DIY Salt Water Reef Aquarium – Part 3 – “Put some skin in the game”

Now for the next step in the “$10 garage sale aquarium” saga.

We found a 50 gallon tank at a garage sale.  We built a stand.

Now that the stand is framed out, we need to add some aesthetic quality to it.  Normally, we would use a veneered plywood.  However, we chose a cheaper alternative.  Birch plywood runs about $25 a sheet at Home Depot.  We found a very nice 5mm underlayment board for $10.  It has a very nice color and would be strong enough to add a little strength to the frame.

We cut pieces for the front and sides of the frame.  We decided not to cover the back so we could get the sump in and out.

We cut two holes in the front board.  We plan to come back and add some doors – although we do not have a specific plan for those yet.  We will let you know when we figure it out.

To add a little class, we used a scallop trim on the top and bottom and a corner piece on each side.

We finished it all off with a nice stain – Gunstock by Minwax.

This step was pretty simple.  I do think we made a mistake using the cheaper board.  It looks OK and works in the end, but the board was cheaply made and hard to work with.  I wish we would have spent the extra $15 to get the quality board.

We moved the stand into the house and put the tank on it.  No water in it yet, but we are making progress.

Total cost for this step – about $25.

What Next?

Next step is to build a wet/dry sump.  We plan to use a 20 gallon aquarium and some Lexan sheets.  We found some good examples on line.

We went to a local store to check out their tank selection.  The sales clerk tried to warn us off doing this build ourselves.  He had horror stories about overflowing sumps, power failures, etc.  ”I’ve been doing this for years, trust me, you do not want to try this yourself”.

Really.  Why? Because you don’t think you could do it?  Because you sell fish supplies?  Because… How could some kid possibly get this right?

What if the power goes out?  What if the sump leaks?  What if we lose the siphon?  What if, What if, What if…

…What if we succeed?

This clerk has obviously never met my son.  All of the failure points have been documented and discussed.  There is a sheet of paper on my counter right now with a diagram that calculates water volumes in multiple chambers, flow rates and pump placement.

Each scenario has been addressed along with a plan to test our build at each step prior to putting the tank into actual use.  I am sure we will run into some snags, but we will get them worked out.

Why do adults look at kids and assume they are dumb?  I am glad that my son has not learned how to doubt himself.

Be a Producer, Not a Consumer

What we are doing is a little complicated, but that is what makes it fun.  Sure, this would be done faster if we bought everything, but doing it fast is not what this project is about.  We are having a great time.  My son has decided to try something a little outside his comfort zone.  I think this world can benefit from some kids who try something hard instead of playing video games all day.  Our society needs more producers and fewer consumers.


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The 3 Styles of Christmas Lighting – Plan Carefully This Year

It is all about “The Lights”

I am always impressed by the variety of light displays around my neighborhood.  Over the years, I have identified 3 very distinct lighting personas.

The “What? It’s December 10th already!?” style

There is always a house on each block that just never quite got the holiday mood fully channeled.  No lights, no reindeer, just 2 Christmas colored bags full of leaves in the front yard and a single, brave snow flake hanging from a tree branch.  I love the simple, minimalist statement being made by this invisible understated décor.  I think the simplicity and seamless blending with the natural landscape makes the whole display bold and powerful.  Or maybe, the residents just got to Wal-Mart after all the good lights were gone.  “Oh well,” they say, “next year we will get some of those candy canes…”

The “Martha Stewart lives here” design

We all know this one.  Only white lights permitted in this well planned display!  Every light perfectly spaced from its neighbors, not a single tangled wire to be found.  Each delicate bulb comfortably nestled in a custom designed, perfectly shaped “bulb-cradle”© that casts the light at just the perfect angle so as to illuminate the ornaments individually wired in the perfect arrangement on a sculpted Douglas Fir growing in the center of the yard (when did those start growing in South Texas?).  An ever so slight dusting of permanent snow covers the entire scene.  The subtle notes of Here We Come A-Wassailing waft from hidden speakers giving the passers-by the distinct feeling they are in the middle of a Norman Rockwell postcard.  All effortlessly completed by the resident in only 30 minutes of work while the turkey was roasting on Thanksgiving Day.  It’s a Good Thing.

