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 mindwire.org. When I sign up for accounts on web sites, I put in an email address of the form “www.website.com@mindwire.org”. This allows me to track where my email is coming from, since all messages to @mindwire.org 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 members.mypanera.com@mindwire.org.

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.

Everything’s Ducky

I am home. Nine days of transit and vacation filled constantly with the frenetic energy of children. At home, once the cat has settled down, I am greeted with a deafening silence. I turn on WBUR and listen to the sound of people talking — some sort of interview about cows. Better than nothing.

The television was almost never on. There were no radios. There were many iPods, all set to shuffle. I kept up with the news of the world and my various internet feeds via my iPad. None of it seemed particularily important, none of it moved me. The only thing I felt the need to check in on daily was the comics.

There wasn’t much of a plan, aside from go to the beach now or go to the beach later. We sailed in the sound. A kayak ended up in a swimming pool. Lacking a volleyball, we used an enormous beach ball as a surprisingly effective substitute. I played RISK for the first time. I won at RISK for the first time. We made tacos, and the kids were enthralled. Near the end of the week, the jellyfish invaded.

Lighthouse

I’ve generally been of the opinion that one should spend one’s — that is, my — limited vacation time exploring new places or doing new things. I’m not rushing to do everything, moving too fast to take anything in; at the same time, I don’t want to waste time doing nothing. This vacation was an interesting combination: North Carolina’s Outer Banks are new to me, but the beach is very familiar. There was no set schedule, but there were some clear goals.

Continue reading “Everything’s Ducky”

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Why I Hate Apple’s MobileMe Sync Service

MobileMe duplicated this calendar entry over 500 times
I am trying to figure out how to get my calendar back. I have data going back to 1997, and now everything is corrupted. Some events are duplicated over five hundred times. When an event with an alarm goes off on my iPad, it won’t let me get back to what I want to do until I acknowledge the alarm. Five hundred times. I’m not sure how this compares to water boarding, but it sure seems to qualify as an enhanced interrogation technique.

Defending food, eschewing substances

After reading In Defense of Food I have been trying, with some success, to follow the Pollan approach to eating, focusing more on fresh fruits and vegetables, cutting back on meat, and avoiding most processed food-like substances, especially products that make elaborate health claims on their packaging.

I do feel better about what I am eating, in part because rather than treat this solely as a health exercise, I have framed it as a competition — me vs. the agro-giants that are out to ruin my health. If you start thinking of Kraft, Nestle, and all the other huge food conglomerates as evil corporations more concerned with their profits than the fact that they are increasing juvenile diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, it is a lot easier to avoid their products. Since said products are custom-engineered to trick your taste buds into thinking they are good for you, the mind-over-matter approach is important to avoiding them.

Articles like this recent one in the Times about salt content are especially effective, at least for me, in engendering loathing and disgust towards packaged foods:

The power that salt holds over processed foods can be seen in an American snack icon, the Cheez-It.

At the company’s laboratories in Battle Creek, Mich., a Kellogg vice president and food scientist, John Kepplinger, ticked off the ways salt makes its little square cracker work.

Salt sprinkled on top gives the tongue a quick buzz. More salt in the cheese adds crunch. Still more in the dough blocks the tang that develops during fermentation. In all, a generous cup of Cheez-Its delivers one-third of the daily amount of sodium recommended for most Americans.

As a demonstration, Kellogg prepared some of its biggest sellers with most of the salt removed. The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.

“I really get the bitter on that,” the company’s spokeswoman, J. Adaire Putnam, said with a wince as she watched Mr. Kepplinger struggle to swallow.

I think the point here is less about the specific problem (excess salt) and more about what that salt is covering up — the true essence of the food we are scarfing down, a sticky, gray, medicinal extruded corn mash.

I don’t agree with everything Pollan says, and In Defense of Food is less footnoted than I would like. In particular, he is widely critical of food science and nutritionism, but then uses many scientific studies of food and eating habits in making his claims, without adequately explaining why some studies are more reliable than others. But on the whole, I feel the book is well worth reading, and it has had a major impact on me and my eating habits.

One Pollan prescription is along the lines of “if it doesn’t go bad, it isn’t good.” I understand why this is the case, but the consequence is that I keep buying good things and not eating them before they go bad, a problem I didn’t have to deal with quite as much before.

