Our mania for relying on prepared lists

People on the beach at Sunset
Emerald Isle, NC Oct. 10, 2010

Late last week I got a call from someone headed to North Carolina to check out retirement options.

Apparently the lady had read a list of the top one hundred places to retire, and this North Carolina spot which shall remain nameless was on the list.

Long ago I learned not to say negative things about the competition, but this destination made me struggle to find the right words.

I finally said, “I don’t think you’ll find what you are looking for there,” and left it at that.

She did not find what she wanted there, and the next morning she called me and arranged for a visit to the area where we live.  I wondered how many people had been led astray by that particular list.

While struggling to fall back to sleep tonight, I searched a few lists of top retirement places.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in retirement, and some friends would even accuse me of being a failure at retiring since I keep working, but I do know a fair amount about cities in North Carolina and Virginia since they were in the heart of my territory when I worked for Apple Computer.  Also I was born in North Carolina, and I lived in Virginia for over twenty years.

Most of the cities and towns on the top ten list of places to retire were probably okay, but a couple on the list would cause me to question the methodology of the list.  I seriously doubt that any of lists that I saw this evening were based on a survey of retired people living in an area.

Having lived in three different places in Canada in addition to North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland, I feel that I can evaluate an area for my own needs fairly quickly.  Perhaps that is why we never bothered to look at any lists before we started our own research in 2003 about where to move after my career at Apple ended.

I do admit that the wanderlust that is in my genes might make me a little better at doing research on towns.  Of course having traveled for business reasons for over 25 years might also play a role.

We planned several vacations around destinations that my travels had hinted might be of interest.  I was also able to eliminate lots of potential places because I had seen some of them at their worst.  Business travel usually happens no matter what the weather so the odds of being in place when their weather is at its best are slim.

Our travels finally gave us our own short list, and we eventually moved to the Southern Outer Banks of North Carolina after three or four years of looking for the right spot.  It has turned out to be a nice place for us.  There are not many places where you can walk along the beaches in October and still enjoy warm water on your feet.

There is a list of reasons why where we live  has met our needs as a place to live, but I know this place is not for everyone, and the list is one specifically made for my wife and myself.

There are plenty of other lists out there besides ones of retirement cities.  There are the inevitable lists of top colleges, best cars, and top companies for jobs.

I don’t doubt that some research went into all of these lists.  What I do doubt is whether or not  they have any real value to people reading them.

Are we so lazy that we cannot make up our own lists of places to go or colleges or even places to retire?

After all, there is very little information that cannot be had easily on your computer screen these days.

I would think there is some value in finding your own destinations whether it is college, retirement, or the best beach.

It is a little like recipes and a great cook.  While my mother, who was an amazing lady and a great cook,  followed a few recipes in her day, her most delicious meals were ones where she had created her own recipes.  When I go searching for a hush puppy recipe or one for fried chicken, it is hers that I am trying to find not one on some website.

I will remember that the next time I read a list for the best jobs or the greatest places to start a new business.

Hurricane Hype and Media Madness

Earl's Clouds
Earl's Clouds

My wife and I live on the Southern Outer Banks of North Carolina.

We just got to experience not only Hurricane Earl but also the media coverage of Earl and lots of concern that was spawned by the media coverage.

We were witness to the full hype well before Earl and his thirty mile per hour winds and 3/4 of an inch of rain showed up.  We had far more than 3/4 of an inch of hype.

I know hurricanes including Earl are dangerous.  Earl went on to knock the power out for a couple of hundred thousand people in Nova Scotia.  Also at least one person died up there because of Earl.

We did get several calls from friends not living in the area.  Most were worried for our safety. One was worried about the roof of our house blowing off and was adamant that we needed to leave as soon as possible.  We really appreciated people worrying about us even if we had few concerns.

All of the worrying I suspect is a result of people paying too much attention to the thrill a minute media and not enough attention to the real resources that are available in most situations.

I am an admitted weather junkie. I spend a fair amount of time on Weather Underground and during, the tropical storm season, I closely watch the tracking of storms.  You can see some of the tracks in this archive.

When we moved to the Crystal Coast, we came with the heritage of being born in North Carolina and spending the first twenty plus years of our lives in North Carolina.  The last twenty years we have lived in the mountains of Southwest Virginia.  Our home actually overlooks the city of Roanoke.  We are located at about 1,600 ft on the side of Twelve O’Clock Knob Mountain.