The “Full-Blown Griswold Christmas”

Approximately 1,345,627 lights in 43 different colors (who knew you could get lights in “Deep Chrysanthemum”!?) make up this display.  There are 6 inflatable Santas, 2 complete team of reindeer (actual size), and a fully staffed replica of Santa’s workshop is open for tours daily in the garage.  There is a small group of carolers each evening serenading the neighborhood with the standard favorites as well as few “original carols” thrown in to keep it lively.  Just when you thought you had seen everything, you notice the candy-striped mailbox (cleverly labeled “Claus”) full of freshly baked tree-shaped sugar cookies free for the taking.   The resident has been planning this for at least 11 months and has solicited input from 3 electrical engineers, 2 landscape architects, 4 electricians and some guy named Otto who moderates a forum at  The electric company installed a new pole to provide the extra power required and then there is the small matter of the bank loan to cover the extra support added to prevent a repeat of “that small roof cave in we had last year – who knew lights were so heavy…”.

To each their own

I personally lean towards the “Griswold”.  Fortunately, my wife has enough sense to rein me in and keep us somewhere just shy of “Martha”.  Whatever your style, good luck and Happy Holidays.

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DIY Saltwater Reef Aquarium – Part 2 – “Take a Stand”

As we discussed in an earlier post, my son purchased a used 50 gallon aquarium for $10 at a garage sale and is now embarked on a quest to build a Do-It-Yourself saltwater tank.

Our first project was to build a stand for the aquarium.

A weighty matter

A complete aquarium setup weighs a lot.  The tank itself weighs 20-30 pounds, add 50 gallons of water, 10 pounds of live rock, 20 pounds of sand, filter, sump and etc. and you are looking easily at 700 pounds.  Your stand needs to be able to hold all of that – forever.  This is not a place to skimp on quality.

Commercial stands that will hold our tank cost around $350 dollars.  The stands are nice looking and very basic – open back, doors on the front, usually brown or black matte finish.

A little web research into tank designs and we hit upon one we like.  It is a simple box frame – 2×4 boxes on top and bottom supported by notched legs.  This design is pretty easy to build and will easily hold our tank.  I am not sure what the total weight capacity of this stand will be, but I think it is very high.

Planning is everything

The tank is 36″ wide, 18″ deep and 17″ tall.

We decided to make the stand 37″ wide, 19″ deep to have a little space around the tank and 35″ high to put the tank about chest level for the boy.

We purchased the following materials:

  • 4 – 2 x 4 x 10 boards
  • 1 – 2 x 4 x 8 board
  • 2×4 sheet 1/4″ plywood
  • 2×4 sheet 1/2″ mdf
  • 100 #10 x 2.5″ wood screws
  • 20 or so #6 x 1.5″ wood screws
  • glue

We also used tools we already had on hand:

We made all our cuts first.

  • 4 – 37″ 2 x 4
  • 4 – 35″ 2 x 4
  • 4 – 28″ 2 x 4
  • 6 – 16″ 2 x 4
  • Plywood to 37″ x 19″
  • MDF to 37″ x 19″

Make sure you figure out what you will cut from each baord ahead of time to minimize your waste on the 2 x 4′s.  We were able to get all the sizes we need and we have a 2 x 4 about 5′ long left over.

Another tip is pre-drill everything before you put the screws in.  The last thing you want is force a big #10 screw into a board and have it split.

Make the boxes

We constructed the boxes by attaching three 16″ boards to the 37″ boards with glue and screws.  Using a right angle clamp helps you get a nice tight joint while you put the screws in.  We used 2 screws on each joint.







Build the legs

We cut a notch in each end of the 35″ legs using a jigsaw.  Make sure you line up the legs on one of the boxes before you cut and glue to make sure you get the alignment right.  You will make 2 sets of legs that are mirror images of each other.

Once the notches were cut, we attached the a 28″ board in the exact center of the 35″ piece using glue and 4 screws.

Attach the legs to the bottom box

Line up each leg on the bottom box – make sure you do this on a flat surface and check to make sure the leg is level on both sides before attaching with glue and 2 more screws.


Bottom shelf

We notched each corner of the plywood to fit around the legs and attached with a few small screws.  We smoothed out the cut edges using a palm sander.

Attach the top box

Lay the top box on the legs, attach just like you did for the bottom.  Pretty easy step

Top goes on

Lay the MDF on top, attach with screws.

Voila – Frame done

Total cost about $39 (not including the tools we already had).  If you do not have these tools, you can get the lumber store to make your cuts for you for a nominal charge.  Invest in a small drill with some driver bits – everyone should have one of these anyway.

The next step will be to skin the stand with some type of wood that will hold a nice stain.  This will make it look good and add a little more rigidity to the frame as well.

Stay tuned.


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DIY Saltwater Reef Aquarium – Part 1 – The Mission

So “the boy” comes across a 50-gallon glass aquaraium at a garage sale a few weeks ago and manages to buy it for $10.  This is quite a buy as these things can be in $100 range new.  The problem now is what to do with it.

