Geeking Out

Running the numbers on backup generators

Whenever we have a power outage (which is not an infrequent occurrence in Hull) I ponder the utility of a backup generator.  Since I’m currently sitting in the dark, I decided to run some numbers.

For simplicity, I’ll assume a reasonably-sized whole-house generator kit with a transfer switch that uses natural gas or LP. A decent price on one of these units is about $5,500, and I’ll assume another $1,500 for installation (both electrical and plumbing).  Yearly maintenance contracts, which include an annual inspection and repairs, run around $300/year.  The useful life of the generator is estimated by various sources at around 20 years.

Adding this up, we get a total lifetime cost of $13,000 for the unit, not counting fuel costs (which are a very small component if you’re using natural gas since there is nothing to store).  That comes out to a yearly amortized cost of approximately $650.  On average we have two lengthy power outages a year.  So essentially, excluding fuel and unanticipated maintenance costs, the price is around $325 per outage.

That’s pretty significant.  Although it no doubt feels worth it on the day when it’s 5 degrees F and the boiler is shut off due to lack of electricity…

Update (29 Feb 2016): Discussion about this post on Facebook revealed a few friends and acquaintances who were able to get a functional generator setup for far less than the estimates here.  This is not surprising, because I was describing a “set it and forget it” approach.  For completeness (and cost practicality), I should mention how they achieved this.  Their setups typically included a smaller, manual start gasoline generator hooked up to a manual transfer switch that protected only a few key circuits.  With no service contract and the willingness to go out in the storm to setup, start, and refuel the generator when needed, backup electrical capacity could be achieved for closer to $2,000-3,000.

A brief, hopefully useful rant on the inherent evil that is Sears

sears-logo-2There are too many rants about too many companies — everywhere you look online, really. So I won’t belabor the details. In mid-2014 we purchased a new dishwasher from Sears along with an extended warranty. In November 2015, it stopped working in an odd way. Thus began a saga of service appointments — trying to schedule them, staying home for them, the technician not having the right part, the technician taking the part and saying we need a different one, the technician not believing the problem was real.

After three rounds of this, we got stuck on a part that was backordered for over a month. I went and found the part on eBay and installed it myself — sadly, the problem still was not fixed. All the while I was courteous and friendly while navigating a bureaucracy to rival the movie Brazil.

After the final go-around of four or five transfers between individuals, supervisors, and departments, I was ready to declare defeat. That’s when Meghan got on the phone and let loose with laser-eyed rage. Surprisingly (or perhaps not?) this resulted in us getting a dishwasher replacement.

But not until January.

Today the dishwasher finally arrived. The installers took it off the truck, then attempted to extort $160 in additional installation fees. We are about to have our kitchen gutted and rebuilt — the last thing we need is temporary plumbing work. When I refused, they put the machine back on the truck. While installation was included in the replacement, if I wanted delivery instead, it would be an additional $70. Keep in mind they were already at my house, had already taken the dishwasher off the truck, and all I wanted them to do was leave it at the curb and drive away.

After an hour of phone tree hell with Sears I had no solution and they packed up to go. Just as they were driving away I got in contact with a helpful sales rep from the store itself, so I chased them down the street, banged on the truck, and handed the driver the phone. Two minutes later, I have my dishwasher. As well as the old one, which they won’t haul away.

Over the course of this two month ordeal I have spoken to over a dozen customer service representatives and supervisors, multiple service technicians, national technical support, local dispatch, and now two intransigent installers. The only people in the entire ordeal who have been helpful were the salesperson at the store who helped me get the replacement, and the salesperson who helped me get it delivered.

We were without a dishwasher for over two months despite having paid several hundred dollars for service coverage. We only received a replacement when my wife got on the phone and spewed vitriol for half an hour. In the end we are stuck with one broken dishwasher and one that still needs to be hooked up. Sears and their various departments, subcontractors, and divisions are, in short, customer-hostile.

This perhaps explains in part why Sears is being driven into a brick wall, and certainly has taught me a valuable lesson — never, ever buy an appliance from Sears.

Also…anyone want a broken dishwasher?

