Quality of life

01/11/2014

Thoughts on Privacy

from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_New_World

With my modest vacation rental sideline, SeaCat’sRest, I am frequently confronted by privacy issues. I’ve already ranted about facebook.  The latest privacy news on the national scene is all about the NSA and how they read our emails and tap into our phone conversations. I’m honestly not that worried about NSA, since I know several federal employees, and they assure me by their example as well as directly, that the government is not capable of inflicting the kind of dystopia some are worried about. Call it incompetence, inefficiency, lack of resources or motivation, it is just not like the government to succeed at such a massive task. Need I mention the Affordable Care Act website?

What I find worrisome is the “surveillance economy”. This is a term I found in an article by Martin Hirst in Australia’s New Philosopher:

Surveillance is “big data” and big data is big business. The surveillance economy puts information transactions at its core and when the bottom is dropping out of the market for real goods and services, capitalism will adapt. The latest systemic adaptation is to embrace new ways of surveilling customers and then turning the collected data into something that someone else is willing to buy.

The value of big data has been compared to the oil boom or “panning for gold” in terms of potential profitability. The numbers are staggering: 50 billion devices connected to the Internet by the end of this decade; so much available data to be mined that it doesn’t yet have a number to describe it. So many connections are available to be tapped, correlated, combed, combined and sold that any attempt to visualise the connections would look like a spaghetti junction map of the universe with every planet, star and comet connected to every other object. The value of this market is currently estimated at over A$39 billion annually and growing at around 9% per year according to analysts IDC.

In other words, inject a little profit motive into the activity of eavesdropping, and it’s Brave New World.

I have become suspicious of anything on the internet I sign up for, since I know the site I want to access might sell my info. Even those mysterious cold calls from “Heather at credit card services” is using the fact that I answered my phone as a source of profit. Heather gets her number added to my list of screened numbers at my landline company. And then there’s the infuriating ads at the side of just about every website. They promise to reveal one weird trick or tell us the warning signs of dementia (no doubt targeting me, because of my age group), all for filling out a little info about ourselves.

So how about our affordableacadia.com and your privacy when you contact me about my spot on the coast of Maine? First of all, I use Homeaway/VRBO as a way to get most of my customers. My reason for starting this website was to make them unnecessary, but that hasn’t happened yet. One of the things I have opted out of is going through Homeaway/VRBO after you make your initial inquiry. I really don’t want their corporation looking over our shoulders while we negotiate, or handling the money at the end. Imagine how valuable your personal info is once you prove you have enough money for a stay. They can’t have it! I’m not suggesting that Homeaway sells your info, I just don’t want to take the time to find out. The info you do provide me goes onto a spreadsheet and stays on my computer. None of your info is ever released or sold to anyone.

I just read an article about how gmail is further attempting to monetize its service by making it possible for their new facebook clone, google+, members to send you an email. The article includes 5 steps to reclaim a modicum of anonymity in your gmail account, including opting out of google +. I recommend taking the steps.

I embrace new technology and realize the benefits of the information revolution. I am not a “prepper” or paranoid nutcase. But I hope the excesses of the surveillance economy will soon be remedied. In the meantime I am trying to not become part of it!

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05/20/2013

Noise or the Absence Thereof in Our Part of Maine

from http://www.noisecontrol.com, a company which sells products to reduce noise.

I’m selling a house in a medium-sized Michigan city on a busy road. Forty mile per hour traffic is a stone’s throw away and it never lets up. If there happens to be a lull, say around 2 AM, the background roar of the nearby six lane interstate comes to fore. Then there are sirens, airplanes overhead and lawnmowers. When I got back home to Maine the first thing I noticed was the silence. Actually, it’s not silent, just a heckuva lot quieter. A gentle rustling of leaves, chirping of songbirds, gull cries and crow shouts. Bar Harbor’s noon horn from 8 miles away. A distant fog horn. The crack of a mussel dropped by a gull on the rocky shore. In midsummer, the twin poofs of a surfacing porpoise pair. One time long ago, a distant bagpipe solo over the water.

