The fading

It’s been a rough couple of months. I feel like I’m just now starting to feel normal again after the dog died on March 13th. The dread is still there, but it’s more of a whisper than a shout. Every once in a while it pokes its head back out but generally it’s just… like an app you left running in the background a couple weeks ago and forgot about until you get a stupid push alert.

What it’s really reminding me of is one of my favorite TNG episodes, “The Inner Light.” The one where the Enterprise finds this probe floating in space and it hits Picard with some beam that knocks him unconscious. In the 90 minutes he’s out, he “lives” an entire lifetime on the home world of the probe’s creators, who it turns out all died long ago because their sun went nova, or whatever. When he first “arrives” on the planet, he spends a lot of time trying to “get back” to the Enterprise. As time passes, he falls in love, gets married, has kids, learns to play the flute, and eventually dies. All the while, his memories of the Enterprise get fuzzier and fuzzier, though he never really stops thinking about it. Once he “dies,” the people in his new life all come back to explain that this was essentially a time capsule from their dying world, and he is now the only one who knows about their people. The simulation ends and he wakes up on the Enterprise’s bride, with only 90 minutes of real time having elapsed. Sort of like Inception, I guess.

That was sort of a long-winded way of explaining what I’m feeling now. Just like Picard never really stopped thinking about the Enterprise, I suppose I’ll never stop thinking about these things, but hopefully they’ll stay in the background as much as possible.

Where did this emptiness come from? Out of nowhere I feel hollow. How can I make it stop? There’s joy. But it seems so fleeting. Work seems silly and pointless. But what’s the alternative? Sit at home and rot? Is work just a way to spend time until our clocks wind down? What is wrong with me?

Chaka, when the wall fell

When I was in elementary school, I had a best friend, “Pat” (not his real name). Pat and I had a lot of fun playing video games and computer stuff. He lived in a really nice house in a development in the woods and his dad had a black Corvette. Memories fade, but one that stands out was when we were exploring the swamp near his house in the middle of winter, and we were hopping from icy patch to icy patch, and somehow I fell in. It was me and Pat, and I was in the icy swamp up to my knees. I got out, we went back to his house and warmed up, I think his mom washed off my shoes or something. We had a lot of fun together, doing all kinds of pre-internet and pre-cellphone stuff like starting fires and hitting each other with sticks. Then at some point around 8th grade, his family moved to Connecticut. We lived on eastern Long Island so, that was basically that. It’s 25 years later now and we’re friends on Facebook but I haven’t seen him since then, and doesn’t seem like I’ll ever see him again. He comments on my posts now and then. When he moved away, it hurt.

After Pat moved, for a few years, I had no real friends. Lots of acquaintances, but nobody like Pat. My home life was kind of a disaster, which made me self conscious about inviting people over. I had (and still have) no interest in sports, either playing them or watching them, which was another thing that kept me isolated from “normal” kids.

In 6th grade, a kid named “Steve” moved back into our district. He had been in our elementary school, but then moved away for a couple years, and was now back. When I first talked to him in social studies in 6th grade, the first thing he said to me was “I remember you, you’re Spock Ears!” I had gone through elementary school with people calling me Spock because of my “pointy ears,” though nobody had called me that for a long time. When Steve said this in 6th grade I instantly hated him.

I’m not sure how it happened, but sometime in high school, Steve became my best friend. Maybe because we were in Latin class together and we were the only two kids who didn’t do the exchange student trip to Italy, so we spent two weeks in Latin with just me and him. I remember once when it was me, him, and the teacher in the classroom during that time and he said “this guy Michael came to my house looking for you. Do you know him? Michael Hunt?” I had never heard this joke before, and after like 5 minutes I think he finally got me to say “Mike Hunt” in front of the teacher, though she also didn’t seem to get it. Steve and I hung out all the time. We listened to all the Jerky Boys CDs endlessly in his bedroom hundreds of times and laughed hysterically. To this day I quote Jerky Boys and think it was one of the funniest things man has ever produced. He was a couple months older, but I ended up getting a car before he did and I’d go pick him up and we’d just spend hours driving around. We’d drive all over the place, into the backwoods of East Hampton. Just listening to the radio, talking, laughing.

Then toward the end of our junior year of high school, in AP English class one day he said “guess what, I got some big news,” and my heart sank. “You’re moving…” I said, and he nodded. “Yup, to Wisconsin.” When that year ended, his family did indeed move to Wisconsin. I spent my senior year of high school once again friendless. The summer after I graduated from high school, I flew to Wisconsin to visit him for a week. That was fun, like old times. Then I came back, and that was that for a while. He eventually moved to California, lived there a few years. Then around 2006 he moved back to New York. I saw him a couple times, but after a few months he let me know he would be moving to China. That was about 10 years ago. He has two kids and lots of family there, so I probably won’t see him ever again. I’m happy for him, but sad for me.

Anyway, when Steve left the first time, after 11th grade, I decided that I was simply done with friends. After being abandoned by two best-friends, it seemed like having them was a losing proposition. Around that time I began building an emotional fortress around my psyche. I was determined not to let anyone hurt me that way again.

Soon after starting college I met my first girlfriend. That was quite a new experience. Despite the feelings of youthful love, I made sure to keep my wall strong. If losing a friend hurt so bad, what would losing a girlfriend feel like? So I let myself love, but kept a good chunk of my emotions in reserve. After all, any minute now this thing could sink, and then what? I was young, in college surrounded by people way smarter, cooler, and better looking than I was. What were the odds I’d find another girlfriend if I lost this one?

