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.

 

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My 2017 in Pictures

As with last year’s edition, this year’s annual year in pictures post is arriving late. Due to a combination of daycare germs, furnace outages and bomb cyclones this year’s “holiday” break was busy. But given how much I look forward to the exercise of looking back on the year past, I’m happy to be getting to it, delays notwithstanding.

For most of the world, 2017 was a year of unfortunate development after unfortunate development. Every time it seemed like rock bottom had been hit, the show reached a new low. Rinse, lather, repeat.

But rather than focus on the trainwreck of world events, my purpose here is to revisit and capture for posterity the personal highs and lows. If you want in the moment reactions, the newsletter archive is available at your leisure. This post is the pictures that captured moments that made up my year, large and small. Mostly small.

Before we get to the pictures, however: a couple of statistics from 2017.

Travel

Travel in 2017 was a bit of a good news / bad news situation. On the positive side, thanks in large part to a travel schedule that featured a large number of events on the east coast, my mileage was down significantly from 2016, which was in turn down from 2015. This was the fewest miles I’ve flown since I’ve been on TripIt, in fact. As with last year, I didn’t qualify for JetBlue’s loyalty program until my last trip of December. Most years, I’ve cleared that bar by June.

The bad news was that the low mileage was largely an artifact of geography and not reflective of my overall travel load. A trip to New York, for example, adds thousands of less miles to my ledger than one to San Francisco, but it’s still time away from home. At one point this fall, in fact, due to a series of unrelated factors, I was on the road eight weeks in a row. Typically, I try not to exceed three.

That kind of stretch I would rather not repeat, but here’s hoping I can keep the mileage down again in 2018.

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

  • Distance: I flew 56,447 miles, down 18% or so from 2016.
  • 100K: This was the fourth time in seven years I failed to reach 100,000 miles. Will try to keep it up.
  • Carrier: After a couple of years of trying to make it work with Virgin America (who got bought by Alaska) because their loyalty program is much better than JetBlue’s, the former’s lack of routes finally killed off that experiment. With the exception of routes to London and one hop on Virgin, effectively all of my travel was on JetBlue. I still think their loyalty program is non-competitive and light on benefits, but that aside it’s a pretty good airline.
  • Airport: Because I wasn’t flying on Virgin anymore, I spent more time this year in Portland than Boston in a reverse of 2016.
  • First Time: Didn’t travel to any cities for the first time this year, though I did return to Richmond for the first time in almost twenty years.
  • Where To: For the first time in a few years, New York narrowly tipped San Francisco as my most popular destination. Fingers crossed that repeats in 2018. Nothing against San Francisco, which I enjoy visiting, but a 45 minute flight is a hell of a lot more palatable than a six and a half hour one.

Personal Stats

  • My Top 5 non search-engine referrers to the work blog were 1) Twitter, 2) Reddit, 3) Android Apps (new category?) 4) Hacker News, 5) Facebook.
  • For the first year in a while, I don’t have meaningful stats regarding my step count. The first problem was that my Fitbit Charge broke for the second time – they’d replaced it once already – and this time it was out of warranty. On the Wirecutter’s recommendation, I replaced it with a Garmin Vivosmart HR+ which includes heartrate – which I’ve found you have to take with a grain of salt. The bad news is that for two important use cases for me: 1) walking with a stroller and 2) working on a treadmill desk, it substantially underreported steps for me relative to the Fitbit hardware. So not only did I not have device continuity, there are significant observable differences in capture. Which means no step counts this year, alas.

With that, on to the pictures.

January 5

Started off the New Year on a down note, with my faithful ten year old Volvo S40 picked up at the crack of dawn and donated to charity due to a mechanical issue more costly than the car was worth. It was a fantastic car, and I still have no idea why Volvo killed the model.

thank you for ten great years of memories, my friend. you were loved.

