RIP Doug Wilkins

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I played football in high school. Most of you don’t know that, because how I spent my fall afternoons and weekends in high school isn’t all that relevant as an adult. The game is viewed differently today than it was then, as decades of bad behavior from student and professional athletes along with an appropriate and growing concern for the trauma that the sport inflicts on the body and more specifically the brain have left players and spectators alike with questions, many difficult to answer.

While I don’t watch football anymore, my own experience with it was positive. Few experiences in my life, in fact, have had as much impact on who am I today.

For those whose exposure to the sport is limited, it is often understood through TV and movies. Programs as seen on Friday Night Lights, coaches like the one trying to get Pink to sign his pledge sheet in Dazed and Confused. Big stadiums, huge crowds, high stakes and nylon shorts-wearing shouting coaches whose one and only concern is winning games. These portrayals, or more accurately caricatures, are not without their basis in reality. But they were not my reality.

My high school, for one, was tiny. There were ninety some odd kids in my graduating class. Our stadium was a modest set of bleachers, our crowds about as big as our school. And the man who coached football at Mountain Lakes High School for 44 years – Doug Wilkins, always just Coach to me – was one of the finest leaders I’ve encountered in all my years, and a truly great man.

He died on Monday.

Now admittedly, when I said the media reality wasn’t my reality, that was true. Mostly. Some of the old high school football tropes did apply. Coach did wear those terrible old BIKE nylon shorts, and he could yell with the best of them when the situation required it.

The big difference between the coach I knew and the coach I saw on screens was that I never had any doubt, ever, where his priorities lay. He wanted to win, and was willing to put in the work to do it. But his priority was helping the players entrusted to him become better men. If that meant sacrificing his best chance to win, so be it.

He taught me many things in the years I spent playing for him, more than I can talk about here. These are a few of the most important.

  • You Have to Put in the Work:
    As a small high school, we were almost always outclassed from a talent perspective. The other lines were bigger, their skill players faster, their roster deeper. Coach believed that these inherent disadvantages could be overcome through the application of effort.

    I have never trained harder than I did in high school. The summer double sessions when I got to college were a cakewalk next to the triple sessions we endured in high school, training on a field that was half crabgrass and rocks and half baseball diamond. Coach made sure the first session in the morning was at a different time every day, to communicate the importance of an attention to detail. One morning it was 7:45, the next 7:15, 8 the day after.

    We hit, we ran, we pushed sleds, we did up downs (burpees, you might know them as) until people were vomiting. It was always a delicate thing, making sure you drank enough water to keep hydrated but not so much that you’d get sick.

    The lesson this burned into us was that while you can’t control of your talent level, you can control the effort you put in.

  • Hurt is Not the Same as Injured:
    Another common trope in football media is coaches that are willing to sacrifice their players health in search of a win. Coach never did this; he pulled me from a game with a mild shoulder separation that I certainly could have played through (and I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for that meddling Jay Moody – hi Jay, and belated thanks!).

    What he taught us was that there is a difference between being hurt and being injured. If you play a contact sport, you’re going to be hurt, in some fashion, more or less all the time. There’s always something wrong with you.

    The question was whether it was an injury, which is to say something serious and more importantly something that could lead to worse injuries. A separated shoulder was an injury. When I broke a finger, that, well, that could be taped up and wasn’t going to get worse.

    The winter my daughter was two, she had the croup. If you’ve ever encountered it, you know how bad the cough is. It’s so bad, in fact, that the doctor’s primary means of diagnosis is asking if your child sounds like a barking seal. One night, she woke herself up in the early hours of the morning sounding like a refugee from Sea World. As I walked in, she stood up in her crib, looked at me, rubbed her hands together, and said “I ok Daddy, I rub some dirt on it.”

    My heart almost burst in that moment, both because I was proud of her, and because I had on some level taught her what I myself had been taught by Coach: if you can’t fix it, rub some dirt on it and get back to work.

  • Leadership Isn’t Yelling:
    As mentioned, Coach could make himself heard. I still remember missing an assignment (I was an offensive lineman) in practice and seeing my friend Lewis (sorry buddy) get pile drived as a result. I could hear the yelling a hundred feet away, “GODDAMMIT O’GRADY, IF YOU DON’T HIT THAT END YOU’RE GOING TO GET SOMEONE KILLED.”

    But Coach also understood that sometimes we’re our own worst critics, and that he didn’t need to say a word. We were watching film after one game, a game we had lost, and I made a mistake and someone – our fullback, I think (hi James!) – ended up being tackled for a loss in the backfield.

    He slowed the film, which revealed my mistake in slo-mo, backed it up, watched it again, backed it up, watched it a third time, and then continued without comment. He knew that I knew what I’d done wrong, and that I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.

    There are many buttons you can press with people, and few people were more deft at knowing which to push and when than he was.

  • It Takes a Team:
    1559761127775-f3ffcd79-9e97-4397-91a3-4a3171a1d718As an incoming freshman, at the beginning of the summer, you got assigned to a “squad.” Squads were small groups of players from a variety of classes, typically led by two seniors. Weekday nights all summer, your squad met for workouts. Some were grueling long distance runs. Others were fun distractions like the annual mud run. We did pushups, bear crawls, up downs – all the things that have since have been popularized by Crossfit.

    Squads accomplished two important goals. Most obviously, they left us in peak physical condition. You can’t run in the humid New Jersey summer heat for months and not get into good shape.

    But just as importantly, squads integrated classes. Freshman who would otherwise have no contact with seniors during the school year, worked alongside a few along with sophomores and juniors all summer. I still remember when a senior, Dan Shaver, stopped by my house when I was a freshman to pick me up and talked to my Dad about squads for twenty minutes. Squads broke down the artifical barriers between classes that the typical high school social strata establishes.

    He also wanted to instill collective accountability. If someone arrived late to triple sessions, all of the pads were piled up to create a comfortable seat for the guilty party. From this perch, they got to watch the rest of the team run a debilitating, crushing set of sprints.

    Coach understood that you can’t just show up and be a team: you’ve got to put in the work, and break down the barriers that would otherwise keep potential contributors separated.

  • Remember What’s Important:
    Every year, there were kids that attended every squad, made every practice, but just weren’t that talented. Coach would find a way to play these kids in big wins, or big losses. But by the time you’re a senior, garbage time in out-of-hand games is not much of a return for the work invested.

    Normally, that would be the end of it: if you’re not good enough, you don’t play. Simple. For those that stuck with the program, however, and gave the team everything they had for four years, Coach would find a starting spot somewhere.

    I’m certain it cost him many games over the course of his career. I’m equally certain, particularly early in his career, that he took fire for it. But he never wavered, and he stuck by the players that had done everything asked of them.

    That’s not how the world works, of course, because winning tends to be everything. But while it was something and something important for him, it wasn’t quite everything. Having his players graduate his program with confidence gained from seeing their hard work rewarded was, by his calculation, far more important.

    There’s a reason so many of his former players cared about him, and that’s because he cared about them in return.

So rest in peace, Coach. Apart from my parents and grandparents, there is no person in this world that had a larger impact on my life and career. I carry the lessons you taught me to this day, and I am doing my best to pass them on to my daughter.

There are many difficult questions still to be answered about football and its safety, but I can say honestly that I wouldn’t have given up my time with my team and my coach for anything. I’m glad I played football, and I’m glad I played for Doug Wilkins.

He is missed.

 

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Five Travel Mistakes I Never Should Have Made

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As anyone who knows me is already aware, and anyone else reading this sentence is about to be, I travel a lot for work. Not nearly as much as some in my industry, but for seven or eight months out of the year I’m on a plane multiple weeks per month. August is the only month of the year in which I absolutely do not fly under any circumstances (unless those circumstances include seeing Pearl Jam play in Montana with my best friend).

Not only do I travel far more than I would like for work, I’ve been doing it for a long time. I won’t say exactly how long because it makes me feel old, but trust me, it’s been a while. Long enough, in fact, that I remember the days when you could waltz through security in 15 minutes with your belt on and laptop and liquids in your bag. And not because of Pre-check, because there was no Pre-check.

While I’ve traveled more than my fair share, however, I haven’t always been smart about how I did it. In spite of all of that time on planes and asleep on airport bench seats, it took me far, far too long to learn the lessons below. Which is why I offer them certainly for those who travel for work, but even for those who don’t and may find a tip or two to make their lives easier on the road. As an aside, here are 35 prior tips for those interested in such things.

One quick caveat, most if not all of these recommendations come with some cost attached, and the cost in a few cases is high. The costs are justifiable for our business because of the amount we travel, but we also have the privilege of having some wiggle room to make our lives on the road marginally easier. That isn’t true for everyone, obviously, so your mileage may vary with these suggestions.

Still, they may be of use to some of you, so enjoy.

Not Optimizing for Lounge Access

These suggestions are listed in no particular order, but if I had to pick the biggest mistake I made this would probably have been it. With the exception of my time as a systems integrator when I was largely an American Airlines customer, I’ve spent the bulk of my career traveling on JetBlue. In general, JetBlue is an exceptional airline with much to recommend it, which is why I spent well over a decade giving them thousands and thousands of dollars of my business annually.

