces for creative tools and supplies.  Sewing and craft supplies are not particularly nice to look at, so I want those stored out of sight.  I want to spread out a project long enough to get it done, but I want to be able to step away from a project in process and not have to look at it.

I want to be able to entertain, in a simple and casual and spontaneous style.  Individuals, couples, or small groups only.  I don't want to do the sort of entertaining that calls for fancy china or special silverware.  I want to own everyday things that make me happy, and if I invite you into my home then I like you enough that I want to share the things that make me happy.  

So yeah.  That's a start.  Already it's changing my thoughts about what I want to do with my home.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

RESEARCH: Blocking robocalls on iPhone

Once upon a time, cell phones seemed relatively immune to robocalls.  Maybe there were even rules against it?  Anyway, that time is long gone and I get far too many junk calls.

Googling "block robocalls iPhone" I find the following:

Rules, regulations, and interesting information about robocalls and telemarketing calls:

  • Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations prohibit telemarketers from using automated dialers to call cell phone numbers without prior consent. Automated dialers are standard in the industry, so most telemarketers are barred from calling consumers' cell phones without their consent.  
  • Charities, political groups, debt collectors and surveys are still allowed to call you.  Also "informational calls".  So a lot of companies could re-define what they're doing and still call you.
  • The FTC has sponsored competitions to try to develop techniques to track down and stop robocallers.  Hasn't had one since 2015, though.  
  • Given the laws, the companies that spoof their caller ID numbers (so they won't get caught) and call you anyway are more likely to be scams than legitimate businesses.

Notes about things to do to avoid calls (and letters and emails in some cases):

  • Register on the National Do Not Call Registry -  (Verified I've been registered since 2008 for all the good that's done me)
  • There's also a registry through the Consumer Credit Reporting Industry web page that lets you opt out of pre-screened credit offers (mail or phone).  It was recommended by the FTC web page which makes it somewhat legit.  You can do a 5-year request online; if you want it to be a permanent opt-out, you have to print and mail a form to them.  I didn't bother to mail the form, since I figure it's not that hard to re-register every 5 years and I'm lazy.  
  • And there's a registry from the Direct Marketing Association that lets you opt out of direct mail solicitations for five years.  
    • It works by having you register for an account, after which you can manage your preferences by removing your name from "prospect" (not already a customer) lists that are provided to companies, in four categories (Catalogs, Magazine offers, Other mail offers, Credit offers - which actually just points to the CCRI page above).  In each category you can opt out of the whole category or individual companies.
    • I had to consider on this one if it might create more risk than benefit - I mean, these people make their living by giving my address to mail marketers.  What if they actually collect my info and then use it to add me to more lists?  Ultimately I decided that it's worth the experiment because I'm probably on all the lists already, so it's unlikely to get worse. 
    • So I put in the info to set up an account.  According to several older things I saw on the web, they did not ask me to pay anything to register online.  Decided not to opt out of catalogs because I rather enjoy catalogs sometimes.  
  • also has a sign-up to opt out of email solicitations, which you can link to on their Home page.  I doubt this will do much but I went ahead and registered to see what would happen.  Looks like this will expire after 6 years.
  • Then there's which lets you decide which catalogs you want to get and which you don't.  I'm not really bothered by catalogs at this point so not much point there.

When you receive a call:
  • Don't interact since that may verify it's a real number.
  • It probably doesn't help much to report or block numbers because companies do "caller ID spoofing" where the phone shows you a number that isn't real. 
  • On the iPhone you can block individual numbers.  Worth doing given that most are probably spoofed caller IDs?

Apps and services to deal with Robocalls automatically:

  • NoMoRobo is free for VOIP landlines but costs $2 per month for mobile phones.  
  • Several reverse-lookup services exist for iPhone; all of them have fees similar to NoMoRobo.  


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Coat closet shelves - unused space becomes useful storage


Behold an innocuous coat closet.

But here's a secret:  It's the width of a typical coat closet but for some reason this baby is 4 feet deep!

Realistically, the space in the back of this closet is always going to be a royal pain in the tushie to access.  You have to shove past the front row to get to it, and since you can't easily scan what's there (without just removing everything in the front row), it's all too easy to forget you even own whatever is back there.

The previous owners had installed a second hanging bar in the back half of the closet.  Nice idea, I suppose, if you have a lot of hanging clothes that you need to store for long periods (but can't fold up in boxes for some reason) - like, off-season clothing.  But this is Houston.  It's mid-January and as I write this, It's around 70 degrees; I'm barefoot and perfectly comfortable in a short-sleeve t-shirt.  There's just never a time when you won't use your "summer clothes", and unless you routinely travel someplace further north, it's just not worth owning enough "winter clothes" to justify an entire secret closet to store them.

