End of transmission... how about no transmission?

posted by Jeff | Thursday, August 21, 2014, 9:21 PM | comments: 0

Last Friday, just as Diana was approaching our house, her car (a 2008 Hyundai Elantra) was spinning high RPM's and not going anywhere. We were in separate cars, coming back from dinner. She pulled up and suggested I drive. Sure enough, it was struggling to accelerate or shift out of first gear, and I immediately assumed there was a transmission fluid problem. The burning fluid, with it dripping all over made that pretty obvious.

My first car had all kinds of problems, and a leaky gasket on the transmission pan was one of them. It was a pretty easy fix though, so I assumed it had to be something like that for this car. Wanting to assert my manhood or something, I checked with an auto parts store to find a gasket, and they said the car didn't have one. Meh, whatever, let's pay for the tow, because this to me sure sounds like it fits under the drive train warranty.

As it turns out, this car circulates transmission fluid through the radiator, another surprise as I've replaced two radiators that did not do this. (Is it obvious my car repair experiences are all almost 20 years ago?) The dealer found that the hose was simply not there, thus the very fast emptying of transmission fluid. On top of that, the car told a computer that the transmission gears were messed up. The diagnosis was a new transmission, and fortunately it was covered under that 10-year, 100,000 mile drive train warranty. Phew. Parts alone were about $1,300.

I'm disappointed that the car has under 60k miles and had this kind of catastrophic failure. Ditto for the fuel line problems we had in the first few months, a weird defect that required two overnight stays. The plastic plate under the car came off in the first year too, and we dragged that along the PA Turnpike. I suppose it has been a solid car otherwise, but with some Cleveland weather corrosion under the hood, tires in need of replacement and what not, I'm not comfortable nursing the car anymore. We were already considering a replacement this year, but now it feels more urgent.

Right now we're considering four options. None of them are a Tesla, because as amazing as that is, we could take 30 cruises for the cost of that car, or 10 ten-day cruises around Europe. Experiences, not stuff, you know? The zero option is simply to do nothing, but that means buying tires and hoping nothing else breaks. Otherwise, we would like to lease because in two years, we suspect there will be better options for electric cars, which we're very interested in.

The first and safest option is to get a regular Prius. The fourth generation models are apparently delayed, supplies are a little higher than demand, and it's a known quantity. We easily get 46 to 48 mpg out of the V, so we know the regular will do mid-50's in flat Florida. It's totally unsexy, and we'd be that family with two hybrids, but we like our Prii.

Next there's the electric Nissan Leaf, which has been something of a great curiosity for me ever since I rented one on my interview trip to Orlando last year. It was so flipping fun to drive, and an 80 mile range is perfectly adequate for commuting. It's a poor man's tiny Tesla, full of gadgetry and wonder for a nerd like me. There was a lease deal last year, in the midst of our "financial quiet period" prior to buying the house, where we could probably have traded the Hyundai and have no payment and get money back. We might still be able to get such a deal if we can get enough for the trade, or at least get close.

And finally, at the completely unlikely end but still curious, we could look at a BMW i3. It too is all electric, fairly ugly, and apparently the kind of engineering you expect from BMW. It gets good reviews, but it's fairly expensive in typical option packages, so it's hard to convey value I think to someone who thinks the Nissan is pretty cool.. I'm not a car guy, but I could see how something like this would make me an electric car guy, with carbon fiber body parts and all. I just can't get over the price, as it would be an expensive indulgence. Again, I'll check it out, but I doubt it's a real option.

It would be neat to have a car that doesn't actually have a transmission.


You have a people problem, not a technology problem

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, August 20, 2014, 2:22 PM | comments: 0

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Things are going poorly in your world of software development, and someone makes a suggestion.

"If we just use [framework or technology here], everything will be awesome and we'll cure cancer!"

I like new and shiny things, and I like to experiment with stuff. I really do. But every time I hear something like the above statement, it's like nails on a chalkboard. You know, most of the NoSQL arguments over the last few years sound like that. It's not that the technology isn't useful or doesn't have a place, but when I'm looking at it from a business standpoint, I have a perfectly good database system, that happens to be relational, that could do the same thing, is installed on my servers, will scale just fine for the use case, and I employ people who already know how to use it. Maybe I have something in production that uses it wrong, but that isn't a technology problem.

I'm sure we're all guilty of this at various points in our career. We've all walked into situations where there is an existing code base, and we're eager to rewrite it all using the new hotness. It's true, there are often great new alternatives that you could use, but I find it very rare that the technologies in play are inadequate, they're just poorly used. That kind of thing happens because of inexperience, poor process, transient consultants or some combination of all of those things.

The poor implementation is only a part of the people problem. There is a big layer of failure often caused by process, which is, you know, implemented by people. For example (this is real life, from a previous job), you've come up with this idea of processing events in almost-real-time by queuing them and then handing them off to various arbitrary pieces of code to process, a service bus of sorts. So you look at your toolbox and say, "Well, our servers all run Windows, so MSMQ will be adequate for the queue job." Shortly thereafter, your infrastructure people are like, "No, we can't install that, sorry." And then your release people are like, "Oh, this is a big change, we can't do this." You bang your head against the wall, because all of this kingdom building, throw-it-over-the-wall, lack of collaboration is 100% people problems, not technology. Suggesting some other technology doesn't solve the problem, because it will manifest itself again in some other way.

What do you do about this? Change itself isn't that hard (if you really believe in the Agile Manifesto), but people changing is hard. If you have the authority, you remove the people who can't change. If you don't, then you have to endure a slower process of politicking to get your way. It's slow, but it works. You convince people, one at a time, to see things in a way that removes friction. Get enough people on board, and momentum carries you along so that everyone has to follow (or get off the boat). I knew a manager at Microsoft who was exceptionally good at this, and his career since has largely been to convince teams that there was a better way.

At a more in-the-weeds level, you get people engaged beyond code. One of the weakest skills people in the software development profession have is connection with the underlying business. Mentor them so that they understand. Explain why the tool you use is adequate when used in the right context and will save the business time and money, compared to a different technology that has more cost associated with learning new skills, licenses or whatever. It's like the urge to buy a new phone every year to have the new hotness... It's fine when it's your money, but not so much when it comes at the cost of your employer.

As technologists, yes, we want to solve problems with technology. Just don't let that desire obscure the fact that the biggest problems in our line of work are rarely technological in nature.


Back to school

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, August 19, 2014, 8:07 PM | comments: 0

Simon went back to school this week, and it occurs to me that I haven't really written about him in awhile. So here's the update.

About the time Simon's "special" preschool ended in the spring, he started to see an ABA therapist who came to our house twice a week, for two hours each time. This was entirely out of pocket (and the bills somehow haven't been making it here, so now, ouch), but it was worth every penny. It's not just Simon who benefits, but us as well. We're better equipped to understand how to relate to him, how to discipline him effectively and we've seen that he can focus on tasks. His wonderful therapist also saw a lot of things that indicated something I was hoping for, that despite the developmental delays, there's very obviously an intelligent little boy in there.

