Fixing My House (or Maybe Not)

I was standing outside this morning, looking at my driveway, and it got me thinking about the nature of suburban property and the new realities we all face. My driveway, you see, needs to be replaced. It was resurfaced years ago with a thin layer of asphalt that was all the cheap bastard that owned the place before me would pay for. That layer is cracking off, the layer under it is dried out and fragmenting, and perhaps most critically the house has settled over thirty years and a portion of the apron near the garage now grades back toward the foundation. If you’re a homeowner, you know why that’s bad.

My house also needs new bay windows. Bay windows are a bad idea. Any boat builder will tell you that if you go to the trouble of building a watertight box, you ought to be very reticent about cutting big holes in it, and even more reluctant to hang cheaply-built wooden structures off of those holes. But that’s what bay windows are, and mine are rotting and need to be replaced. The list doesn’t end there. We need a new furnace, new windows, some interior drywall work to correct the effects of settling, a fix for a foundation crack, regrading in the back yard to fix a drainage problem, a new front porch and landscaping, and a thinning out of the many trees on the property so we can grow grass and stop our dogs from rolling in mud and wet leaves whenever it rains.

Our house sits on an acre of suburban land in northwestern New Jersey. Since moving in ten years ago we have already replaced the roof, the air conditioning system, the deck, and the garage doors. We’ve landscaped, planted grass and watched it die, and painted everything at least twice, inside and out. We’re on our second refrigerator, our third dishwasher, our second washer/dryer combo, and our second microwave oven. I have stopped counting toaster ovens and coffee makers since the numbers are large enough to be unwieldy. During that ten years, in addition to sloshing joint compound and paint on every vertical surface approximately as fast as my children could smash into those surfaces with hard, penetrating objects, I have fixed all three toilets at least four times, and put hundreds of dollars into minor plumbing, electrical, and carpentry projects.

Over the years I imagine I have spent $30-$40k on the place, and I could easily, and I do mean easily, dump another $50k in without even trying hard. The questions is: why should I? For a long time those of us who purchased single family homes in the suburbs viewed them as a form of wealth. Put in the money for maintenance, and the value of the property would increase and ultimately help pay for your kids’ educations and your own retirement. Like the stock market, gain was all a matter of appreciation. Like many of the public companies whose shares are traded on the market, my property doesn’t earn a dime. On the contrary, it costs me several thousand dollars a month in mortgage payments, utilities, maintenance, and the property tax payments by which I rent the right to stay here from the township we live in. If the value of my property doesn’t increase, then I’m never going to get a return on everything I’ve put into it.

And frankly, it seems unlikely to me that the value will increase. I was born in 1960, and my wife and I represent the very end of the baby boomer generation that bubbled into existence in the twenty years after World War II. We’re in our mid forties and early fifties, and our kids are either out of high school, or a year or two away from that milestone. As my generation passes into retirement, where will the families come from to drive demand for all the suburban single family homes that will be available? How can we expect the values of our properties to increase? It’s hard not to think that the great suburban land boom is over for good. And perhaps this should not be surprising. That boom, which largely consisted of people purchasing more land and more housing than they actually needed in order to gain better quality of life, could only have been sustained on the back of rising middle class incomes.

But middle class incomes have stagnated for well over a decade now. At the same time costs continue to rise at a steady few percentage points every year. It’s a game of economic water torture that can only end with exhaustion. I’ve got a few thousand bucks put away, and as I was standing outside this morning entertaining these thoughts, it suddenly seemed clear to me that the stupidest thing I could possibly do with that money is convert it into a new driveway and bay windows, or something to add “curb appeal.” It’s a fairly nasty Catch-22, because when you don’t put in the money to maintain a property, the decline in value only accelerates. Ultimately all you can do is hope to sell before the bottom, but in our neighborhood we already have one vacant place behind us that the bank can’t get rid of, and this is one of the more desirable areas in a state where the real estate market has always had a lot of resilience.

Faced with these realities, the possibility of a “Detroit-ification” of the American suburban landscape seems all too plausible. It would be nice to follow that statement with a prescription for what to do about it, but I have no idea what to do about it. We need a vigorous economy and rising middle class incomes. That should do it. How do you get back to those things? No idea here, or, I guarantee you, in our national capitol or any of the fifty state capitols. If we’re waiting for the right politician to pop up and rescue us it’s going to be a grim vigil. About the best I can suggest is to have a plan for either selling your property or making some money with it. Plans I have entertained include: starting a microbrewery in my basement, converting my attic into a shirt factory, and simply knocking down the house and landscaping the acre in hopes that, some day, a rich guy will want to incorporate it into his growing estate.