Some potential guests ask about the noise from the airport nearby in their inquiries, but it’s really a different experience when a single point of noise rises, falls and then disappears for a long time. BHB is a small airport with infrequent flights. Contrast this with the relentless hum of most urban areas and you get the picture.

The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies four negative health effects of noise:

  • cardiovascular effects;
  • damage to work and school performance;
  • hearing impairment including tinnitus.
  • sleep disturbance

How is noise defined? Is there a decibel threshold or is noise a measure of relentlessness? A study was conducted in Europe in schools which were near busy roads and/or airports. The noise levels were categorized in four ranges, under about 50 dB, 50-55, 55-60 and over 60. Given the fact that these were “busy” roads and airports, we can assume the noise was fairly constant. The results on children pointed to reduced reading abilities; a loss of 1-2 months of development for every 5 decibels in the tested ranges. There was also an increase of “annoyance”, which the study defined as “a stress response to noise exposure implying reduced well-being and quality of life”.  So it looks like negative health effects start to occur over 50 dB, but damage to hearing happens only over 90 dB.

You can measure your noise environment easily if you have an iPhone and are willing to part with a buck. Follow this link and you will get to this image:

The decibel scale is logarithmic, so a reading of 6o is 10 times as powerful as 50 decibels, and so on. I tested this ap and found that I could not find any place quieter than 40 dB. That is, stone dead silence to me was still reading 40 dB. Normal indoor noises were in the 40-50 range. Outdoors, our 20 mph wind gusts and surf at the shore pushed the scale up to the low 50s, right at mid-afternoon, when the wind is the strongest.

To me, the annoyance factor of noise, coupled with relentlessness is what sets me on edge. A motorcycle with a “performance” muffler, a hip-hop bass vibration, a semi using jake brakes, honking horns, all laid over a constant hum of traffic. None of that exists at SeaCat’s Rest! I’ll take wind, surf and birds any time. Anybody want to buy a house in Michigan?

 

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02/26/2013

Maine High School Grad Rates Up Again

Bangor Daily News announced the results of the Maine Department of Education’s measurement of the 2012 state graduation rate. For the third year in a row that rate has increased, and is now at 85.34% This puts Maine in the top quarter of the US graduation rates. Comparisons to other states are difficult because it seems every website uses tabulation that has a different result, and then there’s the year to year differences. Even more difficult is attributing the causes of this happy statistic. No child left behind? The Maine Laptop program? Small classes? The great recession? Whatever the result, it looks like Maine educators deserve credit, so thank a Maine teacher today. And I don’t think we can attribute our gains to easier graduation requirements!

from http://www.americashealthrankings.org/all/graduation (slightly different data)

Although it’s dangerous to use anecdotal information to explain a trend, nearby Deer Isle-Stonington High School certainly is doing something right, and may offer clues. The school district contains Maine’s biggest lobster catch area, so local kids may not necessarily be college-bound, but the rates have soared from 58% in 2009 to 94% in 2012. The new principal Todd West has outlined what he believes to be behind the meteoric rise. It all comes down to individual attention. Availability of staff and aggressive monitoring of student achievement on a monthly basis are the specific steps Principal West has taken.

At the bottom of the pack are schools in urban districts, where kids are more likely to be in poor circumstances. Only 75% of kids receiving free or reduced lunch costs graduate, compared to 93% of the non-subsidized. There are also gender differences (males, 83%; females 87%). We noticed this problem when our daughter applied to colleges. In efforts to counter the paucity of boys, colleges admitted them with lower scores, much to our dismay.

Our governor is not helping to graduate more kids. He has taken steps to de-fund teacher retirement and has flatlined school funding. But let’s look at the bright side, Maine schools are improving and just maybe they will survive until the next governor.

