Installing a top of stairs baby gate without drilling into wood trim or banister post

The challenge: in an old house with nice woodwork, mount a baby gate at the top of the stairs such that it’s secure – without damaging the wood.

baby gate at top of stairs
The final product

This was a fun project.  Got some ideas from YouTube videos (a learning format I usually dislike) and improvised a little.  This is built from scrap parts I had on hand, plus a baby gate I had installed at our previous home.

The uneven surfaces presented by the trim on both sides pose the creative challenge.

On both sides, it was a matter of:

  • Trimming a 2×4 to match the protruding trim
  • Mounting the 2×4 to the surface (harder on the wood post side)
  • The final step is just a regular baby gate installation, screwing into the 2x4s.

Post side

(I think the post is called a “newel”?)

I first cut out two channels in the 2×4 to match the protruding trim on each side.  I used a jigsaw, freehand cutting one side, then the other (the blade was only long enough to cut halfway through).  This ended up looking less shoddy than I suspected it would.

Top of the 2×4 attached to newel post – see cuts to make room for trim

I then mounted the 2×4 to the newel post by drilling through the 2×4 , then running zip ties through the 2×4 and around the newel post, pulling them tight.  I had to connect two ties in series to attain sufficient length.  Under the zip ties are webbing straps, to protect the wood surface from the zip ties.  I’d originally planned to secure the webbing tightly, but the zip ties are strong enough that I just left the webbing loose as a protective layer.

Lower zip tie pass-through

This neatly secured the 2×4 flat with the post.  Between the post and 2×4 I added a layer of non-slip shelf liner, to reduce slippage and protect the post surface.

Wall side

Here I could drill into the wall, but faced the challenge of tall baseboard moulding at the base of the wall, where I needed to mount the bottom of the gate.  I didn’t want to drill into it, and even if I did, it was uneven, protruding from the wall.

I again cut away a curved portion of the 2×4 to make room for the moulding.  And again I was pleasantly surprised at how well it turned out, freehanding it with a jigsaw on both sides and meeting in the middle.

From there I screwed the 2×4 into the wall (with a layer of shelf liner sandwiched between to protect the paint) and mounted the gate as normal.

Wall side – cutaway for moulding

It’s strong, operates well, and looks acceptable (I didn’t bother finishing the 2x4s).  When the gate comes down in a few years, I’ll keep these 2x4s to pass along with the house someday, in case a future resident needs to mount a baby gate here.

Cargo bikes are expensive right now

Cargo bikes, in particular those with electric-assist motors, are life-changing.  They are also, unfortunately, expensive.  (Mostly.  For now.  Which I’ll come back to).  The price tags of most brands put them out of reach of many potential riders and make them appear to be toys of the comfortable.

This came up in discussion at a cargo bike group ride this weekend: we all field constant questions about the bikes from strangers and the one that makes us pause is, “how much did it cost?”  To the owner of an average adult bike, a thousand-dollar bike can seem unfathomable.  And even if you compare it to the cost of purchasing a(nother) car – which is often a fair comparison, say, for Hum of the City‘s family – the very top-end cargo bikes from Riese & Muller or similar can be half the cost of a subcompact car.  And said Toyota Yaris can get you to your job 30 miles away, which the bike cannot.

This week I did 50 miles of bike commuting, mostly moving my kids around, and 0 miles of driving.  It was delightful.  And I remain confident that e-cargo bikes are the future.  Here I want to put the high price tags in what I hope will be the accurate historical context and explore factors that will make them universally accessible.  Time will tell.

As cars were at first a luxury good, so now are e-cargo bikes

The first cars were made for the wealthy.  They were expensive and held novelty appeal, which remains true of luxury and sports cars that are sold today as toys for wealthy  adults.   Automobiles existed for decades before the Ford Model-T made history as the first affordable car, accessible to the masses.

