Category Archives: General

Stuff that has no other place, like lists

The Snowman 2014 Holiday Gift Guide

Based on the rousing success (about seven people read it and based on amazon.com click-through rates, at least ten products were viewed) of last year’s Holiday Gift Guide, I humbly present the emergent, annual (almost), carefully researched and field tested Snowman Guide to Getting Gifts For Geeks Who Seem To Have Everything, But Need Something To Ooooh About.

Jewelry For A Cause. It’s jewelry with a purpose, for a social movement, and it’s beautifully crafted. My favorite is the Caliber Collection, cuff links and bracelets made from bullet casings and destroyed guns taken off the streets, leaving the serial numbers intact. Take the admonition to “beat swords into plowshares” and spur interesting conversation at work or a party. The Talisman collection is much more accessible price-wise, and could be a fun gift for that poker player in your life; the “In Gratitude” collection supports women in Uganda. Be good and look good. (About $250).

Schneider iPro Lens Kit. This is now my “go to” for concerts and just walking around new cities. Wide-angle, telephoto and macro lenses in a single carrying “tube” that slips into your pocket easily. (Yes, someone at a Phish show asked me what kind of pipe that was, and when I said it was for my iPhone, he said “Cool, a pipe for your phone”). Even if you eschew the phone-wielding crowd at shows (a camp to which I’m gravitating), it’s nice to be able to capture some landscape shots outdoors with a simple snap-on to the phone. There’s an iPhone 5S version and an iPhone 5 version and it appears you can get the lenses individually with just the snap-on case as well. For $200 it fits the intermediate point between a vanilla iPhone and a full-size DSLR body (Between $180 and $200).

Next year the Turn-I-Kit will be added, once it’s available through some retail/online channels. I got mine through the Kickstarter campaign, and while it’s still a bit rough to use, it is quite cool dangling your iPhone off the back of a 200mm f/2.8 lens.

Borrowlenses gift card. Let’s say the photo-nerd in your life won’t spring for that $5,000 piece of glass, but really wants to be able to get some high-quality shots on your next trip. Enter BorrowLenses, where you can rent a wide variety of photo gear for 3 days to a month. I’ve used this to get super telephoto lenses, or to audition gear before deciding what to buy (better to spend $180 on a weekend rental than be to annoyed with an $800 lens that isn’t quite as fast as you had hoped). Their gift certificates encourage experimentation, which is part of the fun of photography. ($100 for something reasonable, but gift cards in any amount).

Kiva gift card. Kiva is a microlending site – you make interest-free loans, $25 (or more) at a time, to the unbanked populations around the world. Whether it’s buying supplies for a bodega in Tanzania, or funding engine repair for a driver in South America, the aggregation of those $25 credits into $800-$5,000 short-term loans makes a difference. It’s not charity; it’s a continuous (over the course of tens of months) cycle of re-investment in people. I’ve given Kiva gift cards to people who seem to “have everything” and the reaction is usually quite positive. If the recipient wants to cash out after making one loan, at least you’ve made an epsilon economic improvement wrapped around a gift card. ($25 minimum, and a nice gift).

Patreon. It’s easy to be a patron of the arts when you have millions laying around. If you have single dollars lounging electronically, direct them to people who are creating art and get a “behind the scenes” view of the process. For $5/month (on average), you get previews, interesting Q&A, and in some cases not-quite-public art. Create a PayPal account, fill it up with gift money, then direct your giftee to use it to support the arts. I’m a huge fan of Jeph Jacques and while I’ve purchased a variety of books and t-shirts from him, I’m kind of full up in those patterns. Supporting his Patreon gives me a bit more of my daily-Jeph-dosing including forays into music and other things that make his slightly left of center mind tick. ($60 is $5 a month for a year)

53 tablet pencil. How quaint – a pencil. Yet if you express yourself in the Stern 14.6 point font on whiteboards enough, you know sometimes it’s just easier to draw. Now draw on your iPad, and share the images, and you have a whiteboard to go where you do your best thinking (yes, even in that room). I’m loving my Pencil by FiftyThree Digital Stylus since it “feels” like a pencil and has a variety of brushes (pencil, marker, paint) that’s somewhere in between drawing with a mouse and using a Wacom tablet. (About $50-70 depending upon finish)

Sonos Play:1. I outfitted the house with all Sonos gear this summer, and removed about 80 pounds (seriously!) of speakers, amplifiers, cables and mess. We have a SONOS PLAY:1 in the kitchen, and it makes breaking down cauliflower fun (recommended: Springsteen’s “Darkness On The Edge of Town”, it’s perfect for anything in the cabbage family). Most important, it’s changed the way I listen to and discover music. I’m hearing subtle details I’ve missed before (that high-end percussive theme on “Promised Land:” glockenspiel!) and I’m able to create loudness from just about any source on the ‘net – radio, streaming services, or the whole family music library I’ve loaded onto a NAS drive in the basement. (About $200 for a single Play:1)

