I’m remodeling a house and one of the things that desperately needs replacing is the light fixtures. They’re all 1970s attempts at 1920s styles, and not very good ones. Swapping out a dining room chandelier or other ceiling light is a great way to update a room with just a few hours of work. The options are nearly infinite, and unfortunately so are the prices. As cool as the Restoration Hardware catalog is not all of us are ready to spend next month’s entire paycheck on a lamp that looks like it was built by Howard Hughes. So I started looking into budget options. The lamp field really opens up around $150, and somehow everything that catches my eye is $300+ but there are some nice options to be found for less than a Benjamin if you know where to look.
These pendant lamps and chandeliers each come in under $100, meaning you can get rid of that 1970s reproduction nightmare without breaking the bank.
First, some fairly tame options for when you want something more streamlined, but don’t want to hear your mother-in-law’s opinions on the lighting every time you host a dinner party.
If you’re feeling a little trendy (and why not when the lights are so affordable?) you could go for a drum light. Drum lights tend to look a little more casual than chandeliers, and if you hang them close to the ceiling they can be a little more subtle.
Or you can get a little weirder with these guys.
I know what you’re thinking on that last one… it looks a little cheesy, right? Ok maybe it is a little cheesy, but bear with me. When it’s lit up it looks nice!
And last but certainly not least there’s this chandelier, which I included because it’s called Khaleesi. I think it looks a bit like a metal octopus, which is admittedly not my thing, but they got me on the name. Well done, marketing team!
At long last, the bathroom remodel is complete! Ok, it was actually done a while ago, but we’ve been too busy enjoying it to do a full writeup.
Gone is the pink tile, the awkward (and dangerous!) shower, the useless closet.
Yes, our bathroom has come a long way from the pink leaky horror show we started with. New flooring, new shower, new toilet, new vanity… pretty much the only thing that stayed the same was the towels and the window.
There is now a ton of LIGHT in the bathroom! From all angles! And the sun! It’s a downright cheery place now. And the sad awkward medicine cabinet has been replaced with a mirror (we didn’t really use it for storage anyway). The vanity has tons of storage space for any doodads left behind.
See that light? That light is a bathroom fan. Before we had no bathroom fan and friends, let me tell you, it is LIFE CHANGING. Now this room is all GO FORTH AND POOP. DO NOT BE ASHAMED, THE FAN WILL TAKE THE ODORS AWAY.
Seriously I did not understand how critically necessary bathroom fans were until we had to survive without one. It also does a great job of whisking the damp shower air out of the house, preventing mold and other nastiness.
The open shelf on the vanity makes a great place to store surplus toilet paper. And the open-ended toilet paper holder leaves NO EXCUSES for not changing out a fresh roll. It’s so easy! The trash can is right there!
What was once an awkward closet is now a cabinet and open shelves. Guests no longer have to guess which closet has the towels, they’re right out in plain sight. Along with the first aid kit.
We totally removed closet #2 in favor of a spacious walk-in shower with a seat. Perfect for hosing off the kids after a day at the beach.
The seat is opposite a detachable shower head. It’s supported by a hidden iron bracket that gives it a neat floating effect. Two niches in the shower mean no collection of random bath items on the floor.
We still need to get some artwork to go over the toilet, it’s looking a little bare. But mostly we are very excited to have a shower that does not dump water onto the room below.
“Are Gigi and Pop Pop awake yet?” -My 3 year old, every 5 minutes, all morning
We have a shore house that is next door to that of my in-laws (who are called Gigi and Pop Pop by my preschooler). This is wonderful for a myriad of reasons, and from the moment the kiddo wakes up she has exactly one thing on her mind: “when can I go next door to Gigi and Pop Pop’s?”
A simple solution for answering this question would be some sort of visual signal, like opening the blinds or a little flag or something. Unfortunately we don’t have any windows on the side of the houses that face each other, so I decided to rig up the most technologically complicated solution possible.
