Maker Faire KC 2014

Since Fin was out of town, I took the opportunity to Geek-it-up at the Maker Faire Kansas City, and grabbed Blazed to explore.

The Make people threw a fairly decent party, both inside and outside Union Station. A solid mix of people were present. I spotted everyone there from dirty hippies to Glassholes.

We caught the “Coke and Mentos” guys doing a demo.

(Video is recording from another fair / year / someone else, but the presentation was similar).

We saw people building boats from trash.

There were people showing off plants:

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And electric cars:

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And Tesla Coils playing music:

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Inside, there were people trying to sell stuff. Some really cool local businesses, some big businesses, and a lot of kick starter and artish projects. Microsoft gave a moderately creepy demo of the X-Box One and the capabilities of the new Kinect.

I’d recommend a visit for all the nerds and non-nerds out there next year.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Marketing

Sprouts Logo

Many in the KC metro area might have noticed the press a new grocery store is getting. "Sprouts" recently opened a new store in Overland Park, right off 135th street. Reading the newspaper articles, description, and marketing, I was really excited to see this store go in. After all, Fin and I make an effort to buy local / organic produce when possible. I mean, look at their advertising materials:

Terms that might catch your eye:

  • independent
  • natural
  • farm-fresh
  • natural, organic
  • non-traditional
  • farmers market-type

Now, as this store bills itself directly as a "farmers market", it would stand to reason that they'd have local brands correct? No doubt, they'd have a heavy focus on organics? Wrong.

Sprouts largely stocks items from their own house brand. While marketing materials may indicate "grass fed" beef, or "organic", a significant amount of the produce and meat doesn't fit the advertised bill. True, they have large sections of organics. But, immediately under the HUGE stylized "Organic" and "Local" signs are conventionally grown products from your usual suspects of industrial agriculture. They DO have a large organic section, located in the middle of the store. Helpfully, every single piece of organic produce has a friendly "Organic" green sticker attached, thus advertising your concern for the environment, health, and reducing pollution. Just don't forget to throw it away… er.. recycle it before eating.

This store is located in a convenient location for me, so I wanted to check for a few key staples I'd expect at a "farmers market", namely, locally grown produce and brands. While it's possible they sold out, miss stocked, (or I flat out missed seeing them), I was unable to locate:

  • Shatto milk
  • Boulevard Beer
  • Good Natured Family Farms Meats

Really, what I saw out Sprouts was a minimal presence of local brands.

Generally, this would be my default expectation in a modern grocery store. However, the fact that Sprouts advertises itself as a "neighorhood farmers market", the dirth of local brands and farmers borders on false advertising.

If you look carefully at the advertising materials and information provided by Sprouts, its very clear that their produce is no more gauranteed "Local" than buying the exact same thing at ANY grocer in the KC Metro.

Now, if you want to locate, actual local produce, it's not hard to drive a few blocks down to Hen House, where you can find "Good Natured Family Farms" products. While Fin and I keep shopping at traditional grocers down to a minimum, we've been fairly pleased in dealing with HyVee as another alternative. They might be a big chain (about the same size as Sprouts really), but they have both local and natural foods sections. The managers are also open to suggestions on carrying new local brands or organic products.

Yes, it's possible to put your dollar behind local and sustainable produce without shopping at the newest FAD super market.

If you really want a "neighborhood farmers market" experience, visit KC Food Circle to see what's going on locally. Even in the dead of winter, there IS farmers market activity going on.

I may still stop by Sprouts for picking up random odds and ends, but its definitely not "local" food, and doesn't rise to the selection of organic and natural products as Whole Foods. Sprouts is nothing more than a new grocery chain trying to move into our area… And so far, I'm NOT impressed.

— Fate

Scotts 14" Reel Mower Review

For division of household chores, Fin holds that mowing is "not her job". So, when it comes to trimming grass, we're a very traditional 60's style house – that's the guys job. Not that I mind, I rather like mowing, and… Well, Fin does a lot more around the house than I do. Like tons. Proportionally, I'm but a small blip on the radar when it comes to things moving around here. 

Unfortunately, mowing proves to be yet another area where technology and I don't get along. As on many other Saturday's, I pulled out our mostly trusty old gas mower, starting mowing, and…. bzzzttt fart dead. As fate would have it, we discussed reel mowers a few days ago and narrowly talked ourselves out of purchasing a sub-$100 Scotts model. Perhaps the universe heard and zapped some sludge into our push mower's carb.

Since a hardware trip was required anyhow (carb cleaner + oil change + spark plugs), I figured I'd venture off into the truly hardcore green movement. I donned a green shirt, green shorts, and went out to reduce our lawn cutting emissions to 0. When Fin and I purchased the push mower, years ago, we'd talked about working toward "green".

But reel mowers? Nahhh, that's too hardcore. Give up powered mowers? Oh hell no. I'll keep my powered lawn mower and use pig farts if required.

Nowadays? Hell yeah, we're hardcore. I head to Depot, grab the required materials for our gas guzzler and brave the head shaking looks of many, proudly walking our Scotts reel mower out. And yes, someone DID ask, "why are you getting THAT?" Why? I'm hardcore.

