Goodbye, Penryn Way

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I was twelve, maybe thirteen when I went golfing with my brother, father and grandmother. We were halfway through a round near her home in Rockport when we noticed that someone had left a putter on the previous hole. Technically you weren’t supposed to drive a golf cart until you were fourteen, but I was behind the wheel with my grandmother in the passenger seat next to me. I banked the cart up and around, driving like an asshole, and fired us back towards the green where we spotted the putter. An adult would simply stop the cart, get out and pick up the club. Being an asshole kid, I decided it would be faster to simply lean out while driving by and pick it up on the fly.

You can probably see where this is going.

As I approached the putter, I tapped the brake to slow us down. Or intended to. What actually happened was that I hit the accelerator. A few seconds later, I’d been ejected onto the green and the cart had powered into a service ditch with my grandmother in it. Miraculously, she was thrown free and not crushed. Or even hurt, though she was now covered in mud and goose shit. The cart, however, was perpendicular to the ground and sinking. It was pretty obviously not coming out under human power, let alone the muscle of one man, two kids and the man’s mother. We tried anyway.

On the way home, my father was apoplectic. As my brother tells the story, he was so angry he issued the following edict: “We will never laugh about this. Ever.” When we got back to the Rockport House on Penryn Way, I disappeared up to the attic for three days, coming down only for meals.

All these years later, we still laugh about that story.


 

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What O’Grady’s call the Rockport House, proper noun, has been in our family as best we can recall since 1905. Originally a summer home, it was purchased from siblings and winterized by my grandparents. Perched atop a rise which Google Maps tells me is 800 feet back from Pebble Beach, the front of the house looks out over the beach to the Atlantic. Milk Island’s to the right, Thacher and its twin lights left. When we were a little older than my nephews in the above photo, we used to sit on the deck and watch for large ships to pass by. Yachts, freighters, lobster boats, or, if we were really lucky, something military. We’d scan them using a pair of old German Army field glasses, brought back from the second World War by my great-grandfather.

It was our YouTube.

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This is how my brother and me grew up at that house. We spent countless summer hours building sand castles with our cousins, hugely elaborate affairs architected to resist the tide. We picked through the rocks of Loblolly for beach glass. Red was the most coveted color, almost never found, blue a close second. We sailed the toy boats we bought down on Bearskin Neck in pools left behind by the tide. We played and swam off the rocks of the beach. To prove we were tough, we’d go swimming on Memorial Day with water temps in the low sixties. This left me with pneumonia twice, but I could call myself tough.

On the way back from the beach through the tall grass path, one of us kids would step on a thorn and implode into tears. Up at the house, someone else would get a splinter from the aging deck. In return for being brave and not crying while the splinter was fished out with a needle, we’d get a bottle of Twin Lights soda. Fruit Punch was it for me, Lemon-Lime a close second. Reading between the lines on Wikipedia, Twin Lights appears not long for this world. It’ll soon be just another forgotten artisanal brand, and its best hope probably lies in the hands of discovery by future hipsters.

We had a game we’d play with our cousins on the rocks behind the Rockport House. I don’t remember it having a name. Probably it was something like “matchboxes.” It went like this:

  1. Pool our respective matchbox cars.
  2. Push them, one at a time, down the rocky incline.
  3. Pick up a rock and crush the matchbox into flattened pieces of metal and plastic, the better to simulate a real car crash.
  4. Ask for more matchboxes.

So we never had many matchboxes. Resupply request denied and forbidden from destroying anything else, we’d turn to the board games my grandmother kept in the storage lockers – Stratego was my favorite – under her window seats. We also played a lot of cards. At one point while we were learning poker, I stacked a deck so that my younger brother would have a king high royal flush. Great hand, but surprise! I also had a royal flush, ace high.

The movie Gremlins came out in 1984, which was how our black lab puppy ended up with the name Gizmo. From the day she we first brought her there until the day she died, Gizmo was never happier than she was at the Rockport House. We’d spend days at the beach, taking turns throwing the ball into the surf for her for hours. Back at the house, we’d look around and she’d be gone. She knew the way to the beach as well as we did, and would sneak down without us to try and find some poor victim at the beach to throw the ball for her. Most days we figured this out in time, and then there’d be an argument about whose turn it was to go back to the beach to collect her. Others, someone on the beach would get pissed at this crazy barking animal that wanted nothing more than fetch the ball forever, call animal control and she’d end up in the canine equivalent of the drunk tank. We had to bail her out more than once.

As Gizmo got older, she began to go blind. She never stopped loving that beach, though. The trick was having a handful of small stones on hand. Throw the ball into the surf, and she’d take off in pursuit – arthritis temporarily forgotten. Being blind, she had no idea where the ball was. You had to lead her in by landing small stones to splash just in front of her nose until she ran into the ball and triumphantly returned with it. Then barked at you to throw it again.