What now?

My son has kept a 30-gallon aquarium for several years and has done very well with it.  It has taught him some responsibility for taking care of the setup as well as helped him gain some pretty impressive knowledge of fish and fish habitat.  We started with a fresh water tank because they are much cheaper than salt water and are much easier to keep for a beginner.  However, the boy has always showed a lot of interest in the salt water species and setups.

So, imagine my total lack of surprise when he announces that he plans to use the new tank for a reef tank setup (“reef setup” is apparently the aquariumist lingo for a “marine aquaria” — aka – salt water).  Here we go.

Don’t worry so much Old Man…

I inform my son patiently that I do not know how to setup and maintain a reef tank.  ”No problem,” says he, “I have done all the research and I know everything we need.”

Sure enough, he had found several fish blogs, fish keeper forums and a few YouTube channels (thank you Mr. Saltwater Tank TV).  He informs me we need a stand, a sump, a protein skimmer, live sand, live rock, RODI water, a hood, metal halide light system, supplements, test kits, refractometer, thermometer, power heads, heater, cooler, corals…. Oh yeah, and a fish.

Cool – How much does all that cost?

A little more research – and voila – $800 if we are careful.  So much for our $10 garage sale find.

Plan B

Not to be dissuaded from this goal, my son does more research and finds another series of forums and YouTube channels – a complete DIY aquarium culture.  A few more plans and drawings and – “Dad, I think I can do this for about $350.  I have been saving my allowance for a year and this is what I want to do with it.”

After careful discussion of his ideas and reviews of his plans, I think he may be right.

A Bright Future

I am constantly impressed with my son’s ability to find information and learn new skills by reading, participating in forums and watching hours of instructional videos on YouTube.  This is not the first time he has become more knowledgeable on a subject than I am and will definitely not be the last.  I am expecting great things from him and his generation.

So, anyway, we have embarked on our mission to create a DIY reef tank.

I will be posting a series of stories about our DIY aquarium mission.  Check back often to see our progress.

Next up – Build an Aquarium Stand.

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The Password Problem – Creating and Remembering Great Passwords

We all have accounts on many different web sites. Between twitter, blogs, work accounts, mail, bank accounts, credit cards, the electric company, etc. There must be at least 20 websites that I have active accounts on.

The risk of weak passwords…

If you want your accounts to be secure, you CANNOT use common information. The first thing I would try if I wanted in your account is your kids names, followed by your pet’s names. I would mix and match and add birth years until I found one. If I did not find one there, I would use your high school jersey number (from your Facebook page) and work my way through your initials and birth year.

I guarantee for 80% of us, this process would be all it would take for a black hat hacker to crack our password.

Worse, I bet you use the same user name and password on all your sites – easier to keep track of that way. Once I figure out your Facebook account, next will be Twitter, then Gmail, Citibank, the mortgage company – I will eventually get them all – or at least enough to do some serious damage.

In 2010, hackers compromised the password database for Gawker media and distributed the un-encrypted data online. “123456” and “password” were the top 2 most common passwords in the database. Apparently the process of figuring out a good password is so complicated that most people just give up from the beginning.

So what should we do?

First, know what makes a good password good.

  • The word or phrase cannot be found in a dictionary (forwards or backwards)
  • It is at least 10 characters long
  • Contains a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters (“-”, ”#”, “$”, etc)

Second, do not use the same password on every site.

  • Create a base password that meets the above criteria and then vary it up a little. Make the first few characters different for every account or website. You could use the first, third and fifth letter of the name of the website for instance.
  • You could also go hard-core and use a completely random password on every site you use. This will be very secure, but can be a pain to keep up with.

Third, don’t tell anybody.

  • Do not post anything on Facebook that could be used to guess your code.
  • Do not tell your kids your passwords
  • Do not tell your drinking buddies about your great new password technique (who knows who is listening)
  • Do not write your passwords down on paper
  • Do not enter your passwords on computers you do not own (if you have to for some reason, change it immediately afterwards)

Bonus tip – All the other devices

  • Do you access your email on your iPhone or iPad? Better set a good password on those devices as well.
  • Do you use the “Remember Me” feature for your favorite websites? Better lock down access to your laptop.

How can we keep track of all this???

Great ideas dude, but how the heck am I going to remember all these passwords?

Start memorizing – Some accounts are so sensitive (banks, brokerages, etc) that a compromised password can be catastrophic. So memorize these. Don’t write them down, don’t store them in your safe, don’t keep them tucked away digitally somewhere. These are important and you need to be a grown-up and take care of the important stuff yourself.