Before we continue: if you’d like to emulate this solution but aren’t particularly technical, don’t have a fancy router, or just don’t want to spend a day+ dicking around with things, I suggest just buying a LIFX wifi bulb and a flic button. You can use IFTTT to link them, for a total of $75 and an hour of your time. If you want to spend the better part of a day cursing at things just because you can, or you’re just looking for something to do with your RaspberryPi, read on!
Amazon’s Dash button is meant for you to reorder toilet paper. At $5 it’s also an extremely cheap wifi button. Of course, pressing it does just one thing, and that thing costs you money, but with a little bit of effort we can hijack those requests for our own devious purposes. Sorry Amazon. I might feel bad if I didn’t already spend thousands of dollars a year with you.
Most of the work was already done for me in this reddit thread. The first step is to set up a server to handle traffic from the button. I’m using a RaspberryPi running Raspbian (which I already had). Python was already installed with the OS, but I had to add a few more tools to get where I want.
First, I installed pip to make installing the other python libraries brain-dead.
Then I installed lifxlan, a library for controlling LIFX lightbulbs locally, and scapy, a packet sniffing library.
I set up the Dash using the Amazon app, giving it my network credentials, and then closed the app when it asked me to pick an item to purchase. It complained that my progress wouldn’t be saved, which was fine.
When you press the button the Dash will connect to your LAN. If you’re quick you can probably find its MAC address in the client list on your router (Status > LAN > Active Clients on DD-WRT). I’m not so I used Ted Benson’s python script to find the MAC address.
Of course when the button is pressed it also phones home to Amazon, and then Amazon sends a notification to my phone reminding me to pick something to buy. While this doesn’t trigger a purchase, it’s still annoying. At first I just blocked the button from WAN access using a MAC address filter on my router. But then it stayed on longer, draining the battery. In order to save the non-replaceable battery life I set up a DNS entry on my router that redirects all of the requests to the button’s home server (parker-gateway-na.amazon.com) to my RaspberryPi. The easiest way to do this in DD-WRT is to add the following lines to the startup script (under Administration > Console)
Now the Dash button connects to the LAN, sends a request to my RaspberryPi (which is ignored), and then shuts down.
Tying it all together
Using more of Ted Benson’s code we listen for the ARP packet the button sends when it connects and use that to trigger a LIFX event. In my case I have a specific light bulb I want to turn blue so I figured out that bulb’s MAC address and then filter the list of bulbs against that. The lifxlan library in its current form doesn’t let you select a single bulb very easily, and if I can brush up on my python I may look into forking/extending it to do so.
I also have my script set to leave the bulb on/blue when it’s done, because I want it to stay that way until I manually reset it, but obviously you might want to read the initial bulb settings and reset them when you’re done blinking.
Making a cute label
I whipped up a really quick sticker to cover the button, printed it on sticker paper and and cut it out with an xacto knife. Download it here if you’re so inclined.
Last week I tried out CookSmarts meal planning. This week I’m going more full service with Blue Apron, a meal-in-a-box service that provides ready-to-cook recipes and ingredients. We go the 2-meals-4-servings option, which retails for $69.92. We used a coupon for a free trial week.
Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign there are literally hundreds of Blue Apron “unboxing” posts and videos, so we can skip past most of that (google it if you’re interested). One thing that did drive me nuts was pulling out items that I already have in my kitchen. Garlic, baby spinach, oranges, honey, red wine vinegar… all those things are already in my fridge/pantry threatening to rot. The real kicker was the recipe that came with a chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, since I have a TON of those leftover from last week’s meals.
On the flip side I was excited to try out the samosa recipe, because searching the entire city for samosa wrappers would have taken me the better part of a day and probably still failed. Last time I tried to find an Indian grocery store I ended up at a bodega that sold mostly cigarettes (thanks, Google).
Meal 1: English Pea and Potato Samosas
I made this recipe on Monday, and things got off to a rocky start.
Look, I’m not saying that freshly shelled peas aren’t better than frozen peas, I’m sure they are. So I bristled at the instruction, cursed when peas escaped and went flying across the room, but ultimately ended up with a thing of nice plump peas. I made the chutney, cooked the spinach, prepared the samosa filling, and by this point over an hour had passed. I’d told my 3 year old she could help with the samosas, and she kept very impatiently asking “why is it taking so long?” I also managed to dirty approximately every single bowl and utensil in the kitchen during the prep process.