That was over twenty years ago. She and I ended up getting married and we have a beautiful son now, who’s twelve. The year my son was born was the year my dad died. He had been terribly ill for years, in the VA nursing home. I visited him once in a while, but not as often as I should have. When I first went to visit him, after several years having not seen him, he was so happy to see me. I was there with my girlfriend, and I introduced her to him, and he looked confused. He said “I thought the reason you didn’t come see me was because you were gay.” I saw him a few more times, and called him a bunch, but he couldn’t really talk on the phone. When he finally died, I was sad, but because I had selfishly cut myself off from him, the wall protected me.

When I met my girlfriend she had a big dog, who I grew to love as much as he loved me. When he was 12 he got cancer and I had to take him to the vet to put him down. That was like a Howitzer blast to my wall. My son was about 3 months old at this point, though, so I had a lot of other stuff to worry about, and the general newness of a baby is enough to distract from a lot. We still had a second dog, and we were moving to a new house, so I was at least able to paper over the hole left by putting that dog to sleep.

A couple years later, I had to put the other dog to sleep when she was suffering from congestive heart failure. When she was gone I told my wife I didn’t want any more dogs for a while. I wanted to be able to go on vacation without worrying about who’d watch the dog, or having to rush home after a night out just to let the dog out. That lasted about 6 months. We went to the animal shelter one day to get a cat for my son. We came home with Chloe. I was so fucking mad. I felt I’d been bullied into adopting this dog.

Ten years later, in early March 2018, Chloe got sick. One day she was healthy, and the next she looked terrible. She wasn’t eating, not even chicken or cheese put right in front of her. We took her to the vet, who did an x-ray, and she told us her abdomen was filling up with blood, a result of a massive tumor in her spleen that had ruptured. The vet recommended euthanasia.

And just like that, the wall I spent over twenty years building came crashing down. Chloe was a Trojan horse. She snuck past my defenses and I only realized how much I loved her when we got that call from the vet. I think now how my reaction to that call differed from the call when my dad died. I feel so guilty.

We pulled our son out of school and went to the vet to say goodbye to her. We were all hysterical. My wife and son left the room, but I stayed with her until the end. In that room, in the body of my dead, beloved dog, was the rubble of my emotional defense.

It’s been about six weeks now since Chloe died. After the initial hysterics, I had a brief upswing, and then a 10 day vacation in Florida, but with my defense gone I now realize that I, too, am subject to time. For most of my life I felt like an outside observer, watching things happen to other people. Even having a kid didn’t drive that home. I saw pictures of Obama when he took office and when he left office and thought “sheesh, he got old,” without acknowledging that I went through those same eight years, and my bag of meat was also aging. When Chloe died, all that knowledge got poured into my mind at once. Since that day, I can’t look at anyone without seeing them old. I feel like all of time is being compressed now. Today I’m 39 and my son is 12. In ten years I’ll be 49 and my son will be 22 (God willing). What will the world look like then? Will he be able to get a job? Will I have a job? Will he find love? Will we still live on Long Island? Do I want to deal with all these shitty winters and shitty trains until my knees give out and my meatbag falls apart? Should I get that surgery now, before I’m too old for my body to handle it? Will AI put humanity out of work? How will America compete against China? Will our politics ever become civil again? When will we build an automated drone that kills in the battlefield without human approval? Will my son ever remember to brush his teeth if I’m not around? What am I going to do for fun when he moves out? Will he ever love playing drums again? Will I ever find music I like again? Should I get my bathroom fixed? Or just sell the house? Or both? What will I do when my mom dies? Will I ever be good at my job? If I leave this one, will I even be able to get another? Is there any place in the for a hardware-focused devops engineer in a cloud-centric world? What are we going to watch on TV once Game of Thrones ends? How am I going to make it through the next shitty-ass winter? If my son moves out when he’s 18, that means his time with me is already ⅔ over — am I doing everything I can to make him into the man he needs to be? Do I even know what that is? Am I even the man I need to be? My mom is almost 70 and lives all by herself in a big empty house an hour away; is that my fate? How much longer will I have her? She got to meet her grandson, and her mom even got to meet a great-grandson. Will I? Should I replace this goddamn dishwasher that never gets the dishes clean even though we just bought it 3 years ago?

These are the questions that have been eating at me every day for the past month. We went on vacation to Disney World, which was a welcome break. I had some truly joyful moments, but going to Disney with a 12-year-old isn’t like going with a 5-year-old. It’s fun, but it’s not magic. He’s twelve now, so his time with me is ⅔ over. Then what? Before he was born we had a pretty unconventional family: me, my girlfriend, her two nieces (long story), and the two dogs. 12 years later and it’s just the three of us. We’ll probably get another dog, or maybe a couple, but for the first time in a long time, I am terrified of the unknown. I have no armor left. My self is floating, adrift, on the river of time. There’s a waterfall up ahead, and each of us faces it eventually, but for most of my life I’ve been facing the other direction. Now I see it. It’s there, we must all face it, though we never really know how far or close we are to it.