Another summer we brought my Tuxedo-colored cat – ostensibly named Sylvester, though we never called him that – up to Rockport with us. The day after we arrived, he disappeared. He was a one person cat whose one person was me, so I was crushed. Two days later, he casually wandered in the door having gained a noticeable amount of weight. Turned out the neighbors had had a wedding reception at their house, and with guests dropping pieces of shrimp or lobster every so often, he’d been sitting under their deck eating like a king.

Once a few of us kids even snuck up to the World War II submarine watch tower up the road, which was on private property at the time, for an up close and personal look at the relic. For a giant concrete tower hastily erected by the military during wartime and later effectively abandoned, it was surprisingly ordinary. Great views though.

The house at Rockport also served as a base of operations for trips into Fenway. In that way, the house is part of why I’m a Red Sox fan. I was at Rockport the summer I went to my first game. Most adults talk about their first trip to the park with reverence, speaking of their first look at the Monster in hushed tones. What I remember was that Jim Rice hit a foul liner that hit the kid sitting next to me in the stomach. He ended up being ok, but gotten take out on a stretcher.

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My favorite memory of the Rockport House, however, will always be the attic. Originally a summer house, the winterization effort ended at the second floor. Sleeping up in the attic was like sleeping outdoors. When it rained, you’d fall asleep to the rain softly pinging off the roof. And the smell of that old wood. It still smelled like that when I was up there for the last time in February.


 

In many ways, my cousins, my brother and myself were just following in our parents footsteps. Those rocks on Pebble Beach that we grew up playing on? They’d all been named by my father and his siblings before us. Station Rock was a gray, flat rock halfway out. Turtle Rock was named for the reason you might guess. The Dives were the end of the rocks, and when we were old enough we’d have to time a dive off of them with a swell, and swim the long way back around to the beach.

In his younger days, my father spent a lot of summers playing tennis, racing sailboats and lobstering off Cape Ann. Incidentally, curious where the best hauls were? Near the town sewage outlet.

A hell of an athlete, just like his mother, my father accumulated tennis cup after tennis cup winning tournaments in the area. Trophies that later served as table centerpieces for my wedding.

Another time, he and my uncle were racing Fireflies out near the Rockport breakwater when their boat capsized and the mast snapped off. Eventually, they were recovered and brought in. Laying on the wharf when they got back, caught not a 100 yards from where they’d gone into the water? An 11′ shark.

It’s hard to conceive of this these days, but my father would hitch back and forth from the house to Williams, which I later attended. It was a different time, I guess. Halfway through school, he met my Mom and she was introduced to the house. Unlike some sixty thousand other Americans of the Vietnam Era, after volunteering for the service he came home to the Rockport House unharmed.

I’m not entirely sure, because there were so many events at the house over the years, but I think it might have been my aunt’s wedding where one of my cousins snuck me my first beer.

It tasted awful, but then it was a Bud Heavy.


 

As the years passed, so did the milestones. I realized my first serious girlfriend was my first serious girlfriend when we drove down to the Rockport House from Williams for Easter in my old Mustang. We slept in the attic and listened to the rain.

When I graduated, I interviewed for several jobs in the Boston area. I used the Rockport House as my launching pad for these trips, as I was living in Manhattan at the time. My grandmother would make me dinner and see me off in the morning in my brand new interview suit – charcoal gray. One of those interviews led to a job with Boston-based Keane, which is how I ended up in the technology industry in the first place.

My final Rockport House milestone, as it turned out, was my engagement. In the summer of 2009, my grandfather had been gone for many years. My grandmother’s health began to fail. Then only dating Kate, I moved up my plans to propose to her by a few months so that Grammie might have some good news before she passed. Kate and I were engaged in August of that year. A month later, I was told I was told to come down as soon as I could.

Hopping in a car, Kate and I sprinted down from Maine. We didn’t make it in time. I got the call somewhere on Rt-133 in Essex, twenty minutes from the hospital. I had to pull over. Though I never got the chance to say goodbye to my grandmother, I like to think she knew I was in good hands.

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Three years later, I was walking across the beach in bare feet with my brother next to me and his son on my shoulders to spread her ashes along with the rest of our family. My godson had many questions about why we were there, and what we were doing. I answered what I could.


 

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To get to Penryn Way, you start at the top of Penryn Lane. The road is narrow, barely one car wide, and frequently washed out. When we were little, our dad would sit us in his lap at the top of this narrow, winding lane and let us “drive” the couple of hundred feet down to the house. It makes you feel very grown up, driving. Not that we could reach the pedals or were even actually steering.

If it were up to me, the Rockport House would be handed down to a member of the family. But we’re spread far and wide these days, and that’s not going to happen. The house has marked the passage of my life from infant to child to teenager to college student to adult, as it did for generations before me. Now it’s gone. The closing was today.

