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There are many studies that demonstrate the value of playing a musical instrument, beyond the music itself. Playing music is excellent mental exercise: simultaneously engaging your brain’s motor, memory, sensory, visual, aural, emotional, and even verbal centers (if you’re singing as well). Playing a musical instrument during adulthood is associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia; it can significantly reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. It’s been shown to help sharpen concentration skills and increase memory capacity; it’s one of the most challenging and beneficial activities a human can undertake.
All excellent reasons to play an instrument… but musically, Iʼm lazy. Very lazy. Though I love music, I had never mastered any instrument, and practicing was always a chore, even with instruments that I loved. Iʼve tried clarinet, recorder, guitar, mandolin, mountain dulcimer and folk harp, but even when I managed to reach some level of competency, I couldnʼt sing and play correctly at the same time. I felt like my brain needed a RAM upgrade.
And then I borrowed an autoharp. Right away, I could strum it on my lap and sing along, without screwing up the chords. I was playing, I was singing, I was stunned — I was hooked. Practicing wasnʼt a chore; now I had to force myself to put the thing down after playing and singing for 5 hours straight into the wee hours of the night. The point is, almost anybody with an elementary sense of rhythm can make music that sounds good from an autoharp, from the very start…and improve over time, as much as they are inclined to.
It’s so, so very much easier than playing a guitar, though I’ll admit, the tuning is a tad tedious (36 strings). But the chord bars on an autoharp vastly decrease your chances of hitting the wrong note, and there are none of those cramp-inducing finger contortions required for playing guitar. Just hold down a bar, and strum — and there’s your chord! You can take an autoharp as far as you want. In a few hours you can play well enough to chord along with your favorite tunes. In weeks, you can learn to play the harp upright, and pick out tunes or harmonies. Eventually, who knows? You might be attending festivals, entering an autoharp contest, or playing for yourself at home, happy as a clam.
Autoharps can be played in myriad styles: “old-timey” (ala Carter Family, see video below), bluesy, folky, lyrical, Celtic, rocking, classical. They lend themselves to almost any kind of music you can think of. And the autoharp community is remarkably welcoming and inclusive, in my experience. Even the “superstars” of the autoharp are willing to teach beginners. I recently attended “Seattle Autoharp Week” where participants, in small groups, took lessons from some of the best ʻharpists in the world. (Imagine a beginning guitar class taught by Eric Clapton.)
Many people donʼt realize how beautiful an autoharp can sound; if theyʼve heard one at all, chances are theyʼve heard one out of tune — ghastly. Autoharps do need to be carefully tuned, and this does take time; I recommend getting a ʻharp with fine tuners if possible, as well as a good chromatic tuner such as the clip-on Snark HZ-1 (or a tuning app such as iStroboSoft). Fine tuners arenʼt cheap (adds about $100), but theyʼll save you much time and frustration. Beware of old autoharps that have sat in a closet for years: sometimes their sound quality deteriorates if they are neglected and improperly stored; strings may be “dead” and probably also need replacing for optimal sound. There are some “autoharp doctors” around who can rejuvenate many of the old autoharps — or tell you if that ʻharp is probably a lost cause.
New mass-manufactured ʻharps should preferably be checked and set up by an autoharp expert — not all new ʻharps are ready-to-play straight from the factory.
Autoharp prices range from zip (check your local Freecycle or Craigʼs List page) to over $2,000 for a custom-made luthier ‘harp. You can pick up a 21-bar Oscar Schmidt with fine tuners that has been set up by an autoharp expert for about $400-$450. I bought an Evoharp (lighter, prettier, handmade, available in right or left-handed models) for $850.
See the Autoharp Page for luthier links; if youʼre the adventurous type, check out eBay. Music isn’t just something you play—it’s something you do. The Autoharp Page: Links to autoharp makers, publications, recordings, festivals, artists, teachers, hints and tips, and especially: the Cyberpluckers, an online forum where you can ask any autoharping question (as long as you check out the FAQs first). Beginners very welcome.
