Saturday, December 31, 2011

Fire Stone

We have a lot of fires in the fireplace in the Gruggen household. As in every single night. We start burning in September and go through until early May. We burn 10 full cords of wood every season with maybe enough wood left over at the end to make a couple of boxes of toothpicks. We only burn oak as it burns the longest and gives off the most heat.

I am particularly anal about building my fires. Each fire is built with precisely 13 logs. That makes a huge fire. When the boys were little, they called them "roar fires" for the enormous rushing sound the logs make when they all catch fire. The fire is built with 2 large logs across the bottom of the grate, then layered with 3-2-3-2-1 in ascending order. I build it so that the logs tip back at an angle. That ensures that the fire collapses backwards as it burns, away from the fireplace screen.

Way back in antiquity I received a fire stone as a gift. Once you've had one, you can't imagine going back to newspaper and kindling to start a fire. It's essentially a small cast iron box with a porous, ceramic stone inside. You pour some kerosene on the stone, wait 5 minutes, then light it and slide it under your logs. Within 5 minutes you will have achieved "roar fire". Just leave the fire stone under your fire and retrieve it the next day when it has cooled.

A fire stone lasts forever...the one I have is nearly 30 years old. They only cost about $17. Here's an example of one that is available on Instead of kerosene, I use a product called Klean Heat. It has no odor and gives off no smoke or soot. I buy mine at Home Depot:

Tonight's "roar fire" in-waiting with my fire stone.

Friday, December 30, 2011

This post isn't so much about gear as it is about software...brand new software that makes it incredibly easy to keep track of movies you want to see. I used to be a dyed-in-the-wool Netflix fanboy. I was one of their very first customers when they launched back in 1998...that's when they used to rent by the disc...before they created the subscription model. Heck, my company did a lot of the advertising for Netflix for 7 years. So as a client and a marketing partner, I loved Netflix.

When I read about a movie I liked, I'd go to the Netflix site and put it in my queue, knowing full well that at some point in would be out on Blu-Ray, DVD or streaming. Hubris got the better of Netflix and the wheels came off in 2011. Now I get most of my movies elsewhere.....a lot of different places, actually. Direct TV, Amazon Instant Video, Amazon Prime Instant Video, iTunes, Xbox, Netflix Streaming, etc. But what I miss most was that consolidated queue that would keep track of all of my movies on my "must see" list.

Fortunately, the Internet abhors a vacuum. I guess it would be better said that Plexus Entertainment abhors a vacuum. They have gone and created a web site where you can keep track of all of the movies that you want to see. The website is The real beauty of the site is that tracks your "must see movies" across all of the major distribution channels and notifies you when it becomes available on each. When your movie is in the theaters you'll get an email. Ditto when your movie is released on DVD or Blu-Ray or streaming or online. As your movie launches on each new distribution channel, you get notified.

I was reading the review in today's Wall Street Journal about an extraordinary film called "A Separation". It's an Iranian film that I knew I wanted to see after reading the review and I was bummed that I no longer had my Netflix tracking capability except for Netflix "streaming only". Then I remembered that I had just signed up with yesterday. I went there, found the film and clicked off every distribution notification I could. What great software. Elegant, easy and you can track down virtually every movie ever made.

The site is in beta right now, but it is as polished and finished as they come. The service is strings attached. You can get a private account that just communicates with you by email. If you're a fan of social media and sharing, there's a Facebook version that lets you share your queue with friends. That lets you see what movies are on each of your friends' lists and hook up to see them together if you choose (my son Patrick and his friends often watch movies together over Xbox Live).

This is a fabulous web site that I think is going to become  a real force. Get in on the ground floor during the beta and enjoy what I will think be one of the web's great sites:

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Columbia Heat Elite II Fleece Jacket

When you spend as much time outdoors as I do  in winter, you are always concerned with having the right outerwear to go with the weather conditions. When it's hovering around 0º F, I always reach for my 700 fill-power down jacket. The down fill-power number translates to warmth...the higher the number the warmer the jacket (900 being the warmest). As the number increases, the weight of the jacket decreases as there is more air in the jacket, but bulk actually increases. When you get a really warm down jacket, you end up looking like the Stay Puft marshmallow monster from Ghostbusters.

When the air temp is around 40º F, I grab my fleece jacket. It's just enough to keep out the weather. If it gets an colder than that, the fleece doesn't work so well. It's neither windproof nor water repellent and I end up suffering as a result.

I was looking for a new jacket this keep me protected in that 0º to 40º range. I do like fleece...not too bulky, not too heavy...but it had to be warmer and water repellent. Enter the new Columbia Heat Elite Fleece jacket. It's a combination nylon-fleece jacket that really fit the bill. The nylon portion uses Omni-Shield®, which actually repels water. But the best part is that the jacket is lined with Columbia's latest technological innovation, Omni-Heat®.

Omni-Heat is a metallic looking, polyester reflective lining. It helps regulate your temperature by reflecting and retaining warmth, while small dots in the lining dissipate moisture and excess heat to keep you comfortable. It has the highest heat retention factor of any synthetic insulation, which puts it right next to down for warmth. In addition to making the jacket incredibly warm, Omni-Heat also makes the jacket 100% windproof.

It's a really well designed jacket. It's got an external zipper pocket on the breast...just the perfect size for my iPhone. There are two huge pockets on the outside with zippers that run from the top of the chest to the waist. There is one small, zippered security pocket inside. The elbows are 2-way stretch and articulated for freedom of movement. A hem drawcord at the waist keeps out cold air. And there are two huge zippered openings under each armpit that can be used to modulate heat.

