The Anthropocene Reviewed

You should read this book.

The adage that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover is a valid one, but in this case, we also shouldn’t judge it by its title. Which is not to say the title of John Green’s latest book isn’t perfectly cromulent, but rather I wasn’t quite smart enough to appreciate it. I didn’t know the word “Anthropocene” (in fact, spellcheck had to help me both times I’ve typed it now), and so the book didn’t appeal to me at all. I honestly don’t remember why I picked it up. Perhaps I learned the word, and so felt a bit of a kinship to the title, it being one of the only places I’ve ever seen the word used. Nevertheless, I’m glad I read the book. Or rather, I’m glad I’m reading the book. I have a chapter or two left. But I need to take breaks while reading it, lest I get overwhelmed. His writing is powerful, and makes me think. So much so that I often need some time to think about what I just read before I can read more.

For those in a similar boat to former me, “Anthropocene” (got it on my own that time) is a geological period, or geological age. Specifically, it’s the chunk of Earth’s history where humans have played a significant role. So we’re currently “in” the Anthropocene, and it’s been happening, well, ever since we did stuff in caves with rocks I guess. Maybe later. I’m not sure we really had an important enough role back then to kickstart the age. Maybe it was when we drove the first species to extinction. (There’s most certainly a defining event or something, but I’m not an expert. I just recently learned to spell the darn thing.)

John’s book is (I think) his first non-fiction book. It’s more about him than it is about the world he reviews, but that’s why reviews are valuable to us. A review is not a description, but rather an estimation and application of value to a thing. And it takes a person to do that. When that person shares some common values and/or world views, their measure of a thing is even more valuable, because it’s likely to align to our own. That actually makes me realize that I’m reviewing a review of things reviewed by another reviewer. That’s weird. So rather than reviewing the reviews, please allow me to review the style of the reviews, and the selection process of which things were chosen to review. It’s still weird, but it feels less icky.

At its most basic, this book gives a star rating (from 1 to 5) on significant items, ideas, events, and stuff which has had a profound effect on John himself. Profundity can be either positive or negative, and so it goes with these reviews. Some reviews are “lighter” than others. Some we can identify with directly, and some are poignant but only as we compare them to similarities in our own lives. (Or as we empathize with him, which I am wont to do.)

That basic framework is nothing more than that, however. A framework. An “angle”, or a template for how to approach what is really more of a memoir of sometimes un-directly-related things. A memoir generally needs to have an overarching narrative, so this doesn’t really fit the bill… but it almost does, because profound events in our lives are indeed what make us who we are. So perhaps the narrative is reflected in the title. In as much as humanity’s impact on the Anthropocene is what defines it, a human’s life is defined by the events within it. These are not all the events in John Green’s life, but it includes some stand out moments which make it clear who he is, and some hope toward what his role might be in the Anthropocene itself.

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work that John has written (and performed, as he is the narrator in the audiobook) this book quite well. His writing is compelling, his insight is wise & considered, and he manages to mix humor and heartache in equal measure. The part that really struck me, however, was how vulnerable the writing felt. I don’t think John (or anyone, to be honest) is a good enough writer to “fake” the way this book exposed who he really is, and even more than that… why he is who he is. I suspect it was both incredibly cathartic, and deeply terrifying to write a book which was not only his first non-fiction, but was clearly a glimpse into the author himself.

I give The Anthropocene Reviewed five stars: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars

Netgate SG-4100 (w/Rackmount Kit!)

If you follow me online, you likely know I’m building a “micro datacenter” out at my farm. I sorta made that term up, but from a functionality standpoint, it sits somewhere between a homelab and space in a commercial datacenter. It has commercial grade fiber Internet with a block of static IPs, extended off-grid power (with future solar capability!), and highly-available virtualization system. In order to make all that work, I needed something more than the Unifi USG Pro I’d been using for years. So I decided to dust off my old pfSense-based Netgate SG-3100 router, to see if it would work after a disappointing experience years ago that forced me to shelf it.

Spoiler Alert: That problem appears to be solved.

Spoiler Alert the Second: That wasn’t a typo in the first paragraph. I own an SG-3100, but this review is of the SG-4100. Why? Well, first a tiny story:

My Breakup with pfSense

Without getting too far into the weeds, the reason I moved away from pfSense after YEARS of using it for just about every routing need, was Plex. Specifically, there was some weird bug or misconfiguration on my part which caused a remote Plex stream to buffer like crazy, regardless of bandwidth or latency. After months of trying to solve the issue (which seemed to be related to an established connection keeping-state) I abandoned pfSense. After talking with folks at Netgate, it sounds like it might have been a bug in FreeBSD itself. That seems to be fixed now, so pfSense gets a place at the table again.

