So We Bought a House

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If you’re looking to buy or sell real estate, you want to pay close attention to my wife and me. Not in a good way. After we married and were comfortably settled in Maine, it became clear that owning a loft 2200 miles away in Denver was less than ideal. So we put it on the market. A new, modern apartment – with a huge patio and two parking spaces downtown, even – it should have been easy to move. Except that we listed it in the midst of the worst real estate market the US had seen in decades, and possibly since the Great Depression.

Real estate crashes too shall pass, however, and eventually we found ourselves a buyer. We even managed to eke out a profit in the process.

Free of the Denver anchor, our attention turned to finding a home of our own in Maine. There was just one problem: the real estate market had recovered. In a major way. Every day NPR had new, “thrilling” news about the housing recovery. Thrilling news that was terrifying from a buyer’s perspective. When our broker informed us that inventory was so tight that even average properties were getting upwards of four offers the same day they were listed – as if Maine had somehow become San Francisco – it was pretty clear that we were doomed.

Then one random Friday a property that we had looked at last fall, and had assumed to have been sold, hit Zillow. After debating over the weekend, we decided to schedule a showing first thing Monday morning. So obviously it went under contract that day.

In the end, however, as it so often does for me – eventually – things worked themselves out. Having struck out on one property from the fall, we looked up another we assumed had sold. As with the first, it hadn’t: did we want to take a look? It was a few weeks away from listing, but available. On the water, in Freeport, with a huge deck? Why the hell not?

Two plus months later – and a horrific secondary mortgage market disaster that will be fully chronicled in gory detail for posterity at a later date – we closed on the home, finalizing the paperwork late this afternoon.

The most immediate change as a result of our move involves our respective commutes. My wife’s is maybe ten minutes shorter; mine is almost thirty. If thirty minutes doesn’t sound like a lot, remember what an extra half hour of sleep means before a 6 AM flight. The only real downside to the location is that we moved ten miles further from the Oxbow brewery up in Newcastle, though it’s worth noting that we’re now less than three miles from the Maine Beer Company.

Longer term, we are both of us going to learn a lot about home improvement, because it needs a lot of improvement. Everything you need to know about our plans for the property – which is, to be fair, completely livable at present – can be summed up in two purchases: the ten pound sledgehammer I bought at Aubuchon Hardware two days ago, and the Senco drywall screwgun that Amazon delivered today. Oh, and the Benjamin Moore paint my wife picked up on the way to our closing.

But to be on the water, in a good town that halves my commute, I’m happy to trade some labor. Particularly because I actually enjoy working with my hands. If you have suggestions on that front, by the way – I’ve already discovered the Finehomebuilding.com YouTube channel – please sing out.

In the meantime, it’s time for me to get back to packing up our beer cellar. The new house, after all, has a corner room in the basement with no windows.

Three Technologies That Impacted Me Day to Day in 2012

Every year is a different mix of technologies. Some are here to stay, others are not long for the world. But for future reference, if nothing else, I wanted to snapshot a few things that were very useful for me in 2012, where useful means they impacted my day to day life. I’ve also tried to focus on lower visibility items: it would be true to say, for example, that the Nexus 7 I acquired to replace my Xoom impacted my life day to day, but there are hundreds of articles about tablet usage. Same with cable cutting and the Roku.

This is a list instead of things you may or may not have heard of, but might prove useful if they’re new to you. The latter two are Android-centric, but the first is available to anyone. Enjoy.

Plex

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Of the technologies I started using in 2012, none had a wider impact on our house than Plex. For a variety of reasons ranging from cost to the fact that I dislike TV in general, Kate and I have never had cable in the house. Most of her shows are available online via Hulu and other channels, and the only thing I care about – the Red Sox – is available via the radio. And MLB.tv, when I’m traveling.

But watching movies together was always a trial. Either we had to first decide on and then hunt down a DVD, which were stored haphazardly across four or five different nylon sleeves, or it was Amazon Video or Netflix – both of which posed problems. First of all, we live on an island where we have only one broadband provider – Fairpoint. Who isn’t very good. Instead of being “27 times faster than dial-up,” our connection at home was regularly more like two. The other issue is that our TV’s old enough to not have Netflix built in, so we had an old Mac Mini plugged in for the streaming services. Which meant using a keyboard and mouse to queue up movies.

Ridiculous, I know. Anyway, to solve the latter problem we plugged in a Roku, which worked perfectly. But we still had the bandwidth issues. Also, the selection on Amazon and Netflix was imperfect.

Enter Plex. A really marvelous and underappreciated piece of software, Plex is what I’d wanted Google TV to be: a free as in beer home media server software package that does a number of things. First, it provides a clean, 10 foot navigable interface to media – movies, music or TV – that you load into it. Second, it will automatically retrieve metadata such as movie posters, actors/actresses, genre and so on in the background. Third, it will let you organize it into collections: we have one for movies that we find mutually acceptable, for example (it’s a very short list). And lastly, it will stream this content to computers, phones, tablets, TVs, Roku boxes or anything else connected to your network, transcoding it as necessary on the fly. It will even let you stream it remotely. When I’m in Brussels next week, Plex will let me watch movies off of my home server. Isn’t the future cool?

