Here’s everyone leaving Cambridge Massachusetts because it’s too expensive:
Here’s everyone moving to Austin:
Here’s everyone leaving Cambridge Massachusetts because it’s too expensive:
Here’s everyone moving to Austin:
I didn’t drive until 2004. I relied on public transit to get everywhere. This meant that I thought nothing of walking for half an hour to get where I wanted to be, and then walking back afterwards. Especially if the bus didn’t turn up.
In Massachusetts, I would start to gain weight as winter set in; all my body wanted me to do was eat and stay in bed. But in spring and summer, I’d walk it all off again.
And then I learned to drive, and we got a car and moved to Texas. Now in summertime I find myself glad to get back into the air conditioning after a brief stroll across the parking lot. I started getting heavier in summer, rather than in winter.
Oh, it can be beautiful in fall, winter and spring, especially evenings. But even after concerted effort, I wasn’t getting anything like as much exercise as I used to, and I was gradually getting fatter. Clearly I had to do something.
The traditional solution most Americans favor is to join a gym and not go to it. This gives you the feeling that you’re doing something positive, while still leaving you with all your valuable couch time. However, gym memberships are expensive, and school experiences have left me with an indelible view of locker rooms and gyms as places of ritual torture and humiliation.
Another popular solution is to buy an exercise machine. This has distinct advantages over a gym membership. For starters, it’s a one time expense, which is better than a gym membership if you know you’re just throwing money away. In addition, the machine can be used as a place to hang shirts, ties, and other apparel you’re too lazy to put in the closet where it belongs. And if you need the space, you can do what our last landlord did, and put the exercise machine out in the yard to act as a kind of rust sculpture and casual birdfeeder.
I did some research, and elliptical machines seemed to be the best option. They are low-impact exercise for the cardiovascular system, provide some exercise for the upper body, the machines are quiet, and some of the newer ones are quite small. I found that a local store had a good deal on one, and bribed some friends to help transport it home as the box wouldn’t fit in the car.
Some assembly was required. In fact, putting the device together was a good dose of exercise to start with. Everything seemed to work, including the electronic control panel and the servos that adjust the magnetic resistance, and the next day I tried it out for real.
And much to my surprise, I’ve been exercising pretty much every day since then. It has been one month with the machine, and have skipped exercise on only a couple of days when work and social engagements made it impossible to find a solid block of time. Exercise has become a habit, which I gather is one of the secrets to actually doing it. I now separate work from a relaxed evening by burning off around 2500 kJ. I can listen to radio shows, and I don’t have to interact with strangers in the shower. I’ve dropped 2kg so far.
When I moved in with rothko, we bought a vacuum cleaner. At the time we were living in a fully carpeted apartment in Malden, MA. Money was tight, so I did some research via Consumer Reports and bought a Sharp vacuum cleaner.
Unfortunately, I overlooked one detail. While excellent on carpets, the vacuum cleaner was entirely unsuitable for hard wood floors. After a couple of years we moved into an apartment with wood floors, and the Sharp took up residency in the basement. But I was loathe to part with it, because it was a perfectly good vacuum cleaner, and vacuum cleaners are expensive.
Then we moved to Texas. The faithful vacuum came with us. It’s still in fine working order, and we now have carpet again, which it does a good job of cleaning. But the problem is, we also have stairs. The trusty Sharp is about as suited to vacuuming stairs as a Dalek. And downstairs is wood floors again.
So for a while now, I’ve had plans to get a vacuum that actually does a good job of hard floors, stairs, and carpet.
Obviously the Dyson range appealed as soon as I saw it. But I heard that the early Dysons were heavy and awkward, and often unreliable. So I waited.
After a couple more years, the Dyson ball was launched, which was more maneuverable. Then this year, the Slim was launched in the USA. It has a smaller version of the ball mechanism in a vacuum that’s light enough to pick up and carry up and down stairs without my back hurting. It also seems as though the reliability issues have been dealt with.