Upgrading my Desktop (and Other Anachronisms)

I’m one of those dinosaurs whose computer still exists as a collection of components mounted in a large aluminum box. Therefore, unlike the mobile device users who are laughing at the crusty immobility of my platform, I don’t have to throw the whole thing out when it gets too slow. I can fix it! Desktop computer builders fix their machines by upgrading them. Virtually every significant problem is a good excuse for an upgrade. It’s a testament to the quality of the components available now that my last upgrade was over three years ago.

I’m currently running an E8500 wolfie on an Asus motherboard with a P43 chipset and 8 GB of ram. The wolfdale has really been struggling lately. I have Visual Studio solutions that take 3-4 minutes to load. That’s unacceptable. I need more cores. I also have a GTS-250 graphics card w/512MB. Similarly unacceptable! Battlefield 3 and Skyrim are coming out. The latest generation of any classic game title also provides a valid excuse for an upgrade, and I have two coming at me. Clearly work must proceed on a component list forthwith.

But wait, it is a damn interesting time to be planning an upgrade. I don’t think I’ve been faced with this many tough choices in a long time…

Processor: I5-2500K vs I7-2600K

The 2600K is roughly $100 more, and clocks just .1 Ghz faster. It has hyperthreading on all four cores, and 2MB more L3 cache. I think that’s about it. Do I need hyperthreading? Four cores is a pretty good upgrade from my dualie already. Do I need four more virtual ones? Will I care about that 2MB of cache? I think I might. Leaning 2600K but not sure.

Chipset: P67 vs Z68

The P67 chipset is the tweakable “geek” version of the last Intel platform. The H67 was the mainstream “never touch the BIOS” version. The H67 supported the Sandy Bridge on-chip GPU, but the P67 did not. Now the Z68 combines the tweakability with the onboard GPU support and some drive-caching technology for SSD owners. Do I care about the onboard GPU? Not really, but it might be nice if my graphics card craps out. The rest of the stuff I don’t care about. Leaning P67.

GPU: 560ti/1GB

No real dilemma here. There’s zero chance I will pop for $300 -$500 for a GTX-570 or 80. Midrange for the win, and this will be a major upgrade over my GTS-250.

Monitor: too many factors to list

The monitor is really driving me nuts. I have a 5 year-old Dell 2405. It’s a slow panel, but it has served me well. I now need more screen space, and so I am adding a second display. The problem is that I detest 1080 line LCDs. Please. I had more lines than that on my NEC 17″ fifteen years ago! As a developer I need those lines. On the other hand I would love LED backlighting. It’s cooler and you get far better dark range colors. I would also like a fast panel. I would also like to match the 24″/1920×1200 of the current monitor, just for the sake of symmetry. Really have no idea which way to go here. Choices seem to be something like Dell’s 24″ S-IPS, which is 16:10 but fairly slow at 8ms, or the larger 25″ or 27″ 1080 (yeccch) displays from Acer or Asus.

I guess it’s nice to have choices.

Steal My Copper, Please

Copper is neat stuff. It’s malleable, ductile, resists corrosion, transfers heat readily, and can be easily soldered. In various forms it is incredibly useful. There are around 50 pounds of copper in an automobile, and 11,000 pounds in a diesel locomotive, for example. One of the less useful forms that copper takes is when it is extruded into long, thin wires, coated in insulating material, and strung between wooden poles to carry analog telephone signals. We still have one pair of these wires coming into our home, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

Our local carrier is Embarq, or whatever they are calling themselves these days (DinoComm? DustyLink?). For $30 a month they offer us a hard-wired circuit-switched connection to any local phone number I care to call. That is, assuming I remember the number, and don’t mind dialing it in manually. Thirty bucks a month. If I want to call any of the neighboring area codes, have voice mail, call forwarding, caller ID, etc., all of that is extra. We recently dropped all that stuff on our one remaining line. Before that it was $60/month.

Sixty bucks! That’s nearly half my Comcast bill, for a single lousy voice circuit. Really? I’m still paying these guys why? I can’t figure it out. We don’t even use the line anymore. Nobody uses the line anymore except a couple of marketing bots that hang up as soon as I answer (even the guys who write marketing bots don’t give a crap about telephones anymore). We use email, SMS texting, cell phones, and Skype for virtually all our communications needs. Skype is $29/year and I can call anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, with good quality, with one-click dialing, with video, and I can exchange text messages and files at the same time.