There are two big problems with JetBlue for the business traveler, however. First, their loyalty program doesn’t show much loyalty to the frequent traveler – which is why I dropped them for Delta. Second, JetBlue has no network of lounges (technically, there was one they didn’t run at their fancy T5 terminal, but, well, things didn’t go well). This didn’t seem like a major issue until I switched to an airline in Delta that has an excellent network of lounges.

There are far, far too many benefits to lounges to document them all here. The free food can be nice. The free drinks, even better (with self-serve taps, even). But then there is comfortable, nicer seating – seating that invariably has power outlets. Regionally available full shower access. Bartenders that will set up TV’s for you during the Red Sox World Series run. Staff that will help you rebook when you unexpectedly get stranded in NYC during a surprise snowstorm. Some even have conference room space for meetings.

Even if you’re not like me and you don’t get to the airport two hours early – minimum, at some point if you travel a lot you’re going to get stuck at an airport for a while. At which point your choices are uncomfortable seating near a gate or an overcrowded and overpriced airport bar or restaurant. Unless you prioritize lounge access, that is.

I didn’t for years. We got AMEX Platinum cards for everyone who travels years ago, and the AMEX Centurion lounges they maintain are incredibly nice. Unfortunately they are less than common, and even some airports that have them (looking at you, SFO) they’re in the wrong terminal for me. It wasn’t until I switched to Delta this fall that I got the full experience, and it is legitimately life changing.

If you travel and don’t have lounge access, then, I’d find a way to make that happen. It’s completely worth it.

Not Prioritizing Loyalty Programs

I didn’t make this mistake for nearly as long, thankfully, but in the early days of RedMonk I was optimizing for route efficiency rather than loyalty programs and thus ended up with either a wide distribution of my business that afforded no status anywhere, or elite status on an airline (JetBlue) that didn’t offer much in the way of tangible returns.

After years of flying, however, I eventually realized that thanks to delays and the other vagaries of air travel, route efficiency was more of a theoretical advantage for me. In practical terms, the difference for me in a one hop flight to SFO out of my home airport in Portland versus a direct route out of Boston was negligible. Door to door, my actual elapsed travel time was similar enough, and breaking up a transcontinental flight into two shorter segments isn’t all bad.

When you start planning itineraries, then, think carefully about your strategy. Most of the people I know who travel a lot will take zig-zaging routes over direct alternatives if necessary in order to build up status, because that status is worth more to them over time than the perceived or even actual benefit of a direct shorter flight.

If you’re flying once a year, always take the direct flight. But if you’re traveling regularly for work, odds are loyalty will be worth some less optimal routes.

Not Optimizing for the Least Weight Possible

The single biggest difference between how I travel today and when I started is my bags. As something of a worst case thinker and occasional reader of apocalyptic fiction, my luggage would be packed full of redundancies: extra clothes, extra cables, extra chargers and a choice of computing devices. And those computing devices would, once upon a time, have been the most powerful I could get, weight be damned.

Which is how I spent so many years hiking around airports with sore shoulders from lugging around enough infrastructure to power a dozen Apollo missions.

Since then, I have steadily and methodically simplified my approach, stripping my inventory down to only what I’m likely to use on a given trip. With the exception of headphones, where I always carry a backup set, I don’t do backups anymore: no more extra clothes, cables and chargers – I carry only what is needed to charge what I carry. And what I carry is itself optimized for weight. I travel exclusively with an iPad Pro now, for example, because it’s half the weight of even ultralight laptops. Even better, the iPad Pro I carry (this one) charges via USB-C, which means I can carry just a single, small dual-port USB-C charger (this one, specifically) to keep both my tablet and phone charged.

This simplification accomplishes a few things. Most obviously, my bag is a lot lighter than it used to be, which is nice if you need to sprint to make a tight connection. But it also means that I have substantially less gear to wade through to find what I need and to potentially lose, damage or troubleshoot.

Not Getting Pre/Global Entry Sooner

Of all the things I dragged my feet on, this was one of the worst. Part of the issue was that I needed to track down documentation as part of my interview process, which took a while, and part of it was that I hoped against hope that my country would come to its senses about the pointlessness of security theater, but in general I just didn’t prioritize Pre or Global Entry as soon as I should of.

Anyway, a while back I finally got my paperwork in order, applied and was granted access to the Global Entry program. This means that I both have access to Pre domestically and then Global Entry while traveling internationally.

Pre by itself is worth it because you don’t have to be virtually strip searched to board a plane and because you can leave your laptop in your bag, your belt and shoes on, etc. The line is often shorter as well, particularly here in Portland, but that’s not my primary motivation.

Global Entry, meanwhile, is less useful to me because I travel internationally a few times per year max, but when I do the program is amazing. I can get off a full Aer Lingus flight from London, and be one of a handful of people with Global Entry who waltz up to a machine, feed it a passport and fingerprints, take the slip it provides me over to a border customs agent and be on my way. I don’t think it’s ever taken me longer than ten minutes to clear customs coming back into the States from abroad. And on several occasions, this has been the difference between catching an earlier bus home versus an extra hour or two at the airport.

Put those two together, and the benefits are obvious. Or should have been, at least, when I was spending all those years getting gangprobed by the TSA because I declined to go through the porno scanners out of principle.

If you travel only domestically, Pre is all you need. If you are abroad even once, the extra $15 for Global Entry is a no brainer.

One pro tip for scheduling your interview with Global Entry: if your home airport is booked way out – the wait for an interview at Boston was four months when I applied – find an open slot at an airport you’ll be traveling through and book it there. The wait at JFK was three weeks, and I found an opening the overlapped with a planned trip.

Not Getting a Platinum Card Sooner

As a small business, James and I have always tried to run a tight ship. We try to make our employees comfortable while traveling, but we’re not extravagant spenders. Because of this, we had to think long and hard about whether to invest in Platinum cards for our employees because they are not cheap – $475 at the time, and $550 now.

In retrospect, this was silly. We’ve easily recouped the value from these cards, not just in convenience and wear and tear benefits while traveling, but in hard savings as well.

The Platinum card comes with a number of built-in credits: the $100 Global Entry fee, for example, is waived. There’s a $200 Uber credit and a $200 airline fee credit. There’s also a Saks credit, though I admit I haven’t used it. Just between the credits, then, you’re close to offsetting the card’s cost.

Then there are the status benefits. You get Hilton and Marriott Gold status by default, along with entries into the Hertz Gold, Avis Preferred and National Car Rental Emerald programs. This means that I will get room upgrades and late checkouts at hotels (though not the 4 PM checkouts that used to be available from Starwood), and on the few occasions I’ve had to rent a car you get treated…differently.

At one point I missed a flight, and needed to drive from Boston to Portland in time to make a consult. The people at National, thanks to my status, told me to “just pick whichever car I liked.” Which honestly felt like theft, but explains how I ended up making a high speed transit up I-95 in an Audi for the price of an economy rental.

Perhaps best of all given the first item on this list, Platinum cards get you lounge access. Specifically you get free entry to AMEX’s own Centurion lounges (which are incredible), access to Priority Pass’ network of member lounges (though I’ve had mixed experience with that one), and access to Delta’s lounges if you’re flying on Delta.

Honestly, given how valuable lounges have been, the AMEX might have been worth it on that basis alone, but overall the value of the Platinum card is easily justified if you’re a frequent traveler. Our mistake wasn’t getting them, but rather waiting so long to do so.

 

Are Battery Powered Chainsaws Ready? The EGO CS1600

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Last summer, our lawnmower died. An old Toro self-propelled gas model, years of rough use had made it harder and harder to start until the day it just wouldn’t start at all. Having seen the writing on the wall, I’d already been looking around at mower reviews and come to the tentative conclusion that our replacement would be a battery powered model. Between advancements in battery technology and the small size of our lot, a battery powered mower seemed viable, and in the event that it wasn’t Home Depot’s return policies are excellent.

That’s how we ended up with an EGO lawnmower; this one, to be specific. I went with the cheaper of EGO’s two models which was not self-propelled, but given the size and slope of our lawn that’s not necessary. As expected, the battery powered model was more than adequate for our needs, and I didn’t need to take advantage of Home Depot’s generous return policy.

Besides having a new mower, it also meant that I had a reasonably sized 5.0 Ah battery – one that could be leveraged across a variety of other EGO outdoor power tools. After fighting with our little Husqvarna one too many times this winter, I started reading about the EGO battery powered saw.

My initial expectation was that battery powered chainsaws would be insufficient power-wise. We don’t exactly have a woodlot so I don’t need a full-size, rancher model, but we do have enough large dead trees that I need to be able to cut something thicker than large branches. It’s one thing to cut blades of grass, carving up the large oak sections left over from our last arborist visit is another matter entirely.

After reading reviews in the Wirecutter, Amazon, Home Depot and elsewhere, though, I saw enough to at least give a battery powered chainsaw a shot. My choice was made easier by the mower; once you’re in on a given battery system, it takes a lot to pick a product from another manufacturer given the cost of the batteries. That plus a Wirecutter recommendation made picking EGO’s 16″ chainsaw a simple call.

The question was whether it would be up to the job.

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The tl;dr is that it has significantly exceeded my expectations. I’ve been out with the saw three or four times, making a series of cuts each time in large, thick oak to produce rounds to split. I have yet to run out of battery power, have the saw seize up, or fail to complete a cut. The oak is heavy, dense and thick – some of the sections cut have been better than thirty inches in diameter, and the EGO’s bar is only 16 inches.