I bought the SG-3100 with my own money, and had a rackmount SG-8860-1U that I also bought for use at my home office. Since I run Plex servers from both locations, I retired them both at the same time. Since I wanted to upgrade my “micro datacenter” back to pfSense, I went online to make sure one of my two devices was still supported. It turns out the larger and more powerful (and more expensive) rackmount unit was EOL (end of life). Apparently I could still update it, but it was no longer supported, and the reason appears to be due to the ATOM C2000 bug which caused many embedded devices to suddenly and catastrophically fail. The SG-3100 was EOS (end of sale) which meant it was still supported, but clearly on its way toward EOL as it was replaced by a newer model. I lamented a bit online, because I’d invested a lot of money in these devices several years back, and using either for my new install seemed unwise.

That’s when Netgate contacted me. They agreed to send me a new SG-4100 (which was the model replacing my SG-3100), in return for a review. And that made me a little nervous. I’ve reviewed a LOT of products over the years, and some companies are great about having zero expectations, and others are pretty full of themselves and get quite aggressive when you give their bad product a bad review. And honestly, I’m usually quite kind with my bad reviews, but I’ve still had unpleasant experiences. I made that clear, and Netgate insisted their review unit, which I was allowed to keep, was in return for an honest, unbiased review. So I accepted.

Spoiler Alert the Third: I understand why they were OK with an honest review. The SG-4100 is a really great unit. Five stars. Would recommend. (Do recommend) But you’re here for details:

The Actual Review

This will be the more in-depth review, but if you prefer to watch a video version, I have a video review on YouTube:

The “OLD” is pointing to the routers, NOT ME!

If you’ve read/watched my reviews in the past, you know I don’t like to regurgitate specs about a product. You can look those things up if you want. But for a router, some of the specs are really vital to understand. Namely, how well can it actually route packets. Full gigabit connections are becoming commonplace(ish) with the advent of fiber-to-the-home, and very few off-the-shelf home routers can actually handle that much traffic. Like, very very few.

Finding reliable specifications for routing throughput is often a challenge, because companies will usually give you the absolute best (or even worse, “theoretical”) bandwidth a router can handle. But those speeds are never what you get in real world situations. In my experience, you basically have to buy WAY more “promised throughput” than you’ll need, because the listed numbers are nuanced and lab-only tested. To Netgate’s credit, they give you the good, the bad, and the ugly on all of their various models. If you look at that buying guide, they provide the “best” speeds, but also more practical speeds you can actually expect. (They explain in super-nerdy detail the difference here)

And yes. The SG-4100 will totally handle my symmetric gigabit fiber connection without any problem. The SG-3100 will also handle it, which is nice to know. That means I have a fully functional backup router now, in case something goes sideways with the 4100.

What About VPN Speeds Though?!?

If you look at the guide linked above, you’ll see that indeed running OpenVPN on the router, with IMIX (the “realistic” type traffic), it’s limited to just over 300mbit. If you are planning to connect site-to-site VPN to push all your traffic up to a corporate HQ or something, this SG-4100 will not take full advantage of your gigabit connection.

BUT.

If that is your need, you can handle it several ways. One, you could get a bigger model. You will pay significantly more to route gigabit speed encrypted OpenVPN traffic — but it’s possible with 1537 model, for instance. That is not what I would do, however. In fact, I almost never run VPN services from my router devices, because VPN encryption is a lot of heavy lifting with regard to CPU, and I’d rather use a traditional server for that. When I need to run VPN, I usually do it from an internal server, and just port forward the traffic through my router. The SG-4100 will easily route VPN traffic to an internal VPN server, because it’s just routing packets at that point. Let your fancy pants rackmount server host VPN, and let your router route. That’s just my personal preference, but at the very least I recommend weighing the cost/maintenance advantage between using a server and buying a more robust router.

Cool. It Will Do Gigabit. Is That It?

No. pfSense does basically everything but load the dishwasher for you after dinner. And that’s a challenge for me, because I really like to have my routers route, and little else. But pfSense (and so Netgate appliances) can do so much stuff! My absolute requirements for a router is that it can:

  • Manage all my public IPs, even if I have more than one
  • Handle NAT and Port Forwarding for individual external IPs
  • Allow firewall rules that can block by port/ip/etc.

