Archive for February, 2009

Shoemaking 101: It’s All About (In)Sole

tracing feetSome of you may recall that we enjoyed a rather unusual honeymoon in the mountains of Virginia.  We learned how to make handcrafted shoes from a lovely shoemaker named Glen and his wife Peggy.  It was an awesome experience and we each made a beautiful pair of shoes.  We also took over 1,000 photographs of the process so we could write some well-illustrated posts.  Of course, the challenge has been figuring out how to present all the information without being totally overwhelming.  Welcome to the first part of an approximately 20-part series (depending on how in depth we go).

There are a lot of different kinds of shoes in the world but the first two basic decisions to make are what style of shoe and what size of shoe.  Glen makes a number of different shoe styles but his favorite for beginners (and the one he wears most often himself) is a sort of boot that is actually rather similar to Converse All-Star sneakers.  He likes them because they are easy to make, easy to customize, give natural support, and hold up well.  Compare outlines

As far as size goes, most shoes are made using a generic foot model, called a “cast” that is assigned a number (e.g. Women’s Size Eight).  Some shoe manufacturers will have a few different variations within each size (e.g. 8 wide versus 8 regular) but your foot still has to be pretty close to one of their generic models for you to end up with a good fit.  The advantage of custom-made shoes is that they can be sized to the precise dimensions of your foot, which is what we did.

The type of shoe we made can be divided into two parts – the upper and the sole.  Glen starts all his shoes with the soles so we started by circumscribing (tracing) each others’ feet on old manila folders.  (It’s really hard to trace your own feet accurately.)  We did one tracing with the pen pointed straight down to capture the broadest outline of the foot and then a second pass with the pen angled in to measure the arch of the foot.   Once we had done each foot, Glen put them up to the lightbox to see if our feet matched or not.  He says that for about 80% of people, their left foot and right foot are significantly different.  Will’s feet were different enough that he made a pattern for each foot whereas my feet were pretty much mirror images of each other.

Scraping insolesOnce we had the tracings, we used those to draw patterns for the insole and midsole.  To create a midsole pattern, we marked four points on our foot: 1/8″ out from the top of the tallest toe, 1/8″ out from the bump under the pinkie toe, 1/8″ out from the heel, and 1/8″ out from the bump under the big toe.  Then we connected the dots in a pattern that looked aesthetically pleasing and left plenty of room for our feet.  To create an insole pattern, we simply traced a line 1/4″ interior of the midsole, so the insole ends up actually being just slightly smaller than the foot.

Here are the layers of the sole (the bottom part of the shoe):

insole – soft leather that your foot stands on

plastizote – squishy but resilient foam that provides some cushion, same size as insole

midsole – tough oak-finished leather piece that is 1/4″ bigger all around than the insole, used to attach the uppers to the lowers

crepe – optional layer of firm cushioning, same size as midsole

outsole – the absolute bottom of the shoe that provides tread

pounding glued solesWe started by cutting out the two insole pieces and the midsole piece.  They are all glued together, which is actually quite a process that builds some upper body strength.  First we had to rough up the pieces that are going to be glued, to make sure the glue would stick properly.  This was done by rubbing the leather or foam with a very dangerous-looking tool that is essentially little metal spikes on the end of a handle.  Then we applied Barge’s all-purpose cement and allowed it to dry partially before actually sticking the pieces together.  Finally (and this was a lot of fun) we would pound the freshly glued pieces with a mallet to make sure they were well stuck.

After all that, we had the very beginning of our shoes and were starting to see why handmade shoes are rather expensive…

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Everything’s amazing, nobody’s happy

I’m swamped today with grading, work, and Saffron’s first meeting with the dog trainer (she did quite well, but she’ll need more work for sure).

Instead of a long post, I’d like to share a video with you. It’s a clip of comedian Louis CK on Conan O’Brian talking about how amazing things are right now. It’s easy to forget, but maybe every once in a while we should sit back and think about all the amazing things we can do (like get electricity from the sun! And raise chickens in the city!). Last night, I saw two deer wandering through our yard as I went to bed. It’s pretty crazy that we can live so close to downtown and still have wildlife around!

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Weekends are for Projects

Foam expanding underneath the windowI am one of those people who takes great pleasure in writing to-do lists and happily crossing things off, especially when I have a whole weekend with nothing scheduled.  (Just for clarification, in my book nothing = less than two scheduled activities or less than three hours of total scheduled activity for a two-day period.  I don’t think I ever truly have a weekend with NOTHING scheduled.)