Beginning Autoharp with Evo Bluestein DVD I donʼt learn music well from books, but I could follow Evo just fine, and pause him, rewind, repeat until I got the lesson down. Very helpful to be able to see what youʼre supposed to be doing, as well.
-- Barbara Dace
Oscar Schmidt OS21CQTBL Autoharp ($358)
Available from Amazon
Our guest this week is is Eric Moore. Eric is the IT Manager at Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. He previously worked for Apple in its Information Systems and Technology Department. Having grown up on a farm in Georgia, he’s a tinkerer by nature who loved to break things and put them back to together to learn how they worked.
Anker Compact Car Jump Starter ($80)
“I have an old, classic ’72 Chevy Blazer that I have in storage. It was in storage for over a year. I took it there and changed out the fluids and was getting ready to start it and obviously the battery was dead, but I connected this thing to it and without hesitation it started it up and when it died a couple of times, each time I connected that thing to it it started it, no problem. … It has a fast charger port, a higher voltage as well, flashlight, emergency SOS signal for the flashlight as well. This thing is awesome.”
Anything After App (Discontinued)
Alternative: After Credits (FREE)
“After you sit and watch a movie now they usually have teasers at the end … if there’s a teaser to the sequel or outtakes or gag reels or whatever; this app lets you know whether you need to sit around and wait after the movie to see additional content. Also, based on the actual people that have viewed the content, lets you know if it’s worth waiting around for it as well.”
Breville Milk Café Milk Frother ($130)
“[This is] one of the best pieces of hardware that I own. This thing basically takes your milk and it steams it, so you don’t have to buy that really, really expensive machine with the frother wand on the end. You dump it in there and it has a couple of discs in there, if you want cappuccino or frappuccino, it does everything for you. You push a button, set your temperature and walk away from it.”
DMD Panorama ($1.99, iTunes)
“What this does it allows you to take 360-degree spheric panorama pictures, so you can share those pictures with friends. It’s a different level of immersion depending on the venue. I have pictures from Hawaii and Waimea Canyon with this thing. You can zoom in and just spin around the picture itself and then also for people that use Google Cardboard or any type of VR hardware, you can basically load that picture up and it’s like you’re walking around in that picture. … Basically, it’s a fully encompassed 360 picture.”
Ricoh Theta S ($305)
“It’s super small, super compact…You can have it in your pocket and most times you won’t even notice it’s there it’s so small…It basically takes 360 degree pictures as well, but the awesome thing is you can live stream.”
I’ve been using this for travel since I first noticed them earlier this year. It’s basically the same product as a normal Eagle Creek packing organizer, but with one innovation, which is that there are two sides to the organizer with a barrier panel between them. One side has a white zipper and the other has a gray zipper. This allows you to keep your clean clothes on one side and the dirty clothes on the other.
There are two reasons this is cool. The reason that might be obvious is the ability to keep track of which clothes are clean and which are dirty. But the less obvious and ultimately more important reason for me has been that it permits your packed clothes to retain a consistent and predictable size and shape, so the way you pack when you leave on your trip stays the same as you unpack and repack at various points during your journey. There are various sizes, but I picked one that’s about 10 x 14 that I can use as the “core object” in a bundle wrap if I’m going to be packing more stuff than will fit in the cube.
-- David Zicarelli
Eagle Creek Pack-it Specter Clean Dirty Half Cube Packing Organizers ($25)
Available from Amazon
I am an estimator and project manager for Northwest Professional Services, a cleaning and restoration company. This is my everyday carry bag for days out in the field.
OGIO Hip Hop Messenger
Dumb name but truly an amazing bag. This thing is perfectly laid out for everything I need even if it just a little outdated (the cellphone pocket was clearly designed for a flip-phone). So, you can keep your single compartment leather satchel, I’ll stick to this one.
Dell Latitude E6230 (Used and new from $345)
Truthfully, I could maybe get by with a really nice chromebook for about 70% of what I do (emailing, running Slack and Trello), but the software I use for writing insurance estimates for water and fire damage is heavily GPU intensive and also requires Windows. This machine has been a real workhorse.