No matter.

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For those who want a more detailed take, here are some further thoughts on the saw in general.

Environmental Considerations

While the environmental impact of extracting lithium from the ground is clearly non-trivial, one less two stroke combustion engine in the world – or two, actually, counting the mower – seems unequivocally like a good thing. The sense of virtue wouldn’t justify a saw that wasn’t fit for purpose, but if I can cut through the oak I need to with a battery rather than gas at a reasonable enough pricepoint that’s an easy call.

Ease of Use

Here’s the really surprising thing, though: even if there was no environmental advantage to a battery powered saw, I’d still buy it. It is simply easier to use and maintain than a gas saw. Consider the following:

  1. You don’t have to deal with fuel mixtures. There is no more mixing oil with gas, trying to remember whether the saw requires 40:1 or 50:1, and which of the two is in the small mixed gas can.
  2. There’s no need to have to run the saw dry before storing it. With a gas saw, you have to be careful to not to put it up with fuel left in the lines lest you clog up the carb and render the saw inoperable.
  3. Perhaps its most important advantage, however, is on startup. Pull start saws can be tempermental, and in some cases can’t be started in the hand but rather have to be placed and braced on the ground. With a battery powered model, it’s a simple push button start.

Weight and Balance

The weight of the device with a battery is not distinguishable from the other similarly sized chainsaws I’ve used. The placement of the battery away from the blade and towards the rear of the saw seems to balance it nicely. The saw is not awkward either to hold or cut with.

Non-Issues

One of the most frequent complaints in reviews – and one that made me pause – was the assertion that the chain regularly came loose while in operation. After using the saw, however, I’m inclined to attribute those critical reviews to a lack of familiarity with chainsaws in general rather than a failure of the model. As anyone who’s used a chainsaw understands, when the saw sustains cuts the chain tends to heat up, which causes the metal to expand and become loose. This is an issue for all saws, not something unique to the EGO.

If anything, in fact, the EGO’s chain management is easier to use in this respect. With a lot of saws, including the Husqvarna this is replacing, when a chain becomes loose you need to first loosen the chain bolts, then use a screw driver to extend the bar until the chain is tight, then retighten the bolts. And if you don’t retighten the bolts sufficiently, they vibrate off and get lost (I’ve lost enough that I bought extras and have them in my kit).

On the EGO, there are no tools necessary. You have two dials; one that essentially unlocks the bar, the other which extends or retracts it. It’s pretty slick.

The other question that tends to come up is the thin kerf blade the saw comes with. I can’t speak to its long term performance, but I can say that thus far I’ve had seen no difference between it and the regular kerf blades I’ve used historically.

Areas for Improvement

One common complaint that is legitimate is the filter on the bar chain oil receptacle. It’s well intentioned to keep non-oil materials out of the oil reservoir, but it slows filling the oil to a crawl and isn’t necessary.

On a related note, the oil inspection window doesn’t seem to work particularly well in my case; it’s difficult to judge how much oil is in the saw in my experience.

The Net

If you have a wood lot and cut a lot of wood, this probably isn’t going to be the saw for you as the runtimes won’t be long enough and a 16″ bar has its limitations. Gas is still your best option.

For everyone else looking for a home owner saw, a smaller backup or camp saw, or just a tool to take apart the occasional downed tree, the EGO is something I’d strongly consider. I always just accepted the frustrations of running a gas saw because there wasn’t an alternative; now that there is, there’s a lot less friction in getting the saw out and up and running.

It’s also worth noting that the EGO outdoor power tools are getting high marks broadly speaking, so if you invest in one of the tools and a battery, the cost of the rest of them comes down significantly. I would recommend using at least a 5.0 Ah battery in the saw, however, as most of the reviews I’ve seen suggest that 2.5 Ah models are very limited in their runtime.

Overall, however, there are a lot of reasons to buy an EGO chainsaw and comparatively fewer arguing against the idea. If I had the chance to do it over, I’d certainly buy this saw again.

Disclosure: The product links above are Amazon affiliate links, included to see which if any recommendations people follow.

My 2018 in Pictures

As has become routine with these posts, my annual photo year-in-review is arriving late. Unlike in years past, however, I don’t have a ready excuse, unless you count interference from the time I now have to spend understanding and coming to grips with the slow-motion trainwreck that is the current administration.

Much as I appreciate and value the uncompromising, brutally honest takes of the women of Bombshell or the cautious, thoughtful analysis from the people at Lawfare, I often think fondly of the days when they would have represented more academic and less vital outlets for me.

But here we are.

Late being preferable to never, then, here is my year in pictures. These are the moments – significant or otherwise – that characterized my year personally, which is to say that there’s nothing in here about the aforementioned trainwreck. Before we get to the pictures, however, a quick check-in on travel.

Travel

Due to a number of different factors, we found ourselves down an analyst for the better part of the year, with the result that my travel went in the wrong direction in 2018 – particularly in the first half of the year. It was only two more extra trips from the year prior per TripIt, but it was a hell of a lot more mileage.

It wasn’t backbreaking, and poor James was the one to bear the brunt of the travel woes in the second half, but the intent for the year ahead is to scale my travel back down to something more manageable. I didn’t accumulate enough miles to qualify for JetBlue’s Mosaic program until September, which is worse than last year’s December but still a major improvement from my more typical June-timeframe.

In the meantime, a few other tidbits courtesy of Cemre’s TripIt Year in Review tool and Openflights.org.

  • Distance: Clocking in at 85,148 miles I was up 34% on the year, which was not the goal.
  • 100K: This was the fifth time in eight years I failed to reach 100,000 miles. That part was good, I will try to keep it up.
  • Carrier: After years of loyalty, with the odd dalliance here and there with a Virgin America, I finally gave up on JetBlue and made the jump to Delta. As soon as Delta matched my Mosiac status on JetBlue with a Silver Medallion, I cut over and put a bit over 20,000 miles on my new airline in the fourth quarter. My switch, as it turned out, would have been necessary anyway as JetBlue stopped flying into PWM year round, and instead is now only a seasonal carrier.
  • Airport: I reversed last year’s trend, and spent more time this year in Boston than Portland.
  • First Time: Visited Providence, RI for the first time, as well as Missoula, MT and Westcliffe, CO. Enjoyed all of them a great deal.
  • Where To: San Francisco narrowly took back its crown from New York this year as the destination I visited the most. Here’s hoping the city that’s only 45 minutes away by plane makes a comeback this year.

With that, on to the pictures.

January 4

Started the year off…by getting buried in snow. Quite the contrast with this January.

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meanwhile, on hoth

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January 17

Finally got frustrated enough with our old router that I swapped it out for brand new Amplifi gear, courtesy Ubiquiti.

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January 31

Maybe my favorite pub in London has now sadly closed. RIP Electricity Showrooms.

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February 2

Hit up Monki Gras, which was amazing and somehow keeps getting better every year.

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February 10

Possibly related to the fact that they’re now in bankruptcy, after Sears no showed on us three times in a row wasting a month in the process, I finally got frustrated enough to try and fix our dishwasher myself.

February 17

Tough to top hitting up a local shark exhibit with your best friend and his family who flew in for your birthday, but we tried a few months later.

February 24

Signs that spring is near: Eleanor and I took in the first spring training game of the year.

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how i get through maine winters

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March 31

Made it out to Denver to help celebrate our friends Tess and Joe’s 25th anniversary.

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April 10

Out in Santa Monica for work, took in a Sox/Yankees game at probably the best known Red Sox bar on the West Coast, Sonny Maclean’s.

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April 24

Having seen Kate have to resort to keeping her sourdough starter in the oven with the light on, I built her a proofing box for her birthday.

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boiled linseed oil on cherry plywood

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June 3

Winter prep begins.

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June 30

Portland joined the rest of the nation in protesting the appalling and horrifying family separation policy of the current administration.

July 11

Accompanying Kate on a work trip down to lovely Providence, RI, we took Eleanor to the zoo.

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still not as tall

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July 14

Also took her to the carousel, which went much better than her expression suggests.

July 18

En route out to Portland, OR for OSCON, overflew the wildfires.

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oregon wildfires from 35,000 feet

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July 29

The one week we get to spend up here every summer is what gets me through the winter. Perfection.

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day two: not fogged in

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August 5

After the old gas mower finally seized up, it was replaced with a battery powered alternative. Hopefully the first of many such replacements.

August 14

Maybe the only thing that could top having my best friend in town for my birthday was meeting him in Missoula, MT to see our favorite band play. Thanks for the assist, Jim.

August 21

Picked up a whole lot of hard rock maple.

August 22

Which is in part why I turned our living room into a shop.

living-room-shop

August 28

Taking a break from trying to work with the stone-like maple, made my annual pilgrimage out to my happy place.

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not a bad way to spend a hot afternoon

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September 6

Weathered an enormous storm that had power lines down on our street. Managed not to get electrocuted.

big-storm

September 12

After a decade plus of loyalty to JetBlue, I finally gave up and accepted that they were never going to return the favor with features such as lounge access or first class upgrades.

The hilarious thing? I got upgraded to first on my very first Delta flight, which was one more upgrade than I ever received from JetBlue in spite of my near million point mark.

status-match-delta

September 29

The family and I took one for the team and made the annual pre-Monktoberfest run out to the Alchemist in Vermont. Their beer is incredible, but if anything, the people are better than the beer.

