35 Things That Make Travel Suck Less

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A little while back, with no particular outcome in mind, I started jotting down some of the little tricks that make my life on the road marginally easier. Two months later, the list is now long enough that I’m actively fighting off the temptation to spin up yet another travel blog. On the one hand, it seems to make more sense than a single blog entry with dozens of suggestions. On the other, we have enough travel blogs.

Anyway, for those of you who don’t travel much some of these may be useful. For my fellow frequent travelers, a lot of these will be obvious, but there may be a few things in here you missed. Either way, I share these in the hope that someone, somewhere, finds at least one of them useful.

Don’t Travel with Me

The most important rule, as my best friend “helpfully” pointed out on Twitter, is that you do not want to travel with me. He’s not the only friend that will ask me which flight I’m on in order to book something – anything – else. Poseidon hates me and everything in my life, so avoid me if at all possible.

Roll Your Clothes

Once upon a time, I thought I invented this technique, because technically I did. The only problem, as YouTube eventually revealed, is that a couple of hundred people invented it before I did. Anyway, if you’re terrible at folding clothes and/or refuse to do so, rolling your clothes will keep them reasonably wrinkle free while making them much easier to pack. Also, it’s much, much faster. If you need this demonstrated, type “roll clothes packing” into YouTube and take your pick.

Don’t Check Bags

Unless you have a very good reason – oversized equipment, you’re moving or you’re bringing home some very nice beers – don’t check bags. To paraphrase Woody Hayes, only three things can happen when you check bags and two of them are bad. So don’t.

MLC

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Which brings me to the first product recommendation. Near as I can determine, I bought my current Patagonia MLC (Maximum Legal Carryon) in 2007. The bag still looks more or less like new, and in the seven years since I bought mine I’ve convinced maybe a dozen other people to get them as well. It’s the perfect size, it’s easy to pack and the backpack straps (or single D strap) are much more versatile than the roller which works perfectly in the airport but nowhere else. The MLC is, pretty easily, the best piece of luggage I’ve ever owned.

Prepare for Security

One of the easiest ways to sort rookie from professional travelers is the security line. The former will frantically begin to take apart their bag, remove their belt and shoes and so on once they hit the line. Professional travelers, however, have been doing that on their walk up. By the time they hit the line, their wallet and phone are stored, their belt and shoes are off, and their laptop is in a tray. Think about the security before you actually get there.

Store Glasses in Your Shoes

For business travel, I usually try to travel without my glasses, which I only wear for driving, or my sunglasses, as I’m sadly almost never outside when at conferences. But every so often I either need them or forget I have them on, and am stuck with them on the road. If you’re the type of person who also travels with a glasses case, you’re all set. I am not, and as a result had to baby my glasses so they didn’t get crushed. Then I started simply storing them in my shoes. Problem solved: the semi-rigid shoe protects the glasses in your bag, and you don’t have to bother with glasses cases.

Invest in Organization Gear

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For hardcore travelers obsessed with weight, you’ll want to pass, but for everyone else I recommend getting some gear to help you organize – the weight notwithstanding. Whether that’s cables, cosmetics, batteries or something else, it’s nice to not have to dig through a rats nest of cables and other items to get something from your bag. Some people prefer stuff sacks or packing cubes, but I personally use a Quirky cord wrap for my Macbook charger and a Skooba cable sleeve for micro-USB cables, FitBit cable, Macbook VGA/DVI dongles, a Mophie battery, flash drive, 3.5mm line-in and so on.

Line-In Adapter

Speaking of line-in cabling, given that pretty much every rental car these days has an Aux line-in plug, there’s no sense in not carrying a 3.5mm cable with you. First of all, they’re cheap: $0.88 at present on Monoprice. Second, if you have to drive any distance, it’s nice to be able to plug in your smartphone to get turn-by-turn nav piped into the regular stereo, as well as being able to listen to whatever music, books, or podcasts you have onboard.

Audiobooks / Podcasts

Which in turn reminds me, store up on audiobooks (Smart Audiobook Player) and podcasts (Pocketcasts). They’re a great way to turn otherwise dead time in the car or airport into something productive or entertaining. I’ve been able cycle through everything from Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe novels to Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast while headed somewhere in the car, which is a big win timewise.

Ebooks

I held out for as long as I could, but ebooks are simply a better option for the frequent traveler. They’re lighter, easier to read on planes, always with you, and allow you to purchase virtually everything rather than what an airport has on stock. Used to be that physical books at least had the advantage in that you could read them during takeoff and landing, but the FAA finally killed that. I still very much like physical books and have no intention of getting rid of our library at home, but if you travel frequently, you might as well go ebooks now, because you will eventually anyway. In keeping with the recommended strategy of getting your hardware from Apple, your services from Google and your media from Amazon, all of my ebooks are bought through the Kindle store. I don’t, however, carry a separate Kindle device; all of my reading is done on my phone (Moto X) or tablet (Nexus 7).

Multi-port Travel Charger

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Another big no-no for the lightweight travel people, I use and recommend a multi-port travel charger like the Belkin here. Most people these days are traveling with multiple devices – laptop and phone, maybe a tablet or Kindle as well – and the Belkin makes it easier to charge all of these at once, even if you have to split a single outlet with someone at an airport. They’re a bit heavy, but worth it.

Always Be Charging

With or without the Belkin, the cardinal rule for any serious traveler is ABC: Always Be Charging. You never know when you’re going to need a given device, so charging when you have outlets available is absolutely mandatory. It took me only one miserable overnight flight with a dead phone and laptop to learn this lesson; hopefully you won’t need that.

Pack an Extra Battery

Chances are, even if you’re vigilant about charging, you will at some point be in a position where your device is nearly dead and there are no available means to recharge it. In such circumstances, it’s nice to have a backup option. I’ve traveled with a Mophie external battery pack for a few years now, but if I was buying today I’d get something like this one from Monoprice. You never know when you’re going to need extra juice.

Pack Extra Cables

Whether you’re an Android or iPhone person, pack extra cables. The lifespan on them isn’t great, and eventually you’re going to need to charge your device and find yourself with a dead cable. An extra cable is a lifesaver in this case, and again Monoprice has them both for reasonable prices.

Pack Extra Headphones

In a legitimate disaster scenario – you left your primary noise-canceling headphones (we’ll get to these next) at home – make sure you’re not stuck with the horrific ones airlines hand out, or worse none at all. Keep a cheap extra set in your bag; the set that came with my original Moto X lives in my bag for just such an emergency.

Invest in Noise-Canceling Headphones

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I resisted these for years, a) because they’re expensive and b) because the recommended models tended to be bulky over-the-ear types (e.g. Bose QC-15s) which can get hot and suck if you wear a hat. This was dumb. If you travel a lot, I recommend you go out right now and get the Bose 20‘s. You have no idea how loud flights actually are until you wear a set of these. The noise-canceling is absurd, they charge over micro-USB and they’re comfortable in-ear headphones. Seriously, they’re magic. Unless you’re an audiophile, in which case you’re on your own and may God have mercy on your soul.

