In Which I Am Enraged By Lazy Beverage Journalism

It's hard to remember now, but in the 70s and 80s, whiskey was the outdated old man drink, the sort of thing squares and hillbillies drank. It started to come back a little in the 90s with the single-malt Scotch trend, but it wasn't really until the 2000s that American whiskeys became fashionable again. It's only in this decade that rye has come into its own; it hadn't really been a major factor in the industry since before Prohibition.

Which is something of a long-winded introduction to the fact that Southern Comfort is returning whiskey as an ingredient to its liqueur, instead of "grain neutral spirit." The New York Times covers this marketing update as though it's an interesting development in the product. 

It's not.

First off, the definition of whiskey is flexible enough that there's precious little difference between the two. It's not "straight bourbon" they're adding to the mix – it's just unaged white dog whiskey, grain spirits that are only slightly less purified than what they'd been using before. The new SoCo will be essentially the same product, but with whiskey-soaked brand appeal.

Not only is this just a brand update, it's actually way behind the trend. Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey, following a 2007 rebranding that moved it out of the lineup of Dr. McGillicuddy's schnapps, has completely supplanted Southern Comfort as the leader in the "underage binge-drinking vomit instigator" product category. They're playing catch-up a decade late with this product.

The Times article is by Robert Simonson, filling in for Eric Asimov's usual wine column this week. That may explain why it's such a low-effort regurgitation of a press release. It's basically written by the only person quoted – Kevin Richards, Senior Marketing Director for Southern Comfort. Did Simonson talk to a bartender anywhere? Did he taste both versions of the liqueur? No. This is lazy, lazy writing. 

That doesn't exactly matter for something as trivial as a beverage marketed primarily at undergraduates.

But if I can't trust the Times to do a decent job reporting on a trivial subject I happen to know about, how do I know they're doing a good job on important things?

They've certainly been dropping the ball in the opinion section. They published two op-eds by people from one of those bogus "Crisis Pregnancy Centers" without disclosing that they are, in fact, paid employees of an operation that tricks women into thinking they're getting healthcare when they're actually getting some prayers and condescension. I mean, the fact that Ross Douthat still has a job is appalling. 

Panic! at the Department of Education

Several times in the past couple of days people have asked me to explain an alarming New York Times article titled Student Loan Forgiveness Program Approval Letters May Be Invalid, Education Dept. Says.

This is not an official statement on behalf of my employer, but I can personally offer some reassurance that it’s not as horrible as it sounds.

The headline is of course very, very upsetting to a lot of people who have been counting on loan forgiveness for their public service. Needlessly so, in my opinion.

The issue, like everything else about our student loan system, is a result of the complex interplay between tax law, the Constitution, personal finance, lobbying by banking interests, and decades of amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965. There’s a reason it’s easy to get confused about this: It’s stupidly complicated.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness is generally based on whether your employer is an eligible nonprofit. So, whether you’re an accountant or janitor or social worker or doctor, the first question for every applicant is “do you work for a qualifying employer?”

Eligible employers include all 501(c)(3) nonprofits, even church-affiliated groups. Also all government (city, state, federal), police, military, public safety, etc. Those are very clear.

Clearly ineligible are anyone working for for-profits, plus clergy, union organizers and partisan political groups. That is, social workers for Catholic Charities are in, but not priests. (I told you the Constitution came into it: subsidizing clergy would become an Establishment clause issue).

There is, however, one area of ambiguity: There are other kinds of nonprofit organizations than 501(c)(3). They’re helpfully labeled 501(c) 4, 5, and 6. That’s unions, professional associations, and so on. For example, the NFL, until about 2 years ago, filed as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit.

Certain non-501(c)(3) nonprofits ARE eligible for PSLF, but ONLY if they (or possibly just those employees) perform certain kinds of services. The question here is that a handful of people applied based on their work for the American Bar Association. They say they were providing eligible services.

Now we come to another complication: the Department of Education doesn’t administer this program themselves, because in America we believe that government can’t do anything right, so it should pay other people to screw things up.

In this case, FedLoan Servicing approved the application on behalf of the Department of Education. Then the Department of Education came back and overruled them.

This became a whole Big Thing because the Department of Education just pissed off a bunch of well-connected lawyers. So, they’re going to get sued and the suit is going to get news coverage.

So, if you think you’re qualified for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and you’re worried about it, don’t. You’re probably fine.

Draft: Augmented Reality and Marketing Data Ethics Policy

Augmented Reality and Data Privacy Concerns: Pokémon Go is Just the Beginning
Pokémon Go is an “augmented reality” (AR) game from Niantic and Nintendo which has become wildly popular since its release in July 2016. While other apps, including “check-in” apps like FourSquare and the earlier Niantic game Ingress, have used location and interaction features in similar ways, few have been so immersive or so popular, and this new visibility raises the stakes of existing marketing and privacy issues and presents them in novel ways.

How the Game Works
The game requires users to physically go to different places in the real world in order to achieve game goals, mostly capturing Pokémon (adorable imaginary monsters) and having them compete against other users’ captive monsters. The capture locations are scattered around a simplified city map, while key in-game landmarks and competition locations are placed on an existing Google database of real-world landmarks, including public art, restaurants, and commemorative plaques.
The game uses the mobile device GPS and Wi-Fi connection information to determine location, and superimposes the game images over the view through the device camera. Game mechanics encourage users to walk between different destinations, rather than drive – increasing users’ physical activity without creating a “fitness app” was one of the developers’ stated goals.
Pokémon Go is free to play, although users can accelerate their progress using real money.

Privacy and Security Implications for Users
There was an initial error in permission requests that briefly granted the app full access to some users’ entire Google account if they logged in using their existing Google ID, but this has been fixed.
However, even without full account permissions, the app and its developers create an enormous trove of information about the user, most notably camera and location information as well as account and device identity. In other words, it knows who you are, where you are, and when you’re using the app. Location and other information appears to only be recorded when the game is running, but because the game rewards having the app open almost constantly, quite a significant amount of data may be gathered.
Because Google ID is one of the two login mechanisms for the game, many users will find that their game data is correlated a truly vast record of personally identifiable information, including locations of use for other apps, purchases, search history, email, website visits, and more.
Even without hacking or data sales, user privacy is far from assured. At least one suspicious user has checked the in-game record of Pokémon capture locations to catch a cheating boyfriend. Enterprising criminals have also used knowledge of the game’s landmarks to rob distracted smartphone users.

Privacy and Security Implications for Non-Users
In-game landmarks are based on a geographical survey taken a number of years ago. At least one such landmark, a former church, is now a home. It is still designated as a landmark in the game, however, and draws dozens of game users at a time to the door of the bemused residents.
Even when a residence is not marked as an in-game destination, game goals can encourage users to ignore property lines, creating annoyance, trespassing charges, and even gunfire. Presumably, Pokémon Go would also create a good pretext for a variety of illicit activities.

Business Uses for Pokémon Go
Businesses may pay Niantic to be marked as key destinations in the game, drawing users to their locations or simply enhancing their status as landmarks in the real world. For example, every McDonald’s restaurant in Japan is an in-game landmark.
Businesses that are already in-game destinations, or happen to be located near them, can also purchase “lures” to draw Pokémon (and subsequently players). Of course, players may or may not be desirable customers, and the lure purchasers need not be affiliated with a location. For example, the expensive New York restaurant Balthazar, described as an “unlikely Pokemon hotspot,” claims not to know who is buying the lures that draw users to its door.

In the Future
This specific game may or may not be a lasting success, but apps using location-sensitive data overlaid on real-time camera images are likely to proliferate. We will see more games, but also shopping and social media applications that will create and store increasing amounts of sensitive user data.
Pokémon Go does not appear to store camera data or transmit images to the Niantic servers, but it does keep a log of every Pokémon a user has seen and interacted. It is entirely possible that a future application could create an enormous database of real-world images, their AR overlays, and individual interactions with both. This database could be used or misused in innumerable ways for shopping, marketing, consumer research, government surveillance, or criminal enterprise.
Ezra Klein, in Vox, outlines his vision of the future:

Pokémon Go looks like a toy…. [It] is a toy. But it’s also the first widespread, massive use case for augmented reality — even though it’s operating on smartphones that aren’t designed for AR. So what’s going to happen as the hardware improves, the software improves, and the architects learn to use these more immersive environments to addict us more fully?
… [It] won’t remain a toy. It’s going to become an industry, a constant, a coping mechanism, a way of life. It will change how we spend our time, how we compete for status, how we interact with our loved ones. It will change the behaviors we think of as normal — already we’re seeing Pokémon Go run into racism; it won’t be long until AR cuts across other fault lines in our society.

