On home automation and energy efficiency

posted by Jeff | Saturday, November 18, 2017, 9:14 PM | comments: 0

"Alexa, turn on Christmas."

It was about a year ago that I bought an Amazon Echo Dot, and promptly bought four more (well, actually I bought a six-pack, but sold two). About the same time I bought a Philips Hue starter pack, with a bridge and three color bulbs, plus a light strip, and that's where the fun began. I also bought a TP-LINK WiFi plug to turn the Christmas tree on and off remotely. The home automation bug hit me pretty hard.

A lot of the cooler stuff you can do requires hard-wiring stuff, so I never went too far in the last house. Also, as much as I wanted a Nest thermostat, the original version was too expensive. Once we moved, there were some great opportunities, with the Nest E's introduction (and the fact we have a two-zone HVAC house now), it seemed like a good idea to get those. We also did a WiFi switch to handle the bedroom lights, so we can turn them on and off by shouting into the air or using a phone app. (Seriously, I've only had one house where there was a switch next to the bed.) I installed a Ring doorbell at an insanely discounted sale price mostly because I wanted to see the way things are delivered, but also because my office is no longer near the front door, and it's convenient for a video screen to pop up on my computer when someone shows up without going to the door. I had a bunch of WiFi plugs previously, and these are what we use to plug in the Christmas tree and other lights.

None of this stuff is necessary, to be sure, but it sure is convenient. There's also a fantastic energy efficiency story, because you can set all of these lights to timers. Also, the Hue lights are all LED lamps, so what used to be 60w is now 9w. We can set our exterior lights to come on and turn off at the appropriate time. The Nest thermostats can react when we're home, though honestly, we always are because I work from home, but we can set the temperatures from anywhere and it logs the time the system is running, so we can see how often it's on (unsurprisingly, the downstairs runs more than upstairs).

There's also a staggering difference in general energy consumption, because the builder used LED bulbs in everything. This is a huge change. Our previous house, finished in 2014, was finished with CFL's in most cases, which used about 15w, while the recessed cans all had full on 60w incandescent bulbs. This time, just three and a half years later, the conventional bulbs are all 9w, the recessed can flood lights are all 9.5w. That's about a 35% reduction in just a few years between CFL's and LED's, and 85% reduction from incandescent to LED. Having a separate HVAC system for upstairs and downstairs, while more expensive up front, clearly makes a huge difference in efficiency. Mind you, it's fall, but so far our daily electricity consumption matches our previous house, even though this one is 55% larger.

I'm all in on energy efficiency. We've spent half as much on moving our cars around in the last two years, because they're electric, and now it's time to do the same for the house. As long as our previous house sells for what we're hoping, we'll roll some of that equity into doing solar. If I can reduce the electric bill by even 80%, that makes a massive difference in our carbon footprint. The economy of scale won't improve without early adopters, and I'm happy to be a part of that crowd.


Making the house a home

posted by Jeff | Thursday, November 16, 2017, 10:54 PM | comments: 0

The move is very nearly two weeks behind us, and while time flies, it doesn't feel like we've been here that long. Part of it is that the old house isn't totally empty (or sold), and then I was in California last Friday to Monday. The biggest thing though is that a new house tends to need a lot of extra stuff. After you drain your savings to close, then you're spending more money on all of the things that make it more personal. Honestly, this is largely a money saving strategy. The builder will put more stuff in, but their options are limited and the pricing is insane. For example, the kitchen pendant lights we just ordered were $80 for three of them. The builder wanted hundreds for something not as cool.

We've got a bunch of light fixtures and ceiling fans coming to start. In addition to the kitchen pendants, we need a kitchen table light, something for the dining room and ceiling fans/lights for Simon and our bedroom. That's just for starters though, because some of the other rooms probably need something eventually. In order of importance, there's Diana's sewing studio, my office, the playroom and the guest room. Her room in particular is on the south side of the house, where we don't yet have a neighbor, so it's bound to get warm.

The kitchen is a priority, too. The flooring, counters, cabinets and backsplash are easiest to handle with the builder, but their options and cost for hardware is too high. Ditto for the faucet over the main sink, for which they install a cheap, plastic chrome thing. Counting the pretentious butler pantry, there are a total of 32 doors and 19 drawers, which is a whole lot of drilling. We have no idea what we're gonna put there, but I don't feel like two-hole handles are necessary for the cabinets this time (unless they are).

I've done some handy stuff already. My first priority was to get the Ring doorbell installed, which as it turns out is super helpful because my office went from next to the door to as far away as possible. I also put Nest E thermostats in, not so much for the learning they can do (we're always home), but for the remote capability and operating history in light of our desire to be energy efficient. I put Hue lights in a few places for ambiance and festivity, and have some wifi connected light switches to install so we can automate. The house was wired for in-wall/ceiling speakers, but that was it. I had to cut some holes in the ceiling for surround speakers, and then wire a bunch of connectors at the wall. Then there's all of the drilling for curtains, and so far I've only done it for two windows.

We immediately ripped the door off of our laundry room, because it opens inward and blocks the washer, which is stupid. This is going to be my first from scratch handy project, as I'm going to attempt to build a barn door and then hang it. I figure that's a pretty low complexity thing to do, and it'll get me comfortable cutting wood for the first time in 20 years.

The single biggest project on our radar is installing a solar plant on the roof, but we need a few months of electrical usage before we know what we need. We also need to sell the other house, which is where the money for that currently is. Regardless, I've got a Tesla Powerwall going in for free as part of the project, earned from car sales referrals.

Things are coming along, slowly, and I often need to remind myself that it's not a race. Baby steps, like getting a rug to tie the room together, are what we need to do. It'll also help once we've got some pictures on the wall and such.


My team did a hackathon, and we won stuff

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, November 15, 2017, 10:15 PM | comments: 0

My team from novi AMS went to the Intuit campus in Mountain View last weekend to do a #SmallBizHack hackathon. Honestly, I've never been a fan of these kinds of events, because building anything on a deadline is exactly the kind of thing we avoid by adopting agile processes. But the company had been there the previous two years, and it's also a remarkable opportunity to network with the people who build the product we integrate most closely with (QuickBooks Online), and I'm definitely game for that.

It was me, our founder, and the two developers I hired earlier in this year (my third, a front-end dev/designer just started last week, so this would've been a bit much on top of onboarding). We arrived with an idea that Intuit's developer evangelist felt was already done by recent additions to their app store, so we had to make a game day call on something else. Here's the problem with hackathon ideas: It's never super clear what kind of thing will be loved by the judges. What's worse is that you never quite know if they expect to see a working product, or something that amounts to a business plan. For those of us who want to build something that mostly works by the deadline, that's frustrating. My crew cares about craftsmanship and building working stuff, which is why I love working with them. Since the sponsors included Google (specifically Google Assistant) and a telephony company called Nexmo, everyone was thinking about ways to talk to your phone and send text messages and such. I thought it would be fun to "gamify" sales, sending text alerts when new invoices hit QBO. Our founder had a better idea though, a voice app that would let you know, based on your location and overdue invoices, where you could physically go to collect from your customers. That's a high tech solution to a low tech problem, but we were all onboard with it. Initially we thought of this strictly as something with a web UI, and kind of late in the game pivoted to add the voice stuff.