Global Entry / Pre

Another thing I waited far, far too long to do was to get registered for Global Entry / Pre. If you travel internationally at all, spend the extra $15 to get Global Entry, and if you don’t just get Pre. It’s like traveling back in time before we became so scared of our own shadows that we thought it would be ok to virtually strip-search everyone before they fly. One pro-tip with scheduling Global Entry interviews: if your local interview location is booked way out, check places you fly regularly. Logan was a four month delay, but JFK was four weeks. But seriously, I can’t stress this enough: if you travel frequently, Pre is a life changer. Even more so if you consistently opt out of the porno-scanners for the sake of principle.

Get There Early

Pre access may get you through airport security lines more quickly, but don’t count on it. People laugh at how early I insist on getting to the airport – 90 minutes minimum for a domestic flight, ideally two hours – but I’m never stressed when things inevitably go wrong. And every so often, I’m able to catch a delayed earlier flight. There’s a school of thought that says that if you don’t miss at least a flight a year you’re getting there too early, but let’s be honest: are you really going to use that extra half hour or hour all that well? In my case, another few minutes kicking around at home are not worth the stress and hassle, so as Kottke says, to survive airplane travel, I get there early.

Be Nice to Service-people

You should be nice to people all the time, of course. But worst case, be nice to service people – whether they’re airline counter reps, your server/bartenders on the road or the people cleaning your hotel room. First, they have hard, often thankless jobs where customers are prone to taking out their frustrations on them. Don’t be that person. Second, they may or may not be able to help you when things go wrong, but they’re more likely to try if you’re calm and patient with them. And they can almost certainly make your situation worse if they choose to. I won’t name the airline, but when flying out of Chicago years ago a rep confessed that she had intentionally misdirected the bags of a customer who absolutely blew up at her without provocation. I approved of it then, and I do now. Don’t be an asshole.

Use TripIt

True, TripIt has been updated essentially zero times since they were acquired, and granted, Google Now is getting better and better at parsing travel details, but until it’s perfect, just use TripIt. If you allow it to scan your inbox(es), you’ll never have to lift a finger. All of your travel plans will be indexed and housed in one central location, so the next time the hotel can’t find your reservation you won’t have to dig through email search to produce the confirmation number.

Use Priceline

If you’re working for a big company that has negotiated rates with larger hotel chains, you can skip this one. For everyone else, it’s worth remembering Priceline’s “Name Your Price” feature when it comes to booking hotels (and possibly flights, though my schedule is never flexible enough for that). I pretty regularly save at least 40% or better off listed rates, and have approached the 60% figure they cite multiple times. There are a few catches: 1) you don’t accumulate any hotel rewards points (unless you’re nice to the receptionist and they sneak you in) for Priceline stays, 2) you don’t get to pick the actual hotel and 3) there are no refunds or cancellations. But you can save enough that it is frequently worth it. To use Priceline effectively, first check the inventory: if there are very few rooms available, don’t bother. You won’t save much. If inventory is high, however, check out biddingtraveler.com for reasonable bids for your area. Then select the highest hotel quality and narrowest geographic area you can, because if you get rejected you’ll have to expand out from there.

Collect Points

Situations like Priceline aside, accumulate points everywhere you possibly can. Make sure wherever you’re staying, flying or renting, you’re getting points for the stay. Ideally, you’re able to prioritize one carrier to maximize your points – I more or less exclusively fly JetBlue, for example, because they’re the only domestic carrier with enough leg room for someone over 6′ in coach. But even if schedule or corporate travel policies force you to diversify your spending, you may as well accumulate points while you’re doing it. If you travel enough, they do add up, even if some of the perks are modest.

Keep Track of Your Points

Odds are if you travel a lot you’re going to have more loyalty program information than you can remember, let alone track effectively. Centralizing this information in a single tracking service – I use AwardWallet, in spite of the fact that their Android app is terrible – can make your life a lot easier. Some people I know store all of their numbers in a text file in Dropbox or similar, but having AwardWallet actively track the status of your multiple accounts is useful.

Try Booking Directly

Many of us are used to booking travel through third party aggregators like Expedia, Hotels.com, Kayak and the like. But in many cases it’s worth booking your flights, hotel, and so on directly through the vendor. First because – third party aggregator prices aside – the cost may be lower. Second, many of the vendors may only reward you with points if you book directly with them. And third, they may issue you additional point bonuses for doing so. To be fair, third parties can have their own rewards program: Hotels.com gives you a free night every tenth purchase, for example (although it’s now an average of the ten night stay prices instead of a $400 night – used to be quite the loophole). But if you’re going to be traveling a lot, it’s usually worth trying to accumulate points in one place to get the higher level of service that returns.

Get on the Phone, Not in Line

Many of us today have deprecated the voice capabilities of our phone, preferring to deal with things either electronically or in person. But when you’re traveling, you’ll save yourself time and wear and tear by picking up the phone. When flights are canceled, for example, unless it’s a massive systemic issue, you’re more likely to get someone on the phone to fix things before the gate agents are able to negotiate the complicated needs of the dozens or hundreds of people in front of you in line.

Going to be Late? Call Ahead

If you’ve traveled with any frequency, you’ve probably encountered the situation where your flight is delayed and gets in very late, and by the time you show up at the hotel just ready to crawl into bed and go to sleep you discover that they’ve given your room away. You can prevent this sometimes, if not every time, by calling the hotel and letting them know that you’ll be late, but are still on the way. They’ll usually ask what time you might make it in, note that on your reservation and hold it for you until then. If they disappear into the back room for ten minutes, however, when you try and check in, you’re probably screwed. Be prepared to head somewhere else, though protocol is that they arrange your new accommodations for you.

Have Duplicate Toiletries

When I first started traveling, I simply packed my everyday razor, toothbrush and so on into a dop kit anytime I traveled. Not surprisingly, this inevitably leads to waking up somewhere without something you need. And while hotels are pretty good about having things on hand for just such an occurrence, the first time you shave with a terrible hotel supplied razor will probably be your last. Instead, I keep a fully stocked dop kit permanently in my MLC travel bag. That way, I don’t have to remember to pack anything – it’s already packed.

Keep a Bottle of Painkillers on Hand

For years now I’ve traveled with a worn small bottle of Advil in my briefcase that I keep fully stocked with Advil Liquigels. Whether it’s a sore head from a late night, a tweaked back from a long flight, you never want to wake up and be without a generic painkiller. Importantly, I leave this in my briefcase rather than my dop kit, because the former is with me far more than the latter.

Have a Routine

For everything: when you leave, what you do when you get there, where you store common items (phone, wallet), what you do when you get home, how you pack. Routine is everything, because the more you can navigate the logistics on autopilot the less you’re wasting time thinking about things you don’t have to.

Data Plans

Some people wonder how you justify the purchase of a cellular data plan for a second device (e.g. tablet), but the math is actually pretty simple. If you travel for a mere four or five nights a month, you’re looking at something close to $60 – $75 in hotel wireless fees. For $70, you can 11 GB of bandwidth from T-Mobile with no overage fees, and it will also be less saturated than the hotel network. Pair this with a tablet like the Nexus 7 which permits free tethering, and all of a sudden you have a hotspot for your laptop when you need to get something done.

SIM Cards

If you’re traveling overseas and need data, your best bet is to look around at the airport when you land. Most will have pre-paid SIMs available to give you prepaid data access; at Heathrow, for example, you can buy a 3 network SIM for £20 that will give you all the data you could use for a week or two.