We have seen plenty of destruction and flooding from hurricanes in the mountains.  Hurricane Floyd deposited a large tree on our screened porch just before we were set to take possession of our home in 1989.  We were stunned to see our home on the evening news from the apartment where we were living.

With that kind of background, we made the decision to not live directly on the beach.  We do live on the water, but we are located approximately three miles up the White Oak River from Swansboro which sits on the Intracoastal Waterway behind Bear Island and other pieces of the Southern Outer Banks. The net of all that is there is some serious barrier island protection between us and any hurricane unless it comes right up the White Oak River.

Our home is off an inlet of the White River.  We are located on what is called Raymond’s Gut.  We are actually in a very sheltered spot.  I have seen some of the local fishermen bring their larger boats up the river and anchor them in our inlet when bad storms are on the horizon.  We are in a flood plain, but our home is built so that the only part of the home that would get wet in a 100 year flood is garage floor and the crawlspace.  Both have plenty of flood vents.

At no time during my intense watching of Earl did any of the models predict a turn towards us or even a wobble in our direction.  Of course hurricanes are unpredictable to a certain extent so we did prepare by removing a couple of light weight glass tables from our porches.  We also put our skiff on storm footing which means I raised the lift and secured both the bow and stern to the bulkhead.

With all of that done well ahead of Earl’s pass by the Southern Outer Banks, we amused ourselves the afternoon before Earl was set to arrive by going to watch the surfers over by Bogue Inlet Pier on Emerald Isle.  While the waves were impressive, we have seen bigger ones.  A friend and I actually went fishing in Bogue Inlet that morning.  We are careful boaters so we were not tempting fate as you can see from the pictures.

The afternoon before Earl was to arrive in the evening, I went and bought 75 lbs of ice and stored it in a cooler.  We had plenty of water and food on hand from our normal two to three visits to the grocery store weekly routine.  After getting the ice, I took the opportunity to sneak over to Emerald Isle for one last peak at the waves.

I got to see some less successful surfing and a few bigger waves with winds cutting off their tops.  I also got to see the closing of the bridge after the mandatory evacuation of Bogue Banks including Emerald Isle.

That evening we watched the weather and computers for any changes.  I checked outside at the dock a couple of time to see if we were getting a surge.  With none apparent and winds under 30 miles per hour, and almost no rain, we went to bed shortly after 11 PM.  I got up the next morning early enough to see a healthy high tide but nothing more.

During the evening I had done both a Facebook post and a Twitter Tweet indicating that all seemed well on the Crystal Coast.

Still the next day we got a lot of calls from folks worried about whether or not we had survived the storm.

I sent a couple of folks a link to the Raleigh New & Observer article on Earl, and I published my own article on surviving Earl.

The question that is begging to be answered is why people were so worried about us when the only evidence of any danger was a Weather Channel Reporter standing in the surf a long way from our location?

I can only explain it by saying that unfortunately it is easier to believe what the Weather Channel dishes up than it is to actually find out what is happening.

Sometimes I guess, all it takes is a little spark for the imagination, and those prone to worrying can let their minds get carried away even when there is plenty of evidence that things are fine.

At the time everyone was worrying about us, I was actually concerned about friends in Nova Scotia which did appear to be the bull’s eye for Earl.  In the end, Earl did hammer Nova Scotia and lots of people lost their power.  Our friends were among the lucky ones who did not lose their power.

In these situations people seem very willing to make up their minds based on their perceptions rather than some serious fact checking.  I see it all the time in our online world, and it is not just related to hurricanes and the Weather Channel.   Someone jumps to an unfounded conclusion because of either sloppy thinking or no thinking at all.

Yesterday I had someone say to me on an online forum  “it is still a fact that you do get clients by writing on this forum.”  That statement turns out to be a jump to a conclusion that has no basis in fact. I have been writing on that particular forum for 3.5 years, and I have yet to get a client from the forum.  Obviously I either am having trouble figuring that out, or I do not write to get clients.  Of course the latter statement is the real truth.  I write there because I like to write, and I want to make certain our area is accurately represented.

While several people who found out about me and my real estate service on the forum have visited our area and taken advantage of my real estate hospitality, none have ever turned out to a real client and bought something.  I have had clients who found me via my other blogs and then noticed me on the forum, but none have ever done it the other way around.