This weekend I had a whopper of a to-do list with a special focus on fixing up the house.  We seem to have developed a bad habit of identifying projects that need to be done (e.g. replace the garbage disposal) and then studiously ignoring them.  Often it’s the simple fact that we are missing one key requirement (e.g. plumber’s putty) or simply feel daunted by the size of the project (e.g. insulation our crawlspace).  I decided I would consider it a success if

1. We made it to the hardware store to buy the supplies we know we need

2. We weatherproofed our bedroom windows enough that I can no longer feel a breeze on my pillow.

I am happy to report that we succeeded on both counts although perhaps not as greenly or as elegantly as possible.  I have heard some people argue that when it comes to insulating/weatherproofing one’s home, it’s okay to use less-than-green petrochemical-based products because the net savings on electrical consumption from coal-burning power plants will more than offset the product creation and disposal.  I must confess I’m not entirely swayed but it helps me sleep at night after I use exciting products like “Great Stuff” insulating foam and sealant.  Deep down, I will always be attracted to magical foamy squishy goo that sprays out of a can, regardless of its environmental impact.

Anyway, we used spray foam to fill up the cracks around our window frame (still waiting to put the trim back up) and were planning to use caulk around the window itself where the major leak occurs.  Unfortunately, the caulk said it should only be used when the temperature is above 40 degrees and while that’s true in our house, it isn’t true outside and I’m pretty sure the caulk would be exposed to outside breeezes.  So we resorted to a stopgap method of sticking weatherstripping along the seam to block the worst of the airflow until the weather warms enough for the caulk.

I figure we have another month or so to sharpen up our razor blades, scrape the old crusty caulk off every window edge in our house, and seal it all back up again.  Ah, spring.

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One Bus Away

One Bus Away screenshotLast night, I chatted with my friend Brian, who’s a grad student at the University of Washington in Seattle. He’s an avid bus user, so we had a good talk about buses. Public transportation takes a much different form in big cities like Seattle than in smaller towns like Bloomington, even if they take the same form (buses). More importantly, Brian reminded me of the project he’s been working on for about a year now.

Brian’s project, One Bus Away, lets you call a phone number (or check the website) to find out when your bus will get to your stop. That’s pretty cool, and especially useful in a city like Seattle, where buses can get backed up and there’s no way for you to know.

Even cooler to me is that you can ask One Bus Away to find businesses within a given distance by bus. For example, you might ask it for all of the coffee places less than 15 minutes away by bus, starting from where you are now. Brian told me that eventually, they’d like to set it up so that you can find apartments based on how close other things are by bus. It would be great to be able to find all apartments that are within 15 minutes of campus and a grocery store.

For now, One Bus Away only works in Seattle, but the Brian’s eventual goal is to create a system that any transit authority can use. Lots of municipal bus systems have terrible websites (Bloomington included). Once the OBA (One Bus Away) tools are complete, anyone will be able to set it up for their bus system. If it all works out well, that’ll encourage more people to use the bus by increasing the convenience.

Given the amount of positive press OBA has gotten recently, I’d say that he’s on to something. There’s a great article in the University of Washington newspaper as well as several local radio and TV interviews.

So if you’re in Seattle, give it a try (the number is 206-456-0609)! OBA is also open source, so if you’re inclined, you can download the code and improve it or install it locally.

Kudos to Brian for doing something to make buses more useful and enjoyable!

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When does it make sense to move?

When gas climbed to $4 a gallon, lots of people talked about getting rid of their cars. It takes a while to make that lifestyle change, so gas prices went back down before most people were able to figureit out.  But since gas prices can make up a pretty small portion of the price of owning a car, it still makes sense for a lot of people to get rid of them. Since these costs are better hidden than paying at the pump, it’s hard to take them into account.
A parking meter
At some point, those hidden costs are going to be more expensive that picking up and moving closer in to town. Obviously, that point is going to be different depending on your town, car, and driving habits, but is it ever feasible?

Let’s take my friend Ian. He doesn’t drive much, so his gas costs are minimal, even when gas prices are high. Apart from driving to Ohio to visit his parents twice a year, Ian just drives downtown a couple of times a week and to the mall once or twice a month.

