Christmas Gift Idea: Survival Kit in a Stocking

My mother-in-law got me a survival kit in a stocking for my birthday this year. Weirder sentences than that have been written, I’m sure. In reality, though, this was a rather cool gift.

What I got was a Tactical Christmas Stocking with Survival Gear pack. Amazon has something similar, although the exact gear is slightly different. This is the one from the vendor, National Parks Depot, but they also show a slightly different loadout. What makes it “tactical”? I’m guessing it’s the nylon material and zippers and MOLLE straps.

Here is a photo of what was in my ice blue stocking.


A. whistle with compass and thermometer

B. reusable flint match

C. emergency blanket (a classic!)

D. steel wire saw

E. 20-in-1 multitool

F. paracord bracelet

G. EMT knife (this one)

H. LED flashlight

I. 11-in-1 multitool

Yes, that’s two different multitools. They say on their web site that the exact contents is subject to availability so the military-style compass was not available for mine, alas.

It’s actually a pretty good emergency kit. I’m particularly interested in the 20-in-1 multitool. This is the True Utility Fixr pocket multi-tool. It’s compact enough to fit in my pocket or on my key ring, although I’m a bit wary of the nail file on one side. I want to keep that away from my precious iPhone at all costs. When sold separately it comes in a little leather pouch, but mine did not.

The other multi-tool is cool too, and I originally thought to keep it in my wallet. I wasn’t sure what all the “tools” were, especially the “direction ancillary indication”, which is a notched hole with lines radiating out from it. It turns out that if you place it in water on something that floats1 the notch will align with north. That’s cool as a compass in a pinch, but it means the multi-tool is magnetized and I don’t want to carry that next to my credit cards.

The reusable flint match is especially neat. It consists of a square of flint covered by plastic with a metal rod screwed into it. The rod has a wick soaked in lighter fluid. You light it by scraping it along a groove in the flint and it works pretty well.

I’ve decided to keep the kit in my car for any eventuality. This is New England after all and we’ve been known to get blizzards that bury us. But while the stocking is fun packaging, it’s not exactly practical as a go-bag. For that, I’ve moved everything into a medium-size Eagle Creek Pack-It Sac, which works much better.2


If you’re looking for a fun stocking stuffer for someone who spends time outdoors or spends time in their car (maybe a college student with long drives back and forth to school?), the Tactical Christmas Stocking with survival gear kit isn’t a bad idea.3

  1. A small rock, perhaps? Or more likely a bit of styrofoam.
  2. The Eagle Creek bags are good for all sorts of things. I use them to keep cables and adapters organized in my computer bag, for instance.
  3. Be sure to get the one with the kit included. They also sell the empty stockings as well, for almost the same cost.

No Spice For You, You Racist

Set of spices pepper, turmeric, anise, coriander in vintage metal cups over old wooden table. Top view.

I used to buy all my spices from Penzey’s Spice online and did so for a number of years, but that all changed in June 2014 when they decided to send out an email to their customers pushing gay marriage in our faces. My response:

Now Rod Dreher writes that Penzey’s is at it again, this time excoriating people who voted for Trump as racists in need of being called on the carpet and required to make amends, you know, to the guy who sells them spices:

Whether any of us like it or not, for the next four years the 80% of this country who did not just vote for an openly racist candidate are going to treat you like you are the kind of person who would vote for an openly racist candidate.

You can get angry at everyone else for treating you like you just did the thing you just did, or you can take responsibility for your actions and begin to make amends. If you are lucky and younger family members are still coming over for Thanksgiving, before it’s too late, take a moment and honestly think about how your actions must look through their eyes. Simply saying “I never thought he’d win” might be enough. But if you have the means, leaving a receipt from a sizable donation to the ACLU or the SPLC accidentally laying around where you carve the turkey, might go over even better.

Or we can just buy our spices from someone who doesn’t hate us for our politics. I switched my spice purchases to The Spice House in 2014. Rod has done the same, while reporting the irony that doing so might be especially galling for Bill Penzey:

While looking around online to see what Bill Penzey’s problem is, I discovered that his sister Patty Erd and her husband Tom run a competing (but much smaller) spice business, called The Spice House. Bill Penzey Sr. and his wife started the business in the 1950s, and Patty inherited it. Bill Jr, her younger brother, started his own catalog company, Penzeys. I have no idea what the Erds’ politics are — far as I know, they could be commies, or they could be Trumpkins — but they don’t seem to make a habit of getting on their high horse and insulting their customers.

And that’s why I recommend that my friends buy their spices from The Spice House. Rod also lets us know that the Spice House is offering free shipping to new customers on their first order by using the promo code NOPOLITICS.

Google PhotoScan May Let Me Finally Digitize This Box of Photos

Update: See the end of this post for more information

Google has released a new iOS and Android app called PhotoScan that lets you quickly digitize a print photo and get into your Mac Photos and/or Google Photos libraries. Watch the the video for an amusing introduction to how it works, but basically it works better than simply taking a photo with the phone’s camera by eliminating spot glare.