Shipping Clothes

Occasionally on extended trips you may find yourself with clothing you no longer need. In such cases, I simply drop the now redundant clothing in a box at Fedex or UPS and ship it home. No sense toting around weight you don’t need to. I know some people who actually mail clothing directly to the hotels they’re staying at, but my track record with having things shipped to hotels is not great so I do this only if absolutely necessary (i.e. I’ve forgotten something).

Always Take Water When it’s Offered

Whenever you’re traveling, whether it’s a plane, an Uber, a train or even some buses, you’ll be offered water. Always take it, both because it’s good to hydrate and because you don’t know when you’ll need it later and not have access to it. Just remember to check your bag for water bottles before it goes through airport security, because they’ll have to rescan your bag if you forget one in there.

Take a Picture of Where You Parked

My worst lost car parking disasters came when I lived in Denver. I’d touch down at DIA late at night, it would have just started snowing and I’d wander up and down sprawling parking lots coatless, randomly hitting the panic button on my key to try and figure out where I’d parked. I’ve fallen out of the habit that fixed this, largely because if I lose my car in Portland it’s not nearly as hard to find it as I always park on the same level, but when I was in Denver I learned to take a picture of my spot after parking. I know some people who do this with their hotel rooms as well, because it’s easy for those to blur together. Anyway, it’s much easier to look up your location on a picture than it is to find your car in the snow, trust me.

How to Get to Sleep

This last one’s a bit weird, but bear with me. For a long time, I used to have trouble getting to sleep while on the road, whether it was from the stress of travel, the next day’s schedule or whatever. Then I stumbled on a solution, which will admittedly only work if you’re the only one in the room. Make sure you have a movie or TV show you know very well on your laptop – as in know it by heart (in my case it’s the Simpsons) – and play that at a volume just loud enough to hear with the screen dimmed or off. This will trick your brain into following the dialogue, thereby distracting it from getting spun up on other tasks, but since you already know it well you’ll tune out and switch off. I almost never remember listening to more than a few minutes of an episode before I fall asleep.

Got a travel tip of your own? Leave it in the comments.

The Problem With Heat Pumps (Or Why We Won’t Buy One Yet)

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A year ago this month, Kate and I bought our first house together. Ultimately we’re planning for a very different configuration, but at the moment it’s a pretty standard single floor ranch. Though the original part of the house dates back to the seventies, we were pleasantly surprised when our inspection revealed that the property was both well insulated and included a furnace of recent vintage – albeit one that ran on expensive fuel oil.

The big problem with these two findings is that neither was true.

This past winter was hard on everyone, and compared to many, we don’t have much to complain about. So let me complain about the size of our heating bills. First, because the furnace was (theoretically) current and therefore efficient. Second, because we had locked in at a price that was $0.20 less than what heating oil eventually peaked at. Third, because we had invested ahead of the heating season in Nest thermostats to help maximize our savings. And last, and most importantly, because we keep our house cold. Not as cold as these guys, but cold. During the week, our program for the Nest is simple: we keep the house at 50 degrees except for an hour in the morning and three or four at night – when we splurge and bump the heat up to 60. Weekends are a little more liberal for obvious reasons, but we were in the top 25% of Nest users every month of the winter in terms of relative efficiency, and the top 15% for two.

While oil is expensive then, we didn’t expect to be paying hundreds and hundreds a month to keep the house just this side of a meat locker. In spite of the horrific nature of the winter.

Which helps explain why we engaged the services of an energy auditor (DeWitt Kimball out of Brunswick, whom I highly recommend). He delivered the first piece of bad news: our adequate insulation situation was considerably less adequate that we had been told. Attics, for example, have a recommended R factor of 40+. Ours was, charitably, in the high teens. Which doesn’t factor in the other various insulation failures we have in a few older windows, the basement door and so on. According the blower test, our house places in the top third of “leaky” homes. We were paying all season, therefore, to heat the outdoors. Which we’ll be addressing by insulating. Heavily.

The far more expensive problem, however, was one we discovered prior to our audit. The oil furnace we thought had been installed in 2005 actually dated – by serial number – to 1992. Our primary heat source, in other words, was 22 years older than we had believed. 22 years less efficient.

The auditor’s recommended solution for heating issue was to keep the oil furnace in place, but to complement it with a “ductless mini-split heat pump,” which are generically referred to as heat pumps or heat exchangers. Popular in both Asia and Europe, these systems are hyper-efficient because they don’t actually use energy to create heat, they simply move it from one place to another – much as your refrigerator does. If a propane furnace is 80 something percent efficient and an oil furnace 90ish (due to the nature of the two fuels), a heat pump is closer to 250% efficient. Couple that with the fact that electricity in Maine is much cheaper on a relative basis than fuel oil – and potentially can be generated on premise were we to invest in solar – and the heat pumps appeared to be a perfect solution. Oh, and you can reverse the direction of the heat exchange and use them as air conditioners in the summer.

The most obvious downside of heat pumps, the fact that they perform less efficiently as the temperatures decline – eventually ceasing to function well below zero – would be a non-issue for us as we already have an auxiliary heat system in place for the few days we see real, deep cold. For most of the winter when the temperatures are 20 degrees fahrenheit and above, we could heat the house using the cheaper and more efficient heat pump. For the day here or there that it got seriously below zero, we could fall back on the oil furnace.

The more I read about heat pumps, the better they sounded. One guy on Martha’s Vineyard heated his house for a year for the grand total of $250 – a fraction of what we paid per month. Another from Presque Isle, almost as far north as you can go in Maine without being in Canada, estimated that he’d save $1,000 a year.

And yet there’s effectively no chance we’ll invest in the technology this year. Why? Because their interfaces are entirely proprietary.

When doing the initial research, I assumed that if there was a problem integrating heat pumps into our existing infrastructure, it would be with our two Nest units. But as it turns out, Nest is more than capable of working with heat pumps as well as an auxiliary heat source like our oil furnace. Called “Heat Pump Balance,” it essentially allows you to use the heat pump until the outside temperature renders it inefficient, then kick in a backup. Perfect.

Except for the fact that, as nearly as I can determine, the best and most efficient heat pumps – manufactured by Fujitsu and Mitsubishi – cannot be integrated into existing thermostat systems, Nest or otherwise. This was the response I got from Fujitsu when I asked about whether their system could be integrated with the Nest or even a standard thermostat:

Our systems can only work with our controllers, they cannot be controlled with the Nest thermostat. At this time there is no way to connect it to the Nest unfortunately.

Essentially, these heat pumps have to be installed as a completely separate system, one entirely independent of your existing HVAC infrastructure – Nest or otherwise. The only way to control the devices is with specialized equipment supplied by the vendor. Which means that we would have two independent, unintegrated heating control systems. Honeywell customer support described the situation to one Mitsubishi customer as follows:

The MIFH1, although built by Honeywell, uses a proprietary Mitsubishi communication protocol to translate and transfer commands between the Mitsubishi equipment and the RedLink enabled products that can also be used with it.

In other words, Mitsubishi’s integration with Honeywell’s Redlink system is a one-off, non-standard connection. Unlike virtually every other piece of HVAC equipment you could buy – air conditioners, gas/oil/propane furnaces, etc – heat pumps cannot leverage standardized thermostat connections. Even if said thermostat, like the Nest, has built-in, native support for heat pumps.