Simon also spent some time in a Montessori school, for three hours a session, a few times a week. He really enjoyed that, which doesn't surprise me, because the method is a combination of structure and self-directed learning. That's something I see in him that is very much me, that he often has no desire to do something just because someone expects it of him. It's a social contract he has little use for, and I know it made me a miserable child in school at times. If that carries over into grade school for him, I feel bad for what he's in for.

Now that the school year is back, he's actually going to school twice. In the morning, he goes to regular preschool, with 17 other kids. In the afternoon, he goes to the smaller (8 kids or less, I think it was) class with kids who have similar developmental issues. It's a little inconvenient, because Diana has to go out and get him in between for about 70 minutes. He's also tired out of his mind by the end of the day, and sometimes a hot mess. Still, the afternoon gets him the individual attention that certainly helps him, but the morning puts him in a much bigger social context, which I think he desperately needs.

Where is he? It's hard to say, because all I can do is compare to other kids, because I'm not a professional. On gross motor skills, he seems to have come along, but lacks confidence sometimes in things like jumping off of a two-foot platform. For fine motor, he's much better at using eating utensils, iPad games and dressing, but he clearly has a long way to go for writing. He knows his alphabet and a few words, but I don't think he's connecting them to what he can speak. His speech is the thing that seems the most behind, despite a ton of progress. That's the hardest thing for me... seeing the progress, but knowing he's not where his peers are.

Ultimately, my hope is that he can start kindergarten on time next year. My largely uninformed opinion is that it could go either way. I can see the reasoning to hold him back a year, but I also think that could backfire because the smart kid inside with the extreme pattern recognition and memory will get bored when he does catch up. Again, I can certainly relate to that.


Mobile ain't so great when you're small

posted by Jeff | Monday, August 18, 2014, 11:08 PM | comments: 0

I was doing one of my periodic check-ins last week, looking at traffic and ad revenue and all of that for the sites. There was a time that I did it almost daily, but obviously my priorities have changed a great deal over the years. I should probably look harder, because the story isn't great.

At the end of last year, the story was that traffic was up, but revenue was flat. That's not a great story to tell because it means more people doesn't equal more money. That's important to me this year because I've replaced equipment and I'm spending a little more on hosting as I've moved to a cloud provider (though this month should be less after optimizing some things). Sure, I do this stuff because I enjoy it, but as a technologist and someone who enjoys extra income, I certainly don't want to move in reverse.

I looked at the data more critically, and I'm finding that the reason for the slide isn't because of ad rates. Actually, for the ads being displayed, they're paying more than they did last year. The problem is that not as many people are seeing them. That's because many are viewing on mobile devices which don't display the ads, and others (on CoasterBuzz at least) are viewing the mobile interface, which has crappy mobile ads that don't pay much. If all things remained constant, and everyone was going to the site on a browser on their computer, ad revenue would likely be 80% higher. That's frustrating.

There are several things outside of my control. I can't stop people from using mobile devices, and I wouldn't want to. I can't control what the ad providers do either. This doesn't leave me with a lot of choices, so honestly I haven't thought much about what I can do. The irony is that I had a lot of pride around just how fast I was able to make the mobile version of the site. If your connection is solid, you can barely tell you're connecting to anything.

This is the point where I start to rant. I don't enjoy the app culture. I mean, do you remember the old days on your desktop computer (when you didn't have a laptop), when you had to buy software, install it, and when you finally had the Internet, you could install updates to the software that was broken. But when the Internet did come a long, so much of what you could do didn't require downloading anything at all. You just opened your browser and you did stuff. In fact, this is largely true today. Most of the "apps" you use are just Web sites. You never have to update them, you can share links to various points inside of them, and it's awesome.

But the phones (and tablets) are the old desktop model. You don't need CD-ROM's, but you do need to install stuff. Then when they realize it's broken the next day, there's an update and you have to get that before you can use it. And if you want to use it but don't have it, you have to go to an app store and download it first. You can't just type in a URL and go. You certainly can't share that "page" in the IMDB app with your friends either. This experience completely sucks, but it's mostly embraced by everyone. It's totally bizarre to me.

From a development standpoint, it's a mixed bag. I mean, professionally, if you can crank out mobile apps, it's an enormous career opportunity. But if you're largely independent or small, as is the case for me and these little sites, forget it. I don't have the time or money to build this stuff, to support two (or three) different platforms, plus the site. Even if you go hybrid with HTML-based apps, the last 10% of the effort ends up being specific to each platform, and takes the longest.

Businesses go there anyway, because it's where the people are, unfortunately. But I can tell you from experience that getting something on to a mobile platform is so much more expensive than the straight Web.

In a lot of ways, this is just further proof of what I've seen happening the last few years, that ad-supported content and community is not a very good game to be in. I just don't have any clear ideas about how to address the problem. Of course, if The New York Times doesn't know what to do, I think I get a pass.


Camping

posted by Jeff | Friday, August 15, 2014, 10:12 PM | comments: 0

I've been reading Roger Ebert's memoir Life Itself on and off for the past few months. While some parts are interesting, others seem like lots of extraneous detail that no one would care about. So while on a plane last weekend, I wondered how this flavor of narrative would go if I was writing it. The results are below. I don't know if it's something someone would read in a book or not. -J


 

I never quite knew how much my step-father made, and had even less context about how much that would be in context with other people. I never felt like we didn’t have “stuff” that we needed, but I do remember there being mentions of value when it came to camping. Ohio had quite a state park system, and many of them had campgrounds where we could land for a few bucks a day. In fact, I remember hearing David complain about it when one of the parks hit $10 per night. Whatever our income bracket was, it’s clear that camping made for a really economical vacation.

I remember going with my parents once before they divorced (before Jason was born, so I couldn’t have been older than 3). The standout memory of that trip was my dad comforting me because I thought I was in trouble for waking them up in the small tent. I remember playing with one of those toddler toys with the magnetic letters in that tent.

We started camping again after David and my mom were married. I’m certain that our first trip was to Alleghany State Park in Western New York. The massive park was actually divided into two parts, and the Red House Area was the better part for a number of reasons. The campground was hilly and heavily wooded, the road around the lake was designated as one-way, so you could freely bike around the inside lane. There was also a beautiful old lodge that had a little museum in it and a restaurant.

We only camped in site C-4. When you entered from the main road, you passed over a little concrete bridge and by the check-in station. Then it was up the hill slightly right. C-4 was great because there was so much room there. We didn’t start with a camper, but we soon had a pop-up, which didn’t take up a lot of room in the average campsite. We would always move the picnic table perpendicular to the camper, under the roll-out awning. That left room for us to put up a tent, a smelly old canvas thing, where we could hang out and put our toys. There was a tree toward the back, beyond the fire pit, ideal for chaining up the bikes at night and stringing up a line for hanging beach towels.