It’s strange to think that I’ll never drive down Penryn Way again. But I hope the Rockport House gives its new owners a hundred years as good as the ones it provided the O’Grady’s.

I’ll miss it.

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How to Use an Electrical Pump to Make Homebrewing Easier

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Because I like beer, I have over the years dabbled in trying to make it. At no point have I had much success. My first attempt came in college, where not having control over the temperature of the dorm, as it turns out, is a problem. Attempts to artificially create the correct temperature with a cracked window in winter led to two cases of frozen beer and very small glass shards everywhere. Subsequent efforts first in Maine and then in Denver were less destructive but best described as not provably toxic.

My willingness and ability to improve, however, was always limited by the soul-killing tedium of bottling. Each time I’d brew a batch, I’d remember why it had been so long since the last time: I absolutely hate bottling. It wasn’t until a conversation with Devin a month or two ago that I remembered that, as the owner of a kegerator, I had an option other than bottling: kegging.

Hence last weekend’s brew day:

The good news is that kegging is substantially lower effort than bottling. The bad news is that it comes with some additional costs in terms of maintenance. To assist with these as well as the brewing process itself, I decided to invest in an electrical pump. Here’s how we use it.

The Basics

Are not very complicated. The basic idea is to use an electrical pump wherever moving water is required, whether for cleaning, cooling or both. After looking around, and one aborted selection of a non-submersible utility pump, with the assistance of homebrewtalk.com user @Mike_kever_kombi I settled on a Flotec 1/6 HP submersible utility pump, model # FP0S1300X. It’s available for $83.28 at Home Depot, which was considerably cheaper than the base ~$165 price I’d seen quoted for wort chilling pumps.

There aren’t too many rules associated with the pump; basically you drop it in, turn it on and it pumps water. But obviously be careful because you’re dealing with electricty and water, never a great combination. Besides the safety concerns, pay attention to the hose diameters on both sides. In my experience, the pump will not operate with 5/16″ tubing – common to many wort chillers – but is fine with slightly larger 3/8″ lines, in spite of what the user manual claims. It’s also critically important not to run the pump dry; pay very close attention, in other words, if you’re doing something other than recirculating water.

Other than that, it’s pretty straightforward. On to the specifics of how we use it.

Wort Chilling

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Whenever I’ve used our copper wort chiller in the past, I’ve always plugged it into a standard garden hose spigot and used your basic cold tap water to bring down the temperature of the wort after a boil. In Maine, in the winter, this is less practical, particularly during brew days like ours where the outside temperature is twenty degrees below freezing. Which is where the pump comes in.

In order to chill the wort, I take a piece of 3/8″ line and connect a standard garden hose connection (see above) to one end, hose clamp it, and clamp the other end to input of the wort chiller. A second 3/8″ line, meanwhile, is clamped to the output. The standard garden hose connection is then attached to the Flotec pump, and pump and output line from the chiller are both added to a six gallon bucket filled with cold water and a ten pound bag of ice.

Fifteen minutes or so before then end of your boil, you add the chiller to your brew kettle to sanitize it as usual. When it’s time to chill the wort, then, you merely plug the pump in. More or less instantly the ice cold water will be pumped into the chiller, which absorbs the heat and recirculates the heated waste water back into the bucket full of ice water. As a closed system, there’s not much to worry about here, and it works very well. We cooled our boiled wort down to the pitch temp in less than twenty minutes thanks to the pump.

When you’re done, simply unhook the garden hose connection, drain the pump, and you’re ready to use it for cleaning.

Kegerator or Jockey Box Cleaning

In addition to using the pump to chill wort, it’s highly useful in cleaning the lines of whatever you’re using to serve your kegs. Basically, I do this in three stages. The idea is to clean the lines, rinse them, then rinse them again.

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  1. Detergent Clean: Mix 4 tablespoons with 2 gallons hot water in five gallon bucket (~$3 at Home Depot), recirculate (input and output lines both in the same bucket) through lines for 3-5 minutes. When complete, dump mixture and drain pump.
  2. Recirculating Rinse: In empty bucket, add two gallons of hot clean water. Recirculate this through the lines for 3-5 minutes. When complete, dump mixture and drain pump.
  3. Cleansing Rinse: In empty bucket, add one gallon hot clean water. Pump through lines outputting to sink or other drain until complete, watching carefully not to allow pump to run dry.

What You Need

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To make all of the above work, you’ll need a different connector depending on what you’re cleaning. One end of your input line should keep the garden hose connection mentioned above to connect to the pump. If you’re cleaning a jockey box, then, you’ll simply need a 3/8″ barb (middle above) along with a standard 7/8″ hex nut coupler (left above) – the same one you use for keg couplers. Attach and clamp this to your hose, then screw it on to the back of your jockey box as if it was a beer input line.