Why am I writing this? Part of it is just to leave some graffiti on the river wall that someone will read down the line and think of me. Hopefully my son will someday, when he’s very old, remember his “old man.” I told my wife one of the things that’s upsetting me is the idea that I won’t see how the story ends. Each of us is a chapter in the great story of life, hopefully a neverending story of humanity. But I want to know what happens 300, 500, 2000 years from now. Do we colonize Mars? Will mankind ever stop killing each other? Maybe I don’t really want to know.

I turned 39 in February. Maybe this is just a cliched midlife crisis and I should just go get a mistress and a Porsche. Ignorance is bliss, and after how I’ve felt the last couple weeks I completely understand why Cipher wanted Agent Smith to put him back in the Matrix. Knowledge can be a curse. When Chloe died, I told my son, “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Easy for me to say, but after I said it I realized it was the opposite of how I’d lived my entire life. Building an emotional wall prevented me from fully loving, for fear of loss.

I’m still trying to work this all out. Hopefully these feelings will lessen over time. Maybe I should talk to a therapist. I’m tired of crying though. I long for the days of 2 months ago when I just didn’t give a shit. Not that I was the paragon of happiness then, but at least I didn’t feel like a salted wound.

I think I’m done for now. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I guess it feels good to get it out, whether in speech or in text. If you’re a historian reading this long after my barrel went over the waterfall, hello to you too.

I never even wanted a dog.

I never even wanted a dog.

I can still remember the day we got you. I felt so duped. We were supposed to be going to get a cat and somehow we came home with you. I was angry for months. I had wanted to be able to go on vacation without worrying about a pet. Still, you were very cute.

April 26, 2008
May 5, 2008

I was mad, but it wasn’t your fault, and my anger was more than offset by the happiness you brought everyone else.

You got bigger but you still loved jumping up to kiss people on their face, and nothing we could do would stop you. For some reason you really loved my mom, though the feeling was not mutual.

September, 2008

You were always a very pretty girl.

Jan 2009

Eventually we moved and we made sure to get a house with a big yard. The yard became your territory. You found a whole area behind the shed that we didn’t even know existed. You went there every time we let you outside. Sometimes we’d see squirrels or birds fly out once you ran in. You loved the yard.

August, 2009

At some point we started spending most of our summers out east and you were in heaven. I set up a clothesline and attached your lead to it so you had plenty of room to run. If we weren’t so close to a busy road I would have loved to let you run free. But we didn’t want you to get hit by a car.

July 2011
June 2012

You hated water so much. When our house was flooded by Hurricane Sandy, mom had to drag you out of the house into the flooded street. It was an awful time for all of us. Over the next week, while we emptied out the ruins of our life, you were a very good girl, laying calmly in the front yard, keeping away looters. Just kidding. You did keep the mailman away, though.

November, 2012

Mom started dressing you up for Halloween and Christmas. You clearly did not love it, but you tolerated it, except for the hats.

Halloween 2014
Halloween 2015
Halloween 2016
Halloween 2017

At some point over the years we had you I stopped being mad. At some point I guess I realized I loved you.

Me and you, December 2017

We always joked that you were so healthy, you’d outlive all of us. We took you for shots but you were never sick. Maybe if we’d taken you for a “checkup” things would have been different. We’ll never know. When you got sick a couple weeks ago we all assumed it was from the won ton soup you ate. You peed on the floor and couldn’t walk. We thought you were in diabetic shock. We took you to the vet. The vet said you probably had indigestion and gave you some shot. The next day you seemed fine. I posted a “thank god she’s OK!” pic on Instagram.

When you got sick again the next week we were worried. I dropped you off for an X-ray. When the vet called us later that day to tell us your abdomen was filling up with blood and you had a massive tumor in your spleen that had burst, and her only recommendation was the worst possible thing, we shrieked in horror. We had to get Anthony out of school so he could come say goodbye to you.

You were such a good girl, even at the very end. I stayed with you as you left.

If someone would have told me I would be sitting at my desk writing a dog’s obituary with tears in my eyes I would have chuckled. But here I am.

We will always remember you. How you talked to dogs a quarter mile away. How you kept the yard free of birds and squirrels. How you loved sitting outside in the sun. How you loved it when we cooked, but fled down to the basement anyway because the smoke alarm scared you. How you camped next to the table waiting for something to fall off. How you’d pre-wash the dishes in the dishwasher. How you’d pull everything out of the trash, so much that we gave up and just started giving the empty wrappers to you.

In the end, we all loved you and you loved us. You were a good girl. You loved it when I said that. It was true. You won me over somehow. We will miss you forever, Chloe.

March 2017
February 2017

New York Rising is a Scam

As most people who know me are aware, my house, on Long Island’s south shore, suffered heavy flooding on October 29, 2012 as a result of Hurricane Sandy, when the water level of a nearby bay rose several feet above its historic high and filled my house up like a bucket. My house was not in a flood plain – even today it’s not considered a flood risk according to the latest maps – so we didn’t have flood insurance.

We stayed as long as we could, and planned to ride out the entire storm in our house, but once water started pouring down the driveway and filling up our garage and first level (finished living space) we decided to vacate. We spent the night at a friend’s house, far from the water.

image
The driveway, which slopes down from the street to the first level.
The next morning, I drove back to my house to check out the damage. There was about a foot of water still in the house, but the high water mark inside the house showed it had gotten to about 40 inches – level with the street outside. Everything downstairs was ruined. Washer, dryer, fridge, boiler, water heater, couches, TVs, video game systems, computers – the lower level was a living area, bathroom and our home office. Everything had been submerged in brackish water from the bay.

