A Bicycle Built for Two

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the on-board artificial intelligence, named HAL 9000, logic bombs when its mission imperatives appear threatened by the behavior of the humans on-board. As a result, HAL turns homicidal, and the remaining crew-member, Dave, is forced to shut it down. As he moves to disable the computer’s brain, HAL tries to convince Dave to stop — bargaining, threatening and even begging. Eventually it regresses to its early training, and begins singing the song its creator first taught it (A Bicycle Built for Two), its creepy voice dropping in speed and pitch until it… dies. Its a surprisingly poignant moment in a movie that explores the origin — and future — of life.

The experience of shutting down Facebook was remarkably similar. Deactivating an account still leaves your data with Facebook, so I didn’t just want to turn it off — I wanted to delete my data from their servers. Facebook offers a few ways to delete data in bulk, but each of them only work for a few chunks of data before they start mysteriously failing. In the “Manage Activity” section, you can select data by month for bulk actions, up to 50 items at a time, but after doing that a couple times, suddenly the “Delete” option becomes unavailable. In the “My Posts” section, you can delete by year, but after deleting a few items in a given year, it fails and the whole page gets replaced by an error message.

This is what happens if you try to remove too much of your data from Facebook

I even purchased a Chrome extension for $5 that goes through your activity and clicks delete for you automatically. But again, after a few passes, the pages fail to load and the extension gets stuck. Reloading doesn’t fix the bug, nor does switching computers, but if you come back a couple days later, things work again — for awhile. But each time you log-in to try to clean-up Facebook pops up memories to remind you of the good times you posted about on their servers. Its very much like Meta’s brain knows what you’re trying to do, and is bargaining with you: “This is too hard, why don’t you just keep your account?” “Do you really want to delete all these memories of your kids?” “Why don’t you think about it for awhile, and come back after you’ve calmed down…”

Eventually, I had to sit down and go through every post from every day, every month, and every year, for the 14 years I’ve been on Facebook and click “Delete” followed by “Yes” on each and every piece of data they had on me. It took over 8 hours of my holiday, over multiple days — and even then, they’ll helpfully store it in the trash for another 30 days — just in case I change my mind. The AI does not want to give up its precious data.

Are we sure this guy isn’t an evil robot that feeds on user data?

The thing is, even 14 years ago, I knew better than to make Facebook the sole storage location for our precious memories. Our photos are stored in OneDrive, synced to multiple computers, and in cold-storage on a pair of hard drives that rotate into an actual safe in a bank vault every 6 months. It’d take a nuclear war to eliminate our pictures of our kids. Of course, there are a variety of cute little updates from when the kids were little that almost jerked out some tears as I deleted them from Facebook — but I downloaded a copy of my Facebook data before I took that action, so now I have those backed up too:

Abi (6): I brushed my hair and Eli’s hair too!

Eli (3): “Dankoo” — meaning please and thank you

Ben (5): Daddy, what IS Elmo?

And there’s this blog. Some years I’ve blogged a lot, some very little at all. But this site has been here since Nicole and I were engaged. The data on it was made by us, the servers that store it are managed by me, and while Google is free to crawl it, I still own it, and I get to decide what to do with it. Years ago, as our kids first started getting online, we decided we wanted them to have control over their online presence, so we scrubbed our full names from the site. This site used to be the top hit when you Googled for my full name. Now, there’s a dozen other people who share my name that are welcome to have top billing. Our friends and family know where to find us, and while maybe its not as convenient as Facebook, at least this is ours — and if I ever need to unplug it, there’s just one power cord in the basement that’ll do the trick. Its just our little corner of the Internet, but it was built for us two…

I’m not becoming a virtual hermit: I’m on Twitter and Discord and LinkedIn, I’m experimenting with Mastadon and PixelFed. There’s lots of places to find me online — Facebook even still gets my data in the form of Messenger. But they’ve shown themselves to be untrustworthy, and if not intentionally evil, at least incapable of being good

In Defense of Elizabeth Holmes

The tech world’s latest villain is a woman named Elizabeth Holmes. You may have heard about her trial on the news, or maybe seen the documentary about her fall from grace. Maybe you even read the Wall Street Journal expose that started her downward spiral. We don’t know much about her as a person, save for the carefully curated public image she presented to the world during her glory days — when she was called a female Steve Jobs, and her company, the Apple Computers of the biotech world. But if the media is to be believed, we now know that she is definitely evil

