Surprises in the garden

This is my second year of serious “square foot garden” experimentation, and so far it has not been going nearly as well as last year. My lettuce was infested with little bugs, which apparently is par for the course. After copious washing I got a nice (if somewhat bitter) salad out of it, but was constantly worried about finding more bugs in my dinner. I didn’t end up using the other two heads, and eventually threw them out.

I kept seeing maturing strawberries appear, but by the time I got to them they had disappeared — apparently eaten by birds. Now I’m putting up bird netting to try to protect my other berries, none of which have come in yet. My bell pepper seedlings refuse to grow, for no clear reason. My broccoli bloomed and was ruined because I wasn’t paying attention. And when I just pulled my single head of cauliflower (1 per square foot), it was infested with both earwigs and little green worms. Yuck!

I’m tempted to call the whole thing off and go back to just getting everything from the supermarket. Or, I guess, learning about pesticides. Bah.

Mists of Time

When you wake up at 3am and start looking through old emails trying to find something, but end up going in a completely different direction…

  • In 2000, the MIT Admissions Office used to ask for your Social Security Number in order to sign you up for their email list.
  • In high school, my favorite cheese was “the orange spreadable stuff”.
  • In 1999, I was really impressed by a new payment service from called PayPal.
  • Back then I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking and worrying about life and the pursuit of happiness. So not much has changed on that front.
  • At some point my parents hosted a 40th birthday party for a friend of theirs that involved a male stripper. It was something I said I wouldn’t soon forget. But luckily, I have.
  • It’s great convincing your friends to use PGP email encryption, until you want to read those emails a decade later and no longer have the secret key. I can only assume those screenfuls of random gibberish hide the best secrets of all.
  • Sometimes when I was 16, I could be completely oblivious and mean.
  • Sometimes I could be incredibly thoughtful and caring.
  • I can no longer remember at what point my best friend from high school and I stopped talking, or why. I have a vague recollection that we had a big fight, that I did something terribly wrong. But looking back at these emails, I’m increasingly convinced that we just naturally drifted apart. I’m not sure which possibility is less satisfying.

Leaving Instapaper for Readability

Update: Readability has informed me they are not venture-backed. I apologize for the error.

Instapaper is a “read it later” service, that lets you save long-form articles and blog posts from the web to read at your convenience on your iPhone or iPad. It strips out ads, pagination, and navigation for a clean reading experience. Instapaper is slick, clean, and simple, but a newer upstart service called Readability is infringing on its turf.

Some people have argued that Readability is a “rip-off” of Instapaper and is bad because it is venture-backed vs Instapaper’s one-man operation. I don’t really care about that, my chief argument is that Readability is a better service, with a better philosophy, and thus is what you should use.

Readability offers very nice integration with web browsers (via extensions), works very nicely with the Amazon Kindle (with an instant “send to Kindle” function), and generally offers more polish and better style than Instapaper, both on its web site and its apps. But the most important reason why Readability is a better product is because of a unique and very powerful subscription model.

You see, the ability to strip out all of the ads, pagination, navigation, and other chrome from an article and just get the pure text is a wonderful thing for the end-user, but it is not at all good for the publisher. Those ad impressions are what pay for that content. As long as I have used Instapaper I have always felt a little bit dirty.

How to solve this philosophical conundrum? Readability facilitates this in a very innovative and cool way. You decide how much money you want to pledge every month towards a content “subscription,” minimum $5. Readability keeps track of what you read over the course of the month and divides up your subscription pricebetween the publishers of the articles you read, minus a 30% cut. They take care of aggregating all of the subscriptions and paying each publisher every month. The more people read a given article, the more they get paid.

Simple, elegant, and very fair. Once I discovered Readability, I felt bad about being a leech for so long, and I felt bad about Instapaper, the service that has let me do so. And for that reason above all, I am now a proud Readability subscriber, and you should be too!

Just another story about Boy and Girl

This time boy is up late, real late, watching meaningless video clips and refusing to think. Girl is passed out in the guest room, reeking of desperation and full up with bile.

The Animal bounds up the stairs, peeks his head around the door. Boy sees something in his mouth. No, not something — Animal’s most prized possession. A jingle from the bell on its braided tail as he drags it about. The pitter-patter of his supple paws.

He is just a little cat, and he does not like the shouting and the stomping and the slamming of doors. He wants to give his Mama comfort in the only way he knows how, he wants to share his favorite thing in the world.

She does not hear his mews and calls, does not respond to the scratching at the door. He cannot curl up beside her, for she is not herself.

The Animal leaves his mouse gently in a safe corner and visits Boy instead. I’m sorry, says Boy, please, please don’t be sad. The Animal makes a sound, a guttural noise, not quite a growl. Boy lifts his arm to give Animal comfort; is met with the sharpest of claws. Cheeks wet, he does not pull away.

One reason women make less than men: they ask for less. Maybe?

Lots of interesting discussion all across the blog-o-web over a Reddit thread by a hiring manager discussing why women are underpaid relative to men in his workplace — they fail to negotiate for a good starting salary, or negotiate poorly. The discussion on Reddit is intense, with various anecdotes and theories being bandied about. There have also been some interesting responses elsewhere, including citations of studies about how women are treated differently than men in identical circumstances. Anyway, the most insightful comment I’ve seen on the matter was this one at the Atlantic by one Carl Pham:

You might adduce the general argument traditionally made by evolutionary psychologists: that women are inherently more conservative than men, i.e. they fear loss more than they hope for gain, compared to men.

This has always been the argument for why men are overwhelmingly more likely to take big risks in search of big payoffs — why test pilots are men, explorers are men, inventors more likely to be men, et cetera — and why women are more likely not to go bankrupt, turn to crime and violence to achieve their ends, pay their bills on time, and so on.

It may be this idea, if it is valid, extends to interpersonal negotiations, in the sense that women are seeking more to minimize net losses while men are seeking to maximize net gains. Mathematically, those might be the same thing, but in practice, they are not, and furthermore people with those ends in mind will often choose different means.

Myself, I fail to see why we can’t simply adapt our methods and expectations to the sex of the person at issue. Men should expect to use different methods and have different expectations when negotiating with women, and vice versa. We are not identical human-bots. What’s wrong with that?

All around, an interesting and important discussion, all the more interesting to me because it has so far not generally been particularly populated by people looking to place blame. It is clear that like any question in this genre the “obvious” causes may actually be effects, the “clear” remedies may be wrong, and no one has a complete understanding of all the factors involved.

More great Sesame Street celebrity cameos and parodies

I collected a few of these back in 2008, here are some that have come out since then.

These are all from the last couple of years, but they are new to me! And if you want a real blast from the past, how about Paul Simon performing “Me and Julio” with a bunch of little kids?

First world gripes, this time about Peapod

Hull is not entirely convenient to the supermarket, so a couple nights ago I tried using Peapod again. The service lets you shop online and they deliver to your door, using an excessive number of plastic bags and, in my experience, always coming at least a half hour after their scheduled delivery window. Using Peapod isn’t really that much quicker than going to a store, but it allows one to avoid lines and reuse old shopping lists, so it does have some advantages.

In this particular instance I missed the early boat due to some work stuff being broken and got home 30 minutes into my two hour deliver window. The story ends as you might expect — while I fumed at them for being so late, in reality they had come right at the beginning of the window, I wasn’t home, and they drove off with my groceries. The consequences are no groceries and a hefty $50 restocking fee. And now I have to go to the grocery store anyway.

This seems like a common enough problem that there should be ways to mitigate it. When I was using the excellent Boston Organics while living in Cambridge, they made their deliveries in re-usable green plastic tubs and would place them at a location specified by the homeowner if no one was there to receive them. They also encouraged the use of supplementary coolers and/or ice packs. The delivery driver would redistribute the most perishable or fragile items to a cooler if one was provided. This approach is environmentally friendly, convenient, and much more forgiving in terms of time delays — on both sides.

Peapod’s method of leaving the customer in the dark with no email or web communication and their inability to deliver when someone is not home makes the service much less desirable than Boston Organics. Their use of copious numbers of plastic bags makes them much less environmentally friendly. It is exacerbated by the fact that the plastic bags are then placed into plastic bins, but the bins are not a part of the delivery.

I share some of the blame in this instance, for getting home late, but a good customer-focused company, especially a delivery company that traffics in perishable goods like Peapod, should have very robust exception handling to deal with such situations. I discovered this morning that they left one message on my home phone, whereas I was looking for a call on my cell or an email or text message. There is lots of room for improvement here.

And it may go without saying, but Peapod has proven to be less convenient to me than just going to the grocery store, so I do not plan to use their service in the future.

The enthusiasm gap

I went into the home inspection nervous about what we would find. The house was lacking in all possible “curb appeal,” which brought down the price to what we could afford, but was it structurally sound? The home inspector, an old guy nearing retirement, was almost universally positive. I pointed out areas of concern — plumbing? Fine. What about the siding, which looks terrible? That stuff lasts forever. Boiler? Practically new! (It is about 20 years old.) And the roof? Seems to be in good shape! This is a great house, he kept saying, you’re going to do well here.

Pleasantly surprised (and a bit confused), we addressed a few small inspection issues with the seller and obtained a closing credit towards some future repairs, and moved forward with the purchase.

It needs some work

After moving in we called in a respected contractor in the area that specializes in restoring old homes. The team of two brothers took us through the entire house, jumping on floors, poking and prodding, making lots of notes. They asked us what we wanted and what our ideas were, and took a copy of the inspection report. They came back with a proposal that was slightly jaw-dropping in price, but comprehensive. They found old knob-and-tube wiring which needed to be replaced, recommended upgrading to 200 amp service, pointed out problems with floor joists and old plumbing. They recommended re-siding with Cedar Impressions and replacing the windows with high quality Anderson 400s. They included pricing for a gut renovation of the kitchen (as we had discussed), moving a few walls, and relocating a bathroom. If we had the money, we would do it all.

Continue reading “The enthusiasm gap”

Cooking with fire

Unpacking is hard. We’re in week three and most of my clothes are still in boxes, along with a lot of other things. Tools are scattered about, including some shiny new ones, but we’ve finally gotten rid of the last of the ripped up staircase carpeting, and most of the empty cardboard boxes. We’ve also unpacked much of the kitchen, which required a very intense round of cleaning and sanitizing of some pretty disgusting cabinets, fridge, and even dishwasher! We haven’t touched the oven yet — it’s just too scary.

But I was able to cook a full meal the other night, for the first time in over a month. I made steak, mashed potatoes, roasted asparagus, and a nice salad. Everything came out delicious and just right! It is so nice to have a proper gas stove, and a range hood that actually vents, the combination of which made using my cast iron pan a breeze. The only thing that would make the experience better is a garbage disposal. And a dishwasher that can actually fit our plates. And better water pressure. And more counter space. And…well, I’m getting off track. One thing at a time. Gotta finish unpacking the kitchen, and keep waking up to those beautiful views of the bay.

Everyone is incompetent at everything

How can companies continue to function in this day while being so customer-hostile? First I had a whole fiasco of stupidity with regard to my Verizon FiOS installation. After I got that sorted over the phone, they proceeded to cancel my service and schedule a new installation without telling me. For no reason. Because there was nothing a person actually had to do here, it was all controlled at their “central office.” But because activations and deactivations occur in “batches” and only during certain hours, I had to miss a day of work so a tech could come out, unplug my current cable box, and plug in an identical one with a different serial number. Even he couldn’t explain why. But I had to do it, because I need internet service to do my job.

That pales in comparison to my treatment by Bank of America. That company is generally quite pleasant at the branch level, but at the corporate level, I’ve experienced a pattern of customer abuse and apathy that is unparalleled. They don’t seem to understand the basic fact that putting a $666,666.66 overdraft/hold on one’s account on a Saturday is terrifying. Apparently all that means is there is a fraud concern, but how am I to know that? It doesn’t help that the fraud office isn’t open over the weekend, and I am locked out of all my money for two days. They have no idea how paralyzing that is. They don’t care.

It doesn’t help that, when you change your address, they no longer trust you, no matter how many times you verify your identity with social security numbers, birthdates, and passcodes. They will call you again and again and make you verify the same charges. Yes, I really paid $30 for a subscription to Consumer Reports, thanks for checking on that. Yes, I really did try to have my car serviced, thanks for declining that one. Thanks for the embarrassment. Thanks for not clearing it up after the first, second, third call. Thanks for having an automated call followed by a human caller reading the same script. Thanks for locking me out of online banking. Thanks for not following up. Thanks for getting mad at me for being mad, because you’re just doing your job.

Meghan will attest that I’m super calm on the phone. I don’t yell at the poor abused customer service people. I’m probably the nicest call they receive all day. I respect the difficult predicament they are in. But today I just couldn’t take it. The Bank of America fraud department is tremendously incompetent, and someone needs to tell them that. Every person, every call should tell them how incompetent they are, not thank them for ferreting out that suspicious $25 charge for Angie’s List.

Suggestions for new banks welcomed.

Such friendly people

Our neighbor across the street introduced himself while we were moving in. He said we could ring his bell any time if we needed anything.

And if he wasn’t home, and we required a telephone or needed anything else, just feel free to go inside.

This is both comforting and terrifying to me. Without a doubt we’re really out of the city.

Did I mention that none of our doors or windows have functioning locks?

Mole people

For the last two weeks Meghan and I have subsisted (ha!) in the basement dwelling of a friend of a family member in Hull, the location of our eventual permanent new home. The accommodations were cozy enough, and we were able to begin a preliminary exploration of the neighborhood, including taking the boat into work every day.

I must say, the (independently-operated) Commuter Boat has got to be the best-run service in the entire Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority portfolio. The reliability and on-time performance is unreal. The snack bar is stocked with beer and wine. On Fridays there is free popcorn. And the views can’t be beat. I pity the poor fools who suffer daily through the indignities of the Commuter Rail, the busses, and the T. I couldn’t be more satisfied, so far, with my new commute.

Yesterday we came aboveground to sign all the final paperwork and officially buy our new house. After so much drama and then our frustrating waiting period, it was wonderful to finally be moving forward. The rain was pouring down as the movers arrived with a big truck full of our furniture and stuff, fresh out of storage. But as we entered the house, I almost wished we could pause all of that for another month or two, and get some serious work done first!

By all accounts the previous owners of our house were a very nice family. They certainly left us a thoughtful note and gift. But the way they lived and treated their house is very different from the way we do things. The more I sit here, the more decay and damage and dirtiness I see. Holes in walls, cracks in ceilings, half-completed home improvement projects, flaking lead-based paint — the works! It is clear why this place took over a year to sell — we have a long road ahead of us to get this house where we want it to be.

It is a great opportunity, because we get to make everything just the way we want it, and everything we do will add value to the home. But it is overwhelming in its scope. We love the bones of the house, and the town, the view, the lot, the neighborhood. And we love the potential in the house, and the vision in our mind’s eye of what it will be. I’m not sure we fully appreciated how much work it would take — and time, and money — to get there.

Presidential run

Last night, unlike the previous several, I didn’t wake up abruptly at 3am to worry about buying a new house. Instead, I dreamt that I was in a long meandering cafeteria line attempting to get a breakfast bagel sandwich, and Barack Obama was behind me. We talked about fitness, and he showed me his new Nike Free shoes. I decided (in dreamland) that now that I was back in school at Brandeis I had to get a pair and start running around the track again.

I think my subconscious self is trying to tell my conscious self something. My conscious self is responding by saying that yesterday it was -2° F. So there’s that.

I believe in a world without soap

On the gadget blog Boing Boing the other day I read the strangest post, about living a lifestyle free of soap. The author claimed that he had gone on a year without using any soap or shampoo while bathing, although he still washes his hands and uses deodorant. He claims that going without soap has left him smelling better, with clearer skin and softer hair, than ever before.