The developers in the audience might also be interested to know that Plex’s new interface is Bootstrap-based, and very well done.

If you’re interested in Plex, here are two posts on how I built what we call sogflix – our local Netflix equivalent: “How to Build Your Own Personal Netflix” and “How I Rebuilt Our Entertainment System Using Plex and Roku.”

Google Now

Over the long term, Google Now is likely to have the most impact on my day to day life, because it’s about putting my data to work for me. And while Google’s really only scratched the surface with Now, even today, the application is enormously useful.

When I’m flying home from Baltimore, for example, it knows from my Inbox what time my flight is, and its status. It also knows from my search history that I like Of Love & Regret – where Ryan and Leigh of Monktoberfest fame work – and thoughtfully provides me with directions there as well as traffic time.

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If I’m scheduled to meet a friend for a beer, it provides me directions there and will even tell me when I have to leave to be on time.

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Google Now also knows how long it’ll take me to get to work and what time the Red Sox game is on.

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From my travel itinerary, Google Now pulls up the weather forecast at each stop along the way.

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If I’ve ordered a package, it will track it for me and keep me informed of how much I’ve walked or cycled over the past month (for the record, I only had my phone for a week that month).

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The only thing I need to know to use Google Now is how to turn it on. There is nothing else to learn. Google Now is easily the best new feature to Android in the last release, and possibly since it launched. While the privacy implications will undoubtedly scare off some potential users, at this point I’m as comfortable with Google on that score as I am anyone. And the ability to outsource weather, package tracking, flight status, day to day schedules and so on to software that can leverage my data alongside that from external sources is quite compelling. Day to day, Google Now is a godsend, and projecting forward a few years it’s likely to become only more useful.

MightyText

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At some point over the last year, my friends gave up texting me and started texting my wife. The latency from my replies was just too high.

Not too long ago, text was actually a great way to reach me. Quick, efficient and not an overrun wasteland like email. But once I got a Nexus 7, it replaced my phone for casual browsing and other tasks at home. Which meant that a text directed to me would wait until I picked up my phone. Which could be hours, or in rare cases a day, later.

So, suboptimal if you’re looking for a quick response. Hence the texts to my wife. A few months ago, however, I was directed to the Android app MightyText. Billed as iMessage for Android, it essentially connects SMS to the desktop and a tablet. When I get a text now, the Chrome extension on the desktop and my Nexus 7 will pop up a notification, and I can reply to the text quickly. Using a real keyboard, no less. MightyText will also notify you when someone’s calling your phone, and display the phone’s current battery level.

But the ubiquitous and device independent access to SMS is the big feature for me. Now I get texts when they come in, rather than hours later. Which may in time lead to less texts from my friends to my wife – we’ll see.

In the meantime, MightyText is a free app. The handset application is on Play here, while the tablet version is here.

Disclosure: There's nothing to disclose. None of the above products were built by clients, nor do I know people personally working on these projects.

On Beer Hotels

The Golden Hour at Copyhold Hollow Bed and Breakfast, Sussex

If you’re looking for opportunities to innovate within the service industry, Stone’s proposed beer hotel is one look at the shape of things to come. Consider the state of bed and breakfast-type venues today. In the Northeast, at least, there is little differentiating one from another apart from location. The amenities, facilities or service may in fact be highly differentiated, but that’s challenging to market with any reliability: everyone, after all, claims that they have the best service. Which is why so many bed and breakfasts or inns turn to third party accreditation, from AAA to Yelp.

What if, however, local inns or bed and breakfasts embraced the exploding culture around craft beer, much as venues in Napa Valley attach themselves to local wine country traffic? While the gimmicky tap-in-every-room Stone’s proposing would be prohibitively expensive not to mention a management nightmare for most establishments, well curated bottle and draft lists would be more than enough to attract a discerning (and likely higher margin) craft beer clientele. And if you managed to build the kind of relationships with local brewers that secured exclusive releases (in return for a commission on sales or cost offsets), you’d immediately become a capital D destination, much as the Toronado attracts people every year looking for Cable Car.

The thing is, apart from the standard difficulties of running a bed and breakfast (which is, I’m sure, enormously challenging), this wouldn’t be that hard to do. Kate and I often joke that our taplist at home is better than majority of the beer bars in the area, and the Allagash Bourbon Black and Dogfish 120 Minute we have on tap at the moment were sourced via normal retail channels – no special industry or wholesale connections necessary – and I doubt there’s a bar within a few hundred miles that has both available.

Take a look at the keg list from our friends at Bier Cellar. If you were alternating just easy-to-get kegs – as a B&B – of Allagash Curieux, Founders Dirty Bastard, Gulden Draak, Jolly Pumpkin Madrugada Obscura, Saison Dupont, North Coast Old Rasputin, Unibroue Maudite and maybe a Stone Ruination as a nod to the IPA crowd, don’t you think you’d get the beer world’s attention? How many bars range that wide, let alone B&B’s or inns?

