In the same day, I happened to encounter two things that got me thinking about "the digital age," in the broader sense. The first was an article in the New York Times about Amish adoption of technology. Then, as I was flying solo for the evening while Diana was working, I decided to watch Dave Grohl's Sound City documentary again. The former talks about the desire in the Amish culture to not allow the information age to short circuit their values, while the latter (in addition to some excellent music history) talks a bit about how the digital revolution was not great for the world of music. As someone who graduated from high school in 2001 and college in 2005, my coming of age story is very much coupled to this computerized revolution, and it's at the foundation of my professional success.
The Radio & Television department of Ashland University routinely held a PBS-style auction to raise money. The department had a few dozen students at any given time, but even with our lab fees, we certainly couldn't afford a ton of equipment without some extra help. The big ticket auction items ranged from big stuff like a Geo Metro car (selling for around $9k in 1992), to a computer around $1,500 (which my dad won, actually), to a ton of minor items donated. It was the last auction they ever did, sadly, but it pushed the department into the digital age in several important ways. We scored a digital "still store," a computer that served still images for use in broadcast. Prior to that, we showed still images on slides projected into a video camera. We also built a multi-track audio studio from that, 8 analog tracks on 1/2" tape, but a year later we adopted a digital audio system that stored audio on a hard drive. I think we stored our "A" and "B" rotation on that machine, in addition to a variety of stabs and ID's. It was a precursor to totally automated radio, which by the time I started working in Cleveland radio in 1995, was nearly a thing.
The Internet had been around for years by that point, but the commercialization of it was just starting to blossom. In 1994, a senior in college, I remember drinking a bottle of Zima with "http://www.zima.com" on the back of the label. After a lot of messing around on my advisor's computer to get the World Wide Web to work, I saw my first commercial Web site. I could not have dreamed at the time that this thing I was looking at would be where I would base my professional life.
In the years that followed, I would start to see the gradual transition of video to a digital medium. In the three years that I worked in government television, I started with analog S-VHS video tape, and by the time I left three years later, I was recording on digital tape and editing with a computer. A year or two after that, I was even able to do that in my home, which is not something I imagined while still in college.
In 1998, I started publishing content on the Internet, a hobby that continues to this day, and one that at times paid my mortgage during times of unemployment. A new opportunity that was unimaginable even a year or two earlier merged.
When I transitioned out of the broadcast world into the Internet world, I recall an encounter that seemed entirely inconsequential at the time. A guy I didn't work with directly had showed me something called iTunes on his Mac, and a device called an iPod in 2001. My vision of the usefulness of this arrangement was incredibly limited, in part because committing my collection of CD's to computers would have been cost prohibitive at the time. In fact, for the next six or seven years, even when I purchased music digitally, I would still burn it all to CD's.
Meanwhile, just as you didn't need a video editing suite with thousands of dollars of equipment to make video, you certainly didn't need much more than a home computer to record music. Indeed, the democratization of creation was occurring. No one would understand this more than me, when in 2005 I started recording a podcast that would eventually be listened to by thousands of people.
In 2007, the iPhone was introduced, and while smart phones were already a thing, it would lay the groundwork to transform our culture to make it more connected... and maybe too connected.
The Amish story in the NYT and the Sound City story have a common thread: A lack of constraint, enabled by technology, makes it easier to be less human. The Amish are able to maintain a level of interconnectedness in their community. Musicians in Sound City were forced to rely on creativity because tech couldn't help them "perfect" their recordings.
Let's be honest, this does sound a little "get off my lawn"-ish, or crusty curmudgeon. Nothing is more annoying than a "back in my day" story. I think life has benefitted greatly from the advancement of technology, but novelty can certainly influence how we look at its use. For example, we know that furniture made by machines is efficient and makes it less expensive. However, we appreciate and understand the value of something made by hand, to the extent that we'll pay more for it in terms of money or our own time.
