The Quest For No Mailbox

I enjoy poking and finding flaws and bugs in systems. Not with malicious intent of course, but rather to understand how those systems work. This tendency of curiosity and a quest to make life easier lead me down the twisty path that is postal mailboxes in the United States, and thought I’d share how I’ve managed to all but disappear. At least to my local mail carrier. You see, I’ve managed to achieve what some (not all sane) people have quested to do:

Receive zero US Postal Mail, including junk mail , at my house.

Why?   Because why not!   If you really need a reason pretend I said something here about killing trees and waste and mother earth.   But on with the story…

I don't have one of these now.
I don’t have one of these now.

This journey begins about ten years ago after a series of life events and a bombing real estate market left me living “mobile” for about a year. In retrospect, it was quite the adventure. I’d picked up a nice used 5th wheel trailer with all the amenities, and lived where ever felt right at the time. After the turmoil of events prior the freedom was a refreshing change of pace. The future was nebulous, and without much certainty of where I would end up, I chose to lessen the hassles of multiple rapid address changes and opted to forward all mail to a rented commercial office. My business had been located in the small office space for several years and it was a nice rooted location while everything else was a bit tumultuous. In other words, the office–and the business which occupied it–wasn’t going anywhere, so it seemed the logical thing to do.

Fast forward about 12 months. Things were coming back into focus and I’d found a reasonable apartment above a business that was all inclusive. Only one bill to pay: the rent. Water, gas, electric, and even internet service were all rolled into the rent. According to the landlord there were no utilities because the two apartments above had no individual addresses. The only paperwork I completed was a hand-written rental agreement from the landlord.  I later learned the apartments were built out of a re-purposed space: a converted storage attic, a little sketchy code wise, thus the only address for the entire building was first floor business. The business managers below were perfectly willing to accept mail for the residents above, but naturally they were only open during business hours. This meant in order to pick up any mail sent there, I’d either have to go in to the office late, or leave the office early. Not very practical.

That time the van tried to visit the apartment
That time the van tried to visit the apartment

 

I avoided all that poppycock and instead kept mail forwarding to the office address. When the forwarding expired, I would put in another forward. However this simple scheme presented difficulties which were mounting. The last permanent address I had, the one mail was being forwarded from, was now occupied by another party. That property had been sold in the two years since I’d moved out. This didn’t seem to present much of a problem on the surface, but if a piece of mail slipped by the forward it could end up in the hands of a stranger. But more problematic was renewing vehicle registration. The US Postal Service won’t forward mail from the California DMV (most likely to avoid smog test fraud). To get around this I would just swing by the central mailbox cluster at the house with my mailbox key and pick up my tags all stealthy-like. But since the former house had been re-occupied, the mailbox key had changed.

Now I was on a mission.   We can go deeper…

Facing the increasing challenges of a permanent mail forward, and not having an official  residential address to call my own, I slowly moved “residence” to the office. I started with things like credit card and bank statements, but then realized that many places need your Driver’s license to match what statements indicate for verification.  So I did as instructed and changed my driver’s license address.   After those were switched, I updated my vehicle registrations to the office as well.    Over a period of about another year everything was finally switched. Not a single soul anywhere seemed to notice (or care) it was a commercial address.  I lived at my apartment, but according to the United States postal service, California DMV, and just about any other professional relationship, I resided at the office. By most yardsticks my actual residence was completely off the radar. I’d effectively disappeared.

After saving pennies for many years, I moved out of the apartment in favor of a comfortable single family home. Like the apartment, I rented it–but now I had to sign up for utilities. My address charade had been going on for almost four years now, and frankly, I didn’t want to change it. To my surprise, every single utility allowed me to provide a separate mailing address. So I did that, sending all bills to the office. By now I’d realized the commercial office address had key benefits: Being a business it gets no junk mail. If a letter comes in, I know it’s important and needs attention. Deliveries to the address happen far earlier in the day, as all carriers try to squeeze them in during business hours. Also, the office utilizes a door slot. When I need to leave town for work (which is a lot) there is no need to stop delivery with those little cards. The Postal Service will happily keep dropping mail into the slot without complaint. It just piles up on the floor behind it.  I didn’t want to change a thing, so I didn’t.

The new house had a locking mailbox cluster in the middle of the neighborhood, just like the old house. Out of curiosity I’d walk down and open it about every three months. I’d find a hopeless jumble of junk mail, rubber banded together.  A few months later I found a note from the mail carrier demanding mail to expediently get picked up. Then my landlord accidentally sent me something there, and eventually called to ask why I hadn’t responded, as he’d sent it three months earlier.

This picture is a metaphor
This picture is a metaphor

After ignoring my home mailbox for almost two years the US Postal Service finally gave up. They emptied the mailbox of all the junk and left a card in there saying delivery had been halted, presumably because the house wasn’t occupied. To restart service I’d have to go down to the post office and prove residence. Even if I wanted to reinstate service at the house, it wouldn’t be easy because everything has my office address listed.