It is somewhat ironic that the most state-of-the-art, technologically sophisticated heating system currently available is unable to integrate with something as basic as a thermostat, but that is the current reality. Which means in turn that as a potential customer, I’m being asked to invest thousands of dollars in a product that cannot be controlled remotely, cannot be leveraged in conjunction with other heating systems, and can’t report telemetry back to somewhere I could use it.

But maybe the real irony is that I won’t invest in these technological marvels for lack of such basic functionality. Even if I could make two independent heating systems work together, I’d be kicking myself next year, or the year after, or whenever Fujitsu, Mitsubishi et al figure out that people want their heating and cooling systems to a) be aware of one another and b) work with each other. It may cost us in the short term with higher heating bills, but it certainly beats paying for heat pumps now, and then again later when the vendors have seen the light and let them work with our Nest units.

In the (hopefully) likely event that Fujitsu and Mitsubishi eventually see the light, my message to them would be simple.

Shut-up-and-take-my-money

A Year of Steps

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A year ago last week I got a Fitbit Flex. I have worn it every day since, which means that with a few exceptions when I inadvertently let the battery die, it has tracked every step I’ve taken.

This wasn’t much of a chore, because the device itself mostly stays out of my way. The battery life is solid; I only charge it every five or six days. The fact that it’s mostly waterproof also helps. It stays on in the shower, and I’ve swum with it in both salt and fresh water with no issues.

Having a daily goal – 12,000 steps, in my case – helps incent good behaviors. Taking the stairs instead of an escalator. Walking to lunch instead of driving. And, much to the frustration of the occasional passenger, parking as far away from a store as its parking lot allows.

While the daily numbers are useful, however, zooming out to look at the data over longer periods of time is illuminating. The chart above depicts a year’s worth of steps.

Over the calendar year plus I’ve averaged 9,340 steps. Which is shy of my 12,000 step goal, but not that far from the 10,000 commonly recommended. It’s also easy to spot patterns in the data that aren’t as obvious when your focus is day to day: greater activity in the summer, with a decline in the winter and during the spring conference season. Theoretically the weather shouldn’t have a huge impact on my activity level thanks to the tread-desk I have at the office, but when the winter is bad enough that I can’t even get there – like this winter, it shows up in the data.

A third of consumers, reportedly, abandon devices like the Fitbit after purchasing them. A year in, I can’t imagine doing that. Just as it’s interesting to look back on a year to examine month to month trends, I’m hoping to be comparing year-to-year trends eventually.

For now, though, I’ll have to work on picking the activity back up so that this summer’s data looks like last’s.

I Remember Books

Stephen King: Night Shift

The last physical book I read was a well worn 1978 paperback copy of Stephen King’s short story collection Night Shift on January 2nd of this year. The fact that I can tell you this says more than I’d like it to about my changing relationship with books.

I’ve always had a lot of books. My parents, both readers, encouraged my brother and I to read at an early age first by reading books to us and then by buying them for us. Old enough to buy them on my own, I did, in volume. I’ve moved maybe a dozen times since college, and the only thing that followed me from state to state, city to city was my books. Boxes and boxes, all heavy, of books. Kate is just as bad. Between us we’ve got one entire room paneled with books, one half of another and two more large bookshelves filled with boxes left over. This is with the majority of the books from my childhood still with my parents.

My problem isn’t that I don’t love books. It’s that convenience kills.

I was an easy and early convert to digital music. I appreciate the affection that many maintain for physical recordings, particularly vinyl. But I could not get rid of my physical music collection fast enough. This was literally true: between small, slow spinning disks and anemic processors hard pressed to compress my CD’s efficiently, converting to digital music was a chore. And yet one I embraced.

Books, though, held out.

I’ve been traveling heavily for almost twenty years. For maybe nine or ten months of every year, I spend some portion of those months on the proverbial plane, train or automobile headed somewhere to do something. For the majority of that decade plus, I dragged physical books with me. One of the most important parts of my pre-flight ritual, in fact, was ensuring that I’d packed enough reading material to get me through a trip – the alternative being paying twice as much for a book I didn’t actually want at an airport Hudson News.

It’s true that for a part of the last decade my alternatives to physical books were limited. The Kindle wasn’t introduced until 2007, and the e-readers that predated it were primitive in design and limited in titles. As for audiobooks, they were both expensive and difficult to manage on the basic interfaces of the first iPods. But the Kindle has been a practical replacement for physical media for most of its lifespan, which is seven years now. As for audiobooks, I haven’t really had any excuses about avoiding them since getting my first iPhone in December of 2007.

Through 2012, however, I resisted. An audiobook here, a free classic on the Kindle app there, but most of all good physical books. Looking back, however, I’m fairly confident I haven’t read an actual book since then. There was no epiphany, no breaking point, no watershed decision that I can recall. The surrender was so gradual, actually, that I missed it.

The good news is that I’m reading as much or more than in years past. The internet and its infinite distractions notwithstanding, I’ve plowed through everything from McCullough’s 1776 to Wasik and Murphy’s Rabid to Chandler’s the Lady in the Lake in one digital format or another. I even made it halfway through Bleak House before half a dozen people on Twitter talked me out of it. When I’m on a plane, the Kindle app is open unless the Red Sox are on in-flight TV or I’ve got a deadline to meet. And while my commute is less than half of what it was before we moved to Freeport, that’s forty minutes per day that I can reallocate to a book.

The bad news is only bad news, I guess, if you appreciate physical books. The bad news, then, is that I’m is going on sixteen months where I’ve opened one once. As much as I’ve tried to reintegrate them into my life, it’s not exactly taking. Maybe it’ll be different sitting out on the deck by the river this summer, but I’m not hopeful. Which is actually the worse news. Bad as not reading books is, not being able to even project to read any for the foreseeable future is downright depressing.

There’s no getting around it: audiobooks and ebooks are simply more convenient than their physical counterparts. One of the biggest advantages they enjoyed, meanwhile, was eliminated by the FAA when the organization did away with its restrictions on phone/tablet usage during takeoff and landing.

That said, I’m not giving up on a comeback for the real thing. And I’m certainly not giving up my books. As long as they’re kicking around, there’s always the chance that I’ll find the key to getting back on that particular horse. And worst case, there’s something comforting about having them around, even if it’s just as a reminder of how life used to be.

My Trip to Europe in Pictures

When I left Maine two weeks ago today, my primary concern was being able to find my car in the lot. A lot has happened since I’ve been gone. The Super Bowl has been won and lost (sorry, Denver friends). Real Portland got a foot of snow dropped on it. And Allagash, Oxbow and Smuttynose squared off for some craft brewer on craft brewer violence in the form of a pond hockey tournament.

I’ve been busy as well. I attended three conferences, gave one talk, toured canals and breweries, and played Hearts in four countries. The first half of the trip was work-related. IBM Connect in Orlando, then our own Monki Gras conference in London where I was joined by Kate. From there, we hopped the train down to Brussels where we met up with the usual suspects at FOSDEM.

Post-FOSDEM, it was on to vacation. Friends from Maine and Boston met us in Brussels for a week of sights, scenery and, of course, beer. For those interested, a few pictures.

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Some of you may know that my RedMonk partner-in-crime James is now moonlighting as an event space owner. As the founder of the Village Hall in the Shoreditch neighborhood of London, he’s hosted everything from user groups to big co events. This trip was my first visit to the venue, and it’s perfect.

