Owning a house is fraught with endless repair and improvement work.  Last year we had a new paver stone walkway installed from the driveway to the front porch.  We've had to replace appliances, paint 2-story high rooms, repair holes in drywall, fix broken hanging ceilings, replace sink faucets, rewire switches and lights... the work is endless.

I hear friends and coworkers tell me how they're constantly fixing and upgrading things.  They build whole new walls in their house, or repair kitchen fascia, or any number of construction projects of wood, glass, or plastic that leave me wondering a simple yet mind-boggling question:  Where did you learn to do this?

Sure, anything these days is as simple as looking it up on the internet and following some instructions you find there.  But, at least for me, there is a wide chasm between the simple instructions I find online to the actual production of a finished project.  I'll frequently find what I feel are simple instructions for a particular project, only to end up at the hardware store staring at fifteen different kinds of raw materials, each with their own specific purpose, none of which were indicated in particular in my instructions.

For example, over the weekend, I planted a couple of posts in the back yard with the intent of hanging some garden wire for my hop vines to grow across.  I knew from when we built the raised-bed garden that good wood for this would be cedar, since it's naturally resistant to bugs, and didn't have the preservative chemicals in it that would ruin my plants.  Beyond that, I didn't really know much of anything.

Berta kept telling me to get cement.  I don't know anything about cement.  I've seen my dad pour cement into post holes to set them, but we'd had a wheelbarrow for mixing the cement, and had a lot of holes to fill, and a lot of stone, too.  I don't know what mixture of stone to cement is required, or even if stone is necessary for my small project.  Would I need a wheelbarrow, or could I mix it in the hole somehow?  When I arrived at the cement aisle in Lowes, there were ten different kinds of cement, and none of them gave a good indication of what particular use they were good for, nor any mention of the tools required for their use.

I suppose I could look all of this stuff up.  Yes, in fact there is a video on the Quikrete website explaining how to do exactly what I need to get done.  I guess I should have looked there first?  How would I even know what to look for, though?  And this is a topic that I've even seen someone else do.  How am I expected to know these things?  And how did the people that seem to know how to do this without having to look things up learn them?

I'm guessing this is at least similar to how I can do computer things that people ask without having to look up a ton of stuff.  Nonetheless, in some ways I feel more helpless without the knowledge of home repair than about computers.  I mean, everyone has a home (to some extent).  You should know how to do some basic home repair.  I get excited when I replace a kitchen faucet, and it seems like that should be basic knowledge.

I'd like to learn how to appropriately, effectively, and quickly run wiring through my walls.  That would solve a lot of my problems, and could actually save me some money.  I guess I'll have to look this up.

I've got a project with my scroll saw that I'm anxious to start and get some practice using it.  This should be fun.  Now I just need to learn where and how to buy wood.  And saw blades.  And how to stain wood.  Sigh.

Riley and I recently visited the Franklin Institute with Pack 32 as part of a "camp-in" event.  We packed our sleeping bags and camping mattresses, and rolled up to the Franklin, ready for some science.

We arrived quite a bit early so that we could have dinner outside of the museum.  We took an Uber to a ramen place I know, since Riley loves ramen.  We both had a bowl of utterly unreal ramen -- There's nothing like real ramen, not the dried kind you get in the little orange bags.  We both opted for the hard boiled egg. It was super tasty.

After dealing with some taxi weirdness getting back to the Franklin (the Uber we requested got pulled over by the cops on the way to pick us up!), we met up with some scouts near the big statue of Ben Franklin, and headed with our gear to our "camp site" in the Earth Science exhibit.

In the camp-in, each group is assigned an exhibit in the museum in which they make camp.  You simply spread out your bag on the floor and you're set up.  No tents!  The Earth Science exhibit we were in talked all about global warming, earthquakes, and erosion.  We camped down in the erosion section, which had a padded rubber floor since there was a water trough.  It was the only padded floor I saw anywhere in the museum, so we had a good pick!

After we were set up, we went to a presentation about sports science, where a scientist gave some demonstrations about why warming up is important and how it affects your body if you don't warm up before doing sports.  Several of the scouts in Riley's den assisted the show.

After the show, we headed to the observatory, where we got to look through the big telescopes on the roof of the museum.  This is a special treat since you can't ordinarily use the telescopes during the museum's open hours (since it's daylight).  Unfortunately, there was a lot of light pollution, and only a few stars were visible.  It's almost a shame to have these big telescopes in a location that has such poor visibility.  Nonetheless, it was neat to be able to look through them.

We spent some time in the sports science exhibit.  Many of the other scouts were interested in the sports exhibit, and that's it.  I think that our scouts do not get as much exposure to awesome science as Riley, because he quickly (in comparison) became bored of trying to run faster or jump higher than everyone else over and over, and wanted to see other exhibits.  So from here, we parted with the rest of the pack to check out some of the other cool exhibits in the museum.

We spent a lot of time in Ben's Lab, where there were physics experiments and optical illusions.  That is always a fun place in the museum.  We played with some experiments with light, which were really neat.

It was then time to re-join the pack for our planetarium show.  I think at some point while we were in Ben's Lab, the rest of the pack decided to order in pizza, but we were ok since we'd already had ramen.  But as a result, the rest of the pack showed up just before the show started and got different seats, whereas Riley and I got to lay down dead-center, which was pretty cool.  The show was narrated by Neil Degrasse Tyson, although I can't even tell you now what it was about.  Some pretty generic space content, is what I suspect.

After the planetarium, we all had to head to bed.  We were worried that some of the lights on the displays wouldn't be off, but they were all eventually turned off by some custodians.  The floor was not too uncomfortable, but some of the other scout dads snore pretty loudly, and it was hard to stay asleep.  One of the other scouts was sleeping opposite me from Riley and kept rolling over and slapping me all night.  He also kept asking me where the bathroom was when I was trying to sleep.  This made me irritable at night, and groggy in the morning.

When we got up, we headed to breakfast in the cafeteria.  There was cereal and muffins and fruit and coffee.  We ate a bit and then went to the new Brain exhibit that the Franklin has.  The Brain exhibit was pretty neat, and the experiments there were all interesting.  I think this was Riley and my favorite exhibit of the weekend.

After we were done with the exhibits, Riley and I stopped by the gift shop to look around. I bought a Franklin sweatshirt and Riley got a glass prism.

In the end, it was a fun trip, and something I've always wanted to do has now been crossed off my list.

I recently asked via Twitter whether anyone still followed bloggers that did not have topical blogs.  Do you follow a blogger that diarizes, rather than trying to sell you something, either directly or via ads?  The overwhelming majority confirmed my suspicion that blogging is pretty well dead as an art.  If you're blogging these days, you're possibly screaming into the maelstrom, unheard by anyone, being drowned out by the published content that built to suit.

One thing I hear a lot is that social media has taken the place that blogging used to fill.  If you had a desire to write something online in 2005, you published a blog.  These days, you're writing on Facebook or posting a photo on Instagram.  These venues, although they are not owned by the publisher, make sharing this content with peers easier.  It is only possible to receive accolades of disembodied thumb-raised-fists via these venues.  Of course their ubiquity and ease make them attractive even to the non-technical.  Thereby blogging takes a hit.

There is a line, I think; one that we have crossed in the past five years.  Blogging is simply not done by personal bloggers anymore.  Sure, there are a few out there.  There may even be many, but the social aspects of blogging are dwarfed by the social cocaine that sites like Facebook let you snort with quick updates, quick comments, quick "likes".  Consuming blogs is even more difficult now that the most popular RSS tools have gone extinct.  My overwhelming gut feel is that the only bloggers that are getting any traction are ones that are getting paid to do it.

It's an interesting claim, and maybe this is really what characterizes the line about which I am concerned in drawing.  On the earlier side of this line, bloggers started writing and then became popular enough to earn money.  On the later side of this line, bloggers seek to earn money and so develop a content strategy to do so.  This leads me to think that, if we're not already there, then blogging is soon to be something akin to junkmail.  It'll eventually get so bad that when we're looking at a blog, we won't even know if it's something worthy of our attention anymore.