First, the old expenses. In addition to regular maintenance (of about $100 a year), Ian spent almost $2000 last year in repairs. Hopefully, that won’t happen again, but the car is only getting older so it will eventually break down entirely. For now, let’s estimate it at $1000 of repairs a year. Excluding gas costs for his longer trips, Ian spends about $10 a week for gas, or $520 a year. Insurance is about $350 a year. Ian owns the car outright, so he doesn’t have any loan payments, but assuming his car only lasts another three years, he’ll want to set aside at least $1000 a year to buy a new one then. If he took out a loan payment on a $13,000 car then, he’d be paying about $2400 a year at that point.

Maintenance Repairs Gas Insurance Loan / Savings
$100 $1000 $520 $375 $1000

Without a car, Ian wouldn’t have to pay for any of that, saving him about $3000 a year. If he had a new car, he’d be spending less on repairs but more on his loan (or amortized savings) and insurance, so I’m guessing this would be similar for others in the area.

On the other hand, Ian would have some additional expenses. He could pay piecemeal to ride the bus, but at $1 a ride it adds up. A semi-annual pass here is $150, which basically gives him a free month. That makes bus costs $300 a year. Ian also makes those two long drives a year to visit his family. Ignoring gas costs (which would be about the same if he drove his own car), he’ll just have to pay for a car rental (or change his lifestyle and fly or bus, but let’s try and keep things as simple as possible). To rent a car for a week costs $215 including all fees and taxes. Or, for a longer trip, Ian could rent a car and drop it off in a nearby city the next day for $100 (and another $100 on the way back). Two trips like that a year will cost Ian about $430.

Getting rid of his car will save Ian $3000 and cost him $730, a net savings of $2270 or $190 a month. If you ignore saving up for a new car, Ian will save a little over $100 a month ($1270 over 12 months).

In order to maintain his current lifestyle, though, Ian is going to need to move. The biggest problem with taking the bus from his current location is that he has to spend 30 minutes getting to the bus station and then another 15-30 minutes getting where he needs to go. If he moved to an apartment close enough to the station, the wait would only be 15-30 minutes total, about what it takes in a car from his current place. He’d also be close enough to downtown that he’d only have to take the bus when going to the mall twice a month.

Therefore, it makes sense for Ian to move if he can do so for less than an extra $190 a month. The place he lives now, south of town, costs $330 a month (his costs with a roommate), so if he can find a place within walking distance of the bus station, which is downtown, for less than $520 a month, he’s saving money.

Obviously, these numbers are different for everyone. It’s not too hard to run the numbers on your own situation and see how much of a rent increase you can cover. Then, you can decide if the kind of place you can get in a better location is worth the increase in costs. In Bloomington, a good one-person apartment downtown would run about $600 a month, which is more than Ian wants to spend. If he’s willing to continue splitting costs with a roommate, though, they could get something comparable to where they are now for $900 a month (so $450 a month in Ian’s costs). That works out pretty well.

Even though I tried to keep Ian’s lifestyle the same, there would certainly still be differences which might make it more expensive in either direction. For example, if Ian occasionally has to drive long distances for work, he’d have to add additional rental costs. Or the lost convenience of being able to quickly get to the grocery store (or hospital or soccer practice or whatever) might not be worth the savings to him.

From a purely economical standpoint, though, the price increase in Bloomington in moving downtown from the outskirts is more than made up by the ability to get rid of a car.

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gardening anxiety

HELP!  My friends are gearing up to start seedlings for their gardens and I haven’t even ordered my seeds!!

Okay, I know, it’s still February.  Indiana may have taunted us with 60 degree weather but it didn’t last.  Still, I feel like the pressure is on to get planning in the garden.

If you were going to plant five vegetables and two fruits, what would you grow?

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Weekend links

The Doctor Seuss of Homebuilding is a video about a guy in Texas who’s set up something like Habitat for Humanity with recycled houses. The future homeowners pay for it, but the materials are scrounged, the houses are small, and they do most of the work themselves.

On a sillier note, an ad firm has come up with the Ecofont, which is a font with holes in it. Supposedly, the font uses 20% less ink because of the holes. It’d probably be easier and better to just print in grey than use this font, but it’s a funny idea (along the lines of using a smaller font to keep file sizes small).

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Thinking Amish

Amish boyWhen I’m thinking about making a major purchase, I try to imagine how it will fit into my life. That’s often difficult, especially if it requires a fundamental change in lifestyle. For example, my sister avoided Netflix for a long time because it didn’t match her current habits (deciding to watch a specific movie and then going to Blockbuster for it). Once she tried it out, though, she realized that she liked being able to watch a good movie immediately more than she valued being able to watch a specific movie after going to the store.

