Whip-poor-WILL! Whip-poor-WILL!

June 5, 2011

When people visit us and talk about “how quiet it is”, the truth is a little different. Living in the country is quiet in the sense of a lack of man-made noise. But we wake up most mornings in the summer to a chorus of birdsongs, which is usually not a bad thing. But lately we’ve been “serenaded” by a whippoorwill, which is a bird that is lovely to hear in the evening. At 4:15 AM? It’s not lovely. It’s maddening. And from the sound of it, it’s right outside our window. The call is loud, insistent, repetitive and far from soothing.


1.5 years in…

April 16, 2011

I noticed that we’ve gotten some traffic lately about “thoughts on moving to the country” and other similar queries. I realize we haven’t yet done any kind of recap post or discussion about how living in the country is going so far.

We closed on our house nearly two years ago now. (end of May ’09), but we didn’t move in until end of August. As a whole I think things have been a solid success.

The Good Things:

  • The views, the quiet, the landscape. All these together could probably be individual line items, but they are related. They are part of the experience of living out here. Sitting on the deck reading a couple days ago I realized we are surrounded by nearly paradise. The air smells great, the stars are bright, and there aren’t many cars that go by.
  • The animals. We’ve got a family (flock?) of sandhill cranes that live nearby. Have you ever seen or heard one of these things? They are very strange birds, fascinating to listen to and watch. We’ve got gorgeous woodpeckers (which are not as charming when they peck on the house) and other songbirds. Our neighbors have horses and our other neighbors have cows and chickens.
  • Family. It’s been wonderful to be near family. Not to mention the free babysitting!
  • Pace. We wanted a slower pace of life and I think we are living more peacefully. Our calendars are fairly flexible and have some margin. Well, sometimes a lot of margin.

The Not So Good Things:

  • Upkeep. I know this is true of owning any home, there are always things that need fixing or upgrading or just attention. Owning an acreage I think there are more things to go wrong, whether it is truck problems, or mower maintenance, or woodpeckers on your house, or a leaky barn, or anything. This is not a knock on living in the country, but I don’t think mentally I was fully ready for how much time and money just keeping a house going takes.
  • Gas costs. Particularly now that gas is at $4, gas is a big part of our budget. Our cars aren’t gas guzzlers, but it’s about 24 miles round trip just to get to town, not to mention driving around. (I also still travel to Minneapolis at least twice a month, but that at least is a business expense.) We consolidate trips and don’t ever really go for just one thing, but it is still a cost.
  • Friends. Having a baby changes your relationships with others, and would have no matter where we lived. But having a baby and living 15 minutes out of town has made it hard to grow relationships with other people. We miss our close friends back in the Cities.

Spring time plans

April 14, 2011

I picked up some lumber for the raised beds we’re trying this year. I’ve now planned on spending the afternoon assembling them twice; the first day I realize I had mistakenly gotten 1.5″ screws instead of 2.5″, which aren’t long enough, and now today it has started to snow outside. Not a lot of snow, but enough to deter me from setting up the miter saw in the middle of the yard. It’s possible I’m being lazy.

The much higher cost of treated lumber at Menards led me to get untreated wood. Once things are assembled I will have to report back on the durability of how things hold up. That and the conflicting reports we’ve read in various books about whether or treated lumber chemicals can leach into your vegetables.

We’ve been debating about getting chickens later this summer. I think there’s a very strong possibility we will be getting a few chicks in a couple months. There are various pros and cons, as with any decision, but it might be time. More on that as we decide.

Streaming video in low-bandwidth situations

March 9, 2011

This is the kind of post that I’ve looked for out on the web and have not had good luck finding. Perhaps others are looking for something like it.

As we live in a rural area, our internet options are very limited. Luckily, we are able to get 1 Mb DSL from Frontier. I don’t think that’s going to be changing any time in the near future, I doubt many ISP’s are dying to run fiber to my neighborhood.