Today, we still have luxury cars, like we did in 1900 – just today I biked for blocks behind a Porsche Panamera 4 (an e-bike is just as fast as a car in downtown Ann Arbor) – but unlike then, we also have mass market cars.  I hope and expect that 2019 for e-cargo bikes is like 1899 for automobiles.  E-cargo bikes will similarly benefit from mass production and the efficiency of scale to hit a price point that works for anyone.

They’ll also benefit from other parallels to the car market: financing options and used vehicles.

The current state of non-luxury models

While the variety of cargo bikes continues to multiply, the market is still in its infancy.  I’d compare most of the flagship cargo bike brands – like Riese & Muller, Butchers & Bicycles, Larry vs. Harry, Urban Arrow – to luxury auto brands ranging from Lexus to Ferrari.

Yuba seems to differentiate a little on price, especially in a few models, like the Mundo Classic starting at $999.  An aftermarket motor would make this a great e-cargo bike at a fraction of some other bikes’ costs.  But Yubas are still generally expensive bikes.

The most affordable e-cargo bike may be the Radpower Radwagon, at $1,599 for an electric-assist longtail.  Yes there are meaningful differences between this bike and say a Yuba Spicy Curry ($4,499) – but compare the price tags.  I bet there are a lot of people who don’t care so much about a hub motor vs. a mid-drive and DO want to take their kids to school via bike, and can afford the Radwagon but not one of these fancier bikes.

It will be interesting to see what models and companies compete in the budget cargo bike space, what their staying power is, and how reliable and ubiquitous their models get.  Will the Radwagon be the Toyota Corolla of bikes?

EDIT: A reader pointed out to me the Blix PACKA, which blew past its Indiegogo goal this month.  It’s a longtail e-cargo bike that is currently priced at $1,349 for just the bike or $1,899 with all of the accessories, including a second battery.   Looks like healthy competition for the Radwagon.

Beyond cash sales

It’s not just about the models for sale.  Only one in six new automobile purchases are outright cash payments; the vast majority are financed with loans or leases.  Just like most new car buyers aren’t plunking down five figures up front, there should be a similar shift in cargo bike purchasing.

Many bike brands have started working with Affirm to offer financing.  For instance, the aforementioned Yuba Mundo Classic ($999) is $88/month when financed.  I haven’t seen anyone leasing a cargo bike, but that could be a promising model.  People new to the lifestyle could try one for a year with less risk, and those who want to rotate between different models without owning many bikes could experience more variety through leasing.

Buying used

The last parallel I’ll draw to the automobile market is the availability (or lack thereof) of used models.  Most automobile sales aren’t of new models at all – they’re people buying used.  This is the most important factor making cars more affordable.  And “used cars” span a huge range, from like-new to ultra-affordable beaters.  (Like my first car, a decrepit Ford Taurus where my dad and I riveted a coffee can to the front door to cover rust holes).

The market for used cargo bikes is tight, especially outside of big cities.  It should grow as the popularity of these bikes increases and the needs of early-adopting families change.  My local cargo bike shop, Urban Rider in Ann Arbor, has started selling used models and can help facilitate sales by those looking to part with a used bike.

Cargo bikes for the people

I’m hopeful that as more people discover the magic of e-cargo bike commuting and hauling, we’ll see new models emerge and prices fall at all levels.  New ultra-luxury bikes, pioneering tech that will eventually be standard?  Sure.  A drop in price on the current top-tier bikes mentioned above?  Please.  And most of all, huge volume and new entries in the bottom of the market that will make family bikes that can compete in traffic affordable to everyone.

Yes, I swoon at the Riese & Muller Load 75, like I goggled at the Acura NSX when I was a teenager.  But the more important question is, who will be the Ford Model T of cargo bikes?

New models, more used bikes, and better financing options should lead to e-cargo bikes eventually being more affordable than automobiles.  I don’t know any manufacturers or have access to their market research, which is unfortunate as I’d love to know what sales volume they forecast and how low the price can go.

Even Henry Ford probably didn’t think he’d sell 16 million Model Ts.