Use Google Docs – Create a SUPER STRONG password for your Gmail account (you do have one don’t you?) and create a document where you keep this info. This is a workable solution, but it requires you to trust Google. Is Google safe? Probably safe enough for most of us. Even so, I would not use this for the really sensitive accounts.

Hire someone to do it for you. There are a few services out there that will claim to be a safe store for your sensitive data. Maybe so. I think I will pass on those – If I am not ready to trust Google, why trust someone smaller with fewer resources?

A few bonus thoughts

Don’t spend all your energy on creating good passwords and then blow it on the “security questions”. Think your mothers maiden name is hard to find? How many people know what high school you went to?

Whenever possible, create your own question and make it a good one. If you have to choose from the weak old standards, mix up the answers – put them in backwards or mix up the answers – use your high school name when you are asked for your mothers maiden name.

Help your kids learn good habits. Your kids have passwords on sites already. Make sure you teach them good security habits early.


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I am Afraid to Fail

How often have each of us said those words?

You have an idea to create something new and valuable.

You lay out a plan to accomplish the goal.

You have done the research.

You know the competition, you know the market, you know who you want as your customer and you know where to find them.

You are certain that your idea is good enough that your customers will pay you for it.

The only thing left to do is take a little risk and execute.

Time to go – what’s the problem?

I am actually afraid I will succeed

If someone is paying me, then they are relying on me.  I will have a responsibility to them.

What if they buy my product and it works?  My customer is going to want more.  My customer is going to tell their friends and now I will need to produce more, I will have to continue to create.   I will have an obligation to even more people.

What if my idea actually improves someones life?  Now I am responsible for solving a problem.

What if I actually make some money doing this and now I have to choose between continuing my boring (but comfortable) status-quo life or making a change to something more meaningful.

No, I am not really afraid of failing.  That is the least of my fears.  What is the worst that might actually happen?  Failure leads to knowledge which will make me better next time.  I can always just try again.

I am really afraid of being a huge success.  Of  actually accomplishing my goals and having to live an extraordinary life – but isn’t that why I came up with the idea to begin with?

Now the fear has been named.

It is out in the open and we can all see it for the nonsense that it is.

Time to stop being afraid, time to start being extraordinary.

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Time to say “Yes”

How many times have we found ourselves unhappy in our surroundings? Feeling like we are not meeting our potential or that we could be experiencing so much more in life?

If only I could travel more…
If only I were in better shape…
If only I had more money…
If only I knew people with better connections…
If only my boss would give me a better assignment, give me a better job, give me more responsibility…

What is stopping me from getting all those things?

It is not you, it is me.

It is easy to get comfortable in my own world. It is very simple for me to wake up day after day and do the same thing I did yesterday. This “complacent comfortableness” is a silent killer. It saps my energy, it kills my drive, it makes me lazy. It is my worst enemy.

I have to force myself to recognize that I am not performing at my potential. I have to realize that the reason I am failing is because I give up long before the game even starts. Right out of the gate I deny my dreams and I embrace the status-quo – I embrace comfort instead of challenge – I embrace complacency.

I stare my dreams and ambitions straight in the eye and say — “No”.

What is the solution?

Say “YES”.

Want to travel more? Get in the car and start driving west. My life is not holding me back. The PTA meeting will be held again next month. The grass will still get cut, the laundry will get done and my fish will not die.

Want to be in better shape? Time to get off the couch and go walk around the block a few times. No need for an expensive gym membership or expensive shoes. Just go outside.

Want to have more money? Create a product that solves a problem for someone. I have many skills other people do not have. Get started now.

Want better connections? I am not going to get them watching TV. To paraphrase Dave Ramsey – “Most millionaires don’t know what Must See TV is, but every broke person knows who got voted off the island for the last 5 weeks.” It is time for me to join the Rotary or volunteer for a political campaign or volunteer at the neighborhood school.

Waiting for a gift to make life better? I have more power over my life than anyone else does. No one is going to give anything. I will go and get it.

It is time to start saying “YES”.

Yes – I will pursue fulfillment.
Yes – I will exercise to feel better.
Yes – I will broaden my horizon and be open to new experience.

Yes – I will allow myself to succeed.

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Customer service done right

I have been thinking about customer service lately. There have been a few interesting events in the blogosphere lately that tell stories of employees doing the right thing to help customers of their companies. Or maybe it is because I have experienced some good and bad events myself recently.

A good example

A Southwest airlines pilot in LA held a flight to wait for a grandfather trying to get to Colorado to see his dying grandson. While Mark Dickinson was trying (unsuccessfully) to get through security, his wife, Nancy, called Southwest and managed to get a message to the gate agent and pilot. The pilot is quoted saying “They can’t go anywhere without me and I wasn’t going anywhere without you. Now relax. We’ll get you there. And again, I’m so sorry.” I believe Mark Dickinson is probably a Southwest customer for life.

