I’ve been dreaming about what kind of new car I’d buy for years now, after we bought a Honda Accord to replace Jen’s Saturn. The thinking then was that we’d have two kids and I’d need a commuter with enough space to move them and all their crap, and I wanted something that got reasonable gas mileage. For some reason I focused on a midsize sedan, and we looked at several Accords at the local CarMax. This decision was also influenced by a trip to Gettysburg I took with my folks; my Dad had just come back from a serious health scare and wanted to do some things on his bucket list while he was feeling healthy, and I needed something big enough and easy enough for him to enter and exit without a child seat. We looked at several Accords and I settled on a gray off-lease LX model with the barest of options available.
It’s been a solid car for our family since we got it, rarely complaining and completely dependable over the course of 60,000 miles and eight years. I paid it off as quickly as possible, and without that monthly hit to the bank account I’ve been maintaining it carefully, knowing it would be with us until the wheels fell off. But it’s a sedan and not a wagon (I am solidly a wagon person), the steering wheel is completely uncomfortable for long-distance travel, the passthrough from the trunk to the rear seat is tiny (big enough for a pair of skis or four 2×4″s) and the headlights are way too dim. and, it’s a sedan. I’ve been wrestling with the idea of replacing it for something else that we all like better (Jen is not a fan) and which might provide more utility vs. the lack of a car payment for several years now. I clearly missed the most obvious gift I could have been given: sky-high resale rates on used cards during the pandemic. Oh, well, I thought. I’ll just keep on keepin’ on with the Gray Ghost here.
[cue ominous foreshadowing music]
Finn and I loaded up for a trip to Mom’s house for Thanksgiving and set out Tuesday afternoon, and made our way through rain and fog and the darkness in Pennsylvania with little trouble. We were about 3 miles from Mom’s house, Finn was asleep in the seat next to me, and I had a podcast playing in my AirPods. A flash appeared from my left and suddenly the windshield filled with a very large buck, who we hit at 65mph pretty much head-on. Both airbags blew immediately and the car slewed to the left; I turned into the skid but all four tires had lost grip and we did a 360 until we were sitting in the fast lane facing back over the other way. Finn woke up and asked why the airbags were in her lap, and I asked her to roll the window down to help air out the car. I tried to call my Mom but the phone failed to connect, and found that I couldn’t call anyone in my contact list. I did call 911 and while I was talking to that lady a cruiser passed us on the other side, hit the lights, and made a U-turn to get to us.
Finn and I waited while the cops set up some flares, and another officer loaded us into his cruiser to take us over to the Costco to wait for Mom. I sat in the perp cage and gave him my info and he gave me a printout of the police report to pass on to the insurance agency. We both made out fine; there’s no injury at all other than a slight burn on my right hand from the airbag, but the car is totaled. I stopped over to the towing lot to empty it out the next morning and was shocked to see how much it had pushed the radiator backwards into the engine. She isn’t coming back from this one.
With a heavy heart I emptied out all of our stuff, going so far as to pull the jack and tools from the trunk and all of our registration information, and left her to her fate in a rural impound lot miles from home. She was a good car and treated us well, and I’m sad this was the way she went out.
So now I’ve got to figure out what we’re going to replace her with. I have looked longingly at crew cab pickups for years, and the utility of having a four-door vehicle with a bed outside the crew compartment is very tempting. I’d go with a mid-size Tacoma or maybe even a Ford Maverick depending on their price. Another option is to double down and get a newer CR-V, although their interiors have gone more upscale and the U in utility has been downgraded somewhat. Jen has requested a manual transmission but the options there are few and far between; basically we’d need to buy an astronomically-priced sportscar or one of three crossover-type vehicles (hello there, Bronco) but she doesn’t want a Subaru.
I’m going to take some more time with this decision and try to find a vehicle we’ll all be happy with for a long time; working from home means there are only a few times when not having a car will jam someone up—but it’s going to be tricky.