So.  What sorts of things does one own that need to be stored and rarely or never accessed?

  • Digital media (CDs and DVDs) which have been ripped to digital format for household media streaming use.  Would only need to access if something catastrophic happened to media drive and backups.
  • Old records archives - taxes, home purchase documents, etc. Would only need to access if something major happened - sale of the house, tax audit, etc.
  • Memorabilia - those things that you feel compelled to keep in physical form, but don't feel a need to pull out and look at regularly.  Frankly, we're trying to really minimize that group - if it's important enough to own, it's important enough to showcase, by framing and hanging it for example.  But still, some such things always exist.
  • Maybe a hurricane supplies kit?  Update it annually and then only pull it out if an actual hurricane occurs.  Would contain spare flashlights/candles, batteries, water bottles (the soft-sided collapsible ones that people use to sneak alcohol onto cruise ships?), etc.
  • Things like christmas ornaments that you'll need to access only once a year.
Turns out that if you repurpose the back 18-20 inches of space in the closet for shelving,  that's roughly 26 cubic feet of storage space - and we probably have 26 cubic feet of stuff that we need to access rarely or never.  So.  Shelves it is.

Project requirements:
  • Looks are not important so figure how to do this inexpensively
  • Strength of the shelves is important - things like boxes of paper can be quite heavy
  • Some adjustability would be nice, in case future needs involve storage of taller/shorter things.


Will nail 1x2 boards into studs around edges of space roughly every 6 inches up the wall - sides and back of closet.  These should support shelves of 1x stock or 3/4" plywood.  Will use scrap stock already in garage to patch together shelves.  Assembly should be pretty quick and easy if I've located the studs and use a nail gun to install them, and use a spacer board to quickly position and level the boards.  

Parts list:
  • 1x2x8' boards - a dozen should be more than enough 
  • shelves - 3/4" thickness stock that's 30 inches wide, 18-20 inches deep.  Need enough material for maybe six or seven shelves at most.  I have enough scrap to do this already I think; if not, a single 4x8 sheet of plywood would do it.
  • nails
  • consider some sort of stick-on contact shelf paper to make surface of shelves reasonably smooth and easy to clean?  Alternatively could paint or seal them and leave them unfinished.
  • a piece of 1x6 board a couple feet long to use as the spacer for assembly

Tools list:
  • nail gun (or hammer)
  • chop saw to cut boards to length
  • circular saw or table saw for cutting shelves
  • Level

Work plan
  • clear out closet,  remove existing boards or obstructions
  • mark location of studs - all the way down wall.  
    • Think about stud location and figure out if back or side shelf supports should nail into studs nearest corner.  (affects length)
    • Stud location will also affect needed length of side supports.  They need to be at least 20 inches but add more inches if that gives another stud to nail into near front end.
  • Install supports by nailing them into studs starting from back pieces, making sure they're perfectly level.  Should be able to level bottom one, then the rest easy to add on by using spacer board.
  • Then line up side pieces, again paying close attention to the level-ness of bottom one.
  • Then cut shelves to size, finish them as desired, and install in closet.
  • Then load up stuff!  See how much will fit.

Putting this together was super easy.  

I got many boxes of archive CDs, a couple boxes of memorabilia, a box of archival files (e.g. old taxes), a box of Christmas ornaments, and the Christmas tree in there.  

With the coats in there, it again looks like a mundane coat closet, no idea the back half is holding a bookshelf's worth of stuff!

Ideas - after finished, consider:
  • The original overhead shelf extended over the coats.  I should restore that, actually, because it will provide some actually accessible storage for a few things.
  • Hang a shoe bag type thing on wall near the front, to hold hats, gloves, scarves, etc.
  • Hang a couple of hooks on wall in the front half, to quickly hang most commonly-used jackets.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Jack be nimble...candlesticks!

I had someone come cut some big limbs off my trees last week, to get everything healthy and ready for hurricane season. He and his crew seemed to think I was nuts when I told them I didn't want the wood hauled away. I didn't actually have a plan for it at that time, but knew I would figure something out.

Then my friend asked if I had any ideas for "rustic" candle holders for some big pillar candles. And, well, I had rustic for her!

So today, we cut slabs of juniper, sanded them smooth, and routed out a nice depression for the candles. And voila!

I used the table saw to cut the slabs - put the blade at the highest point and set the fence to the desired slab thickness, used a right angle guide in the slot to run the log through. Then rotated the log and repeated the task because it was too wide for the blade to get in one pass.

For routing the depressions we just drew an outline of the candles and freehand routed. Easier with a clear router base plate so we could see what we were doing!

Then we had an irregular chunk of log left so we thought it might be nice for skinnier candles. Basically we just sanded the ends and drilled the candle holes with a spade bit.

