Heat pump magic

Last year we installed a 20 SEER variable speed heat pump to replace our old, failing 12 SEER AC and furnace. I ran some numbers prior to the install and expected minimal cost savings. Well, the winter numbers are in and I was way off. I estimated $300 in savings on natural gas, and the actual is $350 in savings. I estimated this would be fully offset by increased electricity use, but actual electricity increase was a whopping $645.

So the theoretically far more efficient and environmentally friendly heat pump resulted in a net loss of $295 on winter heating. There are two major factors in play here, that I can see. First, electricity generation cost has risen much faster than natural gas. This is surprising given the sheer quantity of solar on the market. Second, I did not realize that my local utility bills the distribution charge for the first 700 kilowatts at a very low rate (~2¢) and then anything above 700 at a dramatically higher rate (~15¢). That’s a huge jump that was not included in my calculations.

It is disappointing that joining the green revolution is not paying off so far. I’ll be curious to see how the higher efficiency unit performs in a full summer period. Ideally we would get some solar panels to solve this problem, but with the reduction in rebates and net metering options, and the giant elm tree that shades most of our roof, it just isn’t viable.

History repeating

I’m a fan of the character and charm of old houses. Living in New England, I was surrounded by Victorians and Colonials, Federals and Cape Cods. I love to see houses that match their place. I’m delighted by row houses in New York and pictures of Pueblo architecture in the Southwest. My area is home to many Spanish style and Craftsman homes. And the California coast used to be dotted with cute, airy beach bungalows.

The windows are restored originals, the rest of this mudroom/sitting area is built new using some reclaimed materials.

In recent years I have come to realize that the reality of home ownership and usage is very different from the historiocity many people subscribe to. Old houses are great, except for all the reasons that they are bad. I believe grand old homes with beautiful details and craftsmanship deserve to be respected and maintained. But the vast majority of old homes were constructed quickly and cheaply. Furthermore, homes are living objects, in that they require constant maintenance, repair, and replacement parts, not to mention modifications to support modern living styles.

I love my current house. It is a compact one story built in 1928. I find the style and layout charming. I like the stucco and arches, built-in cabinets and fireplace. But I will freely admit that my house lacks any significant architectural detail. It is nice to live in only because it was expanded in the 1990s to add a third bedroom, second bathroom, and expanded kitchen.

A reclaimed timber veneer adds charm to a modern built and insulated roof

The previous owners also added modern air conditioning, updated the electrical service, blew in insulation, replaced all the wood floors, and put in a new roof. When we moved in, we had to embark on a variety of projects including shoring up the crumbling chimney, replacing the failing sewer line, replacing a bunch of old windows, and adding earthquake bracing. We also had to rip out all of the dangerous old knob and tube wiring and put in a new heat pump air conditioner.

How much of the original home remains? The 2×4 framing, which is too thin to provide adequate insulation. The foundation, which has had significant patching and repair, and will probably need more. The stucco has been redone many times, the plumbing has been changed and expanded over time, the bathroom redone completely. There is original cabinetry and millwork, and a few original windows, but we keep those for sentimental reasons even though they are horrendously energy inefficient.

This lovely little nook looks original to the 1700s house — but is actually new

I love my house, but I wonder more and more, were I have to have money and opportunity, would I buy another old house, or would I build a new one? As an infrastructure nerd, I see a lot of appeal in modern earthquake- and fire-resistant building methods, structured wiring, plumbing manifolds, and spray foam insulation. While old-style craftsmanship is hard to come by, it is certainly possibly to build new houses that charm and delight. Heck, every recent season of This Old House has resulted in a house that is usually charming and always more new than old – sometimes reconstructed completely!

Does an old house have intrinsic worth? I’m increasingly in the YIMBY camp with the belief that the answer is “no”, and the instinct against tearing down non-significant homes is holding cities back.

Let That Sink In

Since moving into our house in late 2019 I have wanted to replace the kitchen sink. The existing sink was an enameled cast iron double bowl that weighed around 130 lbs. My preference is for one large single bowl so that I can fit my larger pots, pans, and cutting boards. I also wanted to add an instant hot water faucet, which wasn’t possible with the existing sink.

To replace the sink, I needed to remove all of the existing plumbing and fixtures and re-plumb, which was a bit daunting but nothing that can’t be learned by watching some YouTube videos. The bigger problem was that this sink was a “drop-in” model, meaning that it is meant to be installed from the top, but for some reason this particular one was installed from the bottom in an “under-mount” configuration.

Now, there are a few standard ways to under-mount a sink, but a drop-in sink is not built to be under-mounted, so the builder took the route of placing wood cleats around the sink, adding the sink, and then putting the counter over it. This gave me no obvious way to remove the sink, and any non-obvious approach (i.e. figuring out some way to remove the cleats without removing the countertop) risked me being crushed under 130 lbs of iron.

This posed quite a conundrum, and so the sink remained for several years. Until last month, when Katy was out of town for a week and I decided to go for it. I figured it would take one day to remove everything and drop the old sink out, then one additional day to install the new sink. All told, the project took five very stressful days.

Continue reading “Let That Sink In”

Rolling the Dice

It is very hard to know what the right answer is these days when it comes to pandemic safety.

Government data carries lots of caveats, but roughly 1 in 100 reported cases still lead to death1 E.g. LA County reports 1017 new cases and 14 new deaths today, 3,476,928 new cases and 33,889 deaths since the beginning.. The majority of people I know have become ill with COVID-19 at least once, but most recent infections have been relatively mild with few long-term consequences2That said, I know people who have had awful symptoms that go on for months..

So what – if any – precautions are still warranted for a reasonably healthy adult?

Two weeks ago I went on a work trip to Chicago. I wore an N95 mask everywhere I could: in the airport, on the plane, in the taxi, on the crowded trade show floor, and in private meetings with vendors. I even wore an N95 mask to the cocktail hours!3I had to forego the cocktails, obviously. Guess how many other attendees were likewise adorned? By my count, no more than 1 in 500. At a convention for cleaning industry professionals.

It was awkward and uncomfortable to be masked throughout the week, but it was possible. Where it was not possible was at the group dinners. I had something resembling a panic attack when I entered this room, awash in the noise of hundreds of humans packed in like sardines in a can:

A large, empty steakhouse dining room with tables packed closely together

For the sake of propriety I endured the dinner and enjoyed good food, good wine, and good conversation. I flew home on a Thursday with plans to fly right back out again on Saturday for vacation in London.

On Friday I got the email that the person sitting next to me at the dinner had tested positive. Despite all my best efforts to stay safe, the dinner and social niceties did me in. So much for that trip to London! Now I get to stay home and quarantine instead.

Except, of course, that’s not true. While the CDC offers tepid and widely ignored recommendations, there are no longer any formal requirements for travel: no need for vaccination, testing, tracing, quarantine, or masking. No more government-sponsored sick time. Far fewer flexible rebooking options by airlines and hotels. Even the free vaccines are going away at the end of the year!4Pfizer plans to start charging $120 per dose in 2023.

So what is a concerned individual to do? What is the right course of action for someone who believes we live in a society and should take care of each other? Luckily, I did not get COVID (this time) and did not have to make that decision. But in the airport, waiting for our flight to London, an older couple sat down near us with coughs and sniffles. Then they pulled out COVID rapid tests and listened loudly to the audio instructions while fumbling with the packaging. In the airport. While waiting to board the flight. Surrounded by other travelers.

I know public health policy is hard. I know public health communication is hard. I know everyone is tired of this, and the politics are fraught. I know Joe Biden says the pandemic is over and we now live with endemic COVID. And I can see that for most people, the new normal is just the old normal. But it is hard to believe that this is the best approach, that we individually and collectively are doing the right thing to properly balance risks and make a just, equitable society.

Anyway, I’ll let you know how things go in London. Maybe the UK has a better approach.

Everyone has a story, this is ours

It is October 17th, 2019.  We are in a drab procedure room at the Kaiser hospital complex in Hollywood.  I am holding the hand of my wife – my brave, strong, amazing partner – as her procedure is about to begin.

It is June 1st, our wedding day.  The celebration is joyous, we are surrounding by friends and family, we are so happy and our future is bursting with possibility.

It is June 14th.  We are on our honeymoon, and we just checked in to an amazing cliffside hotel on the island of Santorini, Greece.  We are sitting by the pool and sipping cocktails while gazing out at an endless expanse of blue ocean.  We take the steep stairs down to our hotel room, tipsy and holding hands.

It is August 28th.  We are sitting anxiously in an exam room, waiting for the doctor to perform our first ultrasound.  She shows us the little clump of cells that will grow into our precious baby boy.  Everything looks good, she says.

It is early October.  We put a silly little sticker on her belly that says “11 weeks” and take pictures.  We excitedly plan for our future.  We can’t wait to tell our family and friends.

I don’t remember what day it is.  I just remember the profound silence when the doctor turns on the audio loop and there is no heartbeat.

It is October 17th, 2019.  We are in a drab procedure room at the Kaiser hospital complex in Hollywood, waiting for our abortion procedure to begin.  We are so desperately sad.  Our baby was so very wanted.  My wife looks at the doctor anxiously and asks, innocently, what would have happened if this was 50 years ago, before Roe vs. Wade?

The doctor answers, without hesitation, you would have died.

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!

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.

Optimism, Hope, and Gratitude

The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday. For one thing, it occurs right after my birthday, and I might secretly still believe what I was told as a little kid — that the fireworks are for me.

My love of fireworks aside, the Fourth is not tied to any religious observance except the amorphous religion of patriotism, justice, and freedom. What those words mean in America, and to whom they apply, has constantly evolved over the course of the 244 year American experiment. My belief, my constant hope, is that the arc of history, aided and abetted by good people, bends towards justice.

But if you share the same principles I do it can be hard, upon waking up each morning, to face our present world with optimism. For the past few years, and particularly since the start of our most recent (pandemic) nightmare, America has felt darker and further off course than ever.

It is hard to be optimistic, but it is important to see hopeful signs.

While the current occupant of the White House stokes the flames of racial animus, millions of Americans marching for justice and equality presage a shifting tide.

While perverted national institutions reject science and good policy, state and local leaders try, valiantly if imperfectly, to keep their citizens safe in the face of an unprecedented health crisis.

While a minority party with fascist impulses has erected nearly insurmountable barriers to voting access in their quest to maintain power, an energized opposition has the glimmer of a path to retaking the halls of government and reinstituting democratic norms.

On the climate — well. I don’t know. I’ll keep looking for hopeful signs there.

And even as the world may be burning, I have immense gratitude for the many people and circumstances that make my own life a good one.

In just a few short years I have completely rebuilt my life.

I have a good job where I can work as a leader to make a positive impact through engaging work. I met and married an incredible life partner who makes me a better person and brings me joy every day. I am happily settled into a wonderful new home in a safe neighborhood. I have adorable animals whose antics bring me joy.

I have a yard, a hammock, a vegetable garden, and, currently, some amazingly juicy heirloom tomatoes. I am building a new woodworking shop, and am excited about all the fun projects I have planned. I am financially secure in a time when financial security is sometimes hard to come by. I have far-flung friends who I care about and who care about me. And I even have an awesome new toy, a spaceship cleverly disguised as a battery-powered four-wheeled driving conveyance.

My spaceship, I mean Tesla Model Y

Some days it is hard to get out of bed. Some nights I am up for hours just worrying about where this will all end. But in so many important ways, my life is good. And I need to recognize that more, and be grateful for it.

The Never-Ending P1

Don’t worry, this diagram is explained in thousands of pages of documentation

As a computer systems administrator at a large organization I was introduced to a library of procedures and best practices for managing technology services called ITIL that originated in the mainframe era. ITIL is huge, complex, unwieldy, and bureaucratic. It is also a brilliant and incredibly useful resource for understanding how to manage and optimize large systems. And I am very much a fan of optimizing large systems. It’s sort of my jam.

I mention this because at a contention and stressful meeting a few days ago I was accused of being a “process person,” the implication being that I was out of touch with the reality of the situation. The situation being how to make reasonable business decisions during a global pandemic of a scale unprecedented in the last century.

Our business is keeping our community healthy and safe through effective cleaning, and that has never been more important than right now. There has been a huge surge in demand for a scarce pool of cleaning and personal protection supplies. Every day we are overcoming countless challenges to source and stock products, to manufacture disinfectants and other chemicals, to take orders, manage expectations, and to make deliveries, all while ensuring that our staff are kept safe from unnecessary risk.

In the ITIL model, incidents are classified on a scale based on urgency and impact. Our business (and our society as a whole) is facing a priority 1 incident, and, as a senior Systems Engineer, I am very familiar with P1s.

In ITIL, service requests are prioritized based on urgency and impact

How do you typically handle a P1? First you wake up, because it is probably the middle of the night. You push away the grogginess and embrace the adrenaline rush. You assess the situation, triage as best you can, then figure out who else needs to be woken up and how to brief them. Next you work to analyze the problem, determine the corrective action, and implement the fix. Then you monitor the result.

It is rare in the sysadmin world for a P1 to last more than a few hours, or at most a few days. But dealing with the business impacts of coronavirus feels like a P1 that never ends. I’ve been on that groggy/adrenaline combination for a couple weeks now. I can’t sleep at night, and I can’t stop thinking about all the things we need to do.

When I moved to Maintex three years ago and started learning about the many aspects of running a business, it quickly became clear to me that process could solve a lot of problems, but also that my biggest problem was understanding all the things that cannot be easily formalized into a process. The physical world is rife with variables a technologist would not expect.

The physical world is rife with variables a technologist would not expect.

Fifty thousand bottles from a trusted supplier are fine, then suddenly a few hundred start leaking inexplicably. A step is missed in a sanitizing procedure and an entire 5,000 gallon batch of product is contaminated. A forklift driver accidentally smashes a fire sprinkler, flooding the loading dock. A shipping company returns an entire trailer full of product because a labeling machine with a dirty optical sensor placed a regulatory label two inches askew. An inspector with an imperfect understanding of building codes delays a project by 3 months before inexplicably approving it.

ITIL is a helpful framework for me because most other business processes are designed for incremental improvement, not crisis management. But a process is only as good as the people who implement it.

In the physical world, and in the world of people, the unexpected is routine, and no amount of checklists or procedures can account for every possible variation. So I have spent three years implementing systems and analyzing data, sure, but also learning what it means to manage an organization made up of people.

Attempting to maintain business continuity during a pandemic is like a P1 incident that never ends. And that means it is a problem I cannot just solve and then go back to sleep. Every day we need to make decisions and trade-offs that are uncomfortable and might not be the right ones, simply because a decision has to be made so we can keep moving forward.

A lot of my job is to make space so that the smart, hard-working people that work for me can do their jobs.

But most importantly for me as a manager, this P1 requires stepping back. Taking a breath. Checking in with staff to make sure they are okay. Listening to their concerns and figuring out how to help them to clear obstacles. A lot of my job is to make space so that the smart, hard-working people that work for me can do their jobs.

And that is decidedly outside my comfort zone.

But I’m finding it just as exhilarating and even more challenging than doing things on my own. Most of all, dealing with this crisis, and working with this team feels more consequential and important to me than any IT incident I’ve ever participated in. The coronavirus is an incredibly daunting challenge for everyone, and the effects are rippling across society and business in ways that are scary and uncertain. The best we can hope to do in our little corner of the economy is continue to conscientiously perform the valuable service of delivering critical cleaning and safety supplies where they are most needed.

I’m proud of Maintex, and of our team. I’m proud of the work we are doing to help keep society resilient in the face of an unprecedented crisis. And I’m more sure than ever that leaving my former career to start over was the right decision.

Tortoise-centered design

Hacienda de la Tortuga sits on a relatively flat 1/4 acre that came mostly devoid of foliage. Kip’s pen was constructed of chain link fence, as was our land boundry on one side. Mountain peaks poked tantalizingly through our dense ash trees. While the space is large, it felt penned in by the neighboring properties.

Taking inspiration from the British garden show Big Dreams, Small Spaces and wanderings around our neighborhood, we decided to pursue a reasonably priced transformation. Our goal was to gain a lush natural environment that would feel larger and more isolated. We wanted native flowering plants and grasses that would attract birds, bees, and butterflies. We were looking for something low maintenance and water-wise with meandering paths and hidden surprises.

Local landscape designer Susanna Dadd, who specializes in climate-appropriate “habitat gardens,” brought just the right perspective to this journey. She immediately identified our biggest X factor: Kip the tortoise. Many plants were out of bounds because they are dangerous to tortoises, and others wouldn’t work because he would quickly devour them before they had a chance to grow.

Kip explores his new maze-like environment

Sue’s design incorporates low-walled “islands” and “meadows” that serve to give Kip plenty of edible food and enrichment while allowing us to gain the dense, colorful vegetation we desired. To keep costs down, she found steel sheeting to act as the barriers, which will rust to a lovely brown patina over time. We also built a new redwood fence in front of the ugly chain link, and got the ash trees thinned and cleaned up.

This being hot California, there was no avoiding irrigation. Most of the garden has a sophisticated drip system, while some of the more open areas where Kip roams (and might chew the hose) have traditional sprinklers.

After a month-or-so of work by two very diligent gardeners, the yard is mostly done. We are incredibly excited to see how it grows and develops as the new plants fill in and others are added as the season progresses.

I also built Kip a new tortoise house with a nice heat lamp to keep out the chill. It is made of recycled material from the old owners’ garden shed.

Kip’s new hacienda

We were also able to reuse all of the old vegetable boxes in a new horseshoe arrangement. Next week we will get some veggies going, and before long we will have an edible garden for humans as well as tortoises!

Adventures in chimney replacement

We purchased Hacienda de la Tortuga knowing that the circa-1928 chimney was no longer fit for purpose. The chimney is built with a single brick thickness and some of the bricks and mortar had deteriorated due to age and use. Because the structure is not reinforced, an earthquake could send it tumbling into the house or onto the neighbors driveway.

A chimney liner is a flexible or rigid metal tube that is placed into the existing chimney

A traditional fix for this sort of problem is the installation of a metal chimney flue “liner”, a relatively straightforward and inexpensive operation. But due to the narrowness of the chimney and the lack of reinforcement, a liner alone would not solve our problem.

The two masons we consulted both said we needed to tear down the chimney and either seal the fireplace (making it non-functional) or rebuild the chimney at great expense. Neither option was particularly appealing, but we were also unwilling to give up on the charm and comfort of a fireplace.

How a direct vented fireplace works when vented through a rear wall

Having lived on the East coast, I was convinced that another approach would be easy and cost-effective: tearing down the existing chimney and installing a direct venting fireplace instead. While standard wood burning fireplaces are dirty, inefficient, and actually pull heat out of the house, direct vent units are sealed, clean, use natural gas for fuel, and provide substantial heating capacity. Plus, they do not require a chimney!

And this is when I started to think I was losing my mind. While I was convinced that direct vent was the way to go, the local “experts” I consulted were dismissive of the option. They told me direct vent fireplaces are ugly, cheaply made, and inflexible, since you cannot use them to burn wood or to put in other decorative elements. They said that venting through a masonry wall was not possible and would not meet code requirements. I could only find one nearby store that even stocked direct vent units; even there the salesman tried to discourage me from buying one. And if I had bought it, would I have been able to find someone to install it?

I could only find one nearby store that even stocked direct vent units; even there the salesman tried to discourage me from buying one.

Direct vented fireplaces are sealed units that can look quite nice when properly installed

Eventually I identified a local company that was willing and able to reinforce and line the existing chimney for about half the price of a full replacement. That work was completed right before Thanksgiving and, pending final city approval, we now have a functional fireplace that can burn wood.

As I write this on a 40ºF winter morning, I still regret that the direct vent gas option was not possible. It would be nice to have a crackling fire accompanied by heat. At least I know I’m not crazy — plenty of YouTube videos, including one by This Old House, espouse the benefits of the approach I was pursing.

California is a land of paradoxes, and this strange fireplace journey is just another one to add to the list. In an era of climate emergency, why wouldn’t the state be encouraging and even incentivizing the replacement of dirty wood-burning fireplaces with cleaner natural gas alternatives? I wonder how often we will actually burn wood, and how much the heartburn about our contribution to atmospheric carbon pollution will offset our enjoyment of the crackling flames.

Introducing Hacienda de la Tortuga

My move to California meant giving up an old house by the sea in favor of modern apartment living. And while apartments have much to recommend them, I missed living in (and owning, and DIYing) my own house. (This mostly manifest in the form of nightly binges of home improvement and woodworking videos on YouTube.)

After getting married in June, Katy and I decided to start looking for a more permanent residence. We stuck to the Pasadena area — which is overflowing with charming Craftsmans — and the surrounding cities. Alas, none of them were in our price range, but after much looking and some stressful negotiations we were able to acquire a cute little bungalow in the Spanish Colonial Revival style.

Our new home is a single-story stucco structure with a flat roof trimmed in clay tile. The lot is a flat 1/4 acre on a quiet street within walking distance of restaurants, a grocery store, and several Armenian bakeries. There is a single car detached garage that is just perfect for a small workshop. And best of all, the house came with a reptilian occupant — a 25 year old, 65 pound sulcata tortoise named Kip!

The previous homeowners adopted Kip after he was found abandoned at the nearby Huntington Library in 2004. He seems pretty active on warm days and more pokey on the cold ones. We’ve been feeding him lots of leafy greens and vegetables and he seems content.

We are planning a few major projects that involve professionals, like replacing outdated sewer systems and old windows, as well as lots of small projects that we can tackle on our own. Katy has managed much of the unpacking and organizing while I’ve been installing new locks, shower curtains, smoke detectors, speakers, and the like.

Surprisingly all of the YouTubing seems to have paid off a bit, or maybe it’s the benefit of all my experience in Hull over the years, plus a bit more patience and planning. So far I haven’t put any holes in walls that weren’t intended, haven’t electrocuted myself, and haven’t needed to make unexpected hardware store visits. I seem to be getting marginally better at patching walls, fishing wires, and adjusting stuck doors.

Our first night here was rough — we felt unsettled, we were surrounded by boxes, there were swarms of ants everywhere, and none of the light switches did what we expected. A week later we are starting to feel more settled and more at home, as well as more confident that this wasn’t a huge mistake.

We are working on coming up with a silly house name, and I’m advocating for Hacienda de la Tortuga. Hacienda for the home’s Spanish heritage and our plans to make it a homestead with vegetable gardens, chickens, and who knows what else. Tortuga for obvious reasons. But Katy would like to incorporate our gatos into the name as well. I guess we’ll keep thinking about it. We plan to be here for a while, so there is no rush, and in the meantime there is so much else to do!

Politicizing the weather

Trump’s Sharpie vs. reality

As all levels of government are subverted and corrupted at a pace few would have thought possible, even something as fact-based on weather predictions are subject to the lies and whims of a whiny and narcissistic chief executive:

“It makes me speechless that the leadership would put [Trump’s] feelings and ego ahead of putting out weather information accurately,” said Michael Halpern, a deputy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If we’re politicizing the weather what is there left to politicize?”

NOAA staff warned in Sept. 1 directive against contradicting Trump“, Washington Post

The corruption of any notion of objective, agreed-upon reality is the point. The breakdown of social cohesion is the point. Once even the weather is a political opinion, the fabric of society is so ripped asunder that unity and common purpose may never again be achievable.

A statement of principles

It’s been over two years now of “shock and awe” tactics aimed at destroying the foundations of American democracy. Equivocating is not an option. Mincing words is not an option. It’s hard to stay focused as each new atrocity becomes normalized. So here is my list, Arya Stark style, of what I believe is most important:

  • Climate change, because There Is No Planet B
  • Gun violence, we should Protect Kids, Not Guns
  • Police brutality: Black Lives Matter
  • Women’s rights: Abortion Is A Civil Right
  • Immigration and asylum: Abolish ICE

Unlike Joe Biden, I see no middle ground on these issues, not anymore. There is right and there is wrong. I refuse to compromise with monsters.

Chasing cannoli

As former Boston residents, Katy and I come down on opposite sides in the whole Mike’s vs Modern debate. So on a recent trip back East, I decided to enlist a cadre of tasters in a cannoli test panel to put this controversy to rest. The results were not at all what I expected.

We ventured to the North End on a Friday night and braved the lines to acquire half a dozen cannoli each from Mike’s Pastry and Modern Pastry. Awkwardly, we reconvened at Modern for our taste test.

Modern has a more traditional assortment with fewer varieties. I asked for a mixed batch and received two each plain, chocolate, and vanilla. I was given the choice of powered sugar dusting, or not. The cannoli were filled to order and neatly packed in a small box tied with the trademark string.

My compatriots at Mike’s were offered a plethora of flavors to choose from, all pre-filled and on display behind glass. Their six selections ran the gamut, including one with chocolate peanut butter filling and one with a florentine shell. Unfortunately due to Mike’s messy packing strategy, it was impossible to get a picture of all six cannoli in their boxed glory.

The product from Mike’s cost a bit more but are also substantially larger. Testers enjoyed the chocolate chips, which were not offered at Modern. On the whole, everyone preferred the variety of flavor options at Mike’s over Modern’s more traditional selection.

The real test is on taste, and this is where things got a bit more complicated. The panel universally found the Modern Pastry shells crisper and more satisfying. The Mike’s Pastry shells were denser and tasted slightly stale in comparison. But when it came to filling, Mike’s plain and chocolate fillings were universally lauded as lighter and more pleasing, while Modern’s more custardy fillings were felt to be inappropriate in this type of pastry. Some of us enjoyed the creaminess of the Modern filling, but we all agreed that the filling from Mike’s was a better overall fit.

Surprisingly, there was near universal agreement on the overall winning cannoli, and it turned out to be the florentine. This is, of course, non-traditional in the extreme, but it was undeniably delicious, and, at the end of the day, that is what really matters.

The choice of cannoli is a deeply personal one, and I wouldn’t claim to have resolved this never-ending debate. In conclusion, cannoli are delicious and sharing them with others only adds to the experience.

Is a carbon-restricted future really impossible?

The “Green New Deal” is a blanket term for an amorphous set of ideas about restructuring American society to address the coming climate crisis. If it does nothing else concrete, the Green New Deal has ignited long-overdue discussion about the destructive effects of climate change and practical solutions for mitigating the worst impacts.

In some ways, the climate crisis seems hopeless. What is required is massive, wholesale societal change, yet what has been most frequently proposed up to this point is tiny individual changes, such as eating less meat.

There is justified concern that larger changes to consumption, commodity pricing, and distribution models would be anathema to the citizenry, and thus unobtainable. But as I think about programs implemented in the past few decades, I think there is reason to be hopeful and optimistic about some of the changes required.

In the mid 1980s, California introduced a 5¢ fee on beverage containers, which could be recovered through recycling. Over time, an entire infrastructure sprung up around this market-based recycling approach. I fondly recall smashing soda cans in the garage as a kid, and then bringing a big bag of them to a recycling center near our supermarket in exchange for a voucher we could redeem for groceries. Recently this program has struggled as the result of a global shift in how recycling is processed, but even still 80% of beverage containers in California end up being recycled.

Starting in 2017, California banned single-use plastic shopping bags statewide. While there are a variety of exceptions, on the whole the entire state has shifted to reusable bags. This may feel like a large burden, but carrying reusable bags quickly becomes an ingrained behavior, and before long it feels completely normal:

For the most part, Californians took in stride the sudden absence of some 13 billion bags that in previous years were handed out at grocery checkout counters and by other retailers of all sorts. Maybe a few grumbled at first about the inconvenience. But most adjusted quickly, perhaps because they intuited that something was not right about all those plastic bags hanging from trees, caught up in storm drains, clumped by the sides of freeways and floating in the ocean.

Los Angeles Times

How do plastic bags and soda cans relate to the Green New Deal? Changes to our food distribution system will be critical to achieving the necessary carbon reduction targets. Taxes, caps, subsidies, or whatever other approach is chosen, at the end of the day, certain types of foods and transportation will become more expensive, and certain types of packaging will need to change.

Think about everything that comes from a grocery store, and just how much single-use packaging is involved. Every single-serving yogurt, granola bar, bag of chips, tub of hummus, frozen dinner, and clamshell case of strawberries is made up of single-use packaging that is devilishly difficult to recycle, if we even try.

On the other hand, glass, aluminum, cardboard? Pretty easy (assuming the packages are clean). The future I envision is more like Sprouts or Whole Foods than Ralphs and Safeway. More prepared foods made in-store, distributed in reusable plastic or aluminum trays that come with a redemption value attached. More large bins of bulk items — coffee, nuts, grains, snacks — that are distributed in reusable bags and tubs that we simple get used to bringing with us every time we shop.

A lot of the innovations in packaging in the last few decades have been around making products last longer in transport and on shelves. We have made the tradeoff of reducing food waste in exchange for distributing food in increasingly complex packaging that is impossible to recycle. This is an energy-intensive and petroleum-heavy endeavor, and I think the trend will need to shift the other way.