Geeking Out

New tools and productivity enhancements for 2016

Around this time every year I re-evaluate my various tools and workflows and try to devote some time to productivity improvements. Last year, among other things, I spent a lot of time thinking about money management and banking. This year I’m mostly focused on knowledge management — document storage, note taking, task management, and the like.

Document storage

For years I have scanned paper contracts, records, and receipts using a NeatReceipts scanner and the Neat filing software. The app is sub-par but after extensive searching I still haven’t found anything better. I briefly flirted with Evernote, but I am just not comfortable storing more of my sensitive medical and financial records unencrypted in another cloud provider.

The scanner (from 2007) is no longer supported and stopped working with the latest OS X release, so I replaced it with the well-reviewed Doxie. Now instead of scanning and processing right in Neat, I scan, then import into Doxie, then export to Neat, then process in Neat — everything takes four times as long. As much as it pains me, I’m going to return the Doxie and pay Neat for a new scanner that looks just like my old one. I still think that keeping documents offline (and backed up) is worth the trade-off of not having access from my other devices, at least for now.

Note taking

I’ve been using Evernote for this, but inconsistently. I hate how bloated the app is, and it’s constant nagging to try new features and collaboration tools that I don’t need. In desperation I paid Evernote for their premium plan, but it didn’t make the problems go away. Instead I am switching to Ulysses, a Markdown note taking and writing app that is cleaner and simpler than Evernote but has all the features I want. Unfortunately the process for getting notes out of Evernote is not straightforward.

Bookmarks and reading

Instapaper is still my favorite app for offline reading. I send any interesting articles I see into Instapaper, where they are saved for later reading on all of my devices. I can also search the full text of articles I have saved in Instapaper, which is great for trying to find an article or fact months or years later.

This year I am adding Pinboard to the mix as well. I’m trying to bookmark and tag any interesting site or reference that I run across in Pinboard instead of relying on Google or my browser history to find it later. I’m also finally using IFTTT for the first time, to automate saving links to Instapapered articles as bookmarks in Pinboard. My goal is to have only one (or at least fewer) place to look when I want to find something, be it a code snippet, tutorial, recipe, or whatever else.

Task management

The biggest and so far best change has been abandoning Things, my task management app of several years, for 2Do. I’m finding 2Do more flexible, more pleasing to use, and just all around better than Things. The Things update cycle was very slow and new feature development almost non-existent. 2Do keeps getting better, and it really fits my workflow well. Task management is different for everyone — I use a methodology that is vaguely GTD but really just the system that works for me. 2Do is flexible and customizable but opinionated where it needs to be. It gives me all the features I need while maintaining an elegant and uncluttered user experience.

Parting thoughts

When it comes to productivity software — as in all things — I aim to be pragmatic. The tools and workflows I use all have trade-offs. I don’t like being tied too closely to any one cloud service or provider, and I like to maintain access to and backups of my own information. I choose to forego online access to more sensitive documents in favor of additional security and control, but I use Google, iCloud, and Dropbox for various aspects of my life due to their convenience and power. The choices and trade-offs are different for everyone. This is the system I am comfortable with for now, but it is likely to change dramatically as time goes on. 

“To my mind, climate is our great story. No other narrative envelopes all of humanity in quite the same way, forcing answers about the ethics of food, of oil, of technology, of economic security, of democratic republics and command capitalism, of colonialism and indigenous peoples, of who in the world is rich and who in the world is poor.”

Robinson Meyer, “Is Hope Possible After the Paris Agreement?“, The Atlantic

Experiments in Wardrobe

I acquire more “stuff” every year, especially now that I live in a house with a basement, attic, and garage. From time to time I go on a downsizing kick, lured by the appeal of minimalist living, tiny houses, and the search for quality goods. But it always feels like a losing battle against the forces of entropy and clutter.

About a year ago I identified wardrobe as an area ripe for attention and have achieved pleasing results. Step one was to move most of the clothes I rarely wear into boxes and store them in the basement. Step two was to revisit them six months later and either put items back into my rotation or donate them. Pretty much everything got donated. I’ve now gone through this exercise twice, and I have significantly fewer articles of clothing, all stuff I rarely or never wore anyway, including some expensive gifts that I had held on to for years.