Every step seemed to take longer than the last, and when the samosas / cauliflower were finally in the oven I thought “why did I make the chutney first? I could have just made it while everything baked.” But then I looked at the giant pile of dishes in the sink and spent the 15 minutes cleaning up instead.
An hour and forty-five minutes after I started we were finally ready to sit down and eat.
The samosas look pretty good, but were pretty bland. I should have added more salt/pepper. The chutney was great, the cauliflower was OK. What really bugs me though is how little protein is in this meal. You get a little from the peas, and some more in the cauliflower, but not much. The serving sizes are small and about half and hour after dinner I was raiding the fridge because I was still hungry.
After dinner I was exhausted from nearly two hours of cooking and cleaning. I collapsed into a heap with the baby (who of course was hungry by this point) while Chris did the rest of the dishes.
Meal 2: Oven-Roasted Chicken and Mixed Mushrooms
Thankfully this meal went a lot more smoothly than the first. From start to finish it took one hour and 10 minutes, which includes 10 minutes of downtime while things roasted (used to clean the prep dishes and utensils).
The chicken came out crispy and the orange “salad” paired well with it. The collards were OK. Our local grocery store doesn’t have much in the way of “fancy” mushrooms so it was nice to try some varieties besides white button. I’m not sure it’s a recipe I’d make again though. Once again I left the table feeling a little hungry. Mostly I was relieved that cooking Tuesday’s dinner wasn’t another 2 hour marathon.
The rest of the week will be filled with leftovers and an ad-hoc meal made by throwing all of last week’s leftover ingredients on some chicken.
For the Blue Apron part of this week we’re at 2 hours 50 minutes and $70 for 2 meals, versus last week’s 5 hours and $60 for 3 meals. I knew Blue Apron would come out more expensive, since most of what they’re selling is convenience, but I didn’t expect the two to come so close in time-per-meal. I also felt like the CookSmarts recipes were much better.
Originally I’d planned to try a bunch of different meal-kit services, but this week was irritating enough that I might just skip the others. I know many people love Blue Apron, friends of mine swear by it, and maybe this was just an off week for them. But based on this week I just don’t think Blue Apron is a good fit for us. I am willing to exchange the convenience of delivered food for more flexibility in my meals. One of the biggest headaches of Blue Apron is the week lead time needed to change or cancel your meals. I don’t always know what I’m doing a week in advance. Mostly though I was just really frustrated with the time-to-deliciousness ratio. It wasn’t any cheaper than ordering takeout, but it was considerably more labor intensive. Not only that but I left both meals feeling hungry.
I have been cooking the same 5 or so recipes for literally years now. As a result I am very tired of them. And as a mother to a new baby, I am very tired in general. As such, we’ve been eating a lot of takeout. It’s incredibly delicious, but also starting to seriously get in the way of my efforts to get back into shape. So I’m rededicating myself to cooking on the regular.
This week I tried out CookSmarts, a weekly meal planning service which provides you with up to 4 recipes per week and automatically generates a shopping list based on the number of people you’re cooking for. The service is $8/month, but they offer a free trial (no credit card required, thankfully).
The free trial gives you unlimited-time access to 3 different weekly menus.
Each week you mark which recipes you’d like to cook. Any dependencies (sauces or sides from one recipe that are reused in another) are noted. I only have time to cook 3 nights a week, so I chose the Maple Dijon Crusted Salmon, Adobo Honey Chicken Kebabs, and Turkey Meatball Lettuce Cups this week.
Each recipe gives you dietary options such as gluten free, paleo, and vegan. Although we eat most anything, I often need to cook gluten-free for friends or family so I chose the gluten-free options.