John Scalzi autographed books. I have waxed, fawned, and exhibited the full spectrum of fanboy behaviors when it comes to John Scalzi. In addition to being a superb science fiction writer, he captures the zeitgeist of life in this decade with aplomb and poise. Each year, Scalzi offers personalized books for the holidays. Support a great writer, and a local bookstore. ($20 and up)

Live Music, Now. Give someone a StubHub gift certificate, so they can see the live music (or sporting event) of their choice. I’m noticing that the premium over face on most tickets on StubHub is retreating back to something resembling a fair spread, and in some cases no worse than the collection of insane fees you’d pay to Ticketmaster or Telecharge. (Any amount supports your favorite artists)

Live Musc, Then. Gift a year-long membership to Concert Vault and the recipient can stream access to the entire Bill Graham Presents catalog of classic shows, along with $5 pricing on downloads of those shows. Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Talking Heads, and a seasons’ worth of Yes shows — all in one place. Personally, for the prog rocker on your “nice” list (as opposed to “The Nice” on your rock list, or the nice on your Unix process, but I digress), the 12-10-74 Yes show is worth the entire subscription price. It’s one of the few recordings of the “Relayer” tour (now 40 — yes FORTY — years old) with Patrick Moraz on keyboards, and the “Sound Chaser” opening freaked out a lot of long time Yes fans. Now, of course, it’s classic, and for $40 you can relive the moment (stream it to your Sonos Play:1!)

Seven For Seattle

I have been to Seattle exactly twice before: once in 1986 for a meeting of everyone involved in UCSD’s MOSIS project (small-scale VLSI fabrication for students) and once in 2001 with the Bubba for the MLB All-Star Game. Finally got to spend more than 2 nights in the Emerald City, and I have to say that it’s a place I’d revisit — Seattle gets many things “right.” Here are just seven of them:

1. On game day, everyone is a fan. Perhaps this was a function of bisecting the main walking paths to the stadium, but everyone was in their Seahawks gear – attending the game or not. Businesses have their 12th man signs up, and restaurant and store staff were dressed to cheer on Sunday.

2. Cleanliness counts. It’s the cleanest downtown area I’ve seen, probably due to the street sweepers out at 7:00am every day.

Vacuum Press at Seattle Coffee Works

Vacuum Press at Seattle Coffee Works


3. Starbucks is the mass market, coffee is the main market. I studiously avoided Starbucks in the city of its founding and instead had cold brew coffee in four different boutique shops, including a store front on Pike called “Monorail Espresso” that was so smooth that I ventured out without a jacket — twice — to grab a large one during conference coffee breaks.

Mount Ranier, as seen from the Space Needle

Mount Ranier, as seen from the Space Needle


4. Nature is literally in the backyard. The majesty of Mount Ranier is hard to escape, and only 60 miles south of Seattle proper it brings hardcore outdoors right to your doorstep. While people in the Northeast buy “outdoor gear” that might suffice for a blustery November day, Seattle outdoors folks are sealing out the elements in $500 Arc’teryx jackets that are meant for, you know, mountains. Big ones.

Pike Place Market, Seattle

Pike Place Market, Seattle


5. Public conversation works. The Pike Place Market is thriving, and not just from the “guys throwing fish” — it’s full of artisan shops, local green grocers, and buskers. Goes to show that you can combine maker culture and historical significance and produce a result that has legs and appeals to a wide range of interests beyond tourists.

6. It’s a foodie city. Start with a core of dedicated seafood places and a unique supply (Alaskan king crab, dungeness crab, coho salmon), whisk gently with the emergent restaurants in the Ballard district, season with some serious hamish burger joints, and top off with the fresh fruit and produce in the markets, and you have a foodie mecca. Where to start? Wild boar burger at 8oz Burger, possibly top ten dinner at Art Of The Table (still dreaming of grilled broccoli with preserved lemon), and fruit and vegetables that you can only dream of on the east coast? (romanescu broccoli? lobster mushrooms? medjool dates for $7 a pound?) This caught me by surprise; I figured I’d be eating salmon on a stick (which I did, but only once).

7. Comics FTW. Three different people commented on my “Coffee of Doom” t-shirt from Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content – not only that they liked it, but knew the strip, knew the reference, and had met Jeph during one con or another. I got better sight reading from strangers on Pike Place than I did from carefully curated comic placements in my LISA talk, but that’s on me.

All in all, a fun week in a fun city. Can’t wait to come back. And I’ll be hungry (again).

Apple Is Beat(s): Calling the Top

Disclaimer #1: I completely suck at picking stocks, and offering insight into the stock market, which is why I do not manage my own investments. Evidence is littered all over these posts.