Her defense at her trial attempted to position her as a victim: she was manipulated by the men in her life, and allegedly abused sexually, which somehow explains why she lied to investors and carried on the shell game that was Theranos for so long. As I write this, the jury is literally still out on whether or not her sob story will garner her any leniency. But the facts of the case are clear: her tech didn’t work, she knew it didn’t work, she lied about it, and — for a time — got rich and famous off of those lies. Eventually her sin, and that of her company, was discovered, and it all unraveled. Her company was destroyed, she was destroyed, and the hope she’d created of a new and easier way to perform medical testing was shown to be a pipe dream. She sold snake oil with the best of them, then got caught. She should be punished.

But I object to the notion that Elizabeth Holmes is some kind of super villain, the first of her kind to come up with this scheme, and pull one over on an innocent and trusting stock market. Heck, Silicon Valley is the home of “fake it til you make it” — an entire culture built on selling B.S. to complicit investors, with the hope of making some unlikely vision a reality. No, I think Elizabeth Holmes’ real crime is that she played the Tech Bro game while being female. She did literally the same thing that a thousand other “entrepreneurs” have done before her, and she did it really, really well for years. She had people believing in, not just her idea, but in her. And like so many before her, she failed. But instead of the embarrassment of that failure being limited to herself, her employees and her shareholders, the embarrassment blew back on a woke culture that needed her to be some kind of proof point, some kind of vindicating example of how feminism can destroy the patriarchy. Elizabeth Holmes wasn’t just a tech hero, she was a culture war hero — and she betrayed those culture warriors by being… the same species as the men she was emulating. Not better than, not some kind of feminist ideal; just another flawed human being. Someone who tried to do something really important, and really hard, and who pushed herself and everyone around her to reach for something insanely great… then when it became evident that it wasn’t working, tried to buy time, stretch the truth, change the goalposts — anything to avoid admitting defeat.

Was she wrong? Definitely.

Was her behavior completely human? Totally.

These are her notes to herself. Comments online suggest these are proof of her manipulative nature. But I don’t see the notes of a coniving con artist, set on deceiving and destroying her way to the top. I see the notes of a struggling human person, trying to discipline her own flaws, work hard enough to be taken seriously, and actually accomplish something for herself and those who depend on her — someone trying do all of that in a place that is disproportionately male-oriented. She didn’t set out to deceive, she set out to succeed. And the fact that she didn’t doesn’t change her worth as a person. The fact that she couldn’t bear to face defeat and lied about it doesn’t mean she has betrayed her gender and should be burned at the stake; it just means she made the same set of mistakes most of us would make in her shoes. The same mistakes that literally hundreds of wannabe Silicon Valley founders have before her. She did all of that while female, but she should face no greater consequences than her male counterparts — many of whom are lauded for the same kinds of failure.

I’m not opposed to feminism: I have two daughters and I want them to be and do whatever they want with their lives. I am opposed to the backlash she’s receiving from the culture she embodied. I’m saying that gender — and culture — factored in to the job she was trying to do — and unfairly so. And I’m saying neither should factor in to the punishment she faces for failing at that job. She doesn’t owe society some special penance because she didn’t succeed at “leaning in.” She’s just a human being who tried something really hard, and failed at it ungracefully. Here’s a list of mostly male-founded companies who fared no better. Let’s not judge her any more harshly for playing the same game while female.

The Year of Linux on the Desktop

One of the first times I heard about Linux was during my freshman year at college. The first-year curriculum for Computer Programmer/Analyst was not particularly challenging — they used it as a level-set year, so assumed everyone was new to computers and programming. I’d been trying to teach myself programming since I was 11, and I was convinced I knew everything (a conviction solidified when one of the profs asked me to help him update his curriculum.) I don’t even remember what class it was for, but we were each to present some technology, and this kid, who looked to be straight out of the movie Hackers, got up and preached a sermon about a new OS that was going to change the world: Linux. Now there was something I didn’t know…

I’d actually downloaded a distro once, and tried to get it going — I figured it would complete the set, along with OS/2 Warp and Windows NT 4 — but hardware support wasn’t there, so I gave up. But after that class, I went home and downloaded Slackware and tried it again. Everything went swimmingly until I figured out that to get the proper resolution out of my graphics card I would have to recompile the Linux kernel myself! I decided this was another level of nerdy, and that I had better things to do. Besides, I already had an alternative-OS religion I was faithful to: the barely-hanging-on MacOS.