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The Monki Gras, the London counterpart to our Monktoberfest, was off the hook as per usual. The speakers were incredible, the food – from Korean to Japanese to Venezuelan – was as impressive as advertised, and the beer list will be enormously difficult for us to compete with come October. Hats off to James for another bad ass conference.

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After arriving in Brussels late Friday night, I met up with old friends Bear and Joe for a kebab dinner and beers at one of my favorite bars in the world, Au Bon Vieux Temps. About which, coincidentally, the word appears to have gotten out. Where we once had the place to ourselves during FOSDEM, as it’s primarily a Brussels’ regulars bar, it was packed all weekend.

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Saturday morning I got up, fought (as I do every year) with the Belgian public transit system’s kiosks and headed down to FOSDEM. The Java Devroom was kind enough to have me as a speaker once more (slides), and it was great to see the turnout.

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One of the other highlights of FOSDEM for me was Chris’ session on Open Source Compliance at Twitter. The line for that started forming up a full forty minutes ahead of the talk.

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Sunday night, with an early morning train to Amsterdam ahead of us, we took it easy: Cantillon and cards.

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With some imported Heady Toppers thrown in.

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Never having been to Amsterdam prior, I didn’t know what to expect. As it turns out, however, Amsterdam is a beautiful city. With Venice-like canals bisecting the town, it has an entirely unique feel. Unlike Brussels or even Paris at times, you never feel like you’re anywhere besides Amsterdam.

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While it’s a little long and the canned audio commentary is comically bad, the canal tour was an excellent way of seeing huge potions of the city efficiently.

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To wrap up our day, we hit the Arendsnest – the Dutch beer bar recommended to us by our friend Ryan Travers of Of Love and Regret fame. No surprise given the source, it was excellent. While the Dutch aren’t known for their beers in the way that Belgium is, between venues like Bierbrouwerij Emelisse, De Koningshoeven and Brouwerij De Molen, they can more than hold their own. The service, in addition, was excellent. The Eagle’s Nest is highly recommended if you’re ever in Amsterdam.

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Tuesday was mostly rest and recovery, but we managed to sneak in a trip to the Cantillon Brewery. One of the world’s most highly regarded – and hard to get, at least in the US – producers of sour beers, their brewery has essentially remained unchanged for better than a century. No artificial heat or cooling, everything is still done the old way at Cantillon.

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One of the primary brewery components at Cantillon is their koelschip, which has been anglicized in the US as coolship. It’s basically a large flat copper sheet which allows for efficient cooling and open fermentation. This is of particular interest to us here in Maine as our own Allagash was the first US brewery to reintroduce the technology, although Crooked Stave, Russian River and others have followed their lead.

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Speaking of Allagash, it was nice to run into a few barrels from our hometown brewery at Cantillon.

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The Cantillon tour is also notable for its lack of supervision. After a five minute orientation, you are turned loose to tour the actual brewery on your own. Unlike tours here in the US, virtually nothing is off limits or sectioned off. They trust you not to steal bottles right in front of you, even ones which look old enough to be exceptionally valuable, which is not exactly common these days. Anyway, if you can make it to Brussels, recommend a trip to the brewery.

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That night, as every other night, Hearts was played. This was more or less what I was dealing with the entire trip.

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The next morning we were off to Paris. Our first stop on arrival was Musée de Cluny, the National Museum of the Middle Ages. Housing tapestries, stained glass, manuscripts and sculptures from the age, it’s impressive. Even more so is that, having been founded on the site of 1st Century Roman baths, the site has seen continuous usage for over two thousand years.

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Next stop was Notre Dame, which remains the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen that was built by human hands. Pictures can’t do it justice, it’s that impressive. On the way, we wandered into Polly Maggoo, a tapas restaurant run by a Romanian transplant, with no real expectations. The servers were over-the-top friendly, they let one of us charge a phone and even threw in free appetizers and a free round. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by.

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From Notre Dame, we stopped in to Saint Chappelle, which is less dramatic than its larger cousin but much more intimate.

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Last major stop for the day was the Tour Eiffel. The one thing I will say about this is under no circumstances should you go to the summit in 30+ MPH winds. At least if you have any fear whatsoever of heights, which I wouldn’t have said previously that I did. When you’re at the top of a 125 year old, thousand foot high metal frame that is actively and perceptibly swaying it’s not all that enjoyable. Apart from that, however, it’s worth it: the views are spectacular.

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Our last two days, Thursday and Friday, were spent in leisurely fashion. We spent some time shopping for chocolates and other items on behalf of friends and family back home, we introduced our friends to Brussels’ staples like the Delirium Cafe and La Mort Subite, and most importantly we engineered our checked luggage in order to protect the many bottles we all brought back. An effort, I’m happy to say, which was successful: there were precisely zero casualties.

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been for two weeks. And, for the record, no, I did not remember where my car was.

My 2013 in Pictures

It’s been a few years since I did an annual wrap up post. Where a few years equals seven. While it’s taken me longer than it should have to realize it, however, I miss them. True, the posts are really only relevant to me, but as a sucker for nostalgia, I have always enjoyed revisiting these snapshots years later. The little flashes of memory – I remember that trip – is worth the relatively minimal effort involved.

This year, I’m doing it a bit differently. Having a smartphone has not only killed off my SLR, it’s meant that significant – and not so significant – moments are all documented. Not to mention, conveniently backed up for me online by Google. So instead of a list of links, this is my year in pictures.

Before we get to the pictures, however, a few quick numbers courtesy of FitBit and TripIt (the latter via this little tool):

  • From late May, when I got my FitBit flex, through December 31st I took 2,415,119 steps
  • FitBit translates that as ~1,170 miles
  • I flew 85,886 miles
  • 43 of my 62 flights were on JetBlue
  • I spent over 2 full days in transit to and from San Francisco
  • I actually flew out of Boston (26) 4 times more than Portland (22)

The goal for this year is to travel less than I did last. Which sadly is not likely. But anyway, on to the pictures:

January 1, 2013

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Spent New Year’s Day walking at Reid State Park in Georgetown.

January 6, 2013

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In Fort Lauderdale for work, I visited Slip F-18 at the Bahia Mar marina as a gesture of respect to one of my favorite authors. McGee would not recognize the place these days.

January 9, 2013

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My first book, The New Kingmakers, was published by O’Reilly.

January 31, 2013

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Attended the Monki Gras in London, which was excellent.

February 1, 2013

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Caught the Eurostar to Brussels

February 2, 2013

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Hit my favorite bar in Brussels with friends and co-workers.

February 7, 2013

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Got a treadmill desk. Still love it, a year later.

February 24, 2013

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Got snowed in in Georgetown.

March 14, 2013

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While house hunting, viewed a property right on the water in Freeport.

March 16, 2013

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Went to the boat show.

March 21, 2013

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As a function of their move, my parents finally sold my first car, a ’73 Mustang. It wasn’t one of the pretty Mustangs, and it had a ton of mechanical issues, but I really loved that car. It is missed.

March 26, 2013

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Did my first (and only) book signing. In a bar.

April 13, 2013

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Visited In’finiti, the newest Portland craft beer venue, for the first time.

April 15, 2013

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Had to turn down tickets to the Patriot’s Day game due to a conference in Portland, OR. Watched the bombings unfold from there. Coped.

April 27, 2013

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Approximately 24 hours before our scheduled closing on the property on the water in Freeport, our USAA-backed lender informed us we would not close, requesting documentation we had provided twice previously.