That said, I’m calling something of a top in Apple on the basis of paying $3.2B for Beats. While the NY Times and O’Reilly editor Mike Loukides call out the two extreme views (Apple is a luxury brand, Apple wanted the streaming service), my view is much more cynical.


Disclaimer #2: Mike Loukides edited my first O’Reilly book, and I provided technical input on one of his, and he remains one of the most pragmatic technical writers I know.

The basis for my cynicism is that I’ve tried Beats headphones, in both the earbud and over-ear styles, and I don’t like them. I find them way too bass heavy, subtracting from the color and richness of the source material, and if you read the comments on amazon.com, their quality is lacking. I’m not sure of the actual demographics of their product sales, but a quick sampling on the NYC subway shows the Beats crowd is largely male and young. That’s a microcosm of, say, the iPhone demographic. Teenage and early-20s men are not a long-lived style-driven market; and likely not one worth more than $3B.

If Apple did buy Beats for the streaming service, why wouldn’t they just build their own? Backend technology mergers are always messier than they appear, and Apple certainly doesn’t need the online eyeballs (or earballs, as my sister used to refer to listening capacity). What I see is Apple buying someone else’s (possible) innovation, buying in deference to current high-end style definition, and buying a low quality product. If you believe that technology runs in cycles (either 25-year long cycles or waves of 10-year cycles), then the cycle begun when Jobs rejoined Apple at its helm is in its denouement. It’s just a very bottom-heavy tail end.

Thirteen on 13

I made a conscious effort to quantify more things in 2013 – my weight, health, reading habits, and a catalog of good things. Somehow the quantified self didn’t roll over into the more reliable self, but my Withings stats would tell you mathematically. Three weeks into the new year I don’t have resolutions per se that have been broken, but my lack of regular writing output also includes a failure to write an annual list (see 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2011 2012 historical references). This marks a decade that I’ve been writing publicly, which is an entire lifetime on Internet time. Rather than delve into a “best of” that’s already time deprecated, here are thirteen good things about 2013:

  1. Celebrated 25 years married to Toby. When we were 8 years old, and I saw her standing on the deck of a beach house in Harvey Cedars, I feel in love for the first time. That was 43 years ago, and she’s spent more than half of them with me. I am blessed. We celebrated with Israel, Ukraine, good friends and a lot of strange foods.

  2. Started a new job. After working for technology vendors for nearly 25 years, I seized an opportunity to go back to applied technology full-time. The problems are thorny, require the right mix of computer science and design, and I have a great team.

  3. Rediscovered the joy of recorded music. Working from home most days meant that “drive time music” was whatever I was humming while stumbling down the stairs. I’m now listening to an average of three albums a week commuting to that new job, and it’s great. Music defeats the aggravations of New Jersey traffic, weather, and makes for a nice segue between venues.

  4. Experienced one of the best hours of live music ever. Shared with good friends and our son, at Jones Beach, as a 6-hour rain storm ebbed and we wrung ourselves out, I heard Phish do a tour-de-force of my musical history. Oh yeah, got to meet Trey before the show too. All part of one of the best years of live music in a variety of venues, from Phish arena shows, to Rush, Frampton and Joe Bonamassa in smaller theaters, to some local area acts in Boston and western Massachusetts.

  5. Went to a Phillies game with my father and ran the circle of life counter clockwise. This time I took the pictures as he walked the bases post-game, at the modern instantiation of the same ballpark where I saw my first major league ball game and my real life hero took pictures of my boyhood sports hero (Willie Stargell, Pirates at Phillies, circa 1973).

  6. Witnessed one of the best displays of sportsmanship ever while dressed as Santa, handing out candy canes post-practice. One of my mite-aged hockey players asked for an extra candy cane for his brother who left the ice early. Sometimes being on Team Santa is its own reward.

  7. Visited the Ukraine for an exploration of my own history that was more emotional than I had anticipated. And more revealing. As my Uncle Ziemel used to say, “Nothing that is broken off is truly lost as long as you remember to search for it.” Half of a street address on the back of a 100 year old photograph tied together the threads of how my great-grandfather made his way from a small village to Kiev to Rotterdam to New York.

  8. Spent time with old friends. There is nothing better than re-igniting the sense of familiarity you shared a decade, ten area codes, four moves and a few kids ago.

  9. Toured the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Between Babi Yar in the Ukraine, the Day of Remembrance in Israel, and the World Trade Center site, I had a hat trick in understanding the impact of conflict.

  10. Sipped a coffee sitting outside of Cool Beans in Bay Village, on Long Beach Island, where I’ve spent at least a long weekend in about 80% of my summers. Even though some of the old haunts seemed smaller seen from the height of adult perspective, the memories were just as wonderful. And Crust and Crumb elephant ears are still worth every single calorie.