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thanks again, vermont

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October 4

Survived the largest (but still small) Monktoberfest yet.

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why the @monktoberfest exists

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October 6

Part of the unwinding and recovery process from our conference was a quick trip up to Newcastle for Oxbow’s Goods from the Woods event.

goods-from-the-woods

October 10

Remember that storm in September? That was the last straw, and a full standby generator went in on October 10th. It got used four times in the two months that followed.

October 13

Three days after that, we had our first frost which meant our first fire.

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first frost warning = first fire

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October 16

This was the first time I’ve ever watched a Red Sox playoff game while hiding out in a speaker’s green room. God bless the sound guy for updating me on the score just as I came off stage.

green-room-sox

October 18

Two days later, I watched a Red Sox playoff game from a Delta lounge for the first time. For the record, we were 2-0 when I watched from the lounge at SFO.

sox-delta-lounge

October 28

I got a little excited when the Red Sox won the World Series.

October 31

Let’s be honest, as a parent, Halloween is basically all about what kind of costume you can get your kid to wear.

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that's my little owl

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November 4

2018 was the year my best friend and his family pulled the trigger and bought a sweet little place in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. November of 2018 was the month I first visited it, and it was totally worth getting my ass handed to me in Gin to see views like these. So happy for him and his family, and I can’t wait to get back.

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November 10

Another year of taking Eleanor to watch the Biggest Little Game in America. An unusual meltdown on her part was actually fortuitous in that we missed the Ephs getting throttled in the second half.

November 15

In spite of my best efforts – from leaving an event in Westchester four hours early to head for the airport, attempting to rebook myself into Boston and then looking at forgoing the plane entirely in favor of a train – I got stranded in NYC overnight. That was inconvenient. Worse, it meant that we had to pass on tickets to Elf, The Musical.

But, made the best of it with a Stranger Things marathon and a few choice selections from Beer Culture.

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stranded in NYC is as a good an excuse as any

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November 25

Later than normal, but finally got the woodshed loaded.

December 1

No idea where three years went, but here we are.

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party time

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December 14

Remember all that maple? The project it was intended for was scrapped at the last minute thanks to the problem of baseboard heating, but it turned this:

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Into this:

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December 22

With Kate’s lease almost up, we [no surprise] picked up another Volvo.

new-volvo

December 28

Poorly recreated a particular birdhouse for my Mother-in-law’s birthday.

 

Sorry JetBlue, But You Blew It

Yesterday morning, I got an email from JetBlue informing me that I’d qualified for Mosaic – the only category of status the airline maintains for frequent flyers. This wasn’t noteworthy because it came as a surprise or because it was the first time – I’ve been Mosaic every year the program has been in existence.

The timing was ironic instead because beginning this week I’m going to try out flying something other than JetBlue as my primary carrier for the first time in over a decade.

A month ago while on vacation, Kate asked me whether I’d consider switching away from JetBlue. Four days ago, I received this email from Delta and had my answer:

In short, it informed me that Delta had granted me their equivalent of Mosaic status on a provisional basis, status which I can lock in for the next calendar year by meeting some basic mileage and spending requirements over a three month period. This kind of status matching is common in the industry and intended to ease the friction of switching from one airline on which you have status to another on which you don’t.

While the practice is common, however, this is a big shift for me, both because I’ve flown JetBlue for so long and because – this decision notwithstanding – I have almost universally positive things to say about the airline.

For those that might be curious about this change, then, this is how and why it happened.

I started flying JetBlue well over a decade ago primarily if not strictly because of their promise of “Most Legroom in Coach.” I’ll never be mistaken for an NBA player, but even at the more modest height of 6′ 2″ this was my experience in a standard economy seat on United and other carriers a decade ago – and flights have even less legroom today than they did then.

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Anyway, after shoehorning myself into seats shorter than the Fenway grandstand’s a few too many times, JetBlue looked like a godsend. The airline had enough seat pitch – the airline industry’s vernacular for legroom – that even in its basic seats, I had just enough room for my legs.

Their loyalty status program, which is not great now, was literally non-existent when I started flying JetBlue. But I had enough legroom, so I flew the airline, and flew it a lot.

Running the numbers this weekend, here’s what I found:

  • I’ve averaged right around 70,000 miles annually on JetBlue
  • That number would have been higher except for the birth of my daughter two and a half years ago. Before her arrival, I was averaging 83,000 miles on the airline.
  • Since she was born, it’s been around 48,000 miles annually.
  • That’s a little misleading, however, as it’s been creeping back up as we’ve gotten to the other side of the survival mode that is having a newborn. This year I’m at around 60,000 miles, and my annual total would be higher than that if I hadn’t switched the bulk of my fall flights over to Delta.

There are people who fly a lot more than than I do, of course – I know many myself. But I’ve flown enough over the years that I was surprised to discover that I’m little less than a quarter’s worth of travel away from hitting one million points lifetime on JetBlue. A mark, notably, for which there is no published award or acknowledgement – in contrast to Delta with its Million Miler status.

jetblue-activity-lifetime

It would have been hard to accumulate all of those points just because of the legroom, of course, and indeed there were many reasons I enjoyed flying JetBlue. To a person, the people are professional, well trained and seem happy with their work. Their fleet has aged somewhat since I started flying them, but for the most part the aircraft are clean and in good shape. And their routes were generally convenient for me: easy hops to most domestic destinations through their exceptional T5 terminal at JFK, and non-stops to Austin, Chicago, Mos Eisley, Orlando, San Francisco or even the other Portland out of Boston.

The reason I’m likely to leave JetBlue, in other words, has essentially nothing to do with the airline itself or its people – both of which I recommend highly, even now. My issue is with their loyalty program Mosaic. For those who fly regularly, it is in my view a program with minimal benefits, particularly when compared to competitive programs from other airlines.

The only two features of Mosaic I leverage with any regularity are waived change and cancellation fees and the ability to board first. You get two bags checked for free, but I never check bags. You get access to an expedited security lane, but I already have that via Global Entry. And so on and so on.

What they don’t have, and many other airlines including Delta do, are upgrade policies for status holders and a network of airline lounges. The latter isn’t critical, but the former is something I’ve asked JetBlue to consider dozens of times over the years – see here, as one example. On JetBlue, the only way to get into a Mint seat – their first class equivalent – is to purchase a full fare. On Delta, status holders can request complimentary upgrades to open first class seats – or the slight upgrade of Comfort+ if you don’t want to pay those fares – at the time of ticket purchase.

Upgrades are subject to availability, of course, and depending on the routes they may be nearly impossible to come by. But as I told someone the other day, if I’m upgraded to first once – ever – that will be one more time than JetBlue has upgraded me in all the years that I’ve flown the airline.

Throw in the fact that Delta has lounges at pretty much airport I fly that I have complimentary access to via the American Express Platinum cards that RedMonk issues to analysts and my flying experience should be substantially upgraded moving forward.

Which is not to say that I’m switching to Delta just because of the lounges or upgrade policies, as there are many airlines that would qualify on that basis. Delta is the replacement because of a complicated mix of factors, including routes and schedules, aircraft types, recovery from irregular operations, pricing and the fact that they simply offer more to the frequent flyer than JetBlue does.

It also doesn’t hurt that some of their best customers have nice things to say about the airline:

A friend of mine here in Portland who used to travel a lot, in fact, was the one who sealed the deal when he ran me through both his experiences and his coworkers flying out of Portland – which included getting nice cocktails in first class with regularity.

Delta’s not perfect, of course, no airline is. But at least for the next year or so I’m going to try and discover whether it’s a better fit for me than JetBlue. I’ll miss the good people and service from that airline, but after years of waiting for their loyalty program to reward their most loyal customers, my patience finally ran out.

Old Movies

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When I watch movies these days, there’s a pretty good chance it’s an old movie. I tell people this, and by old they think I mean classic, but I don’t. I just mean old. I’m no more sitting down to take in Casablanca or Citizen Kane than I am capable of debating the relative merits of Eisenstein, Fellini or Kurosawa. My taste in old movies is no better than my taste in new ones. Which, as even my good friends would admit, is awful.

What I say old movies, what I mean are movies that I grew up with. Because I myself got old somehow, sometime. Some of these movies were out long before I was born, some were out a decade later. Some of them are good, most are not. If I’m really lucky, they’ve found refuge at the back end of Amazon or Netflix catalogs (hello again, Cloak & Dagger and Iron Eagle), but more often than not I have to track them down via used DVD stores (shoutout, Bull Moose).

People who know film will often tell you that movies and TV – TV especially – are in nearly every way fundamentally better products than they were when I was a kid. And while my tastes might betray the relevance of my opinion, this seems correct. Special effects have come a long way, but it’s more than that. Consider the quality of the child actors in movies like Super 8 or series like Stranger Things, for example. With all due respect to the nine year old Drew Barrymore of Firestarter and her contemporaries, the kids today are either better or better directed.