Anyone over a certain age has a box of printed photos somewhere in storage, in an attic or garage or shed or closet. And like most of those people, for years I’ve resolved to scan those photos into the computer, saving them for posterity and saving all that space. Ask anyone who’s suffered a devastating property loss through fire or flood or other disaster and you’ll hear that the biggest loss—apart from loss of life, of course—is the loss of photos. So I want to get those photos out of the box and into my computer and backup drives and cloud backup. Plus, having the photos in digital form means we’re more likely to see the photos in screensavers than we’re likely to pull out the box and start pawing through.

I’ve tried many times to start scanning. I’ve had flatbed scanners of various qualities, sheetfed scanners not really made for the purpose, multifunction printers. While the quality can be good, it takes forever to scan each photo. And I’ve looked into those services where you send in your photos and they scan them, but they’re expensive, you’re sending your precious photos through a delivery service usually overseas, and you still have to go through the photos to cull out the good ones from the duplicates, the blurries, and the shots out of airplane windows.

But in 30 minutes with PhotoScan last night, I scanned 57 photos, skipped dozens more, and then color-corrected and edited the photos I scanned. These photos are now safe in iCloud Photo Library, Google Photos, and Amazon Prime Photo. And I’ve—horrors—tossed nearly all of them in the trash, although I have kept a couple that I think are especially nice in their current form and would stand to be scanned using a higher quality process.

Some may think I’m crazy for throwing away the originals, especially since the PhotoScan process does not result in the highest quality digital photo, but here’s my thinking: If I never scanned the photos at all, they would remain in their boxes and envelopes, slowly fading and discoloring and decaying and soon enough their quality would soon be even worse than the scan quality. Meanwhile, I’m keeping all the negatives because they take up so little space on their own. And honestly, I’m no Ansel Adams. The world will not be worse for the lack of high quality scans of my vacation and college photos from my single days, even as the photos that document my immediate family’s history was digital from the beginning.

PhotoScan is quick and easy and worth a try. Meanwhile, here’s a sample of the results of the scan below, a photo of my brother John in Paris in 1997 during World Youth Day.

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How to Increase MacBook Pro Storage Space Without Touching a Screw

Nifty Minidrive

When I got my MacBook Pro 13″ last year, I purchased it with a 256GB internal solid state drive. That was a serious downgrade from my 2011 MacBook Pro which had a 240GB SSD, but also a 750GB rotational drive that I had put in place of the CD drive. I had to make some tough decisions about what I would be carrying about with me.

That worked out well for most of this year as I pared back my applications and files. I went with iCloud Photo Library and iTunes Match, keeping my very large photo and music libraries on the old MacBook Pro which now resided permanently on a shelf. But even then my new MBP’s drive was filling up, primarily due to a an Adobe Lightroom catalog containing lots of photos for work.

Replacing the internal SSD on my MBP would be too expensive (those drives have not come down in price much), so I turned to another technology that lets me use a previously unused port: the SD card slot.
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Your iPhone Could Save Your Life


Did you know your iPhone could save your life? It could if you set it up right and if the people around you know about it.

Here’s how you access your Medical Information1. While the iPhone is locked, press on the home button. (Don’t press too hard or too long or you’ll bring up Siri; just press once.) That will bring up the password entry screen. At the top of the screen, you’ll see the Emergency button. Tap that and you’ll see the emergency dialer. At the bottom left, you will see Medical ID.

Got it? Good. Now you know how to do it, show it to your spouse, to your kids, to your co-workers, anyone who may need to access it if you’re unconscious and getting medical attention.

Of course, it won’t do any good if you don’t put your medical information in there in the first place. Unlock your iPhone and open the Health app. In the lower right of the app’s main screen, tap on Medical ID. Either click on Create Medical ID or scroll down until you see “Edit” in the lower right.

Now you can enter all your various medical conditions, blood type, medications, emergency contact information, and other medical notes. I put in mine that I’m a Catholic and that they should contact a Catholic priest.

The more people that know about this, the better off we all will be.

  1. I do not know if Android or Windows Phone have this feature. They should.

Tolkien: The Movie


New Line Cinema has announced it will be making a new J.R.R. Tolkien movie. No, not one based on his books, but based on the author. It will be a biography.

Middle Earth is described as following Tolkien’s "early life and love affair with Edith Bratt," as well as his service to the British Army during the First World War. The film, to be written by Angus Fletcher, is reportedly based on years of archival research on Tolkien’s life.

I don’t know Fletcher, but I know that if they don’t treat his deep Catholic faith with respect, this won’t be worth watching at all. His faith animated him through the mot important moments of his life.

How Do We Keep The Election of 2016 From Happening Again?

The White House

It’s all over, but the crying. I write this on November 8 ,2016, Election Day. At this point we don’t yet know who wins, who our next president will be, which party will control the houses of Congress or the state legislatures.

But I think everyone from all sides can agree: Let’s not do this again.

How can we arrange our political system so that we don’t get what nearly everyone has said are the two worst presidential candidates in history?