 

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12/11/2012

Smartest States: Maine is Fifth

Guy in a monkey suit from http://animal.discovery.com/tv-shows/finding-bigfoot

This post was an accident. I was cruising my cable channels looking for something worth watching. My former top channels have been dumbed down big time. The Learning Channel is now the Leering Channel with My Strange Addiction, Hoarding: Buried Alive and Sister Wives. The History Channel is now the Military Hardware and Paranoia Channel  and sadly, the channel which brought us Mythbusters is now showing Zombie Apocalypse, Moonshiners and American Chopper. Last among this list of shame is  Animal Planet. We used to see shows which taught us something about other species but now we’re subjected to Finding Bigfoot. As if this was somehow a subject which is contained under the heading “Animal Planet”! It was while watching the excruciating first five minutes of this sham that I asked myself if some of America’s states are so stupid as to provide fodder for the footage and eyes for the advertisers. I didn’t stick around to see what lowest common denominator businesses had done the math to convince themselves that they could sell to the Luddites who watched this drivel. Instead I was compelled to repair to my beloved internet to see whether Oklahoma was as low on the intelligence scale as suggested by the episode aired on 12/2/12.

Initially I was apprehensive to see where Maine fit in this list since I know that Mainers don’t have the bucks to send their kids to college as easily as other states. Our colleges are not bad, just divided between expensive, excellent private colleges and so-so public universities. Coming from Michigan I’m spoiled from its full spectrum of affordable public universities, serving kids at almost any SAT level, as long as they’re residents. At the top is the University of Michigan, just short of Ivy League status, with tuition accessible to all. With all that, Michigan is not the smartest state according to statemaster.com. In fact it rates as number 27, well behind Maine. Poor Oklahoma is at #39. Maine ranks as number 5, behind Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Check out the full list at http://www.statemaster.com/graph/edu_bes_edu_ind-education-best-educated-index.

Senator-elect Angus King, from wikipedia

The ranking is based on a number of factors,  “on student achievement, positive outcomes and personal attention from teachers”.  I know that Maine’s education reputation has leaped forward in recent years. We have always had small classes, but we used to be dogged by high teenage pregnancy, smoking and low high school graduation rates. Thanks to our newly elected Senator Angus King, when he was governor from 1995 to 2003, our state sent the message to our kids that we were investing in their future. In a bold move, the state of Maine gave every 7th grader an Apple laptop for school. Our daughter was in 7th grade then and hit that wave perfectly. Some older teachers had to retire early, they couldn’t handle it. Now it’s time we show the results to all who doubt the value of education spending and keeping up with cutting-edge technology. Thank you, Angus King. We humans are tuned into bad news, ready at the drop of a hat to blame someone for a problem but rarely do we notice what works, thanking those who do right.

From L. L. Bean

Still, our SAT scores are low and with a low rate of college degrees for their parents, kids have an uphill battle in Maine. We are poor by New England standards so the money spent on education could be higher. Two parents working mean unsupervised after-school time. Our employment opportunities are skewed toward tourism and natural resources, neither demanding higher education. So the fact that we’re #5 is pretty good. Let’s hope we stay there and expand the high tech economy so that our kids stay in Maine. Maine has a lot going for it. The beauty and lure of the outdoors is what everyone knows about, along with our affordability, but we’re also ranked high on peacefulness, low on crime, high on health and now high on smarts. If only we could change that mandatory fashion rule for November: You must wear blaze orange!

 

 

 

 

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07/31/2012

Cooking with Lobsters

Our new floating crates have allowed us to accumulate lobsters and crabs for future use.

Now that we have an almost-steady supply of lobsters coming from our five traps in front of SeaCat’s Rest our challenge has been to try all the various way of cooking them. The starting point is the old standby of boiling or steaming and simply eating out of the shell, but this can get messy and makes it hard to have other foods along with it. To do this extraction in the kitchen allows more varied combination with other ingredients. And let’s face it, even something as exotic as Maine lobster can get tiresome if only cooked in one way.

Professor Jim

My friend Prof. Jim has paid a visit every year in summer since time immemorial and has bugged me mercilessly to get my lobster license. He and I create culinary masterpieces involving local ingredients and ethnically warped techniques, so lobsters were an important goal. So far this visit we have indulged in lobster and cabbage tacos, peekytoe crab cauliflower soup, lobster thermidor, lobster ravioli with garlic cognac sauce and lobster spring rolls. During one night of a lobster drought we had to settle for Julia Child’s beef bourguignon, but that’s off topic.

