Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Anthony Bourdain’s autobiographical book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly delivers on its promise to give readers a glimpse behind the kitchen doors. It’s a work that jumps back and forth between conspiratorial chapters offering advice on all things cuisine, reveals the “secrets” of the restaurant industry, explains the process of running a kitchen, reflects on Bourdain’s checkered career, and shares anecdotal biographies of people who are clearly his favorites in the business. Kitchen Confidential is always irreverent, frequently funny, and covers most of the above topics with a compelling honesty, something that I imagine is a breath of fresh air within the sphere of chef-authored culinary literature.
However, like most of the people that populate its pages, Kitchen Confidential is not without a few minor faults. Towards the end of the book, there are a handful of obvious punctuation and editing errors, and there are also some organizational issues: the chapters have obviously been shuffled out of the order they were written to maintain a reader’s interest, but I think the mixture of anecdotes, advice and autobiography is still jumbled enough to be inaccessible to some casual readers. The work is also absolutely stuffed with the names of famous cooking personalities and exotic French cooking terms that can be frustrating if you’re unfamiliar with them, but are thankfully easily glossed over by the casual reader.
Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of Kitchen Confidential is Bourdain’s explanations of what happens behind the scenes. He paints a vivid picture of the hornet’s nest that is his restaurant kitchen, obviously taking great pleasure in exposing all the gory details – from recurring episodes of vulgar, testosterone-charged banter and practical jokes to the sometimes sneaky cost-saving measures and food prep shortcuts. For example, your bread is likely recycled from a previous table, he says, but so what? You’re accepting the same contamination risk when you get on a subway or eat a rare steak.
Kitchen Confidential also contains plenty of practical advice that all readers can benefit from. I especially enjoyed Bourdain’s striking portrait of successful leadership. According to Bourdain, the chef is a dictator in charge of his own sovereign nation, and he will take no prisoners during the campaign to culinary excellence. He examines the chef’s need to hire superb employees based on merit and rule them with an iron fist for best results. It’s a pleasant contrast to the softened, friendly world full of easy money and second chances so often depicted in the modern media, and the lesson behind the bluster is that doing your best will pay off.
The text also openly acknowledges that anyone entertaining the idea of getting into the restaurant business or the culinary trades must be crazy, since 4 out of 5 restaurants fail financially and the kitchen is truly an awful place to work, even if you happen to really love food. Even Bourdain can’t deny that most of the delusional cooks and crazy grillmasters in his current and past kitchens couldn’t work anywhere else, and by the end of the book, it seems as though even he has left normal society behind and can’t really exist outside the kitchen anymore.
He also has an entire fascinating chapter devoted to what home chefs need to have and do differently if they want to cook like the real pros, not the as-seen-on-TV chefs. (I’ll give you a hint: shallots!) He reveals that the entire industry considers weekend diners second-class citizens, that chefs will serve anything they think they can get away with, and that you really want to go to a restaurant during the week for the best meals. And finally, behind all the crass kitchen antics and multilingual cursing, Bourdain concludes that simple ingredients prepared into no-frills “mother and grandmother” meals are the very best kind, practical advice that we all can take to heart.
While all the history, name-dropping and insider restaurant advice makes Kitchen Confidential an obvious must-read for anyone in the culinary world, it’s these sentimental little tidbits and tips from Anthony Bourdain’s inner self that make it a worthwhile adventure for the casual reader as well. If you don’t mind a few problems with pacing and a considerable amount of coarse language,Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly is an excellent read that I found instructive and inspiring.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

The Toyota Echo is ridiculously cheap to own. I’ve had my 2000 Toyota Echo sedan for more than two years without a single incident of anything going wrong. Check out a few online forums on the topic – the Echo is built like a tank where it counts, under the hood. There are numerous online examples of Echos going over 200,000 miles, and the Toyota Echo was one of Consumer Reports’ most reliable used cars back in the years following its appearance on the market.

Regular maintenance costs for the Echo are impressively low. Because the 1.5L engine is so small, it requires less coolant and motor oil than other vehicles. While an SUV or truck might require 6 quarts of oil, for example, the Echo requires just 3.9 quarts (when the filter is changed.) Of course, you’ll need to do your own maintenance to see these savings, otherwise your mechanic will charge you the “big car” price. Other elements are similarly downsized and less expensive. I recently purchased new Michelin Defender tires for it, and they were something like $114.00 a piece, totaling 460 bucks. A friend’s Buick Rendezvous required a larger tire that cost significantly more.

Also, since my Echo has so few options and components (no power locks or power windows, no cruise control, no automatic headlights or keyless entry, no sunroof, no turbocharger, etc) I think there are simply fewer things that can go wrong. So far reliability has been outstanding, although I understand there are a few known issues with the Mass Airflow Sensor (located above the engine air cleaner box) malfunctioning.

To put the icing on the cake, getting car insurance for a Toyota Echo is cheap, cheap, cheap! I recently chose to drop comprehensive and collision coverage on it, since it is an older car that doesn’t have much cash value, but to give you some idea, a 500 deductible for comprehensive & collision insurance cost about $12.00 per month, and liability insurance was about $20.00 per month. That’s peanuts compared to most, but keep in mind I’m in the upper Midwest, one of the cheapest places in the US to get auto insurance. If only my state gave a registration discount for efficient cars!

So as you can see I don’t have a lot of numbers to throw around regarding the true cost to own a Toyota Echo, but I can confidently say that it is less expensive than your average car. Top-notch reliability, low routine maintenance costs, inexpensive to insure, and excellent fuel economy to boot… it all adds up to a pretty nice package with relatively few drawbacks.

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?

I live in the Midwest and drive a 2000 Toyota Echo sedan with automatic transmission. While you’re probably aware that it snows a lot in the Midwest, you might be curious how a economy-class, front-wheel drive, 2000-lb car drives and handles in the snow and in other Midwestern winter conditions.

In a word, driving in snow with the Echo is tense. I tend to get nervous driving in snow anyway, and I hope the majority of other drivers do too, but honestly the Echo is just so small that it’s hard to ignore even a little snow when you’re driving. The relatively narrow tires do cut through fresh snow on a rural road pretty well, if you’re traveling along at a high enough speed (around 35 usually is good enough). And the light weight of the car means it’s pretty easy to bring it to a stop when you have time to plan your braking in advance.