What really stood out to me regarding this story was the official Southwest airlines response. The airline commended their pilot and said – “We empower our employees to make decisions on behalf of our customers”. The airline could have fired the pilot for holding a plane, for being late, for ruining the on-time service record for that leg – but instead they commended him for being human and caring about his fellow man. A great example of a company doing the right thing.

Another example

A Red Cross employee tweeted about her joy in finding some Dogfish Beer for her and her friends. Not that big a deal you say – Well, she inadvertently tweeted on the official Red Cross Twitter Feed – Oops.

The employee admitted her mistake shortly and cleared up the matter.

And the Red Cross fired her – NOT. The organization tweeted a retraction admitting their mistake and encouraging responsible behavior while imbibing the fabulous Dogfish brew.

Dogfish finds out about this and follows up with a tweet asking their customers to support the Red Cross. Before long bars all over the country were offering “pint for pint” – free Dogfish to any customer who donated blood to the Red Cross.

The Red Cross could have punished their employee, but instead showed some understanding and compassion and managed to get a windfall of good press – and pints of blood.

The real point

I like stories of good customer service, but I think is more revealing is how companies react when their employees go out on a limb or stumble a bit. I want to do business with companies that are run by people who recognize that their business is serving people – treating customers like actual people not just credit cards.

I would happily give blood to the Red Cross – I may have thought twice had this story ended differently.

Compare Southwest’s actions to those of TSA whose “highly-trained” employees are cited in the story for not believing Mr. Dickinson and refusing to accelerate him through the security checkpoint. Which company would you rather work for, invest in? What kind of company would you rather BUY from?

We are all responsible for good customer service

When you go to work tomorrow, you will provide service to a customer. This may be a traditional customer trading you money for a product. Maybe you work in an office – far away from the actual “customer” – but you are still providing service to your employer. We need to remember that none of us are indentured servants – we can choose to work anywhere – and the customers (or employers) can choose to buy anywhere. It is our job as “customer service agents” to make sure we make the exchange of products for money a positive one that our customer will want to repeat.

Post a comment and let me know what you think.

Oh yeah – Go to the beach!

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Shameless plug – Go to the beach

I own a condo in beautiful South Padre Island Texas.

Everyone should go to South Padre regularly. It is the best beach in Texas.

Why not rent my condo, Ventura 205, while you are there?

Look forward to hearing from you.

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Do it my way, it will save you time and prevent you from learning

A blog I read from time to time made this post that looks more like notes the author is making for himself rather than a post intended to engage readers. However, one quote stood out to me.

“All methodology is based on fears”

The quote is attributed to Kent Beck and I am not sure, but I think it came from this book. Beck and Cockburn are software developers, as am I – although I do not suggest I have reached their level of competence. The intent of the quote I think is to attempt to make developers consider why a software development technique is being employed.

Somewhere in history, a sloppy coder allowed sub standard code into a project – thus code reviews or peer reviews are born. A developer leaves a huge project in the middle of a release cycle – thus electronic documentation requirements are created and put into place. The point is that sometime, somewhere, someone had a problem and was afraid it would happen again, so they created a practice to avoid it. Observers who may not be aware of why a practice was adopted may incorrectly attribute success of a project to the practice. Others copy it and voila – a methodology is born.

I think this may also be similar to “survivor’s bias”. A term I was unfamiliar with until I heard it on this podcast.

Why am I writing this?

I am a student of mastery. I have devoted my adult life to getting better at my craft – which happens to be software development. However, the pursuit of mastery often requires us to practice and improve our skills in other areas of life – so perhaps I should question some other assumptions as well.

I wonder how many of the “methodologies” I employ to manage my life are really born out of fear of a situation that is no longer relevant.

I wonder if I am passing these “proven techniques” on to my children even though they may not be subject to the conditions that caused my own failure. Are my own biases and the sting of my own failures causing me to taint the inquisitive nature of the next generation?

Just because I tried something and failed does not mean my children will suffer the same fate. Their circumstances may be different, they may have a more conducive environment for the task or they may just be more competent than I am. In any case, it is irresponsible of me to show my solution as THE solution. I may or may not save them from a temporary failure, but by hindering their inquisitiveness, I am guaranteed to prevent them from obtaining knowledge and experience that will almost certainly pay off in the future.

The best life education I can provide my kids is to answer their questions truthfully, teach them right from wrong, be an example of integrity, and then stay out of their way.

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