Category Archives: How-to

Bike camping from Ann Arbor to Pinckney Rec Area

COVID-19 shattered my “fun aspirations for 2020” list, but one survivor is bike camping. I’m planning that trip (this weekend). It will be my first time camping via bike so I’m reading up and asking questions. In particular I’m focused on getting there and back, with two kids and our gear. Here are some notes on routes and logistics, to help me & others in the future and to see if anyone has other ideas.

Where to Bike Camp around Ann Arbor

The closest campsite to Ann Arbor that I’m aware of is Crooked Lake Rustic Campground, at Pinckney Rec Area. I’ve camped here via car several times so know what I’m getting. But I’m curious to know of other camping options within ~25 miles from Ann Arbor.

Getting There via Bike

For this post, let’s assume a starting point of Michigan Stadium. Google Maps suggests taking Dexter-Ann Arbor road to Dexter, then Island Lake Road to Dexter Townhall Road. Total 18.5 miles. This is the route I use to drive there.

Default path from Google Maps
Continue reading Bike camping from Ann Arbor to Pinckney Rec Area
a hugelkultur mound with a log border, full of vegetable plants

Building a hugelkultur mound in a city backyard

This was a leap-of-faith project during Michigan’s bleak COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” period. I’m documenting it here as a plan for building a hugelkultur bed on a small city lot as well as to preserve a pleasant COVID-19 memory. Behold the thriving hugelkultur mound:

It’s exploding with vegetables – see below for pictures of the hill itself

Hugelkultur is a permaculture concept where you pile up organic material (logs, leaves, compost, etc.) and then grow a garden on top of it. Here is a good explanation of hugelkultur and its benefits. It’s also a fun word to say. We refer to our mound as “the hugel” [German for hill].

This was the perfect COVID-19 project. Under lockdown in April, we had nowhere to go. I was spending lots of time with my kids at home during the day. And I wanted to be outside. Building a garden bed with the materials at hand was a small act of protest against the feeling of being dependent on a global supply chain whose fragility had suddenly been exposed. I couldn’t easily get soil or lumber delivered for a conventional raised bed. And crucially, the city’s compost and yard waste collection was about to resume for the spring, so my neighbors had their maximum amount of organic material awaiting disposal.

Starting with a hole

Continue reading Building a hugelkultur mound in a city backyard

Sand the bottom of a door that sticks without taking it off its hinges

Problem: a wood bathroom door rubs slightly on the tile of a bathroom floor at the midpoint in its swing, sticking in place. I wanted to sand off the tiniest bit so that it swings free.  But it wasn’t worth removing the door from its hinges.

Solution: get some rough sandpaper (I used 60 grit) and an old magazine. Open a dozen pages of the magazine and lay the sandpaper on top, grit up. (Without the magazine padding I’d be nervous that I’d mar the tile floor). Put this stack at a point in the door’s arc where it swings freely.

Before you start sanding: you want to avoid pulling off any strips from a veneer that may be covering the door’s surface.  To avoid that, first sand the trailing edge of the door (that is, the side that hits last when you’re slamming it into the sandpaper), so it isn’t caught and pulled while you slam.  Also consider using a finer grit of sandpaper, which would add a few minutes to the sanding, and opening-and-closing on the sandpaper with less force.  Keep an eye on the veneer throughout the process.

Now, slam the door into the paper stack so that it sticks. In the process, it sands exactly the lowest point on the bottom of the door. Keep swinging it back and forth, slamming it into the sandpaper. As you make progress in shaving the door, you may need to add pages to the stack or move it closer to the point where the door sticks.

Test periodically. In a few minutes you’ve removed a millimeter or two from the bottom of the door and it should swing freely, without altering the look of the door or needing to remove it.

Besides the convenience of this solution, I enjoy its elegance: by replicating the act of making contact with the floor it shaves the door in precisely the right place.

Compost bin with open lid

Building a compost bin out of pallets

The project: My mother-in-law had long expressed interest in composting her food scraps, but didn’t care for the plastic bins available for purchase. I’d been interested in building such a bin by reusing salvaged lumber, mostly discarded wood pallets. This presented a fun challenge: construct a compost bin that satisfied her aesthetic requirements and followed my principles of reuse.

It turned out well: it’s attractive (in a rustic way) and functional, though took longer to build than I expected. Breaking down pallets was a big chunk of that time overage: they were free in monetary cost but not in the time they took to process.

After weathering its first winter

Design: I built it probably a little too big, 32″ L x 30″ W x 29″ H. Compost bins have to solve for the problem of emptying the finished compost (after a year or so) while leaving in place any recently-discarded food. In bins like this, which will be emptied via a not-yet-installed door in the bottom of the side (see below), that separation is achieved by the depth of the pile. The bottom of the pile, with older finished compost, is no longer turned, while the fresher, unfinished material rests on top. In a narrower bin, the walls support layers of material such that the top layers can be left in place while the bottom is scraped out. This bin may be too big to neatly do that. Perhaps the over-sizing just means it can go a few years between emptying.