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January 26

Over in London for Monki Gras. Epic and bar-raising, yet again.
IMG_20170126_102619

February 9

Ran out of our initial drop of wood. We’re on track to run out even earlier this year thanks to the weather.

before, after

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February 15

Preferring to not have our roof caved in with snow, reluctantly brought out the roof rake.

about as fun as it looks

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February 22

I’m not entirely sure, but I believe this was the first political protest I’ve attended.
IMG_20170222_130841

February 25

Continuing the baseball education.

pretty nice little saturday

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March 11

Courtesy of an event, I and a few thousand other people had the run of the Giants park in San Francisco. It’s gorgeous.

pretty nice little park you have there, san francisco

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March 29

Last time I was at this PATH station, I was in high school, working for my Dad. They’ve done an amazing job with the rebuild.

haven't been here since high school

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April 15

Love having this park ten minutes from the house.

five minutes from home

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April 29

And this lobster pound even closer.

it's nice to live within walking distance of a lobster pound

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May 3

First appearance at Fenway this season.

very few complaints

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May 6

Continuing the baseball education.

pretty nice little saturday

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May 16

Having been located on Newbury Street in Portland for the better part of eight years, RedMonk HQ officially moved across town to High Street. There were a number of reasons for the change: construction in the old neighborhood, crowds from the nearby cruise ships, an overall upgrade in aesthetics and function (new office has a shower). The best part of the move, however? Pai Men is now three blocks away.

happy moving day, @redmonk HQ

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May 22

Having realized a while back that a) I needed a table saw and b) my track record of injuries suggested that I invest in safety, I’d been saving up for a while to get a SawStop. Fortunately, the only one that would fit in my tiny shop was the cheapest model, their jobsite saw. It’s been a fantastic purchase, one I wish I’d saved up for years ago.

June 10

For the first time since my fifth reunion, maybe, a group of friends and I went back to our college reunion. It was a great time, particularly since we made the decision to get a house of our own rather than stay in the dorms. The Purple Pub that I once knew so well, however, has been replaced by something a lot more corporate.

this place was a lot different before it burned down

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June 29

This was the first speakeasy I’ve ever seen on a client site. The bartender within was competent to the point of being intimidating; I was glad I wasn’t the woman in front of me who asked what cocktails they had and was bluntly told, “everything.”

i enjoy clients with a speakeasy in their offices

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July 1

On a visit to my wife’s Uncle, we hopped the St John’s ferry.

found a bigger boat

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July 4

Spent the fourth of July in Nova Scotia – Chester, to be precise. Great little town.
IMG_20170704_190805-PANO

July 11

One of the folks in our local tech community had an excess of downed trees that I tried to assist him with.

lunch hour

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August 19

I didn’t make it down in time for them, but I was heartened by the response of the city of Boston to the Nazi “free speech” demonstrators. The Nazis were outnumbered by something close to 1000 to 1, and yet no violence ensued. These news trucks lined every side of the commons in the aftermath.
IMG_20170819_173947

August 20

Everybody deserves to retire at some point.

circle of life

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August 21

Worked outside throughout the eclipse, though I did get to view it quickly thanks to glasses from another member of the tech community.
IMG_20170821_143849

August 22

This closet organizer wasn’t any better than the one I made last summer, but at least it didn’t almost amputate the tip of my finger.

no fingertips lost building the closet organizer. this year.

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August 26

Knocked out a couple of quick and easy chairs made from nothing more than dimensional lumber.

next up, pickling

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August 26

We weren’t there for very long because it turns out toddlers – or at least, our toddler – doesn’t like to wear hearing protection, but during a visit of the Blue Angels I got to see my favorite plane of all time, the Cadillac of the Skies.

p-51, cadillac of the skies

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August 31

The weather wasn’t ideal, but I managed to sneak in my annual pilgrimmage to the Houston Brook Falls.

twenty degrees colder than usual, still worth it

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September 1

Four or five years after creating the holes by ripping out a closet, I finally got around to patching the floor. Before you say it looks like crap, which it does, let me just say in my defense that that whole section of floor is likely to be ripped out so trying to match it wasn’t worth the effort.