By 10pm on the first night, we had a lot of the individual parts working, but not composed to a working solution. I spent a ton of time working on the authorization story to connect our app to QBO, and it took entirely too long. In the end, it was mostly because of poor documentation with the SDK, not the underlying API itself. I also handled some of the web UI hookups, which we didn't use in our demo, but needed as a backup and to validate the data. I ended up using Vue.js, a framework I've never used before. In fact, by the time we were done, we ended up using a ton of technologies that were new to us, which was fairly high risk given our desire to actually win something among the 30 teams.

We pitched 24th, and our three minutes were tight because of Google misinterpreting what we were saying. The workflow went like this:

  • Ask Google, "Who owes us money?"
  • It prompted to ask you if it was OK to use your location.
  • You said yes, and it gave you a list of overdue customers with amounts and distances in miles. (For laughs, we had Sun Microsystems as the biggest delinquent customer. Nerds will get it.)
  • If you said the customer or touched it, you got a map and navigation to get there. (Also funny, because Facebook HQ occupies the former Sun campus.)

As it turns out, we were not the only ones trying to solve cash flow problems, and the judges didn't seem very impressed that the extent of our solution was enabling humans to efficiently knock on doors to collect. I've been suggesting that we go back next year, and in v2, dispatch ninjas to collect the overdue money. Everyone else was using text messages and calls and notifications. The judges didn't poke any holes in what we did, but they didn't seem enthusiastic, either.

The sponsors made their selections for favorites first, and wouldn't you know it, the Google guy loved what we did. I was shocked. We each won a Google Home speaker, which should be fun to play with even though we're largely an Alexa home. We didn't win any of the formal top 3 spots, but I'll take it. The first place team had an interesting idea about how small businesses could share inventory, which was kind of neat, but they didn't really have a particularly functional product, which kind of bothered me. Again, you never know what to expect.

Regardless, I'm proud of my team. We put together something pretty cool using a bunch of tech that was out of our comfort zone, and we won something for it. We did the networking, too, which one of my guys will continue doing this week at their conference. We didn't pull some all-nighter either, thankfully, because I know I sure can't operate when I'm tired. Being physically on Eastern time, we were up by 5 a.m. anyway! If we do it again next year, I know a bit more about what to expect.


Moving upheaval

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, November 7, 2017, 11:10 PM | comments: 0

I was pretty much done with moving by the end of the day, even though we're not done with moving. We're most of the way there, but we still need to get miscellaneous stuff over, take stuff off of the walls and clean up at the "old" place. Yesterday I got the garage, office and loft empty, and today Diana went further with bedrooms. Her long arm quilting machine is still there because it has a quilt on it. But we're getting there.

It's been hard to enjoy the new place because it's in a state of chaos still. Not having Internet access for four days was a point of stress, in part because I've been Amazoning the crap out of immediate needs, and frankly we'd like to take a nice break to shop for light fixtures (we need many). I spent most of today in a combination of the old neighborhood club house and a Pei Wei because it took Spectrum a total of 6 phone calls talking to 12 people and four different techs on site to get me online. Because I underestimated the power of a modern electric stove, and because I couldn't find a spatula, I thoroughly burned a quesadilla. Simon's need to have my attention buried my guilt meter tonight, and I spent time building Lego with him and watching a little bit of a movie, but I was still short with him over silly things.

But there were some small victories. I got our Ring doorbell up and running, which is important because my office is quite literally about 100 feet from the front door. The remaining towel racks arrived today, even if I didn't have time to install them. I got the thermostats on a schedule. Yesterday I sold the screen doors we didn't need.

I'm really looking forward to nesting and enjoying the new place, but the chaos really got to me today. I forgot how nutty things can be, after a record 3.5 years without moving. Glad it wasn't very far this time.

 


"You could totally build a brand"

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 29, 2017, 2:45 PM | comments: 0

I've done more interviewing (as a hiring manager) this year than at any other time in my career. It's difficult, and it's exhausting. My line of work is hard to hire for, because the supply and demand curve favors candidates over employers. I'm kind of surprised by the things that people write on their resumes and vanity sites. Social media profiles can be even worse. I happened to land on an Instagram profile once that said, "Helping dope companies be awesome with my expertise." Ugh.

I think this kind of thing is the result of the message that has been beaten into an entire generation at this point, that people are "brands." While there's no question that landing a job or getting a client requires some amount of marketing, to reduce human beings to something intended to be sold is gross. It also takes a lot of narcissism to engage in that sort of thing, which is frankly not an endearing quality. Sure, I post my share of selfies on Facebook, but it's specifically for my friends. Attention whoring is a strange practice. I don't need extra attention.

This doesn't mean that having a "brand," and by that I mean developing a public persona that benefits you and/or your employer, means you have no sense of humility. In fact, humility can be a core value of the persona you build. I've worked with a lot of brilliant people that had an uncanny ability to drop knowledge without being arrogant, and it's something I strive for (and struggle with) in my own interaction with others. Sure, Steve Jobs was a dick, but public Steve Jobs seemed like a swell guy. Even he knew that humility, even if it was only perceived in his world, made a difference. And frankly, none of us are Steve Jobs anyway.

Sometimes, the best way to show who you are is to prove it. I can, matter-of-factly, call myself "author." It's not bragging, it needs no superlatives, it just is. I worked my ass off for that, and now it's a part of me. I looked for opportunities to prove myself, did the work, and now I have the bullet points. The best way to present yourself as a person of value is to demonstrate you have value and build a track record of it, not declare that you can "help dope companies."

If I'm being honest, nothing has really changed other than media we use for self-promotion. I started my post-college career in radio, which was totally full of egos. (How could people making so little money, being so disposable to their employers, have such high opinions of themselves?) It's just easier now with the Internets.

I was thinking about this the other day, because one of my bosses at Microsoft (the one I respected) suggested at the time that I could "build a brand" as it related to a job that I wanted to nail down, even though it was never really officially posted. It was a gig that definitely required some public persona crafting, and I felt like I could do it. However, maybe it's better that it didn't work out, because now in my days of product building, team building, parenting and frequent nautical recreation, I'm not sure that I could commit the brain power to it. It's hard enough to earn the respect of the people around you without worrying about what some broader audience thinks.