If you’re cleaning kegerator lines, it may or may not be the same setup. For our usage, we use a male fitting that is the same threading as the tap mechanism (right above). This is fitted to the 3/8″ barb and attached to the other end of the line with the garden hose attachment. We then unscrew our tap assembly using a tap wrench like this one:

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With that off, we use the above fitting to attach the tap tower to the pump, and proceed through the steps mentioned above. Apart from the different fittings, the process is essentially identical.

Caveats

In general using a pump is fairly straightforward. Remember, however, that the pump valve is open at all times, and can act as a siphon even when powered off. Be careful of accidentally draining the pump bucket if your lines are hanging down lower than the bucket, in other words.

Also, use the provided handles to lift and move the pump; do not lift it by its electrical cord.

Questions? Make sense?

My 2014 in Pictures

If for no other reason than as a concise summary for my future self, it’s time for my now annual tradition of a wrap up post. As with last year’s edition, I’ll walk through the events of the calendar year via pictures along with the occasional tweet or screenshot. I write less words that way, which is less words for you to read. A win/win, in other words.

Like most years, 2014 was a year with some good and some bad. But just as my grandfather used to get up every morning and commit to having a good day, I try to think of every year as a good year – speed bumps and travel disasters notwithstanding.

Before we get to the pictures, a quick look at some of the data that describes my 2014.

Travel

2014 was a good news / bad news year from the travel perspective. The good news is that I traveled 22% less than I did two years ago. The bad news is that I traveled 17% more than I did last year. The worse news is that the trendline for my annual travel is not encouraging. Or sustainable.

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Room for improvement, clearly. But as it can be measured, it can theoretically be managed. In the meantime, a few other tidbits courtesy of Cemre’s TripIt Year in Review tool and Openflights.org.

2014-travel

  • Distance-wise, I flew 103,563 miles, or half way to the moon.
  • This was the fourth time in five years I’ve flown over 100,000 miles.
  • 59 of my 75 segments were on JetBlue.
  • I connected through JFK 42 times.
  • I spent an absolutely horrifying 10 days, 20 hours and 5 minutes on planes.
  • My most popular route was between JFK and SFO at just under 30,000 miles.

Personal Stats

  • My Top 5 non search-engine referrers to the work blog were 1) Twitter 2) Reddit 3) Heise.de 4) Facebook 5) Wikipedia.
  • Two of the Top 3 searches on my personal site for the year were “pony kegerator” and “make your own netflix.”
  • Per the FitBit chart, I took 2.852 million steps in 2014, including a few zero step dead battery days. The trendline isn’t great, and that averages to a little under 8,000 steps per day, which is low. Something to work on.
  • Per ThinkUp, I tweeted 5298 times this year, but only said fuck once, which is low. Something to work on.

With that, on to the pictures.

January 3, 2014

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The New Year welcomed us with a not-Buffalo-bad-but-still-not-awesome blizzard.

January 5, 2014

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Which in turn caused me to miss my first flight of the year, and my first professional engagement ever.

January 6, 2014

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Our basement, whose flooding problem we thought had been addressed via the addition of gutters, flooded.

January 8, 2014

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On the anniversary of our first date, Kate and I returned to the scene of the crime.

January 11, 2014

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With Corey’s help, finally sheetrocked over the area where we’d ripped out two closets. Felt like revenge after the debris from the removed closets sent me to the hospital the previous summer.

January 30, 2014

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James made us proud, as always, at the Monki Gras. Completely off the hook.

February 1, 2014

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When in Brussels and not at FOSDEM, this is probably where you’ll find me.

February 2, 2014

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Shawn, Ryan and Corey joined Joe, Kate and I in Brussels. Hearts was played, Cantillon drunk.

February 3, 2014

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Post-FOSDEM, we took the train up to Amsterdam. Can’t believe no one told me what a beautiful city it was before.

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While in Amsterdam, on the recommendation of our friend Ryan Travers, we hit the Arendsnest. When he recommends something, you just go.

February 4, 2014

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Back in Brussels, we all hit the Cantillon brewery. Consciously antiquated, very little has changed about how Cantillon is brewed.

February 5, 2014

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Took the train down to Paris for the day. This was the high day for me on the year at over 23,000 steps walked.

Oh, the Eiffel Tower is scary as hell in high winds, just FYI.

February 14, 2014

More water in the basement. The best part about sopping it up? It’s basically near freezing in temperature.

March 2, 2014

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While stripping faux-wood paneling in our basement, some of the glue used to attach it suggested that the previous homeowner and their contractor may have had a slight dispute.

March 12, 2014

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Flooding. Again. I couldn’t figure out at first why a shop-vac full of water was so heavy, even at 8.34 pounds per gallon. As far as I could tell, it was a 6 gallon vac.

Turns out it was a 6 horsepower vac: the capacity was actually 14 gallons. Which explained a lot about why my back hurt so much.

March 13, 2014

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Replaced an old, rotted out section of drywall in our beer cellar, insulating it in the process to protect our most important investments.

