Thursday, July 31, 2008

Remaining silent

I was raised to believe that the police were friendly, and I’ve known genuinely decent and friendly cops. I’ve chatted with plenty of cops on street corners, asked them for directions, reported crimes, and offered witness statements. I never used to worry about talking to the police, because I never had anything to hide.

I still have nothing to hide, but I’ve learned that it is perilous to talk to a law enforcement officer of any variety. That still distresses me, because our society is very poorly served by a system where honest and law-abiding citizens face serious risks from talking to the police. But there are in fact numerous reasons that every defense attorney will tell you to never talk to the police, even if you have done nothing wrong and even if you want to tell the police the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Some of those reasons are laid out clearly, if quickly, by law professor James Duane in a 27-minute lecture. You may follow his reasoning and still disagree with his conclusions, as do many of the commenters on that page, simply because his conclusions are distressing. I’ll just point out that Duane goes out of his way to assume an ideal world in which the police officer you talk to is completely honest and well-intentioned, and his conclusions hold even in such a world.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

As time goes by

A dear friend of mine has written a thoughtful reflection about the costs of keeping and severing our ties to friends from days gone by. It is not easy to maintain friendships with those who do not live near us, or even with all those who do. I certainly claim no answers, but I do know that the questions are worth reflection.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Photo by Michael

We saw several stunningly large rhododendrons in Rockport, MA, a few weeks ago. Sometimes a plant seems to find the ultimate microclimate and attains absurd proportions, and these were such a case. A homeowner saw us admiring one at the street and invited us to see the one in their back yard: 15 feet tall, 25 feet across, covered in blooms.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Avoid HP LaserJets

Memo to self: stop buying HP LaserJets and HP toner cartridges. I know, I own two HP LaserJets right now, and I’ve owned at least five other HP LaserJets, and I’ve convinced plenty of other people to buy HP LaserJets, and I’ve been using and troubleshooting HP LaserJets since they were invented. That creates a comfort level that has always persuaded me to only look at HP whenever I needed a new laser printer. But when I buy professional-level printers that are supposed to handle at least 25,000 pages per month and I only use them for 10% of that, I expect them to be reasonably reliable. Instead they’ve become disposable pieces of crap, and HP’s support has become distinctly unprofessional.

The almost new $200 HP toner cartridge that dumped toner all over my rug and me this afternoon? The one with the lifetime warranty? HP has no process for honoring that warranty. The pleasant woman at OfficeMax was dumbfounded to discover that HP treated her just as badly. She didn’t really believe that HP had bounced me around for close to an hour without resolving anything until HP then bounced her around for close to an hour without resolving anything. She’d been about to buy an HP computer and monitor herself, and that won’t be happening.

I’ve been growing disenchanted with the HP JetDirect network cards that cost $150 when they should cost $20 and tend to fry themselves after a year or two, the fuser assemblies that can’t handle cardstock despite the printer specs, the terrible HP software that is user-hostile on every level, and the increasing costs of their toner cartridges. But HP’s customer “support” today was incompetent and nasty, and that’s unacceptable.

On the bright side, the copy center in Lisa’s building loaned me their toner vacuum overnight. That was very kind of them, and has mitigated the damage to my rug. And now I know about toner vacuums, which are a handy $300 toy to have in the neighborhood.

Someday I’ll post reminiscences of the early days of laser printers, when BlackLightning created transfer toner and encouraged an aftermarket subculture that wasn’t afraid to tinker. Their quirky and personal Flash magazine was the Make magazine for laser printers. Two decades later, HP has tech support reps who have to flip through a book of phone scripts to figure out what toner is and a switchboard that’s convinced that laser printers and LaserJets are completely different.

