The 5-minute Dovetail: A hand-tool woodworking exercise for building skills

There’s a woodworking school in Portland, Oregon, owned an operated by a guy named Gary Rogowski. If you read the woodworking magazines, or buy woodworking how-to books, you’ve likely heard of him. That’s how we met: I was an editor at Fine Woodworking magazine when I was assigned a feature story working with Gary to build an Arts and Crafts Style table.

Over the years I learned a lot watching Gary work up close, and reading his articles and videos. My favorite of them all is a simple exercise he taught his students called “The Five-Minute Dovetail.”

The challenge: Cut a “pin” and matching “tail” in a pair of scrap pieces of wood and make them fit in 5 minutes or less. The required tool: A bench vice to hold your wood, a handsaw (western or Japanese-style), a chisel, and a coping saw.

For the month of October, I didn’t have any major woodworking projects planned so decided to practice the Five-Minute Dovetail exercise once a day and see how good I could get. It took about five days for my skills to improve, and soon I was ripping through the joint in as fast as 3-1/2 minutes.

All this practice gave me time to think up a fun topic for a 5-minute flash talk that I had to deliver to colleagues at a work event last month. I drew up a slideshow of steps that illustrate how to practice the Five-Minute Dovetail routine at home (Notice the suggested time check in the lower left hand corner of each slide).

I also used the exercise to compare woodworking to open source computing: both involve a set of skills practiced by a community of individuals using a set of common tools to create and fit parts into a finished object that provides practical or artistic value.

Lifehack: Easily attach a key to a stubborn keychain

Have you ever struggled to attach a key to a super-tight key chain or key ring? I’ve broken a few nails trying. But struggle no more!

I discovered a super simple #Lifehack that makes it easy to attach any style key to a key ring or key chain using a drywall screw: poke the screw tip into the crack and twist, then watch it open wide!

This method works great with over-sized keys and keyfobs, overcoming the toughest metal key rings you can find.

(Not) ‘Making It’: You won’t see me on Season 2 of NBC’s hit craft show

When Season 2 of NBC’s hit crafters reality show “Making It” comes out this December, the familiar hosts Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman will not be joined by me. But not for lack of trying.

Last year I submitted a 3 min. audition video to be a cast-member on the show and I’m not ashamed to share it with you here, now.

I’m a Nick Offerman Groupie and was generally impressed by Season One but not intimidated by the talent. “I can compete with felters!” I thought. So it didn’t take much goading from an old college friend to apply. (Coincidentally, she built a successful casting agency after college and casts contestants for the show. LA is all about connections, right?!)

I completed the 1,000 page questionnaire, sharing my life story as the son of a yarn-store owner and micro-biologist, which apparently creates a curious and capable maker with tons of unique and inspiring answers for a craft game show contestant. The last requirement on the application was to submit an audition video.

I’m not an OK Boomer, but I generally don’t like to create selfie videos. So I drew some inspiration from a classic internet viral video — one of my all-time favorites — from the Dollar Shave Club launch.

My audition video got me through round one, and I was selected for a live Skype Interview with a producer. But I failed to impress and never got the in-person call back. I’m pretty sure it was the last question: she asked me for my favorite Karaoke tune and then made me perform it. Hopefully, that video doesn’t make the bloopers reel.

Make a PodBox Single-Purpose Podcast Player

The single-purpose “PodBox” Podcast Player

Build a Rasberry Pi speaker box that plays the latest episode of your favorite podcast

I’ve worked in the technology industry for more than two decades, and back when I got into it everyone was talking about “convergence.” It was a decade before the iPhone, but companies were hard at work looking to discover the perfect combination of features and functionality in a single hardware device.

After some fits and stops, here we are 20 years later and the quest for convergence has been conquered. Today, everything fits into a “phone.” The iPhone and Android unleashed a massive universe of apps that transformed a hunk of glass and metal into anything and everything you want it to be. Point it at the sky to identify the aircraft flying overhead with augmented reality (FlightRadar24). Hail a taxi cab on the fly at your exact location and pay the driver without your wallet(Uber/Lift). Take a photo (Camera) and share it with friends, family, and strangers (facebook, instagram, twitter). Unlock your front door before you arrive home (August locks), or spy on your babysitter (Nest). Deposit a check into your savings account with a photo (Wells Fargo), and order and pay for your Latte before you arrive at Starbucks.

