I haven’t written anything here in a while, but that’s not because I’m being lazy. Life is pretty jam-packed full of stuff right now, and by the time I sit down in front of this empty page, I’m usually too tired to organize any thoughts.

Work is going full-steam and I’ve got a couple of new projects I’m in charge of creating that could be very fun and interesting to produce. This week marks the beginning of the “flexible work policy,” which means simply that we are expected to be back in the office two days a week. So I have to dust off my nice shoes and start ironing my button-down shirts again to go in on Tuesday.

Meanwhile we’re burning the evening hours on a freelance project for a friend, which has sharpened my Illustrator skills and will help pay off our upcoming vacation and a bunch of bills. It’s been a challenging mixture of project management and basic technical skill, for which Jen and I have joined our Voltron powers to accomplish; I wish I could say it was exciting stuff to share, but it’s really not. We’re happy for the work even if it’s been draining at times, and I’ll admit I haven’t enjoyed sitting at my desk for 12+ hours a day.

I drove the OG-V down to Lexington Park on Saturday to visit Bob. I just put four new tires on her and did the front brakes, and she’s driving like a new car, even though she’s nearing 162K on the odometer. The weather was terrible on the way down, but by the time I pulled into his driveway it had stopped raining and an hour later the sun started peeking out of the clouds. After I went  through a bunch of bills and did some housekeeping, he was happy to get out and go for tacos at a little hole-in-the-wall stand we found a couple of weeks ago, who make the best al pastor I’ve eaten since I was in Mexico City. We ran some errands and I fixed a couple of small things at the house, and then I hit the road for home in the evening.

Date posted: March 4, 2024 | Filed under general | Leave a Comment »

This article is an exhaustively documented dive into those “product reviews” that come up in Google searches which all seem to feature the same photos, quotes from the same authors, and link to the same crappy products. The TL;DR:summation is that private equity firms have bought most of the old trusted media entities, turned them into zombie digital properties, and are trading on their old brand names to game Google’s search rankings and fool consumers into buying shit products that don’t work well. Worse, Google seems disinterested in fixing any of this.

Date posted: February 22, 2024 | Filed under general | Leave a Comment »

Yesterday I spent more money in one day than I have since I bought this house, and while part of me is thrilled, the other part is a little queasy. In the morning over coffee, I locked in plane tickets for a trip to Portugal in the early summer, right after Finn gets out of school. We’ve got friends who own an AirBnB in the city of Porto, and we locked in a date with them last week. I’ve got a line on a house sitter for Hazel, and I’m making those inquiries this week to reserve his time. Normally, I’m lousy at planning things like this out far in advance, but I’m trying to learn from past mistakes this year, and when these opportunities arise, you have to jump on them.

In the afternoon, after careful consideration and an assist from Dr. Gebler in the negotiation phase, we bought a new car to replace the Accord. This is a 2024 Honda CR-V EX in Canyon River Blue, optioned out with the same features the 2006 has (electric everything, moonroof, cruise, etc.) plus heated front seats, an electric driver’s seat, dual climate controls, lane-keeping assist, and a backup camera. We did a quick test drive to make sure the windshield didn’t make Jen sick, then pulled the trigger and got it for $50 over dealer invoice. The salesman couldn’t have been nicer, and frankly the process was much smoother than I was expecting. The only hiccup was waiting for the detailing crew to get it ready for me. After everyone else left for home (it was a complicated commute involving two cars and late homework). I drove it home solo while talking to Mom with the hands-free phone hookup and felt like I was on the bridge of the starship Enterprise. And for an automatic, it’s really nice to drive.

Future plans for it include aftermarket remote start, a set of Honda rails and roof racks, trailer hitch, and rubber floor mats throughout. And I’m not a fan of the stock wheels; I’ll have to keep an eye out for a set of these at the pick and pull yards around town.

Meanwhile, the ’06 is in the driveway patiently waiting for new tires and a clutch rebuild, which will come first on the list once money issues get sorted out.

Date posted: January 30, 2024 | Filed under cars, general, honda, travel | Leave a Comment »

I’ve got a plastic bin in the basement with a stack of journals, notebooks and sketchbooks that goes back to my college days. I’m sure at some point I’ll recycle the majority of them (hopefully before we move out of this house) but for now they’re a fun physical time machine that shows what I was focusing on at any given point in time. At the top of that stack are a series of softcover unruled Moleskines, which have served the purpose of keeping daily notes, project sketches, receipts, and other things my brain isn’t big enough to contain.

I’ve dabbled with other notebooks but none of them have matched the shape and feel of a Moleskine—I’m a very tactile guy when it comes to my paper and pens/pencils, and I like the weight and tooth of the paper—rough enough to feel good under a pencil but not too rough to collect dirt easily—and the binding, which is a tough polyurethane that has stood up to my messy hobbies and lifestyle. The only two issues I’ve ever had were when I spilled water in the hospital and soaked one of my books completely—it wound up smelling like the chemicals coming out of my chemo-soaked pores and it was enough to make me sick, so I replaced it. The second was with this last book, where the elastic closing band came off only months after I’d started using it. (I wound up using one of two high-quality rubber drive belts I took from Rob’s two junked Sony 100-disc changers, which fit the cover almost perfectly.) I don’t like the hardcovers for reasons—I tend to tuck these in my waistband when I’m running to Lowe’s or tucked in a stack of stuff I’m carrying, so small and flexible is key.

I reached the end of my current book right before Christmas; doing a little archaeology I dated its beginning to July 2021, as I was painting shutters on the house and gearing up for a trip to Delaware to have the Scout looked over. I think 1.5-2 years per each book is pretty average; there’s something satisfying to see each page filled (and in some cases overfilled) all the way to the end.

Date posted: January 5, 2024 | Filed under general | Leave a Comment »

Defector ran a very interesting article on TwitchCon, the annual gathering of gaming streamers, and the author did a very good job of breaking down the harsh financial realities of making money streaming online:

After data on Twitch’s payouts to creators leaked in 2021, one analysis found only the top 1,332 streamers on the entire platform made at least the US median household income. Streamers below that level are far less likely to have the sort of off-platform sponsorship or ad deals that can add significant income.

I keep getting emails, one every couple of days, where someone has subscribed to my YouTube feed. Many of the creators I follow there have subscription numbers in the hundreds of thousands; they are also posting new videos every day.  I don’t think I could keep up with that schedule.

Date posted: November 25, 2023 | Filed under general, shortlinks | Leave a Comment »

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.

Date posted: November 23, 2023 | Filed under general, honda | 1 Comment »

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.

Date posted: November 18, 2023 | Filed under art/design, geek, general | Leave a Comment »

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.

Date posted: September 25, 2023 | Filed under general | Leave a Comment »

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.

Date posted: September 4, 2023 | Filed under general | Leave a Comment »

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.

Date posted: June 29, 2023 | Filed under general | Leave a Comment »