The argument basically goes that our bodies have evolved naturally to keep themselves clean, with various excreted oils and such, and washing with hot water only and perhaps some scrubbing is sufficient for cleanliness.

I tried it for a few days. Meghan didn’t notice anything was amiss (or at least didn’t say anything to me), so I guess it was going okay, but I just didn’t feel clean, especially my hair, which was getting sort of greasy. Furthermore, it just doesn’t seem sustainable after activities like skiing, sports, and hiking that can leave one covered with dust, grime, and occasionally blood.

That said, it wasn’t until day 3 (when I gave up on the whole endeavor) that something completely obvious and self-evident occured to me that I had completely forgotten — I haven’t used soap for over a decade, and I’m doing fine.

Wait, don’t run away, let me finish.

I used to have very dry, irritable skin. I always felt like there was a film all over my body. Whenever I got sweaty I got itchy and uncomfortable. I couldn’t stand salt water or chlorinated water. I tried various products and lotions recommended by friends and doctors, until I went to a dermatologist who gave me the advice to just stop using soap. Use shampoo, he said, for areas that are hairy, and just use water and a scrubbing towel on the rest of your body.

That’s what I’ve been doing since high school. I may use a bit more shampoo, a bit more widely spread, when I am feeling particularily dirty, but I don’t really use soap, except of course for hand washing, where I use the foamy stuff. As as result I feel much more comfortable in my skin and while I still don’t love salty or chlorinated water, I have been able to enjoy swimming and the beach, as well as other outdoor sweaty activities that used to make me squirm.

We live in a society that is half over-sharing and half squeamish, and I’m sure my cleanliness habits may make others a bit uncomfortable, but I just think it is interesting. Not using soap has become so basic to me, and so ingrained, that I had completely forgotten I was even doing it. And so far no one has told me I smell too bad.

Hello, world

2011. It’s been a bit dormant around here for a while. No apologies — I resolved long ago not to apologize for a lack of blog posts. But, even as “social media” (primarily Facebook and Twitter) have made personal blogging somewhat obsolete, I think the time has come to reopen this here blog-o-book, because I have Things To Say, if not for anyone particularly interested at the moment, at least for posterity.

At the Tumbridge Vermont fair

So much has happened! A new job, over at this company called EnerNOC. I had to agree, as a condition of employment, to not publish anything that might be construed by anyone as potentially libelous, defamatory, or the least bit hurtful to the company, and furthermore that the company had sole authority over what met that standard, and even further than that, that I would be personally liable well beyond my entire net worth for the real or perceived damages caused by any supposedly negative information I’d theoretically spread about the company, and that I had no recourse to lawsuit or mediation.

Needless to say, blogging about work at EnerNOC will be even more minimal than it was when I worked at Harvard FAS-IT. But I’ll try not to let that discourage me from sharing generalities about technologies I’m working with and interesting things I’m doing and general thoughts on my new corporate life.

Sold the condo. Moving out of the city. It’s a process, a surprisingly long process.

Got engaged. As part of said engagement, seem to have gotten adopted into a whole second family, a really big one to boot. That’s pretty cool.

Growing up fast.

Chasing butterflies in North Carolina

I’ve been having a lot of aches and pains lately. I have been half-jokingly blaming them on getting old (an ancient 27, I am), but it occurred to me today that they are probably actually related to leaving Harvard. In addition to the abundant sunlight that I now lack, being stuck at the back of a cube farm rather than in a nice office, I also no longer get to have a standing desk, so I sit like a schlub all day. And I no longer have a nice track and pool nearby for free, nor do I have the work companions who used to force me to use aforementioned amenities, and pushed me to run longer and swim harder than I might have on my own. I really miss that, and I really miss Mike, JaZahn, and Francisco, in addition to my other old coworkers.

As much as I hate the idea, and as cliché as it is, I guess my new year’s resolution is actually going to be to join a gym. There are no good lap pools in downtown Boston; I’ve conducted a rather extensive online survey. The only solution seems to be the old treadmill. I loathe exercising by standing still. But if I find an above-ground gym, at least I might get some natural light during my lunch breaks.

