Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Superstitions: Walking Under Ladders

Cross-posted at Jennifer's History and Stuff.

The superstition that walking under ladders is bad luck is fairly widespread. In America and Europe, this belief originated around the late 1700s.

There are a few theories as to the original thought behind this superstition. The first is that a ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle--or trinity--with the ground. Walking through this triangle is disrespectful to God and may show your sympathy to the Devil.

Alternatively, any ladder can represent the ladder used to remove Jesus from the Cross, under which the Devil lurks. You don’t want to go where the Devil hangs out, now do you?

Whatever the origin of the superstition, there is a practical reason not to walk under ladders: you might get hit by something falling from above.

Reference: Most of the material from this post was found in David Pickering's Dictionary of Superstitions and Steve Roud's The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Men That Don't Fit In

There's a race of men that don't fit in
A race that can't sit still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest.
--Robert Service, from "The Men that Don't Fit In"

Friday, February 24, 2012

Box Hockey - Part 3

Click on these links for part 1 and for part 2 of the series.

Now we'll start constructing the frame. Cut out the end and side pieces - two of each - and square up the ends. Test fit the pieces together and do a measurement from one corner to the opposite corner on the other side. Each diagonal measurement should be the same or nearly so. If they are, then your frame will be squared up correctly.

Here's where a drill will come in handy and save you some blisters. You should drill pilot holes for the screws that hold these bits together. Countersink the holes too if you want, it will look neater and you can use a little wood putty to fill the holes once the screws are in place. You can google 'pilot hole' and 'countersink' for details if you don't know what those are. The picture shows what I mean, for those two light colored dots on the end are where the screws and putty are. In it we're looking up from below and can see where the bottom will be nailed into place.

When you drive the screws, put a thin smear of the glue on the wood where it joins together, then finish tightening the screws. Use a damp rag to wipe up any glue that squeezes out.

You can also (barely) see in the picture that I used finishing nails to attach the goal boards into place (right side, three light dots). The goal board is positioned 3 1/2 inches in front of the end boards. Countersink the nails and use a little wood putty again to fill the holes. Let the wood putty dry.

This is what the finished frame looks like, looking from one end to the other.

Lay the assembled frame on top of the hardboard and, using a pencil, trace along the outside of the frame to mark the cuts needed for the bottom of the box hockey game. Make sure you use the corner of the hardboard as one reference point, because that will ensure that you get two straight edges - one end and one side. Set the hardboard aside for now, we'll get to that in a little bit.

Cut a length of leftover wood about four inches long, wrap a piece of medium grit sandpaper around it, and use it to sand the frame smooth. Lightly round the edges and corners too. Always sand with the grain of the wood (long ways along the boards). Once everything is sanded, do it again with a piece of fine sandpaper. Sanding by hand is a pain in the butt, but it really makes the finished project look much nicer. I suggest getting zen with it, grasshopper.

Before you attach the bottom, go ahead and apply the finish of your choice to the frame. You can paint it, use varnish or tung oil, or for maximum protection use polyurethane. You can apply the polyurethane with those disposable foam brushes, just keep the coats thin to avoid big runs in the finish. If you want, you can sand the frame between dried coats with fine steel wool, that will really smooth out the finish. Follow the directions on the can for timing between coats and cleanup. Let everything dry thoroughly.

Cut out the rectangular hardboard bottom. Save the leftover hardboard, we'll be using it for the rest of the pieces. Flip the frame upside down, then place the hardboard with the smoothest side down on top of the frame. Starting in one corner, fasten the hardboard bottom to the frame using the small nails (panelling nails work well for this), spacing them every four inches or so.

Next time, we'll finish up the game board, cut out the paddles, and I'll talk about the rules we used to use.

Box Hockey posts:

Box Hockey - Part 1
Box Hockey - Part 2
Box Hockey - Part 4

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The 10 Essentials

The "10 Essentials" is a list of items. It's been around for a long time, and has evolved into the one presented here. According to the editors of "Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills", "the purpose of this list has always been to answer two basic questions: First, can you respond positively to an accident or emergency? Second, can you safely spend a night - or more - out?" Having the items on this list, combined with some basic knowlege and calm thinking, will go a long way towards making sure that you can.