Update on 7/28: OfficeMax has decided to replace the defective HP toner cartridge that they sold me, though they’re not sure when the replacement will arrive. American Express will continue with their chargeback procedure until we confirm that OfficeMax has actually replaced the defective merchandise. HP, who over several hours of phone calls refused to provide any way to obtain any warranty service, called me up today to tell me that they decided that their lifetime warranty is only good for 30 days and that they don’t think the receipt that OfficeMax provided is real. And then they threatened to call me again tomorrow. HP’s behavior is not even remotely acceptable. It’s unfortunate that HP can get away with treating people this way, at least until HP declares bankruptcy or HP’s stock plummets even further.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Not so much a question as a comment

The comments widget that displays recent comments on the side of House out of Focus has been broken for a couple of weeks. I don’t know why. It is not an anti-comment move on my part; I just don’t know how to fix it. Rest assured that comments still work, old comments are not lost, and new comments are certainly welcome.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Clam festival

We drove up to the Yarmouth Clam Festival this past weekend, and it really is a great fair. Lots of crafts vendors from around the region, a parade that includes a huge bagpipe band and three sets of Shriners in little vehicles, fireworks, and a carnival with a great ferris wheel. The weather was flaky, with intermittent storms and an extremely rainy parade on Friday, but everything cleared up perfectly for the fireworks on Saturday night. We rode the ferris wheel afterwards, and the view that will linger from the weekend is the one of my wife sitting across from me in the round ferris wheel car, the bright and noisy fairgrounds slowly receding and reapproaching, and the huge orange moon increasingly lighting a striped section of sky. And me holding on to the center pole for dear life. I don’t really like heights, but I’d repeat that evening any time.

Ralph Pill vs. Home Depot

The problem with Home Depot is that they really are cheaper and have better policies. I had to pick up 4 15-amp single-pole arc fault circuit breakers this morning, and my choices were Ralph Pill electric supply company or Home Depot. Ralph Pill: $46 each (at their discounted price), 20% restocking fee if I return them. Home Depot: $35 each, no restocking fee.

I’d prefer to shop at Ralph Pill on principle. They’re a small regional chain instead of a huge national chain. They probably treat their employees better. I’d love to find some more rationalizations to support what feels like a more local business. But adding over 30% to the price is significant, and the restocking fee is particularly unfriendly. I decided to spend my money at Ralph Pill this time, but I’m afraid I’ll be back at Home Depot next time.

On the bright side, we’ll have 4 circuits that will be less likely to burn down the house. And you can’t put a price on that.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Does your bank trust you? Do you trust your bank?

COCC, who provide services for numerous small banks, helpfully lists some of the suspicious things you might do with your bank account.

Remember, if you see something, say something. In that spirit, here are some recent suspicious behaviors by my bank:

  • All branches closed on a weekday with no explanation
  • Phone lines not working on a weekday
  • Failing to reply to queries sent through their web site
  • Failing to reply to written correspondence
  • Reducing check images on statements to 2 inches across, rendering them essentially unreadable
  • Losing wire transfer details
  • Prominently displaying their robbery protocols folder behind the counter

Cash flow

It’s got to be tough to be a web host right now. You have an enormous and growing electric bill, with no real way to hedge those cost increases. Your data pipes may be on a contracted rate, and computer hardware costs aren’t increasing rapidly, but that electric bill is going to eat you alive. Meanwhile, you get paid a monthly amount by your customers, and there’s tremendous pressure not to increase that monthly amount by much. Rate increases defeat customer inertia in driving down customer retention rates. And many of your customers prepay for a year of service in exchange for a discount, so there’s no hope of more money coming in from those customers in order to cover your increased costs. And you still have to meet payroll and tax obligations and other expenses.

One common desperation move when facing cash flow problems is to stall your payments to suppliers and try to accelerate your income. For example, you could ask your customers who normally pay for the upcoming year of service in January to pay you the previous July instead. That will help you for several months, because you’ll have all that money in the bank. Customers will be happy, because they’ve just locked in a future year of service at current rates, which seems like a good idea in an inflationary environment. Just don’t ask your accountant, who should be asking you how you plan to keep paying your bills next year when none of the usual money is coming in from your annual renewals.

My web host is pushing customers to prepay for 2009 web hosting now (instead of next January) and to prepay for many years of domain hosting now. I think they have a fair bit of breathing space, because they could still save some money by reducing their support staff. But I think it’s time to start exploring alternatives. When a business fails due to cash flow problems after already accelerating their income beyond all reason, it fails fast.