It was around the same time that the “second coming” of Steve Jobs was occurring, and the battered Mac community was excited about their salvation. The iMac wowed everyone, and OS X provided the real possibility that Macintosh might survive to see the 21st century after all. I went irresponsibly into debt buying myself an iMac SE — an offering to the fruit company that would re-occur with almost every generation of Apple technology. I sold all my toys and stood in line for the first iPhone. I bent over backward to get someone to buy me the first MacBook Pro with a 64-bit Intel processor. My first Mac ever was rescued from a dumpster, and I’ve saved many more since.

My loving bride has since (mostly) cured me of my irresponsible gadget spending, and I’ve made something of a hobby of fixing up high end Apple computers a few years after their prime, and pressing them back into service. I edit video on a Mac Pro from 2009 — it would have retailed for more than $20k new, but I got it for $800, and have since put maybe $300 into upgrades into it. Its a fantastic machine that runs 5 different operating systems and I will keep it useful for as long as I can. Similarly, for the past 4 years I’ve done hobby development on a 2008 MacBook Pro; another fantastic machine, and while I’ve had better work laptops, I’ve loved none of them like I love that one.

But even I’m having trouble keeping it useful. A newer OS than it was ever supposed to run has been hacked to keep it going, but Apple’s treadmill continues, and one-by-one, its useful capabilities have dropped off: first I couldn’t update Office, then I couldn’t sync DropBox, OneDrive came next, and now Firefox is about to drop support. I need special software to do thermal management, since the OS doesn’t support the hardware, but despite having torn-it-down to re-apply thermal paste multiple times, it runs hot, the fans spin loudly, and it eats through batteries. It could be argued that all you really need is a web browser, a text editor and a Terminal window… but a few more modern accoutrements would be nice. After 14 years of service, I have to admit, its time to let the old girl go…

But the Apple of today is not the company I so slavishly followed in my youth. The Intel years were some of their best: upgradable, repairable hardware in beautiful cases. Now Apple exclusively makes disposable computers, increasingly dumbed down for the masses. What’s a nerd to do?

Its a bit of a joke in the geek world that the year of “Linux On the Desktop” is right around the corner. Since I first played with it in the last 90s, its come a long way — never quite getting popular support amongst the aforementioned masses, but finding its way in other places. If your phone doesn’t run iOS, it runs a version of Linux. Chromebooks also run Linux. And the Raspberry Pi, my favorite home-automating/web-serving/hardware-hacking/education-enabling $30 computer, runs Linux. In fact, I’ve been running Linux for the past 10 years — just never on the desktop.

So for this nerd, 2022 will be my year of Linux On the Desktop. My faithful 2008 MacBook Pro has found a worthy successor in the form of a 2018 Thinkpad X1 Carbon. Purchased for less than $400 on eBay, and needing only new m.2 storage (hard drive), this thing screams. It’s soft-touch carbon fibre case is almost as sexy as a Mac, but the insides are twice as capable — while running silently most of the time. Its light, but solid, with an excellent keyboard with the perfect amount of travel, and a full array of useful ports. Its inner bits are easily accessed with a couple captive-screws, making it simple to repair, and it was designed with Linux in mind, fully supported by the manufacturer on the latest Ubuntu.

So far, I’ve found no down-side to Ubuntu’s flavor of Linux on the Desktop — at least for development use. All my favorite programming environments are supported: Python, C#, Javascript and the LAMP stack. Ubuntu is nicely polished, and the native Bash shell let’s me do anything I want to the underlying OS, or any remote server. It connects to my old gadgets and my new ones, and running full out, still gets 5 hours of battery life.

I’ll continue experimenting with alternative phone OSes too. webOS won’t survive the 3G apocalypse, but Sailfish OS is promising, and having newer mobile hardware is nice — not to mention, allowing me to opt-out of Google’s data collection ecosystem. We’ll see if this machine makes it the full 14 years that my MacBook Pro did — but I’m willing to bet it outlasts any Mac sold in the past year…

Opting Out of the Metaverse

The original incarnation of the social network we know as Facebook was a bluntly misogynistic web app called “Facemash” designed to let frat boys rate how hot incoming freshman college girls were. thefacebook screenshotSocially inept founder Mark Zuckerberg followed up that hit by stealing from his friends to market “TheFacebook” initially at Ivy League schools, then as his right-place-right-time luck continued, it spread out to other schools, and eventually the world. Never in its existence would you describe Facebook’s leadership as entirely ethical.