Ten Essential "Systems"
Navigation (map and compass)
Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
Insulation (extra clothing)
Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
First-aid supplies
Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
Repair kit and tools
Nutrition (extra food)
Hydration (extra water)
Emergency shelter

Let's look at each of these separately. Keep in mind that the contents of this list will vary depending on the situation and time of the year. For example, extra clothing in the winter may mean balaclava, mittens, and down jacket, while in the summer a simple windbreaker may be enough.

Map and Compass - If you're hiking in a local forest park, then the simple map you can get at the visitor center is really all you need. In unfamiliar mountains you may find that a topographic map is necessary. If you know how to use it then a baseplate compass is well worth having (I carry a Silva Explorer Pro), otherwise, a simple keyring compass can be used. The key here is, of course, knowing how to use a map and compass. A GPS is useful, but a map and compass are lighter, cheaper, well proven over centuries of use, and don't rely on batteries to operate.

Sun Protection - self explanatory. Sunglasses for glare and sunscreen to prevent burning. A long-sleeved shirt and long pants are also options. I'll add insect repellent here too. Deet works better than anything else, and if you're concerned about rubbing chemicals on your skin, the ideal application is lightly spread over bare skin. Don't drench yourself in it. Also, stick to 30%-40% concentration, stronger than that doesn't afford any improved protection.

Insulation - Winter? Summer? Desert? Mountains? Water crossings? All of these considerations will determine what kind of extra insulation you might need during an unexpected overnight stay outdoors.

Illumination - A small keyring-sized flashlight will suffice. Some folks carry a headlamp instead, which is basically a flashlight attached to an elastic band that fits around your head, leaving your hands free.

First Aid Supplies - Don't think that you have to carry enough to do major surgery. A few bandaids, a couple of single use packets of antiseptic cream, and a small bottle of hand sanitizer is a good start. Add tweezers if ticks may be encountered, a needle to drain blisters, plus a piece of moleskin to cushion 'hot-spots' on your feet to keep them from becoming blisters in the first place. I've also found it useful to carry a card that has my blood type and any medicine allergies, plus emergency contact phone numbers. My entire first aid kit fits into a snack-sized ziplock baggie.

Fire Making Materials - Whether you carry matches, a lighter or firesteel, you must practice at home. The last place to learn how well your emergency gear works is, well, in an emergency! Making a spark or flame is only half the battle too. Carry some sort of tinder such as jute twine, dryer lint, or char cloth. Whatever helps you get a fire started when you really need it. Hint: remember that bottle of hand sanitizer in your first aid kit? A dab of that will burn like crazy. I carry a few cotton balls smeared with vaseline. Tease a bit out to a thin, gauzy sheet and when it lights you'll find that it'll burn for 10 minutes or more.

Repair Kit and Tools - I've carried a medium-sized Swiss Army Knife every day for years. Sharp blade, screwdriver, can opener, scissors, tweezers, etc, at one time or another I've been glad to have each and every one. A multitool can be handy to have, but between my knife and about six feet of duct tape, I've never missed not having my heavy Leatherman along on a hike. Besides the duct tape, consider carrying a couple of binder clips, rubber bands and zip ties. A length of dental floss is stronger than ordinary thread, and you already carry a needle in your first aid kit. The idea here is to repair enough to get by, not to make permanent repairs.

Nutrition - You won't starve to death during an unplanned night or two outdoors, but that's not to say that packing an extra meal or snack is without value. In chilly weather, eating something can stoke the body's inner furnace and keep you a bit warmer. Perhaps more importantly, it's hard to overestimate the ability of a simple candy bar to raise your spirits in a difficult situation. I like the traditional GORP (Good Ol' Raisins and Peanuts), which is simply a handful each of raisins, peanuts and M&M's. Infinitely customizable to your tastes, I often add Honey-Nut Cheerios to my mix.