1 Mb DSL means downloading things at, best case, about 130 K/sec. Yep, that’s kilobytes per second. So when Apple releases software updates that are over a gig in size, I download them overnight. Or drive to town and use a relative’s or a coffeeshop’s bandwidth.

Being that my wife and I enjoy movies and TV just as much as anyone else, and we have a fairly plugged in lifestyle, we’ve tried several different kinds of video streaming. As Netflix subscribers for years, we’re not new to streaming video. What interests me most is the different streaming service’s performance for us, in what must be an edge-case scenario.

All testing is anecdotal and performed on a 2010 Mac Mini w/ 2 GB of RAM, hooked up to a 720p plasma TV.

The rankings:
1) Hulu.com. Far and away, Hulu works the best for our low-bandwidth situation. Buffering times are minimal, and during a 45-minute show, the video very rarely stops for any kind of buffering. Time of day doesn’t seem to affect the video. I would guess no more than 1 in 10 shows ever stops to buffer, and then never has a hard time going again. Hulu’s buffer icon is very helpful as well to know how long to wait when paused if the need re-buffer comes up. What’s most interesting about this to me is that previous to the fall of 2010, Hulu did not work that well here. We had sort of given up. Hulu must have done some kind of optimization over the summer of 2010, as we tried it on a lark last fall and things have been working smoothly ever since. I want to subscribe to Hulu Plus to just support them but there doesn’t seem to be much that Plus has that is interesting. Best of all, Hulu seems to have the clearest video quality.

2) Amazon Prime Instant Videos. The testing with Amazon videos is minimal, as we’ve only watched 3 videos so far since they introduced free videos for Amazon Prime members (you pay $80/yr for free 2 day shipping on anything from Amazon, and now get videos. I don’t really see the connection, but the free shipping is great for my business.) All 3 episodes had a couple brief interruptions for buffering but it was tolerable. Buffering time to get back up to speed was minor. Video quality was good.

3) Netflix. Despite having the most videos to choose from, Netflix performs the worst of the movie/TV streaming services here. Not only is the initial loading of a video measured in several minutes instead of seconds (First the “determining your connection speed” status bar, then the “buffering” status bar), but often no more than a few moments into a video the screen will drop to a red Netflix logo with a “Your internet connection has slowed….” message, which will often take several minutes to rebuffer. On top of that, video quality is poor, even on the iPad, which with a smaller screen you think the compression artifacts would be less noticeable. Netflix loading speed often seems to depend on the time of day as well; evenings seem to be worse than daytime.

4) Youtube. Youtube just gets honorable mention for terrible load times, even though Youtube videos are the shortest of the services listed here and less affected by our lousy internet speed. Even videos that are 1 or 2 minutes long can take much longer than that to load.

UPDATE: Having now watched nearly 3 seasons of Doctor Who on Amazon Prime videos, it is a strong second place. Rarely does the video drop out or buffer, and the quality on Amazon seems to have distinct levels. When we’re lucky we get quality 2, which is very nice, as good or better than Hulu, but often it is on the lowest quality video, which can be rather pixelated but still watchable.

Online Presence

February 1, 2011

I continually am unsure of how much to share online. (well, let’s be honest, I’m continually unsure about a lot of things.) It’s not like I have anything to hide. Maybe it’s because of working in IT I’m acutely aware that once something exists online it essentially exists forever. Even you if you delete your copy, who knows where your picture or bit of info is cached somewhere by someone, whether person or spider.

(It’s important to re-read what you write. In that last sentence, I intended “spider” like a Google crawler, but the image of a malevolent spider, surfing the web on his tiny computer, saving people’s information is also an interesting picture.)

I recently joined a car club, and everyone else on the site has their real name posted. I’ve now only got my first name and last initial, but what am I afraid of happening? I’m not really sure. Heaven forbid someone I don’t know find out I (attempt to) work on Volkswagens. I debate about posting pictures here but then don’t know if it’s worth it.