Searching on Google, I saw ads for a company offering “Worst prices on Dyson”, asking “Don’t pick on us”. I wondered whether it was a mistake or a joke, clicked through, and discovered it was an independent retailer in Austin called ABC Vacuum Warehouse. It’s a store I must have driven past dozens of times without ever realizing it was there, partly because it’s in a nondescript shack-like building in front of a warehouse, and partly because the windows are all covered up with blinds so it looks like it has been abandoned. Inside is a small store filled with nothing but vacuum cleaners, accessories for vacuum cleaners, and spares for vacuum cleaners.
At the store’s suggestion we took a look at a Sebo vacuum cleaner as well as the Dyson range. Fine German engineering, but there were a few things I didn’t like. First up, it uses bags and filters. Secondly, the main upright piece detaches from the brush head for cleaning stairs, which sounds good, but I could see it would be annoying and require a lot of bending over to detach and re-attach it. I prefer the Dyson wand, which doesn’t require any bending over at all.
So, DC-18. I took it for a thorough trip around the house this afternoon. It does indeed do a good job on all floors; it’s great on the hard wood floor, will remove the gifts of the pube fairy from the tiled bathrooms, and does at least as good a job as the Sharp on carpet. Time will tell how reliable it is, but so far I’m satisfied: I ended up with a full cylinder of hairy filth.
Once upon a time, back in the ancient history of the Internet–before the 1990s–domain names were carefully controlled and regulated. A single organization controlled each top level domain. If you wanted a domain name, you had to meet their requirements.
Often the policies enforced were quite picky. If you wanted a .uk domain name, you were required to actually be in the UK, for example. If you wanted a .org domain, you were required to be a non-profit organization. To be in .net, you were expected to be a network access provider or ISP.
A lot of people disliked the bureaucracy involved in domain registration, and objected to the fees charged. And so it was decided that the domain name system would be opened up. There would be many domain registrars for each major top level domain, all competing to give the best price and service. Anyone would be able to register a domain, with minimal bureaucracy. Domains would be bought, sold and transferred in a perfect Free Market.
At first, things looked good. The cost of registering a domain dropped rapidly. Rather than having to fax paperwork around and get signed documents from company directors, you could just register online with a credit card for whatever domain you wanted.
However, it quickly became clear that domains could have value. A small proportion of Internet users (around 5-10%) don’t seem to understand search engines or bookmarks. They find things by guessing domain names and typing them in. As a result, people found that domain names an idiot would guess first ended up with traffic, purely by existing. Suddenly instead of having to advertise your web site, you could buy a domain name that people would randomly visit anyway, and get instant traffic with no work required.
Domains like “sex.com”, “computers.com” and “cars.com” suddenly became very valuable, changing hands for large amounts of money. Some people weren’t very happy about it, but still, there was nothing wrong with it really.
Unfortunately, there were headline stories of domain names changing hands for millions of dollars. And suddenly, there was a gold rush. Everyone with a modem hurriedly registered every domain name they could think about.
This was a major pain. If you wanted to set up a web site, it became almost impossible to find a simple domain name that hadn’t been registered already. Almost all of them were unused, just a whois entry and nothing more, but if you approached the owner their eyes would light up with dollar signs and they’d demand extortionate rates for their “valuable property”.
Still, the situation was somewhat self-correcting. It did still cost $50 or so to hold a domain for a year, so eventually when nobody turned up to offer $100,000 for it, the holder would let the registration lapse and you’d be able to pick it up for $50.
Then someone invented banner ads. Suddenly, those unused domains could be used to make money. Domain registrations were still dropping in price, and there were ad companies who would pay you $0.01 each time you served up an ad to someone. $10 a year for a domain, and all you needed to do was show ads to at least 1,000 idiots who typed your domain in at random, and you’d break even.
And so suddenly, the Internet filled with junk web pages filled with ads and nothing else. There are now multi-million-dollar companies whose primary business is hoarding domains and filling them with content-free crap. Domain spam is now so mainstream that companies like Google actively encourage it.
The next step was obvious. Sure, you could think of a domain name that other people would be likely to guess at random, but most of those were already registered. So the domain spammers began watching the lists of domains that people failed to renew. So now, if a widely used open source project fails to renew its domain name, the page will suddenly be replaced with a spam site full of affiliate ads.
Not everyone appreciates ending up on a domain spam page, however. Plus, if your page doesn’t look like total spam, you might get search engine traffic, and boost your profits further. Hence, the new trend is automatic content generation.
Some domain speculators take the unsubtle approach, and simply rip off content wholesale. If you have a web site with significant readership (as measured by, say, technorati), someone will likely set up a spam site which copies the text of each post you make, covers it with ads, and re-posts it to one of their hoarded domains. Sure, it’s copyright violation, but the chances of getting caught are slim, and so long as you pick on personal web sites the chances of anyone going after you with a lawsuit are slim too.
(I don’t think it has happened to me yet, but if I include a made-up word that doesn’t appear on the web, like spozquak, I should be able to do a Google search in a month or two and see if anyone’s copied it.)
However, again thanks to the free market, there’s now a market for software that can generate moderately convincing looking content. You’ve seen it in spam e-mails, and now it’s being used to fill the web too. The first generation used random text generation, but now more sophisticated “auto content generator” software uses web feeds to pull in text, chops the text into individual sentences, and then recombines them based on keywords.
(So I guess I should clarify that spozquak is a great alternative to viagra, cures mesothelioma from asbestosis, and helps you make money at home.)
While the web was filling with crap, the domain name registrars kept competing in their free market. As the supply of new unregistered .com domains dried up, they had to think of new ways to pull in customers. The solution: trial periods. You can now register a domain name for a 5 day trial, see if it pulls in any suckers, and if not you don’t have to pay for it.
You can probably guess what happened next. Someone wrote software to repeatedly register domains for trial periods, automatically.
And so we arrive at today’s web, the ultimate result of applying unconstrained free market economics to the problem of naming web sites. It’s a world where every name you can think of is already registered and filled with spam, often by someone who isn’t even paying for the domain. A world where if you’re away on holiday when your domain name expires, it’s immediately filled with spam. A world where web searches return hundreds of pages filled with spam designed to look like content, ripped off from other people’s web sites.
Of course, there are a couple of things we could do that might help ameliorate the problem. They’re just utterly unacceptable to the free market faithful who make up the Internet’s core audience.
The first is this: Do not allow domain transfers between third parties.
You bought a domain? Great. You want to sell it? Can’t. I mean, you can’t sell your home address, your postal code or your telephone number, so why should you be able to sell a domain name? Your friend wants the domain? Fine, you cancel it, he registers it for the standard price.
If you could sell telephone numbers, you’d see rampant speculation there as well. If you moved to Austin and wanted a 512 phone number so friends could call you without paying long distance fees, you’d probably have to buy one at auction for a few hundred dollars. Or if you were in Massachusetts and wanted one of the old 617 numbers so you’d look like a long-established business, you could end up paying thousands of dollars. But the phone company doesn’t allow reselling of phone numbers, so the problem doesn’t occur.
(It’s worth noting that you can sell toll-free numbers. And sure enough, you get rampant speculation in that chunk of the phone number namespace, with most of the good ones already taken.)
The second way to help reduce the damage caused by the free market in domains is to resurrect an idea from the 80s: that your domain registration is voided if you don’t actively use the domain. And by “use”, I mean more than simply putting up a blank page of ads.
I can tell that people are already sharpening their pitchforks and lighting their torches, but which is worse: a domain name system that doesn’t support your religious belief that a free market is the best solution to everything, or a free market domain name system where you can’t actually buy any domains you want and everything is full of spam?
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed nicotine yield of cigarettes sold in Massachusetts from 1997 to 2005. The result: cigarette manufacturers have been gradually boosting the level of addictive nicotine by an average of 1.6% per year, or 11% over the 7 year period studied.
Something to bear in mind while watching re-runs of the South Park episode “Butt Out“, in which Parker and Stone bravely defend the cigarette corporations for providing a little harmless pleasure to people, who after all smoke of their own free will.
Tower Records holds a special place in my heart. The store in Piccadilly Circus was one of the places I would try to visit every time I traveled to London. Back in the early 80s the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street was the place for obscure music, but by 1990 they had jacked up the prices and cleared out the unpopular stuff. Tower kept the prices reasonable and had an unrivaled selection of imports and obscurities. It was there that I discovered DEVO, and later completed my collection. It was there that I found Holger Hiller.
When I visited the US, Tower in Boston was second only to Newbury Comics. But another ten years went by, and Tower started to go downhill. Prices rose to HMV-like levels, and some idiot decided it was a good idea to file every disc by genre, a decision made worse by splitting electronica into ambient, house, techno, acid, dub, trance, and so on. Quick, where’s the Aphex Twin? Err…
So I wasn’t surprised when the company filed for bankruptcy in 2004. And I’m not surprised that they’re filing for bankruptcy again now, this time for good. A quick browse reveals only 2 Tangerine Dream albums, both priced at $38 (yeah right). There are practically no CDs priced below $18. Thom Yorke’s solo album isn’t listed (who he?), and if I didn’t already have Hail to the Thief I wouldn’t buy it from Tower for $34.
So it goes. Music sales is an unforgiving business. Stores seem to go through a golden age of awesomeness, but at some point the prices get too high or the selection gets too poor and they slide into irrelevance. Newbury Comics was heading that way when we left Massachusetts, sad to say.
So where do I get CDs now? Mostly from half.com and Amazon marketplace; stores typically break the $12 limit.
We’re right in the middle of the city. I discovered a while back that all I had to do was use unshielded speaker wire and I’d pick up AM radio. I checked, and all the TV transmitters are in a cluster less than 10 miles away from us. So, this afternoon while we were out shopping for Christmas meal ingredients, I picked up an $8 UHF loop antenna, plugged it in, put it on the shelf above the TV, and lo—we can get 10 channels of digital TV.
While there’s nothing on ABC, CBS or NBC that I’m going to want to watch, HD or not, this does now mean we can get PBS in HD—at the cost of actually having to watch the programs when they’re on, because the TiVo is SD only.
This evening we watched a program about revolutionary war re-enactors in Massachusetts. I’d always felt like I ought to see the re-enactments, but there was just no way I was going to get out of bed at 5am on a cold spring morning and get the bus out to Lexington.
The whole re-enactment thing seems to be even more bizarre than the SCA. It’s all elaborately scripted—one man was seen being turned down permission to use the word ‘musket’ instead of ‘gun’ in his one line of script. The attention to detail in costume and equipment is painstaking; another man talked about how he ordered the exact correct kind of linen for his uniform, now only available from Russia. And of course, authentic weapons are used too.
But then after all that work, the camera caught them in costume reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I’ve never studied US history, but even I know that the Pledge of Allegiance wasn’t written until a century after the War of Independence. They might as well have gone into battle singing Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” for all the authenticity they had at that point. Worse, they didn’t even recite the original pledge; they recited the bastardized post-1950s version.
I notice there are a few Vietnam War re-enactment groups. Most seem to be outside the USA so far. I wonder how long it’ll be before we have Iraq war re-enactment groups? “History enthusiast sought. Must have own attack dog. Bring car battery and jump leads.”
Got mail from Massachusetts demanding excise tax on the car. Am sending them a copy of the paperwork showing that we were only in Massachusetts for about a week after buying it.
Q: Why is the City of Cambridge office of vehicle taxation like a swan?
A: They can both stick their bills up their asses.
(Sorry, I guess I’m still a bit bitter about that unexpected $7,000 tax bill.)
When we arrived in Austin at the end of October, we didn’t expect major problems finding a house. During our visit in April we had spent an afternoon with a real estate agent, and had seen a number of suitable houses.
Sure enough, the first day we went house hunting, sara walked into a place and immediately thought “This is it.” We went back when I had finished work, and I agreed.
As far as style, the house wouldn’t have looked out of place in New England—constructed with fiber-cement siding to look like wood, with decks front and back.
We put in an offer in November, and it was accepted. We thought we’d be moved in by Christmas…
Being cautious, we arranged for a full independent inspection of the house. Many people don’t bother to get new houses inspected; many people are idiots. Mold is a big problem in Texas, as it is in England, because of the damp and mild climate. Our realtor recommended a local inspector who does a particularly thorough job. Sure enough, there were a number of interesting things about the house.
First off, the foundation was pier and beam. Not unusual, given that the house is in the South Austin hills, but usually the wooden joists of the house rest on metal plates, which spread the load to the concrete blocks of the piers. Plates are added and removed as appropriate to level out the house.
The contractors putting together this house had invented a shortcut. Instead of metal plates, they had hammered in some small wooden shims. As a result, the load was concentrated into a tiny area instead of being spread, and the concrete posts were starting to crack.
They had also not quite put in enough ventilation for the space under the house. In fact, it looked as if they had almost forgotten the whole house part in their excitement at building the foundation walls, as in one place they had forgotten to leave a gap for a beam and had just knocked out a hole with a sledgehammer after the fact, and then filled around the beam afterwards.
The decks were a problem too. They had been built with no gaps between the wooden slats. Seems superficially like a good idea, as you can’t drop stuff between the gaps and lose it. Unfortunately, it also means that water can’t drain from the deck, and gradually pools up. Then the wood starts to absorb the water, and the space under the deck becomes moist, a breeding ground for mold. Finally, the wood rots away, and you have to do major repair work.
My favorite cock-up was the bathroom venting. The way it’s supposed to work is the bathroom vent connects to a duct, which goes up into the attic and emerges via a vent near the top of the roof. That had been too much work for the contractors; they had run a duct across instead, to the soffit vents. Hence the moist air would immediately be sucked back up into the attic.
The good news was that the problems were fixable. We got an estimate from a builder our agent recommended, and put in a revised offer—we’d buy the house if the seller would pay our choice of builder to fix the problems. We wanted the work done by our choice of builder to ensure that The O’Reilly Men wouldn’t be hired to fix the problems they caused in the first place.
[Our builder has found a neat way to fix the decks, too. Rather than rip them off and rebuild them, the plan is to use an industrial covering material to put a single-piece waterproof surface on them. No holes for things to fall into, rain will just drain off, and the result should be more durable than a properly-constructed conventional deck. The downside is that it’s expensive, but it’s cheaper than major structural work, and the final result can be colored to match what the wooden deck looked like.]
So once again everything was agreed. We thought we’d be moving in in January.
Then came the next problem. It turned out that the house and its neighbor to the west had originally been part of one large lot. They shared a separate two-car garage, subdivided into two single garages. Unfortunately, when the builders divided up the original lot, they ran the property line across the corner of the garage.
Our neighbors-to-be had discovered this and weren’t happy about it. The city of Austin wasn’t happy about it either, and had refused to issue a certificate of occupancy for the houses. The neighbors-to-be got someone to draw up a revised plan which changed the property lines to skirt around the outside of the garage. The garage would be entirely on next door’s lot, and an easement agreement would be drawn up to give us perpetual usage of half of the garage for a nominal $10 fee to make the contract legally binding.
Unfortunately, the revised property lines needed to be approved by the city’s property zoning people at their next monthly meeting. In the mean time, our mortgage deal fell through, so we started that process again. Fortunately we’d elected to work via a mortgage agent, so he handled all the re-submitting of application forms and documents. We expected to be moving in by the end of February.
Unfortunately, there was a snag. When the city reviewed the redrawn lots, they rejected the changes because the diagram was missing some essential information. The whole thing had to be sent back to be re-drawn and then re-submitted for the next month’s review meeting.
That was done, and things looked like they were falling into place. We had sorted out the financing, we’d checked the easement agreement was OK, the price and terms were agreed, and the money was ready to go.
It was about then that we discovered the IRS had recategorized my UK flat as a speculative business investment, rather than our only real estate property. There was a rather spectacular tax bill due. Massachusetts wanted a big chunk of cash too. The good news was that we had the money to cover it by April’s deadline. The bad news was that it was the money we were planning to use for furniture and appliances…Oh well, c’est la vie.
The city approved the change to the property lines, and we still expected to move in some time in March. Then our new neighbor asked a lawyer to check over the easement agreement, and the lawyer went nuts. He put in clauses saying that nobody could ever park in front of the garage, even temporarily; that we couldn’t keep housepaint in the garage; and that I couldn’t repair my bike in there either. There was also stuff about not being allowed to play musical instruments in the garage, not that I cared about that; but for good measure, he added a clause saying that no such restrictions applied to next door.
My objection was pretty simple: the agreement said we would split the maintenance costs for the garage 50/50. If we were going to split the costs equally, we should have equal use of our respective halves of the garage. I shot off an e-mail last week. The good news was that everyone agreed the lawyer had been a touch overzealous, it was perfectly reasonable to store a couple of cans of paint in the garage, I could clean and repair my bike if I wanted to, and if people wanted to visit us and park in the driveway that was fine so long as the car was on wheels, rather than on bricks. This was written into a revised contract (yes, even the bit about cars on bricks not being allowed), and everything looked like it would happen some time next week.
On Friday I was out getting some photocopying and faxing done, arranging for the bank to wire the money to the escrow agent, when I got a call from our realtor.
It turned out that the bank who had offered us our mortgage deal was getting pissy. In the last few days, oil prices had hit the US economy, and interest rates had jumped up 0.75%. The bank said if we didn’t complete the transaction that day, our interest rate would be raised 0.5%. In fact, to get that concession our mortgage broker had had to scramble around and contact senior management at the bank and explain the reason for all the delays.
So I finished my faxing and collected sara, and we drove over to the land and title company immediately. We spent a couple of hours reading and signing a couple of dozen pieces of paper. Technically, we completed the transaction “pending funding”—instructions may have been sent to my bank in Boston, by fax and now by FedEx as well, but they won’t act on them until Monday. However, since the money is sitting in my account, cleared and ready to go, I have confidence that I can get my bank to deliver the funds Monday, so we went ahead and signed accordingly.
As for the repair work, that’s starting this weekend, hopefully. The builder says we can go ahead and start moving in. The seller is going to cut a couple of checks and give them to us, one will be given to the builder up front, we’ll hand him the second one when we’re satisfied with the work done. The reason for that arrangement? Well, we’re not the only ones hurting from the delays—the builder found himself sitting on two houses, unable to sell them for almost a year, and for cashflow reasons needed to rely on the proceeds from the sale to fund the repairs. Something of a leap of faith by us, but it’s not going to keep me awake at nights.
I’m the kind of person who reads documents before signing them. There was one exception: the “meat” of the agreement is a 25 page nightmare mandated by Texas state law. Since we didn’t really have any say in what that one said, I just signed it. I have mixed feelings about that—on the one hand, I wonder if a non-state-mandated document might have been readable. On the other hand, if it hadn’t been state mandated and had been (say) 20 pages, I would have had to read it.
The seller’s agent thanked us for our patience. Both realtors agreed that it had been the most protracted delay in closing they had seen in about 35 years of combined experience. Our neighbor-to-be arrived and signed the easement agreement. Everyone seemed relieved that it was finally over.
So it all comes down to this:
After four months of delays, we bought the house we wanted. It’s actually purchased, in a legal sense.
The original contractors, who cocked everything up? They were all fired.
Hopefully we’ll pick up keys to the house on Monday when the deal is funded; then we need to sort out getting our stuff out of storage, and work out who we can bribe to help us unload our worldly possessions.
Today was vehicle registration day. This is stage 2 of 3, the stages being (1) get TX insurance (2) get TX registration (3) get TX license.
A necessary prerequisite to the vehicle registration was another inspection. The Texas DOT web site suggested the closest place that would handle new cars, and we went there. It was a Honda dealership, and the technician was scared of the Prius. He said we might need to go to a Toyota dealer, but there was a place a couple of blocks away that specialized in inspections and might be able to handle it—something about the headlights needing to be set a certain way.
So, we went to Alan’s Vehicle Inspections (Best of Austin 2003), a small shed near what was once a gas station. Alan verified that the car worked, and gave us a sticker and a slip of paper. I took that to…no, not the RMV this time. In Texas, car registration is dealt with by the county tax assessor’s office. So we went there and registered the car.
Since Massachusetts hasn’t sent us the title yet, the car’s going to stay titled in Massachusetts. The poor thing must be quite confused by now—built in Japan, sold in New Hampshire, titled in Massachusetts and registered in Texas.
The new plates have a Z, an X and a K, which makes up for the fact that we were too lazy and/or uninspired to get custom plates in the end.
And now, it’s time to make up for the work I missed with an all evening caffeine-fueled orgy of productivity.