What I Did On My Summer Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home of the Not Quite So Brave

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(Photo courtesy Cory Doctorow)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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boston fall

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Williams v Amherst 2012

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