Most of the technologies in AR systems are not radically new: the iPhone was released almost 10 years ago. However, the combined use of GPS, camera, smartphone, and wireless data in a single app is now refined enough to be on the brink of rapid consumer acceptance. Enhanced hardware built to take even more advantage, such as lower-profile virtual reality headsets, is not far behind. This combination will create enormous opportunities and risks for users, businesses, and marketers. The Direct Marketing Association, government regulators, and other business groups will need to pay close attention.

Ethics Policy Conclusions
The data generated and collected by AR software is not radically different from the data that is already generated and collected by other software. Therefore, existing policies should not be difficult to adapt to the new technology.
It is possible that new kinds of data will be aggregated and that new forms of risk may arise from them. However, at this time, the primary impact of AR data collection is that it increases the total amount of data available, raising the stakes for organizations tasked with safeguarding it against leaks and misuse.

The before-and-after photos never look quite right

Reading other people’s houseblogs makes it apparent that there’s a great deal of photographic technique involved in taking good before-and-after photos. None of my pictures really seem to convey just how haunted the house looked before we started, or what a shambles it is now.

Despite sweeping and cleanup, everything is coated in dust, and there are tumbleweeds of various kinds of insulation gathering in corners. The kitchen walls and ceiling are open to the studs and joists, and there are several huge holes in the subfloor made for ducts and pipes. In one spot there’s an actual door laid flat over the joists so you can walk across it, but you still have to be careful where you put each foot when walking around the kitchen area.

It actually looks like it’s further away from completion than when we started. Plus, next week our construction crew is not working because not only is Monday a holiday, but Wednesday is the Dalai Lama’s birthday, which is a serious big deal holiday for Tibet. Everyone deserves vacation, but I was alarmed that other people’s vacation might be inconvenient for me. (Yes, I recognize just how spoiled that makes me sound.)

But progress isn’t always visible, and we had a site visit yesterday with the contractor which was incredibly reassuring. I knew the walls were open because we had to shore up beams and posts above and around the kitchen, and add extra fire/sound proofing between the two units in our building, and to replace all the wiring and plumbing. I didn’t realize, however, that all of that work is now complete, and the plumbing and electrical has passed inspection.

In what remains of this week they’ll stuff more fire-and-sound insulation into the open slots in the kitchen floor, then close that up. While the crew is on vacation, the city will come and inspect the structural work.

Also our plumber has put in the furnaces and water heater, and the Tibet crew has replaced the rickety back stairs and rotten back door. We wound up with gray composite stairs and a white fiberglass door, so it’s not much to look at, but it’s done and it’s solid and it won’t require maintenance for at least a decade.

Once the crew comes back from the holiday, they will re-insulate the ceiling and walls in the kitchen, install air conditioners, and start the drywall-and-paint phase upstairs. We are still on schedule for a habitable room by August.

It seems like construction projects in general move like this: It looks like nothing is happening, and then there’s a giant visible change and everything’s torn apart. Then you wait and wait and it looks like nothing’s happening… and then there’s another big visible change. Then you wait and wait and it looks like nothing’s happening, and so on.

So, we’re moving nicely and nobody’s vacation is an inconvenience to me. Happy 4th of July, and happy 81st birthday to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Haunted Bathtub, Shower, and HVAC

Well, we have a tub surround, sort of.

There’s lumber around it, anyway, where the tub surround will be. There’s also an underlayment and a drain where our shower will be, and large boxes of HVAC equipment attached to the ductwork in both the basement and the attic.

We have 96 days before we have to be out of this apartment and, I hope, into the Haunted Money Pit.

Construction Setbacks

Electrical was roughed in and some drywall was about to go up when we realized we needed better insulation on the exterior portions of the roof, and better sound insulation between our unit and the other half of the building. So, we’re holding off on putting walls up to put up better insulation. It’ll be a little extra, but not cripplingly expensive. And it’ll be worth it to have pipes not freeze and have some soundproofing between us and the neighbors.