A year without Cedar Point

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 29, 2017, 2:06 PM | comments: 0

This weekend, friends are making their final trips to Cedar Point before it closes for the season. Over the years, the closing weekend experience varied for me quite a bit, depending on weather and relationship status, but it was an integral part of fall. It's easy to mentally put myself there, as I sit at home with the windows open, temperature "only" 67, and the sound of Magic Kingdom train whistles in the air. It's virtually the same sounds and feels, without the impending doom of approaching winter.

This is the first year of my adult life that I haven't been to Cedar Point. That might be even more weird as the co-owner of a little fan site that's been around for almost 19 years. This was a busy year, and not a year with a new attraction, so it just didn't make a ton of sense to go. Add in the new house, and it didn't make a lot of financial sense either (flying a family of three around ain't cheap, which is another reason cruising is so convenient for us). But I still feel like I missed out, even though so much has changed since I moved, in terms of the people. Even my favorite CEO will be gone next year.

Our initial plan is to try and return next year, but it's not as easy as it used to be. With Simon in "real" school, we can't easily take off at the start of the season, when it isn't too busy. I've also made the condition that he has to ride the "real" roller coasters here at Walt Disney World, because he's over 48" and can ride most of the greats at CP. And obviously, we all look forward to riding Steel Vengeance, the ride that hopefully turns Mean Streak from a turd to the best ride in the park.

It's crazy to think about the role that park has in my social life. Much of life's drama spilled into those midways, hotels and cottages. I had important conversations with mentors and mentees there. I had soakings and sunburns. I got engaged on Giant Wheel. Even when we lived in Seattle, we managed to carve out some great memories with Simon. It won't be the same for him, and that's OK, as long as he knows what a great place it was for me.


My Internet router woes

posted by Jeff | Friday, October 27, 2017, 7:50 PM | comments: 0

Way back in 2007, I bought an Apple Airport Extreme router, after years of having some Linksys object that had been made forever. I bought it mostly because my laptop used the newer and faster wifi standard (if you can imagine a time when only your laptop used wifi), and the switch in the old Linksys was 10/100. In 2009 I bought an Airport Express to extend the network with a wired connection, because it was easier than running cables around our Issaquah apartment to my home-brewed media PC.

That combination worked for me until 2014, if you could believe that. Seven years with a consumer electronics device. That was the summer that a lightning hit damaged that router, not allowing the WAN port to go above 10 mbit. Even that year, the cable company was doing 30, so not even a wired connection could use the full bandwidth from the cable company. I still don't understand why the cable modem worked OK. That router had a great run, so I replaced it with another Airport Extreme. At $194, it seemed too expensive, but one of the things that we were kind of bound to was the idea that you could plug in a USB hard drive to it so our Macs could backup to it, and it all "just worked." It was worth it to pay the premium.

Less than three years later, last January, to my surprise, that router just died. It was already failing to recognize the hard drive for weeks, but then it just didn't do anything. It was warm, but it wasn't routing. By that time I realized it was just as easy to use my desktop as the Time Machine backup target on the network, since it's generally turned on most of the time, so the backup need was no longer an issue. I couldn't justify shelling out another $200, so I looked at other options.

The other option was a TP-Link AC1750, which was getting generally decent reviews, one magazine or web site calling it the "router for the rest of us" or something. At $97 with tax, it wasn't the cheapest option, but with positive reviews it seemed good enough for me. And so it was. The coverage was weak in our bedroom, and non-existent in the garage, but it was otherwise solid. Until it wasn't.

For reasons I can't explain, it has required reboots every week or so for the last few months. Lately, it's been every few days. This week it was four times. They're kind of dumb little boxes, so when they don't work, what do you do? I wanted to not replace it, and even knowing in the new place that it would never cover the entire house, I figured I'd supplement with a $15 extender/access point that I already had and used for a bit (until I realized it was causing co-channel interference). With a few wired ethernet points around the new house, it would be easy enough. But today I had my fill, and ordered a mesh router, knowing it would definitely work better.

I ordered the Amplifi HD, which is made by Ubiquiti, a company that makes all kinds of commercial network gear. It was $334 with tax, which is absolutely cringe worthy for a device that doesn't do anything interesting or fun, but it includes two access points along with the router. The pricing on these systems is wildly different, with Google's system being a little cheaper, but Linksys and Netgear's costing more. The TP-Link system is less, but you know, not impressed with the router I had. (Aside: Their wifi smarthome outlets are silly simple and great.) The thing that sold me on the Amplifi was that the radios are higher powered, the reviews are almost universally good, and Hanselman actually mapped signal strength in his home. If nerds like it, it's worth looking at.

These days, we have 20 or more devices on the network at a time. The count is high because we have five Echo Dots and a growing number of switches, plus the usual phones, laptops and tablets. And a car. This router is neat because you can see in real time what's using bandwidth, and which access point they're on. Plus it has a glowy bottom and a little touch screen to tell you shit that doesn't matter in your life, so you know it's good. Seriously though, walking around the house with the excellent WiFi Analyser app, the coverage is amazing. "Full bars" everywhere, including the garage. It's really impressive how robust the connectivity is, to the extent that you don't realize how inferior it was before. I'm doing speedtest.net from my laptop at 170Mbps, which is the same rate I get on the wired desktop connection.

Yeah, routers are like the most uninteresting things ever to buy, and I'm disappointed at how many I've bought in the last few years, compared to the seven years prior, but this is a pretty solid tool. The real trick will be to see it in action in the McMansion, but I'm confident it will be awesome there, too.


Home identity

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 26, 2017, 11:00 AM | comments: 0

I've written a bunch of times about how home, as a concept, can be a somewhat nebulous thing. From 2009 to 2014, I moved five times. I despised the house in Cleveland I couldn't sell, but moved back to it for a year and a half. I grew up in Cleveland but think of Seattle as a home, living there only two years. I'm thrilled to call Central Florida home, and I still have days where I think, "Wow, I live here!"

The actual dwelling, the apartment or home, is something else. Those walls bear witness to extraordinary joy and sorrow. You begin and end most of your days in a home, whether you rent it or own it. It provides a sense of safety. As much as I'm annoyed by some of the sentimentality I see on HGTV about "forever homes" and "we brought our kids home from the hospital here," I get it.

We've spent three and a half years in our current house, and now that movers have been booked and the new house is just about finished, I'm struck with a sudden wave of reality where I will no longer occupy this space. It has been a great place to live, and we've had great guests, parties and holidays here. I'm excited about the new house, but admit that I'll miss the old one a little. Fortunately, as far as the people are concerned, we're moving less than a mile away, so it's not like we'll lose touch with our friends there.

My home-identity curve has had some wild swings in the last decade and change. I went from feeling like I'll never leave what I considered "home," to about 6,000 miles worth of moving in five years, to a renewed desire to really build out a more consistent thing. I can't possibly rule out radical change in the future, only because I've accepted that I just can't predict it. I would feel pretty good about staying put for a dozen years, so let's see how that goes.