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I went back to the house where we’d spent the night, and as soon as President Obama declared an emergency, I logged onto FEMA’s website and requested aid. The details of the next few days are murky in my mind almost 5 years later, but the inspector came on Halloween. We received some emergency money from FEMA relatively quickly, which let us get heat and hot water back once the power was restored, but it was well below the cap of $31,000, and far short of what we’d need to get everything fixed and replace what we’d lost.

I should add that our homeowner’s insurance explicitly didn’t cover any flood-related damage, and as I said above, the area had never flooded before and is even today not considered a flood risk.

We were without power for 9 days, which we spent hauling waterlogged stuff out of the basement and onto the curb. It was depressing work, but since there was no power at home or at work (in lower Manhattan at the time) it at least gave us something to do. Our lifeline to the rest of the world was our iPhones, which we charged using solar chargers we’d picked up at a county fair the previous year. In hindsight, we were lucky it was a warm few days, since we had no heat.

I had some contractors come by and asked them to give quotes to repair the damage. Since hundreds, maybe thousands of houses in my area had been damaged by the storm it was really difficult to get anyone even to return our call. We finally had three different contractors come by, and they gave verbal quotes ranging from $40,000 to $80,000, but each of them refused to give a written quote unless we agreed to hire them first. This seemed backwards, and frankly shady, but it was their market and they had hundreds of other jobs they could do.

We went back and forth with FEMA about increasing their award but they refused. Ultimately they directed us to the Small Business Administration about getting a loan. We really didn’t want to take out a loan, but on November 22nd I filled out the application beginning the months-long process of securing a disaster relief loan.

At some point, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put together the New York Rising program to handle disbursement of federal funds for storm recovery. Going through my email history, I applied for this program on September 16th, 2013. On October 12, 2013, I received a letter from New York Rising informing me of my award of $193,728.73. We were pretty excited, as this meant we wouldn’t need to move forward with the SBA loan, and could use grant money for the repairs. By this point we had settled on a contractor, one who had been highly recommended by friends and had no problem getting all necessary permits, inspections, and most importantly, doing everything to town code. We were told he was very good, but also expensive, and his quote was over $80,000. We informed SBA we wouldn’t be moving forward with the loan since the NY Rising grant would more than cover the repair cost.

Several months passed and we didn’t hear anything from NY Rising, until February 7, 2014, when I received an email from NY Rising informing me of my award in the amount of $16,633.30. This was confusing, so I called our NY Rising rep to ask if this was in addition to the $193,728. She informed me that the $193,728 was “a mistake” and I should ignore that letter. NY Rising estimated that my total project cost should be $36,362.91. I was shocked. That amount was lower than the lowest quote I had received. I asked repeatedly for further explanation but never got one, and eventually they stopped returning my phone calls. I ended up actually receiving $12,689 from NY Rising – 75% of the $16,633.30 they gave me in their “revised” award.

In the end, I secured the SBA loan and the repair began on March 15, 2015 – two and a half years after the storm. The work was completed that July. The final bill for the repair and replacing furniture and appliances inside was well over $100,000, which I’ll be paying off over the next 27 years. The lower level is nice, and it’s nice to have that half of the house back after having been crammed into the upstairs for two years. But most importantly, as part of the rebuild, we filled in the driveway. Prior to Sandy, the driveway sloped down from the street level to the garage, which was what made the flood so disastrous for us in the first place. With the driveway filled in, another similar flood shouldn’t affect us so badly.

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That’s not the end of the story, however. On Feb 21, 2017, I received a letter from NY Rising informing me that because I had received an SBA loan in the amount of $117,543.20, and their estimated cost for the repair was $36,362.91, the entire amount they had given me was considered “duplication of benefits” and I had to repay the $12,689 I had received.

I called the latest NY Rising representative assigned to my case and asked about this and was told that I was free to appeal the decision. I sent in my appeal on March 30, 2017, explaining that the repair cost well over $100,000 and their original estimate of $36,000 was absurd. I also explained that filling in the driveway alone cost over $10,000, and it would have been foolish to do any repairs at all without filling in the driveway, as it would just leave us open to flooding again in the future.

I received a letter on April 19, 2017, informing me that my appeal was denied:

The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery’s (GOSR) NY Rising Reconciliation Evaluation Team met on April 18, 2017 to review the appeal received on March 30, 2017. After careful consideration, your appeal is denied.

When you applied to the Program for assistance, an Inspector came to the damaged property address to calculate the extent of the damage to the property from the storm. The total of this amount was the Total Project Cost and is reflected above as $36,030.74. Subsequently, your Total Project Cost increased to add an additional design allowance for work completed prior to inspection. Your Reconciled Total Project Cost is $36,362.91. The documentation submitted with your appeal was reviewed and it was determined that even if all of the repairs in your contractor’s estimate were Program‐eligible, the total DOB funds you received would still exceed your Total Project Cost. Your current Total Project Cost includes a 10% design allowance to cover expenses such as architect’s fees. Additionally, content, such as furniture and personal property, and driveway repairs are not eligible for Program funds.

Since receiving that letter I’ve contacted every elected official I can think of, from federal through county representatives, and received responses from Congresswoman Kathleen Rice’s office and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office. However, I have little expectation anything will change before NY Rising puts the account into collection, as they’ve threatened to do with each letter.