We will be faced with some level of reduced choice as the cost of carbon-heavy packaging and long-distance transportation rises, driving up the prices of foods that are distributed that way. Some of the biggest names in food production and distribution will not be able to adapt, and will go out of business. But we will shift towards more local production, more buying in bulk, and more local preparation.

It is not just transportation and packaging that needs a drastic change, it is also how we choose to subsidize food production. Right now we dramatically subsidize the cost of meat, dairy, snacks, and sugary beverages through our subsidies of sugarcane, soybeans, and corn. On the one hand this helps to prevent food shortages and ensures that high-caloric food is affordable. But more sustainable would be to shift in the opposite direction, towards foods that are inherently calorie-dense (and healthier) without many levels of processing and intermediate steps.

Source: http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/shrink-your-food-footprint

Will this raise the price of meat, cheese, and snacks? Sure it will. But if we can have a corresponding drop in the price of grains, fruits, and vegetables that are local and in season, consumption habits will adapt. Before long, our new food system will be the new normal.

The food system, including agriculture, packaging, and distribution is incredibly complex, and the shifts and changes will be far more consequential, difficult, and expensive than simply reducing plastic bag waste. But programs like the plastic bag ban, can recycling, and others like subsidies for solar panels and electric cars show that we do have the tools at the policy and economic level to address these problems in a systemic way. And they show that, done sensitively and carefully, such changes need not result in widespread suffering or anger.

I am not optimistic about our changes against the forces of nature and the impacts of over 100 year of industrialization, but I do believe there is a path forward. The fact that we have started talking about solutions — FINALLY! — gives me a little big of hope.

The Life-Changing Magic of the $15 Minimum Wage

I’m currently in Denver, Colorado at an industry conference. I’m sitting through a terrible talk by ITR’s chief economist, an old white guy who is playing to a room of old white guys, and it is making me seethe. He is talking about business growth and making all sorts of jokes at the expense of states with low birth rates, nations with fewer national resources, and “millennials” – just for existing.

He also made the requisite jokes about how people hate economists. And we certainly do, when economists ignore the human costs.

The only thing that has kept me from walking out of the room is ignoring him and reading this great article about the power of positive economic change:

For years, when American policymakers have debated the minimum wage, they have debated its effect on the labor market. Economists have gone around and around, rehashing the same questions about how wage bumps for the poorest workers could reduce employment, raise prices or curtail hours. What most didn’t ask was: When low-wage workers receive a pay increase, how does that affect their lives?

Well, now that research has been done:

A $15 minimum wage is an antidepressant. It is a sleep aid. A diet. A stress reliever. It is a contraceptive, preventing teenage pregnancy. It prevents premature death. It shields children from neglect. But why? Poverty can be unrelenting, shame-inducing and exhausting. When people live so close to the bone, a small setback can quickly spiral into a major trauma. Being a few days behind on the rent can trigger a hefty late fee, which can lead to an eviction and homelessness. An unpaid traffic ticket can lead to a suspended license, which can cause people to lose their only means of transportation to work. In the same way, modest wage increases have a profound impact on people’s well-being and happiness.

But what about all those “negative externalities” of increased wages? Well:

A 2017 study co-authored by Lindsey Bullinger, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, found that raising the minimum wage by $1 would reduce child-neglect reports by almost 10 percent. Higher wages allow parents working in the low-wage labor market to keep the lights on and the refrigerator stocked; failing to do so can court neglect charges. “These studies show the positive externalities of increasing the minimum wage on serious outcomes, like reducing child abuse,” Bullinger said, issuing an eloquent barb at economists’ obsession with the “negative externalities” of minimum-wage hikes.

All that, and it gives people back their dignity, too. (via Kottke)

Faux Art

I picked up the sport coat for $5 at Goodwill a few hours before the soiree.

Six years ago some creative friends held a home art show.  I was invited to participate, but lacked any works of artistic merit to present.  So instead I whipped up some — let’s call it meta art? — in the form of an absurdly pretentious photo exhibit.  The photos came from a then-recent trip to Scandinavia I had taken with my friend Kevin (and I’m sure he is going to be thrilled that I’m posting this…).  The text was generated with the help of a site called the Arty Bollocks Generator.  The outfit was assembled at Goodwill for a few bucks.

In honor of the sixth anniversary of the debut, here is my “art” reformatted to fit your screen…

Continue reading “Faux Art”