The New Yorker ran an issue on AI this month, and one of the articles inside is by a programmer who has been wrestling with what ChatGPT means for his career and balancing the old paradigm of figuring out a problem for yourself through code vs. figuring out how to speak to AI to help develop that code faster. He talks about the steep learning curve he faced when starting out, and how persistence and determination help push through the hardest parts of learning that new language; how rewarding it is to sit back and think through a problem, then be able to write the code properly to solve it. It’s like painting or cooking or any one of a number of difficult skills that take time to master: there’s a particular satisfaction that comes with finishing that artwork or serving that food where everyone appreciates the craft. The successful completion of the struggle is what keeps us going. But now a bot seems to be able to do the same coding work without effort, in minutes.
Bodies of knowledge and skills that have traditionally taken lifetimes to master are being swallowed at a gulp. Coding has always felt to me like an endlessly deep and rich domain. Now I find myself wanting to write a eulogy for it.
The author is rightfully worried that his career will disappear if all we have to do is type a question into a box and have the box write the code for us. But he comes to realize that this new technology speeds up the drudgery of writing the code, and we’re still using our brains to solve problems; the box is helping by speeding up the process—and in that process, we’re learning a new kind of language: the translation. We have to learn the language the box needs to complete our requests properly. And you have to know how to think about programming, and understand what proper output is, to know how to ask the right questions.
I spent a lot of time in the late 90’s learning a couple of different languages through books; the first was a language called Lingo used by an application called Macromedia Director. I started using it after learning the basics in a continuing ed course at MICA and got good enough that my boss at the time (who was smart enough to know that the Web was the future, even if he was a lousy boss) hired me out to make an animated screensaver for a government agency. I read the Lingo book and learned enough to build a primitive randomizer to play different clips so that the screensaver showed something different each time it looped. When I was finished and my code worked, I was quietly stunned. A new world had opened up, the one my Dad had been telling me about (and which I resisted until college, when it became clear that this was the future) and I saw my place in it for the first time.
With that experience, I got my first web design gig. I learned some Perl first, and then PHP as I got further into producing my own sites. I was never completely fluent in either language—I couldn’t sit down and write a web application from scratch—but I could read and understand what things were doing, and I knew enough to fix things that were broken and add logic to change the behavior of the apps we worked on. And most importantly, I could talk to the programmers who could build things, which is a skill all on its own. I was very good at translating the concept to the people making the code.
Had I been a smarter man I would have focused solely on learning and mastering PHP, and I might have pursued a different career path. But my skills were more suited to UI/UX and I made a good living in that specialty for years until I burned out. Around that time I began to notice that the shop I worked for was leaning more heavily on templatized solutions: instead of estimating 80-100 hours for someone like me to generate two concepts, mood boards, and the designs to flesh out all of those requirements, they were finding templates they could modify to suit their needs and banking that extra billing as profit. What had once been a bespoke craft I’d trained myself to do was becoming commoditized, and I was lucky to get out when I did.
I don’t think AI is going to be able to take over art direction or brand creation anytime soon, and ChatGPT certainly can’t walk into a room and convince ten skeptical personalities to approve a concept or mediate a discussion; I’m thankful I’m not walking into programming or web design fresh out of school. And I’m extremely glad I’m not a writer by trade.
I sat down with my ChatGPT account last night and asked it to produce a couple different examples of PHP code to do simple tasks: create a form field to capture several inputs and write them to a text document; build a randomizer to display a different image on a page at reload, and write an AppleScript to resize an image. It wrote simple code that did exactly what I asked and worked flawlessly. I can see how asking it to build something with more functionality would be challenging, and require some iteration to learn how the AI needs to be asked, but it’s frightening how fast and easy the bot did its job. I’m going to practice my translation and see if I can make it do bigger better things.
Back before Finn was born one of the things on my bucket list was to learn to ride a motorcycle. If I was to buy a motorcycle, it would (still) be something simple to operate, multi-role, and easy to fix. My friend John told me about the Kawasaki KLR series, an enduro-style bike with a single cylinder engine (affectionately called a thumper) and, in the first generation, shockingly little in terms of electronics or mechanical doo-dads to break down. I never got around to lessons and I don’t have the budget or time for a used motorcycle (nor do I possess a death wish in this, my fifth decade on Earth) but I still can dream. I’d read somewhere that the military was experimenting with highly modified multi-fuel versions of the KLR650, and an article popped up on The Drive about a surplus unit and the reasons why it’s so difficult to find someone who could fix one. Fascinating stuff.