But the short wheelbase and weight distribution over said wheelbase means that if you do have to stop quickly, the rear tires are quick to lock up and the back end easily starts traveling sideways. Overdo one of these stops and you’ll probably find your rear bumper leading the way into the ditch. Luckily I’ve never experienced that, and this is a problem with all front wheel drive vehicles to some extent, but it seems especially bad in the Echo. The narrower tires also mean less rubber is in contact with the ground, which works out fine because of the light weight of the Echo, but it just doesn’t feel as secure on icy roads or slush.

Also, if you do happen to slow down when you’re cutting through the snow, and you lose your momentum, you’ll get stuck. The relatively low ground clearance makes it easy to get hung up just pulling out of your driveway. But if you’re the kind of person who shovels a path just big enough for your car, you will have a slight advantage. My Toyota Echo does not have ABS or any kind of traction control, so if the model you are considering does you’ll need to think about how that might affect your experience.

After the snow is cleaned up, you have the rest of the winter wonderland to deal with – freezing temps, frosty windows and cold starts. My Echo has always started up, even at about minus 20 degrees F. Once when it was around that temperature, the transmission began slipping when I gave it too much gas leaving the parking lot at work, but that cleared up once it warmed up. The rear window defroster is pitiful. I’m not sure if there just isn’t enough electrical power between the blower, AC, headlights, wipers and all that stuff for the defroster to get warm, but it really takes a long time to melt snow or ice off the rear windshield. It can handle a little moisture or a light frost fine, but a heavy frost or snow means you must use your scraper!

One odd thing about the Echo is that when you start it cold (after having left it sit and cool down for a period of time) there is a blue temperature light that comes on in the instrument cluster. This blue gauge light is normal and means that the Echo’s engine has not reached the optimal operating temperature yet. It also means that the engine and exhaust system is running in open loop mode, which is less efficient than the mode used by a hot engine. The Echo also will not shift into the final gear until the engine warms up and the blue light goes out. This can be very scary if you’re just getting on the highway with the blue light still on, since you’ll be buzzing along at 70 mph in third gear at what feels like about 6000 rpm for half a mile and it will seem like something is wrong. But once the light goes out, the car usually is quick to shift into fourth. Sometimes on my Echo you have to let off the gas for it to upshift into the final gear.

If it’s very cold out (say less than 0 degrees F) it can take a long time for the blue light to go out. Like most modern vehicles, the Echo doesn’t warm up much when it’s started cold and left outside to idle in cold weather, so it makes no sense to start it and let it sit for 10 minutes. In my experience it will not generate much heat for the defrost or cause the blue light to go out by just idling at below-freezing temps.

The Toyota Echo is not as versatile in the snow and cold as most vehicles. But it will still get you reliably from A to B, even if you can’t see out the back window and are gripping the steering wheel tightly and worrying about sliding off the road. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing to be scared to drive too fast in the snow anyway. If you’re the kind of person who absolutely must get to work under any conditions, you’re looking at the wrong vehicle – try a 4x4 instead. If you’re the kind of person who goes back to bed when the snow is blowing or stays home on snowdays, the Echo will work fine.

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus

The Toyota Echo wouldn’t be my first choice of car for a highway cruiser. Here’s why: the short wheelbase and jaunty handling characteristics that accompany it are well-suited for urban treks, but they don’t fare as well on the long hauls.

First, the tall silhouette is very susceptible to being buffeted by crosswinds, and on a day with gusty winds in excess of 10 mph you’ll be fighting the wheel just to stay in your own lane. Also, the tiny tires (13” diameter) are a mighty big benefit when you’re at the parts shop picking out new rubber, but they sure are noisy on all but the freshest blacktop. That and the economy-class soundproofing in the cabin make for a noisy, fatiguing environment inside the cabin on long trips. Frankly, it’s hard to hold a conversation or listen to the radio at a comfortable volume in the Echo at highway speeds. A better use of the Echo is for bombing around town on errand runs or as your everyday commuter.

To add to the handling drawbacks, the interior amenities are very much lacking in the Echo. Pretty much everything besides the four wheels and a seat was optional. My Echo has an aftermarket CD player in it that has a clock, otherwise a dashboard clock was only available as an option. AC and rear window defrost? Options. Power steering? Option! I guess that’s why the base price was so low (just under $14 grand). In later model years they had power windows and power locks, ABS and keyless entry, but my Echo doesn’t have those things, and I don’t think they would make it any more comfy on long trips.

The lack of cruise control becomes more than a missing amenity as your trip length is extended. It turns into a serious problem. On one voyage I remember alternating between my left and right feet on the highway to keep my foot from cramping up. Honestly, when was the last time you drove with your foot for more than an hour at a time? My foot certainly isn’t up to that kind of challenge. Sure, there are aftermarket cruise control kits for the Echo, and a lot of drivers have them installed and never look back, but I am hesitant to put one in myself and I’m not going to pay someone to add that to the car. Plus, there’s some obvious safety risks to having an aftermarket device take control of the throttle. Lets just say that I can’t believe a car made for this millennia was missing cruise control.

So the Echo falls flat as a highway-conquering cruiser, and the cabin comfort is not so good. But for an economy car with a bottom line price tag, was anyone surprised? My advice is if you’re looking for a highway cruiser you need to look elsewhere unless you’re really ready for the quirks. But if you’re not going too far  the Toyota Echo just might be for you.

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG

Part of what makes the Toyota Echo so attractive to me is the efficiency. While you would expect an economy-class car like the Echo to be fairly frugal, even I was surprised and skeptical when I read that the Echo sedan with an automatic tranny is EPA-eastimated to achieve 32/39 mpg. You can imagine how shocked I was, then, when I first pulled up to the pump and fueled up the 10.7 gallon tank and calculated that I had gotten 35 mpg! At that time, gas was more than $4.00 a gallon in the Midwest and SUVs and trucks were routinely dropping Bejamin Franklins into their gas tanks like it was nothing. And here’s a goofy looking car with a drivetrain that would be equally at home in a lawn mower (or so it seems sometimes) that gets 35 mpg and costs less than $50.00 to fill up.

My point is that the Echo is great on gas. Even if you factor in all the other cons about the car that you can think of, the fact is it’s an efficient little vehicle that is only a handful of mpgs less efficient than the newest Toyota Prius (at this writing) without any hybrid technology at all.

It's worth noting that the gas mileage does decrease in the hot summer months and the freezing winter months. My Echo is finished with a metallic Black Pearl paint job that get hot in the sun faster than your oven will preheat, so you’re running the AC all the time. The AC is actually an add-on option and I kind of think maybe if it had been standard equipment someone at Toyota would have wanted a bigger power plant in the Echo to run it, because it really does cause a noticeable drag on the engine. With the AC on, the auto transmission shifts later as the engine revs higher when the compressor is on. And there’s an electromagnetic clutch on the AC pulley that kicks on and off with a noticeable clunk every few mintues as the compressor engages and disengages, and your engine power will surge when it’s off and get sluggish when it’s on. It’s annoying but not too bad at highway speeds. You’ll likely notice it when you’re counting on the peppy 1.5 liter four to pull out in front of someone on a highway entrance and end up with a rearview full of their grille instead of the car lengths between you that you had hoped for.