There is much that needs to be done, because the roots of what brought us to this point are many, but my prescription has two parts: We need to fix the primary system and we need to create a viable third party.

One of the reasons we got Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is because the primary system gave them to us. The drawn out process of selecting delegates to the national conventions, taking place over the course of many months, lets individual candidates and the media manipulate the process. The debates make solitary mistakes fatal. Candidates who perform poorly drop out and voters in later primaries don’t get a chance to vote for them.

Instead, we should have all our primaries on one day, just like we do for Election Day1 And when the smoke clears we can have a handful of frontrunners in each party who can then go to the convention and broker a result. As it is now, it’s those who can gin up the most media coverage (Trump) or who have control of the party apparatus (Clinton) who get the nomination. And this isn’t the only election year where the primaries have been a problem. Why else would we have had a succession of dynastic candidates (Bushes and Clintons), candidates from small northeastern states (Kerry, Romney, Dukakis), middling moderates who don’t really represent the party (McCain, Dole) or anointed successors to term-limited presidents (Bush I, Gore).

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Let Your Yes Be Yes


I’ve noticed a distressing tendency among public leaders to avoid being definitive. While it’s most common among politicians and business leaders, it’s also too common among priests and bishops.

On the flight back to Rome from Sweden, Pope Francis held one of his now usual press conferences on the plane and he was asked by a reporter if women would ever be ordained Catholic priests:

“St. Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this and it stands, this stands,” Francis said.

Francis was referring to a 1994 document by Pope John Paul that closed the door on a female priesthood. The Vatican says this teaching is an infallible part of Catholic tradition.

The reporter then pressed the pope, asking: “But forever, forever? Never, never?

Francis responded: “If we read carefully the declaration by St. John Paul II, it is going in that direction.”

I know what we have here is a translation of the Pope’s words, probably from Italian, which we know is not his first language, and thus some imprecision in conversation is possible. But why can’t he just say, “Yes, forever”? Why is it “going in that direction”? It sounds like he’s hedging his bets and leaving a glimmer of hope. How does this help?

You hear this all the time from other bishops too (although some are admirably direct as well). Is it that they don’t want to offend? Is the appearance of public certainty now unacceptable in polite society?

“Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” Matthew 5:37

Cooking Tips for Frugal and Tasty Dishes Out of Scraps


We have 5 kids and as you might imagine our food bill could be quite high so we work hard to make it all go further. We also like to make a lot of food from scratch, rather than buy processed or prepared foods. That means we’ve picked up a number of tips and tricks to help us as we cook.1

Save the Bones and Vegetable Ends

We make chicken stock from scratch on a regular basis and so we need both chicken bones and vegetables. So we regularly save chicken bones from whatever we cook, whether it’s a whole chicken or thighs or even takeout chicken wings. After dinner, they go into a zip-top bag and into the freezer. Likewise, when we’re preparing vegetables for dinner, we set them aside for later bagging and the freezer.

Not every vegetable is good for stock, though. We mainly keep onion skins and ends, garlic skins and ends, carrot tops, celery ends and leaves, parsley stems, some other root vegetables. Meanwhile, any vegetable or fruit bits that wouldn’t go into the stock goes into the compost bin.

Then when it’s time to make stock, everything goes into the big pot along with water to cover and a few hours later, what is usually trash for other people is transformed into amazing chicken stock.

Save Those Old Bananas

Something else to save in the freezer is old, mushy bananas. Your kids may be different but once spots of brown appear on a banana, mine won’t touch it. Now a lot of people know that you can save the bananas in the freezer for banana bread or smoothies, but there’s another option as well: Banana ice “cream”.

Lucy has a dairy allergy so she can’t have ice cream when the other kids have it so when it’s time for a treat, Melanie takes some bananas out of the freezer, puts them in a bowl with some chocolate powder and blends it up with an immersion blender. Nothing else is needed and with the chocolate it doesn’t even taste strongly of banana. Lucia loves it.

Save the Crusts and Bread Ends

We also make a lot of our own bread, although at the rate our kids eat it, we also buy a lot of loaves from the stores, whether packaged sandwich bread or whole loaves from the bakery. While the packaged stuff tends to disappear completely, there always seems to be some hard crusty ends leftover of the other breads. We save those ends, letting them dry out thoroughly and then put them, yep, in a bag in the freezer to pull out later for bread crumbs for recipes.

You could also use them to make croutons, which I intend to try sometime.

Save the Cooking Liquid

Living in New England relatively near the ocean, we have shellfish fairly often. When I’m making lobsters, shrimp or clams, I always save at least some of the cooking liquid, freezing it to use in sauces, soups, stews, gumbos, jambalaya, and other seafood dishes that require liquid. I’m always careful to filter it though because there can be small bits of shell or sand.

Save Lobster and Shrimp Shells

Likewise, I save lobster shells and bodes and shrimp shells to make seafood stock. Combine the saved cooking liquid and the stock and you have a very flavorful beginning to a pretty great dish.

  1. Many of these will be familiar to most people cooking regularly for large groups.
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