I'm really happy with jacket. It is incredibly warm and achieves that warmth without a lot of bulk. The jacket is pricey at it's MSRP of $180. However, I did a lot of comparison shopping online and found it on sale at for $123. Since I bought it, I've seen it as low as $119 on a few sites. If you are in the market for a nice looking jacket with a lot of warmth and functionality, I strongly recommend this jacket. You can check it out here:,default,pd.html

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Direct TV on iPad

If you have Direct TV and an iPad,  you are dwelling in a vast technological desert if you have not downloaded the free Direct TV app from the App Store. The app lets you stream select Direct TV channels to your long you are on your home WiFi network. While this functionality has been available since November, they just added 12 more channels this morning. Here's what is currently available for streaming on your iPad:

Fox News
NHL Network
Fox Business Network
Cartoon Network
Animal Planet
MLB Network
Nat Geographic
NBC Sports 
Golf Channel
Food Network
Biography Channel
NFL Network
Travel Channel
Planet Green
Tennis Channel
Hallmark Channel
Fox Soccer
Fuel TV
Crime & Investigation
Smithsonian Channel
Sony Movie Channel
The Weather Channel
HDNet Movies

Also available on the iPad, while on your home network, you can access any of the shows or movies you have recorded on your Direct TV DVR. It's a great option and it's really nice not to be tied to your regular TV to catch up on your favorite shows and movies.

Roku Media Player

I am an early adopter of all things technological. I am fanatical about having the latest and greatest technology in my hands. So when media players started showing up several years ago, I was all in. In fact, I still am all in. Residing in our house are the following media players: Apple TV, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 S, Direct TV, Wii and Roku.

At first they were a quick way to grab a movie if we didn't like the Netflix DVD's and Blu-ray Discs that were sitting on our counter. Then Netflix went and negotiated away their  immediate access to new DVD/BD releases. When that happened, we dropped the DVD/BD part of our Netflix subscription and started streaming new movies through our various media players.

After using them all for some time, there is a clear winner...Roku. While Apple TV comes close, Roku executes a lot better. Roku gives us streaming access to 20+ channels like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Disney and HBO GO. But the best Roku channel of all is Amazon Instant Video. Amazon Instant Video is the service that outperforms Apple TV.

While the Apple TV user interface is superior and more elegant than Amazon's, Apple TV falls down on the most important aspect of streaming, server strength. To have a good experience with HD streaming, you need really powerful servers. There have been many times when the Apple TV servers were just not up to the task. For example, we recently bought a movie on Apple TV and went to watch...and we got a message stating that our film would start streaming in 44 minutes! You've got to be kidding me. Thanks, Apple...I'll just sit here and play with my underpants until you are ready to go. We flipped over to Amazon Instant Video, bought the same movie and it started streaming immediately.

So while Apple TV gets the nod for hardware and software, it's all about the servers. And after several years of side-by-side use, I'm here to tell you that Amazon's servers are considerably more robust than Apple's. (It is interesting to note that Netflix chose the Amazon server farm to host all of their streaming.)

The Roku box is really tiny and it's a breeze to connect to your TV and WiFi network. Roku sells 4 models starting at $49.99 and they go up to $89.99 I'd recommend the Roku 2 XD for $69.99 as that model supports full HD at 1080p.

We subscribe to Amazon Prime for $79 a year, which gives us free shipping on all purchases. And when you are a member of Amazon Prime, you get free access to Amazon Prime Instant Video, the TV and movie library that is nipping strongly at the heels of Netflix. Amazon Prime Instant Video has over 10,000 movies and TV shows that are free for members. You can access the library right from your Roku. There's a lot of really great, free content on Amazon Prime Instant Video and it's got to be  keeping the Netflix people awake at night. Check it out here:

So if you are in the market for a streaming media player, I strongly recommend Roku. At $69.99, it's an excellent value and you will get untold hours of enjoyment out of it. Here is their web site:

Update: Roku announced today (January 4) that they will be rolling out a stick for those who have MHL compatible TV's (which are really new, few and far between right now). See this:;content

Friday, December 23, 2011

180s Ear Warmers

I usually walk 2 to 4 miles a day. I like walking. I also have a large dog that likes walking. Requires walking, actually. While walking in spring, summer and fall is a joy, I hate walking in winter because I hate the cold.

Cold requires that I keep my body parts covered. I'm not a hat guy, so I tested a slew of ear muffs until I found an unbreakable pair I liked. The 180s Ear Warmers are spectacular. They fold up into a very small package when not in use, which makes carrying them in my pocket a breeze. It's a great, behind-the-head design and they work really well. It was definitely $30 well spent.

When I walk in winter with my wife, who is skilled in the art of conversation, I wear the pair you see at the top of this page. When I walk alone with my dog, who only wants to talk about himself, I like to listen to music. So I used to wear my iPhone ear buds under the 180s Ear Warmers, but that did not work so well.

Inevitably someone wants to talk about my dog ("yes, he's a standard poodle and yes, he was born with all of those colors"), which requires removal of my ear warmers and ear buds...and it's a giant hassle getting them back in. Gloves have to come off, then re-insert ear buds, then let's hope I can get the 180s back on without knocking the ear buds out of place. Of course while I am fumbling with all of this, my dog is doing six foot vertical leaps and shouting out his favorite Sally Field schtick: "They love me. They really love me!"

Then 180s solved my problem. They went and designed an ear warmer with built-in speakers. I find the sound to be excellent. Best of all, there's only a $5 premium for this model, so you get music and warm ears for just $35! These ear warmers are the perfect antidote for cold weather and a dog that thinks it's all about him.

 Based on my experience, 180s makes great stuff and you can check what they have to offer here: