Geeking Out

Surveillance saga

Quite an exciting collection of Unifi networking equipment, and the first of several disappointing security cameras.

When we moved into Hacienda de la Tortuga I went a bit overboard designing a home network using the Unifi platform. I spent many hot, dirty days running ethernet cable through the basement crawl space and attic. The end result included, amongst other things, five wireless access points and six security cameras.

Our wireless coverage is pretty great, although that does not do anything to alleviate the frequent Spectrum outages. The cameras are a different story. Their motion detection is pretty awful, constantly being triggered by branches and wind, regardless of how I tweaked the sensitivity settings. Twice the system crashed and lost all of my footage. The second time was while we were in Hawaii and our sewer was backing up, which would have been an excellent time to check on the house and see what the plumber was doing.

After that I ripped out the Unifi cameras and switched to a system called Reolink. This involved running additional wires, more crawling under the house, and installing a bunch of mounting boxes. The cameras turned out to be huge, so now it looks like we are living in a secure government facility, or a prison yard. The picture quality is great and the recording is reliable, but the fancy “person and vehicle detection” does not work at all.

The big Reolink cameras and mounting boxes make the backyard look like a prison yard. I still haven’t gotten around to painting the cables and patched holes from the old cameras.

Today I went down to Home Depot and picked up one of those video doorbells. It was cheap, easy to install, and has cloud-based object detection that can pick out people, cars, animals, and packages pretty reliably. When someone comes to the door it lights up and sends me a push notification. I can choose 20 different chimes. For a couple bucks a month all of the storage is taken care of.

I guess there is something to be said for consumer-level technology. Reolink and Unifi both offer local storage and lots of configuration options, whereas the consumer products are simpler and require cloud subscriptions. You obviously need to choose a company that has a good security and privacy track record, and that can sometimes be hard to know. But in exchange the technology is inexpensive, feature-packed, and simple.

If I had it all to do over again I would not have run all that cable or installed all that fancy, expensive equipment. I was never concerned about playing CSI, I just wanted to see what animal was eating my vegetables and when a package was at the front door. I’m seriously considering ripping it all out and just sticking with the video doorbell and maybe a few additional cheap cameras.

But then there will be so many holes to patch. 🙁

Reolink did not see this opossum in the vegetable bed, but a little battery powered Wyze camera placed nearby caught the curious creature!

“Humans have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible. We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay.”

Ed Hickling in The Washington Post

The Unintended Racial Horror of ‘Lovecraft Country’

I loved Lovecraft Country the book, and enjoyed certain aspects of the television adaptation (notably the brilliant pilot episode), but I’m not surprised the second season has been cancelled given the unevenness and problems of the first season. This article from last October does a great job of explaining where the show went wrong, including its over-reliance on historical “name-dropping” in place of actual character and plot development.

Woodworking for squirrels

About a year ago I created a tiny picnic bench as a gift to my mother-in-law. The quick project was wildly successful, as demonstrated by this photo of it in action in her backyard!

But squirrel bench v1 had some design issues. The glue and brads holding it together were no match for the heftier squirrels, and it started coming apart. While my father-in-law fixed it with some strategically placed screws, I worry about the long-term durability due to the thin wood pieces.

I have a lot of wood scraps and cutoffs from a bigger (unfinished) project, so I decided the time was right to make a second attempt. Plus it was a great excuse to finally buy a drill press.

Assembly in progress. This time I used various jigs to get things lined up properly.

Squirrel Bench v2 has some serious upgrades. This time I ripped redwood to standard length on my table saw and rounded the edges at the router table to make the pieces look more like dimensioned lumber. The new design is heftier and uses screws rather than brads. The bench is a bit bigger and more uniform, so it should be easier to mount to a tree or post, and should stand up better to fat squirrels.

And I made five of them. That’s how much wood I had, so why not?

The whole project took about six hours of my time, plus wood, screws, and my fully equipped shop. A roughly equivalent made-in-China version on Amazon goes for about $20, so it is a good thing woodworking is my hobby and not my livelihood!