Stack of T-ShirtsA few weeks ago I decided to go even farther. I have dozens of “vanity” t-shirts, most of which are showing their age. I pulled out the few that I wear most frequently and discovered that they are all the same model. It turns out you can buy this t-shirt brand online in a wide variety of colors (for screen printing) at incredibly low prices.  So I bought a dozen new t-shirts in several different colors colors, and have been wearing them exclusively for the past two weeks.

I’m really enjoying the change.  I don’t have to spend any time thinking about what to wear in the morning. The shirts are sufficiently decent that they don’t look out-of-place in my workplace or around town.  But I can also wear them for yard work or cooking and not worry, because if I ruin one I can always buy six more for the same price as I used to pay for one of my old tees.

I have also standardized on one type of khakis (I now own four pairs) and gotten rid of almost all my other pants.  And I’m slowly working up the nerve to dump any jacket, pullover, or sweater that I don’t wear at least a few times a month.

Of course I will still keep some formal attire for the (very) rare occasions when I need to actually dress nicely, and I have various seasonal garments like swim trunks, hiking pants, and ski clothes that can’t get quite the same treatment.  But I continue to be on the looking for opportunities to standardize and downsize wardrobe.  It’s probably not the right choice for most people, but I find that I get no joy out of fashion whereas having a “uniform” is quite freeing.  And — so far at least — my wife hasn’t complained. 😛

Danny and Meghan at the Breakers in Newport
Me in my “uniform” of LL Bean Pathfinder Canvas Cargo Pants, Gildan Ultra Cotton G200 polycotton t-shirt, and Adidas Premium Essentials Hoodie with Meghan on a recent trip to The Breakers in Newport, RI.

“I’ve been thinking about my parents, who are in their mid-60s. During my first 18 years, I spent some time with my parents during at least 90% of my days. But since heading off to college and then later moving out of Boston, I’ve probably seen them an average of only five times a year each, for an average of maybe two days each time. 10 days a year. About 3% of the days I spent with them each year of my childhood.

Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.”

Tim Urban, “The Tail End” on Wait But Why

Our dishwasher has been out of commission for a month now and Sears has visited four times. They won’t have the part that we (presumably) need to fix it for at least another month. Meghan called last night and gave ’em hell, and now we’re getting a new dishwasher gratis. Which is great and all, but I’m feeling pretty bad/conflicted about this otherwise perfectly good machine getting junked just because the service department can’t get their act together.

“Indeed, the Pew report suggests that polarization along religious lines may be increasing in the United States. While the percentage of Americans who say they don’t affiliate with any religious tradition is growing, those people who still identify with a religion are becoming even more devout.”

Tom Gjelten, “Poll Finds Americans, Especially Millennials, Moving Away From Religion“, NPR.

Disappointing but not surprising that at the same time more people are moving towards logic and enlightenment, those who remain devout are doubling down on ignorance.

“A future without human drivers is a long, long way off. But we’ll get there. No matter what you think. No matter what you hope. No matter how you feel about it. Because the efficient, unemotional, necessary logic of cars that operate without human error and instability is unquestionable.”

Mat Honan, “Google’s Cute Cars And The Ugly End Of Driving“, BuzzFeed.

I agree – automated cars are inevitable, and they will be more disruptive than anyone can image.


Pirate Cinema

Note: I wrote this entry in late 2012 after finishing the young adult novel Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow, a book that explores, among other things, the consequences of criminal penalties for civil acts like copyright infringement. I was thinking about civil liberties and internet freedoms and what I’ve chosen to do with my life. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the entry after writing it, so it sat for three years. Re-reading it now, the feelings and conflict I expressed still resonate.

I can get to feeling about Cory Doctorow the same way I often feel about Richard Stallman, the famous advocate for free and open-source computer software. Zealots. Troublemakers. Not everything is about The Man out to squash the little guy. Geez, I’m not evil just because I use Apple products! I respect your opinions on copyright and software, on free expression and privacy — but do you have to be so darn annoying about it?!