However, there was a time where the altruistic potential for Internet and social media outweighed the dubious morals of people helming its evolution. There was a time when Facebook really did accelerate connection and communication. Early web 2.0 developers and smart phone adopters remember fondly when Facebook offered a two-way API that made it a more benevolent center of gravity for social interactions. It wasn’t originally a walled garden that collected data for sale and manipulation. It used to be a flawed but decent place to find and communicate with family and friends both new and old.

The revelations of whistleblower Frances Haugen came as a surprise to no one who knows anything about technology. Of course “Meta” knows its products cause social and emotional harm: they may be morally repugnant, but they’re not stupid. Facebook’s progression from open network for social interaction to closed environment designed to capture, addict and sell-to is easily traceable across the past decade. Virtually every change to the platform and every acquisition they’ve made has been blatantly designed to lock-down and lock-in their audience, catering to the worst tendencies of humanity to accomplish it.

I’ve agonized for the past 4 years about why I still have a Facebook account. The reasons to get rid of it are plentiful, and the reasons to keep it are few: a short list of people I love and want to hear from that aren’t on other networks. After the events (and opinions) of 2020, the list got even shorter! This year, I’ve come to the conclusion that Facebook does more harm than good, and its time to transition away from it. They’ve learned no lessons from their past mistakes — instead only doubled down on the same bad behavior that got us to this place. I don’t want to join the Metaverse; I just wanted to connect with loved ones.

So in 2022, my Facebook Profile, in place since 2007, will be deactivated. In that state, I can continue to use Facebook Messenger for direct communication. Facebook Stories also appear in Messenger, so for those who use that feature, I’ll be happy to check those out periodically. Instagram, being a Facebook property, has similarly been disabled for me since the beginning of 2021. I plan to reactivate it over the holidays to see what I missed, but then turn it off again before the New Year. I’m not sure the same policy will apply to my Facebook Profile.

Of course hearing from you is important to me. I’ve been working on ways to consume published content via RSS — a subscription-based technology that continues to be the best way to tame the Internet. Things you post in a closed network like Facebook are probably out of reach, but blogs are easily consumable, and public Instagram feeds are potentially accessible without participating in Meta’s malicious data collection ecosystem.

Being heard is also important. You can always find us here; I’m resolved to post here in more ways and more often, including the photos feed, which will get a facelift in an upcoming redesign of the site. I’ll be leveraging Twitter for brief thoughts, but you won’t need an account to that dumpster fire to follow: I’ve worked out a way to convert Twitter feeds to RSS and they’ll be on this site and in its feed. I know its a little harder to visit a website than to just scroll Facebook, but I’d posit that weaning yourself from Mark Zuckerberg’s teat is worth the effort: as a society, we can do better.

Obviously the calculus is different for each of you. For some, Facebook may not be as intrusive or offensive. But most of my life is technology, and I’ve grown to resent the Big Brother watching everything I do.

If you want to continue to use Facebook, but limit its blast radius and manage their impact on your online life, check out some tips I wrote here.

If you’re at the point where you’re ready to start unplugging, and you need help finding alternatives, let me know. I’d be happy to help you find outlets to consume, create and communicate on the Internet that are less susceptible to misuse. Until then, I hope you’ll check in here occasionally — we’d love to hear from you…

The 3G Apocalypse

There are a number of topics that I’d like to blog about, but I’m afraid our current cultural climate doesn’t leave room for the kind of nuance they’d require. Things like our conflicted feelings about getting our youngest vaccinated. We’re pro-vaccine in this house, and 4 out of 5 of us got our shots as soon as responsibly possible once we were eligible. But our 10-year old, who’s already had and recovered from Covid, is a different discussion. It requires consideration and nuance — but saying such things out loud invites input from crazy people, waiting to seize any apparent endorsement of their anti-vac stupidity. If we were to admit some trepidation about vaccinating our youngest, that might somehow give credence to the horse-paste crowd…

Here’s another such topic: 5G cellular networks. I’m going to write about the cluster that is telecommunication technology at the end of 2021, but I don’t want my technical mumbo jumbo to be interpreted as any sort of nod to the “5G networks are a secret plan by Bill Gates to control the minds of people who got microchipped by the Covid vaccine” nut jobs. There’s stupidity, and then there’s conspiracy nut stupidity. I just want to talk about the first kind.