  11. Got kicked out of the Academie Francaise in Paris. After joking about it for more than 30 years, first with friend Steve, then with our daughter, I took a detour after a work meeting. Epitomizing American swagger, I walked in and was promptly asked to leave, but not before thoroughly butchering every known conjugation, pronoun and tense to get my picture taken by the security guard. It was one of the more weird things on my bucket list, but if Madame Scharf is reading this, Sheris and I were listening the whole time.

  12. Sat in on a recording session in one of the most intimate, well-engineered studios in New Jersey. Details coming on the band, the results and the process, and yet another bucket list item checked.

  13. Read more than thirty books, venturing away from a steady stream of science fiction to learn musical backstories.

There are any number of things that form the background radiation of a good year: Having kids make good adult life decisions, going to Israel, getting to work on interesting projects, loving every day that my wife puts up with my craziness, fixing my first guitar pedal and feeling like all of those late nights in the basement of E-Quad weren’t a total waste.

Half A Generation Since 9/11/01

Time is a strange lens through which to view major events. For those that embody joy, the details get larger and grander, whether it’s reviewing our salad days in college or the smooth texture of soft serve ice cream on an August night. When the event is traumatic, or life-changing, time tends to amplify the context around it. We remember where we were when Kennedy was assassinated, or the Challenger exploded, or what we were doing on the morning of 9/11/01. Looking back years later we assemble some framework for better understanding things. Or the distance of time simply helps us understand our biases. Four decades later, I find my dislike of Bob Newhart has nothing to do with him as a person or actor; it’s because the first time I ever saw him on TV was the night my grandmother was killed in an accident and I stayed up late with an uncle. It’s what a kid in single-digit years remembers.

There is no 5- or 10-year decade marker to help us segment and measure our distance from the events of 9/11. But twelve years is roughly half a generation; if we use an historic yardstick we are entering the adulthood of our memory of that day. Over the course of 25 years we tend to view things through the eyes of our children or their children; in half that span we should acquire a more seasoned, reasoned perspective on things. The Jewish celebration of a Bar Mitzvah happens when the child is thirteen years old – an adult in the eyes of the congregation – typically with a year of preparation, learning and good deeds leading up to accepting that increased self-awareness and responsibility to the community.

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This summer I finally visited the 9/11 memorial and located Phil Rosenzweig’s name on the northwest corner of the pool. He was a tremendous engineer and co-worker. The memorial is appropriately somber, simple and commemorative to all victims. The night before we had visited the 9/11 memorial in West Orange, where I saw my college friend Karen Klitzman’s name and age at the time — 38 years old — which would put me a chronological bar mitzvah older this year.

Next year, the true 13-year anniversary of 9/11/01, will also be the fourth decatrienniel (4×13 years) birthday of yours truly. No coincidences in life, just milestones to prompt us to more self-inspection.

The Stargell Bobblehead Obsession

What’s in the confluence of eBay, late-night PowerPoint editing, and a disgust with Alex Rodriguez that borders on something you accidentally stepped in while using a public bathroom in the Port Authority? Bobbleheads. Willie Stargell bobbleheads and figurines, to be specific. After re-arranging my desk (retired the tired old iMac desktop, moved some pictures around, and decided to aggregate anything Stargell-oriented on its own shelf) I made the fatal mistake of seeing what eBay might have to offer to fill up my personal Hall of Resin Fame.

Willie Stargell Bobblehead Collection

Willie Stargell Bobblehead Collection

I use eBay for a work break the way I used to use a box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies as a paper-writing motivation. You start with a small reward, then you’re up to a cookie each time you finish a page, and the whole thing collapses when you’re alternating word completion and cookie bites. In many cases, it starts with a simple search to see what new and exciting items I might have to add to a collection, or what inventories are showing up in the resale market. And this turned into an itemization of the various and sundry Willie Stargell bobbleheads available. Because if one mass-produced resin tribute to your boyhood hero is good, then ten of them reflect a healthy obsession. Or a flush PayPal account. Even if one of the figures is from the Danbury Mint, and owning anything from a pseudo-mint in one of America’s worst traffic states is a sign that there’s an AARP card with your name on it.

My desire to collect is also driven by a need to reconnect with my happier memories of baseball: A time when players had jobs in the off-season, and realized they were lucky to be playing a game for at least part of the year. Teams that had character, like Pittsburgh’s “Lumber Company” of the late 70s (Stennett, Sanguillen, Parker, Oliver, Zisk, Stargell, Hebner – 7 out of 8 position players who could deliver a hit when needed). Ballplayers who were humble, self-effacing, and hustled, all without the benefit of a lab in Florida. This counter-balances the rising tide of disgust I feel for the Yankees. They have the audacity to charge ticket prices that would bankrupt a family of four, hold onto or re-sign aging players in some hope they will jump-start a team without a soul, and find themselves in fourth place due to their inability to have both pitching and hitting on the same night. A-rod’s insistence on turning every stepping stone in his sordid path from post-season disappointment to Pete Rose sentence companion just pours more fuel on the fire. I’m quietly cheering the Red Sox, and of course the Pirates, knowing that somewhere “Pops” is smiling that his Bucs have figured out all of the pieces of the puzzle and might be headed to the playoffs. My Stargell shrine cannot hurt, of course.