March 16, 2014

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Our friends Devin and Rachel came up to help celebrate St Patrick’s Day.

March 21, 2014

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Furnace had some problems, and we discovered as part of the fix that it was 22 years older than our inspection claimed. Good times.

April 7, 2014

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In Denver for work, got a firsthand look at my BFF’s new kegorator set up.

April 18, 2014

Visited New Orleans for the first time in years with Alex, Corey, Devin and Joe. The city welcomed Alex with his very own brass band parade.

May 21, 2014

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Had the house energy audited. Turns out our attic had about half as much insulation as our inspection had suggested. The silver lining was that having that corrected by professionals was close enough – ~$2100 vs ~$1700 – to the DIY cost that I didn’t have to do it myself.

Good times.

May 23, 2014

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Helped my parents clean out my Grandmother’s house in Rockport, MA, as a preparation for its sale. The house has been in the family for around a hundred years.

May 28, 2014

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First Seadogs game of the year. Ended up as a 9-8 loss for the good guys, but I got to see Blake Swihart play and the club went on to set a record for wins.

June 5, 2014

After a routine checkup and despite being entirely asymptomatic, Azrael was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. The good news is that it’s eminently curable. The bad news is that the radioactive iodine treatment is exorbitantly expensive, assuming you don’t want to shove pills down your cat’s throat for the rest of its life.

For me – and bless her, Kate as well – pets are family and you do what you have to do for family. So after being injected with radioactive material and isolated for six days until the half-life of the material rendered her safe, we brought her home. She’s been her usual insane but loving self since.

June 8, 2014

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First dinner of the season at the Osprey – which is now managed by our friend Tiff.

June 9, 2014

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Bought a bike based on the Wirecutter’s recommendation. At better than ninety minutes from our house to the office, it’s not exactly a daily commuting option but the planned Freeport-Portland bus service will hopefully change that.

June 20, 2014

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Attended Foo Camp for the first time. Amazing collection of people.

June 30, 2014

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Hit Fenway for the first time in 2014. The result…could have been better.

For the record, however, Stephen Drew broke up Arrieta’s no hitter with an eighth inning single.

July 10, 2014

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While in San Jose for work, paid a visit to the Winchester Mystery House. A little touristy, but just as strange as advertised.

July 24, 2014

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Borrowed a tractor from my father-in-law to begin construction on a…

July 25, 2014

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French drain. Remember all the water in the basement? This is our (theoretical) solution.

July 27, 2014

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First camping trip of the season. The good news is that it was easy to “hike in” the gear. The bad news is that that was because we were effectively “camping” in a parking lot.

August 8, 2014

The two weeks Kate and I spent in Chamberlain were easily the best vacation I’ve had since our Honeymoon on Nantucket. Waking up to waves crashing outside the window, no TV or internet, and, perhaps most importantly, nothing to do. Last summer was spent being sliced up by construction debris and with shards of tile in my hair; the summer of 2014 was spent on this porch, with this view, with a book in one hand and an Oxbow in the other. Not too bad.

August 21, 2014

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While in Chamberlain, visited the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum. Highly recommend if you like antique planes, classic cars or fine engineering in general.

August 23, 2014

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Took the ferry out to Monhegan Island with my in-laws. The highest compliment I can pay to Monhegan is to say that if it was more practical to live out there, I would.

August 25, 2014

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Put the finishing touches on the French drain.

August 26, 2014

Annual pilgrimage to Houston Brook Falls. Had to share it with two families, but they were too scared to swim under the waterfall, which left it for me.

September 5, 2014

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Visited our friends Ryan and Leigh at Of Love & Regret down in Baltimore. If you enjoyed the Monktoberfest, this trip was a big reason why.

September 27, 2014

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Second camping trip of the season. Once you got to the campsite, the location was phenomenal. Problem was getting there.

Probably didn’t help that we had to hike in a sixtel of Classique, jockey box and forty pounds of ice.

October 2, 2014

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Fourth annual Monktoberfest. The response was humbling, as always.

October 5, 2014

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Private house show by Liz Longley with Alex, Caitlin, Corey, Devin, Heather, Joe, Kate, Rachel and Tess. Never been to a house show before, and only recently became aware of them as a thing. Great way to listen to music.

October 25, 2014

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Goods from the Woods. One of the highlights of Fall every year.

November 1, 2014

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Halloween. Oh yeah.

November 6, 2014

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Oxbow’s new Blending & Bottling venue opened in Portland. That’s good. The even better news is that they opened a quarter mile from RedMonk HQ.

November 20, 2014

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Some Williams alums might question the wisdom of marrying a Middlebury girl. Those alums probably are not aware that Allagash founder Rob Tod is also a Middlebury alum, and hosts a Middlebury alumni (and spouses)-only tasting and tour at the brewery.

