This article about fitness in Cairo amused me. When I visited Egypt pre-revolution in 2008, I managed some runs along the Nile, which seemed like a perfectly obvious thing to do. I run everywhere I travel. But it’s true that everyone I passed stared at me as if perhaps I had just shoplifted.

There are other major cities where outdoor fitness pursuits still seem relatively uncommon, like Paris. But the scene there is changing too. I’m just surprised it has taken this long.

August 24, 2016 August 24, 2016 travel by Scott No Comments

Why are all stereo components from every brand just over 17 inches wide? As the new owner of a 16.75 inch wide cabinet, that is a frustrating discovery. If you’ve ever taken apart a modern piece of stereo equipment, you’ll find it is mostly air. I’ve never seen a piece of solid-state Hi-Fi gear that comes anywhere close to using the full volume of its enclosure.

Did I mention that I want something simple for stereo speakers and a turntable. No 7-source HDMI switching with on-screen displays. No 40-channel surround sound. No “concert hall” echo effects. No 100-button remote control. FM radio would be nice.

I could just use another Sonos zone, but I really want something with a physical user interface. I know, I know: why do I hold on to such bygone concepts as volume knobs? And power switches?

I know volume knobs are obsolete. It’s obviously much more convenient to take a smartphone out of your pocket, unlock it with your passcode, navigate to the home screen, open an app, wait a few seconds while it connects, page to the volume screen, and adjust the sound from there.

July 31, 2016 July 31, 2016 design by Scott 1 Comment

The AP’s Eric Levenson writes about Trump: “…New Hampshire Republican officials have struggled to embrace him as he continues to make eyebrow-raising comments about minorities and women.”

I would be curious to hear the AP explain how they draw the line between “eyebrow-raising comments about minorities and women” and “racist and sexist comments.”

June 13, 2016 June 13, 2016 politics by Scott No Comments

Compass Bicycles: Why not “Made in U.S.A.?”

This article is a really thoughtful answer to a common question. It’s an interesting predicament for those (like me) who think we should build more things in America. And it offers further proof that the anti-globalization, anti-trade policies championed by many candidates in this year’s election–guilty parties include Trump, Cruz, and yes, Sanders–are a completely wrong and disastrous solution to the problem of declining industrial output.

April 19, 2016 April 19, 2016 engineering by Scott No Comments

I just spent a few days at the Embedded Linux Conference. I get that it’s probably one of the largest communities of desktop Linux users assembled anywhere, but I am surprised to see that Microsoft-bashing is still a thing.

The fact is–and I don’t know how they’re doing it–Microsoft is firing on all cylinders these days. Windows 10 is actually really nice, to the point where it feels like a subtly colorful, human-centric breath of fresh air next to Mac OS X. They are increasingly embracing open standards, interoperability, and open source in surprising ways, while Apple and Google move the other direction.

Meanwhile, Linux as a desktop is still pretty terrible in 2016 for all but console-driven programmers. (I say this as a serious user of the Linux command line.)

April 6, 2016 April 6, 2016 computers by Scott No Comments

Ubiquitous and reliable [landline] telephone service was one of the great electrical engineering achievements of the previous century. Its story is fascinating and the ways in which it changed communities and economies are innumerable.

I am fortunate enough to have had a brief period of access to a telephone central office back in the peak of the landline telephone’s popularity (1999). A CO is an engineer’s dream. Tens of thousands of copper pairs in improbably thick bundles, sheathed in all manner of period-appropriate materials (including lead), drape across massive steel supports in cable vaults beneath the city streets. They rise up into the distribution frame where they are terminated with the prevailing technology of their time: solder, wire-wrap, or punch-down terminals. From there the copper continues its journey to racks and racks of telephone switches which effectively bridge more than 100 years of communication technologies.

In spite of the Bell/AT&T monopoly that lasted well into the 1980s, the system was designed with insane attention to quality and reliability. Hardware was robust and over-engineered. Wires were artfully routed through racks with cable lacing techniques. Buildings housing switching equipment were designed to withstand a range of disasters, natural and unnatural. Power was provided by enormous central batteries, making the whole system independent of the whims of the power grid. Some customers experienced uninterrupted service for decades.

Unfortunately, the whole system is falling apart. The problem here in New England begins 16 years ago with the made-up word Verizon.

In a weird turn for a once-mighty sector broken up by federal antitrust action, huge waves of consolidation began taking place in telecom around Y2K. Lack of competition and relentless focus on short-term profits (thanks in part to the emergence of mega-profitable mobile phone service) led to a complete lack of investment in infrastructure. Old cables were left to rot in place. Upgrades simply didn’t happen. Verizon, aware of the opportunity presented by this new “Internet” thing, briefly started deploying mega-fast future-proof fiber-to-the-home service, but permanently froze investment before the system could be expanded to urban Boston. If you want high speed Internet service here today, you’re stuck with cable TV (America’s other favorite monopoly)!

I have been a landline phone customer for far longer than my peers. I still have one. But for all the purported advantages (call quality, reliability) it sucks. My service fails at least once a year now, usually due to wet cables. Verizon dutifully “repairs” it every time, a technician once explained, by moving my service to an open trunk pair with less water damage.

The final nail in the POTS coffin is nuisance calls. My phone rings a half-dozen times a day now with everything from surveys to news that I’ve won a free cruise, a vague “problem with my credit card account,” or (most commonly now) a recording claiming to be National Grid seeking to scam some personal information of mine. Verizon is doing nothing about it, and they honestly seem to not give a fuck.

I like having a home phone. The audio quality is so much better than that of highly compressed mobile phone calls. I like the bulk and weight of an old-school receiver in my hand. It’s great not to worry about battery charge. Or holding a warm radio transmitter against my brain for hours.

So here we go, into the brave new world of VoIP. The golden era of analog phone service is over. One last holdout, cutting the cord!

January 26, 2016 January 26, 2016 infrastructure by Scott 1 Comment

Everybody just please stop saying “Internet of Things.”

January 3, 2016 January 3, 2016 tech by Scott No Comments

Radiator air valve

There are a lot of bad jokes about fixing things with duct tape. None of them are funny because–let’s be honest–duct tape sucks. There are lot of fine tape products out there, and 3M makes most of them (disclosure: I’m a huge fan of pretty much every 3M product), but there is one standout that nobody has heard of and every homeowner should own. That would be Scotch 2228, an EPR-based self-fusing mastic rubber tape intended for the electrical industry. It is thick, a little bit sticky, and stretches like taffy. It has the incredible property of fusing with itself to form a solid rubber blob. It is meant to be wrapped around outdoor electrical splices to protect them from moisture, but I have discovered a much more awesome off-label use.

Scotch 2228That would be for the temporary repair of plumbing leaks. Like all good New Englanders, we heat our house with cast-iron hot water radiators, which are generally awesome. But they have an Achilles heel, the lowly air bleed valve, which has one job in life: to let trapped air out and keep the water in. Until one day, when it just can’t take it anymore. Once the air valve starts dripping stinky radiator water on the floor, it’s hopeless. You can try to tighten it way harder than it’s designed for and hope that helps (that’s what plumbers like to do, judging by the wrench marks). Or you can replace them. But what do you do in the meantime?

Enter Scotch 2228. Wrap a piece of this stuff very tightly around the leaking valve. Cinch down on it with a couple of zip ties. Blammo! The leak is stopped within minutes. When you come back to replace the valve for real, you can’t peel the tape off because it has fused into a solid object. You have to saw it off with a knife. That’s how great this product is.

October 3, 2015 October 3, 2015 home by Scott 1 Comment