The only candles I had to work with were mismatched and in one case bent... but I think this could look nice with some slightly shorter candles in white or maybe sage green.

It was fun to play around in the shop with a friend and make something nice!  We are going to let the wood dry out a bit more and then seal it with spray poly to try to preserve the nice bark. It's very ... rustic!

Friday, January 20, 2017

21st century video entertainment.

One of my things to research was related to music streaming options but our research veered off into video options.  The elderly tube TV we were using for our workouts (too old to pick up HD signal, but capable of hooking up to a DVD) was increasingly unsatisfactory.  Among other things, having to buy our media content on DVDs was getting on our nerves.

So here's the quick checklist for what you need if you want to have decent video watching options but don't want to deal with buying a cable TV package:

1.  TV features - issues seem to include:

  • Resolution - expressed in terms of pixels (p) but keep in mind that this is total pixels, and so the bigger the screen, the more spread-out those pixels are going to be.  So for a TV in the size we wanted (we were looking at things in the 40-inch range given the size of wall and room we were working with), 1080 seemed like the reasonable minimum.  Below that, we could see some effects of low pixels on curved sharp lines.  There was a really fancy 4,000 pixel OLED TV that was just gorgeous, but it was in the thousands of dollars so not what we were going for.  Maybe in a few years when they come down in price or we win the lottery.
  • Availability of inputs/outputs - all seem to have an input for a cable or antenna.  Other desirable stuff?  HDMI slot or slots for hooking up media streamers.  AV jacks for hooking up an older DVD player.  USB slot for hooking up storage media, showing pictures, etc.
  • Consider where you'll put it.  Want to hang on the wall, make sure it as holes in the back to allow that.  Want to set it on a stand, make sure the stand will fit on the surface you plan.  

2.  Where the media comes from?  Here's options:
  • You can have a smart TV, like a Roku TV.  These can access a variety of media streams.  The ones we wanted to make sure were included were Amazon and Netflix.
  • You can have a media streamer, which fits into an HDMI slot on the TV.  Roku does one of those too.  These will hook to your internet via wi-fi or wired connection and play stuff that's available online like the smart TV can.
  • You can hook up an antenna which lets you get local broadcast TV.  This attaches via a coax cable.
  • You can hook up a DVD player and watch the stuff you already own.

So, we found a nice deal on the Roku TV, bought an antenna and a wall-hanging rig to go with it, and picked up the right kind of AV cables to hook up the DVD player to it.  So far, very happy!  Hanging a TV is pretty straightforward - they're not too heavy.  Just worth taking the time to get things level!

Ready for a workout?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

New Year, electronics purge, clean keyboard!

We're on a thorough decluttering rampage this January, and making amazing progress already.  Last weekend the amazing spouse cleared out many bags of graphic novels and books which we'd now replaced in electronic format.  I took them along with a big supply of Meyer lemons (from my tree) over to a local center which provides housing for families transitioning out of homelessness.

This weekend, I tackled some stacks of old electronics.  In past rounds of clean-up, I succeeded in collecting such things into a single space - but that space was taking up more than a full shelf of space and empirically hadn't been disturbed in months - so probably contained stuff we didn't need.

Sure enough, my purge uncovered many tech toys dating back to the 1990's in some cases that just didn't need to take up real estate in our home.  A grocery sack of items will now to to spouse's office where his IT team can be trusted to clean off drives and make things otherwise secure for donation or recycling; we also filled the recycling with lots of old manuals and documentation, and some items (like 3 inch floppies containing Win 95) went into the trash.

I also uncovered a keyboard which is quite compatible with our current desktop.  The current keyboard is nice - a very sleek apple keyboard, high on the "form factor".  But the older keyboard, while less sleek, has USB ports on it, which means that I could dispense with having a separate USB hub on the desk.  So I conclude that the form of the older keyboard is, on net, actually better than the new one.

But the old one was... filthy.  I am bad about eating at my desk, I have cats who wander the desk, the house has a certain amount of dust... the cumulative result was just gross.  So, before putting the thing into action, it needed a good cleaning.

How do you clean a mac keyboard?  It's simple:

1.  Take a photo or three of the keyboard before you start, both to document where the keys are positioned, and to remind yourself how gross it was when you started.

2.  Then just pop out the keys one at a time.  It helps to lay them out in the order they sat on the keyboard as an additional way of keeping track of what goes where.

3.  Then start wiping down the base of the keyboard.  Maybe take a picture to again remind yourself how gross it was.

4.  Once the keyboard is clean, you can start wiping down the keys one by one and replacing them on the keyboard. Once it's done, let it dry overnight to be sure that you don't have any dangerous dampness down in the electronics.  Oh, and take a picture to show how much improved it is!