We came very close to cutting the cord completely a few months ago, and just couldn’t quite get there. It’s easy to generate doubt. What about 911? It doesn’t work on Skype but we all have cel phones and it does work on them. What about when the power is out and the computers are down? Well, the phone on the copper line is wireless and needs power too… and we have cel phones. All of the real questions have answers. Still, we didn’t get rid of it, and we’re still donating $30 every month so that Embarq can afford to scrub the rust off their trucks. It must be some sort of cultural nostalgia, or the communications infrastructure equivalent of apron strings.

According to the FCC (Table 2.2 Statistics of Communications Common Carriers) in 2006 there were 2.7 billion kilometers of metallic (mostly copper) wire in the physical plant of the country’s licensed local telephone carriers. I did a double take when I saw that number, and had to think about it a bit before I realized that this stat counts every conductor. If you look at sheathed metallic cable, most of which will have multiple conductors, the figure is 6.1 million kilometers. I googled around a bit on some stats for how much copper that represents, and calculated that it’s in the category of “metric ass ton.” If you want to get more specific, have fun with it. However you look at it, there’s a lot of metal hanging from wooden poles so that forgotten autodialers sitting in some dusty office closet can call me and hang up as soon as I answer.

Copper today is selling for $3.30 or so on the New York Exchanges. Next week in this space: the Post Office.

Jersey Sore

I’ve lived in New Jersey now, off and on, for nearly twenty years, but I’m not a native. I was born in Michigan and have at various times lived in New York, Indiana, Rhode Island, Maryland, California, New Hampshire, and the British Virgin Islands. None of the places I’ve lived has been perfect. They all have their good and bad points. When it comes to New Jersey, though, nobody seems to acknowledge the good. From comedians to columnists to Internet forum posters the standard line is that New Jersey consists of a single strip of industrially polluted concrete running from New York to Philadelphia, studded with chemical plants, refineries, landfills, and tanning salons. Now, thanks to MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” everyone also thinks that the open space between the salvage yards and tattoo parlors is crammed with orange-tanned goombahs sporting oily hair and neck chains.

If that’s your view of New Jersey, then rejoice. Your ignorance quotient is about to be attenuated significantly. You’re about to learn that not only is New Jersey nothing at all like the popular stereotypes would have it, it is in fact one of the most beautiful places in America. From the mountainous Highlands of the northwest, to the fertile rolling hills of the midlands, and the vast undeveloped tracts of pinelands in the southeast, New Jersey combines a little slice of everything that is best about our continent. I won’t ask you to take this on faith. In order to make my point I’ve combed through thousands of pictures of the state that I have taken over the years, and selected fifty that I think show a New Jersey most of you don’t know exists. This is the New Jersey that I know, and I’d like you to know it too.

When you’re through enjoying the images, consider this: all that beauty, the pines, the highlands, the hunt country, the Delaware River, Delaware Bay, miles of shoreline, all of it, is within 1-2 hours of New York City and Philadelphia, and 3-4 hours from Baltimore and Washington, DC. In other words, we win. We have our share of problems, to be sure. Taxes are too high, and we have a lot of challenges in terms of how to maintain economic growth and rebuild infrastructure… but then so do the states most of you live in, and our Governor doesn’t have a secret second family. Yet. So the next time you see some Jersey-hater hating, point them toward this post so they can get some education. Better yet, come visit yourself. Then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Re-run TV?

I got a kick out of this. It was revealed this week that the share of downstream Internet traffic generated by Netflix customers’ streaming movies reached thirty percent in the last measuring period. Thirty percent. But as eye-opening as that figure is, it’s not what I got a kick out of. In some bit of reporting associated with that announcement I learned the following little gem: the pet nickname by which people in Hollywood sometimes sneer at Netflix is “Re-run TV.” I find this genuinely funny. Twenty-five or -six million people (including me) are streaming content from Netflix, comprising thirty percent of all downstream traffic, but Hollywood can still look down on them because they’re just “re-runs.”

In the world these guys grew up in, the one in which their business model was based on total control of content and delivery, there was for each piece of programming a “first run” during which the media biggies allowed people to watch it once, assuming they could be in front of the delivery device at the appointed time. Subsequent performances were “re-runs” for which the media corps were paid big bucks by smaller networks and independent broadcasters. Run, and re-run. And since everything on Netflix has been seen before, why hell it’s all just a bunch of re-runs. In their world, once, and in their dreams now, the viewing public flocks to them en-masse for the must-see content, and once that content has been seen they might agree to dribble it out bit by bit to other, clearly inferior outlets.