September 4

Continuing the baseball education.

solo parenting at its finest

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September 7

Toured the new Monktoberfest venue that Kate found. William Allen farm has a gorgeous barn and great people.
IMG_20170907_141927

September 12

Over in London for our annual ThingMonk conference. Excellent experience.
IMG_20170912_111642

September 20

Three cords of wood – which we are burning through both literally and figuratively – was dropped off.

this weekend's beers will be earned

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September 23

Made it up to the Common Ground Fair for my favorite part, the sheepdog demonstration. These dogs are crazy smart. They can identify twenty plus different verbal commands, and can parse their individual names as part of the command. You can tell one dog to walk clockwise, in other words, and another to counter.
IMG_20170923_124810

September 30

It’s not pretty, but the homemade cider press I made for Kate did in fact produce cider.

not pretty, makes cider

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October 3

Finally got the woodshed loaded.
IMG_20150730_172052693-ANIMATION (1)

October 5

Made it through yet another Monktoberfest. Humbled by the experience, as always.

it begins

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October 12

Stopped by Atlantic Hardwoods to pick up some rough 8/4 walnut stock. This will become relevant shortly.

there's just something about walnut

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October 21

One of my favorite beer festivals anywhere. Tough to beat drinking great and funky craft beers outside on a beatiful fall day.

the goods were good

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October 21

Leaf peeping, from Kate’s parent’s house.

tough to beat fall

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October 23

Had never been to an Alamo Drafthouse, but a dinner cancellation in NYC left me with just the opening I needed to pop over to Brooklyn to take in It. Both the venue and movie were worth every penny.
IMG_20171023_192636

November 3

A huge windstorm unexpectedly hammered Maine, and in our neighborhood alone four or five houses were hit by downed trees. Took CMP five full days to restore our power, in fact.

half a dozen reasons our power was out for five days

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November 11

First Williams homecoming win of her lifetime.

the biggest little game in america's tiniest fan

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December 1

We’d never bought anything on Black Friday before, but my brother talked us into a $399 50″ 4K Samsung model. I didn’t think our 2005 Sharp was that bad until I set up the Samsung.
IMG_20171201_225821 (1)

December 4

I flew out to San Francisco for my last work trip of the year only to spend most of it throwing up in my hotel with a stomach bug, then having to hop an early flight home while weak as a kitten because the same bug was wiping out the family at home. On the good news front, I confirmed that you can have nothing but bottled water and Gatorade delivered to you in San Francisco.
IMG_20171204_125020 (1)

December 11

Remember that walnut lumber?

filters just don't do this gorgeous wood justice

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December 24

Eventually, I’m sure it will be assembling bikes or something, but this year, we spent Christmas Eve furiously trying to put the finishing touches on a dollhouse for the little one.

December 25

The pictures are dated this week, but these were all done before Christmas. Those two slabs of walnut were milled down and then cut up to make end-grain cutting boards. I’ll document that process later because it was weird and unorthodox, but I was almost pleased with how they came out. Mistakes were made, but at the very least, the folks on the receiving end were unlikely to get another one of these in their stockings for Christmas.

remember that secret walnut project?

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So You’re Going to Have a Kid

dad-elno

One of the things that happens when your wife is pregnant is that people give you advice, whether you want it or not. Parents of one kid, parents of lots of kids or parents of zero kids, pretty much everyone has something for you. This sounds overwhelming, and it is at times, but I actually appreciated it. Not all of the advice, of course, but a lot of it. Which is why, because one of RedMonk’s own is expecting, I feel obligated to share a few lessons learned about parenting in spite of the fact that I’ve been doing this job for less than two years.

I have nothing close to wisdom to offer, but I promise two things:

  1. I will not say “your life is over” or “see you in twenty years,” because I found that flavor of “advice” spectacularly unhelpful.
  2. This will be a lot longer than it needs to be.

With that said, here are ten things I’ve figured out about having a kid.

  1. The Good News/Bad News About Sleep Deprivation
    After my daughter was born, one of my friends whose wife was expecting asked what the fatigue is really like. I told him that there was good news and bad news about that. I asked him whether he remembered what it was like to get up at three something to catch a flight out at five in the morning – that disorientating and debilitating fatigue that makes you feel hollowed out. He said that he did. The bad news, I told him, was that it’s essentially like that all day every day for the first few months. He took a moment, then asked about the good news. The good news, I said, is that after a day or two, that will seem totally normal. You’ll only dimly recall a time in which you slept like a normal person. The human body is an amazingly adaptable thing, and while sleep deprivation is not its favorite condition, it will do what it must.

    Even better, a few months after the baby sleeps through the night, you won’t even remember how awful that initial sleep deprivation was. Until the baby has a sleep regression, that is, but best not to worry about that now. In fact, forget I mentioned that.