In summer running that AC all the time I’ve seen anywhere from 32 to 38 mpg and in the winter with the heat on, battling slushy roads and cold starts anywhere from 28 to 36 mpg. Those are still some pretty decent numbers for a car with over 120k and 12 years on the clock!

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)

I drive a 2000 Toyota Echo and I’m here to tell you that the Echo is an amazing car for tall drivers. I am 6 feet 9 inches tall with a beanpole figure, and while I do have to do a little turtling (craning the neck down and out) to see the traffic signals at intersections, the Echo is among the very very few cars that I could comfortably sit in, let alone drive.

The front head and leg room doesn’t look all that great on paper, at 39.9” and 41.1” respectively, but something about the upright driving position and tall greenhouse let it work well for tall people. It has a seat that is kind of skimpy but nothing different than your other economy class cars, and it really doesn’t offer much support beyond my butt, but since you’re sitting almost as if you were in a minivan it works. Well, it works for most trips less than 200 miles, I should say. And given the lack of cruise control you’re not going to be driving much farther than that without getting out and stretching out your foot anyway. A tiny dummy pedal on the left doesn’t do much for my size 14 foot either, and I have to consciously move my left foot off of it to it doesn’t get too stiff on a long trip.

The front doors on the sedan are large enough for large people to get in and out comfortably, and while I do have to scrunch down to enter and sit in pretty much any sedan, the Echo isn't nearly as bad as other econo cars in this class. Rather than falling into the driver's seat, I can just kind of sit down into it.

Most other tall people at my height and up are driving with their seats tipped so far back they are checking their blind spot out of the rear window, but the Toyota Echo actually lets me sit up a little straighter than normal. It’s not perfect, I’m definitely still leaning back, but I think my in-laws said it best after going for a spin: the Toyota Echo is bigger inside than it looks from the outside. Back seat room is cramped for me, I have to bend sideways or way forward to even think about sitting in the back seat, but I never spend any time back there. As a front seat passenger the room is also pretty much fine.

The Echo also comes with 60/40 folding rear seats, and as tiny as the rear trunk lid appears you can actually get a fair amount of stuff in there. Ten paper grocery bags are no problem, but bulky stuff like multiple sleeping bags or a disassembled bicycle can be a challenge. (And if you’re wondering, yes, my uber-large Schwinn Impact mountain bike does fit in the back with the seat down and both tires removed. You just need a shoehorn to get it in.)

The moral of this story is simple: if you’re 6’9” or less, an Echo will work fine for you. You might get some weird looks getting out of it, but given the reliability and mpg stuff that I’ll be touching on in future posts, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick one up.

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Introduction

My 2000 Toyota Echo is 12 years old, and I feel like it's finally time to give it a review on my blog! This is the first in a series of posts that will attempt to detail my ownership experience with the Toyota Echo on several levels.

Let's begin with an introduction. Toyota created the Echo starting with the 2000 model year as an inexpensive car aimed at younger customers. Previously, this segment of the car market had been served by the Toyota Tercel, and for anyone used to that vehicle's styling the Echo looks a lot like someone took a Tercel and inflated it. Inflated it a lot, actually. The tall shape and short trunk lid give it a unique look that I've heard of as "cute" or "goofy" (although I haven't really heard anyone say anything bad about it, just that it's different.) The tiny grille up front and fairly flat sides do make for an interesting look at any angle, and I always think it looks like the engine is weighing the front end down since the whole car appears slanted forward from the side. It’s a look that’s best described as “original.”

Under the pint-sized bodywork is a matching engine: a 1.5L four-cylinder aluminum engine that generates 108 horses and 105 lb-ft of torque. Of course, the curb weight of the four-door sedan is only 2030 lbs., so the engine hauls the Echo to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds. Not too bad, but keep in mind that you're going to have to punch the pedal through the floor to achieve that number anywhere besides the test track. My Toyota Echo has the optional A/C (yes, air conditioning was an option) which noticeably saps engine power when it's engaged.

The engine is also equipped with variable valve timing for increased efficiency - Toyota's version is dubbed VVT-i. The Echo’s small engine is a good fit for the technology, and EPA mpg estimates for the 4-speed automatic model are 32/39. In real life I’ve been seeing right around those numbers on a highway commute of 30 miles to work and back, but it does drop some in the Midwest winter. It’s also worth mentioning that the Echo’s transmission is “hill-smart” meaning it won’t upshift to go up a hill unless it’s a serious grade. In practice this represents another smart choice by Echo engineers – the small engine is capable of moving the Echo up grades without lagging just fine in the final gear. And you won’t even notice if it does lag a little since I don’t think cruise control was even an option until the 2005 model year.

Given its low, low original price (typically under $14,000) Toyota has done an amazing job on getting all the basics right and adding just enough of a twist that you feel like you’re driving something special. In fact, it kind of makes me want to buy another quirky car just so I don’t have a common vehicle. Maybe that’s just my left brain expressing itself, since my wallet sure is going to be surprised when I have to say goodbye to my Echo!

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

Monday, August 27, 2012

Are you sick of the Kohls "sale" pricing strategy?

Isn't it remarkable how Kohls is always having a sale? My local Kohls store, for example, is always mailing out flyers advertising 50% off the entire stock of this or that. I'm not knocking it - there definitely seems to be some value in this strategy since Kohls has stuck with it for so long - but lets consider how the deals might not be as good as they appear. Kohls sale pricing strategy creates a remarkable sense of brand loyalty and the feeling of getting a good deal by exploiting the whole concept of a sale and some careful emotional marketing.

It's no secret that shoppers (specifically women shoppers) love sales. They get the feeling that their dollar goes farther (Walmart does a great job of marketing this to customers) and the sensation of getting a good deal is exhilarating and addictive. Plus people don't mind buying things when they're on sale. They automatically draw the conclusion that the item they are buying is less expensive at this point in time than it was previously or will be in the future. That's kind of the whole idea behind sales in the first place - some kind of tangible savings. For example, last week this product was $4.00, now it is $3.00. I should buy this product.