Carrying this assertion forward, I think we could assume that blogging simply isn't something that you do for social sharing anymore.  What does that leave us from the point of view of constructing web applications?

We are building sites these days that function at different levels:

  • Single-page sales site - A single HTML page dedicated to giving you the essential details for an enterprise.
  • Multi-page corporate identity - Usually "managed" with a page-editing tool, built with menus for navigating between pages that each describe an aspect of a business.
  • Organization portal - Perhaps also incorporating an identity component, this site usually has an "intranet" that houses private files or functions used by the organization either internally or by the organization's customers/clients/users.
  • News zine - This site aggregates the feature-length publications of authors of different levels of professional skill under a single banner, usually rife with ads.
  • Game - A game.
  • Data mining tool - This is a site that either collects or presents or both collects and presents information that it houses, like Google, IMDB, or even something like Spotify.

What's not in this list?  Possibly a lot of things, but I think I've covered things pretty well.

Looking at this list, there is nothing here that requires a blog.  No blogs.  This leaves me wondering, if none of these things really require a blog, then why are we using blog software to build the web?

Some fool is bound to try to suggest that, for example, WordPress is not blog software, but it's really a content management system.  Yes, that's true, if the content the system was intended to manage was blog posts.  The same problem exists for Drupal and even my beloved Habari. This isn't even the argument; it misses the point.

These tools we have are built to be generic.  The sites they build are generic.  They're the same thing boiled down, extended in the same way, and then repackaged with a different glossy veneer. Will anything truly unique ever come out of a tool whose primary data store was meant to hold content that nobody really reads anymore? If it can do more than that, then aren't the parts that extend the core of the tool the ones doing the actual work?

Guys.  We are web developers, but we are using the wrong tools to build the web.  The web is, can be, should be more robust.  The service options available to us are myriad.  Why are our tools letting us connect to Facebook when we can use Facebook to drive our tools?  Consider a web application that gathers input from Facebook as its primary content, rather than building a site whose pages can be liked elsewhere.

Maybe this is more of a personal existential crisis.  Maybe I'm just seeing that, under the skin, every web app is basically a ton of CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete), and that nothing's really different.  But I don't think so.  I think we've glommed onto this idea of a content unit of some kind - whether a post or a node or a widget - and we've failed to really see beyond that. We've failed to truly consume published services, either because the tools don't make it as easy as building yet another menu to navigate pages, or because the services or our tools themselves don't publish this data in a consumable way.

The web moves so fast.  There are new tools produced all the time.  Many of these tools help build custom sites, performing services.  I wonder if we're satisfied with "good enough".  I can plow through this site with WordPress because it's a "good enough" tool to get it done.  It seems like there's a pivot we're not seeing -- a content management system that exists in a world between blog posts and strangling custom code, consuming and providing services that are actively useful.

Where is it?

In December, I received an invitation to purchase an Echo, a niche consumer device offered by Amazon.  I took them up on the offer, and have now been using Echo for about a week.

The Echo was easy to set up.  You basically plug it in, then follow the prompts on a phone app to configure the Echo for wifi.  It connects to your home network the same way you'd connect a Chromecast -- You connect to its private wifi network with your phone, then use the software to choose your home wifi network and provide the password.

Via the app, the Echo was instantly connected to my Amazon account, giving it access to my music stored there.  Presumably other services could be connected, but connecting it to Amazon Video doesn't make much sense since the Echo has no screen.

Echo works by calling out the command word, which can be either "Alexa" or "Amazon", and then issuing a command.  Saying, "Alexa, play the Defiance original soundtrack," would cause the Echo to connect to my Amazon music library and play the indicated album.

The Echo is also able to answer basic factual questions, such as "Who was the third president of the United States?" and "What is the square root of 64?" and "Who is Kevin Bacon?"  These questions are most answered with Mrs. Mitchell-satisfying 4th grade-complete sentences that include the salient part of the question, which is great since you then know that the Echo really did understand what you were asking. 