It’s even more obvious with bigger items like houses and cars. How would your life change if you got rid of your car? Or moved to a different house or apartment? It’s hard to say, which makes really difficult to shop around for those things.

I think I often take it to extremes that most people don’t. I usually agonize for months before buying anything that costs more than $50-60. It took me about a month to get my current $90 running shoes (and that was only after trying and failing to get some cheaper ones online). I annoyed Maggie on and off for at least six months while I was deciding whether or not to get a DSL camera.

It turns out that there’s a whole group of people who are even more extreme than I am about evaluating life-changing technology: the Amish. For one thing, they think all technology is life-changing. I don’t disagree but I’ve already bitten the bullet as far as things like electricity are concerned.

Kevin Kelly has an interesting post up about Amish hackers, where he describes how the Amish decide which technology to accept and which to reject. In particular, Kelly says that the Amish have four main pillars that make their evaluation process successful (for them):

1) They’re not afraid to say no.
2) They ban (or accept) things based on the experience of their early adopters
3) The technology they accept must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.
4) They make their decisions communally.

That works for a relatively close-knit homogenous society. If you want to know whether or not genetically engineered corn will be good for you, it’s easier to see how it’s working out with Bob down the road than if you can only look at the results for strangers in far-off places.

Or, to go back to my personal examples, my sister only got Netflix because my parents tried it out first. She was able to see that a lifestyle working around Netflix was better than one built around Blockbuster.

There are so many different things out there that it can be hard to evaluate them all. I’m currently drooling over the new netbooks. Their low weight and long battery life (not to mention the low power consumption) are all very attractive. On the other hand, I’m almost always near an outlet and I only really take my laptop anywhere twice a week. Would it really be worth it to get a device dedicated to mobility when I already have a laptop that works okay?

Since my friends and family have no experience with them, it’s difficult to evaluate along the Amish criteria. I have found that laptops are worth the money. I remember a decade ago when I got my first laptop that I had the same qualms. If I have a perfectly good desktop, is it worthe spending extra money for the portability? Then, I could look at the experience of others around me to figure it out. Now, I’m making a similar decision in a vacuum.

The most important thing to the Amish is that new technology enhance family and community. It doesn’t make sense to analyze all of my purchases that way (my camera, fun as it is, doesn’t do much for the rest of the family), but I think it might make sense for a computer. Would having a more portable computer increase my connection to my community? Probably some, since I’d be more willing to bike or bus downtown and work there. But is it worth paying almost $400 for that increase? That I’m less sure about.

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Our house smells like fish and chips

Vinegar BottleWe returned our foster puppies to the animal shelter on Wednesday.  It was a little sad but also a tremendous relief.  We’ve both been looking forward to sleeping through the night and having a clean house again.  Will was most concerned about the carpet which the puppies were never supposed to encounter but of course they broke out one day and pooped all over it.  And I do mean all over it.  Anyway, we decided to rent a carpet cleaner this weekend and do our spring cleaning a bit early.  (It was about 60 degrees yesterday so it felt like spring even though it’s still February.)

Being the green-minded folks we are, commercial carpet cleaner solution just didn’t feel like an option.  I did some internet research and one lady suggested running vinegar through the machine but admitted it took a long time for the odors to dissipate.  We’ve been using quite a bit of vinegar lately for cleaning and the house was already smelling a bit like a fish and chips shop (do any of you actually use the term “chippery”?) so we decided to use a very diluted vinegar mixture (one cup vinegar per two gallons water).  It worked very well and since the weather was balmy we were able to air out the house pretty well.

Vinegar and baking soda are often touted as miracle green cleaners and so far they’ve worked pretty well for us.   To deodorize puppy laundry, I would soak everything in vinegar and water for a few hours (in the washing machine), then wash with a combination of our normal biodegradable laundry detergent and about a cup of baking soda.  For personal deodorant, I’ve been using a mixture of baking soda and corn starch.  [I have not yet been brave enough to try coconut oil as a deodorant; it just sounds gross.]  I used vinegar as a hair conditioner for a little while but couldn’t get over the lingering smell.  I also discovered that if I brush my hair immediately before washing it, I get almost no tangles.