To be sure, not everything has changed – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Movie tropes from my youth, for example – police procedurals, monster flicks, kids rule movies and on and on – are alive and well. But they are infinitely more self aware and better written than they were back in the days when we walked uphill to school both ways in the snow. As a rule, media today is simply more ambitious. In budget, clearly – the production locations for Game of Thrones being Exhibit A. But directors are thinking bigger. When It was filmed in 1990 as a TV miniseries, it was conceived of and delivered as a straight up horror genre entry. When it was turned into a feature film last year, the idea wasn’t to make a great horror movie, but a great movie, full stop.

All of which is an odd setup: if these old movies are objectively worse, why watch them? It’s not like there is or will be any shortage of new content available.

As it turns out, there are a number of reasons.

Some of it, of course, is raw, unfiltered nostalgia. The memories attached to some of these movies are so vivid that I can almost feel my little brother sitting next to me at the foot of our parents’ bed while we eat Swanson’s TV Dinners. No matter how bad some of these movies are, the narcotic effect of the memories they trigger is a far more compelling reward than technically excellent but more distant films of today.

My deep attachment to Jaws, for example, began the day my Dad let my friend Annie from across the street and I watch it on our Betamax set when we were *maybe* five (Annie’s Mom was not thrilled). On the other end of the spectrum, I’m not sure my little brother has ever really recovered from the time we watched Prom Night with our babysitter, Annie’s older brother.

One of those films is widely regarded as a magnificent accomplishment, the first and still best summer blockbuster. The other was considered a derivative, fortunately non-terminal career mistake for a young Jamie Lee Curtis. The memories these movies bring back, however, are not proportional to their critical regard.

There’s also the fact that in these multi-tasking, distracted days, the advantage of an old movie is that I’ve seen it before and therefore only need to devote a portion of my attention to it, much as you might put on classical music while you work.

And then there’s the novelty factor. You never know when someone essential to your childhood will show up in an early role. Why is Indy slumming it as a drag racer in American Graffiti? Is Kevin Bacon really going to be one of the red shirt camp counselors in Friday the 13th?

But the real reason I watch these things isn’t the cameos, the fact that I know some of them by heart or even the sepia trips down memory lane. What I’ve come to realize in watching the movies of my childhood is that all of them, quite unintentionally, are period pieces. Whether fresh or rotten on the Tomatometer, these movies are history. Mine, the cast and crews’, and the country’s.

They’re an answer to a fundamental question: what’s changed between now and then, and has it changed for the better?

  • What the World Looked Like:
    Like any worthy period piece, of course, there are the sets. Stranger Things had to expend incredible effort in making the present look like an approximation of the 1980’s. The films I grew up with just had to show up and roll camera. From old cars to old TVs to old commercials to old clothes to old hairstyles, there is something about watching movies of the past that’s like looking at pictures of yourself as a kid and wondering how in the hell you could have possibly thought Jams looked good. Cars that looked sleek and modern decades ago look quaint and impossibly antiquated. Unless they’re muscle cars like the Hemi Cuda from Phantasm, that is, in which case they look classic and bad ass. But there’s something about watching movies strewn with awful linoleum countertops, garish wallpaper and giant rotary phones that visually and viscerally reminds that you this was a different time, one that had its advantages. Hairstyles were weird, but kids could ride their bikes to school without getting their parents questioned by DHS. You didn’t have every song ever written available wirelessly, but people in general didn’t spend the bulk of their days looking down at a small electronic square, waiting for the next dopamine hit of an alert or inbound email. People smoked on airplanes, but you didn’t have to get virtually strip searched to get on one. It was a simpler time, and while that can be good as well as bad, it had its advantages.

  • What We Looked Like:
    If you watch old movies, particularly the kids rule or slasher flicks, one of the things that stands out most is how normal the kids look. They don’t look like models and they don’t look like they’ve flown in from a Mr or Mrs Universe competition – they look like regular kids. In an era in which obesity levels are climbing and pervasive cameras and round the clock access have led to widespread body shaming issues, watching a bunch of normal teenagers is as refreshing as it is jarring.

  • What We Thought About Teenage Sex:
    A great deal has been written on the moral messages of the early teen slasher flicks – Friday the 13th, Halloween and so on. As with the fixed set of rules that governed Wil E Coyote’s pursuit of the Road Runner, horror films of my generation were formulaic and followed patterns that transcended individual films or franchises. Teenage sex, for example, was punishable by death, while the most virtuous of the group inevitably ended up the lone survivor. So much of a cliché did these rules become, in fact, that the director of one of the series originally responsible for them, Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Wes Craven, went on to lampoon them in an updated nineties franchise called Scream. Joss Whedon did much the same with this decade’s Cabin in the Woods. If you watch It Follows, meanwhile, you’ll get an interesting sense of contrast between the sexual mores of the last century versus this one.

  • What We Accepted as Normal:
    But it wasn’t just attitudes about teenage sex that have changed. When the main character in John Carpenter’s The Fog picks up a hitchhiking Jamie Lee Curtis while sipping on a Bud heavy, for example, neither the hitchhiking nor the casual drinking and driving were treated as particularly anomalous. Same with Teri Garr’s character fleeing her husband, played by Richard Dreyfuss, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind with three kids in a station wagon equipped with a grand total of zero car seats. Maybe the most startling is when Warren Beatty in The Parallax View is asked for his airfare – by the flight attendant after the plane has taken off. As Lou Reed said in 1973, “those were different times.”

  • What We Were Afraid Of:
    Much as values have changed, so have the things that society fears. Growing up, people tended to be afraid of either the existential or the fantastical. The Damoclean threat of nuclear war in movies like Rocky IV, Wargames or even Spies Like Us at one of end of the spectrum, supernaturally evil killers like Fred Krueger or Jason Voorhees at the other. These days, we seem to worry less about nuclear war than we do about plagues, as in the case of movies like 28 Days Later, Contagion or [REC] (though admittedly Michael Crichton, as usual, was ahead of his time with The Andromeda Strain). On an individual level, meanwhile, we collectively seem to be more aware of the fact that we’re a lot more likely to be killed by other people than magical creatures. The cannibals of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre are frightening because they’re monsters, but the cannibals of Snowpiercer are arguably more so because, as Rod Serling once said, the monsters are us.

    Maybe the best evidence for how our fears have changed, however, is 1984’s Red Dawn. A movie about a Soviet-led invasion of the United States set in Colorado, it features a bunch of high school kids turned guerrillas with hunting rifles killing Cuban and Russian soldiers. It did this so well that the Gun Owners of America group honored the director for “dramatically depicting the importance in our time of the Second Amendment,” and the National Review Online places it 15 in its list of “The Best Conservative Movies.”

    Today, however, with this President, many of those conservatives have very different attitudes about Russia. Attitudes which their parents would have found inexplicable and horrifying if not outright treasonous.

  • What We Don’t Do Anymore:
    In movies like The Monster Squad, a typical “kids rule” movie from the 1980’s, the homophobia sporadically on display isn’t the surprise: it’s how casual it is. While 2018 clearly cannot claim a perfect record when it comes to sexual preference or identification, it is heartening to watch movies from a few decades ago and think, “that would never be allowed in a movie today.” Baby steps, but progress nevertheless.

    Also, thanks in large part to Sigourney Weaver, there are many, many more women action stars these days. Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Gal Gadot, Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Beckinsale, Linda Hamilton, Lucy Liu, Milla Jovovich, Scarlett Johansson, Uma Thurman, Zoe Saldana and all of the other women carrying action movies these days owe a debt to Ripley blowing the goddamn thing out of the airlock. Twice.

  • What We Still Do:
    As far as diversity goes, however, movies and TV are still generally awful. The good news is that Black Panther is, financially speaking, one of the most successful movies of all time. Get Out wasn’t quite the same money making juggernaut, but was similarly well received by critics. The bad news is the fact that these films remain the exception, exceptions which prove the rule. We’ve got a long way to go. As a believer, however, that economics are one of the most powerful change agents there is, it’s been absolutely delightful to see Black Panther approach the billion and a half revenue mark.

These are just a small handful of examples – old movies are absolutely littered with history. It seems safe to assume, in fact, that they’ve been the subject of thousands of graduate theses whose readership is measured in single digits. But for my fellow non-film geeks, go watch an old movie sometime. Come for the less cynical, jaded and graphic plotlines, stay for the intoxicating look at how life used to be.

Our New Network Solution: An Amplifi Review

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Back in early January, the Nest camera that serves as our baby monitor went offline in the middle of the night. By itself, this wouldn’t be noteworthy, but the problem was that this had become routine. And any routine that involves an already sleep deprived parent having to wake up in the middle of the night and mess around with network connections isn’t going to be a routine for long. Devices from Nest units to our laptops would get hung up or knocked off our network entirely, several times a day every day.

Whether it was simply that the Asus NT-66U router we’d bought five years ago had gotten old, had some intermittent hardware failure or simply had never been designed to handle having dozens of devices connected to it all day every day, I never determined.

As I mentioned when we set out to replace the router, there was a time when I would have enjoyed the technical challenge of debugging and remediating an old router. The wifi solution at our last house, in fact, was a series of Linksys devices running DD-WRT as a series of daisy-chained repeaters. But between having a young child and just generally finding other things to do with my time as I’ve gotten older, at this point in my life I want to expend essentially zero effort on networking. I want it to Just Work, out of the box. And if it doesn’t, as was the case with the aging Asus device we used, I’ll find something that will.