I've read some other reviews on the Echo, all of which seem to deride the accuracy of the voice recognition of the device.  This is complete BS.  The Echo is significantly better than Siri in both recognition and response.  Siri hardly ever understands what I'm asking; The Echo underwent rigorous technical trials with 10-year-old Riley at the wheel, and passed with flying colors.  Siri's answers are almost always "I found this for you on the web"; The Echo somehow finds the information you're looking for and provides a summary of it.  Siri's voice even sounds somewhat robotic in comparison to the Echo's fluid tones.

Even with the volume of the Echo turned up reasonably loud, the voice recognition has not failed us.  I can only guess that the other reviewers didn't follow the instructions for placement of the Echo, which suggest that you place it away from walls and other audio obstructions.

There are some neat features of the Echo.  One of my favorites is the "Flash Briefing" which gives you a quick overview of the day's news, with topics configured via the phone app.  The Echo will tell you the local weather, which seems like a pretty standard feature for such a device.

You can add things to a shopping list with the Echo.  This feature seems useful, but there are a couple of problems.  First, the shopping list only appears in the Echo app.  The echo app is fine for configuring the Echo, but is otherwise not what I would prefer to use for my shopping list.  I'm not sure if I can share this list with Berta, or if she can even run the app connected to the same Echo, too -- haven't tried it, but suspect it will not work.  But the real nail in the coffin of this feature is that we've had a SmartShopper for a couple of years now, and stopped using that only a couple of months in.  We simply won't use this feature.

There's a to-do list that's similar to the shopping list, but unlike the reminders in the iPhone with Siri, there is only one list.  Once again, the list appears in the Echo app only.

The Echo has a great timer and alarm feature.  You can say, "Alexa, set a timer for 5 minutes," and in 5 minutes, an alarm sounds.  You can ask how long is left on the timer, which is nice for baking cookies.  You can similarly set an alarm with a specific time.  The only issue I have with this feature is that you should be able to set multiple timers at once.  ("Alexa, set a timer for 50 minutes for the roast.  Alexa, set a timer for 5 minutes for the vegetables." etc.)  Also, the timer alarm does not recur, which I think is a little strange.  Hopefully, these can be updated in software.

Selecting music for play is pretty easy.  The Echo focuses on titles that you've uploaded or purchased and stored in your Amazon music library.  If the song, album, or artist is not in your library, it will search Amazon Prime Music.  This is good, but there are holes.  For example, if I tell the Echo to play songs by Cake, then I only hear the three tracks I've uploaded to my music account, rather than all of the tracks that are available in Prime Music.  For artists where I've not uploaded anything, the Echo will play all of the music from Prime Music for that artist.  There are ways around this, but since the recognition of the Echo is usually so good, it's unfortunate that there is this one blind spot.  Once again, software should fix it.

Everything you say to the Echo is recorded and presented via the phone app.  You can give it ratings on whether it understood your request correctly or not, and play back the audio of what it recognized.  The Echo uses this rating and recording to improve its recognition.  It will also show you useful links to things based on your requests.  For example, asking about presidents gives links to Wikipedia pages.  Shuffling an album provides a link to that album in Amazon Music.  The whole "records everything" seems a little creepy, and more than one review site presents it that way, but let's be real about this: If you want a device that does what the Echo does, it's going to record what you say.  If you're concerned about this, don't buy an Echo, and don't report that the sky is falling.

The worst aspect of the Echo is the most unfortunate thing: The speaker.  It's pretty dreadful. I'm picky, but for a device that mostly plays music, you'd think there would be some midrange.  The bass is pretty impressive for such a small speaker, and the treble is there.  But much of my music has the muddied-out quality of being played through a budget Bose speaker system.  It's not bad enough to discount the whole device, but if audio quality is of vital concern to you, you should wait for a newer model.  It's particularly disappointing because there are smaller bluetooth speakers with better sound available on the market today.

I've used the phone app to turn off the feature that allows us to buy music via the Echo.  This is probably not something that Amazon wants, but I can't have the kids buying random music all over the place.  Having this feature use some kind of voice-printing as a password might be neat, especially if I could use it to order actual goods from Amazon.