The real action was down toward the main road and the creek. Creeks there were not like those in Ohio, because they were so rocky. It was no trouble to find salamanders and other critters, and the water was so incredibly clear. There was also a big playground there, the best anywhere. They built playgrounds with big logs and old, giant truck tires. Again, the Ohio parks couldn’t touch such amenities. Even the signage fascinated me, because they used the big Century 21-style signs, with one slat of wood hanging for each item on the sign, and chain links in between.

When it rained, you could go into the nearby Salamanca, and maybe catch a movie. There wasn’t much to the town, but it had a museum for the Seneca Indians.

Camping was a bit of a routine, once the picnic table was in place. The cooler, stocked with generic soda cans of every flavor you can imagine, was positioned under one of the pull-out beds of the camper. Wood, usually purchased at the camp store for that campground, was piled neatly near the fire pit and covered with a tarp. The second camper we had required a hand crank to raise the roof, and I would help with that after getting the bikes off of the roof. Mom had a specific menu planned out, and it generally included packaged food side dishes that were easy to cook in boiled water. That water had to come from a tap somewhere in the campground and into our container. That was another perk of C-4: The tap was right there.

Arriving was not a relaxing process. David would be kind of crabby, and he would generally sweat a lot (sweatband around his mostly bald head), and he would be breathing heavy to the point where I worried that he was genuinely at risk of a heart attack. Generally Jason and I would be dismissed soon enough and not be seen again until dinner. We would either take off on the bikes, or take my boom box down to the playground to hang out.

The Ohio State Parks had a junior naturalist program back in the days when they were well funded. The naturalists did all kinds of programs to teach kids (and adults) about the environment and the plants and critters that lived there. The program involved completing a number of different sessions, and they gave you little patches, four of them to match the big round one, and I remember getting them all. I still have them, in fact. By the time I got the last one, I remember having a bit of a crush on the very young naturalist at that last park.

My change in camping agenda was, not surprisingly, well aligned with my age. In the early days, it was all about those playgrounds, or exploring the woods. There were no shortages of trails to follow. By the time I was in middle school, the emphasis had shifted a bit to meeting girls. I had no idea what the outcome was supposed to be, I just know that I liked pretty girls and wanted to be around them. I remember once, on a trip to a park near Zanesville, meeting Rachael and Jennifer and hanging out with them for a few days, after grade 9, I think. We wrote letters back and forth for a year or two after that.

One of the things that annoyed my parents is that Jason and I liked to be inside of the camper. Think about it though, a pop-up camper was like a blanket fort that you towed with your car, and that’s awesome. One of my favorite things was unzipping all of the windows around the end bed, and taking an afternoon nap there. It was so peaceful and the breeze felt wonderful. Sometimes I would put headphones on and listen to some crappy local radio station, or maybe cassettes, and soak in nature without it biting me. That was a great feeling.

In high school, I got into bicycling in a meaningful way, in part because my dad encouraged it. He was doing it as well, and we would do organized rides of varying lengths (some of which I did not finish). This meant that for camping trips, I would take it upon myself to ride where ever I could, even if it was outside of the park. There was one in particular that had a lake, and it was about 20 miles around. I got into the habit of time trialing myself, to see how fast I could get around. It was the first time I really managed to challenge myself in some kind of athletic endeavor.

By the time I got to college, I wasn’t much a part of the camping trips. I do remember one to the nearby park, Findley State Park, where I helped mom out to the park one morning (to get a good site), and followed behind in my car. David would come out after work. Mom decided to go through a beverage drive through to pick a few things up, and turning into it, she completely nailed the corner of the camper on the entry way to the drive through. It was not pretty. That day was the first day I drove the car with the camper attached, and because my stepdad wasn’t a great driver, I took it upon myself to back the thing in to the site. I think it was the first time I really thought about my parents getting older, and me being a grown up.


Pissing excellence

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, August 13, 2014, 7:43 PM | comments: 0

I don't remember where or when, but I recall seeing a guy with a T-shirt that said quite plainly, "I piss excellence." I giggled at the time because, well, it's funny to me. Juvenile humor has its place in the spectrum of giggles.

I'm not perfect, but I try to be excellent to the best of my ability. I try to be a part of a way forward, not be intellectually lazy, give as much as I can, stand up against oppression... you know, all of the things that are "good." I'm lucky enough to work with people who are good at what they do, and that makes me particularly happy. I have friends and acquaintances that are changing the world.

Unfortunately, while the Internet does in theory show great promise for making the world better and spreading knowledge (and I do believe to an extent it has), it's also full of stupidity, or anti-excellence, if you will. It's no secret that this frustrates the shit out of me. People don't want to understand science, hear differing opinions, gain a deeper understanding of history and politics or otherwise soak up knowledge, even though it's all readily available.

The go-to reaction to this is to bitch and moan about it. I don't think that I'm better than the people practicing anti-excellence, but it's also ridiculous that wanting to piss excellence is somehow being elitist or something. To me it's just wanting to be a part of a functioning society that can get past blowing itself up.

Complaining isn't excellent, and that's the thing I find that I have to work on the most. It's not easy because I'm completely impatient. Some people don't want to be excellent, and I suppose those people can't be helped. But I believe, perhaps naively, that people want to be better. I just don't know how to approach them. I don't want them to simply accept my word for anything, I want them to learn and make learning a priority. Being excellent isn't about being the smartest person in the room, it's about figuring out stuff you don't know and using that to better the world. The scope is unimportant, whether you're giving a high-five to a kid who did some simple task for the first time or curing cancer.


Keeping the deadly secret

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, August 13, 2014, 10:45 AM | comments: 0

Much has been written about the suicidal death of Robin Williams. I don't need to be another talking head in the noise, but it makes me sad as anyone to see someone who deeply impacted our culture pass like that. By most accounts, he was a good man.

What frustrates me the most is that our society is more concerned with curing baldness or getting unnaturally white teeth than it is recognizing and talking about issues of depression and mental health. We seek help for aches and pains, but not for problems within our heads.

I still think about my friend Mary, who took her own life a little over two years ago. If it weren't for the candid conversation we had more than a decade before that about her struggle with eating disorder and mental health, I would have never known she had a problem. That's really the trick though... people need to be willing to seek help, but you can't force them. To that end, I do think it's important that we culturally change the conversation so it's OK to talk about mental health, just as it is OK to talk about cancer or heart disease.


BeastBuzz, Kings Island and Great Wolf Lodge

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, August 12, 2014, 10:38 PM | comments: 0

When I said I wondered what people who live in Orlando do for vacation, I wouldn't have guessed that for us it would mean going back to Ohio. In fact, this was our second trip to Cincinnati to visit Kings Island this year, the first being opening weekend and the Banshee media day.