  2. Trust the People in Your Life To Cut You Some Slack
    One of Kate’s childhood friends Lucy is a nurse at the hospital my daughter was born at. So she was in to see us the day after the delivery. At this point we were all sleeping at the hospital, which is another way of saying that none of us were actually sleeping. While I enjoy Lucy’s company, then, when she showed up, I guessed that my presence was less essential than baby or mother, and so after saying a weary “Hi Lucy!,” I curled up and slept in a chair for the duration of her visit. Under other circumstances, this is massively rude. But this time I believed that Lucy, both a nurse and a mother herself, would understand our situation. She did, and couldn’t have been sweeter about it later.

    This understanding is important, because the baby will have very unpredictable impacts on your life. I, for example, was raised to believe that early was on time and on time was late. I’ve had to (temporarily) lower my standards, however, because post-kid we are basically always late. We apologize, of course, and try not to be, but trust our friends and family to understand.

  3. Routine is Everything
    One of the pieces of advice I didn’t receive but wish I had was around routine. Specifically, that routine is the most important single tool in managing your life post-kid. Everything you can reduce down to a simple, repeatable set of steps should be. When my daughter was a newborn, for example, I had what I called “evening chores.” This meant bringing in firewood, tending our fire, doing the dishes, cleaning bottles and prepping the next set of bottles. Bottle cleaning and prep, in fact, was its own set of subroutines. I washed the pieces in groups because it was faster, and laid them out to dry in exactly the pattern that you would assemble them in.

    The routines evolve, of course. These days it’s about making sure that while my daughter is running around playing in the early evening, I’m getting her covers pulled down, her stuffed animals in the places she expects them, her PJs laid out on the changing table and her blankee laid out on the chair we rock in before bedtime.

    Basically, the more you can operate on autopilot the better, particularly when you’re likely to be down a cylinder or three mentally.

  4. You Will Fight
    From a family member who shall go unnamed came the warning that, due to sleep deprivation, even the closest of couples will argue. The story he told me was of a fight that began because his wife asked him if he “wanted” to get up and check on the baby at 2:30 in the morning.

    Turns out the answer to whether someone “wants” to do that is a very emphatic no.

    Even in a best case scenario, where you have help from family or otherwise, and you’re managing to sleep for reasonable stretches of time, tensions will run higher. The good news is that because most of the fights are over stupid shit, they’ll blow over quickly and the baby has the power to make all of that go away quickly. But in general, always do your best to be empathetic and give the benefit of the doubt. Even if you don’t “want” to get up at 2:30 in the morning.

  5. Baby Germs Are No Joke
    Generally speaking, I’ve been pretty lucky with my health. It’s pretty rare that I get the flu, stomach bugs or anything worse than a minor cold. Or more accurately it was rare, until my daughter started at daycare and our house became a Hot Zone.

    In the short span since my daughter arrived I feel pretty confident in saying that I’ve been sick more than I was in my entire life up to that point. I spent Christmas Day vomiting up anything that wasn’t Gatorade. I had a miserable fever and my sinuses were a brick for two weeks in February. I even had to cancel a client video call two months back because I got pink eye. However good you think your immune system is, it’s no match for daycare. Trust me. If you’re the kind of person who never uses their sick time, you’re going to get a lot better at it.

  6. Get Out of the House
    One of the things that several different friends with kids recommended we do – and they had always done themselves – is to take the baby out early. The sooner they can acclimate to different types of environments, with people and sounds and weather, the better.

    Our daughter has been going to a friendly local restaurant since she was a month old, and while she’s too high energy at the moment to sit still for an entire meal, she at least has been introduced to the concept and has some idea of how to conduct herself in a public setting. The sooner you start this the better, in fact, because when they’re really little they’ll just sleep through dinner if you time it right. Once they’re older, they’ll want you to walk them up and down stairs a hundred times.

  7. It’s Fucking Terrifying
    There’s no way around this: having a kid is legitimately, and regularly, terrifying. As Tim Bray said in a post he pointed me to the day my daughter was born, “I’m sure every parent has stroked a sleeping baby’s face, or tickled its finger, just to make sure it’s breathing.” This is true, and literally every parent ever has done this.

    But it’s not just the breathing. The first time they run a fever is scary. Same with a bad cough. The first time they vomit up a full feed on you. The first time they tip over and smack their face on their little red Radio Flyer wagon. All scary.