I think they would make good Christmas gifts, but it is only June! Fourth of July gifts, maybe. Anyway, I’m very satisfied with the result and can’t wait to see pictures of them in use!

The 20% Doctrine

For years I believed that tipping service staff was a “reward” for good service, good food, or a good experience. In 2003 I was shocked to discover that the federal tipped minimum wage was $2.13 an hour. After that I started being more careful to always include some sort of tip, even if service was terrible. But the fundamental idea that “tipping” is an add-on remained with me.

Nearly 20 years later, the federal tipped minimum wage has not budged from that absurd number. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more clear than ever how essential and how under-compensated service workers are.

My first job out of college was in IT support, and I made $17 per hour. On days when I solved a complex technical problem for a VIP and saved the day, I made $17 per hour. On days when I made mistakes or messed things up, I made $17 per hour. On days when I was feeling cheery and friendly, I made $17 per hour. And on days when I was feeling crabby or distracted, I still made $17 an hour.

Over time I learned, grew, got better at my job, got promoted, and got pay raises. When I did well I was praised, and when I did poorly I was given a stern talking to. But never once did it cross my mind that having a bad day would result in me getting paid less, or not at all.

For service industry staff, that is the reality every day, and it is absurd. Leave aside whether the waiter or bartender or Uber driver does a good job. There are a hundred things out of their control, like the kitchen being backed up, bad traffic, or someone else making a mistake. And yet we compensate people in these positions based on the idea that they have control over everything that happens.

Workers should be paid fairly for work performed. The idea that the customer should have any control over that just does not make sense to me anymore. If you are dissatisfied with a service experience, you can talk to the manager. If you are sufficiently upset, you can stop patronizing the establishment, or leave a bad review. But I no longer believe it is morally justifiable to deprive anyone involved with the transaction of their livelihood.

So here is my new philosophy on tipping: I don’t.

So here is my new philosophy on tipping: I don’t. I do not believing in tipping as a concept any longer. I believe we should pay for service, and if service is not included in the price of goods, it should be included as a service fee. And if the service fee is not a line item on the bill, it is my responsibility to provide it anyway.

What is a fair and reasonable service fee? I think the market has spoken, and made it clear that it is 20%. So I have started adding my own 20% service fee anywhere I see a tip line. It has felt weird at times, and it certainly makes things more expensive than I am used to, but I think it is the right thing to do.

When I order at a table I leave 20%, regardless of the level of service I receive. When I order from a counter, or visit a buffet, I leave 20%. Coffee shop? 20%. Order ahead and pick up? 20%. DoorDash? 20%. Taxi ride? 20%. Once you start seeing the 20% service fee as a standard cost, everything becomes simpler and less stressful.

Surely there are exceptions? Not really.

Surely there are exceptions? Not really. When I go somewhere that adds on a service fee of any amount, I do deduct that from the 20% and leave the remainder. So if a restaurant has a poorly explained and unadvertised 3% service fee for employee benefits, I get briefly pissed off about the subversion, but then leave 17% as a “tip” to make the service fee what it should actually be. And when a delivery service includes a service fee that I know goes to the driver, I will deduct that. But in general I just default to a straight 20% and call it a day.

What about exceptional service, stirring conversation, free appetizers? Shouldn’t I, the customer, have the right to reward a server for their sparkling personality or pretty smile? In a word, no. I still leave the necessary and correct 20% service fee, same as always. But if I am feeling generous or grateful, I will add on a bit extra, and let myself feel like the patron of a quaint European cafe where service cost is included but Madame or Monsieur sometimes leave a few extra euros on the table to show their gratitude for the excellent espresso.

How do you tip these days? Have you reconsidered at all, in light of the pandemic and everything that has been happening? I have found since adopting the 20% service fee approach that I feel better, lighter, less stressed about tipping. Give it a try and see what you think!

★★★★★
Review

Nomadland

In this pandemic time of isolation and loneliness comes a story of being alone while surrounded by people. Nomadland is a beautiful and poetic exploration of the wanders, the displaced – modern day hobos.