An ADHD parenting adventure

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 22, 2017, 5:25 PM | comments: 0

The first two, almost three years of parenting were exhausting. Kids can't do very many things on their own at that point, so you're always wiping butts, getting your kid in and out of bed, feeding them, etc. Simon had no real concept of schedule, so it seemed like I was always tired. But before you know it, you get back to some sense of normal, and all of the baby stuff that you labored over acquiring (strollers, high chairs, car seats, changing tables, etc.) become completely useless. Hopefully you bought most of that stuff second hand.

For us, at least, the exhaustion turned from physical to emotional. Simon was diagnosed with ASD, and almost three years after that, ADHD. The ASD diagnosis was something of a relief, because it perfectly explained some of the developmental challenges he was exhibiting (not to mention the style of play that involved lining cars up instead of driving them). It meant that all of the extra intervention and double pre-K effort was validated. While he certainly some personality quirks, not the least of which is an inability to understand sarcasm, I feel like he can generally cope with being "neurally atypical," as they say.

But midway during first grade, it was clear that he was starting to struggle in school, which at first seemed strange because he was obviously smart and understood everything put in front of him. That's when we got him in front of the right doctors and arrived at the ADHD diagnosis. This is a condition that has the perception of being overdiagnosed, but as it's often a comorbid condition with ASD, not easily ignored for us. Frankly, when he couldn't stay focused long enough to get dressed or complete a shower, it's not like we couldn't see examples in front of us where it was affecting his quality of life. I just hated the idea of medicating without therapy.

This is where it gets frustrating from a care standpoint. Diana is worthy of mother of the year because of her attention to detail and the level to which she wants to understand these conditions. But at the end of the day, doctors have to prescribe treatment. We started with one pediatric psychologist who frankly didn't seem to get particularly engaged beyond medication, and wasn't owning any therapy referral either. We switched doctors, and now we're getting somewhere, but it's frustrating. The medication he used last year wasn't working this year, so after switching, he seemed to get worse until we increased the dose. The difference is extraordinary in school, and we saw it last weekend when asked to observe him on it.

If that weren't frustrating enough, he also suffers from anxiety, to the point where the first therapist we talked to wouldn't work with him because it would be ineffective. So he's on a med for that as well. He's 7, and that's heartbreaking.

I've had countless instances where I've lost patience with Simon, mostly when he's not on the meds. He's defiant and quick to meltdown. It's a mess, and it leaves me a mess.

I do feel like we've turned a corner, but just in the last week or two. What's difficult is that when we don't medicate him, his ability to follow the most simple instructions decreases exponentially. This weekend has been a little rough at times because of that. Weekday evenings can get a little tough too as the meds subside, especially around homework, which can crank up his anxiety because in his mind there's no room for doing it wrong. Our wind down at bed time has been a lot nicer than it was lately. He's painfully self-aware of his behavior challenges, so he feels broken.

It's worth noting that this year alone, we've spent thousands in co-pays, deductible and medications on trying to help him. I bring that up because I don't see how any family making less than six figures together can afford to do it. I find that completely immoral. Kids don't get to choose their parents.


Don't be arrogant thinking you know better than your customers

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 19, 2017, 8:00 PM | comments: 0

Today was demo day at work, but not demo as in demolition, a favorite of HGTV fans. (Though most software developers have worked in code bases they'd like to demolish.) Our demo is for demonstration, where we show what we've been working on to our customers. This release, on the surface, seems less interesting because so much of it was improvement toward the general robustness and durability of the app, but we also dedicated a ton of time to shoring up and revising one of our core features. The reaction from our customers was one of excitement, and dare I say joy. I can say after a lot of years in the business of making software, you don't get a lot of chances to see people be excited about what you built. Demo day is the day that job satisfaction goes up, and on a regular, two-week cadence.

The key to our success so far is pretty obvious, in that we solve the problems of our customers, and we try to do it really well. They're quite literally embedded in our process as stakeholders. What we've found is that customers will look for, and often find, ways to achieve what they want in unexpected ways. We work to understand those problems, and that's where we apply our creativity. The cleverness comes when the problem has been refined and we can act on it with something awesome.

I think too many organizations start with an idea where they thought of a solution to a problem that's so awesome that customers don't even know that they need it yet. How many apps (and especially mobile apps) are introduced year after year that never become viable businesses? Anecdotally, I'd say that it's most of them. It's arrogant to believe you have the answer to a question that no one is asking. Yes, sometimes there are unicorns that appear, backed by exceptional genius. I might even agree that experimentation is good because it's what moves us forward, even at the expense of mostly-failure. However, if your core interests are solving real problems that improve the lives of people encountering those problems, building a sustainable business, making something enduring... trying to be a unicorn is not the goal.

For part of the time I was working in the world's largest software company, I worked in a group that was dreaming up a product that they were certain people wanted. There was a focus group, and the group interestingly came up with some ideas that were tangents to the things our group was pitching. Our leaders decided that we were mostly going to stick to what we were thinking about anyway. At one point, I was directed to take a sub-feature and flesh it out as a wholly defined thing, and then pitch it in a meeting that would easily cost $3,000 in salary and benefits. I objected to this direction, and ended up doing what made sense to me: Define the basics, list the assumptions, and come up with a game plan to validate the assumptions and further refine the feature.

Many of the people in that meeting were dissatisfied with this, and my boss later explained I was going about it wrong. As he put it, it was our job to dream up all of this awesome stuff and get it to market without any of that refinement and validation that I was after. It was that conversation that I knew I had to get out of that group, when he said, "That's how you develop software."

That group never shipped anything.

Frustrating and unfortunate as that situation was, it was a blueprint for what not to do, and I've kept it in mind for much of the last six years since that conversation. These days, I'm reminded every two weeks that the extraordinary satisfaction I get from our customers happens because we apply our "genius" in response to that constant refinement and understanding of the problems we need to solve. Our collaborative team comes up with some really great solutions, but we're not arrogant enough to believe we know completely what they are ahead of time.


Even professional social media never forgets

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, October 17, 2017, 9:03 PM | comments: 0

One of the complaints of social media is that it never lets you forget. What you commit to it has a way of staying around to serve as a reminder or to totally contradict what you have to say today (just ask the president). The weirdest social media of all though is LinkedIn. Everyone is there, but I no one uses it. The only people I ever hear from there are recruiters, usually pitching some totally irrelevant job.

And every once in awhile, you get some totally ridiculous network request from the distant past. The other day it was from the former owner of a company that I worked for just before I got married, just five months. It seemed like a good opportunity because it had a dev org that was in chaos. I remember telling them to let me run a new project my way, agile, and if it went south, they could fire me. I brought in a contractor that I worked with before and just nailed it, on time, on budget and what they actually wanted (not what they thought they wanted). When I got back from my honeymoon, I was ambushed with the news that they couldn't afford to pay me, because they failed to score a new client.