Hydration – Water is critical to survival, much more so than food and this item can be broken down into two related parts: 1. What to carry your water in, and 2. How to make sure that your water is safe to drink.
Carrying options include Nalgene bottles, bladders, or recycled sports drink bottles (which are tough and lightweight, two good traits for gear you have to carry). For a day hike, having 1 or 2 one-liter bottles is enough. I subscribe to the belief that the best place to carry water is inside of me, so I “camel up,” i.e. drink my fill, at water stops and carry an extra liter in my pack.
Treating your water could be the subject of a long post all on its own, so my advice is to do some research on the subject (Google is your friend here) and talk to experienced hikers and campers to see what they do. I’ve known people who successfully used all kinds of different methods, from chemicals to ultraviolet exposure to mechanical filtering. Personally, I use drops called Aqua Mira, it works for me.

Emergency Shelter – for an emergency, I like the “space blanket”, those aluminized mylar sheets that are sold in every camping department. They’re lightweight and take up very little room, just don’t unfold it and expect to get it back to the same size! If you want to see what they’re like spread out, buy a second one. They’re flimsy, think of it as disposable.

So that’s everything on the list, but I’d recommend a couple more items.

Bandana – the Swiss Army Knife of textiles. Mop sweat, filter water, improvised first aid sling, sun protection for your neck, the list is limited only by your imagination.

Emergency whistle – These whistles are louder than your voice, and it's easier to blow than it is to yell at the top of your lungs.

Cell Phone - I always have mine for just-in-case. I always have it turned off.

And the last two essentials would be your brain and experience. The best gear in the world won’t help a bit if you don’t know how to use it. Staying calm in an unexpected situation is easier if you know how deal with it beforehand. Get some first aid training. Find a book on using a map and compass and do some practice work with it. Practice making a fire at home (with adult supervision, of course). Go on some hikes and use your water purification. Get outside and see what works for you and what needs to be improved upon or changed.

By careful and thoughtful selection, it would be possible to fit almost all of this essential gear into an Altoids tin. My “emergency” kit fits into a quart-sized freezer ziplock, and is always with me when I’m outdoors. Have some fun putting together your own essentials kit, and get in the habit of taking it along. I hope that you never need to use it, but it’s comforting to be prepared in case you do.

Monday, February 20, 2012


"All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: Freedom, Justice, Honor, Duty, Mercy, Hope."
-- Winston Churchill

Friday, February 17, 2012

Box Hockey - Part 2

See Part 1 here.

Building a Box Hockey game is about as simple as it gets. As I said in the original post, the woodworking skills are basic and power tools are helpful but not necessary.

Here's what you'll need from the hardware store:
(3) 1"x4"x6' pine -or- (2) 1"x4"x8' pine
(1) 2'x4' hardboard (1 smooth side)
(16) 1.5"x#6 flathead wood screws
(1) pkg mixed grit sandpaper (we'll use medium and fine)
(1) box small flathead brads (~5/8" long)
(1) small can of polyurethane
(1) 1" paintbrush

Tools and supplies needed:
Drill and 1/16" or 3/32" bit (this will make things so much easier)
Elmers white or yellow glue or equivalent (optional but recommended)
Ruler, yardstick or measuring tape

Buying wood
Look for straight pieces without splits or chewed up edges. A few knots are ok, as long as they're tight and won't readily fall out. It's ok to pick through the rack of lumber to find just the right pieces, so be picky.

When you're looking at a piece, rest one end on the ground and sight down the length of it as if you were aiming a rifle. This will make obvious any warping, bowing, or twisting in the wood. You don't want that, get the straightest pieces possible. Look at it on edge, then swap the board end-for-end and look again. It may be necessary to buy an extra piece or two in order to get enough straight wood, since some boards might be perfect for half or two-thirds their length and then get funky. Since the boards should only be a few bucks each, it's worth the money to get good wood right up front.

Measurements - Frame
The frame of the Box Hockey game is made of 1"x4" pine. You'll need to cut 2 sides (42.5" long), 2 ends (22" long), and 2 goal boards (20.5" long). Cutting rabbets and dados will make the frame stronger, and if you know what that means then you can adjust the measurements on your own.