Last year in 2017 I bought the same house off my landlord. It was a private party sale, and I figured my nice vacation from unwanted mail at home was at an end. There was absolutely no way in hell I’d be able to purchase a house without the mailbox working, right? While working through the mortgage I received many questions why documents were going to a different address, but the mortgage company just played along: they mailed everything to the office. Even the title agency that did the closing allowed for a “mailing address”. The last piece of the puzzle involved the county in which the house sits in. They sent a title notice and property tax appraisal letter to the house which unsuprisingly bounced back as “undeliverable”. They called title agency to get my phone number, and after a quick conversation about how mail delivery was broken to my address they took a mailing address instead, and I’ve been receiving notices ever since.

Mailboxes are a funny thing in our country. While not strictly required by law, almost all official process requires you to have one, a rather paradoxial situation. Can you go without a mailbox entirely? Here in California I’ve found the only real limitation being the DMV. If you have a driver’s license and/or own a car, you need a real address somewhere. It could be a friend or family’s address, I suppose. But a PO Box won’t work, DMV won’t accept it as a residence.

Yet everything else, including official title paperwork for real property from the government, can be sent to a mailing address or PO box. So can you dump your mailbox? The answer is if you don’t own a car or drive in California: absolutely. 

CloudFormation: Conditionals in Resource Parameters

Our organization has been doing a bunch of AWS CloudFormation lately. Recently I’d stumbled across a method for doing conditional logic within any Resource’s Parameters array.

Conditional logic within a Resource’s Parameters comes up often when it’s something like an RDS Database instance.   In that Resource type, there are explicit Parameters (like AllocatedStorage),  but there are also Parameters which contain an array, like VPCSecurityGroups.

There are many options to configure, and if you modularize your CloudFormation templates as we do, you’ll find it necessary to completely change, or even omit certain Parameter array elements depending on other parts of your template.

The method for doing so is something I hadn’t found documented in the official AWS CloudFormation material on Conditionals, so figured I’d put it here to help my other DevOps brethren.

Take the following example snippet:

Conditions:
  conditions !Equals [ !Ref parameterEnv, "Prod" ]

Resources:
  createDatabase:
    Type: "AWS::RDS::DBInstance"
    Properties:
      AllocatedStorage: "5"
      Engine: "MySQL"
      EngineVersion: "5.6"
      DBInstanceClass: "db.t2.small"
      MasterUsername: "someuser"
      MasterUserPassword: "somepassword"
      VPCSecurityGroups:
        - sg-abc12345
        - sg-def67890

In the above example, we’re creating a basic RDS instance that has two security groups.   In addition, there is a Conditions statement checking whether the CloudFormation template is used for a production environment.

Let’s say there is now a requirement to omit SecurityGroup “sg-def67890” because that allows access from the developer network.

In some examples I saw accomplished it this way, rather inelegantly:

Conditions:
  conditionIsProd !Equals [ !Ref parameterEnv, "Prod" ]

Resources:
  createDatabase:
  Type: "AWS::RDS::DBInstance"
  Condition: !Not conditionIsProd
  Properties:
    AllocatedStorage: "5"
    Engine: "MySQL"
    EngineVersion: "5.6"
    DBInstanceClass: "db.t2.small"
    MasterUsername: "someuser"
    MasterUserPassword: "somepassword"
    VPCSecurityGroups:
      - sg-abc12345
      - sg-def67890

  createDatabase:
    Type: "AWS::RDS::DBInstance"
    Condition: conditionIsProd
    Properties:
      AllocatedStorage: "5"
      Engine: "MySQL"
      EngineVersion: "5.6"
      DBInstanceClass: "db.t2.small"
      MasterUsername: "someuser"
      MasterUserPassword: "somepassword"
      VPCSecurityGroups:
        - sg-abc1234

Doing it in the way above is also limiting.  If you have multiple permutations of options in your CloudFormation template, you’d need to build out a Resource stanza for each situation.  Not very extensible.

Instead, try this (it works):

Conditions:
  conditionIsProd !Equals [ !Ref parameterEnv, "Prod" ]

Resources:
  createDatabase:
    Type: "AWS::RDS::DBInstance"
    Properties:
      AllocatedStorage: "5"
      Engine: "MySQL"
      EngineVersion: "5.6"
      DBInstanceClass: "db.t2.small"
      MasterUsername: "someuser"
      MasterUserPassword: "somepassword"
      VPCSecurityGroups:
        - sg-abc12345
        - !If
            - conditionIsProd
            -
              !Ref "AWS::NoValue"
            - sg-def67890

This strays from the official documenation examples because the Fn::If function is being leveraged within an array element.   Even though it seems counter-intuitive, the key is to place the If statement after the array delimiter for the parent object, which in this YAML example is the hypen, i.e.

- !If

The only caveat here is that you’re limited to one array item within the conditional statement.   So if you need multiple array lines to accomplish your goals, you’ll need an Fn::If for each.

However,  if your scenario requires multiple lines within one element, putting them in one Fn::If works fine.

Now go automate everything in your AWS environments!