Let us take a moment to marvel at the wonder that is salsa

I speak of salsa as we Americans understand it. A product that comes in dozens of varieties, probably more. It is frequently tomato based, but need not be. It works well mild, hot, or any degree in between. It is usually made almost exclusively from real, old-fashioned, non-bioengineered, non-preserved fruits and vegetables. When properly served, it is wonderfully healthy and safe — the worst it might do to you is give you a bit of excess sodium. It works great atop a wide variety of foodstuffs, or as a dipping sauce, or even eaten alone. The nature of the traditionally included ingredients are such that preservatives are rarely needed, even in canned, store-bought varieties. You can get great salsa at the super-expensive local organic market, and you can get great salsa for cheap at Target. There are so many varieties of salsa that everyone can find one they enjoy, and yet all of these very different sauces are recognized as salsa. I salute you, various peoples, regions, and cultures that created the sauces and dips that we now collectively know as salsa. You have made the world a better place!

Usage Note

Random House Dictionary suggests I get over one of my pet peeves:

Since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning “actually, without exaggeration”: The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries. The parties were literally trading horses in an effort to reach a compromise. The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing. Although this use of literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs. The same might often be said of the use of literally in its earlier sense “actually”: The garrison was literally wiped out: no one survived.

I’m literally throwing up right now.

Musings on WordPress.com

I recently had a chance to speak with an engineer at the company that runs WordPress.com, the blogging platform that hosts almost 10 million blogs and serves over a billion pageviews a month. I used to use the precursor to the WordPress software for my personal blog, and continued to use WordPress as the blogging platform evolved and improved over the years. I’ve also managed a small WordPress multi-user install, serving about 300 blogs and 300,000 monthly pageviews at Harvard Law School.

What is remarkable about WordPress.com is that, despite being absolutely gargantuan, the technological underpinnings are very similar to the open-sourced WordPress code that is available for anyone to use. Unlike Twitter, with its well-known performance woes, or Facebook, with its huge interconnected network of users, WordPress, with it’s blog-centric approach, scales nearly linearly. With the exception of a few global features, like single sign-on, blogs are relatively self-contained. The WordPress crew wisely chose to move complex operations like search out of the core (utilizing Lucene), so that as usage grows, scaling is as easy as throwing more computing power and storage at the problem.

At the database level, they run stock MySQL, and not even the latest version, because their code doesn’t require anything more complex than simple SELECTs, INSERTS, and JOINs. Rather than attempting to optimize every layer with hyper-efficient C code, they instead cache content aggressively using the powerful Varnish reverse proxy.

As the WordPress platform has gotten more complex and plugins more sophisticated, I’ve had less need to actually delve into the code to customize my blog to my liking. Taking a look at WordPress 3.0, I see that things have evolved significantly from earlier versions. The developers have wisely focusing on beefing up the plugin API over the last several revisions. Because of this, WordPress.com coders are free to spend time developing cool new features and improving functionailty using the same modular plugin and theming architecture as standard WordPress. This in turn means that development is non-stop, and developers actually push out updates to the main WordPress.com code on a daily basis.

The WordPress.com approach is not appropriate for all, or even most, large-scale web applications. But it is instructive. Rather than spending huge amounts of time re-writing and hyper-optimizing, the WordPress crew focused on incrementally improving their core product, implementing common-sense technologies to simplify their traffic management, and building a solid foundation for continuous platform improvement. As a result, WordPress.com has grown to a top-10 web property in terms of traffic while keeping a staff of only 50 globally distributed employees.

All that, and the core product, the WordPress platform, continues to be free software overseen by a non-profit foundation and open to anyone. Pretty neat and, if you ask me, not a bad way to run a business.

Bank of America updates

Since the Bank of America fiasco I find myself constantly logging into my account to make sure my money is still there. My new bank account won’t be open for a few days and the transfer of investments to E-Trade takes two weeks. Why is everything related to banking still so slow? And to top it off, today when I tried to use my Citi card to book an airline ticket it was rejected, even after going through some asinine verification process that for all I know may have been a phishing attempt. One thing I will say for BofA, they have never made me jump through stupid hoops like that.
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