Double check your work (Kaggle Women’s NCAA tournament 2019)

I’m writing about an attention-to-detail error immediately after realizing it.  It probably won’t matter, but if it ends up costing me a thousands-of-dollars prize, I’ll feel salty.  I thought I’d grouse in advance just in case.

The last few years I’ve entered Kaggle’s March Madness data science prediction contests.  I had a good handle on the women’s tournament last year, finishing in the top 10%.  But my prior data source – which I felt set me apart, as I scraped it myself – wasn’t available this year.  So, living my open-source values, I made a quick submission by forking a repo that a past winner shared on Kaggle and adding some noise.

Now, to win these contests – with a $25k prize purse – you need to make some bets, coding individual games as 1 or 0 to indicate 100% confidence that a team will win.  If you get it right, your prediction is perfect, generating no penalty (“log-loss”).  Get it completely wrong and the scoring rule generates a near-infinite penalty for the magnitude of your mistake – your entry is toast.

You can make two submissions, so I entered one with plain predictions – “vanilla” – and one where I spiced it up with a few hard-coded bets.  In my augmented Women’s tournament entry, I wagered that Michigan, Michigan State, and Buffalo would each win their first round games.  The odds of all three winning was was only about 10%, but if it happened, I thought that might be enough for me to finish in the money.

Michigan and Buffalo both won today!  And yet I found myself in the middle of the leaderboard.  I had a sinking feeling.  And indeed, Kaggle showed the same log-loss score for both entries, and I was horrified when I confirmed:

A comparison of my vanilla and spiced-up predictions
These should not be identical.

In case Michigan State wins tomorrow and this error ends up costing me a thousand bucks in early April, the commit in question will be my proof that I had a winning ticket and blew it.

Comment if you see the simple mistake that did me in:

Where is an AI code reviewer to suggest this doesn’t do what I thought it did?

As of this writing – 9 games in – I’m in 294th place out of 505 with a log-loss of 0.35880.  With the predictions above, I’d be in 15th place with a log-loss of 0.1953801, and ready to benefit further from my MSU prediction tomorrow.

The lesson is obvious: check my work!  I consider myself to be strong in that regard which makes this especially painful.  I could have looked closely at my code, sure, but the fundamental check would have been to plot the two prediction sets against each other.

That lesson stands, even if the Michigan State women fall tomorrow and render my daring entry, and this post, irrelevant.  I’m not sure I’ll make time for entering these competitions next year; this would be a sour note to end on.

Open letter to Ann Arbor city council ahead of climate funding vote

Tonight, March 4th 2019, Ann Arbor City Council will be discussing a resolution sponsored by Councilmember Jane Lumm to divert funding away from fighting climate change.  The city had planned to use almost $1 million/year to fund its Climate Action Plan.

Here’s what I wrote to my council members (Ali Ramlawi and Chip Smith) as well as Mayor Taylor and the rest of council.

————–

Dear Ali, Chip, and other councilmembers –

I hope this finds you well.

I’ll be candid with you: some days, I’m terrified of climate change. In the abstract, I’m worried about the most vulnerable, say, the many millions in Bangladesh who will flee their homes by 2050 as the seas rise. But what terrifies me, what I think about when I pace with my youngest son in the middle of the night, is what could happen here in Ann Arbor, to my family.

Science is clear: if we don’t make radical changes, at all levels, climate change will destabilize the planet. Ann Arbor may be one of the last places to be affected, but in a worst-case scenario, a collapse of global civilization would spare no one. What happens if food and goods stop arriving? If power goes down, if medical supplies are gone, if we descend into dystopia? Our society is too complex to be unwound back to pre-industrial times.

But I try not to dwell on that possibility. Both because it’s unproductive – even paralyzing – and because that dystopian future isn’t written yet.

On my more optimistic days, I feel lucky to be alive now, at the time of reckoning. We are privileged to be the ones at the wheel as the bus hurtles toward the cliff. And a low-carbon world doesn’t mean austerity – it could be even more beautiful than what we have now, if we get their on our own terms.