The thing that I've learned is that there is a certain advantage to knowing something before and after a particular technological advancement. For example, I learned to edit video on tape, before it was possible (or economical, at least) to do it with a computer. The constraint of having to think more deeply about how you were going to cut a show, to plan it out, made for better results. I was able to take those skills to the computerized world, but the tools still enabled a new creativity by allowing for more experimentation.
Ultimately, I think our ability to treat technology as a tool is the thing that separates the blessings from curses. There's nothing wrong with using these networked supercomputers in our pockets if it means we're learning, improving our lives and the lives of others, enjoying the benefits of automation and connectivity. When we use the same tool to isolate ourselves from the world in front of us, that's not good. It's OK to embrace technology provided you don't lose context.
Irma was our second hurricane since moving to Florida, though we ended up not being home last year for Matthew, as we traveled to North Carolina for a wedding. That storm brought my first lesson about hurricane forecasting, that you really can't be sure what to expect until the last few days. A track just 30 miles more west would have resulted in much stronger winds for us.
That uncertainty was still a thing with Irma, but only in the sense that we didn't know for sure how bad it would be. We'd get a fairly close hit regardless, and the scary variables applied more to the coasts. Being inland, we could have the reasonable expectation that winds at worst would be 80 to 90 mph, but because of the uncertainty, they could be low as 40. Power outages and water loss were probable, though against the odds, our power outage was brief and after the storm. People in neighboring areas still don't have power, almost a week later.
It was Friday night that I heard from a friend, who had a relative in one of the NOAA recon planes, that indicated the northern turn would come later than expected, pushing the storm up the gulf coast instead of the Atlantic. Sure enough, the revised track that night put Tampa at risk. That was a significant change only 48 hours out from the worst of it.
One thing that was clear: The National Hurricane Center forecasts every six hours were the critical source of truth. The text of their forecasts were pretty straight forward and offered explanations around why the storm was strengthening or weakening, and importantly, the bearing and speed of the storm. It was free of the nonsense that the local TV stations engaged in. As the storm was tracking NNW by Lakeland, one of the locals (I'm looking at you, WESH) was instilling fear by insisting that "the eye wall is headed right for Orlando!" The NHC was pretty clear about this: The storm center had been moving at about 330 degrees with every hourly update, not directly north, and "eye wall" was a bit of an exaggeration for a storm that had been dragging across land for hours. The Weather Channel was almost as bad, with about 5% information and 95% nonsense like having those assholes standing out in the wind.
Once the first bands started crossing through, there was some risk for tornados, and that's where a good radar app helped. The National Weather Service issues warnings for entire counties, which doesn't make a lot of sense for the giant counties in Florida. While the text of the warnings describes the locations of the action, the app shows the bounding boxes and tracking cones for individual cells. That helped us see that a tornado warning applied to the northeast part of the county, and we could see an extreme wind warning to the south issued in the neighboring county (which fortunately lapsed without a replacement near us).
Precipitation radar isn't the whole story though, and that's another way that TV and the feds differed. Heavy rain is less concerning when you're not in a flood prone area, but wind is important. Having a radar app that does wind as well is helpful.
We ended up topping out with sustained winds in the mid-50's, gusts up to the 70's. Some folks lost some shingles, but trees took the worst of the damage in the neighborhood. Our location is just about as ideal as you could have while still in Florida.
Disclaimer: Many years ago, I had a relationship with CoasterDynamix, as I built their first web site back in 2004. That said, other than a long-time friendship with one of the principals in that business, I bought these kits myself through their Kickstarter campaign, and I have no financial interest in this review. I want to make that clear in the interest of keeping it real.
A very cool package was delivered today, as the CDX Blocks Cyclone came today! Actually, three of them came today, because that's what I backed when the project was just a cool idea on Kickstarter. CoasterDynamix has sold a lot of really cool roller coaster model products over the years, but this is probably the coolest of them all because it's Lego-compatible.