All of which explains how I ended up asking for recommendations for networking gear on Twitter:

Based on anecdotes and random reviews of networking gear I had seen, I expected the advice to break down into roughly two categories: hard core geeks pushing Ubiquiti, with everyone else recommending some combination of mesh offerings from Eero, Google Wifi and so on. And with a few exceptions, that’s what I got.

Which wasn’t ideal, because as much as Ubiquiti’s reputation made its gear attractive, just the thought of stringing CAT-6 lines everywhere and having to fine tune complicated network settings was exhausting. A simple, cable-free mesh setup was much more in line with my near total lack of willingness to invest time in our home networking solution.

The obvious solution to this dilemma was to go with Ubiquiti’s mesh system, Amplifi: I’d get the simplicity of mesh with the reputation of Ubiquiti. Unfortunately, however, most of the reviews of their hardware like the one from Ars here noted that Amplifi’s mesh points are extremely attractive for toddlers to take apart and destroy. Which is relevant, because we have a toddler.

Initially, then, it looked like I was going down the Eero or Google Wifi routes (Orbi got good write-in recommendations as well), though with reservations about the future of both hardware lines if for different reasons. But then, in a bit of well timed social media outreach, Ubiquiti informed me that I didn’t actually need the mesh points.

When they subsequently DM’d me to ask whether I’d like some gear to test, then, I said hell yes. They sent over two MeshRouters, and what follows is a discussion of how that’s gone.

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The Net

The tl;dr version is that the Amplifi gear is excellent, and I recommend it without reservation. Basically, with one exception which I’ll discuss, I never think about our network. Given the degree of traffic it handles – which is a lot for a home, as virtually all of our media (movies/music/tv) is streamed and we have a non-trivial number of smart devices from the aforementioned Nest to WeMo on network – its performance has been exemplary.

In short, while kid duty has had me up in the middle of the night many, many times since we switched over to Amplifi, the number of times I’ve had to attend to a broken network connection has been zero.

Which is all I could ask for.

Our House

As houses go, ours is not that big clocking in a bit under 2,000 square feet. The old Asus router could just barely reach across it, but the connection quality at the far end of the house wasn’t great. So while a three device system likely would have been overkill for us, placing one MeshRouter at each end of the house blankets the entire house in a solid connection. This means, for example, that we can run at outdoor Nest cam at the end of the house furthest away from the internet drop – this would have been impossible with the Asus.

The reach of these devices also means that basically our entire yard – front, back and sides – has internet access. Which is pretty great when I’m loading the woodshed or cutting the lawn; I can stream whatever I want with impunity and without worrying about a stuttering internet connection or reverting to my more expensive and slower mobile data plan. It’s also nice to be able to download the latest podcasts from the driveway at broadband speeds before I head into the office.

Installation

Installing the Amplifi system was very straightforward with three exceptions, one which was Ubiquiti’s fault and two of which were mine.

The problems I caused were:

  1. That in conjunction with our replacement of our network setup, the request had been made by a family member who shall go unnamed to change our network ID at the same time. Which was fine as far as the Amplifi setup went, but that change subsequently broke literally every IoT device we had. I’d expected Nest, at least, to handle network changes more gracefully, but I highly recommend against changing your network setup if you have any alternative, unless you enjoy pulling smoke detectors off ceilings and cameras off walls. This has nothing to do with Amplifi, obviously, but in case you get a new networking setup and are contemplating making a change to your network: don’t.
  2. For reasons I can no longer remember, I set our NAS device up with a static IP at some point in the distant past. The problem was that the out of the box IP range for the Amplifi system didn’t match our old router, so the NAS was requesting an IP address that was unavailable. The good news was that as soon as I figured out what the problem was (which took me a lot longer than it should have), that Amplifi made it easy to a) change the default range and b) assign that device the IP address it required. Still, do yourself a favor and don’t set up static IPs if you don’t need to.

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The only issue with Amplifi’s setup was with the second MeshRouter. Setting up the first device was idiot proof, and I had it online within a minute or two. Convincing the second MeshRouter that I actually wanted it to be a MeshPoint, however, was a bit of a clunky process. The UI could use some work in that department, but if you’re using the standard MeshRouter plus MeshPoint system, it won’t be an issue for you.

All in all, discounting the issues in which I shot myself in the foot repeatedly, Amplifi delivered the low friction install experience I’d hoped for.

Maintenance

With the Asus, I used to have to remember to login in to the web console and check for hardware updates. With the Amplifi unit, every so often the display on the router has a notification that an update is available, along with a button to install it. One click, the firmware upgrade is applied and it goes back to being unnoticeable.

Aesthetics

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I’m of the opinion that most routing equipment, and some of the newer mesh systems in particular, are aesthetically mediocre at best and legitimately bizarre at worst. But while I’d definitely lump the Amplifi MeshPoints in that category, the MeshRouters are pretty easy on the eyes. Simple, clean cube design with a highly quality LCD display that doubles as a clock – and that you can configure to power down at night. It’s not exactly Bang & Olufsen in terms of its appearance, but the Amplifi gear is a clear step up from the old Asus, Linksys, etc. routers you might be used to that were oddly shaped and sprouted antennas like a hedgehog.

Management

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The Amplifi gear is installed via and managed with their mobile app, available on both Android and iOS. It’s generally well designed, and distills its telemetery down to the actual questions you’d typically want answers to about your network: is the internet up or down? What is its speed? How many devices are connected? Is the mesh network up? And so on. It even includes a built ISP test you can use.

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If you’re motivated, the Amplifi system gives you some useful management abilities: you can pause the internet across all devices, or on a device by device basis for example. But apart from the aforementioned NAS IP debacle and cutting our DNS over to Cloudflare’s public network, I haven’t had to tinker too much with the network because it just works.

Performance

I’ll leave this question to reviewers who can benchmark the gear against other comparable systems, but I can say that we’ve had zero issues with performance in spite of some heavy network usage requirements. Whether it’s streaming high definition video down from YouTube TV or up to Nest, so far, it’s been so good.

Issues

Apart from the MeshRouter as MeshPoint setup complaint above, the only other real issue we’ve had has been with hand-offs between access points. For fixed in place devices such as our Nest cams, this isn’t an issue. But if you have a laptop streaming video and walk from one end of the house to the other, the connection is likely to stutter if not drop entirely as you’re handed off from router to meshpoint or vice versa. That scenario isn’t a particularly common occurrence for us, but it’s not unheard of either so a solution would be welcome.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Ubiquiti is aware of the issue, and while it’s to some degree dependent on hardware providers such as Apple, the early returns from its updated firmware have been promising.

But do understand that you may experience some connectivity issues if you’re constantly roaming between different access points.

Where to Buy

If you want a system in a box, I’ve got an Amazon referral link for you right here. You can also buy the MeshRouters straight from Ubiquiti here.

Disclosure

Ubiquiti, as mentioned above, was kind of to give me the two review units free of cost.

 

What’s the Deal With YouTube TV?

The last time I had a cable subscription was a decade ago. Which I bring up only because of the context, not as an attempt to claim any moral superiority. We have a local Netflix-like setup in the house, and over the last decade I’ve wasted just as much time as the average cable customer watching the kind of found footage and monster movies that don’t generally end up in theaters.

So no, I don’t think I’m better than you.

I haven’t missed cable for the most part. As with most cord cutters, live sports has been the biggest problem. I’ve found work arounds for most of it, but they’ve all come with significant limitations. I had to use a paid DNS service that fooled geo-lookups, for one, which was compatible with some but not all of the packages I subscribe to. MLB.tv would work but Netflix wouldn’t, that kind of thing. I was generally limited to watching on a laptop as well, and sometimes a 12″ screen just isn’t the right medium.

All of which helps explain why I’ve been checking in every so often on cord-cutting packages like Playstation Vue or Sling TV. The idea of having an internet only TV package that was cheaper than cable was attractive, but every time I looked there was some critical limitation. As was the case when I first found out about YouTube TV, with its crucial NESN (AKA the station that Red Sox games are on) availability in October. After becoming intrigued by YouTube’s cable-ish package, not least because standard YouTube had become a staple of my viewing habits, it turned out that the service wasn’t available quite yet up here in Maine.

On December 11th, I received notification that the service had launched in Portland.

Cut to a few minutes later.

youtube-tv
We’ve been subscribers ever since. When it’s come up in conversation, the number one question I get is “how is it?”
 
The answer is: it’s great. I like it, but since my judgment with respect to TV is questionable, it’s probably more important to note that Kate likes it as well. She’d prefer it have HGTV I’m sure, but the ability to watch the Olympics for the first time in years has been a big win. As for me, I’ll be able to watch the Red Sox on TV in my house this weekend. Everything else – even the incredible Blue Planet 2 from BBC America, or the amazing recent news that MLB Network will be added to the roster soon – is gravy.

If you’re curious about the details, read on.

Price

At $35 a month, it’s a pretty easy sell. NESN by itself was a $12 extra the last time I subscribed to cable, and as a vehicle to be able to watch sports and series not available on Netflix yet (e.g. Blue Planet 2) it’s a fair value, if not the lowest cost option. Even at $40, which is what the price will go up to in March, we probably wouldn’t think twice about it. It’s likely to pay for itself just in the time I don’t have to spend tinkering with DNS settings to get the sports I want.