Lobster bisque

A old standby has been lobster bisque. I blogged about it here. It’s a good first step away from boiled lobster and like the others, a good way to stretch your lobster dollar. The lobster tacos were pretty simple, just boil and cut up the meat into small chunks and top with  a blended sour cream, garlic and  jalapeño sauce, with the usual taco vegetables on a flour or corn tortilla. I’ll save the crab recipe for another post.

Now we get to the lobster thermidor, a major star in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The important first step is to make an herb and wine stew to steam the lobster with. This steam stew is later strained and reduced into an awesome cream sauce which is combined with chunks of lobster meat and mushrooms cooked in butter and cognac. We opted out of the recipe’s tomalley (lobster liver) inclusion on the advice of the US Food and Drug Administration. The whole assembly is loaded into lenghtwise-split lobster shells and topped with parmesan cheese  for a final broiling in the oven.

lobster thermidor

I don’t want to reprint the recipe here since there are so many on the web, like here. I can report that the result was a big hit and has the SeaCat seal of approval!

If the thermidor was guilty indulgence, the ravioli was no penance. In fact, we made 24 pasta packets containing 4 lobsters, so a six ravioli serving was a whole lobster! Making the pasta was a big part of the fun. Jim brought a crank pasta roller with him and we motorized it by hacking a bread machine. The finished product looked like something

out of the steam era, but it did work. The filling was crafted with sauteed onions, garlic, parsley, basil, an egg and bread crumbs and of course the meat from four lobsters. The sauce was another seat-of-the-pants cognac cream and scant tomato paste creation. The ravioli was boiled until it floated, drained and presented with a little sauce on top. Ooolala!

Finally we made some lobster spring rolls on our final lobster indulgence night. Lightly pickled vegetables, rice noodles, hoisin sauce, diced lobster meat, whole basil leaves and some killer chile sauce mixed with sesame oil and Thai fish sauce. Ahhh, summer in Maine!

 

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04/25/2012

Maine is the Most Peaceful State

On April 24 the annual report from the Institute of Economics and Peace ranked Maine as the most peaceful state for the 11th consecutive year, followed by Vermont and New Hampshire. The institute quantifies peace throughout the world in an attempt to show that a peaceful society has profound economic benefits, with the reverse also true.

There are five components on which this peace index is based:

  1. rate of homicide,
  2. rate of violent crime,
  3. police presence,
  4. rate of incarceration and
  5. availability of small arms, or the lack thereof.

For the 20th year, Louisiana is the least peaceful state, and the Detroit metro area the least peaceful urban area. Globally, Iceland ranks as #1 with Somalia at #153, with the U.S. at a disappointing #82. Read more at http://www.visionofhumanity.org

While our low crime rate has long been known, the state ranking poses  some interesting questions, like how does Maine do so well when gun ownership is so high? Our guns are for hunting, and Maine has done a lot to make hunting safer. Handguns remain less-preferred firearms. The study also links education level to peacefulness, but Maine’s average education level is slightly below the national average according to luminafoundation.org. Also, our economy is not the greatest. The study posits that peacefulness should be correlated with an economic benefit, yet even with our 11 years of being #1, Maine average household income is about 90% of the average in the U. S., unchanged since 2000. http://quickfacts.census.gov

There must be other reasons why Maine is such a peaceful state. Could it be the natural beauty of our state? The ample elbow room? The end-of-the-road location? The cool summer breezes? Whatever it is, I’m not leaving. If you want to have a peaceful week in Maine, we still have space on our calendar.