I suppose it is the same with anyone with a Cause. It makes the rest of us nervous, because we aren’t True Believers like they are. The long and short of it is that I have gotten older and supposedly wiser, and at some point I decided that the world is really complicated. Seeing lots of shades of gray makes it hard to get worked up about causes, which I suppose is why most people don’t.

I do care about this stuff. I care about it a great deal. I care about internet freedom, about privacy, about civil liberties, about remixing and free expression, about individual rights and blanket licenses, internet radio and everything else. I cared about it all through high school — I even took a summer course at UC Irvine in “Internet Law”, back when the whole field could be surveyed in 5 weeks! I followed mailing lists and message boards about the Napster and Kazaa court fights and the DMCA and the Communications Decency Act legislative battles.

When I had the opportunity in college to get an internship for my legal studies minor, I wrangled a placement at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, the original epicenter for scholarship in the field of internet law. And when I got my first job out of college, it was at Berkman as well, working alongside some of my heroes.

I thought I would be a public interest lawyer. I thought I would live and breathe this stuff. And I met a lot of very smart people in this field, and I respect them a great deal. But the pace of it didn’t work for me, someone built for high pressure and quick wins. The law is slow and plodding, a years- and decades-long synthesis of law review articles, amicus briefs, books, conferences, and winding cases. It works for many people, and its very good work indeed, but it was not going to work for me.

Now I’m in the fast-paced world of technology, wrapped up in fancy new trends like “DevOps” and “continuous integration” and “infrastructure as code”. There is lots of energy and lots to do. I feel busy and driven, but not the way I felt about internet law. I don’t have the same purpose — I never feel like the work I am doing has the last possibility of fundamentally affecting our culture or reshaping our society. No one is going to jail for abusing deployment frameworks, and no one is passing legislation telling me how I can or cannot administer a web server. The stakes just aren’t very high.

No one is going to jail for abusing deployment frameworks, and no one is passing legislation telling me how I can or cannot administer a web server.


I just finished Cory Doctorow’s latest novel for young adults, Pirate Cinema. The main character is a teenager in a near-future Britain whose (illegal?) video downloading and remixing gets his family “banned” from the internet. This leads to all sorts of serious consequences — his father loses his (online) job, his mother can’t apply (online) for her disability benefits, and his sister fails out of school due to being unable to research and do (online) homework. Embarrassed and ashamed, our young cyber-criminal runs away from home and ends up in London. There he builds a new life after taking up with a loose collection of anarchists, activists, and other down-on-their-luck free-thinkers. Eventually he spearheads a a campaign to overturn the draconian laws that got him in so much trouble in the first place.

It’s all a bit contrived, and some things fall in to place much too easily. Certainly the homeless life is glamorized to a degree I find unsettling. But the fundamental fear expressed in this pointed critique is sound. Yes, Big Content (also known as the entertainment industry) pushes for laws that protect their commercial interests at the expense of our culture. Yes, the penalties for victimless crimes of copyright infringement continue to become more and more harsh. And yes, this leads us down some pretty slippery slopes.

And frankly, it is a whole framework of thought that I have managed to relegate to the dustbin at the back of my brain, a big ball of stuff I believe deeply in but have carelessly shoved aside.

Cory Doctorow’s novel has given me a bit of fire back, and for that I thank him. It also gives me hope. Doctorow postulates a future in which the internet becomes so central to everything we do that the general public has no choice but to stand up and take a stand against the government and corporate control that is clamping down on us from all sides. Doctorow makes a persuasive argument as to why this sort of control is not only wrong, it is destructive to a free society. And he aims to persuade young people who are the most affected by these changes but not always cognizant of them. He is telling them they should care, and I hope his message takes root.

As a young kid I taught myself how to edit videos long before I taught myself how to program. I can only imagine that if I was born ten years later, in the age of high speed internet and much more powerful computers, I would have been a “remixer” myself. Heck, when I was young I saw the world as amazing and wonderful, the future as bright and thrilling and open for the taking. In short, I was just the sort of person liable to get caught in one of these copyright webs and have my life completely ruined.