December 14, 2014

Dear friends STOP Everyone survived the ballet STOP Live to die another day STOP

A photo posted by MK O'Grady (@girltuesday) on

(photo credit, @girltuesday)

Survived our annual trip to the Nutcracker, with a little help from the makers of Bulleit. Great to have special guests Devin and Rachel along this year.

December 20, 2014

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A few people in Denver were surprised that Kate and I flew out just to help celebrate my best friend Andrew’s 40th birthday. Their surprise, in turn, surprised me.

For the better part of two decades, he has been my best friend. We’ve had a lot of fun together. He and my brother were my wedding party. We won three national beer pong championships as partners. And he has been a surprise visitor for god knows how many of my own birthdays these past few years, as he and my wife conspired to sneak him out from Denver (you’d think that after a year or two of these I’d pick up on the patterns, but not so much).

He’s also been with me for a lot of low moments in my life. Being unexpectedly laid off. Being dumped. Having my apartment sold out from under, leaving me temporarily homeless. Or, during one particularly unfortunate stretch, having all three of those happen at once.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that not everyone has a friend like Andrew. That they’re exceedingly rare, in fact. I feel bad for those who don’t, because it’s worth more than I can say.

So yes, I was in Denver for his 40th birthday. Happy birthday, old friend.

December 26, 2014

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Having already invested in home automation equipment from companies like Nest and Sonos, the buildout continued with the installation of a Belkin WeMo switch (Christmas present) that controls our front door light. Coupled with IFTTT, the light is programmed to, among other things, turn itself on at sunset so that when we arrive home at night, we no longer have to use our cellphones as flashlights to pick out the right house key.

We’re probably one or two more IoT gadgets away from the house talking like Pierce Brosnan.

December 31, 2014

Happy & Merry 2015!

A photo posted by MK O'Grady (@girltuesday) on

(photo credit, @girltuesday)

Welcomed in the New Year hosting friends from out of town with a fire, champagne and the champagne of beers. And the odd Curieux or two, naturally. Here’s to 2015.

Books: Fall 2014

To be perfectly honest, I’m terrible at accepting recommendations for books. No idea why, but this is a long term trait. For some reason, however, a bunch of people have asked me about books recently, as they search for new things to read. Given that I had time to cycle through a bunch of books in August and the planes I’ve been on since, here’s a walk through some of the highlights and low lights.

I was not an English major, however, so take the following for whatever it’s worth.

The Good

Angelmaker, Nick Harkaway

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This was a good book. As reviews state, Harkaway occasionally gets a little self-indulgent with his prose (though not nearly so much as in his debut the Gone Away World) and would benefit from a stronger willed editor – his father, perhaps? – but the entire package is original and entertaining. It borrows from the Stephenson tradition of everyman/woman types inadvertently placed in positions of historical significance, but is distinct enough in plot and direction so as to not be derivative.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

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The third Gaiman book I’ve read, it’s consistent with the others in its ability to seamlessly transit between reality and, for lack of a better term, magic – the kind borrowed from older Celtic traditions, as opposed to more Rowling-esque modernities. Gaiman’s real success here is the perspective; relayed (for the most part) from the viewpoint of a child, it captures the isolated confusion and incomprehensible choices of childhood with ease. It’s a quick read, but worth the time.

The Martian, Andy Weir

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Given the build up around this book, there’s a good chance you’ve heard this story before, but just in case: this is a book that could not find a publisher and ended up being optioned as a movie with Ridley Scott and Matt Damon rumored to be attached. In between, it attracted a cult following because the book is just brilliantly executed. Chronicling the life and times of a stranded astronaut, the technical details were rendered well enough that I assumed the author worked in space flight (he didn’t), but the real highlight of the Martian is its humor. I’d avoid reviews simply because they tend to be a bit spoilerish, but if you’re looking for something to read I’d put this at the top of your list. It’s excellent.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

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Finally got around to this in August, and while the foreward claimed the usual reaction was love or hate, I fell in between. Gaiman’s trademark magic is at work, with a narrative that pits old world traditions against new world addictions. The path meanders at times, but overall the plot moves and its conclusion is worthy of the build up. Still, the serious moral ambiguity of pretty much everyone involved makes it difficult to pick favorites, which leads in my case to a lessened attachment to the work as a whole. Overall though, it’s a tremendously creative book and worth the read.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

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There’s a reason that this book sits up near the top of so many top 100 lists: it’s really, really good. The atmosphere is as thick in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, but Murakami answers just enough questions to satisfy the reader, while leaving open huge areas for interpretation. The plot is seemingly simple – where is the protagonist’s wife? – but becomes fractally strange as events move forward. If I had one quibble, it’s that the characters, particularly on the periphery, occasionally lack depth, but some of that undoubtedly is translation. Ultimately, though, that’s a minor point. The overall package is well worth your time.