It has reached the point that I have a hard time taking anyone seriously who comes to me by way of the forum.  It seems that the people who really want homes get in a car and go visit them and don’t spend a lot of time on online forums.  Either that or they write me and email or pick up the phone and call me.

It seems we have a problem with people not using their minds to analyze situations properly.

I think critical thinking is an important element in the foundations of our society.   Based on the recent Hurricane Hype and observed tendencies of many folks to not want to be confused by the facts, I am not sure critical thinking is alive and doing well in our Republic.

With media hype twenty four hours a day, critical thinking is something we need more and more.  I hope we see a rebirth soon.

False expertise from lack of experience

Sometimes I get into places on the Interet where I am not sure I know why that I am there. There is no map out there as to where you should focus your time. I like to try a lot of things since this is a very new world for almost everyone. New tools, sites, and ways of relating to each other pop up all the time.

Bogue Inlet Pier SunriseI do everything from share things on Google reader to trying new things like Squidoo and having a rarely visited spot on MySpace. I have several blogs and photos at Flickr and Picasa Web Albums.

I have accounts at Digg and del.icio.us. I even use Linkedin.

One thing that I am very passionate about is my photographs. I recently posted one on Spock. It got deleted.

I have tried to figure out how a sunrise of pier taken on the beach was offensive. Maybe I do not understand the whole concept of Spock. That is a distinct possibility.

My only other guess is that some expert decided the photo looked altered. That brings up an interesting point which has had some discussion on the Internet recently with the disclosure that someone using Photoshop placed a herd of antelope under a train bridge to make a point about the lack of environmental harm from a new rail line.

It is very easy to alter photos. The challenge is present photo which looks as close to the original scene as possible. That is the commitment that I make with every photo that I share, and I share a bunch including a number that have been on television recently. Sometimes you might make a mistake getting it exactly like your eyes saw it, but most people doing this try really hard to stick to the scene. Cameras are machines and aren’t perfect. Also my eyes might not see things exactly like your eyes.

I have taken literally thousands of sunrise and sunset pictures. I am sure the total is approaching 30,000. I have a site with ones I took over the years in Roanoke, Va. I have a few there where I played with some artistic results so I know the difference.

I am often shooting right into the sun. Sometimes I get some unbelievable results. I never do anything other than crop, straighten, and sometimes adjust the lighting on the color to the way my eyes captured the scene. I often have lots of photos to help me do that.

If you have done a lot of shooting directly into bright sunlight, you know that it is a challenge to capture a scene without optical artifacts that are not in the scene. They end up in the pictures that you take with the camera, but your eye does not see them.

Very often the camera darkens a scene in order to handle the sunlight.

The biggest thing that I do to capture amazing sunsets is to use the optical zoom on my cameras. Very often a scene can look very ordinary from a distance but will be spectacular close up.

The picture in this post is unaltered. It is right out of iPhoto and stuck on the web with no modifications or touch ups.

This is the same picture that has been inserted into a webpage by Photoshop. My eyes cannot tell much difference.

I have taken the unusual step of posting the over 110 photos that I took that morning of March 31, 2007 including the ones that washed out. I think it is useful for people to see how the light changes depending on the camera angle and the direction.

Somewhere in the process I come out with some very nice photos. Sometimes I will take a photo and make sure the blue in it matches the blue in one like the one at the top of the page. In my mind, I have declared that the true blue that my eyes saw that day.

Now there might be other reasons that someone removed my photo from Spock, but other than it was over 400K, I cannot think of one.

So I have to think that a person with a false sense of expertise or who has been too lazy to ever get up and watch a few thousand sunrises voted my picture off.

It is a real picture. Check out the two series of over 110 photos taken with my Nikon DSLR and my Panasonic Luminix cameras.

Nikon Bogue Inlet Sunrise

Panasonic Bogue Inlet Sunrise

They are amazing photos.

They are not amazing from being run through Photoshop.

They are great photos because I was in the right place at the right time with the right light.

That is the integrity that I bring to the process.

Catching what drifts by us

Oysters on the beachIt occurred to me this morning that can getting our news and information these days can be a little like being an oyster on the beach.

There is the overwhelming amount of information out there. It is almost a Tsunami of content.