To take the path toward paradise, or even survival, we must act on all levels. We must cut carbon emissions in half by 2030*. Of course, federal and state governments must lead on massive tasks like the switch to renewable energy, and individual actions will add up. But cities play a critical role, too. You are best positioned to lead us toward fulfilling the goals of our Climate Action Plan, and you can pull on levers like housing, zoning, construction code, parking, and more. Climate change touches, and is touched by, everything.

In the scale of what action is needed, tonight’s funding vote – 880k/year? – is just a tiny step. While I ask you to vote tonight to preserve the climate change funding, my real ask is that you dive into the fight for the survival of humanity, of other species, and of our families, in the months and years to come. It may be humanity’s most important decade as we turn the ship of civilization around toward the light. With our values, skills, and resources, Ann Arbor is one of the best-positioned communities in the world to lead the way.

If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to facing the climate crisis – or if you think I’m wrong, and immediate city-level action isn’t crucial to preserving humanity’s future – I’d love to meet for a cup of coffee to discuss. My kids are counting on you. Here’s to a thriving Ann Arbor, and Planet Earth, in 2100!

In hope,

Sam

* – In private: I’m not confident we’ll hit this 2030 target.  But we must try, as even if we miss, it matters how close we come.  As David Wallace-Wells writes to start this article, “It’s not too late.  In fact, it never will be … This a problem that gets worse over time the longer we produce greenhouse gas, and can be made better if we choose to stop. Which means that no matter how hot it gets, no matter how fully climate change transforms the planet and the way we live on it, it will always be the case that the next decade could contain more warming, and more suffering, or less warming and less suffering. Just how much is up to us, and always will be.”

What I care about vs. what I write about

I’m disappointed with the misalignment between what’s important to me and what I write about here.  Here, I acknowledge and explore that.

What I care about: meaningful, exciting, or useful ideas

I have a list of substantial, interesting topics I’ve meant to write about.  Some are still relevant, others have drifted behind me as missed opportunities (e.g., I meant to discuss the August 2018 Ann Arbor Democratic primary elections).  Some are years old, others freshly sparked from recently conversations.

Some of these topics are explored in abandoned drafts.  Others manifest on paper as just a single bullet point, albeit with hours of associated reflection and many references ready to go in my head.

These more meaningful topics demand focus and time, which I have in only limited supply.  Such posts are also probably better when well-researched, which requires more time – though I’m growing suspicious that the burden of assembling links may not be worth it if it paralyzes me.  And I question whether it’s my place to write on them. Is my opinion valid? Do I know what I’m talking about?

What I then write about: trivial, dull matters.

Meanwhile, as these ideas languish, look at some of the blog posts I did manage to write in 2018.  I ranted against the TrailKeg, a thneed.  I wondered if old yard sign frames could be welded into a Papasan chair.  I wrote a how-to based on what I learned when configuring a specific model of solar panel monitoring gateway.

Continue reading What I care about vs. what I write about

Studded bike tires for winter cargo biking

I love biking and hate driving. Thus I try to bike as much as possible. Biking in the cold is easy enough, you just bundle up the right way. The only truly specialized product needed is pogies. I install my winter accessories on my e-assist cargo bike, which I can use for solo commuting but also ferrying children and fetching groceries.

This served me well until the current set of snow-thaw-freeze cycles in Ann Arbor. Water runs onto previously-clear streets from uphill snowbanks; this turns into ice at night.

Going downhill on Madison St last week, I wiped out hard on black ice, sliding sideways (along with my bike) down the icy pavement. Fortunately I was alone, and only bruised my elbow and my pride. This was my first fall since I started tracking my distance biked, so 2,900+ miles. I was riding a Yuba Boda Boda with relatively-wide 2.15″ Freedom tires – good grip by summer standards, but useless on ice.