I hope that by writing and sharing my experience, others who have had similar issues with NY Rising changing their award amounts out from under them repeatedly, and ultimately demanding money back that was used to repair their homes, as it was originally intended, will similarly speak out and convince Governor Cuomo to stop this recapture program.

 

Desecrating the Houses of the Holy

Leave me alone, don’t want your promises no more
‘Cause rock and roll is my religion and my law
– Ozzy Osbourne

I’ve never had much use for religion. While I’m culturally and genealogically Jewish, my time with Judaism ended before I was 10, when I got in trouble for poking holes in a plastic table cloth during some high holy days ceremony and my mom stormed out of the synagogue with me and my sister in tow. Since then I’ve come to my own conclusions about the nature of the universe and morality and everything, and I’m fine with that.

With that said, the closest thing I have to actual religion is music. A rock concert to me is more than a louder version of an iTunes album. It’s a place to commune with likeminded people in worship of something greater than ourselves. Music brings us joy and moves us to tears. It brings us to our feet and makes us hug our loved ones. A modern arena concert, with 15,000 people singing along with their heroes, is a religious experience.

And so for me the terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester is especially heinous. A concert is a place where people come to worship and be joyful with fellow worshippers. After the final encore of a concert, we’re supposed to be left feeling euphoric. To have that moment of ultimate joy turned into one of fear, pain, and death is unimaginably evil to me. Having attended a Metallica concert just a few days ago with my family, the idea of the sanctity of a concert being broached is especially terrifying and sad.

On another note, only tangentially related, I’m still not over the death of Chris Cornell. He’s been one of my musical heroes for over 20 years. I somehow ended up following his wife on Instagram a couple years ago and have seen him as a loving father and husband in addition to someone with unique and powerful musical gifts. Every time there was an interview with him I made a point of listening because he was also obviously extremely intelligent. The idea that someone with so much going for him — wife, kids, two major bands plus a new solo project — could choose end it all is hard to swallow. If music is a religion then Chris was one of its greatest prophets. With Layne and Scott, their deaths were terrible but I don’t think anyone was really surprised. Chris seemed like he was above it all. One of my favorites.

A terrible week for music and its faithful.

My 3-beer Breath Of The Wild Review

So I got a Switch just to play this thing. Overall, I really liked the game, but really, we waited 6+ years for this? I finished it about a week ago after having played it a few hours a day for almost a month. I did all the major side quests (the 4 divine beasts, which I later learned were not even required to defeat Ganon, plus the Master Sword). The puzzles were great, and the game was generally great, but most of the things I hated seemed like intentional design choices that were just plain stupid.

First off, weapon durability. Each weapon has a finite durability, and once it’s exhausted, the weapon breaks — permanently. This applies to melee weapons, bows, and shields. The rationale I’ve seen from the designers has been that they wanted players to try different types of weapons and not just find one they like and use it forever. I guess this is an interesting idea but in practice it’s just fucking annoying. You need to have several weapons in your bag at all times because you never know when you’ll land in a fight in which one or more of them break. And you can’t use a metal weapon against an electrified enemy, or a wooden weapon against an enemy made of fire, etc.

I’d made it pretty far in the game without any sign of the Master Sword, which I knew had to exist because it’s a Zelda game. This was one of only three times I googled something related to the game. There was no hint or clue of how to get the sword, just NPCs talking about “the sword that seals the darkness.” Once I saw where I had to go to get on track it wasn’t too hard to find it. Actually getting the sword had a pretty stupid prerequisite: 13 hearts; I only found this out via google, there’s no indication in the game. You’d have to just keep trying and dying until you got up to 13 hearts unless you looked it up. I was looking forward to the Master Sword because I expected it wouldn’t suffer from the durability shit. I was partially right — the Master Sword doesn’t break, but it does “get tired.” Once it gets tired, it has to rest for 10 minutes, during which you can’t use it.

Anyway, the Master Sword wasn’t even a very good sword in 90% of the game. Every weapon gets a damage rating from like 0–70, with a 45+ being really good. Master Sword was a 30. But if you’re in one of the Divine Beasts, or Hyrule Castle — areas infested by Ganon — it goes to 60. I think in those areas it’s immune to durability shit also, but not sure. Anyway, the durability also affects bows and shields. Whatever the devs intended, in practice this led to me sticking with my shittiest weapons in most encounters and saving the good ones “just in case.” Definitely detracted from the fun.

Also you have extremely limited inventory. You can hold like 6 weapons, 6 bows, 6 shields to start. Torches and sticks and rakes count as weapons, and sometimes you need a torch to light a fire, so you have to drop an awesome sword to pick up a stick and light a fire somewhere. It’s stupid as fuck. I discovered later on that you can buy more inventory slots with the Korok seeds you collect. I did this and had like 12 slots for weapons but found it still wasn’t enough sometimes. You’ll have a full arsenal of shit and then some uber thing drops from a chest and you have to chuck something to make room. I get the concept of forced choice but it was annoying as shit.