Our phones have become so converged we can’t leave home without them!

The future is singular! 

With all this access to everything on demand in a single device, I predict that humans will eventually reject this all-you-can-eat buffet of information and evolve toward a more singular and focused future. 

Which leads to my latest woodworking project and invention: The PodBox! It’s an elegant little speaker box featuring a handmade Kumiko panel, that subscribes to a single podcast. My prototype tunes in every day to Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal. Plug it in and connect to WiFi, and the box will download the latest episode. Press a button to play it. That’s it!

The Hardware

I built a handmade wooden box a few years ago and recently repurposed it to feature a small Kumiko panel in the lid. It’s a traditional style of Japanese woodworking, and it’s recently become popularized thanks to a kit available from my woodworking hero and friend Michael Pekovich.

Inside my handmade wooden Kumiko box is a small, affordable computer that is simple to program, called a Rasberry Pi. A handful of companies make hardware based on Rasberry Pi in different configurations and for different purposes. I purchased the Rasberry Pi Zero W from a company called Ardafruit.

The Zero W costs about $10 and is one of the most advanced Pi devices. It has built-in WiFi so you can connect to the internet. And it includes a few inputs and parts necessary to turn it into a Podcast player: A micro SD card runs the player program and stores the latest episode audio from the Podcast feed; a mini HDMI port connects to a monitor or HD TV when you’re setting it up the first time; two micro USB ports (for a 5v power supply and USB accessories like a keyboard and mouse), and 512MB of on-board RAM for running processes on the single-core 1 GHz processor chip.

I also purchased an audio amplifier chip and a small speaker that attaches to the Rasberry Pi, as well as a button to click when you’re ready for playback.

The Software and Operating System

To create the internal brains for the Podbox, I enlisted my friend Jimmy who like me tinkers in many hobbies, skills, and interests. Jimmy is a pro-hobby vegetable gardener, sourdough bread baker, DJ, and electronics engineer, and Python programer.

He wrote a simple script in Python that looks up the RSS feed of the Marketplace podcast. Finds the latest episode. Compares it to the episode currently saved on the PodBox (if there is one). And then downloads the audio file if it’s different. Once downloaded, the Python code sniffs for the button to get pressed, and when it does begins audio playback.

Plug and play!

The program runs on top of an open-source operating system called Raspbian, which is the official operating system for all models of the Raspberry Pi and handles all the stuff you’d expect from a computer, like booting it up and connecting to speakers, right out of the box.

And pleasurable to look at between episodes.

10 Tips for Working Remotely

A week into my new “Work From Anywhere” job @Automattic I wanted to recap all the good advice I received and put into practice for working remotely.

My Top 10 List:

10. Eat Lunch! Remembering this was harder than I thought.
9. Don’t eat too much. My friend advised 10 pushups every time I opened the fridge, so I mostly avoided it.
8. Exercise! I found time for a long bike ride (almost) every day.
7. Related, I took a mid-day dog walk and now Pepper likes me best.
6. Get out of the house. I met a group of co-workers in Alameda at a co-working space and we ate lunch at nearby Burma Superstar. Highly recommend.

Me and my local co-workers sharing a table for the day. Free pastries for breakfast plus a team lunch? Sounds good to me!

5. I’m happy to have my dedicated space to work, tho, and my handmade desk (see previous post). It’s a great way to let the family know when I’m not available.
4. A dedicated space also means it’s easy to avoid and not get sucked into after-hours comms.
3. Turns out there’s lots of noise no matter where you work, so I downloaded a Mac app called Krisp that mutes loud background noises for calls.
2. Related, I decorated the wall behind my new desk with some non-distracting art to add visual interest to the background on video conference calls.
1. Wear pants! At the end of the day, I knew work was done when I got to change into shorts and a t-shirt.

Happy working wherever!

The Office of the (My) Future

I start a new job on Monday and I want to brag about my new office.

First of all, there’s the commute: I get to walk to work with a cup of coffee.

It has a fully-stocked kitchen that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and offers around-the-clock pour-over and all-you-can-eat snacks.

In addition to my personal office, there’s an outdoor patio and a second-floor deck with WiFi and pleasant views of the Santa Cruz mountains to gaze at while I do my heads-down work.