Content

At 50+ channels now, YouTube has probably 40 more than I’ll ever need. But more realistically, with the recent addition of Turner Channels such as TNT, Adult Swim, TBS, CNN, and Cartoon Network their last obvious basic cable hole was plugged. Most people will find their basic needs met, whether that’s local channels, live sports or movies – no HBO yet, though Showtime is available as an add-on.

Device Support

Something the service was dinged on early, this has not been an issue for us. We used the native Samsung integration until the Roku client was available, but with support for Android, Chromecast, iOS, LG/Samsung TVs, Xbox and now Apple TV and Roku, most of the common options are covered. I haven’t watched a lot on my Pixel or iPad too much yet, but I can guarantee that those get a workout come baseball season.

Family Sharing

YouTube TV supports 6 accounts but only 3 concurrent streams, so that may or may not work for you given the size of your household. For us, it’s more than enough.

youtube-tv-family-group

Picture Quality

I’ve seen a lot of debate (for example) around the framerate and resolution of YouTube TV streams, but what I can tell you is that we have a brand new 50″ 4K Samsung LCD, and the picture is excellent. Streams are consistent and don’t buffer for us, either.

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DVR

The DVR feature is simple to use, and works perfectly. Search for a show, or team in my case, and press the “+” button. That’s it. Whenever and whatever channel the Red Sox play on, this will record it.
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Even better? The cloud-based DVR is unlimited, so you never have to worry about maxing out shows. This makes it easy for me to record things like “The Twilight Zone,” which aren’t a priority but that I’ll watch from time to time.

Usability

While the user interface is a bit different than standard cable, it’s a lot easier for me to navigate. There are just three tabs:

  • Home: This is a mix of recommendations, shows to resume watching and high level categories like News or Sports.
    youtube-tv-live-page
  • Library: This is the DVR, with everything you’ve recorded.
    youtube-tv-recorded-page
  • Live: This is the equivalent of your channel browser on cable, and lists what’s on currently and up next.youtube-live-page-actual
The only real usability issues I’ve had came when we were using the Samsung’s native YouTube TV interface; the base-model TV we got came with a base-model remote, and it wasn’t always intuitive how to pause, rewind or fast forward. But that’s Samsung’s problem, not YouTube’s: once we cut over to the Roku, everything’s been seamless.

Less obvious but no less important than the functional usability, in my opinion, are the aesthetics. From the font to the layout, YouTube’s TV package is attractive and a genuine pleasure to use; whatever they’re paying the designers, it’s not enough.

Wishlist

As much as I like it now, there are ways that YouTube TV could be even better. Note that number one on this list would have been adding MLB Network, but that’s already in the works.

  • PIP on the iPad:
    The YouTube TV app for the iPad is, in general, excellent. Its one primary shortcoming is the lack of support for Picture-in-Picture (PIP). One of the things that makes the latest generations of iPad usable across a wider variety of scenarios is its improved support for multi-tasking. Netflix, for example,
    allows you to play media while using the iPad for something else. Currently,
    the YouTube TV app doesn’t offer this. Would love to see the ability added.
  • Channel Filtering:
    Back when I had DirecTV, you could filter their hundreds of channels down based on the ones you actually watched. Which is how people who came over to my house were presented with a channel lineup that consisted of less than a dozen channels including ESPN, NESN, the Cartoon Network, Discovery and the History channel (this was before the latter turned into the Ancient Aliens channel, mind you). I’d like to be able to do that on YouTube TV. It’s not likely that I’m ever going to watch Fox News, so I’d rather not waste UI space on it.
  • Reviews: Given that YouTube TV is offering me recommendations, it’d be nice to be able to give them explicit rather than implicit signals about what I like versus what I don’t. Even a thumbs up/down button, as on Netflix, would work.
  • Offline Caching: As far as I can tell right now, while the cloud DVR is infinitely capable, there’s no provision for offline storage. Unlike Netflix, where I can store a video ahead of time to watch on a plane, YouTube TV isn’t an option for me offline.
  • Better Integration with Standard YouTube: Given the branding and origins of the service, not to mention the growth, it’s interesting to me that standard YouTube isn’t integrated to the TV service outside of “YouTube Red Originals,” which don’t interest me much. I’ve got a growing number of standard YouTube channels I watch regularly, mostly woodworking and DIY-related, that I’d definitely watch on the service if I could. My guess is that one of the potential concerns is what lower resolution user-filmed content would look like on large screens, but I’d like at least the option to even if the picture quality suffers.
  • More Sophisticated DVR Filters (AKA the Simpsons Filter): This is nit-picking to be sure, but while the existing DVR filters are excellent, as mentioned, I’d love for them to be a bit more granular. In my case, for example, I’m a big Simpsons fan, but I’ll only watch through Season 14. The show lost me after that, so I’d love to be able to tell the DVR to record the show so I had them, but to skip the latter seasons where the quality fell off.

The Net

If you’re looking for an easy-to-use alternative to cable and are willing to pay a slight premium for features like time-shifting via DVR, I’d definitely recommend giving YouTube TV a look.

So You’re Thinking About Using Sears For Service

On January 8th, our dishwasher broke. Technically that isn’t true, because it was still able to wash dishes, it just was no longer able to do so without smelling like an electrical fire. There are many appliance issues one can overlook or live with, but a burning smell isn’t really one of them.

I took a quick look underneath the unit, but it looked pretty much like a dishwasher to me. Time to call in the professionals.

First up was Sears, as they sold us the unit. Took a quick look online, but Sears.com was booking appointments a week out so I turned to Bosch, the manufacturer. Their recommended service person was an hour away. Next up, Google. That found me three local people, who I called. One only serviced the units they sold, one was on vacation for the month of January and the last one never called me back.

Sears then, by default.

I wasn’t thrilled to wait a week, but I was happy that we’d at least booked someone to fix it. A month later when we finally gave up on them after the third no show, I was a lot less happy.

For the masochistic, I’m including a full timeline of events below. Most of you won’t need to read that, or care. All you need to know is that our experience with Sears was by a wide margin the worst customer service experience I’ve had, and I’m a two time Comcast customer.

I take no pleasure in writing this post, because the technician that did eventually show up for the diagnosis was friendly, competent and professional. Much has been written on how one time hedge fund manager and Sears CEO Eddie Lampert has ruined the company – see this piece in Business Insider or this one in Salon, for example. Unfortunately for the thousands of good men and women who work for the company, if our experience was any guide, those articles aren’t hyperbole: the company is in fact ruined.

At a minimum their customer relationship management system – or systems, plural, I should say – are a disaster. No one ever had any record of talking to me, every rep I spoke with gave me incorrect information, and none of the different business units – one located here in the US at a number with a New Hampshire area code, one outsourced to India judging by the accents, and the social media team – seemed to be able to communicate with each other.

The short version of what happened to us was that we were given three dates on which Sears promised to show up. Three times they failed to, and on none of those occasions were we notified. On the latter two occasions, I had actually confirmed the appointments the day before. The last time, in fact, I confirmed it twice via phone and once via Twitter the day before, and then the morning of. Didn’t make a difference: no Sears.

It’s bad enough to not show up when people have to make arrangements to meet you. But not letting the customer know you’ve cancelled and then rebooking a week out demonstrates a comical level of incompetence.

After the third cancellation, when Sears tried to reschedule me for another week out, I asked the representative why I should trust them this time, losing more time in the process? He didn’t have an answer, obviously, so I cancelled the service and ultimately ended up doing the repair myself (thanks, YouTube) – over a month after the dishwasher originally broke.

The lesson here, then, is that until Sears fixes its broken service program, I’d highly recommend against using them, and given that many shops seem to only service equipment they sell, I probably wouldn’t buy from them either.