When I was a kid I watched all the James Bond movies and dreamed of building my own secret lairs inside a volcano or under a mountain or floating out at sea, where I could dock my yachts and helicopters and do Rich People Things. I’d build them out of LEGO or blocks and spend days designing them and building stories around how I’d defend them and where I’d put the helipad.
Poking around on a new military history site the other day, I followed a rabbit hole that led me to a site documenting the transfer of US surplus warplanes to foreign countries after WWII. In the late ’40’s the US gave some amphibious scout bombers to Uruguay, who based them on an island fortress outside Montevideo. It’s an island big enough to host a spacious hangar, outdoor apron, and seaplane ramp, some barracks housing, and not much else. Looking at the pictures and some YouTube video tours of the abandoned facility, all I can think of is that this would make a stellar Evil Lair or secret mission base. If I had stupid Jimmy Buffet money I’d see if Uruguay would sell it to me, then fix it up and base my amphibious planes there. One thing is for sure: I’d put new glass in those giant hangar doors and skylights and have the most AMAZING living room anybody ever sat in.
A couple of weeks ago I took advantage of a great sale and purchased an entry-level MIG welder from Eastwood. It arrived the day we left for Ohio, and it’s only been the last week since I’ve been able to get it set up and tested out.
Most of what I intend to do with it is repair sheet metal and some basic fabrication. I’m limited by several things, which means I need to be smart and creative: I’ve only got a 120V service in the garage, I don’t have a lot of room for a big setup, and, of course, I’m trying to do this inexpensively. I’d started by looking at Hobart and Miller units, and while they all had their benefits I found muscling Brian’s beautiful Hobart unit around the garage with a 125cf tank to be difficult at best and completely impractical at worst.
So I kept my search focused on a 140amp unit that ran off a standard 120V plug. The Miller and Hobart units were all based around a heavy transformer while the Eastwood was designed around an inverter—lighter and smaller, at around 25 lbs. And with a 3 year warranty I figured I was in good shape. On Tuesday I drove over to the shitty side of Baltimore to a welding supply house and bought an 80cf tank of 75/25 argon/C02 and hefted it on to the back seat of the Honda. Driving home through Curtis Bay I saw what Canton was like 20 years before I moved there—downtrodden rowhomes with a bar or package goods store on every corner.
Back in the garage I assembled the whole unit as per the instructions, flipped the switch on, and put some basic beads down on scrap metal. Success! This evening I split some 22ga. steel in half and practiced tacking it together while I dialed in the settings. It’s going to take a lot more practice but I think I can get the hang of it when I’ve got some more metal to work on.
I think I’m going to start by repairing the crustiest of my Scout fenders and practice tacking things together before I get adventurous with the Travelall, but I’ve got a really good setup for the fall and winter to play with.
I haven’t been writing much here in the last couple of months. It’s partially because my focus has been on grinding through work, and the spare time I’ve got has been either being with family o throwing myself at the truck for mental heath reasons.
I’m really good at organizing information, structuring it visually, and making it presentable to the audience—thirty years of experience have taught me how to do it in my sleep. Currently, I spend all of my available time at work writing email to move things from point A to point B and meeting with people to follow up on the emails moving things. It’s been rare that I get to make or design anything. I knew that taking this temporary role on, and I’ve accepted it, but it’s very hard for me to leave work feeling like I did anything useful or worthwhile. I think I’ve mentioned previously on these pages that I’m a task-oriented guy, so open-ended threads stretching out for weeks or months with no resolution short-circuits my brain.
So I push away from my desk at 6PM, spend some time with the girls over dinner, and then head out to the driveway to put wrenches on the truck in the hope that I can continue making forward progress. I’ll drag stuff out of the garage and work until it gets too dark to see anything, and then come inside to put Finn to bed. By the time I sit down to relax I don’t have a whole lot to say or any desire to write. Most of what I am writing is a recap of work to the truck (mostly to keep track of what I’m doing and the progress I’ve made) so I can keep my thoughts organized.
I’ll be stepping back to my regular role at the end of June, which will help my mental health immensely, and hopefully then I’ll have some brainspace to post here more frequently.