I can blame my current cynicism on all sorts of things — endless war, recession, the general ennui that comes with growing older. I wish I could recapture some of that excitement, some of that optimism I had as a kid. What gets to me about Pirate Cinema is that by the end I was rooting for our young heroes to succeed, yet all the while convinced that he was writing to us from his eventual jail cell. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that as I read the final pages tears welled up in my eyes. Not because its the best book or the best story in the world, but because it reminded me about what I care about, and that things are worth fighting for, and that the bad guys don’t always win in the end.

For all that, it is not at all clear that our “hero” lives happily ever after. Doctorow acknowledges that youth can’t last forever, and even the most idealistic of us do have to grow up and face, dare I say it, a more complex, more nuanced world. It is up to each of us, then, to temper our wisdom with a streak of idealism, and to not forget about the causes and morals we hold dear.


Book of Mormon

I’m in San Francisco for a work conference and was able to snag a last-minute ticket to see the touring production of Book of Mormon at the beautiful Orpheum Theatre. I was sandwiched between a group of 47 lovely residents of an Oakland retirement community. The abundant crude humor in the show made this seating arrangement only slightly awkward.

The show was uproariously funny throughout, but was also laced with sad and even tragic stories. South Park veterans Matt Stone and Trey Parker did an amazing job of using humor to present a thorough and multi-layered social commentary. As I watched the show I kept wondering how much of the audience was grasping the deeply cynical and biting undercurrent of this show. I expect that many were not — and perhaps that in itself is just another joke, this time at the audience’s expense.

Early (and ongoing) humor plays off of Mormon beliefs and practices that are surprising or seem silly to non-Mormon audiences. But time and again the humor is predicated on absurd comparisons to more “mainstream” beliefs. For example, one song by a main character proclaims that “I believe that the Lord God created the universe.” The audience remains silent. He continues, “I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins.” No reaction. Then, “and I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America!” Uproarious laughter.

It makes no sense. It’s absurd. Who would believe that? Never stopping to think that the two preceding lines, from a non-Christian, would sound just as absurd. The verse ends with, “a Mormon just believes,” but isn’t that also mocking all others who “just believe” their own deeply held but never critically analyzed religious convictions?

A whole other class of criticism takes the form of upbeat and absurd songs that portray the suffering of the native Ugandans. In chipper tones and catchy music they tell of their children raped by warlords, family members dying of AIDS, and friends felled by preventable diseases like dysentery. The audience laughs along, but at times it becomes sporadic as particular lyrics hit a little close to home.

A memorable song dreams of the magical land of “Salt Lake City” as a place where the “goat meat is plentiful,” the “warlords are friendly,” there is a “Red Cross on every corner,” and “the people are open-minded.” We laugh, then we realize what we are laughing at — the longings of a poor child who can dream of nothing more than a slightly nicer version of the desolate village that is the only life she has ever known.

Interwoven with the stories of the “Africans” are a number of pokes at white Westerners — missionaries and others — who feel entitled to lecture native peoples on how they should be living, push them to change their lives in highly disruptive ways, and then abandon them to deal with the unexpected long-term consequences of the half-baked “improvements” on their own.

The overall theme of the Book of Mormon seems to me to be that well-intentioned, dedicated, and focused individuals can make a positive impact on the world around them, but that the strictures of organized religion often serve to get in the way of or actively subvert that impact. In that way I see it as a message of hope — our society’s accelerating move away from organized religious institutions need not imply that we will become less dedicated to improving the lives of our fellow man. Far from it. Without outdated doctrine and absurd rules getting in the way, real and lasting impacts may finally be achievable.

Many will no doubt disagree with this interpretation. People often tell me that my relentless positivity about our ability to make the world a better place is absurd. But I continue to take to heart John Perry Barlow’s words that groundless hope is the only kind worth having.

The Fallen of World War II

This is a gobsmackingly incredible visual exploration of deaths related to World War II and other conflicts.  You’ll start watching and it just keeps getting more insane, and you can’t stop until the end.  Well worth the 18 minute run time. I thought I understood the scale of the conflict — to the extent anyone can — but I had no idea.