This particular trip was in part to attend BeastBuzz, an event that dates back to 2002 as the first event CoasterBuzz ever had. The owners of Kings Island have changed since then, as has pretty much everyone working there, but the ride collection sure has improved. We don't do many events these days, mostly because the parks tend to do a lot of club-agnostic events and there isn't much point to doing "private label" events. Even for this one, I didn't care what club people belonged to... I was just hoping for a nice group of around a hundred people to share in the good times.

We flew out on Allegiant Air this time. They fly out of Sanford, which is a little out of the way, but they have direct flights to Cindy. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for. We saved about $250 between the three of us, but everything is so cheap about them. The seats are terrible, no snacks or beverages, and it's Sanford. They lure you in with cheap fares, but then charge you extra for everything, including carry-ons and choosing your seat. They don't let you use electronic stuff at all during takeoff and landing, unlike everyone else. My bigger concern was probably the idea that if there was some delay or cancellation, we would have been screwed because it's not like there are a ton of flights going out of Sanford that could act as an alternate.

Random: CVG doesn't require you to remove shoes, bags of liquid, laptops or belts. At least, they didn't in the line we went through. Weird. Also random, Simon went through the magnetometer in Sanford and told the TSA agent, "Lookin' good!" She thought it was hilarious.

In any case, we stayed at Great Wolf Lodge next door to the park. (Disclaimer: Diana represented the company as an "ask-a-mom" panelist last year, and they've been very good to us.) This is actually our third stay there, as we did one in April and a quick overnight early last year when I came down for the coaster steel fabrication tour I did in Batavia. We're big fans of GWL. It might seem a little pricey, but I think there's a lot of value considering the room quality, which is a weird mix of durable and really great soft goods, and you get the water park access. They do a nice job and I always feel taken care of there. And you know I'm a hotel snob!

After a nap where Simon didn't actually sleep, we popped into the park for a little bit on Friday. It was incredibly "un-busy" for the most part. My junior coaster enthusiast is all about Woodstock Express, and he's obsessed with sitting in the very front or the very back. He also learned to queue for the adjacent car ride completely independent, though we did have to guide him a little when some other douchebag parents would just push on past him when he was watching the ride. I was pleased to hear the restored band organ on the carousel, and I wish more parks would do that. Needless to say, Simon really enjoys the elevator ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

For the day of the event, I went early while Diana and Simon came a little later. There I met Mike and his nephew, and it's awesome to see at least part of Team Jandes more than once a year. I'm once again amazed at how good the park looks with Banshee there, and I can't give enough credit to the P&D team.

I'm not going to sugar coat it... I think Banshee might be one of my favorite rides anywhere. It's definitely the best of the B&M inverted coasters, and if I did rank rides, it would easily be one of my top three favorites. It's just insanely relentless in its forces. From the time it pulls out of the vertical loop around the lift, to the time it hits the brakes, it just kicks your ass (in a good way).

Once Diana and Simon arrived, she did one lap on Banshee with me, and one on The Bat (with the whole train to herself!) before we moved on to Diamondback. This was the ride that surprised her the most on our visit in April, so she wanted to make sure she did a few laps. We alternated while watching Simon, who decided it was his job to open and close the exit gates after every cycle. The ride ops thought that this was completely adorable. I swear that kid is going to be ride operator in his first job. Diamondback is a really fantastic ride, especially toward the back. I remember now why I couldn't keep re-riding all day when it opened for its media event... it can get to you a bit. What a great ride.

After the morning ERT, Mike went off to do some power riding, I followed my family back into Planet Snoopy where Simon again began his ritual of rides. By 11 I joined up with the group to see Banshee from behind the fence. Mike and I stopped for beverages after that at what used to be Lt. Dan's Backyard Bar, where we had some good memories during his mobile bachelor party back in 2005.

Our group was treated to advanced seating for the park's Cirque Imagine show, which was solid considering they pack the theater for every show. I was impressed overall with the show, which was quality stuff considering the size of the park. The live band they had between the fountains and the Eiffel Tower was also pretty amazing. It's great to see Cedar Fair as a whole investing more in live entertainment. That area was so neglected in the Kinzel era.

Lunch was burgers and chicken tenders, the latter of which were pretty good for food service type stuff. There was however a snafu with the beer that I bought for the group. Last year they drained the keg, but it wasn't all at once. Apparently they use larger cups this year, so some people didn't get even a first round, let alone a second. I agreed to buy another one at my expense, which kind of sucks, but it was the right thing to do. Now I know.

The park was getting insanely crowded late in the afternoon, so I headed back to Great Wolf for a little break. Simon had a good solid nap, and we had a breakfast for dinner at the local Perkins. We didn't get back into the park until 8-something.

The night time ERT started with Banshee again, and it was even more incredible than the morning. Those were some of the best rides I've had on any coaster anywhere. Even when I felt like I had enough, Mike made the point that you just don't get that kind of access very often, and I did it again. I think I did ten laps overall for the day, and every single one of them was amazing. I haven't gushed about a roller coaster in a long time.

The night ended with ERT on The Beast. Honestly, I was a little underwhelmed by the ride this time. I did two laps. The first was in a middle seat, and while I enjoyed it, I can't say that I have any strong feelings for the ride. The second lap was not in a middle seat, and I didn't enjoy that at all.

Overall it was a strong event, and I logged 22k steps, 10+ miles and 22 floors on the Fitbit. That doesn't include the short period of time in the break that we spent at the water park, where at the very least I added four floors going up the stairs to the family water slide. It was an epic day.

Originally, we had planned to go to Stricker's Grove on Sunday, but after Team Puzzoni set a new sleep-in record of 10 a.m., I thought it would be a better idea to just relax. We spent a few quality hours in the Great Wolf water park, where Simon made more independent strides going down the kid slides, and surprisingly he even endeavored to do some floating along the side of the pool in his life jacket. He loves the lazy river with the buckets that dump on your head, too.

We did sneak into Kings Island for a little bit that evening, and enjoyed some pizza and ice cream there. Of course, we did Woodstock Express again.

This was a really fun vacation for us. Granted, the bar was set low after the disaster that ended up being our Cedar Point trip back in June, with the water main break that shuttered the park. That's three trips to Ohio this year. Even with the cheaper air, it's kind of expensive to fly three people anywhere. This is why I enjoy cruising from the Space Coast.


Short film: After Dinner

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, August 6, 2014, 10:30 PM | comments: 0

One of the mental blocks I often have for doing creative things is that I don't want them to suck. This isn't so much an issue of having low self-esteem, but more of an acknowledgement that good creative work takes a lot of time. 

Shooting "film" in a high quality fashion is exactly one of those situations that takes time. If you want an image to really look good, you have to light it correctly, and without it looking like you had to light it. But whatever, I wanted to shoot some video of my kid because I want video of my kid. That meant breaking out the camera and shooting without a tripod, under little to no lighting, and dealing with whatever I got. Then I had the bright idea of setting it to music, if I had enough material.