Meanwhile, on Planet Reality, I got to watch five seasons of Lost, all of Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, four seasons of Rescue Me, Weeds, Big Love, Torchwood, and dozens upon dozens of documentaries and movies, including most recently all the best, campiest Bond flicks from the sixties. Some of the movies I’ve seen before. Most of the television I haven’t. It’s all “first run” to me, and delivered to my computer, in my office, or on either of our two TVs, when I want to watch it. More importantly, the only way any of the networks can get anywhere near having twenty-six million people care what they are doing on a given night is to get two cute royal kids to marry each other. Hard to pull that off regularly.

Is Google Site Blocking a Game Changer?

Google has always had to walk a fine line between profiting from search results and giving users more power over what appears in them. They try to make sure that what we see is relevant to us, while at the same time legions of SEO specialists and their clients try to game the system to make sure we see what they want us to. Recently Google announced a new feature that I think does a lot to destabilize the status quo and tip the scales greatly in favor of we the people.

The new capability allows users who are signed on to their Google profiles to easily block results from sites that they don’t find useful. Here’s a typical usage scenario, and one that I find myself in every day: You type in a search term, get back some results, see one that appears to be relevant, and click on it only to find that the link leads to a preview snippet for a pay site, a link farming blog, a redirect to a registration page, whatever. Some SEO guy has worked hard to make sure you see that useless crap, and now Google will let you nuke it. The next time it happens, and you click the ‘Back’ button in exasperation, look again at the entry in the search results. It will look something like this…

The link that I’ve highlighted in yellow is the new addition. Click that, and the offending site is added to your block list and banished forever from your search results. Now I should probably mention that I don’t mean to beat up on Experts Exchange… well I sort of do. I’m sure they are all nice people over there, and I’m sure there are lots of people who use their service, and I’d be likely to hear from a bunch of them if anyone actually read this blog. But let me explain why Experts Exchange is typical of the annoyances that site blocking cures for me.

I’m a developer, and as such I am constantly Googling for technical information, like everyone else in my business. Don’t recall how to resolve a missing link dependency in an MFC app because you haven’t done C++ in ten years? Google. Want to know whether you can call out to a DLL from a Sidebar gadget? Google. Here’s the experience I don’t want: search, get results, click relevant link text without looking at domain, end up on Expert’s Exchange with “Sign up to read this solution. It’s free!” splash covering the page. I don’t want to sign up. I want to find a blog post, or forum entry, or bit of API documentation that answers my damn question. If your link turns up in my results, and I click it and don’t get to see the information it promises without taking additional steps to submit form data, that link wasn’t very relevant. I understand the business model. It’s called trolling. I’m sure it works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

So I hope that explains why, although I wish the fisherfolk at Experts Exchange all the best, I’m dancing with glee at never having to see their links in my search results again. And that’s why I wonder whether this new capability will shift the ground under existing Internet marketing techniques. If people can click one link and ban J.C. Penney then all that money J.C. Penney spent may turn out to not only have been unproductive, but perhaps counterproductive as well. Banning J.C. Penney will ban all links in search results, not just stupid ones, so there is now a strong incentive not to behave in a way that encourages people to hit that button.

And of course you can remove the site from the blocked list almost at any time. I say almost because I haven’t yet found a way to go directly to the list and edit it, but if you perform a search that would have returned results from the blocked site you’ll see a message that some results were blocked, with a link to a place where you can lift the ban if you’re inclined to give them another chance. Personally I expect my list to have five or six domains on it in short order, and I don’t see any of them getting a second chance anytime soon. Score 1 for me, 0 for the webshapers.

Does IE9 RC Break Netflix in Media Center?

Looks like it might. Hard on the heals of my excellent first impressions of IE9 RC I had a little bit of a jarring return to earth in the matter of installing Beta/RC versions of products. I started Windows Media Center and activated Netflix so I could watch another espisode of my current obsession, “Rescue Me” with Denis Leary, and this is what happened after I clicked “Play” and the familiar red screen appeared:

If I had to guess I would say that IE9 RC updated the javascript engine or otherwise changed the way javascript is handled in a page. I’ll try to find a workaround and post it here.

[Update] No work-around, but some additional information. I spoke to Netflix customer support, and they hadn’t heard anything about this issue. The woman on the other end of the call stressed that they are not compatible with IE9 yet, and I guess this proves the point. I uninstalled the IE9 RC Windows Update and after a restart Netflix streaming functionality was restored. So this is a heads-up for people who use Netflix in  Media Center, and would like to try IE9 RC.

[Update] The problem was confirmed by poster “Dark Shroud” on the Anandtech forums. The same poster did note that he was able to get Netflix working in the browser, so that will have to be the fallback option for WMC users who want to run the latest Microsoft browser, at least until Netflix releases an update to their player script for Media Center.