P.S. I’m not naming the web host, because I want other customers to continue paying them and signing up with them. Even if they’re not in financial trouble now, they will be if they appear to be having cash flow problems. A perfectly healthy business can easily be taken down by suppliers canceling credit terms and customers fleeing, just like a bank run can take down a financially solvent bank. So while the general problem is interesting to ponder, my bank is just fine and my web host has no problems. Keep repeating that, kids, or Tinkerbell will die.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Gasoline, heating oil, natural gas, airline tickets, beer, food, fertilizer, haircuts, health insurance, and shipping are all about 20%-25% more expensive than a year ago. I’ve never lived through this sort of rapid inflation, and I’m not actually sure how to think about it. Especially since wages are not increasing.

On the personal front, I can obviously reduce some expenditures. Travel less, drive less, eat out less, put off major purchases. Having money in the bank starts to feel foolish, since the value of that money is dropping rapidly. Not having money in the bank is risky, since we’d like to pay our bills.

On the business front, should I raise the price on books already in my catalog? Add an inflation surcharge to mimic the fuel surcharges and energy surcharges and baggage surcharges and ad infinitum surcharges on everything I buy? But since I don’t want this sort of inflation to be happening, shouldn’t I refrain from contributing to it? How big a raise should I plan on for my employee, given that his costs are also increasing? Don’t I have a moral obligation as an employer to have wages keep up with the cost of living? Lisa’s employer feels no such moral obligation, but I don’t want to be in a race to the bottom with them.

Not everything is increasing in cost rapidly. Claritin is about the same price it was a year ago. So at least I can watch the economy fail without sneezing.

Seriously, I don’t know how to think about it. I’d rather pretend that the price increases are temporary or manageable or limited. It’s easier than giving up my intuitions and habits about prices and wages.

Replacement windows

Yesterday we finally had three replacement windows installed – two in my office, one in our living room. Polo and Guillermo from ProWindows did a great job, taking the time to get everything right.

We ordered the Anderson Woodwright windows from Home Depot several months ago, thinking that we had someone to install them. Then the windows sat on our front porch for the entire spring. When we realized we had to make other arrangements, ProWindows graciously agreed to take our small labor-only job and fit us in rather rapidly. Arte came to look at the situation on the same day, checked the measurements, and made sure he understood what we saw as the complicating factors (since nothing on an old house is simple). They found a space in their schedule a few weeks later, arrived exactly when they said they would, and did exactly what they were supposed to. Now the old storms and sashes are gone, the weight pockets are insulated, the exterior wood frame is wrapped in aluminum, and we have three new windows! All that’s left is for us to polyurethane the insides, add a couple of aftermarket handles, and appreciate the noise reduction and the reduced air and water infiltration. Well, and look askance at the 20 other windows on the first and second floors that would clearly like to be replaced. We’re already making our priority list for the next round, and ProWindows will definitely get the job.

The upgraded screen that we got on one window definitely makes a difference in appearance, with the finer mesh being much less visible. The maple interiors are much more even in color than pine, and match the new office floor. We’ll have to stain the maple on the living room window, but the maple will take a stain more easily than pine. I’m surprised that Anderson doesn’t offer a factory finish on the wood interiors – none of the window manufacturers do, but the first one that does will have a definite marketplace advantage over the others. Nobody would spend thousands of dollars on unfinished kitchen cabinets, but somehow that’s the status quo for wood replacement windows.

It’s still not easy to fit in a window air conditioner and seal the gaps, which is a failure of engineering. The only improvement I’ve seen in window air conditioners (aside from baby steps towards energy efficiency) has been the slide-in chassis, where you install the relatively lightweight chassis into the window and then slide the core of the unit into the chassis. I’d love to see flexible and insulated side panels that can properly seal to the window frame, rubber on the top and bottom of the chassis to reduce vibration and seal the gaps to the sash and sill, and ports on the side panels that can be opened to chase away nest-building birds. And would it really be that hard to design a quieter air conditioner? Manufacturers advertise their units as quiet, knowing that people care about that. But they don’t list the noise level in sones or decibels, since they also know that their units are not actually quiet at all. And with the exterior noise reduction from our new windows, interior noises become more noticeable.