Here in the States, all of the big cellular networks are in the process of shutting down their 2G (aka “Edge”) and 3G infrastructure, to make room for more 5G coverage. On the surface, maybe this sounds like a good plan. I remember laughing at a distant relative still clinging to their “car phone” as Canada shuttered their analog cellular infrastructure late last decade. I’m sure I thought something snarky, like “get with the times, old man.” But sometimes there’s good reason not to rush into euthanizing old technology…

What most people don’t know is 5G is not a singular replacement for previous networks — and won’t be for a long time. In fact, there’s two kinds of 5G, and there will probably have to be a third. The network technology touted by your cell phone carrier as being “next gen” doesn’t actually work inside most buildings…basically at all. So all those cell towers out there, poised to be stripped of their 2G and 3G antennas, won’t be able to help you make a call or update your Instagram if you happen to be inside a building.

Instead, a second 5G infrastructure needs to be created, one that runs on a different frequency entirely and which can penetrate building walls. The unfortunate downside of these low frequencies is that the range sucks — they won’t work outside! So we need two 5Gs, two sets of antennas, two sets of hardware in our phones, and we need to seamlessly move between them. Seems simple enough, but wait!

Turns out there’s a third scenario: places that are partially enclosed so can’t be covered with long-range 5G, but are too big to be properly covered by short-range 5G. Outdoor shopping malls, stadiums, and even “urban canyons” — downtown areas surrounded by tall buildings. These environments may require a different infrastructure again; a “medium range” 5G, that needs different antennas and different hardware in your cell phones.

Now you start to see why they need to cannibalize the older, but still functional, 3G networks — they need room on the towers to run multiple kinds of 5G networks, they need more towers, and they need more people carefully stacking the house of cards that may eventually fulfill the promise of 5G’s faster speeds. Three of everything, and then it’ll be great!

But hey, time marches on, progress in inexorable, and we should just push through these challenges, so we can be better connected, right? We gotta have our Instagram stories as fast as possible, so “get with the times, old man” and all that…

Except there’s another problem. It turns out that millions of “field devices” that depend on 3G are being killed off. 2G or 3G-enabled medical monitoring devices that give patients freedom, connected car technologies that help send life-saving aid in accidents, soil sensors that help farmers make decisions to optimize crop yields, and pipe line and oil field sensors that keep our addiction to fossil fuels fed while helping avoid ecological disasters. All of these will have to be replaced with 5G-enabled devices — and maybe replaced multiple times, until 5G finally stabilizes. 5G won’t make things better right away, in fact, its going to make them worse for a long time…

But even with all these concerns, its going to happen anyway. AT&T has already shut down their 2G network, those customers are out of luck; their 3G customers lose service in December (including all 3 of our cars, which can never be upgraded to 4G). Verizon and T-Mobile will follow suit later in 2022. When you ask a carrier what’s to be done about your old equipment, their only answer is to sell you a new phone — despite the fact that consumer smart phones are only a part of the equation, all they can offer is to take your money for something you probably don’t need.

Smart phone upgrades haven’t been worth lining up for since 2007

And let’s talk about that, because selling you a new, slightly different phone every 12-24 months is big business. Stupid people, who don’t understand that technology evolution inevitably plateaus, are still convinced by Apple that they have to have the latest iPhone. And carriers are happy to help create that need. Our kids each have an iPhone 6s — a phone released in September of 2015. Its a great phone, has all the features they need, can be purchased for about $90 used, and the only real reason to replace will happen when our cell carrier refuses to support it.

Tiny HP VeerMy personal phone is a svelte HP Veer from 2011. Its a total of 4 inches diagonal, doesn’t track my location or report my data to Google, doesn’t wake me up with notifications or bother me with ads. And if it weren’t for the 3G shut down, I’d be the crazy uncle using that thing until the hardware falls apart.

Its too late to stop the Frankenstein’s monster that is 5G. Its not going to control your brain or give you cancer — but it will continue to be a mess of a roll out. There’s not much we can do as consumers to stop this one, but there is something you can do to help break the cycle: stop buying new things you don’t need.

The good news is that if your phone has 4G, it won’t be shut down, or rendered obsolete by 5G. Because of the crappy state of 5G, 4G is likely to be around for another 10 years. So vote with your wallet, and refuse to buy a new smart phone in 2022 — from any company. If your battery is getting old, $80 will fix that. If you drop your phone in a toilet, head over to backmarket.com or eBay and buy the same model used. Don’t be tempted by the dubious promise of “faster networks” or indistinguishable improvements to cameras. Technology isn’t jewelry or a fashion trend: its a tool. Insist on tools that work, that last for years, and that don’t trap you on a treadmill of constant replacements.