Timeline

  • Jan 8: Dishwasher breaks
  • Jan 10: Give up on local guy, resort to Sears who only books a week out.
  • Jan 17: I arrange to work from home, Sears doesn’t show up. No call or warning. I call, and without providing any reason for the delay, they rebook me for the 20th.
  • Jan 20: Sears shows up, diagnoses problem, doesn’t have parts to fix it, orders them (but importantly doesn’t tell us what they are) schedules a repair for 1/31 – which means another ten days without a dishwasher. Critical mistake: we pay in advance.
  • Jan 30: Sears calls, asks for confirmation that parts arrived. I call back and confirm that parts did arrive. Receive appointment confirmation.
  • Jan 31: Sears calls while I’m in London asking for confirmation that parts arrived.
  • Jan 31: Kate works from home, Sears does not show. There was no call or warning.
  • Feb 1: An additional Sears part shows up.
  • Feb 1: Kate complains to Sears via Twitter. They write back: “Please confirm in a DM the full name, full street address, and phone number. If you are not the purchaser, please confirm instead their full name and their relation to you, thanks.”
  • Feb 5 (Our daughter had the flu, so we were distracted for a few days) Kate sends them photos of the receipt and an explanation of events via DM.
    > SEARS: Hello, we are having trouble viewing that image. Please type out the requested information. Thank you!
    > Kate: {sends information}
    > SEARS: Can you please provide us the requested information. We will need full name, full street address, and phone number. If you are not the account holder. Please provide their info and relation to you. Thank you.
    > Kate: O_o
  • Feb 6: Sears (via SMS) confirms appointment for tomorrow afternoon. Related: they never asked if we were available, it was just scheduled.
  • Feb 6 (later): Sears (NH) calls. First I get asked if I’m Mr. Trillian, but they eventually find my order, ask if parts have arrived. I say yes and they confirm appointment.
  • Feb 6 (later): Sears (Toll-Free) calls and says I need to call and confirm that parts have arrived.
  • Feb 6 (later): Sears (Twitter) asks me to DM, can’t because DM’s aren’t open.
  • Feb 6 (later): DM them my info.
  • Feb 6 (later): Additional Sears part shows up.
  • Feb 6 (later): Call Sears (Toll-Free), clearly outsourced call center rep asks if I’ve received the parts. I say I think so, but was never given a list. She puts me on hold, comes back and asks if I’ve received two packages. I reply that we have (actual number is 3). She says the technician will be there tomorrow with an additional part, but that I’m confirmed for tomorrow.
  • Feb 6 (later): Sears (Twitter) replies via DM asking if I’ve received all the parts. Here was our exchange:
    sears-DM-3
  • Feb 7: 10:30 AM Sears calls. Call them back: “You’re confirmed, they’ll be there at 1 PM.”
  • Feb 7: 3:30 PM Sears sends an email: “Sears Repair Service is attempting to contact you regarding parts related to your scheduled in home service.”
  • Feb 7: 3:45 PM I call Sears: “We have no record that the parts arrived or that you have an appointment scheduled today, our next opening is the 13th.” Conversation goes downhill from there, and I decide to cancel the appointment entirely.
  • Feb 7: In a back and forth with @Searscare via DM requesting a refund, they asked: “Could you possibly send another screen shot of your confirmation?” Which was funny, because they’d confirmed the appointment via DM the day prior.
  • Feb 7: In one last futile attempt to try and salvage the situation, Sears calls and asks if I have a specific part, which I had received. In an ironic turn of fate, it turns out all of the cancellations were because they assumed I didn’t have a part which had already arrived.

 

Ten Podcasts You Might Not Have Heard

Almost twenty years ago, my parents got me the BBC’s full cast audio version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as a Christmas present. I was ecstatic. Like a lot of people, I enjoyed the books as a kid and was curious to see how they’d translate in an audiobook form. More importantly, however, it was hours of entertainment – thirteen hours on thirteen discs, to be precise. Given that I was reverse commuting out of Manhattan at the time by car, this was a veritable goldmine of fresh content.

It meant that I didn’t have to listen to the shriekers on sports radio at all for almost a week, which was glorious.

These days, it’s difficult to appreciate what a content wasteland commutes were at the time. First, because the advent of digital and then streaming music meant that you went from a music collection limited by physical, easily damaged discs to any version of any song ever, at your fingertips. But these days, for me, it’s more because of the explosion in podcast content available.

It took me a lot longer to get into podcasts than it should have, mostly because I was dumb, but these days they’re a staple of my media consumption diet. In the jobs to be done parlance, podcasts take otherwise dead time – time spent commuting, as mentioned, or chopping wood, or working in the shop – and make it productive. Or more productive, at least.

The good news is that your options are basically infinite. From business to history to horror fiction, there’s a podcast for pretty much everyone. The bad news is that discovery, however, remains a pretty major problem. If you’re content with what is essentially the podcast incarnation of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40, you won’t have any problems. And to be fair, many of the shows that make those lists (and there are one or two on here there are probably on there towards the bottom) – shows like 99% Invisible or S-Town – are creative, exceedingly well produced and deserving of the attention they receive.

But if your tastes are a little more specific and a little less mainstream, it can be hard to find new shows – hence the ubiquitous pleas for ratings “so that new listeners can find us.”

My own tastes are undoubtedly a bit eccentric and very unlikely to match yours perfectly, but you might find one or more of the following (sorted alphabetically by category) worth a listen – I certainly do.

Enjoy.

Baseball: Effectively Wild

wild
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but something like a quarter of the podcasts I subscribe to are about baseball. Maybe a third. Anyway, they run the gamut. Some are hosted by local writers or media outlets, others MLB itself. But the show that best balances relevance for a wider audience while being entertaining and informative is probably the current incarnation of Effectively Wild. It’s nerdy and stat-oriented, but covers the game with a critical eye. Episode 1165 with Jeff Passan, as but one example, is a must listen if you care about the game itself.

Business: Postlight

track
As long as I’m confessing my podcast subscription sins, I should acknowledge that for someone who works in an industry where there’s a podcast for literally every subject, I listen to very few technology podcasts. Part of it is a format thing: a lot of these are panel type shows, which aren’t my favorite. But a lot of it is that given that I spend most of my day immersed in industry news and analysis, it’s nice to take a step back. Postlight’s Track Changes show, however, is an exception to this rule. It’s a great show run by founders Paul Ford and Rich Ziade, and while they’ll occasionally rant on subjects such as their hate for LinkedIn, they have a remarkable and diverse assemblage of talent come through their studio to talk about aspects of technology I don’t hear anywhere else.

Fiction: Magnus Archives

MAG
There are a great number of fictional podcasts out there, with more arriving by the day. As with most published fiction, the quality of these varies, whether it’s the production or the writing. The most common trap that series fall into is one familiar to fans of Lost or The X-Files: the writers, not having a predetermined ending in mind, get themselves so tangled up narratively speaking that they can’t extricate themselves. One of the best currently going is a little show out of the UK called The Magnus Archives. The episodes are ostensibly stand alone horror vignettes, but if you stick with it a narrative emerges. More importantly, a cohesive narrative, one that is consistent with the individual episodes, and one in which the writers clearly have thought everything through ahead of time. If you grew up reading Stephen King short stories, you’re likely to enjoy this show.

Ghost Stories: Spooked

spooked
If you need straight up ghost stories told by real people – for Halloween, maybe – the Snap Judgment produced Spooked is your huckleberry. The quality of the stories varies pretty widely, but the natural, “regular person” deliveries definitely gives these a bump.

History: Slow Burn

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With apologies to perennial favorites – but already massively popular – history shows like Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History or Mike Duncan’s Revolutions, my favorite new history podcast is one with a subject of more recent vintage. Slow Burn is produced by Slate, and is a show that revisits Watergate. Even if you’re familiar with the history, as I (falsely) believed I was prior to listening to the show, you’ll learn something new. The host Leon Neyfakh and team have done an excellent job sourcing original material, and then interviewing the original participants in the affair. In between John Chancellor segments from the NBC Nightly News are interviews with people such as Bob Woodward, Dick Cavett, and Leslie Stahl. This is one of the podcasts I most look forward to listening to, even if the events – such as those covered in the episode “Why Did So Many People Stand With Richard Nixon For So Long?” – are sadly relevant today.

Home Improvement: Fine Homebuilding

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If you spend any time working on your house, this show is for you. The three hosts discuss everything from tool reviews and recommendations, thoughts on various building materials, recommended construction approaches and even field questions from the audience. It’s not fancy, and it’s definitely geared towards people with some familiarity with terminology, but I’ve gotten quite a bit out of it.

Media: Recode Media with Peter Kafka

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I’m not much for media watching in general, except in cases where it reads on other concerns of mine such as politics or the technology industry, but this show is worth it for the interviews alone. I skip celebrities ones like Jimmy Kimmel, but Kafka’s interview with Ken Burns, for example, was fascinating. Having the opportunity to hear the documentary filmmaker discuss everything from how the Vietnam documentary was made to why he continues to choose PBS as an outlet educates me on issues and topics I hadn’t realized existed.

National Security: Bombshell

bombshell
In a perfect world, or even the world a few years ago, podcasts like Bombshell or Lawfare wouldn’t be – at least for me, an ordinary citizen – a must listen. For the world we live in, however, they are. Bombshell in particular has carved out a spot in my top podcasts list, both because it brings me up to speed on issues of national security, foreign relations and military strategy and because it does so in style. Hosted by three highly competent women – and regularly featuring strictly female subject matter expert guests, with an emphasis on the expert – the average show might cover everything from our changing relationship with Pakistan and its impact on the logistical challenges of supplying Afghanistan to high quality bourbon selections. Also? Two thirds of the hosts are stat geeks. It’s sad that the world we live in demands a heightened understanding of the topics covered on this show, but that’s where we are.

Politics: FiveThirtyEight

538
As with technology podcasts, I have a generally low tolerance for their political counterparts. Some are too strident, others are more opinion than fact and still others are functionally equivalent to powerful sedatives. The FiveThirtyEight show generally manages to avoid the hot takes common to the genre while remaining fairly objective, fact based and dispassionate – if slightly too contrarian for my taste at times. For me, it’s an opportunity to get a rational take on today’s irrational events, often with a dose of hard polling numbers along with the appropriate caveats about sample sizes or likely regression. If you’re looking for context and an objective take on the political news of the month, day or sometimes, hour, this is a pretty good bet.

Survival: Outside Magazine

outside
This one’s kind of morbid, but I’ve found the Outside Magazine podcast’s Science of Survival series riveting. From being adrift on a surf board out at sea to freezing to death to backcountry falls to being treed by a jaguar, the stories are part adventure story, part cautionary tale and part survival training. If you’ve ever been curious at how the body and the mind handle extreme conditions or injury, this podcast is for you. Many of the shows interviews are excellent as well: Ep. 11 “Doc Parsley Solves Your Sleep Crisis” changed the way I thought about the importance of sleep, for example.