Scott Hanselman

Paint Fence, Cut Wood, Pull Weed, Plant Tree - Finding Geek Balance Outside My Comfort Zone

April 23, 2009 Comment on this post [39] Posted in Musings | Personal
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Please forgive me this personal excursion. I had lunch with my friend Greg Hughes yesterday. It's nice when people know you well enough to really grok when something significant happens in your life. The opening part of the conversation at lunch, in person, went something like this

Greg: Hey, great to see you, what's up?

Me: D00d. I bought wood. Like, literally went to the, what's it called? The Lumberyard and purchased actual lumber. Like, trees. Then I cut them.

Greg: Holy crap. What brought this on?

...and the conversation continued in this general vein. He understood immediately. I'm finding balance by moving outside my comfort zone. I'm trying to become "handy" around the house. My previous handy experience was tiling my kitchen backsplash, and this required that I use actual lasers to succeed.

What you need to understand, Dear Reader, is how profoundly not-handy I am to appreciate what I'm trying to do here. My father and brother are handy. I am not. I am not handy in the way that short people are not tall. They aren't. It's just so.

I have never had a hobby that didn't involve computers. This is sad, I know.

I've talked before about how it's important as a Developer to Sharpen the Saw. This is an extension of this. Go outside your comfort zone. I

I try to travel a lot, meet different people, speak their language as a way of going outside my comfort zone. Of course, I speak about computers, so that kind of cancels that out, eh? ;)


When I speak to high-school students and local colleges, I tell them that I like software because of the intense sense of empowerment - the sense that I can do this - it can give you when creating. It seems silly and obvious, but I realize more now that other things can empower oneself. I intellectualized this long ago, but internalized it only recently.

Here's what I'm doing this year to push the envelope for me. This may not make me a better developer, but I hope it'll make me (and subsequently my kids) a better, more well-rounded person. Maybe that'll make me a better developer in some round-about way. I dunno, but I sure feel handy and empowered but in a new an different way.

Planting a Square Foot Garden

IMG_0136 One day, last week, it was sunny in Oregon. I looked at the strange yellow ball in the sky and grunted and then I went and bought lumber. I figured this is what people do when it's nice out. I've talked about a garden in the yard for years. This time, I made one.

I got 9 2x12's, and 3 4x4's. The first thing I learned was that 4x4s are in fact not four inches square. Turns out the whole inches thing is just a big lie in the wood world. This was news, but now I feel informed. :)

I ordered the dirt/compost, almost broke myself unloading two yards (not sure why it's called yards, but it was a trailer-load and a lot) and last night we planted our vegetables.

Being Handy Around the House

When I get in over my head with home improvements and things, I usually call my family or a handyman. I've stopped doing that, setup a toolbox and work area and started drilling holes in the wall. I've painted/stained 400 feet of fence, weeded until my hands hurt, and moved giant rocks, all in the last two weeks.

I'm starting to get ideas for other things I want to do around the house. Why, just today, I added two small towel holders in the upstairs bathroom. Changes the whole room, I say! And, as a plus, I did not electrocute myself.

Building an Arcade Console

IMG_0036I checked on Craigslist and found an ancient 1984 Video Trivia Arcade Console. With my friend John Batdorf we took it to the garage and gutted it. I'm putting a PC inside it, and maybe an Xbox and dubbing it the Hanselcade.

This is yet another project that I'd always meant to do, but hadn't because it seemed too large, too complex, too intense to attack. I can attach large, complex and intense computer problems, but this...this was physical.

But, I'd cut wood! I'd planted plants! I just did it. I took uncomfortable action and I started to make plans. What's nice about this project - all of these, in fact - is that they are large, but they can be broken up and aren't time-urgent.

It also kind of involved computers, indirectly, in that there's a computer inside. However, stuff like hooking up LEDs, buying resistors, drilling holes in steel and keeping the whole thing stock and clean - this is all outside my zone of comfort.

The Point

I'm learning, as I always am, but I'm exercising VERY different parts of my brain. I'm reminding myself of things I'd forgotten, and filling in gaps. I'm synthesizing bits of information that I'd thought unrelated into larger solutions. I'm getting a substantial and ongoing sense of satisfaction. I'm realizing that I can be good, well, adequate, at other things that aren't computers.