Charts compiled from data at http://www.maine.gov/dps/cim/crime_in_maine/2010contents.htm

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03/02/2012

Free Lobster Traps

One of the nice things about living in Maine is that you can often get given stuff for free just by asking. This predates craigslist by several hundred years and is still going strong. All you need to do is be in contact with the right people and be willing to trade work or favors in return when needed. In most cases, the person to be in contact with is not necessarily the owner of what you need, rather the town extrovert, the person who likes to talk and talks to a lot of people, usually in the course of business or volunteer work.  Just mention, “I need some good used lobster traps,” and for a favor, a bottle of wine or the promise of a few lobsters next summer (and the required few months of waiting while your request makes the rounds) you will hit paydirt.

I hit paydirt yesterday when my friend Chuck called to say he negotiated a deal for me. These traps look like they’ve been barely used and if I were to go out and buy new ones, they’d be close to $100 each. They even come with buoys and line. Count me one step closer to pulling in dozens of lobster dinners this summer! In addition, they lend a certain Downeast ambiance to my yard in the off season.

I’ve been reassured by several people that my gear will not be molested by other fishers, which is a big relief. Apparently a local state cop also puts out traps, and in an incident involving underwater cameras, the sole bad boy was caught and will not be re-offending. This is coupled with the growing awareness that traps are lobster feeding stations and more traps means more lobsters. Undersized lobsters come and go for free meals and notched or egg-bearing females and all under- or over-sized lobsters are let go when traps are hauled.

This means I need bait. At least two pounds per pound of legal lobster, at least according to what I’ve heard. Currently in the Maine Legislature there is a bill which will outlaw any bait which “is not part of the lobster’s natural diet”. This limits my bait choices to over-fished herring, which is the usual commercial bait, or whatever I can catch myself. Herring as bait is not willingly sold to 5-trap people like me, so if this bill passes I may be opening tins of tuna or frantically fishing for mackerel. Whatever happens, I’m one step closer now!

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05/31/2011

Nuke Emissions Not Zero!

Maine currently has no nuclear power plants. Our only one, Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, was decommissioned in 1997. The decommissioning was done responsibly and on budget.   Today Germany and Switzerland have announced that they are phasing out nuclear power. The Fukushima plant in Japan is still problematic, and predictions from the source suggest it may take a year before the situation is stabilized.

Maine Yankee

Still, we have two big problems in our addiction to oil and fossil fuel derived electricity. The most pressing is global warming and the second is enriching terrorists who happen to have lots of oil, or more accurately, friends and family who finance their jihad with oil money.

Recently I heard a sober discussion of the risks of nuclear power compared to those of coal and natural gas derived electricity. With all the splashy headlines and contaminated land, how can we not conclude that nuclear power is the wrong path? But what about  collapsing coal mines, black lung, widespread asthma, weird weather, rising ocean levels and let’s not forget those terrorists.

One thing that has always bothered me about nuclear power has been the way it is presented as “zero emissions”, as if operators just lean out their windows and pluck a fresh fuel rod from the nuke tree and pop it into the reactor. In reality, there are many, many more power-consuming steps to producing those fuel rods than the industry thinks we should know about. I found a non-industry website, http://www.wise-uranium.org which finally answers this question.  After a session of envelope scrawling and unit conversions, I think I arrived at the true CO2 comparison between the big three ways of making electricity. Missing in this estimate is the energy investment in getting fossil fuels to the power plant. A lump of coal just needs to be transported but uranium has to go through many steps, so proportionally, the energy invested in the fuel rods is more significant. And it’s NOT zero. Here is the result:

  1. Ready for demolition

    Coal…..936 metric tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt hour

  2. Natural Gas ….581 metric tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt hour
  3. Nuclear Fuel …..34.5  metric tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt hour

That means nuclear derived electricity releases 3.6 % of the CO2 emissions of coal and  5.9% of natural gas. This is a typical energy expenditure in fuel rod processing. Somewhat different expenditures would result with lower grade ore or the reprocessing of spent fuel. Also not counted is the end-of-cycle energy investment, like what’s happening now at Maine Yankee. Wouldn’t it be nice if the industry were more forthcoming about these energy costs? Can’t they make their argument a little more honestly? Can we trust an elite, secretive industry to provide us with the real information, or will they continue to chant, “Zero emissions”?