May 8, 2013

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Using local bank, closed on the property on the water in Freeport.

May 9, 2013

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Commenced second career as general contractor.

May 21, 2013

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Visited friends, and the Crooked Stave brewery, in Denver.

May 26, 2013

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First dinner of the season at the Osprey.

May 31, 2013

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My friend Alex announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer.

June 1, 2013

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With Corey’s help, ripped out two closets to free up floor space.

June 6, 2013

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For the first time in 40 years, my parents were once again residents of New England. And after a mere six months in Maine, my Dad has gone completely native.

June 15, 2013

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Unable to successfully conceal an injury from Kate thanks to some pulsing blood, was forced to go to the ER. Total stitches required? 3.

June 22, 2013

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Attended Shelton Brothers’ The Festival in Portland, ME.

June 30, 2013

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With my brother, took my godson to his first Red Sox game. He made it through five full innings. The Red Sox won.

July 4, 2013

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Spent July 4th on the Eastern Prom with friends.

July 10, 2013

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Late, but got the boat in the water.

July 13, 2013

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Visited brother/sister in law up in Chamberlain.

July 23, 2013

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Thanks to Kate, got to go on the field at Fenway.

August 17, 2013

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Weekend at Sugarloaf with my in-laws.

August 24, 2013

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Ryan and Shawn’s wedding.

August 30, 2013

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Finished tiling the backsplash in the kitchen.

August 30, 2013

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Annual pilgrimmage to Houston Brook Falls.

September 13, 2013

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Thanks to very good – and very generous – friends, had my 1000th unique beer on Untappd. The selection? A 1972 Kriek brewed by a defunct Flemish brewery called Felix.

September 20, 2013

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Removed our old front door.

September 21, 2013

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Kim and Sheila’s wedding.

October 3, 2013

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The Monktoberfest.

October 7, 2013

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Post-Monktoberfest visit to the Allagash brewery. This is the barrel room.

October 23, 2013

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Caught Game 1 of the World Series from the Connecticut Yankee in San Francisco, CA.

October 26, 2013

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Goods from the Woods at the Oxbow Brewery, Newcastle, ME.

October 30, 2013

November 2, 2013

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Took the boat around to get hauled.

December 31, 2013

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And to ring in the New Year, a marathon Hearts session.

Becoming a Sonos Household

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For years now I’ve been hearing from family (my brother) and friends about the merits of the Sonos system. The advocacy isn’t quite Tempurpedic-level cultish in flavor, but it’s close. Give it few years. None of the wide-eyed recommendations made much of a dent, however. Fifteen years ago I’m confident that I would have had a strong opinion on the Sonos, positive or negative. In those days, I was a wanna-be audiophile. It was bad enough that I was a wanna-be in the financial sense – I didn’t have the money for the real high end gear, which you can generally tell apart by how ugly and primitive it looks. Worse, I was a pretender in ability.

Because I loved music then as I do now, I was heavily invested in the idea that I needed it rendered back to me perfectly. I researched and bought the best equipment I could afford at the time in an attempt to ensure that studio records sounded as close to when they were recorded in the studio as possible. Live shows, which I have a lot of, as if I was there. Marantz receivers, Paradigm speakers, a Hsu Research subwoofer – it was a lot of money at the time.

There was just one problem: I couldn’t really tell the difference between good gear and bad gear. Which meant that I was paying a premium for quality I couldn’t objectively appreciate. This slow, reluctant realization was triggered in part by my transition to digital media: after ripping my CD collection to (ludicrously small) hard drives in the late 1990’s, it was only natural that I began listening to music from the computer rather than my home theater system. And while I’d upgraded the computer speakers, they were not remotely comparable on paper with my home theater setup. But just like the camera you have with you, they had the distinct advantage of being at hand.

If you’re interested, there are lengthy debates to be found on the internet about a) whether the physiological design of the human ear is capable of the differentiation audiophiles believe that it is and b) whether they can reliably tell the difference between equipment costing thousands of dollars from equipment that costs hundreds, if that. Personally, I’m not interested. The only thing I need to know about audiophiles is that I’m not cut out to be one.

Which helps explain, to get back to the original subject, why I wasn’t terribly interested in the Sonos in spite of all of the enthusiasm. I stopped caring about audio equipment over a decade ago and didn’t much intend to start back now. Then my brother got me a Sonos for Christmas.

Specifically he got me a Play:3 and a Bridge. While I’m sure Sonos will tout the quality of its speaker systems, the real calling card is the Just Works quality of the network integration. You connect the speaker to your network, or in my case the wireless bridge, and you can play your music, along with a variety of third party services, wirelessly with zero effort. Even better, it’s modular. You can set up Sonos devices in various areas – living room, kitchen, TV room – and push any combination of local media and services such as Pandora to any combination of those rooms. The appeal is obvious, even for someone who’d given up on stereo tech. Convenience, as ever, is a killer feature.

Even now I’m not sure I would have invested in Sonos without the push from my brother; the upfront capital costs of the entire system would be discouraging, as the bulk of our available capital is currently allocated to home improvement. But with the initial purchase out of the way, I can easily see us expanding from the dining room (where our unit sits now) to the kitchen, living room, bedroom, maybe even the basement.

Some of you are probably reading this and thinking, “Why pay Sonos when I can just connect a home media server to my home theater system via an RC cable?” Good question, as that’s exactly what I used to do. For me, however, the answer is time. Given time and effort, I could duplicate the functionality, or most of it, using off-the-shelf stereo components, an old server, VNC and some ethernet cable. But then again, I pay Dropbox so that I don’t have to (poorly) replicate it using cron jobs and rsync scripts. Sonos isn’t the only way to push music around your house, but it’s almost certainly one of the easiest.

Once upon a time I had more time than projects to tinker on. Today, that ratio has flipped so completely that my vacations are spent working on the projects that I can’t get to when I’m working. As such, the Sonos has a lot of value to me. Might be it does for you.

The Good

  • Clients: Sonos doesn’t support, at least as far as I can tell, a Linux client, but with Android, iPad, iPhone, OS X and Windows, they have most of the bases covered.

  • Setup: Setup was surprisingly easy. Plug the Bridge into the router, press a button and it’s configured. The Play:3 was even more interesting. It somehow got itself onto my encrypted wireless network without my ever providing it with the password. I assume it was assisted either by the Android device I configured it with or the Bridge but either way, I’m curious.
  • Sound: As mentioned earlier, I’m no audiophile, but the sound quality is very good, even at higher volumes.

The Bad

  • Library Updating: The process of integrating a music library can be less than intuitive, particularly if – as I do – you store your music in a separate directory from your iTunes library file.

  • NAS integration: Sonos does support integration with NAS devices, but it’s a heavily manual process. Would be nice to see them work with vendors like Synology who supplies the box we use here.
  • Service Portfolio: While Sonos has covered a lot of the bases here with Audible, Last.fm, Pandora, Rdio, Spotify, etc, there are some obvious holes like Google Play (though this app is a decent workaround) and iTunes Radio. Based on the politics involved there, it might be a while.

The Ugly

  • User Experience: Literally. Sonos does a nice job with the out-of-the-box user experience, but their UIs are, in general, not attractive, and usage is a bit awkward.