If there's something you've been meaning to do, especially if it's outside your expertise, go do it now. Pull a weed. Build a fort. Start a blog. Lift a weight. Maybe two.

This must be what having a hobby is like! Ah, to be well-rounded and balanced.

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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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April 23, 2009 11:58
I can vouch for Scott's excitement in commanding real physical objects around. He talked my ear off this morning. :) There's something to be said for moving out of Second Life and back into First Life. I'm inspired!
April 23, 2009 12:31
As a gardener at heart(and education) I can tell you that the whole gardening thing will seem easy the first year, everything just grows. YOu will have good and nice food and then the second year and onwards you will feel pain because the little beasties will have found you and your nice little vegetables and they will eat them when you least expect it. Some of them are even called bugs. I'm afraid than by this time next year you will lock yourself in your room and wish you had never started gardening. But minutes later you will be attacking the little buggers thinking that you can win. Think again you have already lost you just don't know it yet.

Computers are so much more reliable. Comforting.
April 23, 2009 12:52
I know exactly where your coming from Scott. I've always been a bit of a klutz when it comes to manual labour, and I wasn't a big fan of shop at school. However now I'm planning to buy an older house and renovate it mostly myself. We'll see how that goes. Good luck with your projects.
April 23, 2009 14:14
"yard" is Real World Stuff shorthand for "cubic yard". I order stuff in these units occasionally. Then my gardeners* do things with it and I give them money.

The DIY thing is good though. Why only the other month I put up three shelves. One of them is level, too.

* I say "my", I mean the guys who come for a morning every other week. But I sort of own them for that morning.
April 23, 2009 14:34
I envy you. There are a few stuff I've been wanting to build - for exactly the same reason* - but I don't have where to build them. Or tools to build them with. Or time for it.

In a few months, things might change, but right now I'm stuck programming in bed because this apartment is too small.

* Not the same reason at all, now that I think of it. I am handy - I used to be a mechanic (not by choice) and I learned quite a lot there. I can build AH-64A/D helicopters from their smallest parts! But it's still outside my comfort zone, simply because I haven't done any serious building in years.
April 23, 2009 15:04
4x4s started out as rough-cut 4" x 4" pieces of wood. Once trimmed down and cleaned up they are sold to you about 1/2" short on both dimensions (same with 2x4s of 1x12s or any non-rough-cut lumber). If your really need that 1/2", you can get rough-cut lumber from quality lumber yards.

It's kind of like designing a website for a 1024 pixel monitor. Once you account for the scrollbar and other screen crap, you're limited to about 980 pixels of usable space. But people still call it a "1024 design".

...and two yards of soil is NOT a lot :)

April 23, 2009 15:57
Awesome post! Good luck with the garden and all of your future "out of comfort zone" endeavors.
April 23, 2009 17:53
Hi Scott,

At the MVP Summit 2009 you told me that a developer must develop. This development can be in any area. Like you I also like to do yard work and have been doing it for the past 6 months. I think it is important for all of us to jump out of the programming chair and exercise different parts of our creative mind.

Although my vegetable garden (tomato) is not a square garden but it is pretty decent.

April 23, 2009 18:03
Weird timing, I was just talking to my wife about this very thing this past weekend. I'm attempting to grow a lawn from scratch. I rented the rear tiller from Home Depot, purchased a shovel, rakes, spreader, etc., had a lengthy conversation with the HD lawn & garden guy about fertilizer and lime. On the drive home I remarked to my wife how good it felt to do build something that didn't involve a computer.

Then when I got home, I had to get online to see if there are any tiller best practices :)

But spot on, good post.
April 23, 2009 18:47
Good for you, Scott! It's great to read that you're trying out something new.

A word of warning from someone who is the resident geek and handyman of our house: There are two things I don't touch; electrical and plumbing (and preferably not at the same time). Always call a professional for these two things. They are insured in case something goes wrong.

Working with wood can be incredibly satisfying, especially given all the geometry that can be involved. I've built a fence, a dock, and a backyard patio in the past. Every time, I was forced to remember my days crunching distances and angles in high school. It was great mental food for my inner geek.

