Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Silhouettes Eyeglasses Frames Review

  • Lightweight, comfortable design
  • No hinges to break or bend
  • Freedom to customize lens shapes
  • Unquestionably stylish
  • Fairly durable, stand up to knocks and bumps

  • Take some getting used to (for you and your brain)
  • Fit can be a problem until they're adjusted properly
  • Pricey
  • Only fit in the manufacturer's case
  • Don't lie flat in a pocket or on a table
  • Require two hands to put on and take off

silhouettes glasses frames
It's been over a year since I got my Silhouettes eyeglasses frames and I thought it was a good time to give them a review. If you haven't heard of them, Silhouettes are rimless titanium memory wire frames that are mounted to the lens via holes - some people call them "drill mount" frames. Their main attractions are that they are lightweight and most people consider them to be modern and stylish. You can also have pretty much any shape lens you choose, since there is no frame to constrain your choices. The same frame works equally well with rounded or squarish lenses.

Most of the other online reviews for Silhouettes glasses are from people who have had theirs break (usually at the temple arm) or were not satisfied with them because the lens cracked. I am going to guess that those experiences may have been with earlier generations of these frames, because mine seem to be holding up just fine to everyday wear. Then again, I don't really wear them in situations where they could get hit or bent, like playing sports or around small kids. I also store them on the counter as shown above instead of bent into their weird little plastic case. It seems like the case design keeps the temples bent under stress and it wouldn't be good for them.

silhouettes glasses
 If you haven't tried Silhouettes glasses before, the rimless design takes some serious getting used to. And I'm talking about more than the gaping hole in your wallet. As the above photo shows, the frames are mounted to the front of the lens by plastic grommets that fit into holes drilled into the lens. There aren't any hinges, and the part that goes over your ear is mostly a thin little rubber piece a little bigger than the wire frame with a polished metal tip.

As a result, Silhouettes frames are very lightweight and comfortable to wear. But since they don't have an actual hinge, the lenses are essentially free to move about your nose and face as they please. They can easily shift side to side, depending on how well the earpieces grip your head. They can also get cockeyed quite easily, where one of the lenses is higher than the other one. This can be quite annoying and also looks funny, plus they are comfortable so you probably won't notice the misalignment. Basically getting them to stay put, especially when you have oily skin like mine, can be a problem.

silhouettes glasses front
Here's a look at them from the front. Obviously you can get any lens shape with these, mine just happen to be a modified rectangle to match my face shape. You can see that the frames actually obscure a part of the lens where the hardware is mounted. This did take some getting used to on my part - eventually your brain learns to stop looking in the area where the frames are in the way.

Another weird thing about them is that the lenses are beveled (or chamfered) along the edge on both sides. I was expecting a flat, 90 degree corner where the edge of the lens meets the face, but instead it's more like the edge is rounded over at a 45 degree angle. While I recognize that this is probably standard practice to avoid a sharp edge that could chip easily, in the case of my lenses it also created a "micro-lens" at the top and bottom of my field of view. I was literally seeing triple for the first week wearing these, since the chamfered edge on the lens refracts the image you're looking at right into your vision. It was especially frustrating when driving at night - I could easily see the reflective road paint above and below my field of view and the result was incredibly distracting. If you're experiencing this same problem, don't give up yet - my eyes/brain got used to this strange issue and it seems like the brain simply learns to tune it out eventually. Now I have no problem driving at night, etc, and I don't even notice the triple images anymore. Wonder what else I might be missing...?

silhouettes glasses side
Another look at the temple. You can see each part of the frame is attached with studs through two holes in the lens. This is nice because there's no hinge to break or wear out, and it doesn't really get dirty since it's wire-thin.

My pair of Silhouettes actually creaks a little bit when I open them up to put them on. The sound is very slight, not loud enough to be disturbing, it's just the noise of the frames shifting inside the holes in the lenses.

silhouettes glasses
Since there are no hinges, you need two hands to put Silhouettes on. You also pretty much need two hands to take them off without putting a lot of stress on them. If putting glasses on and taking them off repeatedly is an important part of your day... you may want to skip Silhouettes.