If the venue already has a liquor license and small lounge or bar area, embracing the craft beer culture would be as simple as swapping out average draft lines such as Blue Moon and Stella for beers like Allagash and Oxbow, building up an inventory of higher end bottles and picking up some appropriate glassware. And while the costs for Allagash are higher than Blue Moon, your realizable margin from the product is that much higher as well. Hell, you might even be able to Kickstart a conversion: if it was in the area, or done by someone I knew, I’d certainly contribute.

What if would-be visitors don’t care for beer? Well, you’re no worse off than before, competing with everyone else on amenities, service and so on. As for the beer crowd, you’d be optimizing yourself for an audience willing to drop $1,000 on a hard-but-not-impossible to get Belgian rarity or wait in line for hours to get tickets to special releases like Dark Lord. Seems like there are worse markets to court as an innkeeper.

Personally, I have neither the personality to play innkeeper nor the time to do so, what with my day job. But there’s an economic opportunity here, and I’d love to see someone with the time and interest take up the challenge. And not just because I want to give them my money yesterday.

Oxbowzakaya!

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Williams v Amherst 2012

double the garbage

My SquareTrade Experience

Because I wasn’t willing to spend north of $600 on a handset, it took me a few months to work out an upgrade scheme by which I could move from my aging Nexus One to its newer cousin, the Galaxy Nexus. In March of this year, I bought an unlocked Galaxy Nexus from Amazon, then used my AT&T subsidized upgrade to secure a Galaxy Note. For reasons I still don’t understand, the Galaxy Note sold for more than the Nexus cost, so in effect I bought the Nexus for a subsidized $299 cost in spite of the fact that AT&T never offered the device.

Anticipating, however, that replacing the phone in the case of breakage would likely be costly and complicated, I purchased an after-market warranty from SquareTrade. For $69.99, I bought 12 months of coverage against accidental damage. Which I engaged two weeks ago when my Nexus became entangled in a cord, dropped on a granite counter and cracked the screen in three places. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of my SquareTrade experience.

The Good

The good news is that SquareTrade was able to repair my Nexus perfectly, with no questions asked. The phone was returned to me in exactly the condition I sent it to them, except for the brand new display. We’ll see how the repair holds up over time, but from the initial inspection the work was done correctly.

So ultimately, I got exactly what I wanted: my phone restored to its pre-dropped state. As a bonus, the logistics of the return were straighforward. I filed a claim online and they processed it same day. The claim return included a shipping label; after packing the unit up I dropped it off at the local UPS store and walked away.

The Bad

The bad news isn’t SquareTrade’s fault exactly, but the economics of the warranty are less compelling than I’d hoped at the time of purchase. Since I bought my Galaxy Nexus, prices for the handset have come down significantly. With the Galaxy Nexus’ replacement the Nexus 4 now out and selling for as little as $299, the cost of an unlocked Galaxy Nexus is around $200 today. Compared to that replacement cost, the SquareTrade warranty, which came to $168.99 including the $99.00 deductible, represents a marginal savings for a replacement handset. For a mere $130 over the warranty cost, I could have upgraded from the Galaxy Nexus to the Nexus 4.

The Ugly

The real problem with SquareTrade for me, however, was the delay. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the shipping label provided to me by SquareTrade was for UPS Ground service. Because the unit shipped from Portland, ME and was headed to Los Angeles, the transit time was a full week. The unit was dropped off at the Portland UPS store Monday the 15th and was signed for in LA Monday the 22nd. It then took SquareTrade three days to process my claim; the unit was shipped backed to me Thursday the 25th. To SquareTrade’s credit, the return shipment was next day air, and it’s not SquareTrade’s fault that while UPS promised to deliver the package Friday it failed to due to “adverse weather conditions” on a day that was 48 degrees and partly cloudy.

Even in a best case scenario, however, my total time without the handset would have been ten business days. I was fortunate to have my Nexus One to use as a replacement, but many users probably don’t have second phones readily at hand. In which case they can be expected to be without a phone for a period of days, best case. For most people, that delay will be unacceptable.

The Net

In the end, SquareTrade lived up to their promise: they repaired my phone for the agreed upon deductible, and my Galaxy Nexus has been restored to its prior condition. It’s not clear, however, that the extended duration of the replacement process was worth the marginal cost savings the warranty afforded, though the economics would admittedly have been more in SquareTrade’s favor if I’d broken the device earlier in the contract.

The net is that those evaluating a potential SquareTrade warranty should consider carefully the replacement cost of the device, both at the time of purchase and over the life of the contract. In my case, with Google making their handsets available directly for half the cost that I paid originally, I’m unlikely to purchase another SquareTrade warranty moving forward for a phone.

If you lack realistic service options, however, and the cost of your device justifies repair, SquareTrade may make more sense for you.

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