A blog post entitled, "Hanselman's Ultimate Geek Guide to Handyman Tools" would be great. For me, I started out with a toolbox, a (good) electrical 18v drill, a racket set, a hammer, a work bench, a laser level, and a table saw. Since starting my "side career" as a handyman, I've added a power washer, a hacksaw, a stud finder, and an assortment of wrenches. In the beginning, I had no idea what some of these were or why I needed them. This (of course) changed as I took on bigger projects.

Wishing you continued success in your endeavors.
April 23, 2009 19:17
I've been doing the same since i bought my house. So far in the last 2 weeks i've replaced the window regulator in my car, fixed my garage door, and am currently working on getting the sprinkler system into tip top shape.
April 23, 2009 19:28
Heh...this weekend I get to put in some flooring downstairs after removing the carpet and some tile last weekend. Got to rent a chipping hammer from Home Depot to remove the thinset used with the tile. Two things that were nice: 1) I got to step outside *my* comfort zone and learn something new, and 2) my wife apparently digs it when I use power tools. :)
April 23, 2009 19:36
Isn't lumber awesome?!? You of course are dealing in what's called "dimensional" lumber and makes no logical sense, right? But, you probably think you figured out the formula right -- whatever the lumber is called, say 4x4 (four-by-four) is really 3.5 by 3.5 inches. That is, subtract half an inch from the dimension, right? Yeah, except when you don't -- like when your dealing with "board" lumber that's 1-by-whatever, where the "1" dimension is actually .75 inches. And, we haven't even gotten into the difference in softwood versus hardwood -- things like the "quarter" system of specifying lumber dimensions. Good stuff. One interesting thing is that in my nearly 90 year old house if have true two-by lumber ("really" 2 inches) making up the studs and joists of the house.

I love software development and decided to do it for a living, but I've always had an interest in woodworking -- the same as I did with Legos when I was a kid (and still with my kids today). I think it boils down to creating or building something -- Carl Franklin always mentions this (by the way I, too, play guitar, but as a hack compared to Carl!) Very satisfying when you've completely finished a built-in bookcase that matches what you've drawn up. Since being a homeowner, I've become quite handy. I do electrical (except for most stuff at the panel), plumbing (except for soldering copper pipe), tile, replacement windows, etc. I found motivation to learn these things primarily because I didn't want to pay to have this stuff done -- I watched the plumbers and electricians and read books. Now with kids, I weigh the value of my time against the cost of paying somebody.

One thing I found, Scott, is that becoming handy certainly gives you an appreciation for the people who do this work professionally. Enjoy it!
April 23, 2009 19:42
@Dave - And don't forget the whole 4/4 and 5/4 thicknesses for finish lumber. Actually, it is easier than framing lumber and 1X2, 2X4, etc.
Oak, walnut, birch, and other lumber for furniture is measured in 'quarters' for quarter of an inch. So 4/4 is four quarters, or 1" thick. That is of course rough cut. If you want a 1" thick board finished, you will have to get a 5/4 and surface plane (or if you ar a neanderthal, hand plane) it to 1". And of course you will be charged accordingly. That lumber you par for by the 'board foot', a board 1" X 12" X 12". So a 5/4 board 12" square is actually 1.25 board feet.

I was a custom home builder in my previous life, some 15 years ago. Did that for 14 years before I went back to school to get a degree at 40. Some of the best days were when you could stand back and see that you accomplished.

April 23, 2009 19:46
I think it's great you are going to grow some vegatables, and let me just ask you to keep it organic! A little weeding is good therapy, and if you are worried about pests there are many organic ways to deal with them. If everything else fails you can always plant more for the bad guys ;)

But yeah, if you want healthy soil, healthy veg', and a healthy meal, keep those chemicals away!
April 23, 2009 20:39
You'll have to keep us abreast of the square foot garden. I've wanted to plant one of these, but, alas, we currently live in a condo and have no yard. But it's on my list of things to do once we move into a house with a yard.