Also, they do not fold flat to fit into a pocket. They come with a hard case, but it's still fairly bulky. Because they don't fold up, they only fit into their original case. You're probably not going to find a case that they'll fit in besides the one they came in, so don't lose it!

I spend a lot of time adjusting them on my face. Maybe my Silhouettes aren't perfectly adjusted, but if I worked anywhere where I had less than perfectly clean hands, I would have to get new glasses because you almost always have to handle the edge of the lenses to adjust them.

The nose pieces that came with these were a hard plastic that slipped down my nose no problem. The eye clinic was able to replace them with another set that had a soft, grippy finish that helped with that issue. The nose pieces just pop on and off the wire frame, anyone can change them out, so I'd recommend asking your glasses guy or girl for the grippy nose pads to take with you in case you don't like the not-so-grippy ones.

wearing silhouettes glasses
Here's an example of me wearing this pair of Silhouettes. They are seriously minimalist - no hinge, no frame, actually not a whole lot of anything.

Above is a better look at the ear pieces on my Silhouettes. There isn't much to them, and they really don't grip the sides of my head that well. Also the numbers showing the frame size are printed right where the earpieces wear, so you can forget about reading them after wearing them a while, they rub right off. (Of course, there is nowhere else to put these numbers anyway.)

A look at half a pair. You can see what I explain above - the bevel around the edge of the lens reflects my eye a second time. It also delivers a matching image of what you're looking at above and below your field of view on the other side of the lens. That is what took the most adjustment - waiting for my brain to stop seeing the images coming from the beveled edges.

The bottom line is: I have a love/hate relationship with my Silhouettes glasses. I like the style and comfort, I dislike the finicky fit, particularly as my face gets more oily in the afternoons and they slip around more. I will probably switch them out for a more conventional hinged pair next time I get the chance. Have you had a similar experience with your Silhouettes glasses? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Note About Making Baked Mac & Cheese with Pre-Shredded Cheese

Just a brief note to anyone making baked macaroni and cheese. If you are wondering if you can use pre-shredded cheese in the cheesy sauce, don't do it! Prepackaged shredded cheeses have anti-clumping agents like potato starch added. These other ingredients are usually disclosed on the label, but it's safe to assume that all pre-shredded (not block) cheese contains them. Their purpose is to keep the cheese from sticking to itself so you can pour it out of the bag freely. As a side effect, they make baked macaroni and cheese sauce have a terrible texture.

The potato starch will make your cheese sauce taste gritty. If you prefer to sprinkle cheese over the top it will also affect how this cheese melts and browns in the over during baking. While you will still be able to eat the resulting dish, be prepared for a gritty (potato-like) feel in your mouth with every bite. It completely ruins the creamy smooth cheesy goodness that should be baked macaroni and cheese. Just discovered this the hard way. Lesson learned. Do yourself a favor and get a nice block of sharp cheddar. No prepackaged cheese.

Guide To Buying a Refurbished Mac Computer

Part 1: Decide What To Get
I decided it's finally time to replace my HP Pavillion dv5000 laptop. Since I'm sure nobody has even heard of that model anymore, let's just say it's amazing it still works, struggling to run Windows XP with an AMD single-core processor, an 80GB hard drive and 2GB of RAM. I've had my heart set on a new(er) Mac laptop for some time now, and finally got the go-ahead from my better half to buy one.

After playing around on the models available as of this writing at the local Best Buy store, she wanted to buy the 15" MacBook Pro with Retina Display on the spot. Not so fast, I said, and convinced her that we could grab a great deal by buying a refurb. And rather than buying a refurbished Mac to save money, I am buying a refurbished Mac to get more bang for my buck. Instead of getting a new 15" MacBook Pro Retina 2.4GHz core i7 with 8GB RAM and 256GB of flash storage, we could suddenly afford a refurbished MacBook Pro Retina 2.6GHZ core i7 with 16GB RAM and 512GB flash storage for about $150 more. Sweet! (I wanted the extra RAM and SSD space since nothing about the Retina generation of machines is user-serviceable without a lot of hassle.)