I can't understand why this guy would think that I would want to have any contact with him. He followed one of the best weeks of my life (an expensive week) with nothing to show for great work. That was how he operated, as the company was like a revolving door of disposable workers. I'm not bitter or angry about something that happened eight years ago, but I certainly have no interest in reliving it either.

This got me to thinking about my overall work experience. As much as I'm proud to talk about my successful endeavors, man, I've seen a lot of train wrecks. I can't generalize about the size of companies that have been host to these messes. The only real difference between the big companies and small companies is that the big ones can afford to keep perpetuating the mess for a long time. I think if I were to really generalize about success versus failure, it would usually come down to self-awareness. Companies that are self-aware have a better shot at getting it right. They don't always, but it definitely makes a huge difference.

Thank you for the perspective, LinkedIn.


It's almost time to move again, and I don't hate houses anymore

posted by Jeff | Saturday, October 14, 2017, 11:21 AM | comments: 0

Thanks to Facebook's "never forget" feature ("On This Day"), it's that time of year again when it reminds me of one of my best moves, and one of my worst. The best was moving to Seattle, the worst was moving back to Cleveland. I'll probably never let myself live that stupid decision down. Fortunately, the corrective action of moving to Orange County 20 months later turned out to be a really good decision. Throw in the move while living on Seattle's east side, and from our rental to our house here Florida, and that makes for a total of five moves from late 2009 to early 2014.

Next month we move again, about a mile from where we are now. That's a three and a half year run this time, which for us is almost considered stable. This move is not really out of necessity as much as it is desire. When my BFF built a new house with lots of room, it got us to thinking about the way we were kind of squeezed, especially Diana with her long-arm quilting machine. After more than three straight years working remotely, I too felt like the walls were closing in a little. But in all honesty, we don't need a bigger place, we just want a bigger place.

My perceptions on real estate have evolved, too. Seattle skewed my perceptions about value, where everything costs more than $220 per square foot at least. When we looked at building here, we looked at a 5,000 square foot house as a joke, but at $500k fully optioned, the cost was that of a modest east side Seattle house at a third the size. We stuck with a more "reasonable" 2,700 square foot house, which is still probably bigger than one needs for three people. It certainly felt big when we moved in.

But now, our house is worth 15% more in three short years. That absurdly large house we looked at for giggles? It's worth $600k now. We haven't even closed on the new house, and the appraisal is already $10k over what we'll pay. So for all of my angst and drama around my previous house, right now at least, a house is remarkably like an investment. Sure, it's not as lucrative as a 401k, but you can't live in a 401k.

Hopefully this will be our last move for a while. We learned a lot about what's important to us when we built the current house, and while we're mostly looking for extra space, floor plan and functionality is what we're after. We're not getting more rooms in this house, just bigger, more functional rooms. And I'll admit, some things like the kitchen are more fancy. With all of the HGTV I watch, I'd like to have a little fancy.


My Florida health cycle

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 12, 2017, 10:48 PM | comments: 0

I'm not sure why I ended up getting my annual physical in the fall, but even as I've skipped years, it seems like that's the rhythm I end up in. That probably wouldn't matter anywhere else, except that in Florida, it marks the end of my lazy phase. Oh, and I'm not really active enough to begin with.

I've told the story before, but about 12 years ago, I weighed about 30 pounds more than I do now. While I should still lose more weight, I've focused less on that and more on how I feel. Moving to Florida, where I can be out and moving around all year, I learned that just staying in motion makes a huge difference in how I feel. I absolutely loathe exercise for the sake of exercise, so lots of walking and occasional tennis is about as well as it goes. If there was anything I hated about winter up north, it's that I would get to February and be tired all of the time, and even get winded going up stairs. I don't get like that anymore.

But I do slow down in the summer. When it's in the 90's every day and humid, it gets to be kind of a drag. You go out in the morning to walk and the humidity is 98% and the temperature is already near 80. It's kind of gross. Here, away from the coasts, the humidity is lower in the afternoon, but it's still really damn hot. If it weren't for the theme parks, I'm not sure I'd move around much, especially as a remote worker.

And that leads me to the doctor visits, where the timing finds me a few pounds higher than I would be in, say, April. Again this year my cholesterol is just a little over normal, as is my blood pressure. My triglycerides were totally high, probably because I had pancakes the night before, and the alcohol from the cruise was obviously not helpful.

The doctor visits are a good motivator to get off my ass. I probably need to take the weight a little more seriously with the slightly high blood pressure. It has been harder this year because I'm not going into an office, optional or not, twice a week the way I did at my previous job, which makes my activity level go even lower. I admittedly prioritize work over movement, too.


Yes, Windows Phone is still dead

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, October 11, 2017, 9:20 PM | comments: 0

Last weekend, there was some unceremonious news that Windows Phone was in fact dead. I guess it's weird that there really never was a formal announcement about this, but even among the faithful, myself included, we knew this two years ago.

I worked at Microsoft, in Redmond, when Windows Phone launched. At that time, I was on my second iPhone (the 3GS), and loved it dearly, but was excited about Windows Phone mostly because it was so stupid easy to develop for, while iPhone was not. Before the phones even shipped, I was able to whip up a quick and easy app to remind tired parents how long it was since you took care of your baby. (Seriously though... when your wife is passed out sleeping and you just got up, this kind of thing helps you figure out if the crying is because of hunger.) Eventually, the company gave all of us employees free phones, and AT&T did a BOGO which meant I got one for Diana as well for free. The Samsung Focus was kind of cheap feeling, but it was otherwise pretty solid.

A little less than two years later, I got the Lumia 920, which was pretty much the Windows Phone that all of the fans had. It had a pretty great camera (at the time), great battery life and the OS kept getting better. There were a lot of evolutionary changes that made the OS better than iOS, and definitely better than Android, which was a fragmented mess. There were unfortunately apps that were "missing" from the platform, which didn't matter a ton to me because as long as I could use Facebook and the web, I was good (this is mostly still true today).

Over the course of the next three years with that phone, we waited patiently for the next "flagship" hardware, and it finally came as the Lumia 950 and 950 XL, but just before that came something else that finally convinced me it might be time to jump ship.

Google had just launched the Nexus 5X and 6P, made by LG and HTC, but stocked with "pure" Android, which is to say that it was the stock build with no carrier or hardware variations in the OS. They were also unlocked, ready for use on most any network. By this time, Xamarin, not yet acquired by Microsoft, was making real progress at making cross-platform development for Android and iOS awesome, which was also intriguing. The 5X was around $450 unlocked, and was getting rave reviews for its camera, the thing I cared most about. I figured I'd get that phone to play with, for development purposes, and then get the 950 later. I had the Nexus for probably 2 days before I realized I had no need for the Windows Phone. I bought a 5X for Diana as well, and we never looked back.