So You Want to Buy a Kegerator: The Q&A

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Possibly because the number of craft breweries is exploding, possibly because of the economics of scale and possibly just because beer is delicious, a lot of people have been asking me about buying a kegerator. Since we got ours in February of 2012, we’ve had a lot of interesting things on tap at the house. Allagash Bourbon Black, Dogfish 120 Minute, Lost Abbey Deliverance, a hell of a lot of Curieux and even some Zymatore Bourbon Aged Alvinne Melchior. All of these have been significantly cheaper in keg form than they would have been in bottles, and some were never available in bottles in the first place.

All of which is a long way of saying, almost two years later, we’re very happy with the purchase. But many of you remain unpersuaded by the stock “go buy one” recommendation, and have actual questions about getting, owning and using a kegerator. If you’re one of those people, this is for you.

Q: Do you end up drinking more beer if you own a kegerator?

A: At first, yes. The novelty of being able to pour your own drafts at home is huge. I drank way too much Weyerbacher Heresy the first night we had ours. After a week or two though, no. I compare it when people ask me this to a water view: it’s something you appreciate, but also something that fades into the day to day background of your life. Add in the fact that sixtel kegs don’t contain as much beer as you might expect and the answer is no, after a little while, a kegerator is unlikely to have a meaningful impact on the amount of beer that you drink.

Q: What’s a sixtel?

A: A sixtel is 1/6th of a full keg, the most common size you’ll find for home consumption. A full sixtel weighs around 58 lbs and contains 55 12 oz pours of beer, per Micromatic. Pony kegs are the next size up, and represent a 1/4 of a full keg. They weigh just shy of 90 pounds and contain 82 12 oz pours. A full keg, or half barrel, which you’re not likely to need unless you’re throwing a large party, weighs over 160 pounds and contains 165 12 oz pours. But again, if you’re a craft beer fan, you’re probably going to be dealing primarily with sixtels. And when you have a bunch of friends over, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can go through 55 12 oz pours.

Q: How long do kegs keep? Do I have to drink them right away to prevent them going bad?

A: The design of the kegerator insures that no air actually ever touches the beer – only CO2. This means that as long as you’re using a keg on the kegerator only, it will keep as long as the beer will. If you’re an IPA fan, you’re probably going to want to blow through the keg very quickly because the hops will fade in a matter of weeks, washing out the taste. If you’re into sours, or dark, higher alchohol beers, you can store these for years. Many of these will taste better, in fact, if you age them. We’ve got a couple in the basement, in fact, that are around a year and a half old.

Q: Where does one buy kegs?

A: From a liquor store, naturally. The challenge will be finding one that will actually tell you what kegs they have available. For reasons that have never been clear to me, many liquor stores will not be able to tell you what kegs they can sell. They’ll answer your question – “what do you have?” – with their own, “what do you want?,” failing to realize that the answer to the latter depends heavily on the former. We’re very lucky to have Bier Cellar here in real Portland, and Greg does an excellent job of keeping his keg lists up to date. If you’re down in the Boston area, Julio’s lists theirs as well. In other cases, hit up the best craft beer venue nearest you. If they don’t sell kegs themselves, they might be able to give you a line on where to get one.

Q: What kind of kegerator did you buy?

A: We bought a Danby (my Amazon review here). Nothing has changed since that original review, either: the kegerator has, in general, been issue free. One review, however, suggests that our specific unit has been discontinued. So that might be a problem.

Q: Where did you buy your unit?

A: Amazon. The Prime free shipping was too good to pass up.

Q: What should I look for in a kegerator?

A: A few things:

  • Find one that has a full 5 lb CO2 tank. Many come w/ a 2.5 lb tank, and that will make it harder to get CO2 because the most common distribution model is straight trades of 5 lb tanks – i.e. they don’t fill it, but you leave your empty one and they give you a full one in return.
  • Don’t pay a premium for multiple taps. As long as you get a reasonably sized unit (like the Danby we got) that can house multiple barrels, you can always upgrade to multiple taps later, more cheaply and with better equipment.
  • Even if you don’t want multiple taps, getting a slightly larger unit is recommended because you can accommodate more types of kegs beyond the normal sixtels (1/6 of a keg), such as quarter (pony) or even full half kegs if necessary.
  • Temperature control: try and find one with the ability to easily set and control temperature. The colder the kegs are kept, the less likely you are to have foam issues.

Q: How much does it cost to operate a kegerator?

A: Electric costs, at least for our model, are marginal. The Danby we have will theoretically operate for a year for around thirty dollars of electricity.

Q: Do I have to cover the lines to protect them from fruit flies?

A: It’s recommended. Get one of these for a couple of bucks and you’re all set.

Q:  Will my kegerator be compatible with any keg I buy?

A:  Sadly, no. The overwhelming majority of kegs will be compatible with the standard coupler that comes with a kegerator, called a Sankey coupler, but some kegs – particularly European ones – will require a different coupler. That said, if you’re set on a particular keg, swapping out a coupler for a different style takes maybe five minutes.

Q: How about set up? Are kegerators hard to put together?

A: It might seem complex at first but it’s not mechanically challenging. If you think of a kegerator simply as a fridge with some hoses to hook up it’s easier.

Basically you screw the faucet/tap into the refrigerator unit, screw the seating assembly for the tank onto the unit, connect the hoses and clamps to the regulator (CO2) and the keg coupler and you’re done. You’ll probably want something sharp to trim the lines, if necessary, along with a screw driver and a monkey wrench.

Q: Where do I fill the CO2 tanks? Or trade them?

A: For CO2, the easiest place to find it is at your local brewing supply place – in my case, that’s going to see Rob at Maine Brewing Supply. If your local supply place doesn’t have it, they’re likely to know who will: some kegerator owners have to go to medical oxygen supply houses for their gas.

Other questions? Things you need to know before buying a kegerator? Leave a comment and I’ll answer it if I can.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

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I would love to tell you that I spent my vacation at places like Houston Brook Falls. But we’re homeowners now, so vacation is just another word for work. While I did take an afternoon off for my annual pilgrimage to swim under the falls, I’ve spent the majority of the past few weeks covered in some combination of grout, mastic, paint, sawdust, stone dust, wood glue and tiny shards of tile.

On the one hand, this is less exciting that than killing lazy August afternoons on the boat with a growler of Oxbow and a couple of John D MacDonald novels. On the other, a lot got done.

This, for example, was our kitchen when we moved in.

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After finishing off the tile – and for your sake, don’t look to closely at the grout lines or you’ll get seasick – this is what it looks like today.

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Even with the amateur hour backsplash, that seems objectively better.

One of the other projects was getting our brand new LG washer and dryer off the concrete floor in our basement – apparently elevating the machines extends their lifespan along with making them easier to use.

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Rather than pony up $600 for the official LG laundry pedestals, $70 worth of plywood and 2×4’s along with a borrowed miter saw produced a platform that has been charitably described as “functional.” As an aside, if any of you need to manufacture something similar, I used the plans here, modifying the dimensions slightly for our larger, heavier equipment.

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With an assist from my father and brother – my wife didn’t think I should lift the 226 lb washer by myself, oddly – they’re now elevated to a more convenient level.

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Outside the aforementioned basement, meanwhile, our walkout was a lumpy, uneven and moss penetrated disgusting slab of asphalt. Which tore out, fortunately enough, in sheets courtesy of a pick axe. Into the hole that created went a hundred pounds of stone dust and surplus flagstones my parents had left over from their front walk project.