Doctorow’s “Homeland” Hits The NY Times Bestseller List


Cory Docotorow’s newest YA novel, “Homeland”, hits the NY Times YA bestseller list in week one. Called it.

It’s a superb followup to “Little Brother,” and Cory’s found a good balance between technical exposition and moving the story along, with decidedly less snogging and more insight into the root causes of greed and corruption. It has what DJs call a “cold ending” – it hits a strong final note that resonates, without the need to play out every single chord, making it even more thought-provoking and open to personal adaptation.

It’s now on the top of my gift list for everyone, and I’ve referenced it twice this week in various meetings.

Hockey Is Back

Hockey is back, and despite all of the bad feelings during the lockout, I’m loving it. Devils win, Flyers lose, Rangers lose.

I watched the Penguins-Flyers game just to bark at the Flyers in a warm up for the Devils home opener on Tuesday.

I’ve made up my first nickname of the season – the Kovulchuk-Zajac-Zubrus line shall be known as the Scrabble Line (total value 63, and only Valeri Zelepukin would be worth more than Zajac, based only consonant placement and not puck control).

It’s great seeing the big fourth line from the playoffs — the CBGB (Carter Bernier and Gionta’s Brother) line — back as the third line, and rookie Stefan Matteau anchoring the fourth line. Marty looks like the rest and late start served him well. Patrik Elias’ “skating age” is much younger than his chronological 36 and change. Zid looks stronger than the beginning of last season. Travis Zajac is still the man.

Everything hockey related is clearly rust-tinted. A line’s worth of Devils making sloppy passes. msg.com website was down for an hour. NHL’s scoreboard didn’t provide any updates for most of the evening. And some things never change – the MSG Network Islanders announcers still cannot pronounce Patrik Elias’ name properly, which is both disrespectful to Patty and their own profession.

Ryan Sutter-Zach Parise are a combined -2 in their Minnesota debut. I guess $194 million doesn’t go as far as it did pre-lockout. Maybe they’ll realize that Heatley isn’t the same kind of playmaker as Zajac or Elias.

#hockeyisback people. Loudness ensues.

The 2012 List

I’ve done a list in lieu of a holiday card note (since we don’t send out holiday cards) for about 6 of the last 7 years. 2012 was a pretty intense year: Giants-49ers playoff game where Bubba and I negotiated 3-hour traffic jams in and out of the Stick while laughing the whole time. Bubba’s early nod from Tufts. Giants Superbowl win. Deep, deep playoff run by the Devils, shared with good friends. Two Phish shows, three Coheed shows, Rush in the Garden with Bubba and Seamus. Another full year in the networking business, where I’m finally understanding how the acronyms fit together to make the bits flow. Trip to Israel where we had a Qassam rocket alert, and spent many hours with our “new families” on both sides of the Atlantic. Celebrating the Jewish New Year in Aruba, with services on the beach. Looking forward to a noisy house for Thanksgiving. Erik knocking out two more full comics featuring the Amphibimen, giving life to 30 years of drawings.

With a long preamble, here’s a best of:

Family Moment: In the space of a week I rented a U-Haul van and drove it round trip to Philadelphia and Boston. Moving Elana into her sophomore apartment at Penn wasn’t nearly as hard as saying good-bye last year as a first-time college parent. But after settling Ben into his dorm at Tufts, I drove the empty truck home to our now empty nest. Somewhere on the Merritt Parkway the enormity of being the parents of two adult children settled over me, and I was profoundly, deeply sad. For about fifteen minutes, and then I was much more proud of what they’ve accomplished and who they have become, and how Toby has been the most amazing partner in all things as we got to this point. Empty nesting has been fun, and it’s made me cherish every single minute with the kids since I heard the lonely bungee cords rattling around back there.

Work Moment: The composition of a 6-hour United delay, 4 hours in the Paris airport, and a mildly sketchy cab ride through Berlin put me in front of a group of our systems engineers from EMEA so we could talk about software and networks. Product engineering is full of people with great ideas, but systems engineers create great ideas under the twin duresses of time and customer expectations. Despite leaving at 4:30am the next day, it was well worth the trip. Runner up: Interview with the Newark Star-Ledger at the ribbon-cutting for Juniper’s OpenLab facility in Bridgewater.

Reading: I truly enjoyed Greg Bardsley’s “Cash Out,” and Keith Richards’ “Life.” Cory Doctorow’s “Pirate Cinema” was a very close second, but I think John Scalzi’s “Redshirts” was the best book I read this year. Just when you think it’s over, it gets you with a head fake and punches you in the heart.