32 oz Nalgene Water Bottle ($10)
Hydration … enough said.
Koss PortaPro Headphones ($40)
Although I recently replaced these with Sol Republic Shadow bluetooth buds, these are still my favorite cans of all time. Koss hasn’t changed the design since 1984 and still continues to produce them. Maybe it’s because they got things right with these the first time? In between job site visits, I spend a fair amount of time at coffee shops and libraries writing up repair estimates and emailing reports. The best way to put out the “do not disturb” vibe to people around you is to wear a pair of headphones (sometimes, I don’t even plug them in).
Dewalt Tape measure ($23)
Yes, I’ve seen your fancy lazer. I like my tape.
Oakley Eyepatch II Sunglasses($150)
I do a lot of driving in between job sites to measure and inspect, and these are a life saver in the summer.
Chums Surfshort Wallet ($10)
My qualifications for the perfect wallet are simple: compact, only needs to hold credit and business cards, and will survive getting wet. The bonus with this one is that the card pockets on the sides zip shut, so I’ll never have a card fall out accidentally.
Folding utility blade knife ($8)
I never know when I will have to cut into something when inspecting water damage jobs. Sometimes it means opening sheetrock to chase down a pipe that has split, or taking a carpet sample to match for replacement. I have a few really nice folding pocket knives but nothing beats just popping in a new utility blade for instant razor sharpness.
Galaxy S5 Phone (free w/ Verizon plan)
My phone is probably the most used tool in my arsenal. I use the GPS to map routes from job to job, camera to upload pics to Slack so my team can see what I’m sending them in to deal with, and of course communicate with home owners, sub-contractors, and insurance adjusters. I also track my work hours on it. I recently replaced this one with an iPhone 7 (pictures of flooded basements and moldy sheetrock have never looked so beautiful).
Dewalt Pro Contractor’s Portfolio ($19)
I was wooed into buying this originally because of the tiny LED gooseneck light and the built in calculator. The light broke in the first week and the calculator followed suit soon after, prompting me to velcro my own calculator directly over it.
Logitech Marathon Mouse M705 ($29)
Best mouse ever. Compact, wireless, full of customizable shortcut buttons.
Rescue meds for migraine and assorted allergy meds, etc.
Stress brings on my migraines and having a job that is built on helping people through unexpected emergencies brings on plenty of it.
The ironic part about writing estimates for a cleaning company is that all the job sites you visit are deplorably un-clean.
-- J Young
If you can’t open it you don’t own it. I like to own my stuff, so I rely on tools to help me open those not-easy-to-open things. The last one I opened was an “instant on” food thermometer, because its internal probe contacts needed cleaning.
The kit comes with a stainless steel blade and steel pry bar, tweezers and five nylon “spudgers.” I usually start with cracking a seam open on the thing that I’m repairing with the steel pry bar, but switch to a plastic spudger once there is room for it.
The tools come in a neat roll.
-- Kent Barnes
Professional Opening Pry Tool Repair Kit with Non-Abrasive Nylon Spudgers and Anti-Static Tweezers, 8 Piece Set ($10)
Available from Amazon
This tool was a right of passage to manhood in my family. At age 12 you became a man, because that’s when you received your very own Gerber Diesel Multi-Plier. I’ve loved it ever since that exciting day I first opened it. For the longest time this was the only tool I needed, and in many ways still is. When camping I used it to make tools, carve wood, prep and cook food, replace batteries and so much more. I hardly ever, if at all, reached for another tool. What makes this unique over other multi-pliers is those “oh crap” times. For instance, recently I was working on a jewelry frame for my wife. I was lining up cup hooks to be screwed in and had them just right but had forgot to open the pliers. Oh crap. I couldn’t just set it down, but it was okay. With the Gerber I could open it with my free hand with a satisfying “sheenk” sound as the pliers slid free of their housing. A lot of people are fans of the Leatherman and would argue it’s a better multi-tool mainly because you don’t have to open the pliers just to use the knife and that it folds up more compactly. The difference in compactness is negligible, but the knife argument is valid. If you think you’ll be using the knife frequently, not in conjunction with the pliers, then the Leatherman is your tool. For everyone else, the Gerber’s tools lock in place so you don’t worry about them closing on your fingers, and their multi-tool is backed by a limited lifetime warranty (compared to Leatherman’s 25 year warranty).