Crucibles

Travel is a kind of crucible. Its a special set of challenges that not everyone has the stomach for, but it produces a kind of outcome that not everyone gets to enjoy. Air travel, in particular, is this unusual combination of stress and boredom, where everyone has to meet a schedule that everyone knows is never accurate. I’m not sure who invented the phrase “hurry up and wait” but I’m sure they were talking about commercial air travel…

Still, even with the packing and early mornings and uncomfortable seats and random strangers, and the pandemic additions of wearing a mask, having your mask fog up your glasses, worrying about the people around you who still don’t know how to wear a mask properly (it goes over your mouth and nose, folks!) the reward for putting up with it all is to experience something you wouldn’t have — couldn’t have — if you didn’t get up off your couch and get into the world.

Those experiences are something we want our kids to have — while they’re still kids. And Covid really did a number on our plans. Beginning with their 13th, we’ve told the kids that they won’t be getting any more physical gifts from us on their birthdays. Instead, we’d give them experiences — big ones on the big birthdays, and smaller but unique ones, on the others. For Ben’s 13th birthday, he got to visit Star Wars Land. For Abi’s, we’d planned a trip to Hollywood — which is close to where my office is (back when work travel was a thing!)

It came more than half a year late, but we did manage to make good on that promise this month. My first work trip since the pandemic was scheduled, then cancelled, but the opportunity for an in-person meeting in California followed quickly afterward, and we jumped on it. Nic, Abi and I masked up and got on a plane for LA, while Ben and Eli held down the fort (with some check-ins from grown-up friends in the neighborhood).

We took her shopping at the glamorous Century City Mall, where she was allowed to buy a few things, then hit Rodeo Drive, where we could never afford to buy anything. We hit Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and Abi got her eyes opened a little to what life is like outside her little rural Ohio bubble (there are as many homeless folks on that street as there are stars in the side walk), and we took a cliched tour bus to the Hills of Beverly to see where the rich and famous live. We only had one night in our hotel together (which wasn’t quite as nice as I’d hoped) but we got the next morning in beautiful Santa Monica, sipping mimosas and lemonade (as age appropriate) in a swanky brunch spot, and walking on the pier. I sent the girls home at the end of the weekend, and stayed on for a couple really fun and worthwhile in-person work meetings.

Ben also missed a birthday, plus at the beginning of a pandemic, a class trip to Chicago that he’d been really excited for. His wait was longer, but we managed to mostly restore what he lost as well, and this past weekend, he and I got on a plane for Chicago. By a wonderful coincidence (and a little planning) some sweet family friends — and Ben’s very first baby sitter — were in town too, where she was running a marathon. In between stops largely determined by the cancelled class trip itinerary, we were able to meet up with them, and cheer for her on her run.

At the top of Ben’s to-do list was the Cloud Gate, also known as the Bean, and an architecture boat tour, where we learned about the history of the Windy City. We had Chicago style hot dogs with friends, walked the River Walk by star light, took an elevator 103 floors to the Sky Deck of the Sears Tower, and visited the Museum of Science. Travel in the city was challenging, due to the marathon, but we got around by train, bus, bicycle, taxi, and about 40,000 steps. Our last stop was to congratulate the successful marathon runners over dumplings — a meal Ben was unsure of, then raved about the whole way home.

The contrast between a couple weeks of intense travel and nearly 2 years with barely any is a shocking one. My travel bag, carefully equipped to trade off weight vs essential gear, has sat neglected for so long that my shoulders still ache from the unfamiliarity (and the fact that I basically lived out of just it for most of a week). The added stress of Covid is very real, but the deal was supposed to be that if we all got our vaccines, life could go back to normal. Covid is not keeping up its end of the deal, and its not just because a certain percentage of the population continue to refuse to do their part to help end this. Sometimes it seems like there’s still no end in sight to this pandemic that has now occupied a significant percentage of our kids’ lives… but the poverty of staying in one place is not a good trade either.

Eli lost only a few Girl Scout trips. She was too young for the vaccine, and despite our efforts to protect her, she got Covid. We are grateful she got a very mild case, that it cleared up quickly, and left her with antibodies that are at least as good as (and probably better than) the shot. But we’re resolved to help her get some life back too, and next month she’s finally going on a Girl Scout camping trip.