T-Shirt: A very nerdy Moog t-shirt with Robert Moog’s modulator patent screened on the front. It’s a conversation starter with musicians, electrical engineers and intellectual property lawyers, sometimes all at the same time.

Nerd Toy: Declaring a tie this year. I bought a Scanbox via their Kickstarter, and not only did it cement my belief that Kickstarter is the right funding model for a whole new grass roots economy of people who build real-world things, but it convinced me to deactivate my low-quality printer/scanner devices. Whether it’s expense reports, a drawing for a video conference, or even a toy, I use my Scanbox and iPhone to generate consistently high quality, well-lit scans. And it fits in my other favorite nerd toy of the year — a Gura bag. I learned about Gura from BorrowLenses, and it has made my travel life 300% easier. I stuffed a Chiba bag with the camera equipment insert, and I tuck in my Macbook, Kindle, iPod, puzzle book, magazines, work reading, and a plethora of cords, connectors and dongles. There are enough pockets to keep things sorted by activity – creating a work place, doing work, sharing work — and the bag fits perfectly under the seat in front of me (when it’s not expanded). When I need to take my camera gear with me, I unzip the bag and pop in the insert with two long lenses, a body and a prime lens: One bag holds everything with a comfortable shoulder strap.

Thoughts for 2013: More writing. Keep a reading log (see the updated header for my first stab at this). Go see a lot of live music (on tap: Joe Bonamassa, three Coheed and Cambria shows, maybe a 3-album Yes show, hoping for a 2nd leg to the Rush tour and of course a Phish summer run). Spend as much time with my friends as I can. Lose 20 pounds. Thanks to my work friend Linda, think about a good deed every day. Play more poker but fewer hands. Enjoy every second with my kids, no matter what we’re doing. And the most important – celebrate 25 years of being married to the most wonderful woman in the world.

Sandy: The Weather Tilt-A-Whirl

You know that tilt-a-whirl down on the south beach drag
I got on it last night and my shirt got caught
And that Joey kept me spinnin’ I didn’t think I’d ever get off
“4th of July (Sandy)”, Bruce Springsteen

Week of October 22

We’re hearing reports of a superstorm brewing in the southern Atlantic, another perfectly awful confluence of tide, sea surge, tropical storm, cold weather front and good old fashioned nor’easter that makes everyone refer back to the “big one” of their own personal timelines. Tropical Storm Sandy is still a weaker news item buried between the latest local scandal and the Jets (and no, they don’t always resolve to the same thing).


Saturday October 27

We have a house guest visiting from Israel who has never seen the interior of a casino and wants to visit Atlantic City. Despite the increasingly accurate and dire predictions for the incoming storm, we drive the 120 miles south to “America’s Playgrond” where we enjoy a White House Sub Shop cheesesteak, some Formica Brothers biscotti ends (the extra-crunchy, semi circular residuals from the biscotti loaves, sold in bags so you get a cross-section of flavors) and a stroll along the Boardwalk. There’s a mandatory evacuation order in place for 4pm Sunday, but things appear relatively normal although quieter than you’d expect when every hotel was sold out going into the weekend. The hotel formerly known as the Atlantic City Hilton and Golden Nugget is teetering on the edge of insolvency (again), the empty lot where the Sands stood has some heavy equipment and a shaped sand berm rising from the debris, and the former Visitor Center has been turned into a remote police station. The latter disturbs me the most, because it means I cannot pay a ritualistic visit to Mr. Peanut, the seated, monocled, top hat sporting sculpture that graced the tourist information area. Rumor has it my favorite mascot has been busted back to Cherry Hill, not for failure to wear pants on the Boardwalk but because he was damaged or vandalized.

Mr. Peanut dots my personal beach narrative timeline, and his absence leaves me perturbed in a McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies kind of way.

The ocean looks angry. For late October, there is too much surf, the waves are clearly in the 5-6 foot range, and the sky has taken on the grey, flat tone that subtracts light and confers an unseen layer of grime to every surface. The casinos are boarding up their boardwalk-facing doors, stores are closing early, and I’m unable to pick up some salt water taffy for the trip home. Coupled with the fact that Caesars has the audacity to charge $30 to park, it’s a hat trick of bad omens.

By the time we’re back on the Parkway, the highway signs scream “State Of Emergency In Effect” to nobody in particular yet informing everyone equally, that, in fact, something Big Is About To Happen. I’m reminded of a game that my sister and I used to play called “Tornado Watch” whenever we heard those words on the summer weather forecast — we basically went outside and threw basketballs at each other’s heads until one of us connected and it ended in tears. Personal timelines again.