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Greener than a hippie chained to a tree

Back at home, it's time to discover just how long this experiment will last. As a child, I recall a small reel mower tucked in the back of the garage. I mowed with it a couple times, I don't recall much about it except… it sucked, a lot. Tough to move, and it cut next to nothing. Unpacking, I keep careful track of everything, remembering my childhood experience and doubting my resolve against mowing a yard with human power only.

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Sustainable, but plastic is still in

Scotts does a fairly decent job packaging everything. The box and mower matched nicely with my clothes – green… Just to let you know you're doing the "environmentally correct" thing. The package advertises tool less assembly. No lies. Build time took less than 5 minutes.

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5 minutes after opening, maybe…
Unfortunately, Home Depot hadn't seen fit to put these on display. (After all, who the hell is CRAZY enough to purchase this thing? If they do have some on display, pay careful attention to which models, there are significant differences beyond cutting deck size.) First Impression? Houston, we have a problem. This thing is SMALL. Built for an 8 year old child small. While sturdy, the general appearance doesn't say "screw you combustion engines, I'm a MAN and I can best the powers of industrialization through shear brute strength, Hu-fucking-Rah".

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Picture with child-sized mower
I walk inside and inform Fin that I can't be seen pushing around an 8-year old's toy outside. Still, I must admit it's built well and looks like it could do some damage, and Fin thinks we should get an overall impression and decide if the reel mower experiment is worth continuing or not. Really, what better time to test out the most manual of mowers than in the high heat of a Midwest insta-sweat summer day.

How'd it do? Perspective first: I've used everything from a riding lawn mower, to a fancy electric, to a standard non-self-propelled push mower on our yard. Obviously, we're not talking riding lawn mower ease here. Our yard hasn't been cut in too long, so we've got some high grass and a few nice tall weeds. Our grass is generally a mixture of multiple types, mostly thin bladed.

Overall, this mower was substantially easier to push than our gas guzzler push mower, but not as easy as working with something motorized and self propelled. I was moderately surprised by the cut, a nice even and natural look. I didn't have any trouble with weeds popping up or high patches left uncut. I found the cut exceedingly easy when keeping a slow, steady pace – attempting to speed up or slow down resulted in the blades stopping. Also, you'll need to cut in straight lines -> turns don't work well. However, it's VERY easy to backup, and restart cut paths. I quickly found a natural rhythm forming and managed to cut most of the grass before I stopped to discuss it's abilities with Fin.

Fin broke her no-mowing rule to try cutting a couple paths. Her immediate reaction was positive, though she agreed with me on the rather funny picture of a rather tall guy marching around the yard with mini-mower. Her thought was to take it back and get one with a slightly larger / adjustable handle.

I packed it up and returned it to Home Depot and was pleasantly surprised that they didn't give me any hassle at all on the return. The clerk asked if it hadn't worked for me. I told her it seemed like a great idea, but I needed to find something a bit more adjustable for my height. "Well, I don't know if you noticed this, but you're REALLY tall," she replied back. Heh. Glad to see at least some places still keep a strong view toward customer service.

TL;DR? Let's summarize.

First, for real mowers in general:

Pros

  • So Green, you'll make Prius owners realize their farts really do stink
  • No worry over getting gas, charging batteries, or maintaining engines
  • Easier to push than heavier non-self-propelled push mowers
  • Leaves a very natural, even, nice cut
  • Much quieter than anything gas operated (potentially louder than electric)
  • Quiet operation allows for early morning work while its not boiling hot outside
  • Materials research is cool -> modern reel mowers use composites that are lighter and more resilient than those of yesteryear
  • Significant evidence your yard will look better

Cons

  • Multiple weird looks from even your "sustainable" friends
  • Significantly more work than riding mower, not as easy as a self propelled
  • Requires more yard care, need to pickup branches and leaves, instead of mulching over
  • Smaller cutting deck means a lot more passes required
  • If you're maintaining acreage, this isn't realistic (I'd argue push mowers aren't either though…)

Second, thoughts specific to the Scotts 14":

  • Solid construction, very lightweight, but wheel plastic did seem slightly cheap. Handlebar padding didn't stay put well / slid on handlebars.
  • Rear discharge means grass gets thrown directly against your legs/feet.
  • Cut height isn't easily adjustable and limited to 1 3/4" at the highest.
  • Handlebar is very small, larger individuals will feel a bit compressed moving this around.
  • It WILL work for taller people, but the handle adjusts up, meaning you'll walk practically on top of it, and get grass blasted against your legs.
  • Awesome value for the money, I could see this unit lasting for years with only blade sharpening required.

For what it's worth, I'd recommend the Scotts 14" for cutting smaller areas. Scotts moves to a slightly more open handle design in the 18" series, but the 16" and 14" use a T-style design. If you have wide shoulders or are taller, I would NOT recommend the 14" or 16" for that reason. If you keep a well maintained yard without trees, these mowers are actually easier to use. And that's coming from a rather large fan of gas powered yard tools.