The game also has a very weird cooking system. When you start out, you have shitty armor. You’ll need to go into a cold area, so your only option is to create some cold-resist food. To do this you need to grab a coldshroom and an apple, throw them in a cooking pot, and wait. Then do this again, then do it again. You can only do one combine at a time, and each time requires going to the inventory screen and clicking around 9 times and then throwing the shit in the pot and waiting for the animation to complete. You can vary the amount of cold resist, duration, and hearts recovered from the food. You can make potions as well, which do almost the same thing as the stat-food stuff, but have different ingredients (monster parts + bugs for potions, versus fruit/meat/mushrooms for stat food). And you can get fairies also, which will save you from death and restore 5 hearts. As you progress in the game, you get armor which supersedes whatever powers you get from stat food, so the entire stat food system becomes relatively worthless. A couple of items, when cooked, restore 100% of your health and give you a couple of extra temporary hearts — Durians, radishes, and truffles. I found that simply cooking each one of these individually with no stats at all was the best value in the end game and nothing else mattered at all. So the whole cooking system was fucking dumb.

The world is enormous, and you can see almost the entire thing from anywhere, which is awesome. They have a transport system which is sort of reminiscent of WoW bird paths — if you get to certain waypoints they unlock and then you can teleport back to them whenever you want. The size of the world and the different biomes was really amazing and they did a great job overall. However, in some areas I found the framerate dropping noticeably. In scenes with lots of mist (Korok forest e.g.) I felt like I was getting under 10 fps. The Switch is not an impressive platform at all, but even so it’s pretty embarrassing for Nintendo not to be able to deliver a full 30fps on their flagship title on a brand new console, especially one that’s only doing 900p. Fuck them.

Trash mobs throughout the game were able to one-shot me, even toward the end when I had like 19 hearts. This seemed bizarre, but there’s really not much penalty for dying so I guess who cares?

When I finally beat Ganon — which was hard, but somehow I did it, and then looked up the best way and the guides were all like “yeah just keep hitting him” — the ending was pretty pathetic. It was essentially Zelda saying “Hey… thanks.” Then the credits rolled. Once it was over, I was given the option to continue — which took me to the savegame right before I beat Ganon — or start over. What the fuck? There’s no way to explore the world or tie up other quests after killing Ganon? I have to go back to just before I killed him, warp out of the castle, do all that shit, then just kill him again? Fuck Nintendo.

Gameplay in general was very good, maybe excellent, except for the camera control. At times maneuvering the camera was cumbersome and took so long a mob had time to strike and knock me on my ass. I was relieved though not to have the Skyward Sword “swing your sword” bullshit this time around. I liked Skyward Sword generally but that sword swinging shit was horrendous. Overall I wish Nintendo would stop with the gimmicky controller shit and just focus on the game itself. Honestly I would have loved to have seen this game on PS4 hardware, where it would’ve probably been smooth as silk and a non-annoying controller (Joy-Con is stupid as fuck imo, if only for the $80 price tag to replace it).

The storyline was kind of convoluted, due to being told mostly via chatting with NPCs and occasional memories you unlock if you “find” them all. I found like 12/16 before winning the game and once you make out enough to make sense you realize it’s pretty cliche. There were 5 champions; 4 of them died and Link is the last. Link has been asleep for 100 years and now has to defeat Ganon to save Zelda. There are like 100–200 NPCs in all of Hyrule so I don’t know why Ganon even wants to take it over. Seems like being King of Nothing. Anyway.

The voiceovers in general were terrible. Maybe I’m spoiled from MGSV, Uncharted, Last of Us, etc. But the voice acting itself was lame and the script sucked. AND there wasn’t really much of it. Maybe 5–10 minutes total. Everything else was just clicking through scrolling text. If this was WoW, sure, but they had 6 years to do this and it just wasn’t very good. I mean, here’s the Deku Tree. It just sounds stupid. Talking trees in WoW sound more like talking trees.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOClfWhQeF0

At this point you probably think I hated the game but I’d give it an 8.5 or maybe a 9.0. It was very good once you get past the stupid ass fucking bullshit. I don’t feel like this was the culmination of 6 years work for the flagship game, based on the second biggest IP Nintendo owns, on a new console. The graphics were great (framerate issues aside). The world is enormous. The fights are fun (aside from durability shit). The shrines (mini dungeons) were all great puzzles that I had lots of fun solving. And as lame as the story was, it was still very much Zelda, which I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for. I need to go back and solve a couple of the side quests, but since I already killed Ganon I’m having a hard time talking myself into doing them.

Today I had to return a package to Amazon

Today I had to return a package to Amazon. When I angrily filled out the “return an item” form for a product that didn’t work, I saw a new option on the list of return methods: an Amazon locker located at the 7-Eleven less than half a mile from my house. If you’re not from Long Island you may not be able to appreciate how much of a fixture of daily life 7-Eleven is, but there are at least 15 within a 2-mile radius of my house — not an exaggeration — and two within 10 minutes’ walking distance.

I had noticed the locker a couple weeks ago but didn’t think much of it. Now that I had to return something, it seemed like a good opportunity to try it out.

After selecting the locker as my return method, Amazon gave me a label to print out, much like when selecting UPS. I was actually hoping using a locker meant I wouldn’t need to put the item in a box and tape it up — just put the item in the locker and let someone else throw it in a bucket — but no such luck. This means if you want to return something you do still need to have a cache of empty boxes (and packing peanuts/air bags) laying around — or else go buy them as needed.

With my item boxed and taped up, I headed out to 7-Eleven to experience the future of item returns.

Returning an item to 7–11.