Sometimes it means you get covered with green slime.

You can use something like Google reader and the shared items of friends.

Blogs offer another alternative. Unfortunately like mine, they are all over the place.

You can try to find websites that are about areas that interest you. You can look into forums where people are known by their handles and their online expertise, but they have their own set of problems.

My best advice is to make sure you temper what you read with some of your own research and thought.

The problem is that doing that is easier said than done. It is hard to detach yourself and your interests from the bigger picture.

Sometimes the information we are hearing from all the sources is so overwhelming that people end up paralyzed. That is close to what has happened to the real estate market today.

There is so much negative press and discussion out there, that people are afraid to act or think in their own best interest. I have more people looking for property than I have seen in a long time, but last month Carteret County, NC MLS had a record low number of transactions. This February may be worse.

People seem to be waiting for a signal. I am not sure what the signal is, but I doubt we will know until we are well past it, and prices have started to rise.

As I mentioned in a post on my Reston blog, the huge price gains of the last few years have disappeared. We have more affordable housing at the coast than many urban areas.

I remember when people first start buying computers, you often heard the idea that it was better to wait until prices quit going down. It would have been a long wait.

Of course I didn’t wait. I got my first Apple II+ in August 1982. I ended up working for Apple for nearly twenty years.

Had I waited, I might never have had that opportunity.

Another example is the purchase of coastal property that my wife and I in September 2006. We bought near Cape Carteret, NC at not far from the top of the real estate market. I knew it was close to the top of the market, but we had been looking for three years so we bought, and I even went a step further.

I ended up being so impressed with the real estate firm that I decided to become a Realtor®.

Eighteen months later I have just received a reward from my firm, Bluewater GMAC Real Estate, as the “Up and Coming Star” for 2007.

While real estate is a challenging profession right now, I think it will be a good fit for my third career.

On top of that I have looked at about 250 homes since we bought ours. I still have not found one that I like more or one with the same features at a better price than ours in Bluewater Cove.

If we had waited to buy, I might not be in real estate. I certainly would not be ready for the good times when they eventually get here. There probably won’t be enough real estate agents when the market turns because many are quitting now.

I would have also missed some the great weather and beach living here in Carteret County.

I feel fortunate to have not let myself get caught in the green slime that drifts by these days.

Sometimes you just have to find your own current instead of staying on the beach and taking what drifts by you.

River and mind fog

River FogToday, December 29, the air temperatures on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast are so warm that fog is forming over some of the rivers.

Sometimes I think we live in a fog of technology. While the river fog will go away when the weather changes, I think we have to work at losing the technology fog.

Almost every home has a computer, and lots of people depend on email to do their jobs and to stay in touch with friends.

Most people, not including my wife, use a cell phone with a camera phone.

Wireless networks are everywhere, and few homes are without an all in one printer/scanner/copier.

Then there are the digital cameras and movie cameras. We have HD televisions with HDMI inputs so I suppose the next thing is a Blue Ray or HD DVD.

We were in Best Buy the other day and actually stopped for a couple of minutes to look at a comparison between Blue Ray and regular DVD. I will admit to the Blue Ray images being stunning.

What I can do with the technology that we already have in the home and that which is accessible on the web like geotagging and Google Earth is astonishing.

While I cannot yet send an image that rivals Blue Ray, I can send some very stunning images.

Someone sent me some fantastic images that are going around the web. While my images might not be quite in the same class, they aren’t bad. I think a lot of people can say that these days.

We have such good tools today, that anyone can be an expert, by capturing an image, balancing the color a little, and easily sending it by email or MMS.

Not only can you send it to someone, but likely they will be able to get it even if they are traveling. There is so much content, some of it very high quality, and delivered very quickly that we are in an information fog.

There are people who have trouble processing it all. And above all it is harder and harder to get information to stand out.
It is easy to lose track of what you want to focus on because there is so much information. Sometimes it is more than you want or need to know.

There are times you have to back away from the technology and what it delivers until you can see through the fog.

Too much information can take away your decision making ability. Maybe I am old school, but once in a while you have to go with a gut feeling and not let yourself get overwhelmed with instantaneous high tech data.  Once in a while, all this high tech stuff lets you turn something not so appealing into something not exactly as good as it looks.