"Baby Cloud" is a wonderful lullaby by Caspar Babypants, a.k.a., Chris Ballew, also known as the front man for the Presidents of The United States of America. You know, "Peaches" and "Lump" and what not. It turns out his kid music is brilliant, and we witnessed first hand the preschool mosh pits that ensued at his free shows around Seattle. This particular song always resonated with me as a future love letter to your child... the idea that you want them to be safe and protected, but you'll let them go when it's time. The vocal by Rachel Loshak very sweetly conveys that sentiment. I remember driving up Snoqualmie Parkway with it on in the car, Simon sleeping in the back, and thinking, "This would make for a great music video of him doing kid stuff."

So despite the video being kind of amateurish, poorly exposed and noisy from low light situations, I figured I'd cut it anyway. There are some edits that I don't like, but I'm happy to have an evening with Simon on record. I emailed Chris (Mr. Babypants?) and asked if it was OK to post online, and he said absolutely. He liked it so much that he wanted to add it to his official YouTube channel, which is OK with me. I'm honored that he liked it!

So here's a couple of hours after dinner with Simon on a typical day, edited down to a little over two minutes.


Home improvement fatigue

posted by Jeff | Monday, August 4, 2014, 10:18 PM | comments: 0

Last week we had a guy from the neighborhood, who was recommended by others, do some painting around our house. He did the kitchen-dining-living room area, as well as the master bathroom. He did an amazing job, much more accurately and faster than we ever could have. I complain that I suck at painting, but if I'm being fair, I do it once every few years at most. I suspect our neighbor does it hundreds of times every year, thus his non-use of tape around the edges. Worth every penny.

The biggest impact of the paint is that now it seems like someone lives here. Much of the house is sparsely decorated, which is to say it's not decorated at all. I did my office shortly after moving in, but only because I had a bunch of stuff to hang on the walls that I had in previous residences (and now that I'm working from home 60% of the time, I'm glad I got it done). The kitchen is in a good place with the lighting, and this ginormous clock that Diana scored. After the paint, Diana put up a set of family photos, and she already accessorized the bathroom. I put in the matching sink faucets and towel rack (to go with the tub and shower), and now that room is essentially "done." We also have three ceiling fans in place, pendant lighting in the kitchen, some spot lighting in the short hall between my office and half-bath (we have shelves there) and Diana also went the distance to trim down some Ikea curtains for the bedroom.

Having a new house doesn't mean it's "ready" when you move in, it just means you have a blank canvas instead of having to cover up someone else's poor choices. I'm already a little tired of the home improvement, both in effort and expense.

We aren't really done though. I don't think either one of us is interested in covering the walls with arbitrary shit or having something to place on every horizontal surface, but there are some things that we need to make things a little more comfortable. For example, we need a coffee table and an end table in the living room, because we're using stand-in stuff. The bedroom needs a rug to tie the room together. The hideous $1.99 hallways lights taunt me too. Most of these are smaller things, but again, the fatigue is setting in.

I'm not complaining though. We've wanted a place to make our own for many years, and this is the first chance we've had. I just want to enjoy the place and not think about what else we "need" to make the house a home. I have to remind myself that process is a marathon, and not a sprint.


When you live for your little one

posted by Jeff | Monday, August 4, 2014, 9:25 PM | comments: 0

I'm not sure what made me think of this other than a combination of things I saw on the news today, because it's totally morbid. I try to be reasonably zen about death, if for no other reason that it's inevitable. I'm not saying that I'm careless about stepping in front of traffic, but I know I won't live forever.

But there is one situation where no longer being of this earth scares the hell out of me: As Simon's dad. I don't mean 40 years from now, as I would expect that he will have gained some big boy pants and figured out how to deal with that. I'm talking about for as long as he's in the nest, and then some. I might be overstating my importance as his father, but that's important to me. Of course I extend this to Diana as well, because I don't know how I would ever explain never seeing a parent again to a child.

This is another in a wide array of feelings you never really knew existed until you've procreated. It's weird. I mean, I try to live for myself to an extent. Like I know that I have to be somewhat active and not eat burritos every day if I expect to see old age, but having a child reinforces this knowledge in a surprising way. I wouldn't say that having a kid forces maturity (we all know our share of irresponsible parents), but for me at least, it changes how I look at the world.


The joy of obsessive compulsive completion behavior

posted by Jeff | Sunday, August 3, 2014, 8:27 PM | comments: 0

I don't know if you're familiar with the Lego series of video games. I think the first one might have been for Star Wars. I remember outright dismissing the idea as stupid, until I actually tried the trial version of one through Xbox Live. I really enjoyed it, and I think I've bought all of them except for the Lego Movie variety. They've covered Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Pirates of The Caribbean, Lord of The Rings, Batman (the sequel for which covered all of the DC universe) and Marvel Super Heroes. Each game has a story mode, where you play through a bunch of levels, button mashing and collecting things. When you're done, you've started to unlock features that let you do more things, and eventually you can achieve the "100%" mark, where you've done everything and collected everything. I've done it a few times: With Pirates, the two Harry Potters and Batman 2. I got close with Lord of The Rings, and I'm not sure why I didn't finish. Some of them are nearly impossible (the Star Wars Clone Wars games breaks from their winning formula so badly that it isn't really even that much fun).

I don't know that hardcore gamers give two shits about these games, because they're not really challenging, and there is no online component. They're just kind of fun time wasters. Diana has hit 100% on a few of them too, and she is definitely not a gamer. My biggest issue is that they appeal to certain obsessive compulsive qualities of my personality. And I like it.

I doubt that I would ever be diagnosed with full out OCD, but it definitely shows up in selective areas of my life (none of which would contribute to me getting rich or something useful). For example, I'm obsessive compulsive about locking doors, loading the dishwasher, turning bottles in the fridge so the label faces outward, and back in the day, some kind of CD sorting scheme that I can't explain to anyone. OK, so saying that out loud does sound a little nuts. Whatever, I embrace it.

In any case, a few weeks or months ago we scored The Hobbit version of the Lego games. It uses a lot of the same stuff from the LOTR game, so the conventions are similar. I could never get into the book, and didn't see the movie, so it's all just for fun. This particular game looks like it's possible to get the 100%. I've found myself up late a couple of nights gathering treasure and red bricks to complete the game. Provided it's not overly difficult, I enjoy the process. It doesn't require much to engage in, but it's still really satisfying.

I was thinking about that need to finish something, because you can't really bottle it. There has to be some kind of intrinsic motivator behind the effort to be totally locked into finishing. I observe that Diana gets this out of quilting projects. I get it sometimes for certain software projects, but not as much as I used to since by their nature they're never really "done." I definitely had it when I was cutting video for a living. I think it's that I like having some finished product for something I work at.

Testing that theory that obsessive compulsive completion behavior is tied to intrinsic motivators would be interesting. Seems like a strange place to find joy, but there it is.


Laugh at the wonder of it all

posted by Jeff | Sunday, August 3, 2014, 12:16 PM | comments: 0

A few people who know me better than the rest of the world know that the song "Sound" by James is my all-time favorite song. It's hard to explain why, because it's really simple lyrically, but "big" in its sound. There are times where I'll listen to it and I feel like I'm instantly over any particular thing that's troubling me.