I got an invitation from Apple to join their new Savings account, tied to my Apple Card, and thought I’d give it a try, as it’s got a higher rate than pretty much any other account I have open besides my index funds. I had to update my phone and then head into the Wallet app, where I was surprised to find I’d already amassed a decent amount of money through the cash back program. I read the disclosures, approved the account, and now I’ve got a savings account earning 4.5%. I’ve been very happy with my Apple Card since I opened it, using it for gas stations and larger purchases I wanted buyer protection on, and it’s been super easy to manage and use. I’m going to keep funneling the cash back balance into the savings account and see how much it grows.
I’ve gone for hours sitting through meetings as Acting Co-Director for the last few months tethered to my computer, and I figured it was time to spend $15 to be able to move around every hour or so. I bought a pair of cheap earbuds from Amazon during a lightning deal. These earbuds put into stark contrast just how good my AirPods Pro are. Just the noise pass through function alone is worth the money. Using these earbuds as a microphone is annoying after years with a more superior product; it’s like having a conversation with your hands planted over your ears. The bass response is negligible. But for the money it’s a small price to pay for the freedom to get up and stretch.
When I was a kid in New Jersey we had six channels to watch: the three main networks, the Fox affiliate (FOX 5, before it was Nazis, home of the Godzilla creature feature at Halloween and It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas), Channel 29 (home of Star Blazers and M*A*S*H reruns), and PBS. One day I caught a show on PBS that had a guy dressed in odd pseudo-military clothing who taught kids how to draw, and the first time I saw it I was VERY interested in watching the rest of the shows. Unfortunately it never followed a schedule that made any sense and so I wound up only seeing a handful of episodes.
Fast forward to college, when my friend Tim and I were talking about random stuff and shared a common memory from youth: the drawing show on PBS. Turns out it was produced here in Maryland by MPT, and turns out he was a guest on the show as a kid for one of the episodes!
Fast forward to last night,when the same subject came up and I was talking about it with my sister-in-law. I had to find it, and the Internet provided: a series called Secret City, where the host tought kids to draw all kinds of different things. Enjoy:
The church Jen has been attending since Finn was a baby is very progressively Presbyterian, and they’ve been doing a lot of outreach with other churches and religions in the area. They recently organized an Iftar dinner with a local mosque and sent out invitations to the congregation. I haven’t been to church in a long while, as responsibilities and life have gotten in the way (and frankly, I prefer to spend my spare time elsewhere) but we were all intrigued at the idea of fellowship with members of a different religion and learning more about Ramadan.
We got cleaned up and walked across the street before sunset, and sat in the sanctuary while the Imam and our pastor gave a quick overview of Ramadan and Easter, respectively. Then we waited while the muslim congregation got up to fill their plates (as they’d been fasting since sunrise) and followed them in line. They’d set up tables with slips of colored paper next to each plate; this was designed to invite mingling of the two congregations. Jen and Finn found two seats at one table and I split off to another, where I was seated next to a couple and their brother. We listened to the call to prayer and ate delicious food. Our table got along well, and I learned about the country of Turkey, Istanbul, world architecture, and Turkish baklava—which I now prefer miles above Greek baklava—made with incredibly flavorful pistachios. I very much enjoyed our evening and we were some of the last to leave—after helping break tables and chairs down we waddled home and pretty much went right to bed.
On Saturday Jen and I ran some errands in the morning after getting breakfast with the dog, and picked up some new paint for the blue bedroom. That room has been due for a refresh for years now, and the girls picked out a shade of coral to mix things up. I put a quart up on the wall to see how it works, and everything is much brighter in there now. So I’ll finish with the wall color and then repaint all the trim, finally repair a poorly-fitted board on the threshold, and get it ready for new furniture.
Sunday I picked up my brother-in-law and drove down to Lexington Park where we were tasked with getting the bathroom closer to being finished. I brought a new medicine cabinet and light down in the car, and we installed both of those on the wall. I’d sandblasted and painted the original A/C register so we put that back in, finished off the baseplate, installed a new marble threshold, and hooked up the sink supply and drain. Both original valve bodies began leaking almost immediately, so the next time I’m down there I’ll have to replace both of those. But the whole thing is much further along and nearing completion.