Reel Mowers are Real Mowers

Reel Mower

Reel Mower

It’s our first full summer since moving into this house, and time to buy a lawn mower. I envisioned spending $300 on a gas mower, but in the end spent less than half that for a good old fashioned reel mower. (The cheapest ones were $70, but we splurged for a fancy $130 model.)

This is full of advantages and has no discernible disadvantages.

First, it uses no gas. There’s a cost savings, an environmental savings, and a noise savings. I can mow the lawn whenever I want and bother nobody, and I don’t spew pollution into the atmosphere every time I do it. This is what got me looking in the first place and it’s a big selling point.

Second, it’s inherently a “mulching mower”. It doesn’t leave ugly rows of grass clippings or require disposing of bagged clippings. It conveniently leaves the clipped grass right where it started, where it serves as fertilizer for the lawn.

Third, it’s faster and easier to use. For straight rows of grass it’s no easier or harder than a gas mower; you just push it down the row. (And no, it’s not even a tiny bit hard to push.) But it corners more easily and can handle edges that might be dangerous for a gas mower. For example, I can push it more slowly over rocks, so if one does get kicked it up won’t do any harm — a gas mower would kick the thing right up.

I can mow our entire yard, front and back, in about 10 minutes. That’s about as much time as our neighbors spend yanking fruitlessly on the starting cord for their gas mowers.

A Story of Woe

Someone in Sophie’s class wrote this and it came home with Sophie by mistake. Here it is, with spelling corrected but otherwise unaltered:

Dad said we have a new baby and she’s coming home today. I got out my doll and bat and all my favorite games to show to the baby. I found my favorite picture book. I read it out loud to the baby. But the baby didn’t pay any attention to me.

That honestly may be the greatest story I’ve ever read.

Kitchen Nightmares

We stumbled onto Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America entirely by chance, and now we can’t stop watching. The show introduced us to Chef Gordon Ramsay, who has quite the television lineup including MasterChef (teaching amateurs to cook like professional chefs), Hell’s Kitchen (a competition to choose a head chef for a prominent restaurant each season from among 16 hopefuls), and others.

In Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay visits failing restaurants (with good backstories) and helps them turn their business around. He tastes the food, observes lunch and dinner services, and inspects the kitchen from top to bottom. Then he creates a new menu, has his team remodel the restaurant (literally overnight), and sometimes brings in a consulting chef to bring a mediocre kitchen staff up to speed.

The man is brutally honest, especially in the kitchen. There’s a lot of shouting, with more than a little of it censored out. And in all the episodes we’ve watched, he’s only ever complimented two dishes. This in some ways reduces the show to expected “reality television” standards, but in practice it’s refreshing to see some brutal honesty here.

When Ramsay calls food bland, it’s with the same experience that earned him 12 Michelin stars (once 13). When he accuses chefs of uncleanliness it’s when he’s found moldy food. And when he hints that a dish tastes like it was made with frozen ingredients, he’s been right every time.

Ramsay’s formula is pretty easy to follow. First, get the kitchen clean. He’s a stickler for cleanliness and food safety, and it’s wonderful to see. Second, reduce the size of the menu. More dishes means more preparation, less consistency, and ultimately lower quality. Finally, use only fresh ingredients. Nobody wants to pay for frozen food they could have made at home, and with a smaller menu it’s easy to keep fresh ingredients flowing through the kitchen without wasting them.

This show has completely changed our attitudes on dining out and on cooking at home. We’ve stopped patronizing some questionable restaurants in town, one of which we now know earned an “Unacceptable” rating in its last health inspection. At home, we’ve stopped buying pounds of meat at a time to freeze and have started making quick trips to the store for fresh meat and produce as we need it. I’m looking forward to the farmer’s market in town this summer. We’re not gourmet cooks or fine diners, but we can appreciate the value of a homemade pasta sauce.

My only real complaint about the show is that it plays every restaurant as a success. Sometimes it’s clear that even by the end the kitchen didn’t really have itself put together, and predictably the restaurant ended up closing soon after. But on television, even the disasters are played as triumphs easily enough with a little editing, and it’s the first place the show seems a bit fictional.

The 1940 Census

Data collected in the national census are kept private for 72 years. That means any information you gave in 2010 will not be made public until 2082. It also means everything collected back in 1940 just became public this year — in fact, only a couple weeks ago!

For the first time, the National Archives have scanned all 3.8 million pages of census data and made them available online, so you can now browse through all the information you could hope to get about people in 1940.

Naturally, the first thing you’ll want to do is the same thing you did when satellite imagery first came to Google Maps: find your house. Since all the 1940 data are hand-written (the iPad wasn’t a big seller back then), you’ll have to first find your “enumeration district” based on a search for your town and a description of each district’s boundaries and then scroll through the pages of records for that district.

Of course, that’s only possible for houses built before 1940. Our house is only a decade old and we met its first and only other owners when they sold it to us, so we’ve learned really all we can about its short and not-so-storied history.

Paging through the town’s records is still fascinating. The 1940 census asked about occupation and salary, which I find particularly amazing. At a sugar factory here in town, an electrician took home a $1,230 salary, while the unmarried 36 year old woman next door, living with her parents, got only $300 as a chambermaid at a hospital.

Predictably, there are efforts now to index these pages to make them searchable. The website FamilySearch is championing the effort, and anybody can volunteer to participate. I indexed a few pages myself this morning, and it’s easy to do.

However, I was sad to discover that of the 35 fields recorded in the census records (from “Was this person seeking work?” to “Highest grade of school completed”), only 11 are available to index. Street address, occupation information, and most other interesting demographics are omitted. It will be possible to search by name, but questions like “What was the average value of a home?” or “What percentage of homeowners were single women?” will be impossible to answer, despite the data having been recorded. And although Colorado’s records are “99% indexed”, I can’t find anywhere to actually search them.

Plus, FamilySearch is “A service provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and that should probably make everyone a little nervous anyway.

After indexing three pages, I closed my account, and I won’t be contributing further to the project.

But the raw images from the National Archives are still worth a long look, if only to enjoy imagining the block of Judson Street where lived then a switch-board operator, a 15 year old errand boy (working at his parents’ shop), a telegraph operator, and (I swear I am not making this up) a “cereal chemist” for a flour mill.