    But the thing to remember, and that your doctors and nurses will remind you of if they’re good (and ours is excellent), is that kids are generally pretty resilient little creatures. Experience also makes things easier; the first time your kid can’t keep any food down, for example, it’s paralyzing. Once you learn how to handle it with Pedialyte, the BRAT diet and popsicles, things aren’t good, exactly, but they’re more manageable.

  8. You Can Do It
    One of the things that I think most prospective parents struggle with on some level is the question of whether or not they’re up for it. The short answer is: it’ll be fine. All of the things you don’t know how you’ll manage – from something as basic as changing a diaper to the ultimate responsibility for a tiny human – you’ll manage. A week after having a kid you’ll doing things you had no idea you could do, which is great, but more importantly you’ll take these new abilities for granted. You’ll wonder why you ever wondered whether you could do them, in fact. So when you ask yourself “can I do this?” the answer is yes.

  9. It Gets Better
    One of the most accurate pieces of advice I was given was simple: “it gets better.” Having a baby is an incredible, indescribable experience. But as my Mom told me when she came down to the hospital to meet her grandaughter for the first time, what you’re working towards when they’re a newborn is the first real, purposeful smile. I didn’t really understand this, because babies have a tendency to rocket through a wide variety of facial expressions with zero connection to any actual internal emotional state. When I got my first actual smile, though, I remember thinking, “Damn, Mom was right.” Babies are great. Babies that can smile at you are even better.

    Now imagine what it’s like the first time the previously helpless little baby can give you a high five. Take a few wobbly steps. Learn the sign language for shark. Say “I love Red Sox.” Give you a tiny cheer from the back seat after a Pearl Jam song.

    The point is that while babies are great, they get even better. So when you’ve slept for ten hours in two days and you’re rocking the baby wondering if it will ever go back to sleep, know that it will. And that it gets better.

  10. The Days Are Long, The Years Are Short
    The most counter-intuitive observation I heard after my daughter’s birth, and I can’t for the life of me remember who it was who relayed it to me (see #1), was that the days are long but the years are short. Kids are fun and amazing and rewarding, but the days can be very long indeed. From an early start in the morning to bedtime if you’re lucky, and much later if you’re not, kids are basically operating at full speed. They have no throttle like adults; there’s no notion of energy conservation, no concept of pacing oneself. Everything is all out, all the time. Which means that sometimes it takes everything you have just to get through a day. And the next day. And the one after that.

    Then one day you look around, and – impossibly – a year’s gone, and all you can think is, “how did that happen so fast?”

    The answer, of course, is kids.

Bonus Takeaways

  1. Do whatever it takes to find yourself a good pediatrician: they’ll make your kid feel better, and you as well.
  2. The Moro Reflex is the best reflex. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Everything You Need to Know About Firewood: The Q&A

Four years ago, my wife and I bought a house. In a first for us, the house included a fireplace. This was how I got started down the path that ended with me reading books about how Norwegians stack wood and watching YouTube videos on everything from A/B testing fire building methods to chainsaw bloopers.

Also, I’ve covered half of the front lawn with piles of air drying lumber.

The fireplace has long since given way to a fireplace insert – essentially a woodstove that fits in a fireplace. After debating at length about a variety of heating options, we decided to double down on wood due to the economics, the vastly improved efficiency of modern EPA-approved stoves, its independence from the power grid and a family affinity for sitting around a roaring fire on cold nights.

While it’s a relatively cheap fuel in the economic sense, however, wood comes with other costs. Wood requires a lot of preparation and physical effort, while other fuels typical to the Northeast like oil, natural gas or propane are never touched by human hands (unless something has gone terribly, terribly wrong). The learning curve can also be steep.

Which is why, while I’m no expert, I wanted to capture a few of the things I wish someone had told me when we first started down the path with wood. Queue the firewood Q&A:

Where’s the best place to learn about this stuff?

Two recommendations. First, read Norwegian Wood. Easily the best resource I’ve found, and a surprisingly entertaining read. Second, as always, YouTube is your friend. This channel in particular has a ton of useful information, and the production quality is unexpectedly impressive.

Where do I get firewood?