The line that used to stand out the most to me was this:

Do everything you fear. In this there's power. Fear is not to be afraid of.

I think that's still an important thing to remember, though the weight of it has been somewhat reduced by the last few generations turning "no fear" into a cliche and a T-shirt slogan. Fuckers.

These days, likely because of age and experience, the line that sticks out now is even more simple:

Laugh at the wonder of it all.

It's so easy to get wrapped up in shit storms, drama and the evil in the world that the most simple and amazing things are obscured. We stop noticing all of the old cliches that came before no fear, like flowers, puppies, baby smiles and rainbows. But you know, seeing my kid ride a tricycle is a wonder. So is the concentration Diana has when quilting, or the sleepy grooming habits of one of our cats. How do we sweat the small stuff but never see the important small stuff?

We have to remember to laugh more.


13 years, 1 printer

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 5:07 PM | comments: 0

After 13 years, I retired my laser printer. It was an HP 2550Ln, and I'm giving it away to anyone who will give it a good home.

Think about that... an electronic device that was actively used for 13 years. I don't own a single thing that uses electricity that has lasted that long (not that I can think of, anyway). I initially bought the printer to handle the printing of CoasterBuzz Club cards. In those days, color laser printers were not cheap. You also paid extra for ethernet connections, and even the deep paper tray. I think it cost me around $700 back then.

Usually we only complain about products that suck, but all things considered, this printer had an exceptional run. I'm letting it go because the toner cartridges are getting more rare, the card stock I (still) print cards on slips a little, and every once in awhile it will choke on that stock and print wrong. I have to hand it to HP, for as crappy as the series of ink jet printers were that I owned back in the day, if not as crappy as their competitor's products, this thing was mostly a tank.

I replaced it with an HP 400, which was relatively inexpensive compared to the last one (under $300). Mind you, the toner has not dropped in price ever. I think this one has the imaging drums built in with the toner cartridges, which is a change from the old days where I had the four carts plus the drum (which I replaced just once during that time). A package of toner for all four cartridges costs more than the printer, but they're good for 50% more pages than the "starter" cartridges that ship with the printer. Meh, the printer business is still a rip-off, but on the bright side, I don't print much outside of those damn cards.


When have you "arrived?"

posted by Jeff | Monday, July 28, 2014, 1:11 PM | comments: 0

I read a lot about career development, the psychology of work and what it means to be happy in life. I also find it fascinating to see how others approach these aspects of their lives. I recently put two things together that I had not thought much about. The first part, which isn't hard to find living in the suburbs, was something I noticed about people who are worried about perceptions. Some people need to have a certain house or a certain car or whatever. While I can't entirely relate to people who find the external validation important, I do understand that it might be related to a sense of achievement. The second part of this was something that struck me in a blog post I was reading, where the author felt that given certain parameters, they had "arrived" and were successful.

That made my head spin a little. What does it mean to have arrived? I assume it means that you've achieved some kind of status, or combination of things that define the successful ascension from nobody to somebody. As you might expect, my next question was, "Have I ever felt that I've arrived?"

I can think of just two instances where I've felt that way, and both eventually led to disaster. The first was when I started working in Cleveland radio. I got into a "major" market (read: not Mansfield, Ohio) right after college, and it's what I thought about pretty much all through school. It turned out to be a horrible job with more horrible pay than I expected, and the industry was vile. The second time was in 2001, around the time I was recently married, bought my first house and landed a "real" developer job. The job disappeared later that year, I got divorced a few years later and the house cursed my existence for a number of years. 

The problem with this arrival concept is that it's based wholly on two lies that our culture teaches us. The first is that there is some arbitrary measure of success, and once you've reached it, you win. As our environment is always changing around us, I think we know that there is no such thing as any permanent state of winning. The second lie is that we're always on some path to a destination because that's what we're supposed to do.

Here's the thing though, success is arbitrary, and once you fully embrace that, it's a freeing experience. If you distill it down to being happy and being able to provide for people you care about (which is not strictly a monetary issue), to me that's success. Furthermore, if you always have a destination in mind, you risk missing out on what's going on right in front of you, to say nothing of the "now what?" feelings if you get to where ever it is you think you're supposed to go.

My advice is pretty simple: Be goal oriented and have an agenda, but keep in mind that if your "arrival" is the way you measure your life, it means you've decided that you're less of a person until you get there. That's not a great way to live.

Why am I thinking about this? I think because it has a certain amount of context for me right now. I recently wrapped up a successful year-long contract job, got a new job that is challenging, just bought a house, have a beautiful and loving wife, and a (usually) wonderful little boy. By cultural standards, I'm living the dream, but if I distill it down to the basics, I've been living the dream for many years, even in the midst of certain kinds of chaos. I didn't arrive, I'm just constantly traveling.


The great peril of trying to raise a child

posted by Jeff | Saturday, July 26, 2014, 8:00 PM | comments: 0

Simon got up from a nap today, and we went downstairs and sat on the couch. He wasn't quite awake, so he decided to just cuddle up against me and let me rub his head. Well, actually he asked me to, because that's his thing lately. It was a really nice moment, and I still can't believe that we made this little person with an emerging personality.

You need moments like that when things are not puppies and rainbows. It has felt like that a lot lately, not always because of behavior issues, but sometimes just because we need a break to do something you want to do, without him. It has caused some tense moments lately.

I try to keep that stress in perspective, because I know and understand that there is a far greater spectrum of peril involved with raising a child. It starts even from the time you decide to have a child in some cases. I know many couples that have struggled to even get pregnant, even after intense fertility treatment. Others have lost their children in devastating mid-term miscarriages. Still others have faced near fatal medical problems, birth defects and other problems, before their children are even born. Even if you can get to birth without any of this, there are always issues with developmental problems, or the hell of puberty. After they leave the nest, your kids may struggle with grown up problems you can't control, or worse, die of health problems, combat injuries overseas or completely random accidents.

It seems like there are so many things that can go wrong that you're setting yourself up for heartbreak. But then you have those little moments, where everything is perfect. I think that juice is worth the squeeze. A relationship with your child is unlike any other in your life. Be careful with it.


Performance anxiety

posted by Jeff | Friday, July 25, 2014, 11:47 PM | comments: 0

One of the most fun things for me in software is figuring out how to make things faster. Performance is an issue we all face at some point making software, even if we put it off because the premature optimization can be wasteful. Some people geek out when they can get something to run a few milliseconds faster, others revel in achievement when they can make something work in half the time.

I need to remind people here that "performant" is a made up word. At the very least, it isn't an English adjective. Stop saying it!

At work we're doing some performance enhancement work in this sprint and the next, and I think at the moment we're likely to be successful. I'm working with really capable developers, too, which makes it more fun. It got me to thinking about my own projects, too, and where there's room for improvement.