The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

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The conclusion of Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, this brought things full circle for the protagonist of The Magicians. For those that missed the first two books, you can think of them as being set in a cynical, world-weary version of the Harry Potter universe. Magic works, but creates as many problems as it solves for its practitioners. Without giving anything about the plot away, this third book revisits common ground in terms of landscape and the people who occupy it, so if you’re invested in the characters, you’ll like this. And the conclusion is satisfying, if somewhat ambiguous. All in all, a good conclusion to a good series.

Lexicon, Max Barry

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This novel starts off with a bang and in the beginning, you’re likely to be as confused about what’s going on as the first time you watched the Matrix. If you’re patient, however, Barry creates a world that borrows something from the aformentioned Grossman’s Magicians and Stephenson’s Snow Crash. It’s unique, fast-paced and entertaining. The confusion eventually wears off, and what’s left is inventive, often comical and well worth your time even if the ending is a bit neat.

The Meh

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey

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I somehow missed this in school, and never saw the movie, but this had less impact than I expected given the book’s reputation. It’s well executed, but it may just be that I’m a square content to be a cog in the machine, because the central theme of rebelling against authority didn’t do much for me. That being said, the bigger picture isn’t necessary to enjoy the story for the cast of characters it introduces and the decisions they make. Not sure I’d recommend it, but it’s worth reading, if only to remember that the World Series was once the big deal.

Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King

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To provide some context for the following comments: I consider myself a Stephen King fan. He was one of my favorite authors growing up, and unlike many of his bestselling counterparts, I believe he takes the craft of writing seriously. He’s not Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the pen, true, but who is? At his best, he’s excellent at capturing place and time, and is always willing to put his characters – good, bad or indifferent – in harm’s way. Oh, and I live in Maine, so naturally I like King. I say all of this because hating on King is fashionable in many literary circles.

All of that said, Mr. Mercedes didn’t do much for me. I’m not among those who say that King’s lost his fastball – I thought Joyland was great – but it had some real issues. First, the characters were borderline cliches: depressed girl, precociously brilliant kid, suicidal ex-cop. Second, the love interest was…not plausible, and that wasn’t the only unlikely behavior. And so on. This wasn’t a bad book, exactly, but it’s certainly not at the top of my list of King novels to read.

The Ugly

Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

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Did not enjoy this. Actually, that’s not being honest: I disliked this book intensely. In fact, this book is one of the reasons I bothered to write all of this up in the first place, because the mainstream reviews were – to me, at least – terribly misleading. I didn’t want anyone else to dive into these without a warning.

The intended conclusion of a trilogy about a doomed region known as the Southern Reach, Acceptance cycles us back to characters introduced in the first two novels. Sort of. Probably. Billed variously as Lost meets HP Lovecraft with a dash of Nic Pizzolatto, the one thing I’ll give VanderMeer is that he does atmosphere very well. The first book of the trilogy in particular, Annihilation, is legitimately creepy. The problem is that the rest of the trilogy then completely fails to deliver on the set up. The linked NPR review claims that VanderMeer is:

Trying to tell a story that’s not about knowing and understanding (which is what all books by rational, non-insane people are basically about), but about the impossibility of knowing and the failure of human language and intelligence to encompass something that is completely and totally alien to us.

To me, that’s a cop out. It’s not that every loose end needs to be neatly tied off – see the review for the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – but I found the complete lack of answers – any answers whatsoever – profoundly disappointing. Selling that as somehow brilliant seems like an excuse after the fact. But even if you accept the above premise, that VanderMeer’s brilliance is about depicting some sort of post-modern unknowability, well, how satisfying is that? Does setting everything up, then saying “well, we can actually never know what any of this is or means” sound like an enjoyable read to you? If so, this is the series for you.

By this third book, I was reading only because I’d invested the time in the first two. Throw in characters not worth investing in and rooting for along with a truly baffling decision to render one entire narrative in the third person, and it was a real slog.

How to Build a French Drain

When we bought our house, it was pretty apparent that the basement had at one time been finished, and at another time subsequent to being finished, seen a lot of water. Though damp basements are far from unusual in Maine, they are less than optimal. Our inspector, eyeing the three or four inch trench dug along one side of the foundation by falling water, thought the culprit might be a lack of gutters. So leading up to our closing, we scheduled a gutter installation. The week before the gutters were installed, we had a massive thunderstorm and a lot of water in the basement. The week after the gutters went in, bigger storm, no water.

Problem solved. We thought.

As it turned out, our gutters work perfectly at keeping our basement dry when the ground isn’t frozen. When the ground is frozen, not so much. Unable to soak into the ground, meltwater from the roof and elsewhere pooled in front of our basement door, then poured through it. Which is why every so often last winter I’d blow up on Twitter about how much I loved hauling a 12 gallon (at 8.34 lbs/gallon) shop-vac full of near freezing water out the door, ten feet away from our foundation to be dumped down a hill. It’s also why my back hurt for most of last winter.