Obviously, wood is either going to come from your property or someone else’s. Most of us don’t have enough property to provide us with free fuel, which means that we have to buy it from someone else. Your best bet in sourcing wood is to ask around or check lists of the Angie’s or Craig’s varieties. If you live somewhere cold enough to have a fireplace or woodstove, there will be someone selling wood.

What am I looking for in firewood?

You want to know about the quality of the wood delivered (is it largely intact or a bunch of kindling?), whether they’re accurately reporting the level of moisture (is it seasoned or kiln-dried as ordered?), whether you’re getting the species promised (did you expect hardwoods but get soft?) and whether or not you’re getting the number of cords agreed upon.

When do I get firewood?

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The short answer: as early as possible. The longer answer is that it depends on what kind of wood you’re getting. There are three types:

  • Green: The cheapest option, this is wood that has just been cut, and should not be burned until it’s been dried. If you can, get this early in the spring and dry it all summer and fall and it will be ready by winter (unless it’s Oak, which can take two full years to season).
  • Seasoned: This is wood that’s been left outside to dry – seasoned, in other words – to a moisture content of 20% or less (we’ll get to how to test that). Should be burnable as soon as you get it.
  • Kiln-Dried (KD): The most expensive option, this is wood that’s been baked in a kiln to reduce the moisture content quickly, with the side benefit of killing insects. This is burnable right away.

If it’s green wood and it’s not oak then, it needs to be drying by early spring. If it’s properly seasoned, summer or even fall/winter is fine. Same with KD.

How do I measure the moisture content of wood?

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Ideally, with a moisture meter like this one.

If you don’t have one, or if the cursed thing’s nine volt battery has died on you (again), you can take two splits and knock them together. If they crack, the wood’s dry-ish. If they thud, it’s too wet to use.

What kind of wood am I getting?

There are two kinds of wood to burn: hardwoods (e.g. ash, oak, elm, etc) and softwoods (e.g. fir, pine, spruce, etc). The former are generally preferred because they offer more energy on a per unit basis, but either will work. You’ll read from time to time that you should only burn hardwoods, but according to most stove manufacturers, you can burn all of the above.

Here in the Northeast we’re generally burning hardwoods, but in other areas of the country pine and other softwoods are used exclusively.

In Scandinavia, stove owners will often use softwoods to start a fire because they light more quickly and then transition to slower, longer burning hardwoods to keep the house warm overnight.

How much wood do I need?

This is an impossible question to answer precisely, but here are a few of the variables you’ll need to consider.

  • Is wood your primary heat source, or a supplementary system?
  • How efficient is your stove or fireplace?
  • What type of wood are you burning?
  • How cold do the winters get where you live, and how long do they last?
  • How warm do you want to keep your house?

For a rule of thumb, however, this is pretty reasonable:

So, if you just use your fireplace for romance and relaxation, buy a half cord of firewood each spring and let it season until fall. If you supplement a heating system with a woodstove or fireplace insert, buy two cords. If you heat exclusively with firewood, you’ll need about 4 to 5 cords, depending on the severity of your winters.

We go through between three and four cords per season with our fireplace insert, however.

What the hell is a “cord” of wood?

Firewood is generally ordered in units called cords. A cord is 128 cubic feet of wood, or a stack around 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide by 4 feet deep. The weight varies depending on wood species and moisture content, but is generally well over a ton ranging from 3,500 to over 5,000 pounds. It’s not going to fit in a pickup bed, in other words – it’s usually delivered by a large dump truck.

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This wasn’t even close to a cord, for example.

How to process the wood?


For those purchasing firewood, it most commonly comes already split. In this case, your only job is to store the wood, which admittedly is the worst part of dealing with wood heat.

If you get your hands on unprocessed trees, however, you need to cut them down to size and split them. That process is actually pretty simple.

  1. Determine what the maximum length of log is for your fireplace or stove. Our Jötul, for example, can accept 24″ inch lengths. Not everything needs to be 24″, and it can actually be beneficial to have different lengths, but nothing can be longer than that.
  2. Cut the tree into the segment lengths you need.
  3. Split those segments using an axe, splitting maul or wedge and sledgehammer.

What should I know about splitting wood?

Many things. Here are five specifics, however.