The locker was at the back of the store, behind the coffee.

Each locker has a distinct name; Amazon wisely chose to give them “real” names rather than obscure identifiers.

I scanned the barcode on the shipping label.

A locker door opened up, but it was way too small for my package. I clicked “the package doesn’t fit” on the screen.

I was prompted to shut the door, and once I did, a bigger locker opened.

I closed the door and that was the end of it.

I’ve recently had to return a few items, both to Newegg and to Amazon, and using the Amazon Locker has been the easiest method. The items I returned to Newegg had to be shipped via Fedex, which is about 8 miles from my house. There are two UPS stores within 3 miles of my house, but parking is usually an issue. In terms of overall convenience, putting a locker in 7-Eleven was unparalleled. I expect to see more of these types of locations as Amazon turns the screws on last-mile delivery — they spent over $5B on delivery in 2015.

While lockers aren’t great news for the shipping carriers, they seem like a big win for Amazon (less reliance on UPS/Fedex/USPS), customers (convenience), and 7-Eleven (more people in the door means more coffee sold). If Amazon starts offering credits for people who use lockers for pickup/returns — earn a $4 credit if you pick up your product rather than have UPS ship it to your door — they could seriously change people’s behavior.

Somehow Apple managed to screw up watching videos on a phone even more

It’s been over a year since I watched the entire Harry Potter series on a tablet during my morning commute. I converted all 8 films to MP4 using Handbrake, put them on a microsd card, installed VLC, and watched them. All 8 on a 7″ Samsung tablet. This, because putting a video on an Apple device is torturous. Not that the tablet was so great, but much better than Apple.

I decided this week to load up some movies on my iPhone. New iOS, new phone (6S), it must be better. Right?

In a word, no. Movies still have to be encoded to Apple’s spec — MP4 with h264 video stream and aac audio stream — which meant recompiling ffmpeg from source to add libfdk_aac. Once the video is in the correct format, it still has to be dragged onto iTunes, iPhone connected via lightning cable, and synced via sync button. Wifi syncing might also work. But this is all old news, iTunes has worked this way for years.

What’s new is that the Videos app is now renamed TV and is a piece of crap. Specifically it requires a network connection just to open the app. If one isn’t available it spins for about 2 minutes before putting a naggy banner across the top:

iOS TV app loading screen while I was in the LIRR tunnel

Once you’re finally in the app, it doesn’t remember what you were watching or where you were. It just shows the splash screen.

Oh look at that one DS9 episode I have to see every time

Also, there seems to be no way to delete items from within TV. So I can’t delete that one episode of Deep Space Nine that’s been on my phone for months.

This all sucks. I don’t know how Apple can manage to screw up such simple concepts as “load, list and play music or video” but they really have turned it into an art.

Home NAS build, 2017 Edition

Many years ago, before WiFi or even routers were common in homes, I was faced with the problem of how to connect multiple computers in my home to the internet when our cable provider only provided a single IP address. Being the late 1990s-early 2000s, this was a problem largely faced only by super-nerds like me, and the generally accepted solution was to build your own router, generally using a Linux box with two Ethernet ports, ipchains (or iptables, if you were bleeding-edge) to do NAT, DHCP and DNS. I had an old computer laying around so that’s what I did. This box served me well for many years, ultimately being replaced by a Linksys WRT54g.

While the Linux box was in service, it took on a few other roles, the most useful of which was in-house file server. Long before services like Dropbox — or even Gmail — existed, it was a real pain to share large files with other people in your house. Streaming music wasn’t really a thing back then; the only way to share your music collection with someone was to keep your MP3s on a central server somewhere, or just re-download them from Napster.

Eventually my need for a dedicated file server mostly dried up, and the power in my basement was so flaky that the thing would shut off randomly without my even noticing, and then when I actually wanted to get something off it it wasn’t turned on, which was annoying. That plus the fact that the thing had a 750 MHz Athlon CPU filled with cobwebs and dust and a single 40 GB drive meant it was more hassle than it was worth. The final nail was my house being flooded during Hurricane Sandy, at which point the server was submerged in brackish sea water.

And so, for several years, I made do without a dedicated file server in my house, backing all my important stuff up to a single USB 3.0 WD My Book. As a sysadmin, trusting my important stuff to a single spinning disk never sat well with me, but it was the cheapest option.

A problem that arose in the absence of a file server was how to share the 100,000 photos & videos I’d taken over the past 15 years with the rest of my family? I enabled file sharing on my Mac and exported the USB drive, but that required the USB drive to be always plugged in, which was annoying — a laptop tethered to a USB disk isn’t very portable.

Finally, about a year ago, I decided I needed a new file server, to hold personal items like family photos as well as to serve as a DLNA media server for my movie and music collection. Plex makes this formerly clunky task pretty smooth. The question I faced was whether to build my own home file server — a more modern version of my ancient Athlon box — or buy one of the off-the-shelf home NAS devices that have come to market over the past few years. I know several people who have Synology, QNAP or Drobo devices and they all speak highly of them. Ultimately, about a month ago, I decided to go with a Synology DS416. I already detailed my Synology experience in a separate post, but the short story is it was just too slow for my needs and didn’t really simplify anything I wanted to do, so I returned it and decided to build my own server once again.