You probably know that Lego's patent for their block system expired quite a few years ago, so really anyone can make bricks that are compatible. Most of these "compatible" products absolutely suck. The plastic just isn't the right consistency, they don't snap very well or they squeak. Actual Lego might be expensive, but the bricks are without question of an incredible and uniform quality. They've been making them for decades and they all still work together. It's with that knowledge that some healthy skepticism is warranted when considering anything made by anyone not Lego.
Having gotten to know the CoasterDynamix guys over the years, I know they get off-shore manufacturing, and the risks associated with it. What they've delivered, a little later than initially expected (sounds like getting through customs is hard for inanimate objects and not just foreign folks), is remarkably good quality plastic "Lego" parts. It's not perfect, but it's so close to actual Lego that I suspect most people won't know the difference.
There were two trains in the box, which surprised me, but I vaguely recall that being a bonus if they reached a certain funding goal on Kickstarter. If you're the kind of person that likes to sort all of your pieces before you start (I don't, as I like the numbered bags), you might just love that almost every category of brick comes in its own bag. The instructions are not long, and they're easy to follow. You essentially build the structure in three sections, then join them together and add the track. The only thing that wasn't clear is that there are two angled wedge sizes to bank the track, and it wasn't obvious until near the end when the same step used both sizes. The smaller ones are used in the transition to a turn, while the bigger ones are used through the body of the turn.
The only thing difficult about the build is snapping on the rails, because they're really rigid. Given my occupation, I don't work a lot with my hands, so they're not very durable, and the pressing started to hurt a bit toward the end. But if you've played with any kind of roller coaster model at all, you know that rigidity is what makes these things work. A squishy track or support system bleeds energy and it risks not completing the circuit.
The trains show what CoasterDynamix has always done well, in that the wheels are metal and low friction. There is some room there to stick some mini-figs in the seats, if you desire, and nothing would be better than putting a Storm Trooper, a fireman and ninja together.
Total build time was about three hours, and the most tedious part of that is assembling the 194 chain links. It's visually very satisfying, and would look great along side the Lego carousel or ferris wheel. My 7-year-old son has already decided that we need to build a station. I'm really happy with the end product!
If there's any takeaway from HGTV, it's that a lot of people really hate big new construction neighborhoods and production builders, because of something about cookie cutters or something. Me, I'm not really that picky, because my house doesn't need to be a snowflake, I just really want to like the floorplan. My neighborhood is a Starwood development, and last count I think there were a total of eight builders, plus a series of customs on the lake, so there is actually a fair amount of variety. Actually, KB Home allowed way too many of the one model with the same front elevation, but it's not intolerable.
There is a win in all of this new construction though, in that it all had to be built to more stringent building codes that came after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the triple storms of 2004. As we're now getting closer to the completion of our second Florida house, I'm totally amazed at the way these things are built. And now that I've experienced a storm transitioning from Category 2 to 1 with its center about 50 miles away, inside of one of these houses, I don't think the building code is overkill.
To start, the first floor is made of concrete block. Rebar buried in the concrete slab is tied up through the block to the wood structure above, whether that's the roof or the second floor. Bundles of 2x4's around the perimeter and even in the middle of the house are strapped down to the foundation and metal straps secure the roof. In the new house, this was particularly impressive in the two-story living room, because you could see how one of the main roof trusses were tied down all the way to the floor. There are also some things about physics and negative pressure that apparently also contribute to keeping a roof on. And stucco is a kind of cement, so it's super durable on the outside.
Being this far inland from both coasts has its advantages too, in that a storm has to be dragged across land to get to us, and that limits the destructive potential to a degree, especially without storm surge. I know the talking heads on the TV (I have a lot of thoughts about that, for another post) would have you believe that all of Florida was going to sink into the ocean, but the science is such that odds are pretty low to have a storm of such consequence that modern houses would suffer massive destruction. Older homes, or those not retrofitted with more current code standards, would be vulnerable. But you know, these so-called cookie cutters can take a beating. We got to see it with sustained winds over 50 mph and gusts in the 70 to 80 range. It was fucking terrifying, but the extent of our damage is some water seepage along the floor on the southern side, where the utilities come in.