Sunday October 28

Every store is out of water, batteries, anything that could remotely be used to pump water, hoses, blankets, and ice. I need to pick up a few things at Home Depot (why I decided I need to replace my rusted Torx wrench set is entirely debateable in terms of my sanity and priorities) and see people buying dropclothes (to protect their windows?), sheets of plywood (to board up said windows) and extension cords. There’s a light rain failing, the parking lots are crazy and people are incredibly stressed. I’m reminded of the scene in the 1983 made-for-TV movie “The Day After” when people see the ICBMs arcing their way out of silos and realize they have half an hour left to go shopping before the world ends. So of course they buy steaks.

Most of Sunday morning is spent setting up my “emergency command center” – flashlights, battery powered lanterns, extra batteries, heavy duty construction sheeting, hammer, stapler, nails, hacksaw, chisel and laid out in the middle of the best-lit room so I can find them when needed. As I check the water levels in the sump pumps, I find out that one of the three has died of old age compounded by 20 years of silt ingestion. I set up a few buckets by that sump, and manually drain it only three inches of standing water. All of our deck furniture is tied down (basic knot making from years of sailing comes in handy), I move some outdoor plants into the living room, and pronounce the exterior of the house storm-ready.

I’m back inside in time to run the dynamic range of exhiliration, exhortation, exhalation, and threatened ex-patriation as I watch the Giants game. The sky is nearly black by kickoff. The Giants win, I meet our guest and my wife for dinner, and we’re all in bed for the absolute calm before the storm. I wish I had some salt water taffy as comfort food.


Monday October 29

I get my morning coffee and a Dunkin’ Donuts Box of Joe to go, so I have iced coffee to last the better part of a week. Stores are open but clearly calculating when they’ll close up for the day. It’s windy, but maybe nothing more than 20 MPH gusts. But the sky continues to darken, and the cloud cover is thick, grey and foreboding. Subtract out the computer generated effects of swirling clouds over national monuments and it could be a set piece for “The Day After Tomorrow” (the global climate disaster movie, not the nuclear exchange one). My sister calls this the “Gotham City look,” where the albeido of glass and steel buildings removes color and sharpness, like someone who has discovered the saturation, contrast and sharpness controls in a digital picture editor.

By lunchtime it’s raining hard, and the wind is gusting in the 40 or 50 MPH range. I can hear the rain pounding the back of the house, but it seems much milder than forecast for us. On the other hand, news coming in from Atlantic City and the barrier islands like Long Beach Island is bad — huge increases in sea level, parts of the boardwalk swept out, and in Beach Haven, reports that our favorite wing place (Chicken or the Egg) had two and a half feet of standing water in the store front before they lost their internet camera feed. I do another round of bailing in sympathy, but we aren’t (thankfully) taking on that much water in the basement.

The ATMs are out of cash. When the networking infrastructure is under duress, credit card readers become inoperable, and cash rules the day.

At 3:45pm we lose power, but it’s back on again with 20 minutes. I’m confident that we’ll survive power-wise, as we made it through Irene and the Halloween snowstorm without incident, having underground power and utility lines. The power flickers on and off a few times, but I chalk it up to switching issues and recovery from breaks in service in other areas.

We don’t get our mail delivered. This is a bad leading indicator.

My over power over confidence lasts just under three hours, as our power goes out, hard, at 7:15pm. We eat dinner by latern, using matches to light the gas range to finish off the rice and chicken. I disconnect my Mac backup drive, and move it and some other valuable items out of the most vulnerable parts of the basement. The wind is really blowing, and the rain is coming down at a 45 degree angle.

We open the shades in the living room and watch the electrical fireworks around us, a combination of what I imagine is lightning from inside the storm to power lines emitting long, blue arcs as they collapse to the brilliant orange flames and sparks of transformers that explode. From my couch, I can see the flashing blue lights of police cars racing up and down South Orange Avenue, and then the power transmission system going pop, pop, pop as trees hit lines, water penetrates equipment, and failures cascade. I try falling asleep around 11:30pm, only to get up at 1:30am when the wind picks up again to do a visual inspection.

Thankfully, all of the post-Irene repairs (new windows in my office, excavated and resealed portions of the foundation in the front of the hosue) seem to be doing their job. I go back to bed, only to be woken up at 4:30am wondering why the front of the house is being power washed. When I reassemble some mental context and remember we’re in the midst of a hurricane, the wind has probably shifted, and that it’s pitch black for a reason, I realize that water pressure is coming from Sandy, not a compressor. Falling back to sleep isn’t nearly as easy as I hear the furniture groaning against the tie-down ropes, and any number of strange shearing sounds. When I check the sump pumps, I can hear the wind whistling across the top of the chimney and the furnace exhausts, a sad, keening pipe organ to make me think of what the morning will hold.


Tuesday October 30

I’m up at 5:45am, and walk around the interior of the house to assure that in fact it’s held together. I toss fitfully for another hour, and by 7:30am I decide to see how the neighborhood has fared, starting with a walk around the exterior of our house. Damage assessment: skylight cover shredded and ripped (but didn’t tear out the skylight footing, from what I can tell). Blue spruce trees in the front and side are both knocked down, sad because we just planted the front of the house a few years ago. Big pine tree on the rear of the property line is listing at a 45 degree angle, a tall ship headed for the wood chipper, and most upsetting, a line of pine trees along the driveway has been knocked all the way over, blocking the end of the driveway and taking out our Verizon Fios line that now dangles from a root ball, both of them unceremoniously sheared off by the wind.