My last handyman project was a couple years back, but a resounding success. The burner in the gas oven had died. I ordered a replacement and installed it. Sounds easy enough, but I essentially had to take out most of the oven's guts to get to the spot where it was installed. My wife came into the kitchen, saw the oven virtually dismantled and the pieces covering the floor, and gave me one of those looks like, "I hope you know what you're doing because I would like to bake again at some point in my life." Nothing more exciting than putting everything back together and having it work the first time! :-)
April 23, 2009 21:42
'ware the tools, Scott. Once you start you can't stop. You start by doing some trim work in the basement, and end up with a kitchen of half-completed cabinets :)

April 23, 2009 22:02
Great going, Scott, gardening is a fantastic thing to teach your children and a fantastic non-computer based activity to rest your brain.

Now all you need is a live webcam poiting at your veg-beds so you (and we) can keep an eye on them!

Beware though, if you ever start your own composting for your garden -- it quickly becomes an obsession.
April 24, 2009 0:09
Nice post, Scott. If there's one thing I've learned in my life, it's that balance is everything. Too much of any one thing, whether it be junk food, programming, or what-have-you is very often a bad idea. I touched upon this recently in a post about striking a balance between programming skills and life skills (, and it sounds like that's exactly what you're doing here.

Good luck on your projects!
April 24, 2009 3:17

If you're interested in woodworking you ought to talk to Eric Sink. He even wrote a WPF 3d woodworking app.
April 24, 2009 3:31
Hey Scott,
Love your blog, especially the '1st Life' posts like this or your travels in South Africa.
I'm about half way through renovating my house in inner Sydney and have learnt a lot -- I'm building a new kitchen and bathroom where my living room used to be and vice versa!
Like a good application, make sure your lower tiers are good! Separation of concerns is good although loose coupling is not always what you want...
If only there was NUnit for tiling or rendering [that's rendering walls not UI] I guess there is - it's called a spirit level!
Sometimes the geek can't be restrained -- I'm using an Arduino microcontroller to operate the solenoids on the hacked toilet cistern..... then there's the LED lights, the data cable ducts I've hidden in the walls... and the embedded kitchen PC, the webcam on the chimney... oh dear!

April 24, 2009 3:34
"I have never had a hobby that didn't involve computers. This is sad, I know."

Oh come on ... Dungeons and Dragons? Don't deny it!

=). Congrats on the move into the world of dirt and splinters and manly injuries on your hands.
April 24, 2009 6:15
Heh :) nice one Scott :)

I think these two things might sum things up perfectly ?? (btw work-safe).

(image) <a href="" title"Happiness">Happiness</a>
(image) "Off I Go Then"

April 24, 2009 15:03
If that timber bordering the garden is treated, then you are gonna want to line it with some polythene sheeting, just to stop any timber preservative leaching into your soil :)
April 24, 2009 19:14
That actually inspired me to get off my backside and write my very first blog post, so thanks!!
April 24, 2009 20:45
I just taught myself to lay a wood floor. This past year, I have taken on a lot of firest time projects around the house. I'm also that guy who isn't handy at all, but my initial success has made me feel great about trying new things - and I'm not on the computer as much, which is actually a good thing. ;)
April 24, 2009 21:08
I tried installing tile in the bathrooms of our house... which prompted me to quickly run back to the safe and comforting glow of my computer screen...

... I don't aspire to "handiness" anymore...
April 25, 2009 1:32
I enjoy your blog a lot Scott ... but, I particularly enjoyed this post. Turns out I'm doing the "exact" same thing in my backyard this weekend. I studied up on square foot gardening and I'm excited to get started. My sons are helping me build the raised beds, which will turn out to be very much like yours :-) Small world! I think it gives me balance when I break away from the computer. That being said, I've programmed computers for many years and I love that too.