Of course, we’ve been using Kroger brand distilled white vinegar because we’re cheap and we’re going through it in great quantity.  For our house to really smell like a chippery, we’ll have to upgrade to the fancy malt vinegar stuff.  But I think I’ll save that for the pub.

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Extreme Green: Travel By Cargo Ship

Cargo ShipMy friend Scott has been dreaming of taking a pilgrimage for several years so it was no surprise when he announced his intention to hike the Camino del Santiago in France and Spain this past summer.  He does not like to fly, largely because of its negative environmental impacts, so he spent some time trying to figure out alternatives.  We both had heard a presentation from a guy who took a cargo ship to Europe and then traveled the mainland by train and bicycle.  It sounded a little extreme but also kind of exciting.  We heard another friend tell her story of getting a deal on a cruise ship that was relocating from Florida to Europe and decided maybe the boat ideas isn’t totally crazy.

It is, however, rather long and expensive when compared to flying.  Scott did some research and decided that the cheapest way to go is to take a tramp ship.  Most cargo ships have set routes (say between New York City and Lisbon, Portugal) and have a buyer who is responsible for filling the ship with goods on either end and selling it on the other end.  Tramp ships are wanderers who pick up cargo where there’s a surplus and deliver it where it’s needed, with much more flexibility.  It can be a bit riskier since these are HUGE ships that are ridiculously expensive to operate, but on the other hand they can take advantage of big market swings and buy up cheap commodities in one place and take them wherever they will sell well.

Scott booked himself passage on a cargo ship leaving Chicago via Lake Michigan and headed across the Atlantic Ocean.  All they could tell him in advance was that the ship would pick him up somewhere near Chicago, sometime in the second half of August and that it would drop him off somewhere in Europe or Northern Africa, with an estimated travel time of 20-30 days.  The ship that he ended boarding on August 17th was 200 meters long, 23 meters wide, carrying 20 crew, up to around 15,000 tons (yes, tons) of cargo, and one passenger – him.

The adventure began when the Polish chef could not be made to understand the request “vegetarian food” but it snowballed from there.  Normally, the ship would pick up either grain or steel from the Great Lakes region and then cruise through Lake Huron and Lake Erie, on up the Saint Lawrence River, and head across the Atlantic Ocean. However, things did not go as planned:

Because of the strange state of the U.S. economy, the ship was, for many days, paralyzed at sea without cargo.  At a cost of many thousands of dollars per day just to maintain the ship drifting, the pressure was on the owners to find some cargo to justify the two week trip across the Atlantic to Europe.  Nevertheless we found nothing viable in the Great Lakes.  The captain, who had been one for 39 years, nor any of the crew, had ever heard of a Polsteam ship NOT finding cargo in the Lakes – a tribute to the unsurpassed peculiarity of the U.S. and world economic crisis that we have now heard so much about and which few if any of us actually understand.  So it was that we had to travel all the way around the Eastern Seaboard to New Orleans (or ‘NOLA’ in shipspeak) to load corn.  What was more, once we motored down the east coast and rounded Florida, Hurricane Ike followed us into the Gulf of Mexico, and though thankfully its destructive center missed us, it still eventually slowed our access to NOLA ports.  Ike’s several days of unrelenting 25-50mph winds effectively dammed the water that ordinarily flowed down and out of the Mississippi, creating a gigantic temporary lake, above which peered houses, trees, cars, boats, etc.  Ports and roads were closed, some evacuations occured, a traffic jam on the Mississippi resulted.

Even more unfortunately for Scott, he was being charged by the day for his passage, even though he wasn’t getting any closer to his destination.  He was also getting further and further off his timeline of hiking the Camino and then catching a flight back to the U.S. to attend my wedding.  On September 25th, 38 and a half days after boarding, Scott disembarked in New Orleans and made his way back to his hometown of Austin, Texas, pilgrimage unfulfilled.

Well, he would say that in one way it was a really significant pilgrimage; just not the one he expected!  I haven’t asked him yet if he would ever try the boat trip again.  It sounds totally overwhelming to me although I do find the idea rather romantic – tucked away on a ship filled with tons of exotic cargo, hanging out with a crew who speaks no English, being totally cut off from the Internet and TV and radio, enjoying days of quiet contemplation in the middle of the ocean.  Of course, I also once fantasized about stowing away with truck drivers, traveling the country with my laptop writing the next great American novel and hanging out in tiny towns along the way, so I know the romantic in me can get a little crazy…

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