Kohls has done an amazing job of capitalizing on our automatic sale logic. I suggest that they price the majority of their items at an artificially high "original" price. Then they put the item on sale for a massive discount, say 40% off. Plus, they give customers who use their store card (a powerful loyalty device in and of itself, not to mention a pleasant profit booster) an additional coupon via direct mail to redeem for another 20% off. And then when they check out, we will tell them they saved a huge amount of money, circle it on their receipt, and send them on their way. It's a strategy designed to exploit our understanding of "sales." They tell you an item is on sale. They tell you you saved more than you spent. And by the time you leave, even you are convinced that you have just saved more than you spent, never mind that the same item is $20.00 cheaper at amazon or a comparable quality pillow is hitting a lower price point at Target. From at least one viewpoint, Kohls has just told you a little bit of a lie.

I'm sure you're wondering how this white lie of "you just saved x amount of dollars" is possible with all of today's advertising regulations. The fine print at Kohls appears on every mailing piece and on their website and has some very clear language disclosing what is going on - here's a direct quote from
“Sale” prices and percentage savings offered by Kohl’s are discounts from Kohl’s “Regular” or “Original” prices. The “Regular” or “Original” price of an item is the former or future offered price for the item or a comparable item by Kohl’s or another retailer. Actual sales may not have been made at the “Regular” or “Original” prices, and intermediate markdowns may have been taken. “Original” prices may not have been in effect during the past 90 days or in all trade areas.

What do you think of the Kohls pricing strategy? Would you agree with my suggestion that the whole thing is a little deceptive? Or do you like the feeling and enjoy aggressively shopping the multitude of sales to get what you agree is a great price? I would love to hear from you in the comments!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What is a Kalimba?

In case you were curious, the kalimba is a musical instrument that originated in Africa. Shown above is an alto kalimba, with 15 tuned steel bars that are played by the thumbs. This particular model is a Hugh Tracey kalimba, made with resonant mubvamarope wood and also has a hole in the center to allow extra resonance and modulation of the sound with the thumbs.

back of kalimba
Here is the back of the kalimba, showing two small resonance holes and the metal Hugh Tracey brand plate. Overall, the instrument measures 8-1/2"L x 6"W x 1-5/8"D. I think the kalimba's sound can be most easily related to the xylophone, although it is softer and less bright. You can cover and uncover the holes to create a sort of vibrato, but my kalimba is quite soft and I didn't find that this feature worked especially well.

hugh tracey kalimba side
The same instrument from a different angle, showing the mechanism that supports the metal tone bars. They are held in place by spring tension, and can be adjusted for tune or even tuned into a different key by moving them forward and backward over the soundboard. It also shows how the bars rest directly on the sound board, causing it to resonate.

kalimba fingering chart

The layout of the kalimba is designed for harmony - neighboring keys always form a third. Above is an image of my alto kalimba and a fingering or key chart in place under the keys. To play a scale on a kalimba that has been tuned to a major key, simply play alternate ascending and descending keys with both thumbs.

If your kalimba makes a buzzing sound on certain keys, it is typically caused by debris or dirt at the metal-on-metal contact points between the steel keys and the clamping mechanism or front rest. Sometimes you can cure a buzzing key by wiggling it from side to side or blowing at the contact point while playing it. Alternatively, you can wedge a scrap of paper under the key after pressing down on it near the bar and the paper will eliminate the buzzing. (You'll just tear off the paper and leave it in place as a washer.)

And for the grand finale, here's a video of a few kalimba chords being played by yours truly. The visuals are pretty bad thanks to Blogger's video processing, but the audio quality is still ok. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bouncing the built-in flash on a Canon 60D

There's plenty of literature out there about on-camera and off-camera bounce flash techniques. But if you don't have a powerful external flash unit for your Canon DSLR, you can still play with bounce flash techniques using the built-in flash.

First, let me apologize for the quality of the photos below. This busy scene was where I happened to be when I was testing this out. And I don't have a tripod, sorry for the slight movement of the camera.

Here's the scene with existing light only. Shot on a Canon 60D, EF-S 17-55, at 23mm, 1/8 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600. Notice that it is unevenly lit, with a light on the right side making that part of the image almost blown out.

And here's the same scene illuminated with the built-in flash on the 60D. This time the exposure is 1/5 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400. This is the built-in flash fired directly at the scene, exactly as it would normally pop up if we were trying to illuminate the scene more evenly. The result isn't terribly bad, but I wondered if I might be able to do better.

Here is my first attempt at bouncing the built-in flash. I am sitting on a sofa about 8 feet from this scene in a fairly small room. I help up a credit card sized scrap of off-white cardstock in front of the flash at about a 45 degree angle, causing it to reflect off the card onto the ceiling and wall behind me and then strike the scene. Remember that the 60D flash has a guide number of only 13 (compared to 58 for the big 580EXII that a pro would use in a church, for example!) The exposure is 1/4 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400.

The flash illumination is uneven since the cardstock had a crease in it and I was handholding it over the lens while handholding the camera at the same time, meaning I wasn't paying any attention to the angle. But already the shadows have been altered and I think the effect is somewhat more pleasing than the harder light of the preceeding image, even though it still leaves a lot to be desired.

And here's my final attempt. I held up a larger card (approx. 5"x7") in front of the flash at about a 45 degree angle this time. The exposure is 1/10 sec at f/2.8, ISO 800, so I had to double the ISO to capture an equivalent exposure, making me think the flash is at or near the limit of its power here. But I think the scene is the most pleasingly illuminated yet, with softer shadows behind the objects and no more reflection of the direct flash off the wall behind the shelf.

I case you're wondering exactly what my method was, above is a crude shot showing the basics. Just hold up a piece of paper (wedding program, whatever) in front of your flash.

My point is that in a pinch you can reflect the built-in flash in a small room to create a more pleasing scene. With a candid portrait, the subject is often not too far away, and using this tactic to bounce your flash off the ceiling creates an image that is immensely more pleasing that that captured when firing directly at your subject's face. Because you are frequently shooting at a few arm lengths away, the on-board camera flash will probably have sufficient power.

However, remember we are talking long exposures that require you to tell your subject to stand still! And with a more brightly lit scene you would probably want to rely on existing light or use the uneven illumination to your creative advantage. Or switch to the big guns and get an external Speedlite flash. But I think if you're on a budget, or just like playing around with your camera, this could be a fun technique to use. Let me know if you like it or don't like it in the comments!

2000-2005 Chevrolet Impala Turn Signals Not Working: Solved

I recently went on a 600 mile road trip with our 2004 Chevy Impala. On the way home the turn signals stopped functioning normally. The indicator light in the dashboard would stay lit without blinking until the turn signal cancelled out.