The Engineer’s Lament: Two ways of thinking about automotive safety

Malcolm Gladwell’s look into how automotive safety recalls work, and don’t. But hidden inside is a look at how we examine and evaluate risk and where we place priorities. And the sometimes insurmountable gulf between what engineers see and what normal, emotional people see. And the consequences in safety for how we prioritize and deal with public safety issues. A good read.

Geeking Out

A week of disappointment with the Apple Watch

I got up at 3am to pre-order the Apple Watch and mine arrived on release day. My justification was simple — I have found the FitBit activity trackers to be useful but limited, and a more comprehensive device seemed like a great upgrade.

Unlike the many glowing reviews, I have found Apple’s much-hyped new gadget to be nothing but trouble. My litany of complaints is vast, so I will focus on a few major pain points that might dissuade others from purchasing this device until the next version is released.

Third-party app support
Third party app support is universally poor. I have not yet found a single third-party app that works well, they are all slow to load, quick to crash, and often fall out of sync with their phone apps. Apparently when the watch goes to sleep the watch app loses connection with the phone app, so things can’t just finish processing or loading in the background. You constantly have to stand there like a dope staring at your wrist waiting for something to happen.

The “glances” (cards) in the watch app for quick updates are also problematic for the same reason. Even Apple’s built-in glances, such as weather and stocks, do not update in the background, so I often find myself seeing yesterday’s weather or an out-of-date version of my todo list. Because I can’t trust the data to be accurate, I find myself not even bothering to use glances.

Watch faces
If you want a “digital” watch face with additional data (“complications”) rather than a pseudo-analog one, there is only one option. The level of customization is actually quite limited — you can’t put the time in the middle, for example, and while you can show your next calendar event or the phase of the moon, you can’t show your daily step count or any other third party app data. The calendar complication can only link out to Apple’s built in calendar app, the weather complication to Apple’s weather app, etc. There is no third-party integration possible, so if you like using Dark Skies to know when it is going to rain or Things for task management or basically any other of the thousands of third-party apps, there is no way to integrate them into your watch display.

It is very difficult to tell the difference between a phone notification that is not actionable, a watch notification that can be tapped to get into an app, and the app displays themselves. The whole interface is confusing in that way — am I in a notification, an app, a glance? Will swiping work, or not? Tapping? It is complete inconsistent. And it is very easy to get lost or frustrated, tapping the screen repeatedly only to find nothing happening. Why tap repeatedly? Because sometimes in apps you need to tap multiple times to hit the tiny touch targets. And sometimes you hit the wrong one, end up somewhere else, and have no obvious way to get back.

General bugginess and unreliability
The built-in health tracking is extremely buggy. Sometimes it tells me it is “time to stand” while I am standing. Sometimes it tells me to stand when I’m in the car driving at 60 miles per hour. Sometimes it tells me I achieved a fitness goal while I’m in the middle of a run, knocking me out of my running app, which then crashes and will not reconnect with my phone, so I’m frantically navigating through the tiny app launcher while trying to keep up my pace. The scroll wheel (err, “digital crown”) gets mucked up and won’t turn until I run it under water. The maps app takes forever to update with my current location. Sometimes I get buzzes for notifications but then none display. Sometimes I send a text message reply and the whole watch freezes for 30 seconds. A couple times I’ve had to hold down both buttons to restart the watch because it got completely stuck.

If I’m going to wear a device on my wrist, I want it to integrate into my day. I want it to be effortless. I want it to show me the information I need when I need it. I don’t want to fiddle. I want the apps I already use to easily integrate and work well. I want to be able to hide the many apps that I don’t care about, making it easier to find the ones I do. I don’t want spurious notifications. I don’t want a watch that crashes.

The Apple Watch, in my experience, is a failure at its basic purpose. Even the buttons — there are two, one of which is dedicated to sending your friends drawings, which I will never do. There is no way to assign that button to something I might actually want to use, like a dedicated way to get to a single app, or back to the watch face.

Luckily, almost all of the problems I have run into are software related, so I can only hope that Apple will remedy them in software updates in the future. But will that be anytime soon? And will the updates work with this watch, or will I have to buy a newer model? In the case of the Apple Watch, it does not pay to be an early adopter.