The whole idea of a blog is generally a narcissistic one; or, at least, I’ve always believed that to be so. “I’ve got something to say! And the internet wants to read about it!” Yeah, buddy, but probably not. But I may need to approach things differently. My original idea of Country Newbie was that 1) blogs need to be focused and 2) there would be interesting things that would happen to City Folk as they moved out to the country. Being that I’m not making my living off of my land, I think such stories are fewer and farther between. And the level of what is “interesting” is entirely up to the readers.

So I’m just going to see what happens. No conclusions reached here.

House items

January 4, 2011

Well, it’s winter again, and we’ve gotten tons of snow. Last year this time of year was a battle of man vs. ice dams. This year things are much better thanks to the 14 inches of insulation we blew in the attic on the day after Christmas.

But owning a house involves discovering issues left by the previous owners, and one big issue we have is a closet addition off of our bedroom. The bedroom itself doesn’t have a closet, so a walk-in closet addition seems like a great idea; but it seems that our closet is not insulated in the slightest, or, if it is, it is quite possibly the most useless insulation I’ve ever encountered.

Last year the ice dams on this closet were over 14 inches thick–the heat from the house must just pour out of it. We put up some thermal curtains that do a great job of keeping some heat out, as well as making our bedroom less freezing. But it turns out this creates moisture in the closet, so we discovered a bit of mold growing in the corners. The choices seem to be ice dams and cold bedroom, or warm(er) bedroom, fewer ice dams and now running a dehumidifier in winter. Strange. Particularly as we have a humidifier in the living room. If only there was some way to pipe the moisture back into the house…

We know the previous owner of our house, which is a bit unusual. We’re not friends, but she moved in with her daughter a quarter mile down the road, so we are neighbors. So we often find ourselves cursing Ruthie, as it seems any addition or “upgrade” she made to the house was never done quite right. When we were looking at the house she noted with pride all the shelves and molding she did herself…we think she may have been overly impressed with her own abilities.

The most fascinating thing about this is the observation on getting older–somehow I think that a story as boring as this is worth posting about. I can imagine a younger self being absolutely thrilled with a discussion of ice dam prevention. Next: a discussion on choosing flooring! Or not.

Fall Recap

November 27, 2010

Well, this weekend marks the end of gun deer season here in Wisconsin. This was my first year hunting solo, I didn’t get anything. Actually, I didn’t even see a single deer. While I wasn’t gone for 9 days solid like some people I know, I spent some hours sitting on some neighbor’s land just adjacent to ours, and I did a day of driving with some guys I barely know. My blaze orange vest is new and missing that faded hue that comes from Experience. My rifle is shiny yet. I hope that both will change in time.

Reflecting on the firsts of this makes me think back on our past year. We’ve lived in the country for just over a year now. I think I can safely say I’m on my way to the kind of life I envisioned: I went hunting. Yesterday morning I spent a couple hours cutting wood and loading sand into the back of my truck. The plow is on and ready to go, and hopefully the truck will work this winter. We had a decent garden this year and learned a lot. (Lesson One: Weed the dang thing thoroughly). I’ve been working on cars, and repaired our deck.

I wanted a slower pace of life moving out here, I can’t say that has really been the case, at least most of 2010. Business is slowing a bit with the holidays, and with that, hopefully some more time to reflect and take care of the things around that need to be taken care of. Next year will bring new challenges and adventures. I am surprised at the ease of balance between Remote and Wired living. I cut wood, I come inside and stream a Netflix movie. I think I once thought the two should be mutually exclusive.

Perhaps a moment of reflection is currently allowed because the Baby (more accurately: the Toddler) is asleep and my wife is out and about. Time to think; the question, for me, as always is “am I who I want to be?” This moment is rare: at least today, at least right now, I can look out at the snow on the hillside, look around my land and say “I’m on my way.”

Different people, different problems

November 23, 2010

People are rarely glad to see their IT person; they see their IT person because there is a Problem.