The grocery store run
The grocery list provided by CookSmarts is well organized. Thankfully I had a lot of the stuff needed on hand, apparently I am the type of person who has 5 different varieties of vinegar lying around. I had to go to two different grocery stores for the rest of it. Perhaps “had to” is an exaggeration. A lot of the less common ingredients like almond meal are way more expensive at my local grocery store. Going to Trader Joe’s on a Monday afternoon was a somewhat harrowing experience, but I survived. There was a whole incident wherein I thought I needed ghee, but Trader Joe’s was out, but then I realized I didn’t really need it (that was for the Paleo version of the recipe), and then I was lazy-shamed by my friends for not making my own ghee. In the end my mom got me some ghee from a different Trader Joe’s. Cool story, I know.
My grocery bill for these 3 meals was $57.25, excluding the stuff I already had, and it took me 2 hours and 15 minutes to gather everything. The most expensive item on the list was the salmon, and my costs were a little lower than they might have been because I had a bunch of ground turkey in the freezer already.
Meal 1: Honey Dijon Crusted Salmon
I made this meal first because fish smells kinda weird to me even when it’s fresh, and I didn’t want it hanging around my fridge any longer than necessary. The recipe includes videos with tips on preparing food, and I learned that you are supposed to wash and dry fish before cooking. Now I know. Sorry, anyone who’s ever had salmon at my house in the past.
The salmon was pretty easy, and gets slathered with a tasty mixture of honey, dijon mustard, and almond meal (or breadcrumbs if you’re glutenous, which is different than gluttonous). It was paired with a baby spinach / apple / mandarin / pecan salad. Please note that it is not possible to buy mandarin oranges in quantities of less than 1,000, and everyone in my house will be enjoying tiny oranges for the rest of the month.
Also my husband is not that into salad (though he will eat it if I serve it because he’s not an asshole). So I packed up half the salad into a jar (yeah, Pinterest!) for lunch. What I did not realize at the time was that salad was about to become a major theme in my life.
The whole meal was delicious. A+ would eat again. It took me about 45 minutes to prep and cook, start to finish.
Meal #2: Turkey Meatballs
This meal I made for six people, and took over to my sister-in-law’s so I could earn brownie points while drinking her wine. I cooked the quinoa in the rice cooker, made the meatballs in the morning, and then made the salad while the meatballs were cooking. I greatly overestimated how much salad would be consumed, and thus will be eating leftover salad for the rest of the week.
The big time suck with this recipe was the adobo sauce (seen in the little dish on the left). It’s used for both this recipe and the chicken kebabs, and they suggest you make it the weekend before. Since I didn’t go grocery shopping until Monday I got to make it Tuesday afternoon. It’s one of those irritating things where you only need a few teaspoons of adobo, but you can only buy it in a 8 oz can with some chipotle peppers. So after making the sauce I had spend time packaging the leftover peppers into ice cube trays for freezing / later use. Which is to say I’ll probably throw them out in 6 months when I’ve completely forgotten about them.
All the recipes have you make salad dressing from scratch, which is great and easy, but I’ll probably skip it next time. I have approximately 20 bottles of store bought salad dressing already. They go well with my 5 kinds of vinegar.
The sauce and the meatballs were delicious, my 3 year old even ate the salad (or at least she was willing to pick out and eat the apples / celery), and I got some great sister-in-law points from it. I spent a total of 1 and a half hours cooking on Tuesday, not counting the time it took to pack everything up to travel.
Meal #3: Chicken Kebabs
This meal was really easy and straightforward, mostly because I’d already made the quinoa and adobo sauce on Tuesday. It took 10 minutes in the morning to start the marinade. Grilling the chicken was quick, once Chris spent 2 hours cleaning the grill from its winter sadness. Rather than make a new salad I just ate some of the salad leftover from Meal 2.
Total time, including the morning marinating, was 30 minutes.
Sixty bucks and 5 hours is not terrible for 3 meals / 14 servings. I’m sure over time I’ll get a lot faster at grocery shopping (Chris usually does it), and not all weeks will require a trip to the minor circle of hell that is Trader Joe’s in the suburbs. It’s still a pretty significant time commitment. Out of curiosity I priced out what the same or similar ingredients would have cost on AmazonFresh. It came to $69.43, or $12.18 more (not including the $300 annual Amazon Prime Fresh membership). FreshDirect would have been around $78.