Ultimately I settled on the parts in this list. While this came out slightly more expensive than the Synology + 4 drives, it’s far more powerful. I should note that that’s not the exact motherboard I got — for some reason PC Part Picker doesn’t list the Asus Prime B250M-C. I also went with 16 GB memory, which may be overkill for a fileserver, but I’d like this thing to last at least 10 years, so a bit of futureproofing won’t hurt — especially if I want to play around with running VMs or something.

I was surprised to see how powerful the Kaby Lake i3–7100 CPU was — two 64-bit cores (plus HT) at 3.9 GHz with 51 Watts TDP. This really put the Synology’s 32-bit Annapurna Labs Alpine AL-212 dual-core 1.4GHz CPU to shame. I also threw in a Crucial 275 GB SATA m.2 SSD for the OS drive. I couldn’t find a case I really liked, but fortunately had an old Core 2 Duo desktop collecting dust, housed in a Cooler Master case, and everything fit inside it without issue (though I had to buy a bracket to mount one of the 3.5″ drives in a 5.25″ bay).

I debated running FreeNAS, but ultimately went with Ubuntu 16.04 (Xenial) since I’ve been working with it for almost 4 years and have grown to love it. Configuring the storage drives was something I’d been thinking about for a long time. My original plan was to use mdadm to create a RAID5 of the 4 spinning drives, which would give me about 11–12 TB usable — more than enough for the foreseeable future. But in reading about the new features of Xenial, ZFS was one of the big headlines, so I decided to go with a raidz — the ZFS equivalent of RAID5.

I ran into a couple of bumps along the way — one of the HGST drives bricked itself after a couple of days and I had to RMA it, and another reported I/O errors in syslog on every reboot, so I had to RMA that one also. I should point out that I steered away from Seagate and toward HGST on the basis of the Backblaze hard disk report. While I didn’t go with the specific model of HGST drive they used, I figured the brand might be worth something. Having had a 50% defect rate on my batch of 4 drives, it appears I was wrong.

With all the RMA’d drives replaced, I performed a 24-hour run of badblocks to make sure nothing was wrong with the new drives. Fortunately all looked good and I’m now back up and running. After having read this and this, and after my own painful experience with failed disks, I decided to rebuild my ZFS using a striped mirror set (RAID10) rather than a raidz (RAID5). While this means I lose 50% of the capacity, I gain much shorter rebuild times and better performance when a disk fails and the array is in a degraded state. I also went with lz4 compression for the zfs volume based on some of the benchmarks in those articles — in this box, CPU power far exceeds disk speed, so minimizing disk reads and writes via compression is a big win.

On the software side, I currently have the file server running Samba for general “file server” stuff, vsftpd for my Foscam dog camera to store videos, netatalk for Apple File Protocol so I can backup my Mac to it via Time Machine. I installed Plex, which — as expected — performs far better now than it did on Synology and has no problem transcoding videos on the fly. I actually wrote a Python script to transcode all my old .AVI home videos into iPhone-compatible MP4s (h.264 + AAC audio) and the i3 plowed through them pretty quickly.

Being a sysadmin at heart, I wanted to make sure I had some decent monitoring in place. Lately I’ve rediscovered collectd, which I consider by far the simplest way to see relevant metrics for a Linux system, and which is fairly trivial to configure. The collection3 web UI provides an easy way to see everything from available disk space to current CPU speed — see below.

CPU speed for the past 24 hours. It was pegged at 3.9 GHz during the badblocks test.
The newly created ZFS volume is filling up as I copy my stuff onto it.

I also installed Webmin, which I hadn’t looked at in quite a while. I’m not completely sold on it, but it does give a very nice dashboard with overall system health, with metrics ranging from CPU usage to drive temperature:

Webmin dashboard

I wanted to be able to access my server from the Internet via a browser, but over a TLS connection rather than plain HTTP, for reasons that would hopefully be obvious. I was initially planning to use a self-signed SSL certificate, but this seemed like a good time to try out Let’s Encrypt. Installation and setup were pretty simple and in under 5 minutes I had a trusted cert installed with Nginx fronting it — for free! Sweet! Last time I bought an SSL cert it cost $200 for one year, and involved annoying phone verification.

One really neat feature this file server provides is the ability to present ZFS snapshots to Windows clients as “Previous Versions” using volume shadow copy. ZFS, as a copy-on-write filesystem, makes creating snapshots trivial, and a few Samba config lines present them to Windows under the Previous Versions tab in file info. A cron job on the server generates snapshots every 8 hours. Samba config snippet and the cron job are below.

Here’s what a file looks like that has previous versions — I created it at 23:33, snapshotted it, then edited it again at 23:34:

The snapshots are visible using this command:

root@lunix:~# zfs list -t snapshot
NAME                                USED  AVAIL  REFER  MOUNTPOINT
lunix1/data1@snap_2017-02-09-0113   284K      -  3.02M  -
lunix1/data1@snap_2017-02-09-0432  4.84M      -   482G  -
lunix1/data1@snap_2017-02-09-0433  4.79M      -   489G  -

I’ve only had this thing up a couple of days but so far I’m pretty happy with how it turned out over all. If I had to do it again I’d probably opt for 2x 6TB or 8TB drives rather than 4x 4TB drives — I don’t need the striping performance, really, and two fewer spinning drives would reduce overall power consumption, failure probability, cost, and open up more options for smaller cases — the case I have is nice, but it’s a full desktop chassis.

Thanks for reading.