(You can also pick up an older generation machine at the refurb store for considerable savings. If I wanted a Mac mini as a home theater PC for example, I probably wouldn't mind settling for one from 2011.)

Part 2: Make Sure Refurb Is Right For You
A little online research yields an impressive amount of positive reviews for Apple's refurbished store. A variety of Mac magazines and forums say that you essentially get a brand new Mac, looked at by a real human, with the same 1-year warranty as the new ones. The only downside is that it ain't 100% brand new: someone else has already smelled that new computer smell and then sent it back for some reason or another. This doesn't bother me one bit: the average savings are around 15% on refurbished Macs, and some models (specifically the higher-spec'd one I was looking for) give deeper discounts of 25%+ off the regular retail price. And Apple guarantees them to be pretty much good as new.

As an aside, I think buying refurbished is a no-brainer for most people. I could have saved a bunch of money back in college if I had just shopped the online refurbished store the summer before I left for school instead of going to the Apple store in person. Luckily the kind salespeople talked me out of the notion that I needed a PowerBook (top of the line at the time) and convinced me the more pedestrian iBook G4 would suffice for my needs. And it did.

But I imagine there could be some situations where refurb isn't what you want. If you're giving a gift, for example, the possibility of having cosmetic defects or having some kind of stigma attached to your gift since it's a refurb would make me think twice. Or if I was getting one for work and someone else was paying the bill, bingo, I'd rather have a brand new one.

Part 3: Watch, Wait and Buy
At this point I knew exactly what I wanted and exactly where to get it. There was only one problem: the specific model I wanted with the extra RAM wasn't available at the Mac refurb store at that time. If you check the refurb store and see what you need, you're in luck. But I had to resort to some other tactics to retain my sanity - rather than check the refurb store every minute, I needed a tool that would check it for me and send me an alert when the product I wanted was available.

To my surprise there is actually a tool that does exactly that. Enter refurb.me (http://www.refurb.me/us/), an online tool (based out of Hong Kong, for what it's worth) that shows which items are in stock at the refurb store and can send users alerts via email or text message when your preferred build is available. Sure, it's a little sketchy since it's from Hong Kong and there doesn't seem to be any ads on the site, which leaves you wondering how they support their site... but whatever, there's definitely no harm in just looking at the refurb.me site, and it's way easier to track down a specific product there than on Apple's own store.

I signed up for a free refurb.me account (with one of my disposable email addresses) and (thought I) configured it to send me a text message when the refurb product I wanted was available. (more on that below.) I slept soundly, thinking I would be among the first to know if my soon-to-be new refurbished Mac was available for sale, day or night.

I also started using refurb tracker (http://refurb-tracker.com/) to create an RSS feed for the product I wanted. This tool lets you create a customized RSS feed for products on the Apple refurb store in specific categories. You can also create an RSS feed by user-enetered text, like "i7" and "16GB", then read them in a browser. Assuming I had everything set up right, if there were no new feeds, it meant that what I wanted wasn't available yet. Way easier than checking anything manually.

In the end though, both of these products didn't help me! One day I went to the refurb.me site and saw my target model was green, meaning in stock, but I hadn't gotten any notification at all! After looking at my refurb.me account, somehow I had created an account but not signed up for any notifications. Maybe I hadn't confirmed something with my account after clicking the email they sent me, maybe I misread something in their instructions (which aren't in the best English). Either way when my computer became available, there was no alert telling me about it.

At the same time, I also must have configured my refurb tracker RSS feed wrong (I had to use an app to read the RSS feed on my iPhone 4) so it didn't show me when a new product was added to the section of the refurbished store I was interested in! Luckily, I was able to get an order in without seeing a single alert.

In the end, compulsively checking the refurb.me website (not their alert service) and the Apple refurbished store is what let me jump on the new batch of products and order a new refurbished computer. I would say if you are using refurb.me or refurb tracker for something critical that you simply cannot afford to miss, you need to be extra careful about setting them up properly. There really isn't a way to test that they work, and in my case had I not manually checked the refurb.me website I would never have been able to get the deal I wanted. Lesson learned.