After arriving home I checked the turn signals from outside the vehicle and discovered they were not working at all when the indicator inside the vehicle was illuminated. At first I thought it was only a burnt out bulb, but when using the hazard lamps all four bulbs worked fine.

After doing some more research on the web, I discovered that there is sometimes an electrical gremlin with the hazard switch module in the dashboard of these cars. The hazard switch also controls the turn signals. My solution to the problem was to push the hazard switch on and off rapidly for a little bit, and since then the turn signals have been working like they should. I just thought I would drop this tip in case anyone is having a similar issue.

If the problem with the turn signals not working happens again and just pushing the hazard switch on and off a few times doesn't work, I guess I will have to replace the hazard switch. Looks like if you're a surgeon you can replace it without removing the dash... I can't wait. But for now it is working fine.

Edit: If you do need to replace the hazard switch, you can do it without removing the entire dash. Here is a link to a flickr set (a group of photos and captions) that shows the process very well.
Link to Flickr Set for replacing the chevy impala turn signal switch

Also please let me know in the comments if my solution - pushing the turn signal switch on and off rapidly - works for you!

Monday, August 6, 2012

How To Change The Batteries in an Accutire MS-4021b Tire Gauge

accutire ms-4021b
If you enjoyed my review of the Accutire MS-4021b tire pressure gauge, you may also be interested in how to change the battery. Changing the batteries inside an Accutire MS-4021b tire pressure gauge is easy. You'll need:
A Phillips screwdriver (I used a PH1 sized bit and it worked fine).
3 new LR44 batteries to replace the old ones inside your gauge. These batteries are also called A76,  357, or AG13 and are 1.5 volts each, making for 4.5 volts of total power.

Flip the gauge over and unscrew the battery compartment cover. It will drop out when you turn the unit upside down. Then hit the handle against the palm of your hand until the batteries pop out. It took quite a bit of force to knock them loose. I was surprised at how securely they are held in place.

Here you can see the original batteries that came with my device, no-name "button cell" batteries marked LR44. Also note that the battery compartment is completely enclosed in plastic. As cheap as this device is, it seems like there actually was some engineering that went into it. There is no possible way those batteries are getting knocked loosed even if you drop it, and it keeps dirt out of the inside of the gauge. There are even little symbols molded into the compartment showing you which way to turn the new batteries so the polarity is correct, another nice touch I was not expecting.

Just line up your three new LR44 batteries like the inside of the compartment shows and squeeze them into the metal battery holders. Then screw the battery compartment cover back on. Piece of cake!

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry Fender Long Term Test

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry
Five or six years ago in college I wanted a bicycle mudguard that was detachable, lightweight, suitable for a very tall rider with a large bicycle frame, kept my butt dry, and looked better than the cardboard bits and 2-liter plastic bottle pieces my old roommate used to use. The SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry fender fit the bill. After putting a lot of dirty, slushy city miles on it, here's my take.

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry

I used this on an enormous Schwinn Impact frame over a big, fat Schwinn Slickrock tire with a tread pattern that truly excelled at grabbing sand and dirt (not to mention moisture) and vomiting it all over my butt. Now, instead of freaking out when it rains, I just attach the SKS Equipment X3 and let it get dirty. I'm saving my butt one puddle at a time, plus it's saving my roomies from complaining about the sand in the washing machine.

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry
The photo above is with a different tire, since the Schwinn Slickrock tires gave up the ghost when the gumwalls rotted out. The X3 does a very nice job of catching the crap that gets launched by this tire. When used with the big mountain bike tires and the deep tread pattern, though, it was a little too short to catch all the debris. Sometimes I would still get a wet spot and some sand up near the top of my backpack, but to me that was way better than having a wet spot on the back of your pants!

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry Durability
Anyway, having a fender that was durable was important to me. I routinely rode through snowbanks, over curbs, across railroad tracks and down stairs (until one less-than-graceful endo). The X3 didn't disappoint. Here's a look at the back side, where you can see there is some serious cross-bracing under the plastic shell that makes it plenty durable without adding too much weight.

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry seatpost attachment
I also wanted a bicycle fender that would be detachable so I could remove it on nice days. Here's a look at the all-important seatpost mounting mechanism on the SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry fender. A pair of rubberized pads mounted in a curved plastic piece grip the back of your seatpost, and a nylon strap with rubber woven in inside lets it hold fast even when it's soaking wet.

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry locking cam
The strap and fender are secured by a cam-like plastic piece that fits into grooves on the back plastic piece. You fit the pieces together and then flip the plastic tab back to snap the strap tight. It's a brilliant system that has a minimum amount of parts. The little plastic tabs near the strap in the above photo look like a weak spot, but as much as I've reefed on that part, they haven't broken. It's made of some tough plastic! The rubber stitching inside the strap isn't doing so well, it is pulling out of the strap a little at time, but it's still gripping the seatpost fine. Given the number of wet/dry cycles and temperature extremes is has seen I would say it's holding up great.

On the flip side, since it is so easy to remove, I was always paranoid about someone stealing my SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry because they wanted to put it on their bicycle. I know no normal cyclist would do that since they are always polite people, but once a thief figured out just how simple it is to take off, they're just a craigslist post away from scoring ten or twenty bucks. To the untrained eye it looks like a pretty permanent setup, but it would really only take 15 seconds for it to disappear.

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry adjustment screw

There's an adjustment Allen screw that you can use to adjust the angle of the fender. I find that I could leave it pretty tight and there's enough friction to prevent the fender from sagging even after bouncing over the worst potholes, but I can still move it up and down as needed without worrying about breaking it. As you can see in the above image, my Allen screw has started to rust from riding in the salty brine of the Madison city winter, but it is still working like a champ.

That's my take on the SKS EquipmentX3 Tra-Dry fender. While it's designed to be used on a full-suspension mountain bike, it is pretty good on an unsprung mountain bike as well. The coverage isn't as good as a fully enclosed city fender but it's not as heavy, doesn't rattle over the bumps, has fewer parts, and is removable in about ten seconds. It's an ideal compromise! And as an added bonus the angle of the arm holding the fender means it will clear a light or reflector attached to your seatpost with ease.

But wait, what is this Tra-Dry thing all about?
I think the Tra-Dry is simply a fancy name for the texture of the flap. Maybe the crud is supposed to hit that matte surface and drip off in a controlled way instead of falling back into your tire? I've used this fender for a long time and the texture doesn't really seem to be anything too special. Just forget that it has that fancy branding on it and enjoy a dry butt.