The American Wagon Needs a Comeback

If you’re an American chances are you depend on a car.

The United States is a big country and we Americans enjoy trekking across it.  The Beach Boys sang, “I get around” and they couldn’t be more right.

Some say it is the physical manifestation of individual freedom.   Cars seem to be ingrained in everything we do.   We visit the ATM and do banking while in our cars.   We order food and eat in our cars.   Though it’s not popular now, we even watched movies from our cars.   We also do, uhm, “other” stuff in our cars.   Heck,  some people even live out of their cars and to lead a life on the road.  We like cars here.

I was raised in Detroit and both my parents worked in the auto industry.  As my eyesight got fuzzier and what I wanted out of life got clearer,  a move to northern California happened.   That was eleven years ago, and the natives have fully integrated me into their lands.   Like, dude,  I can say “Hella”, “rad”, and “gnarly”, ya know?    Other than a hard-wired tendency to use short vowels with a sickly nasal twang, I blend in.

Mostly.

During the west coast integration process I’ve learned that Californians are just as nutty about cars as Detroiters.    One could even say they’re nuttier, for certain natives of the Golden State have written more songs about cars.   The point is, between both Detroit and California  I’ve lived in two of the most car-crazy places on planet Earth.   So with some authority on the topic I’m declaring:   American cars currently suck.

Yeah, I know how these posts usually go.  Probably expecting a rant on how things were better in the old days, before cars had computers, sensors, remote start,  tune-ups, etc.  You’ll comment that I’m living in the past and opinions are dated.    But I’m not going to say any of that.   The fact is I agree. Today’s cars, mechanically speaking at least, are great.

Instead this is about lack of choice.    And there really is a severe lack of choice today.    For better or worse,  body options in the American car market today are:

  • Four-door sedans
  • Two-door coupes
  • SUVs or “Crossovers”
  • Pickup trucks

You might think that list covers just about every type of car someone might want to buy, but it doesn’t.    What’s missing is the wagon.   “Wagons!?”, you’re undoubtedly saying. “Wagons are old, gross, and died in the 1980s.  Good riddance!”

But you’re wrong.   And because this is my blog I’m right, dog gone it.

Hear me out:  SUVs are overcooked.  I was driving in the 1990s when the Bronco II gave way to the Ford Explorer SUV.  The SUV was a “cool” answer to boring, beige & wood-grain wagons and minivans.  Why get one of those old fashioned wagon things when  a sporty off-road fun mobile was there for the taking?   A cool SUV could do all the things your dad’s wagon did:   carry lots of people, cargo, get horrible mileage, and play cassette tapes.

The SUV has reigned nearly 25 years, and that’s long enough.   In my not-so-humble opinion, like the wagons of the 1990’s, SUVs should die.   It may be happening slowly already, but not fast enough.   The big, tall SUV is getting squashed flatter and flatter, slowly, into a hell-spawn called the “Crossover”.   I feel gross just saying “Crossover”.   Let’s all do ourselves a favor,  admit the body proportions on Crossovers is just hella wrong (see, integrated)  and admit the great American Wagon is making a come back.   Sure, they might not be called wagons when it finally happens.   They’ll be called something like “extended wheelbase sportback sedan” because the word “wagon” brings back bad memories of stale french fries and brown paint tones.   But they’ll be back,  trust me.

I’m welcoming those wagons back with open arms.   In California, where gas is regularly $3.00/gallon, the SUV or Crossover (I’m about to throw up) makes no sense.     Crossovers are ugly and bloated things.   It’s like Andre the Giant trying to look tidy and trim.   Besides awkward proportions, they handle like shit, are just too big, and the high-up driving position of those things is awkward and disconnecting from the driving experience.   Nothing like carving up the mountain roads in your crossover.   Kill me now.

If I want to sit up high, I’ll drive the Ford pickup.   If it’s a long windy road trip to the California coast or the wide open road to Las Vegas, a firm-but-not-harsh riding, low-slung wagon please.   All the luggage in the back.  Hold the woodgrain.   A 45 MPG hybrid would be great.   Can I get a tasteful extension off the rear roof too?

Sadly, to my knowledge and research there isn’t an affordable midsize wagon option available on the American market today.   Affordable choices are “quasi-SUV” compacts like the Subaru Outback or the Volkswagen Golf Sportswagen (I’ll argue those are compact hatchbacks).     From there it’s into things like the 23-MPG Ford Flex, a “I’m higher than you” Crossover (I just threw up).

But there’s the Volvo V90,  and it’s perfect.   Good mid-size!  Low-slung! Tastefully sporty!  Quick!  And  $50,000.   The BMW 5-series wagon is just about perfect,  too.    But one catch:  Must go to Europe to buy.   Both of those things are a tad out of reach.

Frankly, the American car market sucks if you want a wagon.   What I’ve learned is Americans on a budget tend to drive pretend-trucks, while wealthy people drive wagons…I guess?   Because of a rather distinct lack of wealthy,  I suppose it is a matter of waiting for the SUV and Crossover to die, and none too soon.

Or move to Europe.