This isn’t a review of pfSense, but since the SG-4100 is running pfSense (actually pfSense+, which is a fork, and a longer story, but as of today very similar to pfSense) — it can handle everything from DHCP/DNS, to intrusion detection, to various VPN technologies (including Wireguard), to 3rd party packages providing every network-related service you can imagine. I generally don’t even run DHCP on my routers, but if you like your routers to be all-in-one network service boxes, pfSense won’t disappoint. And since I don’t need site-to-site VPN, and will likely only need remote connection for administration — I might actually run VPN on the unit, and break my unwritten rule!

The Hardware

I know I said I don’t generally talk about hardware specs in reviews, but in this case, it’s hard not to. There are two standout design choices that really impressed me. The first is the actual design of the appliance itself. The shell is plastic, matching the current white color of the main SG line. But the base is one solid aluminum heatsink. There aren’t any fans, but the entire bottom has cooling fins molded into the aluminum, making for a really efficient and effective passive cooling system. With a front-to-back flow design, if the appliance is put into a rack (more on that later), air flow should be ideal for keeping it cool. It was a surprisingly robust cooling setup for a desktop router.

Cool. (See what I did there?)

Next, most routers have a WAN port, and a few LAN ports in a shared switch configuration. This is nice for home users that don’t have need for a larger switch and just plug their few devices into the router’s LAN switch, but for me, I just need a port to uplink my rackmount switches into. The SG-4100 surprised me with its LAN port offering. Because calling them “LAN Ports” is a bit misleading. They’re much more.

(Click through for the actual IO Ports description page)

The SG-4100 has (2) WAN ports, each with either an RJ45 Ethernet jack, or an SFP port. Each port can be connected with one or the other, but not both. If you’re familiar with pfSense, however, you know that while the ports are labeled as WAN1 and WAN2, you can do pretty much whatever you want with the ports. If you want your WAN2 port to be a DMZ, it’s just a matter of configuring that in the web GUI. If you want dual WAN with failover? Again, just configure it via the web GUI. Want to load balance? Same deal.

The part that surprised me was that each of the 2.5Gigabit LAN ports are independent devices. Like I mentioned earlier, most routers have a handful of LAN ports, but they’re just a single logical device with switch ports. Not only are these LAN ports 2.5Gigabit, but they are addressable separately in the web GUI. This means you can have multiple DMZs, or you can route specific traffic to specific LAN ports, or in my case, you can bridge a LAN port to the WAN1 port, and have a second router plugged into that LAN port and take an IP from the fiber itself.

Let me explain. At my farm (where the “micro datacenter” is being built), I have an existing network using Unifi hardware. I’ll probably eventually get rid of that USG router, and integrate my Unifi switches into one LAN. But at first, I’m keeping my old network active, and using one of the IP addresses in my public block. Rather than putting a switch between my fiber handoff and my routers, I can plug directly into my SG-4100, and then have my Unifi router bridged to the Netgate’s WAN port, getting a direct public IP from my ISP. Yes, that’s a very specific, and very niche setup — but it’s because of the independent LAN interfaces that I can do it!

The SG-4100 basically has (6) fully usable network interfaces which can be manipulated in countless ways thanks to the flexibility of pfSense. That’s one thing the 4100 has over my 3100. It only had switched ports on a single LAN interface. This is much cooler, in a very nerdy way.

So You’re a Netgate-Loving Shill, Eh?

Wow, that was harsh. The guy making these section headings is a jerk. Seriously though, once the weird network-state issue was out of the picture, it was inevitable that I’d be a fan of pfSense and Netgate appliances again. I ran pfSense on server hardware for over a decade in a huge school district, and never once had a problem with it. Switching to an appliance for my personal use was a no-brainer, because they use so much less energy, and “just work” out of the box. One of those advantages is in the console. And the console on the SG-4100 wasn’t something I planned to test, but I sorta had to.

When I first set the unit up, I changed the default password, because I’m a grown up network professional who would never leave the default password on anything. I’m also a silly, scatter-brained goofball, whose ADHD medicine was long since worn off at the time, and I forgot to save that password to my password manager. (I probably assumed I’d never forget the complex password, because I’m an idiot…) Anyway, after that initial setup of the WAN/LAN bridge so I could keep my existing network running while doing the new network setup, I had lots of Life happen. We had to attend a funeral out of state, my wife (a drama teacher) had “Play Week”, which mean I was building sets and props from morning to night, and countless other work-related things kept me from completing the setup.

And I forgot the password.

The SG-4100 does this really smart (and super annoying in the moment) thing where if you get the password wrong several times, it locks you out for a while. After over an hour of trying to remember what password I used, I decided it was time to do a factory reset so I could start over. That sucked because setting up the network bridge took a while. Anyway, I put my laptop up on the rack, and plugged the (included) micro-usb cable from the router into my laptop’s USB port. The Linux kernel on my laptop immediately recognized the console port, and a simple:

sudo screen /dev/ttypUSB0 115200

Connected me to the console. And guess what one of the options in the console was? Reset the web interface’s password! I didn’t have to factory reset anything, and with a quick keystroke via the console, I was able to reset the password to the default of “pfsense”, and log right in. (Yes, I immediately changed the password to something complex, and this time saved it to my password manager!)