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05/07/2011

SeaCat’s Rest Wine

For a while I’ve been saving empty wine bottles that guests of our oceanside apartment have left behind with the vague notion that I will someday make a batch of wine. Last year I actually planted a vineyard and the plants did great over the summer of 2010. I did not allow them to produce fruit however, since this is what you are supposed to do for the first few years. Over the winter I bought a few wine kits, reasoning that if I wanted to utilize my eventual harvest to the utmost, I should get some practice in winemaking.

I couldn’t believe how easy it was. The making of the wine consisted of :

  1. boiling a couple gallons of water
  2. dump a gallon of the boiled water into the primary fermenter
  3. add an envelope of powdered bentonite, a type of clay which helps to settle out the solids
  4. dump in the juice from the kit
  5. pour in enough water to reach the six gallon mark and
  6. pour in the wine yeast

This whole process took less than an hour. At this point I had no idea if the end product would be drinkable, but I did know it would be cheap. The per-bottle cost was under $3.

The directions called for “racking” at regular intervals. This is the transfer of the wine from one container to another, to allow leaving behind the sediment. At the final racking two envelopes of fining (clarifying)  agents are added and one envelope of sulphite as a sanitizer. Then in two weeks, bottling, and the first chance to taste the wine.

I’m no great judge of wine, but I will proclaim the two batches I made as highly drinkable. If others agree (given a respectable time for aging) I will offer my guests a bottle or two. Of course I don’t intend to sell them, just please save the bottle!

In the vineyard, I did my first pruning in early April.  Pruning is necessary to limit the number of buds; too many buds produce too many fruiting clusters and produce small, low quality fruit. I haven’t decided whether I will allow fruiting this year (a second pruning operation removes the flowers) but I suspect I will allow a few per plant. The other thing I did which is exciting is to attempt to root the cuttings. This is happening now, and consists of placing the cut twigs into a moist pot of soil over a heating pad. Supposedly I should see root growth in a week or two. When this happens I will move the pots into the sun so that the buds will start to produce leaves. Then I can expand the vineyard to accommodate another 12 plants. These are all frontenac gris vines, a hardy variety developed by the University of Minnesota.

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02/14/2011

Losing affordableacadia!!

This is what I saw when I tried to access my site.

This past week has been tough. Affordableacadia.com started fading away last Saturday, February 5. At first I thought it was a regional internet glitch, but as time went on, into Sunday, I started to get worried. I emailed my tech guru and he said all his sites were down too. After another day or so I got the news: The website host, the guy who owns all the servers for many, many websites died, and his grieving family simply “pulled the plug”. Everything that is on a website, all the text, pictures, sidebar gadgets, traffic statistics, everything, resides on the hard drives of the host’s server. Lots of people were in a panic. People with dozens of sites who rely on them for their income were suddenly helpless. People who take money for access had to face angry subscribers. It was bad.

Finally, another hosting firm was designated by the family to sort out the mess.  Slowly, starting Tuesday, some sites started to come back on the new servers. I considered taking the easy way out and just transferring to them, but I didn’t like the fact that they didn’t have a phone number. I had no way to communicate with them except by “ticket”, a kind of dedicated email, and they were very slow to respond, and incapable of grasping complex issues. To be fair, they were dealing with a huge mess, and I was small potatoes. But they were simply “out there somewhere” and I felt helpless.

The Grand Theater, Ellsworth, Maine

I decided I wanted someone local. After all, I’m here in Maine trying to promote the Maine experience and so I started looking for a web hosting company nearby. Fortunately, WERU, our local community radio station has such a host and so I signed up with svaha.com. The contact person, who I didn’t get permission to name, spent many hours trying to get me up and running. I’m impressed.

What I take away from all this is the need to back up my website. It is also necessary to understand the type of backup you are doing, because you may end up with only text. The pulling of the plug could have easily been a fire, hurricane, molasses flood or rampaging gorilla, you never know.  The other lesson is the local contact. I know where my new host lives!

Read how this disaster unfolded at Warrior Forum.

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