Planet Bike Superflash Long-Term Test Review: PB Gets Everything Right

Planet Bike Superflash
I've had the Planet Bike Superflash blinking taillight for over 5 years. It still works. If you need more convincing that this is the best bike taillight available, keep reading and I'll tell you why I wouldn't want any other light between a car and my bicycle.

planet bike superflash

Why I like this light:
It's a space-saver. The dimensions are about 2.75" tall x 1.5" across x 1.5 inches deep. You can carry it in your bag when your bike is locked up. And trust me, you'll want to because this light is worth its weight in gold, but it just snaps in and out of the mounting bracket, so I always worried that someone would steal it.

Also, the mounting system (picture above) is absolutely rock solid. I've ridden down countless curbs and bounced my way across the railroad tracks on University Avenue in Madison, WI more times than I can count, and it's always still back there when I get home.
Here's the light detached. You can see it also has a clip so you could attach it to your bag. But since it's an LED, the light output to the side is tiny compared to the light output to the back, so I recommend only mounting this to your bike frame. That way cars are always getting 100% of the LED in line with the bike frame, instead of 5% when your bag slips to the side going uphill or if you are leaning through a turn. For the same reason, I wouldn't put this light on a helmet, although it's small enough to do so. I guess if I was going for a jog the clip could be handy, but it's first and foremost a bike light.

In fact, that's about the only con I can think of with this light. Since it uses a directional LED light, it doesn't shed much light or flash very brightly when viewed from the side. Of course, it's marketed as a taillight, not a side light. And that same technology means that none of the light energy is wasted by being sent to the side. Just be sure your wheel reflectors (or better yet, reflective rims or sidewalls) are clean and you'll be fine.

It's super light. Most urban commuters don't care what their gear weighs anyway but Planet Bike says it weighs only 75 grams with batteries. Trust me, you won't even know it's back there.

It's water resistant and weatherproof. I used this light on my bicycle during thunderstorms and snowstorms in Madison, WI for three years. I'm not on campus anymore, but during that time I beat my bicycle pretty hard and a lot my other components and gear failed, but not this light. It just keeps on blinking!

It has amazing battery life. I've never changed the batteries since I bought it, which is more than 5 years of use. Just the other week I left this thing on blinky mode all day long at work. That's more than 8 hours straight. When I came out it was still blinking away and it's still bright enough to hurt your retinas if viewed head on. Planet Bike rates this thing at 100 hours of runtime and I have no reason to doubt that claim.

And finally, the most important point: the Planet Bike Superflash light is flippin' bright. Don't turn it on and look right at it because you will see spots for a few minutes. Apparently the main light is a 2-watt LED. When you have it in blinky mode there are also two smaller kicker LEDs that are plenty bright.

My Planet Bike Superflash light has 2 options: the main LED can be constantly on, or there is an eye-popping blinky mode that flashes the 2-watt LED every few seconds and the two smaller kicker LEDs in between. I assume you might want to use the constant on mode if you were riding in a group and didn't want to totally blind the cyclist behind you, but for all other purposes you might as well use the blinky mode.

I noticed a dramatic difference in the way cars reacted with this thing mounted high on my seatpost - they slow down and give you space. It's impossible to ignore this little light. It's so bright that it attracts attention during the day. If you're planning to do any kind of city riding near dark or after dark, you need to go out and get this light. It will save your butt from those nasty close calls!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Experiment: How long does it take a Presto electric teakettle to boil water?

Presto electric teakettle
Presto Electric Teakettle Experiment Background
I decided to do an experiment and see how long it takes this Presto electric teakettle to boil water. My wife drinks a lot of hot beverages and she likes to use this plug-in kettle to heat the water for her favorite mixes. Hopefully after testing the electric teakettle compared to our microwave I can conclude which method is most energy efficient.

Our electric teakettle is a 950-watt Presto model. The base is stamped with the model number 0270404 and also printed with the sequence 3610_2_T2, whatever that means. It is about 7.75" in diameter and about 5.5" high. The lid has a timer for steeping your tea. There is also a removable wire mesh basket for putting tea leaves directly into the kettle which I will not be using for this experiment.

electric teakettle experiment
My Pseudo-Scientific Experimental Method
Above is my "experimental method." I have 350mL of regular tap water (about 1.5 cups or 12 ounces) in a measuring cup, an NSF-certified digital kitchen thermometer, my iPhone's stopwatch, and the Presto electric teakettle. I chose 1.5 cups since it was enough to submerge the heating element inside the teakettle and is a realistic amount for putting in a 16-ounce travel mug with the drink mix without overflowing.

Taylor kitchen thermometer
To establish a baseline, I measured the temperature of the tap water. It was a mix of hot and cold water, since I didn't think it was fair to test with pre-heated water from the hot side of the tap. As you can see, our water started at 91.5 degrees Farenheit. The teakettle has not been used yet today and is at room temperature, abut 78 degrees F.

presto teakettle test
After taking the temperature reading, I immediately poured the water into the teakettle, popped on the lid, and plugged it in. There is no on and off switch on this electric kettle. When it's plugged in, it's on, when it's unplugged, it's off, which I guess means fewer parts to wear out and makes operating it when you're still craving that shot of caffeine in the morning a no-brainer. Anyway above is a picture of the test after one minute. The temperature has risen to just above 140 degrees F (if we trust the analog thermometer cemented into the teakettle wall.

electric teakettle temperature gauge
Here's a closer image of the dial on the teakettle itself. Because this is the model with the included tea basket, it also has a color-coded scale showing the recommended water temperatures for steeping various teas at right on the gauge.

Above is the test at completion. The water in the kettle has reached the boiling point according to the dial gauge. My digital gauge was temporarily shorted out in the hot steam shooting out of the spout, so I was not able to get an accurate reading there. The temp probe also is barely long enough to reach the liquid inside the kettle, so the reading wouldn't have been the best anyway.

The Result
The result is: it takes about 2 minutes 22 seconds to raise the temperature of 1.5 cups of water 120.5 degrees in the Presto electric teakettle.

2 minutes and 22 seconds is equal to 0.0394444 hours. Using our 950-watt electric teakettle for that amount of time uses about 37.5 watts of electricity.

Of course, there is a substantial margin for error each morning. If my wife doesn't measure out the water and heats more than she needs, electricity use will increase. Likewise, if she uses a slightly cooler tap water energy consumption will increase. I suppose the ambient air temperature would also influence this equation slightly. So there are a lot of variables here, and instead of being able to conclude any relevant result in the real world, I think I am going to call it a day. Based on our above experiment, there are too many variables to determine if using an electric teakettle is more energy efficient than other heating methods.