  1. Do not aim for the center of the log. The wood is strongest in the center, aim for an edge.
  2. The safest approach is to aim for the edge directly opposite you. The bad news is that if you miss you’re going to impact the log with the handle, which hurts like hell. The good news is that the axe cannot continue its arc towards your feet.
  3. Don’t overswing, but if you snap your wrists on the downswing you can get some extra acceleration and a better angle for the blade strike. See the video here for a demonstration.
  4. Have a stump or chopping block that’s the correct height. According to Lars Mytting, assuming logs between 12-16″, axe manufacturers recommend that “your chopping block should be no higher than your knees, and probably even lower.”
  5. It’s fun. There is no domestic task more enjoyable than splitting wood.

What are these splitting mauls and wedges and so on?

You’ll need a couple of things. Here’s my setup, and for full disclosure most are Amazon affiliate links, simply because I’m curious which recommendations are most useful.

  • Splitting Maul: Fiskars 7884 X27 Super Splitting Axe, 36-Inch
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    This thing is basically Thor’s hammer. The combination of its axe blade and wedge shape simply destroys wood. If you have relatively straight wood without a lot of knots and branches, this will make short work of it. Even without swinging at full strength, I’ve had logs literally explode with large pieces ending up ten feet away (so make sure no one else is around, and/or use the bungee cord or tire methods). Really can’t recommend this thing highly enough. It’s so good that even traditional axe fans reluctantly acknowledge its effectiveness.
  • Chainsaw: Husqvarna 141
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    You can spend a lot of money on chainsaws, but for most homeowners, you want something that’s light and will start easily. I’ve generally used a Husqvarna of my Dad’s, a model 141, but they don’t make this one anymore. If I was buying a saw today, I’d get another Husqvarna for three reasons. One, Scandinavians know a few things about chainsaws. Two, Husqvarna dealers are everywhere which makes service and getting parts trivial (the case bolts are $0.94 per, in case you were curious). And last, because this one’s been great. I’d probably get the model 440E.
  • Sledge Hammer: Truper 10 lb sledge
    IMG_20170717_160901Nothing fancy about this sledge. It’s the same length as the axe, so moving from one to the other is easy. Mine’s a 10 pounder, but lighter would be fine for splitting wood: mine has to do double duty as a demo tool.  Again, nothing fancy about the wedge. I picked this one up mostly because I like my Estwing hammer.
  • Gloves: Carharrt Flex Tough:
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    I go through a lot of gloves, and for winter you’ll want an insulated pair, but these Carharrts have been good to me. They breathe, the padding in the palm is useful if you mis-strike a log, and I’ve discovered the cowhide fingertips will work a smartphone touchscreen.

What about kindling?

If you’re interested, there are literally hundreds of videos on YouTube about how to split kindling. Personally, I’ve never needed to split much. First, because I save all the scraps from the cords dropped off or the wood I’ve split myself. And second, because I strip each log of smaller splits or pieces before tossing them onto the fire and collect them in a bucket.

What’s the most important thing to remember?

In a presumably apocryphal story, triumphant returning Roman generals would have servants whisper memento mori – remember that you have to die – in their ear to keep them grounded and remind them of their own mortality.

Similarly, it’s useful to remind yourself every time you pick up an axe or chainsaw that these are tools that can kill you. And death would hurt badly and probably not come quickly.

So be careful.

Where to store the wood?

If the wood is green, it’s best off being stacked in loose piles like the ones at the top of this piece to provide better airflow for drying.

If your wood is seasoned or KD, it can be put up immediately wherever you plan to store it during the winter. Generally, storage inside the house is not recommended for reasons that vary from allergens to insects. There are a myriad of options for outdoor storage, from basic 2×4-and-bracket setups like the one pictured here:

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to woodsheds:

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to artistically crafted woodpiles. We opted to build a shed, your mileage may vary.

Do I store my wood bark up or bark down?

Before we moved into our house and became a wood burning family, I would have assumed the following quote from Norwegian Wood was a joke.

In Norway, discussions on the vexed question of whether logs should be stacked with the bark facing up or down have marred many a christening and spoiled many a wedding when wood enthusiasts are among the guests.

I understand now. If you store bark-down, you are dead to me.

How do I build a fire with my firewood?