IT employees generally have a reputation as arrogant and slovenly. Occasionally smelly, too. I’ve striven [sidenote: I have a hard time with “strive”. I’ve…strove? I’ve…strived? I’ve…stroven?] to relate to people (in IT you say “users”) and I’ve realized that the people I help are both frustrated and often embarrassed about whatever their issue is. Frustrated, because something is not working right. Embarrassed, because so many people feel like they should be able to just figure it out. A computer occupies a weird space in modern life; it’s not exactly an appliance, or a car, but it is just as common. It is sort of approachable (at least more so than car maintenance for so many people today) but troubleshooting is mingled with the absolute terror that Something could definitely Go Wrong.

I encounter so many people who say “Oh, I know enough to be dangerous” in regards to their computers who would not think twice to call someone for a car problem or a broken appliance. Not that computers should be left solely to the “experts”…but misplaced confidence can be a bad thing.

But that last paragraph reveals something I am concerned about-the creeping arrogance. One thing that allows me to do my job well is my ability to empathize with people and help them out of their particular problem (hopefully!) without making them feel bad or stupid. But there are times when I want to throttle someone, to demand to know how they got to where they are.

I have a few clients who say “oh, I don’t care, just make it work,” and in some ways that is a better approach–we both know where we stand. They call, I fix it and go.

I’ve dealt with a particular person recently who displays an astonishing lack of knowledge about their own position. I am not an accountant, nor do I have any knowledge about this company’s custom financial software. The only information I can glean from this person is “Something is different” in the software at the moment. When I inquire as what should be happening, they are unable to explain or demonstrate how things should be; just different then they currently are.

Usually this means I’m not asking the question the best way, but I’ve run out of ways to ask and cajole; I’m met with blank stares and the same explanation “it” should be “different”.


November 9, 2010

Growing up I remember when a local radio station changed formats. It was my favorite station, and one day I turned it on to groove to some Oldies, or at least whatever my probably-around-10 years old self did when listening to the radio. (I’m fairly certain it involved Legos.) [sidebar: notice that there are essentially zero stations that refer to the music they play as ‘Oldies’ any more?] Either way, as radio stations rarely give any notice to listens when formats change, on this particular day the station simply played David Bowie’s “Changes” all day. I was young and assumed something was wrong, so I remember tuning in again and again throughout the day, wondering where the music was.

Anyway, whenever I think of change now, that stupid song gets stuck in my head.

I pretty much hate that song now.

I’ve recently gone full-time freelance with my job. A Big Perk of that was supposed to be no more traveling two days a week. Well, my very first week of not traveling I got a call from a client who would pay well and be a short-term, once-a-week gig that would require…traveling. At least for the next couple months.
I took it, knowing that you pretty much never want to turn work down, but in some ways I still feel as if I am waiting to “really” start working fulltime for me.

The good news is I have been busy enough that even as things slow down for the holidays we’ll be just fine. Which is what I’m sure you were all concerned about.

Farm Fun

April 22, 2010

A few Saturdays ago I boxed up the little bug and made the trek to the beautiful valleys of Minnesota, destination: Sol ‘n Tyne farm. We spent a lovely day eating cornmeal waffles with real maple syrup, planting numerous seeds, and visiting the local equine population. It was a clear, sunny day with a bit of a chill to the wind, but that didn’t stop the little bug from taking a snooze after we said hi to Coal, Annie, Dannie, Tugboat, and Olive. We also got a tour of the gardens and it was easy to imagine them full of plants: numerous vegetables, fragrant herbs, showy flowers.

As we packed up to head back to our little valley, we were given a few parting gifts. Packets of seeds, many of which have been planted and are currently showing their first set of leaves, and a large plastic garbage bag full of beans still in their paper-y husks. Over the course of these last few weeks, we have worked tirelessly (okay, maybe not that hard, but sometimes it seems never-ending…) to rid the glossy black beans of their dead shells. We are going on 4 pint jars full and still there are beans left. I don’t think we will have to buy black beans for quite a while. At the end of the day, I look at those jars and feel a sense of accomplishment. Even though it doesn’t take a lot of work, there is something to be said for working for one’s food. I hope I feel the same way in the fall when we are knee-deep in harvest.