The goal boards have three goal openings cut into them. The outer two are 3" wide and start 3" from the ends, the middle one is 2.5" wide and sits 3" from the side goals. Make them tall enough to let a checker slide through (at least 1/2"), ours are 1" tall. You can see what I'm talking about on the diagram above (it's not to scale).

Next up, part 3 - pictures and finishing.

Box Hockey posts:

Box Hockey - Part 1
Box Hockey - Part 3
Box Hockey - Part 4

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Winchester Mystery House

In San Jose, California, you can tour one of the strangest buildings in the world - the Winchester Mystery House. Sarah Winchester, the wealthy widow of arms magnate William Winchester, believed that the spirits of all those killed by her husband's rifle would haunt her unless she appeased them by constructing a home for them all. In 1884, she bought a farm in San Jose and began construction of a home, the likes of which the world had never seen before.

Construction on the mansion continued around the clock, every single day for 38 years, until the day she died. Often Sarah would hand her carpenters plans that she had drawn up the night before. There was no master plan to be followed, and eventually the house stood seven stories tall and was full of eccentric oddities like stairways and doors to nowhere. Some were supposedly designed to confuse the ghosts, hallways that dead ended and the like, to keep Sarah safe in her own home. Others were practicalities that only an incredibly rich eccentric could afford, such as a stairway with 40 steps, each only 1 inch tall, built late in her life because she had debilitating arthritis and could only raise her feet a few inches. Sarah was also obsessed with the number 13, and that number turns up constantly throughout the home. Newly hired servants were given maps of the house so they could find their way around without getting lost.

As odd as she may have been, Sarah Winchester had exquisite taste, and in many ways the house was ahead of its time. There were modern conveniences like a hot shower, forced air heating and electric lighting. During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Sarah Winchester was trapped in her bedroom for several hours. After the earthquake, the top three stories were removed and today the mansion is only four stories tall.

Tours of the mansion are offered daily, and here's the official website of the Winchester Mystery House.

Monday, February 13, 2012


"Fall seven times. Stand up eight."
-- Japanese Proverb

Friday, February 10, 2012

Box Hockey - Part 1

When I was a youngster, one way we filled our summer days was by going to the local elementary school for "Rec". Rec was shortspeak for "Recreation Services" and it was a program sponsored by our school district. Basically, for a few hours a day, someone (usually a college kid earning some pocket money) would sign out kickballs and jump ropes and games. There would be organized activities like bike races and weenie roasts and marble tournaments. I fondly recall heading up to the school to find out who was there and what was going on. It was one of the 'mixing bowls' of the area, because otherwise groups of kids mostly hung around together based on what street they lived on.

Some days it was just too darn hot to do anything. Even marbles sucked, because the best dirt beds for that were in full sun, and nobody felt like frying their brains.

That's when the board games would come out. Alongside the playgrougd were several fixed benches, shaded by the buildings and close to the cool bricks of the school wall. Looking like birds lined up on a telephone wire, we were grouped up in various ways as we played the games. Parcheesi (ick), Sorry and Chinese Checkers, Mandala (we called it something else though), and my personal favorite: Box Hockey*.

Box Hockey was the low-tech version of Air Hockey. In fact, to that point we had never heard of Air Hockey. Play is similar, and so is the speed of it, if only because the 'rink' is smaller.

The puck was a regular ol' checker, and the paddles were wedge-shaped pieces of hardboard. Each end had three goals, larger ones on each side worth one point, and a smaller one smack in the middle worth three points. Games went to 11 or 15 or 21, and there was usually someone hovering nearby with dibs on the next game.

When my kids were that age, I built our own Box Hockey game. It proved to be a hit, and I built several more over the years to give away as gifts. On the underside we put a checkerboard and backgammon board, and just flipped the hockey rink to play those. We'd usually include a set of checkers, some dice, and if the child was old enough a set of chess pieces.