I also get to bring my dog, Pepper! She hates to be alone all day and now she gets to hang with me, take occasional walks and fetch breaks, and lay around on her pillow in the company of her familial pack.

My hours are flexible, which helps when it comes to shuttling kids to and from school and sports, or just finding a few minutes to hangout with my friends and family, exercise, or enjoy my hobbies.

Adjustable height desk

The motorized adjustable-height base has four presets.

But let me tell you about my favorite thing of all: my custom handmade adjustable-height computer desk. The tabletop is made from a glorious slab of California Walnut, sustainably grown and milled by a local farmer in Santa Rosa, Calif. It still has it’s original “live edge” and it’s constructed with traditional mortise-and-tenon joinery cut by hand. I can sit or stand anytime because the desk has a motor that adjusts the height with the press of a button.

Here’s the best part: I got to build my custom Walnut desk from scratch in the woodshop next door! That’s right, my new office has its own woodworking studio for employees!

For those of you who have not cut through the satire just yet, I’ll come right out with it. My new office is my home office (and that woodshop is my garage woodshop).

Next week I start work at Automattic Inc., the company behind WordPress and a handful of other software platforms and services for publishing on the open web. Automattic bills itself as a “distributed” company with no corporate headquarters. Me and my 900+ co-workers live and work in more than 70 countries from our home offices, co-working spaces, and even a few Airstream campers.

After spending the past five years commuting to and from the towering glass and steel edifice of Silicon Valley’s most famous technology headquarters, Apple Inc., I’m surprisingly ready for the change. And I’ve already started thinking about that next woodworking project.

Two halves of a single Walnut slap are fit side by side with a wavy fault line that follows the live edge of the tree.

Generation Web

Every five years or so I start too seriously reflect on my life in terms of the world around me. Where am I? How did I get here? And what am I contributing toward it all? For me, it helps to put it into perspective with a story. A narrative of events often surfaces answer to questions that seemed murky without context.

I’ve written my personal narrative once before while working for the Public Radio program Marketplace. I was the leader of team that built and maintained Our charge was to translate this popular radio program with its district sound and voice to the digital space. Most of the time it was hard work. For example, radio journalists are great orators and storytellers and they have no need for excellence in spelling. On the Internet, bad spellers will struggle to achieve excellence.

So rather than rewrite my narrative, here’s an excerpt of that original report to get it started:

When I was four, in a dark basement hallway of the college science building where my dad kept his biology lab, I first saw the Internet. It was just about as old as I was.

During the summer semesters my dad gave us free rein of his college biology building – I loved the dry ice machine and closets full of glass beakers. My oldest brother, meanwhile, spent his time in the basement.

He reluctantly let me follow him sometimes down the long dark hallway where a row of blinking computers with flashing green text lined a cinder block wall. I watched as he logged in to the black screen with pounding clicks on a keyboard. As he typed, he explained to me that there were people from all over the world writing back at the other end. Like a telephone, but with words.

I didn’t really understand it at the time, but later in life during a tour of UCLA’s computer science building by a man named Leonard Kleinrock, I would learn that it was called ARPANET, and it was essentially the first version of what we now call the Internet.

The next summer the personal computer arrived in my home, and my life was really disrupted. It was an Apple IIe and I remember its flimsy, oversized floppy disks well. My favorite was a game called Olympic Decatholon. To move your athlete across the pixelated screen required pounding furiously on the left and right arrow keys. In my favorite event, hurdles, you had to hit the space bar while operating the left and right arrow keys to leap over each hurdle. (My parents didn’t know at the time, but I attribute my keen hand-eye coordination to those hours of game play.)

Power to the People: The desktop publisher
When the first Macintosh computer came out in 1984, my Mom dropped $3,000 on one for our house. She ran a small business in town and she chose the expensive but stylish computer so she could run a desktop publishing program called PrintShop. It allowed her to design colorful signs and banners for her store windows, and she could print out her entire store mailing list onto reams of sticky labels – thousands of them – more quickly and for a lot less money than a professional service.

The sound of the dot-matrix printer churning through the alphabet of names is burned in my head forever. But my brothers and sister and I loved it. Mom paid us $.05 for every label we stuck on a 4×6 postcard announcing some holiday sale or special event. I stayed up past midnight honing my sticking technique to earn more money, more quickly.