-- Justin Dyer
Gerber Diesel Multi-Plier ($51)
Available from Amazon
The first time I used a rawhide hammer was back in the 60s when I took a leather craft making class from a local Tandy Leather Store. Since then I have used that same hammer for a multitude of uses besides decorating a cowboy belt (Which I still have!). The rawhide has enough mass that it transfers a good amount of energy into the item it is used on without scarring it. Wood and plastic items that have come under the hammer have been persuaded to open or unstick with a few well-placed taps. Dovetailed drawers have been tapped together for gluing without any marring. Like a lot of tools, once you own one you will find many uses for it.
-- Kent Barnes
Garland Rawhide Mallet, 1.5-in diameter head ($17)
Available from Amazon
Tiny Cards is a free smartphone app that lets you make spaced repetition flashcards to help you learn languages, history facts, the elements, constellations, or anythings else. I’m using it to help me with my Japanese vocabulary. — MF
One of the few paper magazines I still subscribe to is New Scientist. It is a weekly dose of real science reporting, with broad lay appeal. Of course there is an online version, but I prefer to turn pages and read while I eat my lunch. Either way, it’s the best solid source for new science. — KK
These Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup have become essential in my life. They can make any cheap champagne taste like liquid gold. The flowers themselves taste like a sweet fruit and they look so pretty sitting at the bottom of a flute. — CD
If you are not already using a password manager like 1Password, Dashlane, or LastPass you are inviting trouble. I am not a very security minded person generally, but a password manager on your phone, tablets, laptops and desktops is outright essential today. Let it generate strong passwords for you, keep your credit card and bank info, and supply them wherever and whenever you need them. No regrets. — KK
When I travel I take snacks with me: Macadamia Nuts, Starbucks Via instant coffee pouches, and Graze Bars. I recently added a new item: 0.5 ounce coconut oil pouches. They go great with my low carb diet. I can spread it on chicken and vegetables to increase the calories without adding carbs. I love the taste of coconut oil on almost anything. — MF
A friend recommended I download this free 5-minute plank app (iOS) to strengthen my core and I’ve been using it almost religiously. You just press the play button and the timer will alert you to change positions. The visuals are helpful and I was able to up the rest time to 10 seconds between positions. Here is a similar highly-rated app for android. — CD
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-- Kevin Kelly, Mark Frauenfelder, Claudia Dawson
The time AFTER the holidays is really the best time to get gift suggestions. Now we can share the unexpected gifts we may have received from others. Were there any cool tool-ish gifts you got this year worth sharing? Leave a note in the comments, with links please.
I’m retired and have converted my garage into a woodworking shop. So, I’m out in my shop several hours each day. The problem is that at certain times in the year there are an enormous number of flies in the area and they are constantly flying into my shop. I checked on the web to see if there was a solution to this. It turns out there is. There are numerous fly traps available but the one I chose to try is called the Victor Fly Magnet Trap. It comes with a powder that you put in the jar and mix with some water. It smells terrible but the flies seem to love it. Then you hang it from a tree or fence, but not too close to where people could smell it. After I hung the first one up in my front yard I was shocked at how many flies it trapped. It only took a few days to catch thousands of flies. The black stuff floating on top of the water was flies it caught in just five days. Pretty gross looking, but it really cut down on the flies coming into my work area. Over this season I’ve emptied and refilled it three times. You can purchase refill packets and reuse the jar. It’s made my woodworking so much more enjoyable not having those pesky critters flying around.
-- Steve Petermann
Victor Fly Magnet Trap, 1 Gallon with Bait ($15)
Available from Amazon