To make a relevant conclusion, I would want to repeat this experiment just as performed above at least two more times and compare the result. Then I might try it with more or less water, and with different temperatures of water. With all that data in hand, we might be able to establish some "energy factor" of how efficient the teakettle is. Then we would need to repeat all the same tests with the next heating source. Given than the whole point of my experiment was to save energy using the most efficient means of heating, performing all those tests would be quite wasteful! I'm off to drink hot chocolate!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

5 Winning Strategies for Bananagrams

bananagrams strategy
To follow up on my review of the Bananagrams word game, I thought I would share some of my winning strategies for Bananagrams. Use one or all of these tips and tricks and get ready to show your friends and family who's boss!
  1. Create a backbone. Try to create the longest word possible as early in the round as possible. This long word will form a backbone for your plays and makes it a lot easier to use up tiles as you "peel" them. Even if it takes you more time to think up a really long word, you will be able to play a lot of shorter words in a small amount of time after you assemble your backbone.
  2. Don't be scared to shuffle all your tiles mid-game. To go along with number 1, if you get to the point where you have too many three and four letter words in the middle of a hand, you might run out of easy places to play your next few tiles. Don't hesitate to shuffle all or most of your tiles and make a nice long backbone even in the middle of a hand. You can then play short words off your backbone and stage a dramatic comeback by the end.
  3. Two-letter words are gold. If you're looking to keep your opponents on their toes, dropping a freshly peeled letter tile onto your plays at right angles to an existing word to make a two-letter word lets you peel again right away. Keep it up, and you'll frustrate the other players and have letters available for more advanced plays when the opportunity arises.
  4. No dumping. Any way you look at it, dumping is a bad bargain - you always get three tiles back when you get rid of one. And most savvy players will simply assume your dumped tile is a Q, Z, or X and simply avoid it until you're forced to pick it back up. Even if you do mix it in with the other unused tiles, you might end up with it again anyway. Just become familiar with short words that use these trouble letters or incorporate them into your backbone word, and you'll be better off.
  5. Go rhyme-crazy to switch out letters fast. This isn't as obvious as the other winning strategies, but rhyming can help players of any skill level come up with words using their letters. It's also a great tactic for swapping out the starting letter of a word with a different one to free up that letter. Of course, you could always try playing more two letter words like in number 3.
That's it! Follow these 5 winning strategies for Bananagrams and prepare to take the other players to school. Of course, there's no substitute for a large vocabulary and good spelling skills, and you'll still need your own micro-strategy for getting through the "peels" at your own speed, but these tips and tricks can give you the extra edge needed to win!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Bananagrams Reviewed: Forget Boring Word Games

My wife brought home the word game Bananagrams after playing it at a friend's house. Bananagrams takes its name from the cute zippered banana-shaped sack that holds the 144 letter tiles and the directions. (It also has a looped webbing "stem" for hanging it until it's ripe.) The sack measures about 10" long and is totally packable in your travel bag or a purse.

Number of Players: 2 to about 12
Age Range: Recommended for ages 7+

Bananagrams Gameplay Rules
Bananagrams is kind of like everyone playing Scrabble all at once, without taking turns. After placing the 144 tiles face down, players draw out a number of tiles to start with (the number depends on how many players are playing.)

The game begins at some arbitrary point when one of the players says "split." All players then try to connect all their letters to form words just like in Scrabble, crossword-style. Also like Scrabble, you have to do the policing on which words are and are not acceptable. There is no turn taking, making it a game that can go as fast as you want. Players are free to arrange and re-arrange their tiles whenever and however they want as long as they form words that are interconnected.

When one player has successfully connected all of his or her letter tiles crossword-style, they say "peel," and all players take another tile from the pool that remains. Then, that player must add that tile to their words somehow, and then they can say "peel" again and take another tile, unless another player beats them to it. Remember that all players can re-arrange their whole bunch of tiles however they want at any time, so there are pretty much unlimited options for getting all your letters to form words. There is also the option to trade a tile that simply doesn't work for three letters from the pool of remaining letters, called a "dump."

The game stops when there aren't enough tiles left in the pool for all the players to take one. The first player who uses all their letters says "bananas" and is the winner, unless one of the other players finds a misspelled or unacceptable word in their plays. If a misspelled word is found, the player who went out is a "rotten banana" and their tiles are turned face down and added back to the pool, and play continues as above.

My Banagrams Review
I find bananagrams to be a pretty fun game. Players aren't waiting for their turn like they might be in Scrabble, and the game goes fast. You can keep it as clean or dirty as you like, depending on who you're playing with, so this game is suitable for kids. Bananagrams is also a great way to teach grade school kids spelling and get them to think about making big words out of little ones. Of course, if a 7 year old and a college grad are facing off, it's not going to be much fun for the 7 year old, but it will be a learning experience. And get a group of college kids together and get ready to discover some new words!

One downside is depending on how many players are playing you need a pretty big flat spot. Your dining room table will work fine, but this isn't something you can play in the back of the car. Scrabble, on the other hand, always fits nicely in the space of the board. But I've seen Banagrams advertised as a camping game... you're going to need a big tent to play it in there!

At the end of the day, bananagrams is a good time. It's more lighthearted and fast-paced than Scrabble, but you still get the satisfaction of coming up with words and connecting them all together.

Distribution of Letter Tiles in Bananagrams

The following is a reference list of the tile distributions in the word tile game bananagrams. It might come in handy if you've lost a tile and want to make a new one! The total number of tiles is 144.

A 13
B 3
C 3
D 6
E 18
F 3
G 4
H 3
I 12
J 2
K 2
L 5
M 3
N 8
O 11
P 3
Q 2
R 9
S 6
T 9
U 6
V 3
W 3
X 2
Y 3
Z 2

By contrast, Scrabble contains 100 letters, more of which are vowels, so you can't play Bananagrams with your Scrabble tiles (or Scrabble with your Bananagrams tiles.) Oh well.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Accutire Model MS-4021B Tire Pressure Gauge Review

First Impressions and Images
Here's the second of the two tire pressure gauges I recently got, the Accutire MS-4021B. (The other was the Joe's Racing 32307 gauge, a mechanical dial-type gauge. Find that review here: Review of Joe's Racing 32307 Tire Pressure Gauge.)

The Accutire is a lightweight plastic model that got top marks from Comsumer Reports (not that that means much, see this post on why I think Consumer Reports sucks: Why Consumer Reports Sucks.) It has a soft-touch plastic handle, negative LCD display with red backlight, measures about 6.5" from the end of the handle to the chuck, and is made in China.