Maybe it helps to go back to a basic computer that does not overwhelm you with its possibilities. I am trying that with a new Zonbu computer.

Lost in the digital chaff

Clyde Phillips Shrimp BoatIt is so easy to take digital pictures that they have little intrinsic value these days. Anyone can also print them as high quality snapshots.

We have become so adept at capturing images that no one takes the time to appreciate good photography. Few actually make the effort to get the image onto to paper.

Some people never even get them off their cameras, Then there are those who tote the images around on their iPods, iPhotos, or other digital devices.

Of those who do print pictures, almost none take the time to try to print something other than a snapshot. Those who do try to print and sell large scale photos often find people who want the image but not the print.

I find it hard to even cover the costs of the ink for my Epson 4000 printer when I do large scale images.

If there are jobs harder than real estate, they might be selling digital prints for more than $24.95 or convincing people to pay attention to the real issues of the day.

As technology makes us more capable, it might also be making us less appreciative of  real life and some really great photos.

Lots of important things seem to be lost in the chaff of the modern world.

Maybe some of the pictures will at least live on as long as the servers keep the Internet humming.

A box that we don’t understand

Gabrielle SunsetI once wrote a post, Our technological infirmity. It has the same title as I have chosen for this blog.

The post worries about all the great technology that we have which often no longer works without increasingly scarce expert help.

We might have more expert help to solve our problems, but we have decided we want that help for free or built into the cost of the products.

The products of course have become so inexpensive that the companies cannot afford to support them. Many companies assume there are so many customers they can afford to lose a few disgruntled ones.

Here in this blog, I am worried about something far worse. It hit me yesterday as I was waiting out Gabrielle on North Carolina’s Southern Outer Banks. Our information has become even cheaper and possibly less reliable than our Chinese built products.

We have many people who have become so dependent on the views and experiences of others that they cannot tell the truth from hype or fiction. They have lost those skills. Technology might have contributed to their demise. On top of that we have no accountability for those publish shoddy information or lead people down the garden path with their rosy scenarios.

As the Weather Channel was trying to wish Gabrielle into a hurricane I had to smile at the Mayor of North Topsail beach as he ended his TV career by saying that the high water the reporter was trying to hype was no worse than what the area sees after a good thunderstorm. Yet people depend on this garbage.

It is not just television that fails to deliver accurate pictures of what is happening. Much of the print media cannot get it straight either. Add in reliance on a few experts who have little inclination to share their professional evaluations, and we have a soup of misinformation.

Then there is the whole world of advertising. No one seems to care when products don’t match the hyped advertising.

Our local paper had the Monday headline “Carteret get light rains, wind from storm.” Gabrielle had passed through on Sunday afternoon. It was gone by 7 pm. Perhaps some would excuse the paper because they had to publish early, but it appears to me they published a story that was written before the story was over.

At four pm yesterday, which we can at least hope was after this story was written, the skies opened and Carteret County got much more rain than even our weather experts were calling for in their late Sunday forecasts which went something like this.

…the rainfall total wasn’t expected to exceed one inch in Carteret County.

As I was reading that online, water was flooding down my driveway. We ended up with an additional one and one half inches of rain to bring our total to two inches which pales in comparison to Morehead City which got over three inches and Beaufort which got almost 8 inches.

We have become so accustomed to being entertained or even excited by our news that we have created a vicious circle of having to get news that meets that criteria of entertainment even if it is off the mark on credibility.

We have become consumers of headlines without really pondering the details below the headline.

Our local paper also had a headline today, “Whale shot with machine gun, harpoon off the coast of Washington state, survives.”

Unfortunately the first line of the story under the headline was the following.

A California gray whale that was harpooned and shot with a machine gun off the western tip of Washington state has died, officials said.

I guess the revised headline made for a better story than the real story. That’s not too different from the Weather Channel trying to make North Topsail Beach’s ongoing erosion problem a result of Gabrielle which wasn’t even as strong as the nor’easter we had last spring.

I don’t know where to put the weathermen who send us forecasts which are debunked by looking into our driveway. Weather is hard to forecast, but surely someone can tell when eight inches of rain is on the way. It would be nice if our news was as easy to verify as our local weather reports.

The only technology required for that verification is standing on your porch and looking. A computer doesn’t have to be involved at all. I can trust my eyes and my senses. I am glad they still work.