America is often described as the “richest country on Earth,” but a more accurate twist is that we are the country with the richest people. The Great Recession starkly demonstrated the radical wealth gap and the gaping holes in our frayed social safety net, as many older Americans became jobless and houseless. Nomadland explores the community of thousands of road wanderers in their assorted vans, campers, and RVs who crisscross the country in search of work, opportunities, and connection.

There is beauty to be found everywhere in this vast, amazing country and its varied people. But there is also sadness, and grief, and emptiness. With no fixed addresses, the nomads live on the edge every day – a flat tire or an unexpected health issue can spell disaster.

But there is more here than meets the eye. Are these displaced Americans on the road because they are broke, or because they are more deeply broken? And what does that say about our society, and the things we believe in?

I’m reminded of an article I read near the beginning of the last presidency, “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People“. We can quibble on the details, the policies, and the prescriptions, but I don’t see how anyone with a soul can watch this film – populated by real wanderers portraying fictionalized versions of themselves – and not care.

[O]minous no longer fits what we’re observing in the data, because calamity is no longer imminent; it is here. The bulk of evidence now suggests that one of the worst fears of the pandemic—that hospitals would become overwhelmed, leading to needless deaths—is happening now. Americans are dying of COVID-19 who, had they gotten sick a month earlier, would have lived. This is such a searingly ugly idea that it is worth repeating: Americans are likely dying of COVID-19 now who would have survived had they gotten September’s level of medical care.

The U.S. Has Passed the Hospital Breaking Point, The Atlantic

Doubly tragic and utterly infuriating with mass vaccination mere months away.

Film star Elliot Page, known for Juno and Umbrella Academy, has announced he is transgender. If you are less familiar with how to refer to a person who is transgender, this guide from GLAAD is helpful. I like the framing of someone embracing or discovering their “authentic self”. As with so many things, it is easy to embrace Page’s new identity by simply having compassion and seeing them as a whole person and by not getting caught up in the irrelevant specifics of “masculinity” or medical procedures.

Our fast march to fascism

It is hard to write when the world is so bleak. We’ve just come out of a political convention season in which one side put forth concrete policy proposals and consistent messages while the other flooded the zone with shit. The sheer volume of lies, illegality, corruption, and distraction is overwhelming — as it is meant to be.

You can’t have a functioning democracy when one side refuses to participate. And you can’t have a discussion when facts no longer matter. And, and you can’t have a functioning society when the President actively works against the elimination of a pandemic virus that has killed nearly 180,000 Americans and counting. And, and, and you can’t have a free and fair election when the mechanisms of the Federal government have been expertly arrayed to subvert it.

We are closer to fascism than at any point in our modern history, aided and abetted by every mechanism of information distribution, from social media to cable news to the so-called “mainstream” press. Today’s example? An extensive article documenting dozens of instances of rightwing extremist militias stifling free expression and inflicting violence on peaceful protesters while the police refuse to intervene, all framed as a traditional “both sides” narrative.

Even so, the article is a good read, because it shows clearly the thinking of racist extremists who have come to believe that a massive and amorphous “anti-fascist” threat is nefariously organizing to descend on their various tiny towns to attack their “way of life.” No logic can be brought to bear on this paranoia, but the flames of it, fanned by the entire Republican party, is spurring the rapid rise of large groups of right-wing militias bent on violence against anyone with whom they disagree.

I’m constantly amazed by how quickly it has all fallen apart. How does a country succumb to authoritarianism? Slowly at first, then all at once.

One of the strangest things about living through a pandemic is the lag in understanding of how bad things are, an awful mirror of the lag in deaths that come like clockwork after a surge in coronavirus cases. All along, this disaster has been simultaneously wholly shared and wholly individualized, a weird dissonance in a collective tragedy that each person, each family, has to navigate with intricate specificity to their circumstances. The despair that has seemed to crest in recent days represents another kind of lag—a lag of realization—and the inevitable end of hopefulness about what life might be like in September.

Adrienne LaFrance, the Atlantic