Starting in 2007 or so, I started to pay more attention, making my sites faster. For example, the PointBuzz home page tends to render in under 30 ms. That's pretty exciting. Old and new versions of the forums render pages typically in under 100 ms. Granted, the Internet between you and the sites can add all kinds of latency, but at least from a code standpoint, these things are super fast.

Recently I was having all kinds of memory issues that are new to me because I'm using cloud resources to host the sites. I can add more memory literally with a few clicks, but there is a dollar cost associated with that. So now I'm looking into ways I can handle that. Ironically enough, the memory footprint is so big because I cache so much stuff in memory, the same thing that makes it fast. 

Sometimes I can feel really bogged down by what I do for a living, but stuff like this is interesting and fun. And you generally learn something, too!


We're all wet

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 10:53 PM | comments: 0

If there's one thing we learned quickly when we moved here last July, it's that it will rain pretty much every afternoon. That sounds terrible, but keep in mind that we wake up to blue skies most mornings. It's not the kind of organized front you see approaching on radar in the Midwest. I guess the air just gets so saturated that there's nothing left for nature to do but rain.

Today, we got caught out in said rain, and we were pretty soaked. Out phones, FitBits and wallets managed to stay dry in our pockets, but shirts and shoes were about as wet as they could get. Fortunately, this is something that we just rolled with. It wasn't the first time, but definitely the first time we got this wet. Simon splashed in the puddles, and we just called it a day and went home.

I can see how a lot of people would freak out or complain or be pissed off, but all three of us were very Zen about it. It's just kind of summer in Orlando. Honestly, it felt kind of nice given the heat earlier in the day. Sometimes it's funny to think that the kind of thing we expect to make us uncomfortable is actually awesome.


Jobs, layoffs and passion for work

posted by Jeff | Monday, July 21, 2014, 10:33 PM | comments: 0

Microsoft let go of something like 18,000 people last week, though to be fair, the vast majority of those came from the acquisition of Nokia, and everyone saw that coming. The bigger story for a lot of people was the 1,300 and change who were being let go in the Puget Sound region, though this is still less than the number they let go of in 2009 (coincidentally, the year they moved me out to Seattle). I'm still not surprised, because when I left in 2011, the head count was something around 88k, and three years later they were over 100k without Nokia. That seems like insane growth. Regardless, reading the stories online, this was not limited to those who were underperforming, it seems. Also let go were folks with over a decade and good reviews.

I've thought about how much I should write about my experiences in Redmond, and one of these days I'll do so now that time has passed (along with countless re-orgs). I will say that what I did not experience was the stereotype that so many have of the company: Long hours, soul sucking bureaucracy, no work-life balance, etc. If that's what I experienced, I assure you I would have left as soon as my move expenses were in the clear, a year from my start. No, as much as I wasn't sure where I belonged in the company, it was in no danger of killing me.

But I'm amazed at how many folks who were laid-off were taking deep breaths and expressing online relief at being let go. Obviously a lot of people did live in that negative stereotype of the company. I know it existed, but I never saw it first hand. I also noticed how many people had spent many years working there, and simply had no idea how they would exist off-campus.

In both of those situations, I can certainly understand to an extent. Regardless of what a lot of people think about Microsoft, working there and identifying with the company can certainly be a sense of pride. I will still proudly tell people that I worked there, and for the right job, sure, I would go back (though I'm not sure I'd move, it would have to be remote). Heck, I still have some regrets about leaving.

When I think about the layoffs, I can't help but think of the scenes in the Clooney movie Up In The Air. He works for an agency that lets people go, and the reactions range from anger to distress. I get that, because I've been there.

The first full-time job I lost was working in radio, because I had no contract, and they had to stick the guy with poor ratings somewhere because he did have a contract. That soured me on the whole profession. Then I watched Penton Media fall apart, with so many friends let go in the chaos. I found a new job before it reached me (my replacement was cut a year later), but that new job ended shortly after 9/11. I was completely devastated. It didn't help that it was the first job that was 100% software development, and I had just bought a house. I went work-free for six months and it just crushed my self-esteem.

That certainly wasn't the last time I would get laid-off, but I learned a lot about myself and the relationships between employers and employees. There are some general things I try to keep in mind about work:

  • Work does not define you. A lot of people can't accept that, especially if they're worried about status or perception. Your value as a human being doesn't disappear just because your job does.
  • Companies are not people. You can personify the legal entity all you want, but a company isn't a person. It exists solely to make money, and it's not personal.
  • Time spent does not change the employer-employee relationship. The arrangement is simple: They need some kind of work done, you perform that work, and they give you money. If that value proposition disappears, loyalty is a non-factor.

So where does this leave you if you have the kind of personality that lives to work? Maybe that's putting it too strongly. What do you do if you have passion for your work? I think if you do have passion for your work, that's going to come through in every way, and as long as the market for your skills doesn't completely suck, you'll always find work. Sure, some people only work for the money and status, but the people who really impact their lives, the companies they work for, or even the world, make things awesome because of those deep intrinsic motivators they have. You have to keep in mind that the kind of value you bring is precious, and just because it isn't required by a certain company doesn't mean it no longer has value. You can't tie up your worth in a company like that.

I've been fortunate to work for a number of companies that value what I offer. In every one of those cases, I want to do right by them, and will always do so. But I understand that it's possible that they may change their mind about my value, or be forced into a situation where they simply can't afford to pay you anymore. It's never easy, but you get through it and you refocus.

To the hundreds of Seattle-folk who had to turn in their blue badge, I feel your pain. I've been there, if only at other companies. I totally get how you feel about Microsoft, but I think you'll find that professional life goes on beyond 148th Ave.


Review: Surface Pro 3

posted by Jeff | Sunday, July 20, 2014, 9:12 PM | comments: 0

I've been meaning to write a little bit about my experience with the Surface Pro 3, "the tablet that can replace your laptop," as Microsoft has been claiming. I've had it for just about a month, and I'm really happy with it.

First though, some background about my device usage. As I've said before, I'm not a big app user. Most of what I do in a connected fashion outside of software development happens in web browsers. That said, I have the fabulously inexpensive Dell Venue Pro 8 which can be had for $250 or less most of the time, and I find that Windows 8 is a pretty good tablet operating system. It starts up very fast (especially compared to iOS), and the touch variation of Internet Explorer has finally matured to a point that it's actually pretty good (something I never thought I'd say about IE). It does have most of the usual games available, along with weather and other things. I'm not typical when it comes to apptasticness, so it's probably best to stick to my hardware opinions.

I ran out and bought the original Surface and Surface 2 models, the kind of silly Windows RT tablets. Truth be told, they were totally adequate as tablets, but you had to wonder why they didn't just put x86 processors in them so they could do "real" work as well as be tablets. After all, the keyboard covers have always been their big differentiators, and they came with an RT compiled version of the Office apps. Meanwhile, they also had the Pro models, which had Intel Core processors. They fit into the same height and width of the RT machines, but they were so much thicker that they really failed to be practical as tablets. Between the 16:9 screen ratio and the weight, they were mostly laptops in a slightly awkward proportion.