These two tools do have a few other perks though. The refurb.me site tells you when specific products were last seen and gives you a little graph of their price history, which can potentially help you anticipate when the next batch is going to be available. Of course, I also noticed (from the RSS history) that new groups of products hit the Apple store at seemingly random dates and times, and there was no obvious schedule for checking back to nab that elusive product.

One final caveat to the Apple refurb store: some of the products say "Available to ship in 24 hours" and some say "Ships in 1-5 business days". Not sure why that might be, but telling someone that's waiting that they'll send it in 1-5 business days is like telling a kid that Christmas could be coming any time between December 25 and December 30 this year. Still, I guess it's worth the wait since you can save a few dollars. Happy shopping!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Lisle 63600 Oil Filter Wrench Review

I picked up the Lisle 63600 oil filter wrench for less than $9 at a local farm supply store and couldn't wait to put it to the test. It performed as well as all the other reviews suggested, but there are a few quirks that might influence your buying decision.

Essentially it is a cam-action clamp with a square cut out of the base for a 3/8" drive ratchet or extension. As you rotate the wrench to the left, the edge of the jaws grip the cylindrical shape of the oil filter. It is advertised as fitting oil filters from 2-1/2" to 3-1/8" in diameter. It worked great on the compact car I was using it on. (There is a larger version for larger truck filters.) All pieces are solid metal, but the spring is kind of flimsy. I guess it has to be in order to allow the jaws to open freely. But the fact that Lisle lists the replacement spring part number right on the package doesn't give me much faith. Besides the spring the clamp feels solid enough, it would survive being rattled around in a toolbox or dropped off a workbench just fine.

The reason the Lisle 63600 is so handy is because of the 3/8" drive hole in the end. You can put a ratchet right on the wrench, or you can hook up all kinds of extensions and universal connectors to create a wrench that will reach almost anywhere in the engine bay while keeping your hands clear.

One thing I noticed is that the cutout for the male end of my 3/8" extension is a little skimpy - it's not quite deep enough. There's also no detent or lip inside the square to hold the ball on the extension or ratchet, really it's just hanging there by the friction between the ball and the square. If you're using a wobble extension (like most extensions are these days) the wrench will wobble around considerably since you can't stick the extension far enough into the drive square to lock it into position. I think even if you had an extension with a locking ball it wouldn't have anything inside the drive square to lock to.

From the back you can see that it's made in the USA. Nice.

The jaws rotate on their rivets to open and accept an oil filter. The spring keeps their edges in contact with the oil filter. From this angle you can see the ball of my extension peeking out. If you were holding it sideways the wrench would probably fall off. For that reason this tool is best used to loosen the filter when it's stuck, but not for completely removing the filter. (I think most people already understand that your hands are best for removing the filter once its loose.)

Another angle showing the construction. The base is just two round plates of steel. You can also see how far it moves on my wobble extension. This is actually a good thing so you don't have to have the extension perfectly lined up with the filter before you loosen it.

One last shot of the Lisle 63600 jaws clamped around a filter. (It's a new filter.) As you can see only the  edges of the jaws make contact with the filter. It's easy to apply plenty of force to remove the most stubborn oil filters with this tool. But because of the jaw design, it only works to loosen filters. You can not screw on a new filter with this tool. Which is a good thing, since filters should only be screwed on by hand anyway. Although I can see if the filter was in some remote location on the block under a bunch of stuff where you couldn't fit your arm the ability to screw a filter on would be nice.

In a nutshell:
This is an oil filter wrench that will likely outlast you.
It is easy to get on oil filters at odd angles. If you can get your extension to it, you can remove it.
You can apply lots of force to a stubborn filter, even if there isn't room to swing the handle of a band-type oil filter wrench.
One size fits a variety of filters for domestic and import vehicles, unlike the molded plastic filter wrenches where you need a specific size for each filter.
It's a little loose on the extension, if you're going to be working over a full oil pan you'll want to keep one hand on the wrench so it doesn't fall off.
It only works to remove filters, it will not put filters back on.