Seriously, that was the easiest, most useful device console experience I’ve ever had. That alone makes the decision to use an appliance vs a full blown server much more attractive for me.

So What Do You Dislike About It?

Ahh, you’ve read my reviews before. I always ALWAYS make sure to highlight weaknesses along with strengths. Sometimes this is the part of the review that makes companies angry, but in this case, there’s not a whole lot I found frustrating. If anything they are nitpicks, and my biggest issue was addressed a couple days ago. So Netgate stole most of my thunder. [shakes fist in mock anger]

My biggest frustration is that there was no great way to mount the router in a server rack. This unit is above and beyond what most home users would need, so it’s really more likely to live in a rack of some sort. And while the unit is thankfully 1U tall, it was clearly designed for sitting on something. It even has little rubber feet that stick on the bottom. I didn’t measure, but it’s probably about 11″ wide. I just set it on top of one of my rackmount switches, and it works fine. (I actually left the rubber feet stuck on, and it was a snug fit, but that ended up being a moot point…)

Netgate sent me a brand new rackmount kit, which fits the SG-4100 and the SG-6100. It’s not available for purchase yet, so I don’t know the price — but this thing is designed VERY well for a rackmount adapter. Usually, when a device like this has a rackmount kit, it consists of a couple L-shaped ears that screw to the side of the unit and allow you to mount it on a rack. But this is a solid aluminum enclosure, which allows for even more heat dissipation, and USB extensions to bring the side-mounted USB ports to the front of the rack.

When I first tried to install the router into the rackmount adapter, I was confused. I assumed it would face front like in desktop mode, and just securely mount to the rack. But this is designed to flip the unit backward, so ALL the ports are on the front of the rack, like an actual rackmount router. The only downside is the power cord is awkwardly on the front panel, and the 3 activity lights are no longer visible because they now face the back of the rack. But honestly, it’s a fair tradeoff for what is otherwise a full conversion to a rackmount router.

My other “complaints” are pretty minor. I very much wish there were redundant power connectors like my MikroTik 12-Port 10G Switch. External “wall wart” transformers sometimes blink out, so a second connection would give me a little peace of mind. But had my MikroTik switch not included the feature of dual wall-warts, it probably wouldn’t even have occurred to me. So maybe in future revisions it’s something Netgate might consider, if the cost isn’t excessive.

The last nit-pick has to do with those activity lights. They are not labeled. There is a circle, a square, and a diamond. The LEDs can blink and glow different colors (I think), but they mean absolutely nothing unless you look up what they indicate.

I guess it’s cool to have different shape lights. Aesthetically they fit the clean white design well. But without any labels or a sticker explaining what they mean? I find the lights close to useless unless something is wrong and you look up what they are trying to tell you. With the rack mount kit, they’re sort of a moot point now, because they face the back and I can’t see them at all. But since they do actually serve a purpose, it would be nice if that purpose were clear. (Oh, and with the ability to swappy-do-rack-reverse them, maybe the next model could have mirrored lights in the back. With labels. lol)

My Summary?

The Netgate SG-4100 is a very powerful, extremely well designed, and highly customizable router that will serve anyone needing full gigabit routing, and the software capability of pfSense. At $599, it’s not something every home user will need or even want, but for an office environment or a home user who understands what they’re buying — it’s worth the price. I bought the SG-3100 and SG-8860-1U with my own money, and they were comparably priced for their power/features.

If you are a home user who wants to browse the web and stream Netflix? The SG-4100 is overkill. If you still want the flexibility of pfSense, you might look at their buyer’s guide linked above to find a price point that fits your needs. And if an off-the-shelf wireless router is all you need, I don’t recommend upgrading just for fun. Netgate routers are fun, but only for a very specific sort of Nerdling. 🙂

My Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars

Wicked Cool Shell Scripts

Over on YouTube, my BASH Scripting series is pretty popular. It teaches the basics of how to leverage shell scripting, and even pushes into intermediate level usage a bit. (And with the flexibility of YouTube, I’ll be able to add to the course and make it better all the time.)

But I’ll never be able to cover everything with my tutorials. Shell scripting is just too awesome. In fact, one of my fellow Nerdlings (hi James!) wanted to know if I had any book suggestions to learn even more about what sort of things are possible. And boy howdy, do I ever.