Monday, July 14, 2008

New rules for mortgages

Under the Fed’s new rules for mortgages, I would currently not own a home. The Fed is banning no-doc loans, also known in various forms as stated income loans or no income verification loans. I used such a loan to buy my house, and as the owner of a small business I had no other easy option. While these loans have frequently been lumped into the subprime mess, I did not actually pay a higher rate on my no income verification loan.

Perhaps new rules will allow business owners to prove cash flow through bank statements, or allow banks to consider the indirect evidence of always being timely with state and federal tax payments, payroll obligations, and other serious fiduciary obligations. Perhaps down payments and equity levels and debt ratios will be a considered factor. But I suspect that the dream of home ownership just moved out of reach for another segment of our society.

Rockport harbor

Photo by Michael

The New Yorker

I’m appalled at the July 21 cover of The New Yorker, which rather straightforwardly illustrates many of the recent smears against the Obamas. Is this somehow different from Fox News asking whether the Obamas touching fists is a “terrorist fist jab”? In what way is it satire, as opposed to reinforcement, to draw a picture of exactly the garbage that right-wing radio hosts and callers are constantly spewing?

The editors of The New Yorker should be ashamed of themselves.

Added later:

I, and many others, condemn the Obama cover of The New Yorker. I think it was mean and stupid for them to publish that cover. I have told them that I am considering canceling my long-time subscription because of it, and I would encourage other readers to do likewise. Free speech is meant to protect the public discourse, and condemnation is sometimes an important part of that public discourse. I would be happy to see readers cancel their subscriptions, advertisers pull their ads, and newsstands return that issue; a serious marketplace failure would be an appropriate consequence of a spectacular failure in judgment.

None of that is censorship. I am not advocating interfering with their means of publication or wishing for any governmental sanctions. I just don’t think people should listen to them or give them money. It is important to differentiate between respect for the right to speak and respect for what is said.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Photo by Michael

We went on a whale watch out of Gloucester on Friday for Lisa’s birthday, and the sightings were really amazing. The first humpback we found did a spinning full breach; it’s unbelievable to see a whale in mid-air. Over the afternoon we saw about 15 humpbacks close to the boat, including two humpback calves, as well as several fin whales and several minke whales further away. We saw the humpbacks swimming in formation in groups of 2, 3, and 4. A group of 4 surfaced close to our boat and swam directly under our boat from one side to the other. One of the whales rolled over in the water to show us his flippers, and another came straight up with his whole head out of the water. We got very used to the pattern of seeing (and hearing) the whale’s blowhole spouting water into the air, then seeing their back with dorsal fin curving out of the water for ages, and finally the elegant tail on best view before a long dive.

Photo by Michael

Individual humpbacks were first named in 1976 when a fisherman noticed that the whales around his boat two days in a row appeared to be the same. He told a naturalist he knew, who went out with him and realized that the tail coloration could uniquely identify individual humpbacks. Those first two were named Salt and Pepper, and one of the whales we saw on Friday was Pepper, still summering at Stellwagen Bank 32 years later.

Photo by Michael

The calves look large when you see them on their own, and then you see an adult and realize how small the calves are comparatively. The adult whales are up to 60 or 70 feet long, and move incredibly gracefully. We also saw hundreds of seabirds, mostly gulls and shearwaters, in far higher concentrations near the whales than you see them on the shore. Combined with perfect weather and a very smooth ocean, we could not ask for a better way to spend the afternoon.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Humpback with gulls and shearwaters

Photo by Michael

Bug identification?

Photo by Michael

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Lisa’s birthday salad

Salad: Equal parts chopped cucumber (I used an Armenian cucumber, seeds removed), avocado, and feta cheese. Drizzle on a little lemon oil. Add small amount of chopped tomato (I used yellow cherry tomatoes that we’re growing) and a little mint. Stir all together, bring close to room temperature (assuming the feta was refrigerated).

Dressing: Squeeze garlic scape in a garlic press to extract a flavored green liquid, add olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Presentation of dressing is best unmixed in a clear glass bowl, separate from the salad.

Office supplies of the future

1. CD-shaped post-it notes. Round, slightly smaller than a CD, with no hole in the middle (because you wouldn’t want to put the CD in a drive with the note still attached). Allows you to label a CD temporarily without writing on it or depending on a case.