This unusual storm had a lot of energy after passing by without the moisture. I didn't really sleep much, and when I tried at 8 a.m., I couldn't. So I went for a walk, perhaps unwisely as it was still blowing at a solid 30 mph. The retention ponds were very high, and the adjacent lake was at least 3 feet higher than normal, but together there was no imminent threat of flooding. Lots of trees were down, but not broken, a phenomenon we used to see almost every thunderstorm the first year we were here. (The soil of the mature tree root balls doesn't match the sandy stuff they're put into, so they tend to rotate almost like they're in a socket joint.) Some of the houses on the hill lost some shingles, though there's some speculation about whether that's due to the builder or the location. Lots of fence damage, too. Most annoyingly, the cheap boxes where the cable company stashes their house connections were all over the neighborhood. Mine only migrated as far as our bushes. Our neighborhood has been an oasis of sorts, because we did not lose power.
Despite what seems like an arbitrary curfew lasting until 6 p.m., the people in our neighborhood were out everywhere, helping each other clean up, sharing stories and in some cases beverages. Kids were out playing after being holed up for 36 hours. I've never seen this many people out and roaming about. It was nice to see people engaging like that as a community.
Now that the worst has passed, it's sad that there are places in the Caribbean that are uninhabitable and running out of food. And the coastal impact in Florida wasn't anything like we expected, where Tampa ended up relatively unscathed, but Jacksonville got nailed. The size and scope of this storm broke all of the rules. At the end of the day, all we really lost was a night of sleep. We've got friends coming over to at least get showers and phones charged, as they're still powerless and might be for a few days. It's important to keep perspective, for sure. I'm thankful our unoriginal home kept us safe.
At about noon today, we'll start to get tropical storm force winds in Orange County, which is fortunately not full on hurricane force (74 mph and up). That's not actually uncharted territory for us, because we were in Ft. Myers for Fay in 2008, shopping for wedding venues the week before. That landed with winds in the 60's, which is what our forecast here calls for. The potential for tornados on the front end is frankly more worrisome than the sustained winds.
We knew a week ago that Irma would have some impact on us, it was just a question of what that would look like. Extended periods without power and water are really the biggest issues we deal with in Central Florida, particularly if you live in newer construction. A direct hit of a storm this big from the south would result in 80+ mph wind. A direct hit from the east or west, coming straight in, could get us over 100, but this too is really unlikely, though certainly possible. As it turns out, the direct south hit almost came with this storm. The important thing to understand is that hurricanes this far inland are not the same experience as they are on the coast. They can still be dangerous, sure, but without the ocean component and storm surge, it's a different kind of dangerous. I'm not aware of this area ever having to evacuate.
And that's the crazy thing about hurricanes, but especially this one. You know a week out that something will happen, so you have to prepare for it regardless. Last year, we ended up being in North Carolina during Matthew, but had the storm moved even 30 miles west up the Atlantic coast, Orlando would have seen some serious shit. With Irma, even three days out we were expecting an Atlantic track, then the day before last, a direct hit up the middle. In the end, it was pushed up the gulf coast.
We have a bunch of ice made and can probably preserve food for a day and a half if we lose power. Plenty of bottled water in case we lose that, with a bathtub full in case we need it to flush toilets. (The water quality here kind of sucks to begin with, so we don't drink it without filtering.) We have plenty of battery packs to charge phones for at least five days. We can be plunged into the dark ages for a few days without too much discomfort.
If anything good could come out of this, we went to Epcot Friday night for a few hours, where in a shut down for light rain, Simon got the VIP treatment from the Test Track crew and got to walk the empty queue. Then for Saturday, we went to Magic Kingdom, where it wasn't busy, and he got to ride his favorite three roller coasters with his new buddy. When that was done, we went back to Epcot, and got to ride the three big rides: Test Track, Frozen and Soarin', in the span of three hours. It was one of the best Disney days ever.