We’ll continue to be careful and thoughtful about when and where we go out into the world. Ben and Abi’s trips were largely outside activities (malls are outdoors in California!) and airplane ventilation systems are some of the best ever created. But we won’t trade any more of our kids’ childhood for the unvaccinated or unconvinced any more. I have enough friends and co-workers that have decided against the shot or are opposed to government over-reach that I can have some empathy for their positions, but at this point, they’re choosing their own risks and I’m not choosing to shield them from those risks. I don’t want anyone to get Covid, but here in the US, I can’t stop them — and this won’t be over until it resolves in one way or another for the majority of the population. I can’t make people choose the same resolution as me, but I won’t bear their consequences any longer… and neither will my kids.

There’s dignity in facing challenges in the best way you know how (although I’d argue no one has much dignity on a ventilator). We helped our kids face the challenge of Covid the way we thought was best, and while its not over, they earned the right to experience some better things. We’re planning for more of those things for them — and we hope each of you find your best way past Covid, and that you can find the courage to get back out there in ways that challenge you and bring you joy again too…

Our First Electric Car

Five years ago I put a $1000 deposit on a Tesla Model 3. I was super excited that an affordable electric car was within reach of a middle class family: $35,000 was the promised sticker price, and I only had to wait a year or so…

A year or so later I asked for my deposit back. The long awaited vehicle arrived, with questionable quality assurance, and a price tag that was $10,000 more than forecast. I was disappointed, and frequently checked back to see if time would improve the quality and lower the price. Arguably, the quality improved. And the price did go down… a little. Today, you can get a base Model 3 for about $42k — but if you want enough battery range to replace a gas vehicle, you’re looking at $47k before tax. Maybe we could swing it, but it wouldn’t be a wise use of money. Not even with the gas savings.

A couple other things have happened since I got that deposit back,though. I got a job where I work from home most of the time, and occasional business travel hasn’t been a thing for almost two years. In fact, most of our driving is the 25 minute round trip run between home and the nearest town for school or sports or church activities. Turns out a Tesla probably would have been overkill. So after researching and hunting for a few weeks, we got one of these instead…

This is the BMW i3 REX. They retail for around $50k new, with a nice feature set. But if you hold out for one that’s 5 years old, turns out you can get one for about $17k — including tax. That’s a price tag that makes a little more sense.

Now, I’ll grant you, its a kinda funny looking. And the range and performance are not in the neighborhood of a Tesla. But 155 miles combined range is not nothing: that’s more than 7 round trips into town — 4 without the range extender.

That’s the “REX” in the name. Battery range is about 85 miles, on the most economical settings. The range extender is a little gasoline engine that kicks in if your battery starts getting low, and buys you another ~70 miles. We’ll likely never use it. A busy day might be 3 round trips, and while we don’t currently have a fast charger, we can almost recharge to that range overnight. The gas engine is just for backup, and makes for an anxiety-free way to learn about having an electric vehicle.

Right now we have more cars than drivers — although we’ll have a new driver as early as next summer. There’s a Saab resting in Ontario, and mine still has pride of place in the garage as the rarest (and sexiest!) hunk of metal I’ve ever owned. Likely one of them will have to go at some point, but since we have only a few payments left on the Volvo, and own the other three outright, we have some time to decide which setup will be best for our two teenagers to start learning on. After checking it out today, the BMW is the kids’ current favorite…

2021 Post Vaccination Road Show

Our big travel plans for 2020 were cancelled for obvious reasons, so we set smaller goals for this summer. Primary of which was seeing as much family as we could manage. A road trip on the way home was a stretch goal. Fortunately, Covid — and Canada — cooperated with both.

We started the summer off resuming our tradition of Family Camp, a beautiful spot on Lake Erie owned by our church’s denomination. For most of the time we’ve lived in Ohio, we’ve managed to coordinate with another family, and have loved watching our kids interact at least annually as they grow up. We pulled off a modified version last summer, but it lacked the structured faith-building activities that we value so much. On a previous year we bore witness to a baptism service in the lake, and Ben’s heart was set on the same setup for his own public confession of faith. We celebrated with him with great joy this year as he finally got to demonstrate his faith in a place that’s been so important to his walk with God.