Dave Taylor has forgotten more about shell scripting than I’ll ever know. We were both columnists at Linux Journal back when it was a magazine. His column was, of course, about shell scripting. Every month, we’d get to learn how powerful BASH (and other shells) can be, while having fun at the same time. This book is basically like 101 of his columns organized into a super fun, and wicked cool collection.

When I review a book, I always try to find both good points and bad points. That’s not just so I look deep and introspective, but because for books I dislike I want to show the best bits which might tip someone over the edge in spite of my negative opinion. And for books I like, I think it’s important to point out weak spots so that I don’t “trick” anyone into getting a book they might regret. It’s difficult to find negatives with this book. I was going to say that a digital copy of the scripts in the book in a github repository would be nice. But then I see the scripts are all available directly from No Starch Press, so I can’t even complain about that. I guess my complaint is that I couldn’t find a reference to the digital copies in the book itself. But that’s pretty weak for a complaint. Yeah, it’s a pretty great book.

The Baking Soda Volcano of Linux

The “best” parts of the book are also hard to pick, because it covers so many aspects of scripting, automation, problem solving, and fun. I think that last one is the most important though. This book is organized into sections like “Unix Tweaks”, “System Maintenance”, and, “Working with the Web”. But you might honestly never use a single script in this book. Directly.

Dave (and Brandon, more on him in a second) provide working, usable scripts for us to use. But the real magic is that they teach us why the scripts do what they do, and how we can do the same sort of things for our own particular use cases. Just like building a baking soda and vinegar volcano doesn’t actually solve a particular science need — these scripts teach us how scripting works, so we can use that knowledge in useful ways. Granted, building a case statement that parses command line arguments doesn’t have the same panache as Kool-Aid scented lava foam drowning clay-and-toothpick townsfolk. But it does teach concepts just as well. (and shell scripts are much easier to clean up…)

If you’re looking for an exact formula to solve a problem, this book is probably not what you’re looking for. If, however, you want to understand the ingredients so you can make your own perfect formula? In the words of the Kool-Aid Man, “Oh yeah!” This is the book you want. And if you actually want to make a digital volcano? Honestly, there might be a script that does something close. Because that’s the sort of teaching style that makes me love Dave’s writing so much.

Second Edition

While still not a new book, the 2nd edition of Wicked Cool Shell Scripts includes the work of Brandon Perry. From what I can tell, Brandon did much of the updating and tweaking to make sure the scripts in the book were up to date. The second edition released in 2016, and while there have certainly been changes in command line shells since then — it’s still very up-to-date, and very relevant as a resource.

I don’t mean to take anything away from Brandon Perry’s contributions to this book, as he’s one of the authors, and a very accomplished writer himself. But as this is a second edition of a book originally solo-authored by Dave Taylor, so it’s hard to tell which bits are Dave’s and which are Brandon’s. For us readers, it doesn’t really matter all that much. Wicked Cool Shell Scripts, 2nd Edition is a wicked cool book, written by two wicked awesome writers, which will teach you to be a wicked sweet shell scripter. And you’ll have a ton of fun doing it. I highly recommend it both as a reference book, and a read-it-all-the-way-through book, because if you enjoy scripting, you’ll get something out of all 101 shell scripts in this book. (and out of the extras thrown in the final chapters too!)

My Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars

Review: The Ember Mug

Thanks to ADHD (which was undiagnosed for 46+ years of my life), I have a tendency to leave coffee cups everywhere. Usually, they’re half full of coffee, and I’ve just absentmindedly set them down. About half the time I find the in the microwave, because I found a cup of cold coffee somewhere and heated it up, only to forget about it again in the microwave.

This mug does not solve the problem of misplacing coffee.

What does mug does do, however, is keep my coffee at a constant 132 degrees Fahrenheit. Mind you, I’ve had mug warmers of varying sorts for decades. There was a time about 10 years ago when they fell out of fashion, and you had to buy a “candle warmer” and put your mug on that. Unfortunately, a traditional mug warmer suffered from the same problem a pot-warmer has — burnt coffee. And burnt coffee is just the worst. In fact, this is a bit of a tangent, but if you have a coffee pot that keeps your coffee warm with a “burner” underneath, please buy yourself an insulated carafe instead. It’s a better experience all around. But back to the Ember…

OMG DID YOU LOOK AT THE PRICE?!?

Yeah. Yeah I did. And that’s the reason I didn’t buy myself one. I had an Ember mug in my Amazon wishlist for a very long time. The only reason I have one now, is because I’m particularly difficult to buy Christmas presents for, and my wife opted to look at my wishlist for ideas. And I’m so, so glad she did.