If you’re starting fresh, my preferred method is top down. As a national campaign from Norway in 2010 argued, this is reliable and reduces emissions. It works like this:

  • Bottom layer: logs
  • Middle layer: large kindling or wood strips
  • Top layer: newspaper and/or small kindling/shavings

You light the top and it burns its way down.

If you have coals from a previous fire, the easiest way to relight them is to rake them forward and put a piece of kindling behind it and then larger logs behind that. That way, the fire will burn from front to back, improving the aesthetics if you have a fireplace or your stove or insert has a glass door, and it burns more slowly than if all of the wood is exposed at once.

You said this would be everything I wanted to know about firewood, but I have other questions.

Then fire away in the comments and I’ll update the post accordingly.

Goodbye, Penryn Way

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

You can probably see where this is going.

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

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

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


 

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

It was our YouTube.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It still smelled like that when I was up there for the last time in February.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

I’ll miss it.

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My 2014 in Pictures

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

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

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

Travel

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

miles-traveled

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

2014-travel

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

Personal Stats

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

With that, on to the pictures.

January 3, 2014

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

January 5, 2014

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

January 6, 2014

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

January 8, 2014

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

January 11, 2014

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

January 30, 2014

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

February 1, 2014

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

February 2, 2014

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

February 3, 2014

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

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

February 4, 2014

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

February 5, 2014

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

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

February 14, 2014

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

March 2, 2014

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

March 12, 2014

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

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

March 13, 2014

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

March 16, 2014

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

March 21, 2014

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

April 7, 2014

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

April 18, 2014

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

May 21, 2014

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

Good times.

May 23, 2014

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

May 28, 2014

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

June 5, 2014

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

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

June 8, 2014

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

June 9, 2014

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

June 20, 2014

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

June 30, 2014

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

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

July 10, 2014

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

July 24, 2014

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

July 25, 2014

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

July 27, 2014

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

August 8, 2014

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

August 21, 2014

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

August 23, 2014

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

August 25, 2014

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Put the finishing touches on the French drain.

August 26, 2014

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

September 5, 2014

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

September 27, 2014

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

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

October 2, 2014

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

October 5, 2014

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

October 25, 2014

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

November 1, 2014

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Halloween. Oh yeah.

November 6, 2014

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

November 20, 2014

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

December 14, 2014

(photo credit, @girltuesday)

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

December 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

December 26, 2014

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

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

December 31, 2014

(photo credit, @girltuesday)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shut-up-and-take-my-money

A Year of Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Remember Books

Stephen King: Night Shift

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

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

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

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

Books, though, held out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My 2013 in Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

January 1, 2013

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

January 6, 2013

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

January 9, 2013

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

January 31, 2013

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Attended the Monki Gras in London, which was excellent.

February 1, 2013

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Caught the Eurostar to Brussels

February 2, 2013

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

February 7, 2013

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

February 24, 2013

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Got snowed in in Georgetown.

March 14, 2013

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

March 16, 2013

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Went to the boat show.

March 21, 2013

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

March 26, 2013

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

April 13, 2013

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

April 15, 2013

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

April 27, 2013

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

May 8, 2013

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

May 9, 2013

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Commenced second career as general contractor.

May 21, 2013

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

May 26, 2013

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First dinner of the season at the Osprey.

May 31, 2013

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

June 1, 2013

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

June 6, 2013

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

June 15, 2013

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

June 22, 2013

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Attended Shelton Brothers’ The Festival in Portland, ME.

June 30, 2013

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

July 4, 2013

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Spent July 4th on the Eastern Prom with friends.

July 10, 2013

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Late, but got the boat in the water.

July 13, 2013

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Visited brother/sister in law up in Chamberlain.

July 23, 2013

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

August 17, 2013

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Weekend at Sugarloaf with my in-laws.

August 24, 2013

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Ryan and Shawn’s wedding.

August 30, 2013

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Finished tiling the backsplash in the kitchen.

August 30, 2013

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Annual pilgrimmage to Houston Brook Falls.

September 13, 2013

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

September 20, 2013

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Removed our old front door.

September 21, 2013

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Kim and Sheila’s wedding.

October 3, 2013

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The Monktoberfest.

October 7, 2013

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

October 23, 2013

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

October 26, 2013

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

October 30, 2013

November 2, 2013

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Took the boat around to get hauled.

December 31, 2013

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