Stay tuned to this same blog channel for future updates to include:

  • Details of home sale
  • Details of engagement
  • Photos of things
  • Geeky stuff that grandma won’t understand

That ought to keep you coming back! Bye for now.

What would make the Amazon Kindle perfect…

…is if I could buy a real physical book and get a free Kindle “license” to go with it. I’d be willing to pay a few bucks more for the privilege — I’d probably even be willing to buy the hardcover instead of waiting for a paperback.

If I could buy a real physical book to put on my shelf and keep and turn the pages of and touch and smell and bookmark and lend, but also get a code that would give me the convenience of reading the same text on one or more of my various mobile devices, then I’d be happy.

We can purchase a music CD or a movie DVD in physical form and make or receive a digital copy to take with us on our many devices. Why not a book? Why must we give up the essential “bookishness” of the thing in order to have convenience? Why must we pay twice to get a real book and an inferior digital edition?

I’m using my Kindle to read magazines and long-form articles from the web (via Instapaper), and I do grab the occasional public domain book or inexpensive Kindle edition of a commercial book, but every time I purchase a book for Kindle I feel bad about it. I want to read Cormac McCarthy on the subway, and I also want him safe on my bookshelf. I’m willing to accept the limitations of the “license” on a Kindle edition if I can still have a real edition to do with as I please. The publishers wouldn’t be losing sales, they would be gaining them.

Some may think that books are dying, just like physical discs for music and movies. I disagree. But even if they are, look at the new surge in vinyl record sales for evidence that people will pay more for the experience they want.

I learn something new every day about intellectual property

I had some trouble registering my Panera loyalty card, so I emailed their customer support. After a bit of back and forth I received the message below. For explanation, I own the domain name When I sign up for accounts on web sites, I put in an email address of the form “”. This allows me to track where my email is coming from, since all messages to come to me. This is a remarkably effective method of revealing how spammers get my email address, and blocking the offending address. This format has never been a problem before now…

Hello again Danny,
We’re sorry, but you cannot use the address

MyPanera is a trademark owned by Panera and you are not authorized to incorporate it into your e-mail address. Please cancel that e-mail address. Once you have retrieved your username and password, you can enter a new non-infringing address if you want by using the My Account/Edit My Info selection.

In the meantime, we are using [OMITTED] for your MyPanera account, the address from which you replied to my previous email. You will be able to retrieve your username/password using your [OMITTED] address.

Again, we’re sorry if this disappoints you, but we take the matter of trademarks seriously.

From the archives: an interview with Ralph Silverman

I wrote the following for a school assignment in 1996, when I was 12 years old. Grandpa died two days ago at the age of 87.

My grandfather has had a very eventful and wonderful life. He is the only member in his generation of his family to go through college. My grandfather also served in the military for two years and started his own business, which has been in operation for the last thirty-six years. His life has been very rewarding to not only himself but also to all of those who were influenced by him.

My grandfather is a wonderful and caring person who leaves a distinct impression on whoever he meets. I have told his story here, as best I can perceive it from two interviews. I know that if he was the one writing it, however, this story would be very different. I have highlighted the main events in his life as best I know them. Of course, I cannot get into his innermost thoughts and cannot show key incidents in great detail, since I was not actually there, but I know that from reading this paper you will understand a part of my grandpa.

Continue reading “From the archives: an interview with Ralph Silverman”

Relatively Fit

I was under the illusion that I am fit: I do half hour lunchtime swimming or running workouts a few days a week, and go on the occasional day hike or kayak trip or bike ride on weekends.

Half an hour on the frisbee field this afternoon kicked my butt. I haven’t played Ultimate in a while now, and after thirty minutes in the heat I was wiped out. I’m trying to decide whether this should be discouraging — I’m woefully out of shape and don’t know where I’ll find the time to do the sort of work necessary to become competitive; or encouraging — I can work to build up my speed and stamina and go back to playing a game I really enjoy.

With summer almost over, though, I’m leaning towards the first option. Especially since a lot of the people playing seem to have naturally a level of fitness I can never hope to achieve by effort.