One of the advertised benefits of box-of-food services like Blue Apron or Plated is that there’s no unused food to go bad, and I can see the appeal. Dry goods like almond meal or shelf stable ingredients like maple syrup are no big deal leftover. But I’ve got a bunch of green onions, half a head of lettuce, half-bags of both baby spinach and spring mix, a giant pile of mandarin oranges, and some celery all waiting to rot if I don’t think of something to do with them soon.
Overall though I’m really happy with the meal plan, and signed up for the paid version (which unlocks the entire archives as well as new plans each week). Next week I’m giving Blue Apron a try, and I’m interested to see how it stacks up in terms of time, cost, and taste.
I definitely want to learn to digitize my own files for embroidery. The prohibitive cost of the software ($1000+) means I probably won’t be doing so any time soon, but Wilcom has a new package called Hatch which I downloaded a 30 day trial of. It’s a full featured digitizer with a (theoretically) easier to use interface. So I’m playing around with it and today I gave the auto-digitizer a spin.
I ran it through the auto-digitizer, setting a blue fill for the body and white fill for the eyeballs. Everything else is satin stitch. I tweaked the fill angles a bit and reordered some of the objects for easier to cut jump stitches, but otherwise left it as-is. Wilcom thinks it will look very nice! There are a little over 14,000 stitches. So it will take about 40 minutes to stitch out, not counting the time it takes me to rethread the machine between colors.
I stitched it out on some “linen look” cotton fabric using medium weight tear away stabilizer.
Aside from the jump stitch I couldn’t quite get at with my scissors, there’s noticible pulling at the top of the head and the bottom of the legs.
There’s also some around the eyes. This is not entirely unexpected, the stitches tend to pull in, leaving a gap and the vertical edges of the stitches.
I measured the gap at the top with my calipers (0.045 inches) at tried to compensate accordingly by reshaping the objects in Hatch. Then I eyeballed the other gaps and adjusted them too. I stitched out the pattern again, this time with contrasting thread so it’s easier to see how things line up.
This one came out better, but I was too conservative with my compensation. There are still visible gaps between the outline and the fill.
I think with the 3rd round of revisions I’ll get it right, but this has definitely confirmed my skepticism of folks selling purely auto-stitched designs without a sample sew-out to show. A lot of the designs on Etsy have just the computer generated preview, and I suspect many of them have never been tested in the real world. I’m going to play with Hatch a little more to get a feel for manual digitizing, but for complicated or important designs I’m going to continue sending them out to professional human digitizers.
Last week I ordered a $300 embroidery machine off of Amazon. Fully acknowledging that most embroidery machines are $1000+, and that a good sewing machine starts around $300, I set my expectations accordingly. I knew it wasn’t going to be a great machine, but I also didn’t want to spend much more until I’m sure that machine embroidery is for me. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Cheap machines are a tensioning nightmare
Actually I already knew that, but the Brother SE400 reminded me how true it is. The tension on the Brother SE400 is fiddly. It’ll start skipping stitches, then I’ll rethread it, and it will sew just fine. Or it dislikes the bobbin for some reason. I can get it working, but every time I rethread it (more on that in a minute) I have to cross my fingers that it’s happy. Maybe I’m spoiled by my all-mechanical Janome, but I’m not to keen on the mysticism required to get the thing tensioned properly.
I really want a multi-needle machine
With a single needle machine every color change means rethreading. And on the SE400 every rethreading is an opportunity to make it angry. Plus occasionally I just screw up. I find myself loath to do designs with more than 5 or so colors because I don’t want to sit there changing them out every 5 minutes. If I was planning on doing any sort of production work a multi-needle machine would be a must.
The 4×4 work area is too small
The advice given in almost every “how to pick a machine” article is “get the biggest work area you can afford,” and it’s true. Even if you only want to embroider small stuff. Why? Because the 4×4 work area means you have to get your hoop placement just right, and on many items that’s a real big pain in the arse. It also means re-hooping if you want to place multiple designs on a garment.