If that’s the extent of the damage, it’s all repairable between now and the spring time, although getting our cable (and phone and internet more importantly) back will need to wait for our power to be restored.

There’s a streetlight that was snapped off of its stanchion, laying at the end of the block. Our neighbors have an old spruce tree leaning up against their roof line. As I try to make it out to Northfield, I find my main access road bocked by a downed tree that took power and telephone lines with it. I backtrack and see that the gas station and traffic lights at South Orange and Hobart Gap are out, and there’s a huge tree blocking Hobart Gap with power lines wrapped around it, a fishing line snarl reminding me of the power of wire tension, wind pressure, and twenty feet of lumber leverage. I manage to get out to Northfield and drive by the Dunkin’ Donuts, where about 100 people are queued up for coffee and breakfast. The power outage follows service areas neatly; JCP&L customers have no power while PSE&G service seems to be in good shape, aside from houses where the main feed line was taken down by trees.

JCP&L won’t provide an estimate for service restoration, but it appears there’s a substation failure, which means about a week. “Didn’t think I’d ever get off…..” Oh, Sandy, indeed. Add another week to schedule Verizon service, and I’m looking at mid-November to be on the air again. My office is without power.

We camp at a friend’s house for an hour, getting caught up on the news and downloading email and work projects. The Jersery shore was decimated. Boardwalks swept out, bricks from the newly paved esplanade in Long Branch tossed like balls, entire houses sliding off their foundations. During one summer on Long Beach Island, the women who owned our rental house showed us pictures from “the big one” of 1962, the hurricane that joined the ocean and bay in Harvey Cedars, and left parts of Beach Haven submerged. That’s my personal history; it’s a storm to which I’ve felt some association in that it happened right around the time of my birth, and the reconstruction after that storm led to their vacation destination status. Sandy has moved front and center; 2012 replaces 1962 as the shore reshaping event. My fear is that rather than duplexes being rebuilt on higher pilings, there will be defaults, abandonments and a lot of washed out real estate for the next decade. It took Long Beach Island nearly 15 years to recover economically from the ’62 storm.

Facebook becomes a primary group communication vehicle. I’m getting greetings and well wishes from friends around the world, and they are all much appreciated. Some of our favorite shore spots are posting dispiriting news — Cool Beans, my favorite coffee shop on Long Beach Island nestled next to the Crust and Crumb Bakery in Bay Village reports that they had water floor to ceiling.

As the afternoon wears on, it’s filled with the sounds of recovery: chainsaws, wood chippers, cherry pickers moving line men into position. Crews have been out since early in the morning, as have township employees who are clearing roads and setting up barriers on major streets where the traffic lights are out — you can only turn right onto the majors, eliminating cross traffic and backups from left turns. Inconvenient but lets the police put bodies where they are needed.

Hats off to the fire, police and first aid squads. They are all working double-double time and things appear to be smooth, although seeing four national guard Hummers go by was a bit disconcerting.

The refrigerator is starting to revolt in both smell and staleness. Eggs, milk, raw food, and something that might have been from either the Cretaceous period or last Thanksgiving need to find a heavy duty garbage bag.

Supermarket is running on a generator. Most businesses are without power. It’s another dinner of reheated chicken, by latern light, followed by some planning for the next few days. I pick up JK Rowling’s “Casual Vacancy,” which I’d started before the storm, and suddenly find her characters shallow, her writing cloying and annoying and the storyline full of emotional unidimensional exaggerations. My whining sensitivity has gone up 20 decibels, probably because our house has cooled to 58 degrees. It’s dry, but dark and cold. I call JCP&L again before bed, and get no further information. They are simply buried.


Wednesday October 31

There is a small age bracket of kids in New Jersey who will think that Halloween is a horrible time of year when you have to stay indoors for fear of live wires, falling tree limbs and foul weather. We have no candy in the house, no doorbell to ring, and although our walkway and driveway are clear, there’s no light for trick or treaters to navigate.

The cellular coverage wavers between random and archaic. Enough people must be building mobile hotspots, or reverting to mobile devices for all communication, that the congestion is overwhelming. It’s the Parkway on a Sunday afternoon in radio form.

The sun shines for the first time since Saturday, fighting with remnant clouds to set the mood for a day. We are safe, we are sound, we are mostly intact, albeit cold and reling on good old fashioned face to face communication. We aren’t going to broadcast news of our misery, no whining, no being the down-trodden guy who narrates “Sandy”.

It’s time to get off the weather Tilt A Whirl.