Then they announced the Surface Pro 3, and that got my attention. Thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air, and it was a full PC inside with Core processors. Much has been written about the pricing structure and the extra cost of the keyboard covers, and I won't rehash that here. My conclusion is that the only way you can really classify the device is as the lightest laptop that exists, and by the way, you can use it as a tablet. After a month of using it, I say it's 85% there. You wouldn't (or shouldn't) buy the thing if you're just wanting to sit around surfing Amazon or Facebook. Even the cheapest Amazon Kindle Fire is good enough for that. The question is more about whether or not you need one device that can do everything. More on that later.

Let me step through the use cases. As a tablet, the screen is a little bigger than the 10" tablets we've all become used to, ranging from the iPad to the Surface models and various Android devices. Because they went to a more traditional 4:3 screen ratio, this one isn't awkward in portrait mode. It's terribly thin, and really light, so it's fairly comfortable to hold. It just borders on being too big, because a little longer or wider and it would feel strange. The pixel density isn't quite to the point of the iPad, but it's pretty close and you can't see any pixels. The screen is really amazing.

All of the Surface models have had that bonus tablet mode, too, because of the kickstand. This one reaches the standard 22 degrees (or whatever it was), but then can adjust to virtually any angle, almost reversed. That seemed excessive, but I've pushed it all the way out when placing it down on a table where I was standing, and also on the floor, with me hanging off the couch (I'm always looking for new ways to be leisurely). The hinge is every bit as solid as the previous models.

As a laptop on a table, running anything ever made for Windows, it's screaming fast. I have the Core i5 model with 8 gigs of RAM and 256 gigs of storage. I think that's the surprising thing when you're using it. Sure, if you've had a MacBook Air, you can't believe how light it is, but this is lighter than that, and it still has a full computer in it (and a far better screen for sure).

The new keyboard covers are a great improvement over the previous generations, but they're not perfect. They now have an extra magnetic strip that sticks to the bottom bezel of the machine, adding a fair bit of stability and a comfortable angle to the keyboard. The key travel is adequate for me, but if you like really deep presses, you'll be disappointed. If you don't have it flat on the table, it's also very loud, and feels just a little squishy. The track pad is actually very nice, but it should have been bigger. I think this is a problem of size, since it is, after all, a cover for the screen. It has that smooth feel of a MacBook, but isn't as tall. It's just so close to being awesome, but falls short. I tend to use a mouse on tables anyway, and if you haven't seen it, there's a Bluetooth contour mouse from Microsoft that's under $25 and it's shockingly great for the price.

Which brings us to the laptop on your, uh, lap use case. Microsoft has gone to great lengths to convince people that they solved the "lapability" problem of the previous models. My assessment is that it's better, but it's not laptop better. That extra stability from the extra magnetic strip does make it far more stable, and the infinitely angled kick stand means you can adjust it as you wish, but there are two issues. The first is that if you're not sitting on a slouchy couch, you might not get it away from you enough to keep the kickstand on your knee(s). The second part is that unless you have excess girth (I have a 34" waist), the corners of the keyboard, where you rest your hands, might not have much support under it, throwing the whole unit into a less stable arrangement. I have found that I can usually settle into a position that's comfortable, but if I move, I have to find it again. This is why I say they're 85% of the way to making this a true laptop replacement.

There's another use case that no other tablet can handle, and that's one for pen input. Microsoft has had a fetish for the stylus for years, but I think this is the first time that it really makes sense. Sure, you can do the text input that has been around for a long time, and it's still pretty great. But now, the pile of awesome is using the pen with OneNote. I've been using it to sketch out user interfaces, workflows and entity relationships, and it's fantastic. Even for scribbling out notes in my terrible handwriting it's solid. You can click the top of the pen and it will wake up the Surface and let you start writing, allowing you to save once you unlock it. That's neat, but I don't use it.

As for "real" work, I've used the Office apps, and it's funny that they look so good in a high DPI, which can't be said about all Windows apps. I've also done quite a bit in Visual Studio, and code has never looked so good outside of my 13" Retina MacBook Pro. You still run into some UI weirdness here and there (SQL Management Studio and various VS plugins aren't right), but it's mostly good. Again, it's so fast. I've only made it warm enough to audibly hear the fans once, and that was running the game Portal for fun (it's one of two games I have on Steam). On days that I go into the office, twice a week, I do a lot of note taking, Lync calls and such, while playing music other times, and I've never killed the battery. I charge it overnight, and by the time I get home, I've still got at least 30% to go. I don't feel like I need to bring my power supply with me. Although if I did, it has a sweet USB connector on it to charge other stuff like my phone.

For play, yes, it's great having the kickstand to watch video. I also popped a 64 gig micro SD card into it, and put all of my music on there. The Xbox Music app used to be a steaming pile of shit, but it's finally relatively stable and pretty solid for the most part (wish I could say the same for the Windows Phone version). HD streams look good and don't tax the CPU.

So do you need one device to rule them all? Absolutely not. Is it pretty cool if you can have that one device? Hell yes. I admit, I didn't need this device, because my MacBook is a huge pile of awesome. But I sold some other stuff, and I love touch interfaces, and this one is particularly pretty. The question is, can this replace your laptop? I think it can, but with the caveat that lap usage might not be great depending on your proportions. I can make it work, but it shouldn't be work to find an optimal position. However, when I'm on the go and using it table top, it's so beyond fantastic because it's just so damn light. Can it replace your tablet? Well, it's too expensive if that's all you want it for, but if you want it to be both your computer and your tablet, then sure. When the cheaper i3 models come out, I think you would definitely want to consider it because you're in iPad-with-more-storage price range.

I realize that I have four screens that fit specific use cases:

  • My phone. I have a Windows Phone (the wonderful Nokia Lumina 920), and it makes amazing photos and I like the OS. I mostly use it for messaging, calls, photos, Facebook sharing and playing Yahtzee when I'm taking a dump.
  • The little tablet. The Dell Venue Pro 8 was an acquisition of curiosity because it was so cheap, but I can't say how great it is. It's built really solidly, has a nice screen (if not the highest DPI) and is the perfect size for Kindle reading, Facebook and catching up on the news. It's a great consumption device and a huge value for the price.
  • The laptop. The 13" MacBook Pro is kind of my desktop computer. It doesn't travel all that often, and sits plugged into a 27" screen at home. I do most of my development work on it that isn't for my day job. I've been thinking about getting a big old external drive plugged into the monitor (the Thunderbolt Display is more or less a dock for MacBook), and just using that as home base and retire my aging iMac.
  • The Surface Pro 3. It's getting more and more laptop-like usage every day for me. It's still a little weird to use in the lap, but maybe I'm getting used to it. I thought the screen would be too small, but it isn't.