A generation gets connected
In 1988, the public middle school I attended in the San Francisco Bay Area upgraded all of its electric typewriters with Windows PCs. Typing class was replaced with computer lab, and my graduating class was the first to take the newly required course. We mostly learned the keyboard by typing letters as they fell from the top of the screen. If a letter hit the ground, you lost a point. My friends and I had great fun competing for the best scores. Meanwhile, I learned how to professionally type 75 words a minute and navigate windows with a mouse and quick commands.

I got my first email address in the Fall of my freshman year in college: I also signed up for a new free service from Microsoft called Hotmail, and I checked both accounts multiple times each day with a Netscape browser on the Apple Powerbook 180c that my dad got me for high school graduation. It was Apple’s first color laptop. It weighs about 12 lbs. I still have it on my office desk and love to see people’s expressions when they see it for the first time.

A career path disrupted
After I earned my bachelors degree in Journalism, the Washington Post wouldn’t have me, but I quickly found work in the technology news business in San Francisco, where a disruption in the media industry was furiously underway. Online startups were challenging old-school publishing business models, and the advertisers needed to make that happen were spilling money out their pockets.

This worked out well for eager young j-school grads like me. If I was willing to write about the Internet and technology start-ups, they would have me. The editors needed content to create more pages to handle the overflow of ads streaming in. I first went to work for a magazine called Upside. Some of our issues topped 250 pages — bigger than a Vogue Fall Fashion issue.

When Upside went downside during the tech bubble of 2003, I found a new place to write and report. This time for a more established publishing company called IDG. It owns MacWorld and PCWorld. It also publishes the trade weekly InfoWorld, which was the first magazine in the U.S. to truly disrupt the business by abandoning its print edition to go online only.

Monopolies vs. Free: A battle for the future
At IDG I reported on software and operating systems and all of the companies that played in that space. That meant the big one: Microsoft, which was heavily entrenched at the time in an antitrust lawsuit against the U.S. state and federal governments and the European Union.

That’s when I learned to write the plural “state attorneys general” because Microsoft was being sued by nearly a dozen of them for its monopoly hold on the multi-billion-dollar desktop operating system business. The San Fransisco District Court was home to several of those hearings, where I earned my stripes as a court reporter.

But there was another story I covered that was equally as important brewing at the time, about a real digital disruption taking place. It was a story about a handful of really smart software engineers who didn’t give a crap about making monopolies out of operating systems. In fact, they wanted just the opposite.

They called it “Free Software.” They made it for free on their free time, and they protected it with a free license that said you can have every bit of the code and do with it what you please, as long as you share your changes back to the community so that everyone can benefit from your innovations.

That was a bold idea at the time when the goal of a software company was to sell more software and make more money. In contrast to Microsoft’s authoritarian licensing agreements, the concept of free software was profound.

But more than a decade later, it has stuck around and in many cases won out. That’s because while the code is free, a lot of people have made bundles of money building custom software and applications that in turn have great value. Other businesses and institutions are using it to save money – replacing entire proprietary networks with free servers and software.

All I’ve known is digital
As I look back on three centuries of my life, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the world has been digitally disrupted. Look around you and you will see it everywhere. You’re probably reading story with your smartphone on a subway.

I happened to be lucky enough to be born to a generation at the forefront of this disruption. I still remember what a dial pay phone looks like; I put together my college newspaper the old-fashioned way with a paste-up wax machine and printing press. But I also eagerly embraced their technological replacements, the mobile phone and the digital printer and Quark XPress.

And it is with this new blog, on this new website, that I plan to tell more of these kinds of stories about digital technologies that are disrupting the way we live and do business, and the people who are behind these disruptions.

And I’m always looking for your feedback. So post a comment. Say hi. Find me on Twitter. I don’t mind the disruptions.

Second verse, same as the first
Picking up where this story left off, I spent a few years at Marketplace before leaving for a new career at Apple, working inside the Product Marketing department with the charge of producing marketing content about Apple users that demonstrate the value and ultimately sell iPhones and iPads to business, education, and government customers. Being inside the belly of the Silicon Valley beast was an eye-opening experience. That’s a story for another day.

But I’m happy to report that the narrative continues. I left Apple this month and next week start yet another new adventure. This one involves a home office, more of that open source software, and the opportunity to help write a new story for the future of journalism, digital media, and content publishing. Right about now, they could use the help.