I despised Android to that point mostly from my experience messing with virtual instances of it on my computer, and from playing with various test phones while at SeaWorld Entertainment, as our mobile apps were coming along. They were all different and kind of clunky compared to iOS, and even further behind Windows Phone. Heck, they were behind what Google had released at any given time, because there were not strong incentives for carriers and manufacturers to update their own builds. But the latest, unmolested bits, the state of the art with solid (if plastic) hardware were not only compelling, but a slam dunk for me. And of course, by then the support for Amazon and Microsoft cloud resources were tip-top, so the Nexus 5X was doing everything I needed and wanted, and then some. I felt silly for holding on to Windows Phone for as long as I did.

As if Google hadn't already been applying their foo to the camera software in an excellent way, they released the Pixel about a year ago with a camera that many declared the best smart phone camera period. It was too expensive at $650 (perhaps to equate its value with the iPhone), but as the photo samples started to appear, especially in low light, I couldn't easily ignore it. Then a co-worker got one, and I was sold.

Microsoft made a ton of mistakes, but I don't think it was the software. I was routinely impressed with how well everything worked together, and the extraordinary customization possible with live tiles. The inter-app sharing that we now take for granted in Android and iOS was already a thing back in 2010 on Windows Phone. But everything beyond the software was less than ideal.

The initial hardware for the first phones was mostly mediocre compared to iPhone and even some of the Motorola phones at the time. Nokia started to make great phones though by late 2011, but carriers didn't know how or why to sell them. If that wasn't bad enough, Microsoft and Nokia made some stupid carrier-exclusive deals that made it worse. I really think that this was the window of opportunity, and they totally dropped the ball with poor marketing and poor sales efforts. If that weren't bad enough, the hardware went nowhere for three years after that before the 950 came out. Samsung was building great phones and people didn't care if it was a year out-of-date, while Apple sucked people into yearly incremental updates. A platform with dwindling developer support and no good hardware had no chance.

It sucks when great products don't take hold, but as a friend of mine pointed out regularly, it's hard to talk people into something when what they're using is meeting their needs. The universe probably didn't need a third platform.

I'm very happy about Google's direction with their platform on their own hardware. It's gonna be hard to resist Pixel 2.


POP Forums, it's not dead, I swear

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 8, 2017, 9:49 AM | comments: 0

I managed to make some commits to POP Forums yesterday. It has been more than two and a half years since I've made a release. As I've written before, the primary goal has been to just port the thing to ASP.NET Core, which is now on v2, but it has been slow going.

For the non-technically inclined, Microsoft decided a few years ago to make the .Net platform entirely open source (now called .Net Core), modernize it and let go of the legacy of various mistakes made over the last decade and a half. This has all been a good thing, but the transition has been painful due to constant fundamental change, poor documentation and "missing" stuff from the new framework. The web part of the framework, ASP.NET Core, also embraced a lot of client-side technology that was already a moving target, and continues to be. When I say "embraced," I mean it doesn't invent anything new of its own.

I started to work on it in September, 2015, more than two years ago, when the new framework was still in beta. That was my first challenge, because as a "do over" framework, nothing was set in stone. I started by converting a lot of the UI stuff to the newer bits, and finding open source replacements for sending email and resizing images, things "missing" from the Core. I also had to accommodate changes to SignalR, the sub-framework that enables the real-time updating of topics and lists of topics as they sit on the page. The problem there is that the development team didn't prioritize that work over general improvements, so even as ASP.NET Core is now at v2, it's still not at a release status. In the last month, SignalR at least went alpha, meaning they seem to have the general direction of it nailed down, and the team doing ImageSharp, to resize images, made a beta. That puts everything into a good enough place to consider a beta release, with some clean up and testing.

To be honest, the technical volatility isn't the whole problem. The primary reason for me having the app at all is to use it as the base for CoasterBuzz and PointBuzz. To that end, those sites are technically solid and silly fast even under load, and "old" ASP.NET isn't going away soon. If that weren't enough, I've been so plugged in at work the last few years that it's become harder to spend my free time doing, well, work. Throw in the quasi-struggle of parenthood, and I can't say I've been very motivated.

But now it feels like a corner has been turned with all of the peripheral stuff around Core coming of age. As I said more than a year ago, my intention with this version is just equivalence to the previous version, running on all of the new bits. Who knew that would have taken so long? To be fair to myself, I did achieve one of my goals in the last year, which was to make the app work across many nodes. It couldn't do that before because it relied so much on in-memory caching and in-process background tasks. Those problems are mostly solved now.

I'd like to spend more time with it, get a release out, and then start modernizing it. Professionally, most of my work in the last four years has been around big picture architecture and backend performance. In that time, frontend tech has changed dramatically, and I don't have much expertise with it. I'd like to to change that situation.


Cruise report: Disney Dream, Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 2017

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 5, 2017, 6:00 PM | comments: 0

There usually isn't a lot to talk about on these cruises, but this one was different. Our lucky 13th Disney cruise was the first one that did not include my dear child. It was just me and my darling wife. And it was awesome.

Well, mostly. It turns out that our first attempt at adulting the shit out of a cruise may have been a little overzealous the first day, so we didn't approach the second and third days with quite the same energy. Saturday morning was met with the realization that we're not 24. Fortunately, I was in my happy place, and a good nap helped a lot.

Friday involved some of the usual getting settled, but we got into pool gear via the spa locker rooms (pro tip!) and enjoyed one of the many beverages of the day in the Cove pool. That was the start of the new territory for us. We also nailed down a brunch reservation for Palo the next day, a free perk that goes to platinum Castaway Club members that we were unable to use the last two times. Once the evac drill was done and we were underway, we went up to deck 13 so I could get a selfie wearing my SpaceX Of Course I Still Love You shirt with the actual Of Course I Still Love You landing drone ship in the background. I'm a nerd like that.

Our dinner party included two other couples that were sans children. We don't always get seated with other families, but this is the first time that they were not socially inept, uppity or otherwise not interesting. One couple was from southern Ontario, the other from the Nashville area. They offered good conversation every night, and we periodically saw them around the ship.

Evening was about spending quality time in The District, the set of bars and clubs on deck 4 aft. None of them were very crowded. We started in 687 (named for the hull number of the ship) for 90's music trivia, which arrogant 90's DJ me thought we could win, but we missed two that I didn't recognize while getting the really hard ones. Our host, #TonyFromSpain, would be a fixture at many of the adult events throughout the cruise. The comfortable place we ended up was Skyline, the martini bar where one side has virtual windows to the skylines of NYC, Rio, Hong Kong, Paris and Chicago. There we met a nice military family that had the kids in the kids club. It was also the start of many great conversations with the bar staff there.

Saturday was slow to start, but what we missed is that the pilot designated by the port of Nassau backed the ship into a pier, causing a lot of presumably superficial (but expensive) damage. Typically the Dream pulls into the harbor, spins around, and backs in to the pier, but somehow, they managed to strike the pier. I remember thinking from our verandah that they started the turn really late, but I didn't know that happened until someone mentioned it at dinner. Not sure what the convention is, but having pilots steer the ship is custom for many harbors and inner waterways, and I've seen them board a few miles offshore on prior sailings. In Alaska, they apparently had one up and down the fjords.