The slender buckthorn log on top was a last-second addition. It supports the lid in its open position so that the hinges don’t bear the door’s full weight. This bin is lovely and robust, but maybe overly complicated for task of turning food scraps into soil. The next bin I build may be much simpler, left unfinished and entirely open to the air with no lid to exclude animals.

The lid is resting on the buckthorn branch

Materials: In addition to many mismatching pallets, I used scrap 2x4s and plywood, plus fasteners and hinges I had lying around. To preserve the wood somewhat, while keeping it food-safe, I treated the wood with mineral oil and some stale cooking oils.

Breaking down the pallets into boards was a learning experience. I found that filleting them with a Sawzall was fastest. Expect to shed bits of nails wherever you work and choose a workspace accordingly. I also should have set a higher bar for the quality of pallets that I scavenged, as I wasted time freeing some boards that were unusable.

Breaking down pallets with a Sawzall

Build: the construction was straight-forward. I screwed together 2x4s to make the posts, cut and installed the pallet boards to make the sides, framed out the top and the lid, installed the lid. Remember to leave a gap at the back of the lid panel so that the edge can rotate up when the lid is opened.

The irregularly-cut 2x4s framing the top are cross-pieces from the pallets

Installation: I used a post-hole digger to install the bin, sinking the posts in place. After a few weeks of use, it appeared that an animal had accessed the bin by tunneling a small hole in the dirt under one wall. So I dug a 10″ trench around the perimeter and inserted sheets of metal hardware cloth in the trench, fastening it to the posts that were sunk in the ground. That was it for animals; the lid is too heavy for a raccoon and there are no bears here.

What’s next: Still left to do is installing a door in the bottom of one side. Then, in a year when the bottom layer of compost is ready to be emptied, I’ll scrape out the finished compost through that door. I plan to secure the bottom few boards to each other with wood strips, then unscrew their ends from the posts they’re attached to, and install hinges so that those boards can swing up together. (And add a latch to secure the door).

To spread out the time required by this project, I didn’t build the emptying door before putting the bin into use. Aside from having to work with compost-covered boards, we’ll see if I’ve failed to consider any mechanical problems introduced by postponing this feature.

I reserved some extra pallet slats, assuming that some wood will decay with time/ I should be able to swap in new pieces as needed to keep the project going. I’d be pleased with a lifespan of 20 years for this bin, after which it too can become compost. Planning the eventual obsolescence of a project is new for me; perhaps I’m thinking more timefully.

Watch repair: metal spring bar tore a channel in a Casio G-Shock end piece

For Hanukkah 2008, I received a new watch from my wife. (I don’t remember the watch before that). It was particularly magical in my job as a high school teacher. After the first bell of the day rang, it was 4 minutes to the start of school, then 46 minutes per period alternating with a 4-minute passing period. Like clockwork, so to speak.

The watch had a auto-repeating countdown timer that I set for 50 minutes and would almost always successfully synchronize with the day’s first bell. That would mean that at any point during the day I could look down and see precisely how many seconds were left in a class or passing period. I could walk the hallways and announce “27 seconds!” or count down “5-4-3-2-1” and then the bell would ring, with me the only person in the school who had that level of precision. There’s probably something there for another post but I digress.

After years of daily wear and companionship, I received a smartwatch as a gift and stopped wearing the digital watch. Then I went from the FitBit to a Basis and then a Garmin. At one point I realized I’d fallen into a consumerism trap and sought to go back. The notifications were disruptive and the data I was generating was useless to me but creepy in the hands of Big Tech. I tried to go back to the Casio, but it had a problem. (Remember the torn-out spring bar in the page title? This post is about the torn-out spring bar).

Each strap is attached to the end piece / bezel by a spring bar. In the course of replacing a broken band and with wear and tear over time, the spring bar on one strap carved a channel from the hole it sits in. With slight force, the strap would pull the pin out through the channel and detach from the bezel. (If this post wasn’t an afterthought I’d have a “before” picture). This person appears to have the same problem, though they too did not post a picture.

Continue reading Watch repair: metal spring bar tore a channel in a Casio G-Shock end piece

SD card not recognized in Ubuntu after formatting with GParted? Label it

I formatted an SD card for use in a Raspberry Pi, in fat32 format using the GParted and following the steps in this post.

But then Ubuntu didn’t recognize it, so I couldn’t put the NOOBS files on it. I went around in circles before giving the SD card a label, a step described as “if you wish” in that post. Voila! My SD card was immediately recognized.

That’s all. Label the volume. Maybe this brief post helps someone searching the internet, but if nothing else I hope writing this makes me less likely to fall in this same trap again.

Things I’ve carried on a cargo bike

I wrote about how the cargo bike changed my life. The #1 game changer is how mundane car errands become joyful adventures.  Whenever I can, I haul things by bike, and it’s become a game to see what new objects I can haul.

Here are some favorites.  Photos 2016-2020.

People

Babies & Toddlers

Babies love the Yepp seat.  They start off awake:

look!  Sunglasses a must if riding an e-bike

Then quickly doze off (don’t worry, he had his helmet on during the ride):

Continue reading Things I’ve carried on a cargo bike

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.

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

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

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.

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