The Ember mug is expensive. There’s no two ways about it. It just is. But it’s one of those purchases that I think might actually be worth the premium. Hear me out…

  1. Mug warmers don’t have thermostats. They will keep your coffee hot, but if you tend to forget about your coffee’s existence in the universe — they will conveniently cook your coffee into a thick sludge, and even into a hard coffee “puck” in the bottom of your mug. After about 20 minutes, your coffee will get an “on the burner too long” burnt taste, and after that it’s all downhill. The Ember keeps your heavenly elixir at whatever temperature you set. For me, that’s 132 degrees F. If you don’t touch your coffee mug, it will shut off after a while, so even if you do forget it, it doesn’t get burnt.
  2. I never realized how much I appreciate coffee at a set temperature. Usually at first, it’s a bit too hot to really enjoy the flavor. Then if you keep sipping, when it passes the sweet spot (which for me is 132 degrees, as I’m sure you’ve guessed) the coffee is amazing. Then as it continues to cool, it’s still good but not quite as good. And of course when it gets cold, I pop it into the microwave and we start over. (Another side note — warming cold coffee in the microwave is surprisingly effective. It doesn’t burn it, and as long as you haven’t left it on a mug warmer, it still tastes fresh.)
  3. Having a place the Ember lives (on its charging coaster) has meant I misplace it far less often. I should also admit, I’ve recently started taking medicine for my ADHD, so that probably has something to do with my lack of absentmindedness. Still, I leave *other* cups laying around, so the Ember having a home base seems to make a difference.

Wait… Other Mugs?

Yeah, I figured you’d catch that. As much as I truly do love my Ember mug, it has some flaws. At least for me. Maybe they’re my own flaws, and the Ember just doesn’t accommodate me. Nevertheless, there is a bit of trouble in paradise, and I’d be remiss not to be transparent:

  1. Did I mention the cost? Ok, yeah I did. Still, it’s worth noting that this mug is a friggen investment. But I digress.
  2. The Ember mug can’t be microwaved. Well, I mean, I guess it could. Once. Then it would no longer be an Ember mug. It would be a very expensive ceramic-coated mug that you probably still should only hand-wash because there’s a battery in there. And actually, if you microwave it, the battery is probably expanding and will potentially rupture. You should really throw it away. Like right now.
  3. Wait wait wait… why should that matter, right? If it keeps it warm, why would you need to microwave it? First off, yes, I realize making this another numbered list item is weird, but this is my review and I can
  4. do whatever I want. Ha. Anyway, since my coffee pot does not have a burner (ok it does, but it has a separate switch so I never EVER turn it on), when there is coffee leftover from the previous day, I will start the morning with a microwaved cup of yesterday’s brew. Disgusting you say? Pshaw. Microwaved coffee from yesterday is orders of magnitude better than coffee which has been on a burner for even 20 minutes. If you disagree, that’s fine. You’re less likely to microwave your Ember mug.
  5. Having a single charging coaster means my Ember mug’s “home” is my office desk. My office is upstairs. There’s a weird sort of space/time distortion that happens in the morning, and before I’ve had coffee, the staircase is at least 37 miles long. Trudging up them to get my mug is very unpleasant. So even on the mornings when there isn’t leftover coffee, and I make a fresh pot — I still usually start with a traditional DumbMug. Thankfully I’ve gathered an incredible collection of nifty coffee mugs over the years, so this isn’t as unpleasant as you’d think. Anyway, I’ll sip on the DumbMug of either freshly brewed or freshly zapped coffee, and when I get to my office, I’ll dump the rest of the mug into my Ember. Also, an extra coaster is like forty bucks or so, and if I get another I’m going to want several. One for the living room, my bedroom, etc. So for now, it is what it is.

Ok, that wasn’t too bad. And I’ve given you usage tips to make the downsides bearable. But wait… there are a few more things you should know:

  • The battery only keeps your coffee warm for about an hour when it’s not on a charging coaster. This would be less of an issue if I had multiple coasters, but so far I only have the one. It makes quick trips downstairs to flirt with my wife perfectly fine. (Coffee-wise. It sometimes annoys her if she’s working…) But if I use my Ember mug in the evening to have NightCoffee or tea — the battery is disappointing. An hour is quite a while, but I’m a multi-cup sorta person when it comes to hot beverages.
  • The mugs come in multiple sizes. This isn’t a problem really, but I have the largest mug they make, and it’s 14oz. That’s… fine. It’s a decent size cup. It feels like a normal size mug. For some reason, 14oz sounds like a rather large volume for a coffee cup. It’s not. It’s just a regular coffee mug size. This truly baffles me, because at a coffee shop, a 16oz cup seems like a significantly larger amount of coffee than my 14oz mug holds. Maybe I should measure it… Anyway. If you opt for the 10oz model because it’s (maybe?) a bit cheaper, you might regret it. I can’t imagine having a smaller version.
  • Yes, I know I switched to bullet points instead of numbers for this list. I’m clearly a child who shouldn’t be given formatting controls.
  • If you pour cold coffee into your Ember mug, it will not warm it up. Not automatically anyway. See, when you pour hot (or even warm) coffee in the cup, it magically senses what you’ve done, and honors your offering by bringing it to your preferred temperature and keeping it there. But if you dump in cold coffee, it’s disgusted by your implication that cold coffee isn’t garbage, and so doesn’t heat it up. You have to press the button on the bottom to turn it on. Sometimes twice in quick succession. Then, when you see the slowly pulsing white light, you know it’s rolling its eyes while it does indeed bring your coffee up to temp. NOTE: This kills the battery sooner. It’s not an issue of you tend to leave it on its coaster, but if you’re walking around flirting with spouses while it warms up your cold coffee — it won’t last a full hour.
  • Speaking of pulsing lights — the status LED is customizable. You can set your light color to any color on the color wheel. It’s really nifty. But here’s the thing, it only turns that custom color when you pick it up. It’s just a quick way to identify your mug from some other Ember user in your house. (I have a large Spot sticker on mine, plus I’m the only person who owns one in the house, so this is largely a moot point — but still, I thought my mug would have custom lighting all the time, but alas it’s only that initial notification when you pick it up.)
  • Lastly, I have to admit, if you try REALLY hard, you can get the Ember to sorta make your coffee icky. If you have about 1/2″ of coffee in the bottom of the mug, and you let it keep that tiny bit up to temperature for an extended amount of time, it will start to get gross. I’m not sure if the Ember has a difficult time sensing the temperature with that small amount of coffee, or if the coffee just evaporates a larger percentage of itself because it’s almost gone. But while it’s not as bad as coffee cooked on a burner/warmer pot — it does get a little funky in that one situation.

tl;dr

I know, that was wordy. I apparently have many thoughts on my Ember mug. Here’s the quick takeaway. It’s the most incredible coffee mug I’ve ever owned. I love it. If I had to change anything, it would be that they make a firmware change which would give users and option to automatically warm cold coffee when poured in. And also, cheaper charging coasters. Because I really want to have about 3 more.

My Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars

Review: Bissell Spotbot

You can barely see where the cat vomit was. And that’s pretty much the point…

I’ve cleaned up a lot of disgusting pet-related accidents in my day. Whether it’s a slimy cat hairball on the couch, dog diarrhea on the white carpet, or uncountable puddles of puppy piddle… I’ve cleaned it all. And over the years, I’ve had multiple tools for making the process easier. The Spotbot from Bissell is the only one I’ve purchased on 3 separate occasions. And after a weird design change and subsequent reversion — it’s a must-have for any pet owner. At least any pet owner with carpet.

Our original Spotbot was the same style as what you see in the photo. Basically it’s a dual purpose carpet shampooer. It has a traditional hose with a sprayer and suction nozzle, but it also has an “automatic” mode. Pet stains on the carpet are generally a puddle or pile, and after some paper towel work, there usually a “spot” that you set the Spotbot on top of, and press the button. It has a rotating brush, automatic sprayer, and suction nozzles which will scrub the carpet and pull out the stain with no user intervention. If you look closely at the photo, you can see the circular pattern on the rug where it did its thing. A few minutes earlier there was a gross spot, which I won’t describe in more detail.

It’s Easy, but also Better

The weird design change I alluded to above was that several years ago, Bissell decided that the “Spotbot” didn’t need the automatic circle thing. A hose with a scrubber wand was what people really wanted. (We didn’t) Since our original Spotbot was gone (Maybe in our house fire, I honestly don’t remember) I purchased the no-auto-circle-spot model. And… it was a tiny carpet cleaner. But that kinda sucks. And not just because I’m lazy. I mean, I’m lazy, but that’s not why removing the automatic bits was a bad choice.

When you’re manually scrubbing a spot on the carpet, it gets wet from the cleaning water. And you want to make sure you “get the whole spot”, so you scrub/spray to the edge of the wet spot. And then the spot grows, but you aren’t sure where the original spot was, because the carpet is a different color due to wetness and poop, so you go to the edge of the ever expanding area, because you really don’t want to miss the spot. And you end up with a 3 foot weird-shaped spot of mostly clean, entirely wet, carpet.