That spill was enough for me to try studded tires. I put a 26″ Kenda Klondike on my front wheel. And the difference has been remarkable. I now feel my back tire sliding, but can recover from that; meanwhile, my front wheel grips the ice.

This morning I went through West Park, where snowmelt had coated the paved path in shiny ice for stretches of 10 feet at a time. No slipping! Ditto when navigating the bumpy ice ruts that have established themselves on my street in the last month. I’m riding both cautiously and with delight.

My verdict thus far is yes, studded tires make safe year-round biking possible! And that a single studded tire, on the front, is a big improvement from none (the internet had suggested this, but not unanimously).

My studded rear tire was a special order item because my bike has a 20″ rear wheel. The Schwalbe Winter Marathon is on its way and I’ll be installing it immediately upon arrival.

The studded tire makes a crackling sound, which I don’t mind except that it makes it hard to hear my kids on the back of the bike at speeds above 15 mph. It seems to grip clear pavement well, and while it’s designed for ice, the knobby tread is an improvement for navigating snow compared to the road-style tread of my Schwalbe Marathons.

And while it seems to slow the bike a little, I’m running these tires on an e-assist model, so that’s not a problem.

Speaking of which: studded tires and cargo bikes seem like the perfect pairing. Cargo bikes are already slow and heavy; they are costly, with the expense of studded tires relatively low in comparison; and they transport children, not just a single carefree rider, so safety is paramount. (And the bike looks more gnarly on studs).

I am surprised not to see more cargo bike purveyors pushing studded tires. Perhaps the cargo-biking demographic is more likely to just leave the bike at home when it gets icy?

Configuring Enphase Envoy for wifi without ethernet cord

This is a how-to for connecting your Enphase Envoy (the oval one with the LCD screen) to connect to a home Wi-Fi network, without using an ethernet cable or the Enphase Installer Toolkit app.

Enphase’s how-to guides give you about 80% of the information you need to do this, below are notes on things I figured out to fill in the other 20%.  Their guidance is geared toward installers, while this post is for homeowners who want to connect their Envoy to the home Wi-Fi network and don’t have a WPS button on their router or need to use another option.

Continue reading Configuring Enphase Envoy for wifi without ethernet cord

Should I stop flying?

Summary: I like riding in airplanes and to me, it’s normal.  And I’m under social pressure to fly.  But when I confront the science of climate change, air travel seems immoral.  Should I stop?  Will I stop?


I’m writing this because it’s been on my mind and:

  1. Posts & articles are typically about “this thing I did” not “something I’m considering.”  I want to show that making decisions is messy.
  2. If I decide to stop flying, which may seem drastic, this will show I was considering it…
  3. … and if I keep flying, this will show I considered it – which could make me look thoughtful, or more likely, weak and unprincipled.

Why

The climate situation is dire.  I can’t overstate this.  Read coverage of the most recent (Oct 2018) IPCC report and/or Joseph Romm’s book Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know.  Humanity is on pace to destroy the world.  And the worst polluters are well-off Americans like me.  Because we do high-carbon luxury things that most of the world can’t afford.  Flying is one of the most-polluting activities.

Continue reading Should I stop flying?

Upcycling yard sign frames into a papasan chair?

Filed under “ideas I’d pursue if I had infinite time:” could I weld the metal wickets from old political yard signs into the bowl of a papasan chair?  There are tons of signs rendered useless each election when a candidate loses or a proposal is decided.  These are free or nearly-free, and indeed many are left by the side of the road to rust.

The thin metal rods bend well.  I imagine giving them the proper curve, then welding a grid of them into a bowl shape.  Welding is on my long-term to-learn list, perhaps in 2019.  Would this be an easy trial project or a foolishly hard one?  It would at least be low stakes.

I’m not sure what material the rods are.  Galvanized steel?  I’ve seen some of them rust.  If galvanized, I gather additional safety precautions may be in order from zinc fumes that off-gas during welding.

Someday, perhaps.  I wonder if it’s been tried, or what else people have made from this source of free metal rods.