April 26, 2009 7:03
Next you'll be flying Greg's plane. What un-comfort zone would that be in? :-)
April 26, 2009 19:39
Aiming to be handy is briliant. Bought a flat with a terrace last year, and set out to get some nice plants there. Some survived the cold and snowy Norwegian winter, some did not. So now I'm trying to grow some herbs and strawberries out there. The cat was so excited when I dug out the cat nip from under a blanket (against the snow), it had survived!
I balance my computing mostly with sewing. It's kind of like programming sometimes, you need to do things in the right order sometimes, but then again you need to do some improvising when things didn't go exactly as planned.
April 27, 2009 19:06
As a professional .net programmer and an amateur woodworker and DIYer, this post was awesome! I literally had to stop reading because i was laughing too hard! Kudos to you for stepping outside and grunting at the yellow ball in the sky! :-)
April 27, 2009 22:44
Happy to read this post - Good for You!
April 29, 2009 0:50
Scott, looks like you may be using the original Square Foot Gardening method. You might be interested in the All New Square Foot Gardening method. It's a refinement by the original author after long experience with SFG. It uses half the material, and it's more resistant to weeds and bugs than the original method.

Those of you living in apartments or condos might check it out as well. You'd be surprised what you can grow on a balcony.

I just built my first two boxes so it's all a little theoretical, but it's quite easy and the system makes a lot of sense.

I'll refrain from a pedantic explanation of the lumber dimensioning system... reminds me too much of my years in the sawmill.
May 01, 2009 6:23

WOW very impressive! Wanna get real butch? I'll take you fishing sometime! Lemme know, Jack
May 01, 2009 22:38
I enjoyed this post very much.

I think it is important for me to step out of the intellectual and into the physical, or serious stagnation may result. Cool stuff.
May 04, 2009 22:39
@Wade/@Scott Mitchell --

Another interesting idea for folks living in apartment buildings/condos, or other non-yard having spots is the parking space garden. I read about this somewhere recently, but I can't find the article to link to... I'll try to describe it.

Basically, the news article was about a girl here in Portland who lived in an apartment and didn't own a car, but had a parking space allocated to her regardless. So she went out and built a planting bed with a plywood bottom, set it on legs like a table, with big wheels on the legs -- Perfectly sized to fit in her parking space. So instead of parking a car there, she parked a car-sized mobile garden there.

Even better - since the parking lot didn't get very good sun during the day, each morning she'd wheel it over across the street to the sunny spot and leave it 'parked' there, and then wheel it home to her parking spot at night, and cover it with a tarp...

Building that wouldn't be much more challenging than building a traditional raised bed, and you could turn that parking space into an awesome garden, and maybe find yourself getting coverage in the local news for it!

Anyhow, I have re-purposed the majority of my yard's square footage to growing food, and we now have roughly 500 sq ft tilled and planted, with the first shoots coming up out of the rows this week.

Since buying this house a year and a half ago, I've re-done all of the wiring, taken out tons of lathe and plaster walls and replaced them with drywall, removed all the lead paint in the house with a heat gun and scraper, replaced all the plumbing with new copper pipe and repaired or replaced all the waste lines, took the bathroom to the studs and made a new one, rebuilt the porch, rebuilt the garage's back wall, installing a new sliding door and siding, and I'm now about to pour a foundation for an addition that I'll start building this week. Oh and we're moving the basement stairs, and installed a new attic stair, and replaced two windows, and put on a new roof, and installed a gas furnace, ducting and a central AC unit. Probably some other stuff I forgot.

Ummm... yeah. All that fit into the extra hours outside of my 60 hours a week software development gig... and practicing and performing with my band, and having two children (new! 2.5yrs and 9 months).

I think my brain has had quite enough exercise... At some point I hope to finish everything up and vegetate for about 3-4 years, smoking pot and playing x-box all day.

We all have dreams in life.
May 04, 2009 22:41
Hrmmm... that OpenID thing through google didn't really work out too well.

Last comment was me.
May 05, 2009 8:53
See what I get for not reading blogs for a week? I didn't even realize our conversation was memorialized. :)

Anthony said, "Next you'll be flying Greg's plane. What un-comfort zone would that be in? :-)"

Yeah, so when are we gonna do that??? How's Friday afternoon look for ya? :)
May 17, 2009 8:44
20 years ago I was there...did not even know about all the tools that I did not own. Now...I'm like the United Rental for our neighborhood.

Gotta offer a gardening "hack" for your raised beds.... Nail a copper strip around the outside of each of your raised beds. The slugs won't cross the copper strips (slug krytonite?) and your garden will have one less mongral hoard feasting on your veggies.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.