We're doing some research before getting another reel mower, but this time, it'll be less experiment and more tool.

NFL shows no talent in finding talent

I like watching the ads and the game. Unlike most people, I’m also interested in the half-time show and the national anthem. Mostly, I’m curious how the singer will present the national anthem, and what tweaks they’ll do to it. I also like live music, so I’ll pay attention to the half-time show.

I’m not a tweed wearing patchouli splashed hipster who discusses obscure indie-bands in some sorta effort to win a pissing content on being anti-establishment. Nor am I some conservatory trained brat that discusses at length how Lang Lang is an overrated pianist and that any real musician would understand the proper interpretation of some obscure classical piece (and then gripe it wasn’t actually classical). I have no aspirations of being a professional musician. I simply enjoy music – I don’t really care what form or if it’s popular or not. I like major commercial labels, indy, and stuff played at smokey bars in scary areas of town.

I should know now to not expect much from the clowns that run these shows, but year after year has shown nothing but disappointments. I’m not sure what made this year so much more remarkable to me, enough to write about it. Perhaps the butchering of the national anthem. Frilly, showoff singing, while butchering the words. To the performer’s credit, at least she kept going. That ability is one of the big separators between amateurs and the pros’.

The halftime show was a disgrace. Hardware issues in performances happen, but at some point I must wonder what’s going on. In general, it sounded like whoever ran the mixing board smoked a bit much before the show, passed out, and managed to flop across the board leaving all the levels set randomly. One overly auto-tuned main singer, and then another that cut in and out all the while being out of tune. I almost wonder if some software error forced us to hear uncorrected audio.

I must admit to being partial to the 80’s costumes, but the dull lifeless performance put a sour taste in my mouth for a band I occasionally like… I’m not sure exactly why the Halftime shows continue to suck. I thought it was the continued usage of bands well past their prime, but today’s show throws that basic assumption in doubt as well. At this point, I’d rather see a college marching band… Maybe something about the huge stage takes a band like the Black Eyed Peas and zaps them of talent, leaving them a group of lifeless zombies stumbling through set after set.

I’m not a big fan of country, but maybe they should consider throwing country acts at it for SuperBowl 46. Hey, they’d probably at least get the words to the national anthem right…

Review: No Impact Man


Fin and I have been on a documentary kick here lately, so when our next movie choice came up, we decided on “No Impact Man”. Fin was fairly excited to see it – “No Impact Man” is one of several environmentalist blogs she follows. As far as documentaries go, the film itself was fairly interesting and well put together.

Colin Beavan decides to put his views into action by making “no impact” on the environment for a year. He does this by removing various modern conveniences from his life (the biggest of which is apparently toilet paper), and attempts to reduce the amount of trash he outputs.

While I found the film interesting, I don’t think it really had any point besides being something of a human interest film. Other documentaries do a far better job of explaining the effects of modern agriculture, pollution, or attempting to be “Green”. However, seeing some of the normal arguments environmentalists might have with each other, or the general public, did provide some food for thought. The value of being an environmentalist is taken as a given at the start of the film. Lacking however, was any real advice on how to put ideas into action – most of the things highlighted in the film weren’t things everyday people would find useful.

If documentaries are your thing or you’ve heard about “No Impact Man” otherwise, you might want to watch it. Unlike some other movies I’ve seen, it doesn’t hit the level of “need to see” or even my giving a strong recommendation.

That said, while it is a documentary, be warned if you read further for spoilers.

Watching the documentary, I do have some very strong thoughts as to environmentalism and what an environmentalist lifestyle would be like. Now, I’d like to start by saying that the primary focus (for me) of writing here isn’t exactly environmentalism. It’s about focusing on the reality of the world around us. At one point in this movie, an older New York hippie highlights the hypocrisy of Mr. Beavan’s lifestyle when his wife writes for Business Week. That one moment highlighted my main objections to the whole idea of his “No Impact”.

Like it or not, the mere act of being alive has an impact. Nature isn’t an all giving kind and nurturing place with fluffy bunnies and puppies that never grow up. The documentary never addressed it, but I found myself wondering throughout the movie if the “No Impact” show piece wasn’t actually at times, causing WORSE impact for the environment. After removing electricity, “No Impact Man” continues to use gas service (lighting an oven with a match) and water service. He enjoys fruit cooled by ice from his neighbour’s freezer. He keeps light at night using candles. Not having the thermostat turned to warm the apartment during the winter, means his apartment mates are subsiding his heat. These examples to me is where “No Impact Man” moved from environmental activist to performing a stunt.

Sadly, part of that stunt seems to be the message “going back in time is an improvement”. The “how things were done in the past is better” idea proves just as fallacious as the “new is better” idea. When it comes down to it, so much of what we’ve discovered makes our lives easier and simpler. Our ability to modify the environment and live in luxury should come with a sense of responsibility.

About halfway through the film, it occurred to me that a lot of what I saw was only sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. I don’t think good things come when people sacrifice to assuage their guilt, it comes when people decide to take responsibility for their actions. The difference is subtle, but it is there.