Rather than deal with this for a second winter, we looked at our options and eventually settled on what’s commonly referred to as a French drain (named after a person, not the country), or more specifically a curtain drain which is a fancy way of saying “French drain with a pipe in it.”

The theory behind this is simple: when water pools outside our basement door, we give it somewhere more convenient to go than into our basement – water being, after all, inherently lazy. I say theory because we’re not able to test the drain until a) the ground is frozen and b) we have a lot of water. We can simulate B with a hose, but A is a little harder. We have absolutely no idea if this is going to work, in other words.

In the meantime, however, I thought I’d document the process of creating one for any of you that might have drainage issues. It could also be a useful reminder for myself if this plan fails and I have to dig several more of these when things thaw out in the spring, but I’m trying not to think about that too much.

So, how to build a French Drain.

Step 1

Download this article from Fine Homebuilding (which is an awesome magazine, by the way). Seriously, it’s enormously helpful.

Step 2

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Get a tractor. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Sure, you can dig the ditch yourself, but when was the last time you dug a trench that was two feet deep and twenty or more feet in length? In the heat? Through tree roots, rocks and clay soil? Do yourself a favor and beg, borrow, rent or steal a tractor. We got lucky, as my father-in-law jointly owns one with a friend.

Step 3

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Start digging your trench. I dug out away from the foundation, and this worked reasonably well. It’s also worth noting that I dug maybe a foot down, then went back and got to the necessary 2′ depth. This was dumb. Dig to the 2′ depth from the start, because going back over a narrow trench with a tractor to dig deeper the second time is a pain in the ass.

Step 4

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Position your gravel fill (you want 3/4 crushed rock) as close to the trench as possible. Because your back.

Pickup truck sold separately.

Step 5

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Don’t dig your trench right before a major rainstorm is about to hit. Just trust me on this.

Step 6

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Get PVC pipe in the appropriate length – I used schedule 40 which is easy to find at Home Depot. Try not to get the flexible plastic kind, unless you want to destroy it when you eventually have to scour out the pipe. Which reminds me, get a sanitary T-connector or similar so that you can blast out the pipe with water easily later. Attached to the head of your pipe, you can dig it up later and snake your drainage pipe if it gets clogged.

The other thing you need to do – unless you can find PVC that’s pre-drilled – is put a bunch of holes in one side of it. I used a 1/4″ or 3/8″ drillbit, I think. I never did find a conclusive answer on how many holes were required, but I probably put in half a dozen per six to eight inches. Enough to allow water entry, but not weaken the pipe.

PVC Protip: deal with PVC cement as little as possible, and do not – under any circumstances – open it indoors.

Step 7

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With your trench dug, it’s time to get the trench liner ready; I used this stuff. Basically the purpose of this is to keep as much sediment out of the crushed rock and PVC pipe as possible.

Step 8

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Use your tractor to lay down an inch or two of crushed rock, then position the PVC pipe slanted away from your foundation. Point the holes downward. You need a drop of 1/8″ per linear foot, apparently. And no, I have no idea how you’re supposed to measure that if you’re not a surveyor. I just made sure it slanted down, hard.

Articles like the Fine Homebuilding one will tell you to use the gravel to adjust the pitch appropriately, and that’s what you have to do, but it’s a pain in the ass. Just FYI.

Step 9

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Cement pipe segments together as necessary. If you thought adjusting the pitch of one segment was a bitch, wait until you try it with two. Also, PVC cement sucks.

Step 10

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Once you have the pitch correct, begin backfilling the trench with crushed rock. Don’t drop in too much at a time because you’ll mess up the pitch, or if you were dumb and didn’t go with the rigid PVC, you’ll damage the pipe. Once you’re near the top, you can begin folding the fabric over. If you’re an idiot and you dug one section of the trench too wide like I did and you’re short on fabric, just find something heavy to hold the fabric in place. Cinderblock, the giant fucking rocks the goddammned tractor refused to pull up so you had to dig out by hand, whatever.

Step 11

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Once you’ve filled the trench, and sealed the top by folding over the typar fabric, you can begin covering everything up with topsoil. Tamp it down tightly or it will all wash away with the first good rain that you get. Or so I’ve heard. I used one of these.

Step 12

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Unless you enjoy the Frankenstein-like scar on your lawn, you might want to plant some grass seed when you’re done. Sadly, Scott’s made the terrible decision to no longer sell Fenway grass seed. We used this instead, and while it’s a completely different shade of green from the rest of our lawn, at least we have grass there now.

Step 13

In our case at least, Step 13 is to pray. This project cost us a couple of hundred bucks, several weekends of effort and some blood – though admittedly much less than in our “get rid of closet debris” debacle that landed me in the hospital. In spite of all of that, we have no idea if it’s actually going to work or not.

If it doesn’t, I’m sure I’ll have some equally harebrained scheme to share with you next winter. In the meantime, hope this helps.

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.

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