This afternoon gets noisy, but at least I know what to expect. Probably won't sleep much.
Way back in my college days, I bought a radio scanner from Radio Shack. We had one in the newsroom of our college TV station, and it was kind of cool to hear when there were fire dispatches or big police actions. As it turns out, there were other interesting things to listen to as well, not the least of which was campus security and the cordless phones that you weren't supposed to have in the dorms because of the obvious bandwidth constraints at the time (cordless phones used only 10 channels at the time). I'm not sure why people thought that was a secure way to use a telephone. You could also listen to air traffic, and my favorite thing, the Skywarn nets, where people drove around reporting storm damage via amateur radio that could largely be seen on radar.
I make fun of those guys, because technologically, amateur radio isn't particularly interesting or even necessary these days. But prior to the late 90's, they definitely delivered a great public service that probably saved lives when there was particularly severe weather, especially with tornados. With the Internet and fairly robust cellular service, to say nothing of advances in radar and measurement devices everywhere, they're a little obsolete. Until, of course, some massive disaster or nuclear war knocks us back into the stone age... then the radio guys will be survivors.
These days, my scanner is hopelessly obsolete, but even the newer models are of limited use because law enforcement in particular tends to encrypt their radio traffic. I think it's outright illegal to decrypt it if there was some technological way to do so. So yeah, you could receive the signal, but you wouldn't be able to listen to it. I had been entertaining the thought of upgrading for a year, but once I finally looked up the data, I decided it wouldn't be that worth it if I couldn't listen to police traffic. Although, I suppose I could listen to Disney, but that would probably get boring quickly.
The old scanner still has one genuine use: Weather radio. NOAA will probably keep operating that service until the end of time, which is a good idea because it's inexpensive low technology that just works. Battery operated weather radios are cheap. So if we get knocked back to the dark ages after Irma, I'll at least have a weather radio.
One of the nutty things about HGTV is that they tend to shoot their various renovation and house hunter shows all over the world. To that end, I'm always amazed at what constitutes a million dollar house in some areas. The least surprising are those near New York City or Boston, but then you have places like Vancouver, BC that are insane. This shouldn't be entirely surprising, given Seattle's housing market.
On the other hand, when they do shows in Central Florida, from Tampa on the gulf coast, across to Brevard County on the Atlantic, it's definitely a different scene. The cost per square foot is often close to $100, easily a fifth the cost of places on Long Island, for example. So if you're the type of person that would brag about having a million dollar house (which would be kind of douchey), I suppose that's only a big deal relative to where you are.
I think Seattle definitely messed with our sense of housing costs. Coming from the Cleveland area, where during the recession you couldn't really sell without taking a bath, while seeing rising costs and an uptick in construction where we were (Snoqualmie, WA), our ideas about home ownership were all over the place. Had I been able to sell my Cleveland house, and if we stayed in Seattle, it would probably have taken two more years of saving and not spending bonuses to buy a house, and it definitely would have been a more conservative place under 2k square feet. Now, in suburban Orlando with a hot market, we can buy twice the house at less than the same cost, or the same house for less than half the cost.
This line of thinking may have lured me into a sense that a house can be something of an investment, which my previous experience completely invalidates, but this time around we're expecting it to be a 14-year commitment unless something really compelling moves us again. Our current house has appreciated about 5% a year, which is hardly a recent 401k return, but it's not a negative number. At the end of the day, it's still a lifestyle choice.
Housing, to me, is one of the most interesting factors in socioeconomic opportunity, because it varies so wildly by location. Of all of the cost of living variables, it seems the most erratic. It's also not linear in terms of income requirements. I mean, housing may cost twice as much in Seattle, but I wouldn't have to make twice as much to live there. (About eight grand a year would cover the difference for equivalent property, interestingly enough, if you don't consider the amount you need to put 20% down on a house.) The bigger variable is where the jobs are, which should matter less and less for white collar jobs, but traditional blue collar and service work varies a ton.
Also, the views are better in Seattle.