The touchscreen LCD kind of sucks
When you’re stitching out a design it can show you the color info (handy if you’ve got a 10+ color design) or the stitch count, but not both, and switching between the two requires multiple button presses. Which wouldn’t be so bad except the touch registration on my machine is slightly off. This means that when I go to step back one stitch I often end up stepping forward an entire color (those two buttons are adjacent). I’ve learned always to write down the stitch count before touching anything.
Getting your own designs into the machine is easy… if they’re digitized
To download new designs you just plug the machine into your computer’s USB port and it presents itself as an external drive to drag / drop PES or DST files onto. Great! Seriously, this could have been way more painful and I was glad it was so easy.
That said, it turns out that digitizing files (going from a bitmap or vector to stitches) is a hobby in and of itself. Digitizing software is expensive (hundreds or thousands of dollars), and learning to do it takes practice. There’s auto-digitizing software available, but I haven’t heard many positive things about the quality of stitch outs produced. The conventional wisdom of the internet is to pay a professional to digitize your files if you don’t want to invest the time and money to do it yourself.
The good news is that pro digitization is cheap, generally $10-15 for a simple design. I found someone on Etsy who turned it around in a couple of days.
Despite its flaws, it’s still a fun machine
It won’t win any awards but it’s not a bad machine, and very fairly priced.
I made a hoodie for my nephew and the embroidery on it is completely adorable. I put my husband’s business logo on an old tote bag and he was stoked. And I’m learning a lot about the basics of machine embroidery. Which stabilizers to use with which fabrics, getting practice hooping things correctly, it’s all a learning process that will translate well to whatever machine I eventually upgrade to.
The use cases where I’d suggest buying a Brother SE400 are admittedly minimal. If you’re at all serious about embroidery, save up for something with a larger work area. While it does dual duty as a sewing machine, it’s not a particularly good one so if you primarily want a sewing machine I’d suggest putting the $300 towards a nice basic machine. I figure in 6 months when I have a really solid idea of what I want in a machine I’ll trade it in towards something fancier. Until then, expect to find it whirring in the background while I work.
Did a few tests on my Brother SE400. Right now I have 3 different stabilizers: tear-away, cut-away, and wash-away. I ran some test designs using the tear away and cut away on muslin, without adhesive spray.
The designs I chose are from Urban Threads, and have a mixture of fill, satin, and straight stitches.
The differences between the two stitch outs aren’t huge, but the cut-away stabilizer is definitely a little cleaner.
There’s considerably more shifting on the tearaway, and I’m not sure how much of that is my poor hooping. I find it really hard to get the fabric taut without distorting it.
The next set of tests I run will use adhesive to secure the fabric to the stabilizer. The downside of the adhesive is that it creates a gummy mess if you aren’t careful.
I picked up a bicycle trainer off Craigslist, a Century Fluid trainer someone else was offloading, and have been enjoying using it for workouts post-baby. It does get boring though, so I built a table that fits over it to hold my laptop.
The table had a few non-negotiable requirements:
It needed to be sturdy enough to hold my laptop (easy)
It needed to be adjustable vertically so I could either lower it for a real workout or raise it and type on my laptop for some pedaling-while-working
It needed to be easily removable
It needed to be cheap
I ended up finding the parts I needed in the Ikea IVAR system. I used two 20″ wide by 48″ high sides, one 20″x35″ shelf, and an X bracket to give the whole thing stability.
The total including tax was under $45.
I pull the table up over the handle bars if I want to type on my laptop, and push it back so it’s more over the front wheel if I want to get an actual workout in. My only complaint is that the seat I have isn’t very comfortable when sitting upright and typing. I may pick up a gel cover to give my butt a break.
I snuck down to check out the bathroom progress yesterday, newborn baby and 3 year old in tow. The walls are back up, there’s a floor again, the plumbing is all roughed in, and hopefully this week they’ll start tiling.
The downstairs bedroom, which had to be cut into to access the joists, is also all buttoned up and repainted. You’d never know it was disrupted.