2. Clear post-it notes. Variety of sizes. Allows you to mark up a document in a layered way, where you can also remove individual notes.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Production notes

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing

Give Macbeth something to do during this soliloquy. Macbeth as serial killer in his clippings room, destroying his trophies as the police close in. Macbeth as Nixon, removing recording devices and shredding tapes. Macbeth discovering his enemies’ listening devices. Macbeth discovering that he’s actually been an unwitting participant on Scotland’s new hit reality show Thane Wars!

Patrick Stewart described Ian McKellen’s advice, which was that the key word to emphasize in the first line is “and,” not “tomorrow.” That’s fine, but let’s use a page-a-day for the tomorrows. Then we just need a reason why he’s using a page-a-day.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Today we declare

We declare that all people are created equal. We declare that we should, and shall, govern ourselves. We declare that we shall embrace opportunities, pursue our dreams, and always strive for greater purpose. We declare that we can live together, one nation, under no one but God.

This we declare because we want the world to hear it. This we declare because we want the world to hold us to it. This we declare because we believe it, because we will live up to it, because we can live up to it. Yes, we can.

Today we celebrate a great declaration signed on this date 232 years ago. The founders of this nation signed a declaration of independence, and a declaration of so much more. They set out for us a vision of a nation that would act as a beacon of hope and freedom, a nation that would come to lead the world, a nation that would come to change the world. Of those to whom much is given, much is expected. My friends, we have much to live up to, because this nation has given us so much.

We must continue to lead the world, and that means regaining the world’s trust in us and our trust in the world. So today we declare that we still hold our Constitution dear. Today we declare that we place our rights above our fears, our values above our differences, and with head held high we shall meet the world’s challenges without ever abandoning our principles or our allies. We declare that we will rebuild at home and help to rebuild abroad, because we do not have to choose one over the other. We declare that we are one nation, and that we live in one world, under no one but God.

The power of ideals lived up to will always prevail. Let us live up to the promise of America, and if we do that, we can change the world. That is what we celebrate today.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Here comes the sun

Yesterday was full of good news for solar power. The federal Bureau of Land Management decided to reverse its insane moratorium on applications to build solar plants on public lands, and our governor signed an energy bill which will make it easier to sell solar power (and other power) back to the grid and also allow power companies to lease solar panels to homeowners. That last point should make it possible for homeowners to add solar panels without the large up-front investment being an obstacle.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Pottery Barn has a very appealing 4-pole 2-person hammock:

I like the idea that the hammock is stabilized at all four corners, so you can’t fall out of it. But it’s not really a hammock if it can’t swing, is it? It might be able to rock if you remove the small braces on the ground, but that just makes it an enormous rocking chair.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Public input

The arts council that I’m on is required to collect public input every three years to determine in what ways we should adjust our funding priorities. It’s a good requirement in theory, like the requirement that our meetings be open to the public. In practice, nobody ever comes to our meetings.

We had been planning to hold a big public meeting at City Hall where we would, um, well, ok, planning may be too strong a word. We had been vaguely contemplating a meeting of some sort where people would provide us with clear and thoughtful input. Or at least advocate for their own interests. Or at least show up. We didn’t have very high hopes, really.

Then someone from another arts council mentioned that they had recently tried doing a public survey instead of a public meeting, and had received far more input that way. So this time around, we’re trying a survey instead. It’s not the most exciting survey, but we’ve received about 20 responses already and we can look over those responses in a calm and collected way. It makes a lot of sense. We’re even planning to include a version of the survey in the 14,000 water bills that will be mailed out next month, and if we can get even a 0.5% response rate, we’ll be drowning in public input. And we can probably increase our response rate if we add a question about the water rates, though we run the risk of getting blamed for the water rates. Nobody really knows what the arts council does; maybe we set the water rates. It wouldn’t surprise me, and I’m on the arts council.

Being on the collecting side of a survey has given me a different perspective on surveys. When we went to an art exhibit on Sunday and they were trying to get people to fill out their survey, I felt obligated to hold up my end. And a little bad that I didn’t have a copy of our survey to hand them in return.