Two programs that I've done a few times were the Making Of The Dream, more or less a slide show, and Art Of The Theme, a walking tour around various parts of the ship. These are adult-only programs, and we've not had a chance to do them together, so that was a lot of fun. I've done them on the Wonder as well.

At noon we had our Palo reservation. We opted to do brunch instead of a dinner, which would mean we'd not see our table mates or our dining team, and I like getting to know them. The menu is a little different, and they offer a buffet as your appetizer and dessert courses. Let me tell you, I've had variations on parmesan crusted chicken in many places, and it was never as awesome as this. The cheeses they use are imported from Italy in small batches, and I was particularly impressed how they're not greasy at all. I've never had anything fried that did not seem to be fried. I'm not a fancy eater, but this blew my mind. The service was also about as good as it gets, with the manager (an Italian fellow, naturally) and our server (from Croatia) taking good care of us. This is normally a $30 upcharge per person, but again, it's a perk for platinum members.

Our afternoon involved a nap, another pool visit and some true, not thinking about anything relaxation. After dinner, we continued our social trek, and landed in Skyline after a stop in Pink, the champaign bar. More good conversation with folks stopping in, and one bizarre conversation with a woman on her first Disney cruise who thought that Carnival was better, especially the food. Of course, instead of taking advantage of the superior service, she was waiting to unleash complaints at the end of the cruise. And to quote, "You don't put barbecue sauce on a plate next to prime rib and call it a day." What an idiot.

Sunday was our beach day at Castaway Cay. I think at one point we considered renting bikes, but thoughts about wet swimware and chafing kind of diverted us away from that. This was another first for us: going to the adult-only Serenity Bay at the north end of the island. Upon arriving, it was impossibly quiet and, uh, serene. No kids. That's some serious Disney magic. I had two minor quibbles, the first being that there aren't enough umbrellas compared to the main beach areas, and the water never goes more than waist deep. On the plus side, the sealife you can observe is staggering. That beautiful clear water is filled with all kinds of stuff swimming around.

My other minor complaint is that, while the adult food serving includes some adult-only items, they don't have the spicy chicken that the main locations have, which non-red-meat-eating me mostly sticks to. That was disappointing. So for me to get something I like, and for Diana to enter water deep enough to get wet in, we did head back to the main area for a little while. We only stayed out there until 2 or so, because again, we were up late the night before. That, and we're pretty sure the stuff they serve in Skyline (with glow cubes!) had at least three shots of alcohol in every drink.

We wrapped up that day after dinner with Believe in the main theater (the new cast is really good, the choreography tight, and an obviously solid group set to debut Beauty And The Beast next month), second dinner on deck 11, and eventually landed in Skyline again. This time, it was crazy crowded, so we ended up sitting not at the bar but in a corner talking to a family from the Carolinas (maybe?) that were our age, but recently became empty nesters. It was a pretty great end to a cruise where we met a ton of interesting people. We were social with adults. It was a good feeling. It was also a much needed break where we could be a couple with nothing to worry about but each other. I can't thank our friends Kara and Sean enough for watching Simon.


Love of country comes in many forms

posted by Jeff | Thursday, September 28, 2017, 11:00 AM | comments: 0

In 1955, a black woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white person. This simple, defiant act, violating an unjust law, spurred a year of protests that financially damaged a transit company and eventually led to the repeal of the very law she violated. Parks is one of the most powerful symbols of the civil rights movement in part because this one, seemingly inconsequential act contributed to meaningful change.

So patriotic and essential to American history was this act, that she was on the short list of people under consideration for being imprinted on to American currency. It's a well-deserved honor. Peaceful protest is the foundation of progress in our nation. It is fundamental to our heritage. Without it, we would still have slavery, women wouldn't vote, and Catholics would be persecuted for their beliefs. Civil dissent is rarely without cause or a simple symptom of disrespect.

The United States was founded on the principles of freedom and equality. The Declaration of Independence formally began the definition of what we were to be, and got to the point in the second paragraph when it indicated that "all men are created equally." While the intent of the founding fathers was sincere, this has been a work in progress that we have now pursued for more than 200 years. Rosa Parks wasn't the first or last to protest in the name of civil rights. In fact, referring to the "civil rights era" as if it ended feels incorrect.

Patriotism is often associated with serving in the military. This is without question a great reason to be patriotic, but it's only a fraction of what it means to serve this country. To be patriotic also means standing for this core belief in equality. In fact, serving this nation comes in countless forms, sometimes by being a teacher or nurse, a philanthropist or clergy, a parent or foster parent. Believe it or not, even serving in an elected office counts.

The "take a knee" controversy shouldn't be a controversy. Eric Reid shares his intent in his participation last year, while a white Vietnam veteran and Dallas sportscaster lays out the problem, and even Bob Costas gets to the core of what patriotism is. The protest is not against the military, and the military is not the sole source of American patriotism. The protest is making the statement that the America we live in and want to love is not treating a vital part of our population fairly, and change is overdue. Rosa Parks was every bit as much of a patriot.

American greatness is a strange thing. Our history is one of continuous social injustice, but despite this, we've built incredible wealth and the ability to make things. I've long felt that greatness in part comes from self-awareness and a willingness to act on that information. We've gotta start taking this self-awareness seriously. We've regressed the last few years, despite a few notable milestones in the right direction. Caring for each other and speaking up for each other is essential. Empathy is required.


House buying and selling is never fun

posted by Jeff | Friday, September 22, 2017, 11:16 PM | comments: 0

House buying and selling is such a crappy process. If someone can solve the mystery about how to make it better, that person will be rich. And mind you, my entire experience with buying is new construction, three times now. So it should be more fun.

My first house went pretty smoothly, but as everyone knows, any idiot could get a loan in 2001. In fact, we bought that house starting with a second mortgage, a "purchase money" loan used to beat PMI by putting enough down with a second loan. Total shenanigans. I do recall some drama around the closing date, and we needed some warranty work at the time of the first big rain (a leak caused a ceiling to explode), but otherwise it wasn't awful.

Selling that house became the worst thing ever, and it was the source of all the stress and drama around our Seattle adventure and poor decision to return to Cleveland after two years of sitting on the market. Ugh, I still think of those 20 months as my biggest failure of judgment ever. But on the second try, at least it went in 48 hours, and we closed about six weeks later.

Building our current house was rough, because our construction manager was kind of a dipshit who didn't take responsibility for anything, and exercised almost no QA. If that weren't bad enough, securing the loan was a struggle right up until the last week, because in the eyes of the underwriters, I had no income since I worked on a 1099 contract basis. We were seriously this close to walking away and staying in our rental.