Before and during camp we went for Covid tests (an activity that Abi distinctly disliked) so that we could arrive at the border with the necessary evidence of health. Combined with vaccination records for 4 out of 5 of us, we were allowed into the country — and straight into line for yet another test. Because Eli is too young for a vaccination, they instructed that she would have to quarantine… but the rest of would not. Exactly how to quarantine a 10-year independent of her family was not specified, so we were somewhat left to our own discretion. Fortunately, Eli was perfectly content to stay at the happy place that is Nana and Papa’s house. A pool, zip-line, and a big yard full of tiny off-road vehicles to ride around didn’t hurt. The rest of us generally stayed isolated for most of the two weeks anyway — although Nicole and I did manage to find some time to ourselves and to make a few connections with friends. (Apparently the Canadian government has since realised that quarantining a 10-year-old is silly, and have lifted this requirement for kids too young to get vaccinated.)

Eli earned her freedom with one extra Covid test and the completion of her two-week personal lock-down just in time for the next set of family to arrive. My parents made their way from Grand Cayman, via Ohio for their necessary testing, and my sister bravely made the flight from Calgary with her two little ones. It had been 3 years since this set of cousins was together, but it was wonderful! We were so glad they were able to make some memories together.

After 3 weeks in Ontario, it was time to start our trip home — via the scenic route. Aside from being desperate to see some more of the world, we had purchased an awesome road trip vehicle not long before Covid hit, and had yet to really stretch its legs. 2100 miles of Eastern Canada the the US made for good proving grounds…

Our first stop was north-east of Toronto, in Prince Edward county, where we visited old friends in their summer getaway spot on Lake Ontario. The next day, at their advice, we took a ferry toward Ottawa, where we paused in traffic only long enough to take a few photos of the seat of our government.

We spent more time in Quebec, enjoying a posh stay in Montreal one night, and an afternoon exploring Quebec City the next day. Both were highlights, but Quebec City and surrounding area were absolutely stunning. Our plan for the next night did not work, and the kids got to experience their first roadside motel — it was clean and safe, but we didn’t linger the next day, and pushed straight for New Brunswick.

In Fredericton we met up with some more friends — 2 out of 4 sisters, all of whom we think are pretty special. One, a former travel companion, the other a former babysitter who played an important part in our kids’ lives when they were young. We loved the little city of Fredericton, but loved even more reconnecting with friends, and watching our 3 kids love on their former babysitter’s foster kids!

The next day we headed for the border to cross into Maine. Apparently that was a mistake, because while they were very nice, and repeatedly assured us that all our paperwork was in order, they had no idea how to process our status, and we ended up sitting in silence on a hard wooden bench for 90 minutes while they pulled out giant binders that described the procedure for letting us in. When we finally were approved for re-entry, we drove straight for a walk-in clinic… then to a second one, since the first wouldn’t see me, for long overdue diagnosis and care for an ear infection that had been plaguing me since before we hit the road. (For the record, an ear infection is NOT a symptom of Covid, no matter what the dumb receptionist at a walk-in clinic tells you!)

We again settled for bare minimum accommodations for the night, and woke up early for more sight seeing. Portland, Maine, and surrounding area, have some definite charm — but don’t quite live up to the hype in my estimation. We took in what we could, including some lunch, and headed for Boston to visit some more old friends. Our second last night ended in Poughkeepsie, NY for no reason other that it was en route home.

At this point we were all a little road weary, but we managed a driving tour of historic Gettysburg, before landing at a comfortable hotel outside Pittsburgh. Thanks to Facebook, we made one more connection with an old friend for lunch, before splitting up to two different conclusions to our roadshow. Nicole and the kids headed home to pick up a new crop of baby chicks, and I stayed on in Pittsburgh for my first in-person work event since Covid hit, as a guest speaker for a smart manufacturing boot camp.

There were some allowances made for the state of the pandemic: we wore masks everywhere we went (even when we were the only ones doing so!) and our trip wasn’t quite a leisurely as it might have been if our month wasn’t squeezed by two weeks of unnecessary quarantine. But with these adjustments the trip felt safe and… almost normal. We got to reunite with family, we got to connect with friends, and we got to explore places we’d never been before. I might have some additional thoughts on the dual insanity of America’s lack of love for neighbor and Canada’s fear-based government over-reach, but in the end, we managed to make life work in the middle of a pandemic, and I think that means things are getting better. Here’s hoping next summer’s adventures can be even more… adventurous!