There are some other small deficiencies.  The Echo has no inputs or outputs that I can see other than the power port, so you can't hook it to a better sound system or house mic.  You couldn't put the Echo in the basement and then wire it into every room, for example.  And that sounds crazy, but the more I use it, the more I feel like I want Echo in every room.

The kids, after watching far too much Eureka, now keep referring to our house as Alexa.  That's pretty neat, that Amazon can create a device that anthropomorphs our house.  I would love to be able to change the trigger word, so that we could name our own house, but I am glad they allow "Alexa" and have not forced "Amazon" on us.

Once again, the first software update should be great, assuming they address common requests.  Being able to bring in external services, especially podcast playback, would be fantastic.  Using voice to control home automation would be astounding, as well.  All of this should be possible eventually with this same unit.

Overall, it's a neat and attractive device.  It will be interesting to see how often we use it over the coming months, and whether it will become something integrated into our daily lives, or just another novel gadget that gathers dust.

Looking at Facebook the other day, I saw no less than three recipes for what people described (in summary) as "the best easy dish ever".  One of these recipes was for buttered spaghetti noodles with parsley.  Is this the kind of food people typically eat?

Buttered noodles is what I have when there isn't anything else in the house.  That is to say, I consider the house empty of food when all that is left in the house is your "best easy dish ever".

Yes, it is easy to make food.  Maybe that's what you were trying to suggest with your recipe -- that food doesn't need to be complicated.  But come on.  We must have seriously different ideas about what "complicated" is.

This is evidenced again in the recent cub scout father-son cook-off.  Riley and I were the only pair to make something with meat.  We made meatballs.  Granted, some of the other dishes (all but the popcorn mix was a dessert) were multi-step recipes, but were for the most part boxed desserts.

Our meatballs were part ground pork, part sweet Italian sausage.  There were spices mixed in.  Egg, cheese, and breadcrumbs.  We mixed the meat by hand.  We rolled the balls by hand.  We (both Riley and I took turns -- yes, he participated in every step) sautéed the meatballs in a pan, then slow-cooked them in a crock pot.  We made tomato sauce from scratch for them to simmer in, with tomato paste, canned crushed tomatoes, and spices.  There was no box, no frozen meatballs.

I'm puzzled by what passes for typical homemade dinner in a local household.  Sure, there are nights when reheated frozen chicken fingers see our dinner table, but we also have nights where the kids help cook salmon.  Berta's beef barley stew is pretty tasty.  I can make some mean, flavorful wings from a pack of whole bulk wings.  I am not trying to convince anyone that my sriracha-covered frozen chicken fingers are a delicacy on Facebook.

Berta went to a Tastefully Simple dinner night with a bunch of meat recently.  They were set to make meals out of the meat using the Tastefully Simple products.  Well, it went ok, but the recipes were a bit... bland.  Not just bland, but lacking imagination.  With such great spice products, you'd think the recipes would try to make use of that flavor.  Instead, the focus seemed to be on how you could use only their spices to make meat not-too-plain to eat after simmering in a crock pot all day.

Berta had to add vegetables to their inexplicable "Italian" beef stew.  What made it "Italian"?  Maybe the parmesan cheese they said to add to the bowl?  There was also cream cheese in it, which I've never heard of in a stew.  Maybe I'm missing something, and that's what stew is supposed to be like?  Based on the flavor, I think "no".

Yes, the lack of vegetables was curious.  In their last recipe we tried last night, the chicken was drenched in some flavorless cream-ish concoction.  We put it over plain mashed potatoes (which I don't think were part of the recipe), and the potatoes had more flavor.

We were not impressed.  And I am left to wonder, if this is what people consider "great recipes", what the heck garbage were they eating before?

I don't begrudge you your attempts at making food in your own kitchen.  More power to you.  But don't think that taking a jar of Prego (ugh, please) and adding some chopped onion to it makes your spaghetti recipe fantastic enough to mention.  Ok, maybe it's a stepping stone for you to greater things, but at least be cognizant of that.

My suggestion: Grab yourself a cookbook and learn to make quick meals with real food.  It's not as hard as you think, and the rewards are great.