The automatic mode doesn’t have that problem. It cleans where you set it. It doesn’t move around like its Roomba cousin, it stays put and does its job. Which is to undo the job your cocker spaniel did earlier. But I digress.

It’s Back. It’s Easy. The Hose Might Still Suck.

The reason we got rid of our second (non-automatic) Spotbot was that the hose got brittle over the years and cracked. Like any good MacGyver fan, I duct taped it up several times, but it just quit working, so I threw it away. When I went to buy another, I was happy to see the automatic functionality was added back in. The hose on our new model will rarely be used, but it feels like the same material that got brittle and cracked with our old model. So be prepared for that. I dunno, maybe you’re supposed to rub lotion on it or something. (If you rub lotion on your vacuum cleaner hose, please do not tell me about it.)

BONUS TIP: One last thing, with every carpet shampooer I’ve ever owned, I quickly discovered that no amount of rinsing the dirty water bin will stop it from smelling like death on a rotten fish after it’s been sitting for a few weeks/months. So what I do is put a tiny glup of bleach in the dirty water bin after I empty it. NOT IN THE CLEAN WATER TANK. The bleach isn’t for cleaning, it’s for sanitizing the collection (dirty water) tank. If you put a tiny bit of bleach in there, it kills the vomit/poop/pee leftovers so your house doesn’t smell extra horrible the next time you turn on the shampooer.

BONUS TIP THE SECOND: The Spotbot also works for messes your kids make. Although their messes are sometimes bigger than the little automatic circle can handle. And the Spotbot can’t fix the mess kids make of your life, just your carpet. It’s a good machine, it’s not a magical machine.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0 stars

  • Every BISSELL purchase helps save pets. BISSELL proudly supports BISSELL Pet Foundation and its mission to help save homeless pets.
  • Get rid of messes without getting your hands dirty. This hands free portable carpet cleaner does all the scrubbing for you
  • Preset cleaning cycles that automatically spray, brush, and suction to permanently remove both surface and tough set-in pet stains. Just push the button to clean.
  • Equipped with two hands-free cleaning modes, quick clean for fresh stains and deep clean for set in stains, so you can get the right level of cleaning
  • Includes trial-size Pet Stain and Odor, Pet Oxy Boost Formula and a 3" tough stain tool. Hose length - 5 feet
  • Tank capacity: 32 ounces.
  • Power Source Type: Corded

From Strength to Strength

I’m… of a certain age. That bit smack dab in the middle, assuming all things go well. I’ll turn 47 soon, and that means I’m middle aged. GASP. While I don’t plan to have a mid-life crisis (I can’t really afford it), I have been considering what the second half of life will look like. It’s an exciting and scary topic to ponder. Thankfully, I’m far from the first to ponder such things, and others are better ponder-ers than me. So I can learn from their mental gymnastics. One of the particularly good ponder-ers on the topic is Arthur Brooks. His latest book, “From Strength to Strength” is on that very topic.

First off, the book is incredible. I start with that not because I’m afraid of burying the lede, but because at first I did NOT like it. The first chapter or so is incredibly depressing. And unfortunately I let my emotions get the better of me, and I gave Mr. Brooks a piece of my mind…

Not my finest moment…

I think part of what made the beginning so difficult for me, is that the book is written to the successful professional who is starting to “decline” in the aspects of their abilities that have gotten them where they are today. For me, whether due to undiagnosed ADHD, poverty, difficult childhood, traumatic brain injury — I haven’t actually found my professional success. And so the notion that it’s all downhill from here was a bit overwhelming. Thankfully, the book doesn’t just try to comfort us as we get older, but rather focuses on NEW strengths. (thus the title, duh, Shawn, keep reading…) So the latter parts of the book were relevant, encouraging, and actually quite helpful even for those of us who have floundered a bit more than the author and the professionals he seems to be addressing.

The main push of the book is describing that while the traditional skills we lean on for success (the author calls it fluid intelligence, which is sorta the “smart-ness” we think of with really smart folks) tend to decline as we approach middle age, there’s another aspect of intelligence that sticks around. That “crystallized intelligence” is more akin to wisdom, and allows us to make connections and decisions that are only possible after a lot of experience. To be clear, there is very real, very inevitable decline with a very significant part of our intelligence and ability. This book helps us learn to accept that, and thrive in spite of it.

If you haven’t already noticed a decline in your mental prowess, you will. But whether you’re like me and worry it means you’ll never be a success, or you are already quite successful and worry you’ll fade away into irrelevance, the author helps steer our mental ships to calmer, but still bountiful waters.

That first chapter will kick your butt though.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0 stars

Photo Title Price Buy
From Strength to...image From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life $16.99