So that's what we're going to do this go-round of "Build It", we're going to build a Box Hockey set. It makes a great birthday gift, or save it as a surprise for those heat-wave days coming up. It's also a great family project, simple enough to have the little ones pitch in. It makes it more special when they help.

If you've never done any woodworking, no worries. The skills are basic, and power tools will speed things along but aren't at all necessary. The materials are readily available and inexpensive. I estimate the cost as around $40.00, which isn't bad for a from-the-heart gift that will last for years.

Next up, a detailed parts and measurement list.

*There are other versions of Box Hockey out there, including one that sits on the floor and the players stand on either side and use sticks to move the puck or ball into the opponent's goal. That variation may become a future "Build It" project.

Box Hockey posts:

Box Hockey - Part 2
Box Hockey - Part 3
Box Hockey - Part 4

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Matt Rutherford: Dreamer

Matt who?

Simply put, Matt decided to challenge himself, and he's well on the way to meeting his goal. That goal was to sail westward through the Northwest Passage, and if he made it, to continue his voyage down the coasts of North and South America, around the Cape Horn, then back up the east coasts until he again reaches his starting point in the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

23,000+ miles.



No layovers in port. No relief crew. Just himself in a donated 27' sailboat.

He's already three fourths of the way through his journey of over ten months, heading north in the Atlantic waters east of Brazil. He still has a long way to go, but, according to conventional wisdom, the toughest parts are behind him. Maybe.

Here's a link to the website, where you'll find Matt's blog, photos, maps and more.

It's not just a sense of adventure that drives Matt. He's collecting money for the Chesapeake Regional Accessible Boating (aka CRAB), to sponsor programs that help the disabled and handicapped sail and enjoy the ocean.

Dreamers can make a difference.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Friendship... is not something you learn in school. But if you haven't learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven't learned anything.

-- Muhammad Ali

Friday, February 3, 2012

Hiking the Appalachian Trail (part 1)

There are several “long trails” located around the world, and America has one of the most famous, known as the Appalachian Trail. The AT, as it is also called, runs along the eastern spine of the United States, with one end located at Springer Mountain in Georgia and the other terminal at the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine. The exact length of the trail changes from year to year as the trail gets relocated slightly for various reasons, but in 2011 the end-to-end mileage was 2,184 miles.

The AT passes through 14 states along the way: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. The trail is maintained by over 30 volunteer organizations, each taking responsibility for a stretch where they do work to control erosion, clear away trees that have fallen across the trail, cut back brush, and take care of the shelters along the way.

Every year, tens of thousands of people hike along parts of the AT, including a couple thousand would-be "Thru-Hikers", who attempt to walk the entire length in one year. Most start north from Georgia in February, March or April, and are called NOBO’s (NOrth BOunders). SOBO’s (SOuth BOunders) usually start from Maine in June or July. Either way, it can take from four to six months to complete the hike. Only about 10% of those who start out to be Thru-Hikers actually finish in any given year.

"Thru-Hiker" is an unofficial title, and the only official designation is a “2000 Miler,” which is earned by anyone who hikes the entire trail, no matter how long it takes. Many people are section hikers, doing the trail a piece at a time, sometimes planning their hikes to see a particular part of the trail during the nicest part of the year for that area.

The entire length of the Appalachian Trail is identified by white ‘blazes’, which are 2”x6” vertical stripes that are painted on trees along the way. The idea is that while standing by a tree that is blazed, you should be able to see the next blaze farther along the trail. Side trails that intersect the AT are blazed with a different color, but are collectively called ‘blue blaze’ trails. There are stretches on the AT where you are above the tree line, in which case stacks of rocks called ‘cairns’ are used to mark the way.

A "blaze" marking the way along the AT.

Check back for part 2.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Written by Lewis Carroll as part of the second book in the Alice in Wonderland series, Jabberwocky is considered the greatest 'gibberish' lyric in the English language. If you're going to learn a poem, this is a great one to start with. It's fun, and most everyone already knows at least the beginning lines.


'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought--
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.