[Update 2-24] Poster Marc W. sent a link to a Microsoft KB that supposedly fixed the issue, but didn’t due to a typo. Marc commented again today that it has been updated with the correct registry value, and that it now works. I haven’t had time to test this myself, but give it a go if you’re yearning to use IE9RC and watch Netflix in Media Center:

IE9 RC: Internet Explorer Returns

Microsoft released Internet Explorer 9 RC (Release Candidate) today, and after finishing up some work hacking up a Windows installer script, I downloaded and installed the new version to take it for a spin. IE hasn’t been my default browser for awhile now, and I wondered whether MS could regain that coveted slot in the system registry. I switched to Google Chrome over a year ago simply because it was faster to start up, and faster to render sites than IE8. I think most people who have used both would agree with those impressions, although Microsoft always contended that their own tests showed IE8 had a small performance edge. Whatever side of that argument you support, my experience today navigating a number of complex sites with both IE9 and Chrome lead me to conclude that Microsoft has leapfrogged the competition.

My purely subjective results are that IE9 now starts and renders faster than Chrome. In addition it scrolls complex sites more smoothly, a benefit of the new hardware-accelerated rendering engine. The interface hasn’t changed dramatically, but it is a little more streamlined. I’m sure there are many more changes to explore under the hood, and I will be interested to run some of my Silverlight and javascript code to see how it behaves and performs, but at the very least this version of Internet Explorer is a definite Chrome competitor. That is a meaningful achievement, and confirms once again that anyone who writes Microsoft off in a market they want to be in, does so at the peril of their business.

Anonymity on the Internet

Finally someone among the digital elite is talking sense on the subject of Internet anonymity. In an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, Facebook product design manager Julie Zhuo speaks frankly about the effect that anonymity has had on the level of civility online, and some of the things Facebook and other sites are doing to try to build some responsibility back in to the system. None of the horror stories she recounts, or even the more mundane instances of immature and uncivil conduct, are unfamiliar to anyone who spends time online. The possible solutions are not revolutionary (they begin with simply requiring people to identify themselves somehow). The watershed in this case is simply the opening of a discussion which does not begin by assuming that anonymity is equal to privacy.

In fact anonymity and privacy are almost completely orthogonal concepts. I think you can go so far as to say that privacy itself is rather meaningless to a truly anonymous actor. If people don’t know who you are, then do you care whether they know what you think, eat, read, or do in your bedroom? Privacy is most meaningful when it protects a known individual from others who seek to know more than they ought to. It is a cherished right that is attenuated only when society feels a compelling need. Anonymity, on the other hand, has never been a right, and up until a few years ago wasn’t even possible to achieve in any regular or consistent way without resorting to subterfuge. You don’t have a right to live anonymously in a community, work anonymously for an employer, marry anonymously, have children anonymously, vote anonymously. By definition you cannot even enjoy the basic rights of a U.S. citizen without having been born here and positively identified at birth.

What is private about a person’s life is a matter of debate, and constant reinterpretation as society evolves to deal with new challenges, but it is a long-settled fact that privacy protections do not extend to who you are. You don’t have a right to be unknown in the real world, so under what circumstances should you be allowed to be an opaque cipher in the network world? Clearly we all favor some level of anonymity online. I don’t want people linking my real name to everything I read, for example. On the other hand I accept that I need to identify myself to access an account or make a purchase. What about posting comments or pictures? Where does the line get drawn? These are tough questions, but it’s pretty clear that the time for the conversation is at hand. As a society we have long trended toward a defensive posture when facing the worst elements of human nature. We all huddle to some extent behind locked doors and long cumbersome passwords, more or less oblivious to the huge costs of the willful immorality of a few bad apples. Maybe the Internet is a place to fight back a bit, and have a say in what kind of society we really want to be.

Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work

As a young programmer just starting out, newly married, working on my employer’s stuff during the day and my own stuff during the evenings, I often struggled to convince my growing and social family that they had to leave me alone when I was working. As Jason Fried explains in this excellent video from October’s TEDx Midwest, creative workers like programmers, engineers, and designers, can’t just jump in and out of work. Our work happens in intellectual stages, and when we’re interrupted we are often thrown back to the beginning. Programming especially happens in the realm between the abstract and the concrete, and requires that the developer have a working mental model of a system before putting fingers to keyboard. Interruptions often shatter that mental model and force us to go back through the process of constructing it. It can be very frustrating. The bottom line is that people like us need long, uninterrupted stretches of time in order to be effective. Ironically, the one place that we get the least of what we need is in an office. What Fried calls “M&Ms” (meetings and managers) conspire to shred our days into little pieces, such that at the end the whole is far less than the sum of the parts. His talk should be required viewing for people who manage people like me.