Meanwhile, the structural engineer reported that one of the beams was sagging on the flat portion of the roof, so that needs to be reinforced. Fortunately that’s not going to be too expensive either.

The old water heater was suspect, and we got confirmation from the plumber this week that it’s as bad as it looked and needed to be replaced. This also isn’t going to be too expensive.

Of course, all the “not too much here, not too much there” is going to add up.

But I did find ceiling fans that look just as nice as the ones we had initially planned on, are still highly rated, and cost about $75 less each. So, that’s a nice savings.

Plus on our last site visit the contractor was joined by a friend of his who is a Buddhist monk, and he gave us his blessing. Apparently they know each other from back when our contractor was a monk for a few years. The stories from this house should be a novel.

Closing the Terrifying Gap

Not long ago there was a hole in our house where we’d removed a chimney. It wasn’t actually that big, but it went all the way through from roof to basement, and looking down on it from the third floor was kind of terrifying. I sent pictures around and the response, uniformly, was “don’t fall in!” It was only about 12×12, so it would have been hard to fall through. But still.

It’s gone now. The old pine flooring from what will become the main bathroom has been taken out and used to patch it. So now instead of the wall of awkward closets that was there originally, and the dangerous-looking hole that replaced it, we’ve got this totally normal looking old wood floor, just waiting to be refinished:


While that was going on we had several days of house madness. The flurry of decisions seems to be messing with our heads, and we have a hard time thinking or talking about anything else.

This week, Megan went over to the tile shop and got samples, and I think we’re just about done picking tile, including this black hex tile for the 2nd floor bathroom:

Neena’s Lighting is closing their Cambridge store, so we stopped by and picked up a 19th-century style pendant lamp for our front hall.

We’ve also been over to Ikea to choose cabinets; with that done we can finalize appliance locations and request a price on fancy cabinet fronts from Semihandmade.

We also stopped at two different places to shop for a back door, which has become far more complicated than we expected. We found a hideous prehung fiberglass door at the big-box shops for $250, and one that was acceptable as a special order for $1,000, and then we went over to the salvage warehouse to look at rescued wood doors, figuring we could put on a storm door and it’d be almost as good. We didn’t find any that fit. So, our door quest continues.

To go with the doors, we’ve had to pick new handlesets, which is what hardware stores call exterior doorknobs, apparently. The folks over at Commonwealth Lock have firmly identified the broken one we have as a Schlage G-Series, which was discontinued in 1981. Anyway, we found some pretty ones that fit in with the overall look we’re going for and actually look like they’ll hold doors shut.

Back Door Man

The back door needs to be replaced. M is lobbying for real wood; I’m lobbying for fiberglass. She wants character; I want something low-maintenance with good insulation that doesn’t warp in humid weather. So, we’re going door shopping this weekend. Therma-Tru or salvaged antique? Stay Tuned to Money Pit and find out!

Tonight, on Haunted Money Pit: The Structural Engineer Visits

Last week I met with the contractor, structural engineer, and architect all at once. Structural Engineer Dan B looked in at the joists and pronounced them quite sturdy and not in need of any modifications. So, that’s good. The oddities that had been seen in initial demo were, it turns out, related to something else entirely.

Then we went into the downstairs neighbor’s unit and we got slightly less-good news. There are three places where we need to put posts made of quadruple 2x4s so that our unit can transfer its weight all the way down into the basement and foundation and ground, rather than, say, directly into her living room. These spots are all inside of already existing walls, but we do have to open her walls up to get to them, then close them back up and paint them again. Downstairs neighbor is, fortunately, OK with this disruption.

Next time on Haunted Money Pit: Choosing appliances, paint, kitchen sink and faucet, tile, and molding. PLUS: Is decision fatigue a real thing? Eh, I don’t really care anymore, let’s just assume it is.

Setbacks and Spending

Setback: The joists in the 2nd floor – that picture right below this – don’t do quite what we’d thought they would. This means that we’ll need to open up the ceiling more, both so that the structural engineer and architect can see exactly what is going on there, and so that we can put in recessed lighting that’s up to code. It’ll cost a little more of course, but “wiring up to code” is important and that ceiling was pretty nasty anyway.

Spending: Placed order for all the bathroom goodies: Vanity, sink, faucets, tub, shower. Delivery to be scheduled for next month.