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It needs to settle and then be edged, but as with the kitchen, it’s an improvement even as is.

Interspersed with these larger projects were the predictable volume of smaller ones: leveling the dishwasher, priming and painting unfinished bookshelves, repairing and re-caulking seals in the shower, securing loose water pipes to joists and so on.

All in all, it was a unique vacation. But undeniably a productive one. The other silver lining? Working on a computer never seems more attractive than after you’ve spend a couple of days almost cutting your fingers off with a tile saw.

Tl;dr? I’m really looking forward to getting back to work tomorrow. Vacation is hard.

Home of the Not Quite So Brave

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(Photo courtesy Cory Doctorow)

As much as I travel today, in the fall of 2001, I was traveling more. Every week of every month. The only saving grace was that in those days I could get up at 5:10 in South Boston and still make the 6 AM flight out of Logan to Chicago. After the events of September 11th, of course, that became impossible, because air travel changed. Because the country around it changed.

Anyone who has had to choose between being virtually strip searched or subjected to what the TSA calls an “enhanced pat-down,” which is everyone who’s been on a plane since 2007, is aware of this. And if they didn’t think the country had changed before, most Americans do today after the revelations of the former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden.

Whatever you may think about his claims, assuming you care enough to give them more than cursory consideration, it is clear that the depth of the NSA’s local signals intercept is far deeper than the average citizen realized. Shock and surprise, therefore, are logical reactions. The accompanying outrage, however, is misplaced – for Americans, anyway. What our government has created, after all, is nothing more or less than what we the people asked for. We told the government we were frightened, and rewarded those politicians who appealed to our fears. And so they’ve built the security apparatus to, theoretically at least, keep us safe. Never mind that it can never actually hope to accomplish that goal, and never mind that mission creep will inevitably result in surveillance systems employed for tasks well beyond what was originally intended. We’re getting what we demanded, and therefore, what we deserve.

It has been a long time since “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” so the idea that Post-9/11 America is different than Pre-9/11 America is likely uncontroversial. Pre-9/11, machines that virtually strip-searched everyone wishing to board an aircraft would have been absolutely unthinkable. After, we as a country we put our heads down and accepted the indignity. Because terrorism, apparently. We’re soft these days. Or, as one writer colorfully put it, the days before 9/11 were the days “before a handful of religious-gibberish-spouting Middle Eastern whackjobs somehow managed to transform the most powerful nation on earth into an asylum full of cringing, paranoid pants-wetters.”

Maybe it’s because 20th century conflicts have been fought on foreign shores. Maybe it’s because the end of the draft and transition to an all volunteer military has eliminated the harsh realities of combat for many. Maybe it was the ubiquity of media, which means that in the words of John D MacDonald, “everybody knows everything too fast and too often and too many times.” Maybe it’s all of the above, or maybe it’s something different. The cause for America’s fractured psyche could be debated indefinitely, but ultimately the discussion would be academic. What cannot be argued is that we are collectively afraid, and that the direction of this country changed that day as a result.

The only important question remaining is whether that change is permanent.

In the wake of the widening and ongoing scandal regarding NSA surveillance, critics of the Obama administration have focused on what they perceive to be contradictions between the positions of Barack Obama, US Senator and Barack Obama, US President. Even if we assume that the critics are entirely correct, that President Obama abandoned Senator Obama’s resistance to monitoring, the explanation for this seems straightforward. The President does not have to have consciously misrepresented himself in an effort to pander to the electorate, though that is certainly possible. An explanation does not even require the President to be hopelessly corrupted by the power afforded by total surveillance, though that is obviously the risk of such systems.

The simplest explanation for the administration’s defense of what is inarguably a massively extensive wiretapping and surveillance program is that it’s saving lives, just as they claim. With even the most superficial access, it would be impossible for the system not to prevent some attacks. Consider the security briefings and intelligence the incoming President is elevated to, and consider the difference in accountability – and thus political liability – between Senator and President. Expecting a sitting chief executive to not leverage tools that are protecting the country, and thereby their career, is unrealistic. Which is why the situation today is ultimately our fault, and our responsibility.

Abraham Lincoln once said “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.” The current NSA surveillance program – whatever the details – is possible because of public sentiment. More specifically, because the dominant public sentiment these past several years has been fear.

In the aftermath of 9/11, our behaviors – particularly in foreign policy and domestic security – were driven by the terror successfully triggered in us by that attack. Which means, of course, that the terrorists won. The Department of Homeland Security, as one example, owes its existence to our shared anxiety. Biology teaches us that fear and its physiological byproducts like adrenaline, while evolutionarily useful, rarely lend themselves to intelligent decision making. Consequently, many of the decisions made in the aftermath look foolish in retrospect. Or would if we could admit it. But we are still scared, even if there is no profit in it. As the novelist William Gibson put it:

Are you really so scared of terrorists that you’ll dismantle the structures that made America what it is? If you are, you let the terrorist win. Because that is, specifically, his goal, his only goal: to frighten you into surrendering the rule of law. That’s why they call him ‘terrorist.’ He uses terrifying threats to induce you to degrade your own society. It’s based on the same glitch in psychology that allows people to believe they can win the lottery. Statistically, almost nobody ever wins the lottery. Statistically, terrorist attacks almost never happen.

Government agencies today, from the FBI to the NSA to the TSA, are increasingly built to protect us from terrorists, to try and beat the terrorists at their own game. The problem with this strategy is that the game is rigged, and the only winner can be terrorists. If they strike a target successfully, people are scared, over-react to the attack, and they win. If they fail to strike a target publicly, people are still scared, still over-react to the attempt, and they win. If they fail privately, our intelligence agencies react to the attempt, use it to justify systems like PRISM or infrastructure like the TSA’s strip search machines, and the terrorists win. In every case, the primary casualties are not people – terrorists kill several orders of magnitude fewer people than car crashes – but our civil liberties. To keep the country “safe,” we’re making it less free. And less like America.

In reacting to the original stories in the Guardian and the Washington Post regarding the NSA monitoring, President Obama said “I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” Which is a more or less true statement. It’s impossible to make the case that the United States – or any other nation, for that matter – would have perfect security even with zero privacy, simply because the attack surfaces today are too large. No country on earth can protect its networks, its infrastructure and its people with zero vulnerabilities. But it is certainly true, as the President implied, that security and privacy are frequently at odds.

The interesting thing about President Obama’s reaction, however, was that he didn’t stop there. He went on to say that “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.” On that point, he is exactly correct.

We are fast approaching, if we are not there already, a crossroads. As a society, we need to choose whether to be afraid. We need to choose whether to play a game that cannot be won, or whether to not play – accepting that casualties are inevitable whatever we decide. We need to choose whether our government should treat us like children, or whether we’re ready to accept the risks that come with being an adult and simply living our lives.

We’ve made the wrong choices so far, but they don’t have to be permanent. As Lincoln said, it’s about public sentiment. If we want this to be the land of the free and the home of the brave again, we simply need to stop telling our government how terrified we are all the time, and that trading our liberty for a little security is not what being an American is about. There are, fortunately, signs of hope.

If we don’t, if we still insist on cowering from the terrorist bogeyman, we’ll continue to get what exactly we deserve: PRISM and its inevitably more intrusive successors.

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