It runs on three LR44 1.5 volt button cell batteries, which can be swapped out by removing the battery cover on the back of the handle. Click here for a how-to with photos of the battery changing process. Also on the back are a sticker with what I assume is the date of manufacture and another sticker with the FCC information for the device. There is no on or off switch, the unit turns itself on automatically when you press it to a tire valve and shuts off a few seconds after displaying the pressure reading.

Here's a top view. There is a handy detent to rest your thumb on when taking a pressure, letting you apply force directly in line with the chuck. You can also see the two-part plastic construction seam that runs the length of the unit.

Here's the plastic chuck. The entire unit is fairly lightweight, but I think if you dropped it on the chuck or stepped on it by accident it would probably break. Also it does not swivel or move in any way, so it can be awkward to line it up perfectly with a valve stem. Still, it's easy enough to get a good seal, and I never had a problem maintaining a leak-free fit on the tire stem. It is actually less finicky than the Joe's Racing gauge.

The negative LCD display measures 1-7/8" x 1/2", and the digits are easy to read at arm's length, even in direct sunlight. You can't see the red backlight in these brightly lit images but it does have a reddish color when you're using it in a dim garage.

Using this Gauge
Here's a shot of the unit in action - basically, using a pressure gauge does not get easier than this. It turns itself on and off and displays the pressure clearly without any guesswork or thinking by the user. There are no moving parts to wear out. It shows the pressure for about 4 seconds after you remove it from the valve stem. It automatically calibrates itself after taking a reading (you'll never need to follow the confusing "zero set" directions on the package). It fits in a cargo pocket or your glove compartment. It's also dirt cheap, and if you accidentally backed it over or if you had a glovebox meltdown I wouldn't be heartbroken about replacing it. The package says it has a five-year warranty. You can actually replace the batteries yourself when they wear out. That's a lot of high points for a gauge that only costs about $10.

The package states that this unit measures from 5-150 psi in temps of 0-100 degrees F with and accuracy or +/- 1% + 0.5. I take that to mean that it has a 1% margin of error over the 145 psi range, or a maximum of 1.45 psi off from the true value at any given psi. This is comparable to published stats from other digital and analog gauges that cost quite a bit more, so for the price this gauge is plenty accurate.

The Final Word
This is an especially user-friendly gauge that also happens to be especially cheap. I would keep a more expensive dial-type gauge around in the garage and throw this one in the car so you always have one along. Overall I would not hesitate to recommend this gauge to anyone.

Review of Joe's Racing 32307 Tire Pressure Gauge

Images and First Impressions
I recently bought a couple of new tire pressure gauges. Here's one of them, the Joe's Racing 32307 glow-in-the-dark 0-60psi gauge. There are plenty of good reviews for this item on Amazon but none of them have photos! The unit cost me $23.99. It has a 2-3/8" glow-in-the-dark dial marked in 1-lb. increments, a 17" hose, and includes a pre-installed rubber protective cover for the gauge, preattached swiveling angle chuck and a ball-type chuck.

Here's another look at it, you can see that it also has a bleeder button that allows you to release air from a tire until it reaches the desired pressure. From this angle it's hard to see inside the chuck, but inside it has a brass thing to depress the valve stem. No worries about plastic parts breaking. The whole unit has a solid feel like it should last a lifetime.

A slightly better view of the inside of the angled chuck. It swivels, making it easy to line it up with your valve stem.

Here's a shot of the chrome-plated angled chuck and the included ball-type chuck, which is made of metal and is quite a bit beefier than most I've seen.

Here you can see the glow-in-the-dark dial. The entire dial illuminates after being in the sun or being held in front of a headlight for a few seconds. It's a nice touch.

Another shot of the dial. It's kind of different but the psi is marked in 1-lb increments all the way around the dial. No more guessing if you're at 32 or 33. It's easy to measure to the nearest 1/2-lb. and I would say if you were really inclined to you could guesstimate to the nearest 1/4-lb. of a psi.

The back of the dial and other side of the angle chuck. The rubber protective cover goes over the entire back of the gauge, making it easy to grip and absorbing bumps while it's in your toolbox. Of course, the included directions note that it will be knocked out of calibration if you drop it, so the cover is mostly just to protect it during transport and give a better grip - I doubt it would save it if you dropped it.

Here's the bleeder button and hose from the side. This is the only area where the country of origin is referenced. I believe it just means that the hose they use to make the gauge is made in the USA, so I'm not sure if the whole unit is made in the USA or not. The joint where the bleeder button and hose meet the gauge does not swivel, just the angle chuck to hose joint does. It's also worth noting that the product does not reference the Joe's Racing model number (32307) anywhere on the unit itself.

Here's the package before I opened it. There's no reference to the country of origin on the package either. Also no warranty information, but at least there is a bar code with the model number of 32307 shown. The package seems like it was done on a small-scale vacuum packaging system, it's not very fancy (yes, that is an ordinary rubber band) and the back of the package is simply a piece of plain white cardboard. The quality of the gauge makes up for it though.

Use Notes
This gauge is a joy to use. It can be finicky to get a good seal with the valve stem, but if you ensure that you are meeting the stem squarely you can hold it tightly to a tire stem without any air escaping. The bleeder button is a nice feature and works smoothly. I have not tried the ball-type chuck yet, so I can't comment on that.

I don't have the lab equipment required to determine how well calibrated this unit is. In head-to-head testing with the Accutire MS-4021B, the Accutire digital gauge measured about 3/4-lb. higher than the Joe's Racing gauge. (This was on a typical July day at about 80 degrees F, with two readings taken on the same tire a few seconds apart.) (You can read my review of the Accutire gauge here: Accutire Model MS-4021B Tire Pressure Gauge Review.)
 I would be more inclined to trust the Joe's racing gauge because it measures a smaller range and costs more. The Accutire gauge actually does list the accuracy as plus or minus 1%, and it measures 5-150 psi, so it seems like it could be off by as much as 1.45 psi, but it only measures in 0.5 psi increments.
Of course, your tires heat up to varying temps depending on the speed you're driving anyway. The change in temperature causes a change in pressure. And the ambient temperature is hardly constant between the morning and afternoon when you're commuting to work, for example.
So does the increased accuracy of the Joe's Racing gauge matter to the average Joe? Probably not.

The Final Word
If you're careful with your tools and want an air gauge that should last a long time, I'd say this one should be near the top of your list. It also seems to be plenty accurate, but as explained above that 1 psi probably doesn't make much difference.