In our world headquarters sequel, the financing started out almost as bad because it wasn't clear that anyone would let us put less than 20% down. Mind you, that was never the long-term intent, but we weren't going to be homeless for months while they built the thing. That eventually got sorted out, and I could put 12% down and simply recast the loan at 20%+ down once our current house was sold and those proceeds were in our hands. Pressure is on now to make that happen. Otherwise, our biggest challenge has been a slipping construction schedule due to shortages in the trades and a hurricane.

My BFF just experienced the non-joy of getting her house sold, with poor communication issues with the title company and realtor. Her new construction didn't go smoothly either.

I imagine that none of this follows a happy path unless everyone involved is paying cash and the houses already exist. Although paying cash for a house in its entirety doesn't really make sense either with rates being so low. Your money will work way harder in the market and you'll still come out ahead. See, even that's not straight forward.


My kid wins the healthcare lottery, while most will lose

posted by Jeff | Friday, September 22, 2017, 10:30 AM | comments: 0

Simon has to switch up his ADHD meds, because what he was on isn't working. When I say it isn't working, I mean he's picking the skin off of the pads of his fingers until they're a bloody mess isn't working. It's upsetting, sad, frustrating and challenges you as a parent when he asks, "What's wrong with me?"

The new meds will cost $100 per month, and that's after insurance. Without, they would cost $250 per month. Because I have a good job in a sought after industry, this expense sucks, but we can manage it. My kid wins the healthcare lottery because he's my kid. The harsh reality is that other kids would not get this medication.

That's not OK.

Look, I get it, you may not like the ACA (even if you can't explain why beyond it being called "Obamacare"), and I've been critical of it since the start. But for better or worse, more people have access to care because of it, and I strongly believe that's the most moral outcome our society can have when so many of its members (children) have no control over their ability to have access. I don't have all of the answers for how we improve this, but I can say with certainty that simply repealing the law isn't an answer. The provision for covering pre-existing conditions in particular is key.

The rest of the western world has figured out how to make sure everyone has healthcare, with better outcomes and less cost. Our system sucks. We can do better. Drop the ideological bullshit and be part of the conversation that leads to a more moral and equitable healthcare system. If I can get behind that as a person who is reasonably well off, so can you.


The blessing and curse of the digital age

posted by Jeff | Sunday, September 17, 2017, 8:59 PM | comments: 0

In the same day, I happened to encounter two things that got me thinking about "the digital age," in the broader sense. The first was an article in the New York Times about Amish adoption of technology. Then, as I was flying solo for the evening while Diana was working, I decided to watch Dave Grohl's Sound City documentary again. The former talks about the desire in the Amish culture to not allow the information age to short circuit their values, while the latter (in addition to some excellent music history) talks a bit about how the digital revolution was not great for the world of music. As someone who graduated from high school in 2001 and college in 2005, my coming of age story is very much coupled to this computerized revolution, and it's at the foundation of my professional success.

The Radio & Television department of Ashland University routinely held a PBS-style auction to raise money. The department had a few dozen students at any given time, but even with our lab fees, we certainly couldn't afford a ton of equipment without some extra help. The big ticket auction items ranged from big stuff like a Geo Metro car (selling for around $9k in 1992), to a computer around $1,500 (which my dad won, actually), to a ton of minor items donated. It was the last auction they ever did, sadly, but it pushed the department into the digital age in several important ways. We scored a digital "still store," a computer that served still images for use in broadcast. Prior to that, we showed still images on slides projected into a video camera. We also built a multi-track audio studio from that, 8 analog tracks on 1/2" tape, but a year later we adopted a digital audio system that stored audio on a hard drive. I think we stored our "A" and "B" rotation on that machine, in addition to a variety of stabs and ID's. It was a precursor to totally automated radio, which by the time I started working in Cleveland radio in 1995, was nearly a thing.

The Internet had been around for years by that point, but the commercialization of it was just starting to blossom. In 1994, a senior in college, I remember drinking a bottle of Zima with "http://www.zima.com" on the back of the label. After a lot of messing around on my advisor's computer to get the World Wide Web to work, I saw my first commercial Web site. I could not have dreamed at the time that this thing I was looking at would be where I would base my professional life.

In the years that followed, I would start to see the gradual transition of video to a digital medium. In the three years that I worked in government television, I started with analog S-VHS video tape, and by the time I left three years later, I was recording on digital tape and editing with a computer. A year or two after that, I was even able to do that in my home, which is not something I imagined while still in college.

In 1998, I started publishing content on the Internet, a hobby that continues to this day, and one that at times paid my mortgage during times of unemployment. A new opportunity that was unimaginable even a year or two earlier merged.

When I transitioned out of the broadcast world into the Internet world, I recall an encounter that seemed entirely inconsequential at the time. A guy I didn't work with directly had showed me something called iTunes on his Mac, and a device called an iPod in 2001. My vision of the usefulness of this arrangement was incredibly limited, in part because committing my collection of CD's to computers would have been cost prohibitive at the time. In fact, for the next six or seven years, even when I purchased music digitally, I would still burn it all to CD's.

Meanwhile, just as you didn't need a video editing suite with thousands of dollars of equipment to make video, you certainly didn't need much more than a home computer to record music. Indeed, the democratization of creation was occurring. No one would understand this more than me, when in 2005 I started recording a podcast that would eventually be listened to by thousands of people.

In 2007, the iPhone was introduced, and while smart phones were already a thing, it would lay the groundwork to transform our culture to make it more connected... and maybe too connected.

The Amish story in the NYT and the Sound City story have a common thread: A lack of constraint, enabled by technology, makes it easier to be less human. The Amish are able to maintain a level of interconnectedness in their community. Musicians in Sound City were forced to rely on creativity because tech couldn't help them "perfect" their recordings.

Let's be honest, this does sound a little "get off my lawn"-ish, or crusty curmudgeon. Nothing is more annoying than a "back in my day" story. I think life has benefitted greatly from the advancement of technology, but novelty can certainly influence how we look at its use. For example, we know that furniture made by machines is efficient and makes it less expensive. However, we appreciate and understand the value of something made by hand, to the extent that we'll pay more for it in terms of money or our own time.

The thing that I've learned is that there is a certain advantage to knowing something before and after a particular technological advancement. For example, I learned to edit video on tape, before it was possible (or economical, at least) to do it with a computer. The constraint of having to think more deeply about how you were going to cut a show, to plan it out, made for better results. I was able to take those skills to the computerized world, but the tools still enabled a new creativity by allowing for more experimentation.

Ultimately, I think our ability to treat technology as a tool is the thing that separates the blessings from curses. There's nothing wrong with using these networked supercomputers in our pockets if it means we're learning, improving our lives and the lives of others, enjoying the benefits of automation and connectivity. When we use the same tool to isolate ourselves from the world in front of us, that's not good. It's OK to embrace technology provided you don't lose context.