If you're into changing your own oil, this is probably the only oil filter wrench you're ever going to need.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Merkur 39C Slant Bar Review

merkur 39C
I've been hooked on traditional wetshaving for over a year now and finally feel qualified to give a review of my latest toy, the Merkur 39C long-handled slant bar razor. It's shown above with the box it came in.

Here is the Merkur 39C next to the Merkur 23C. The 23C is a double-edged razor that's ideal for beginners, with a nice long handle, mild shave and (relatively) light weight. By comparison, the 39C has a seriously hefty handle and slanted bar with a much wider blade gap. If the 23C feels about the same weight as a fork or spoon, the 39C is like a solid-handled butter knife (although more balanced).

merkur 39C
Here's another look at the Merkur 39C slant. Just look at that handle. The barber pole style knurling is deeper than it looks and gives a very tactile grip. The heavy weight coupled with the more efficient slicing effect of the slant bar means you really can let the razor do the work. It's also the reason this razor is known as "the sledgehammer."

merkur 39C close up
Here's a better image of the blade... and part of my fingerprint on the mirror chrome finish. Like all double edge razors the cap that sits on top the blade bends it into a crescent, but in this case the entire safety bar has a twist. The gap between the safety bar and the blade is huge compared to the 23C. The bar also has a toothed design and the cap has a series of indentations making a wavy shape as well. These features give a very close shave and also mean that lather and whiskers are kept away from the blade for longer, so you can take longer shaving passes before cleaning off your razor, if you choose. Basically there is more space for the lather to flow away from the blade.

merkur 39C disassembled
Above is a look at the Merkur 39C razor disassembled. The long threaded rod on the cap goes through the blade, which is held relatively square by the lugs on the bottom of the cap. The knob at the end of the handle has a female-threaded hole and is held in place by a simple spring retaining ring. To tighten the cap or remove the blade you just unscrew the knob and the cap comes off, you do not have to remove the knob.

merkur 39C
Another look at the cap. The edge of it is really quite thin. You can just make out the forge marks. The underside is still chrome plated, just not mirror polished.

merkur 39C blade loading
Here's one way to load the blade into a Merkur 39C. This is how Merkur recommends blades be loaded. Place the cap flat side down on your counter, drop a fresh blade over the lugs and center rod, and screw the handle on. This usually works okay, but I've found sometimes the blade is slightly out of alignment, with more of the blade exposed on one side of the head than the other.

merkur 39C
Here's another method for loading the blade into the 39C that I've found works better. If you pick up the cap and squeeze the ends of the blade lightly while pushing up on the cap, you cause the blade to flex upward and form to the shape of the cap. From here it's easy to screw in the handle and ensure the blade is evenly exposed on both sides of the head.

merkur 39C construction
Another look at the fit and finish when disassembled. You can see that the safety bar and handle are actually two pieces with a joint where they meet. While you could probably make a much more appealing version by machining the whole thing out of stainless, this is probably a lot more cost effective.

A look at one side of the head. You can barely see the blade arched up under the cap. Because this twisted head is obviously asymmetrical, at first glance you might think it's defective. But it's actually supposed to be like that.

merkur 39C detail
Okay, enough with the eye candy. You're probably wondering how this bad boy shaves. The answer is that it's the best shave I've ever had. I found that I didn't need to make any adjustments to my technique to avoid cutting myself, and frankly everyone had me scared with the whole "not for beginners" thing. The honest answer is that this tool is no more dangerous than any other razor if you have good technique. While it excels at busting through multiple days of growth, it also lets you get a ridiculously close shave with minimal irritation. The twisted head naturally forces more of the blade to contact each whisker, slicing through it more efficiently than if it had contacted the hair straight on. Or if you've heard of or tried the "Gillette Slide" technique, where you use an ordinary double edge razor and shave in a diagonal line across your face while keeping the handle straight up and down, the effect is the same.

The bottom line is: if you want the last razor you'll ever need, with a close, comfortable shave that's aggressive enough to take down two or three days worth of growth in a single pass, the Merkur 39C slant bar is the razor for you. Plus, there's a serious macho factor involved. You can tell everyone you shave with a sledgehammer. What's cooler than that?