Growing up isn't good for your imagination

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, October 29, 2014, 9:55 PM | comments: 0

In watching Simon grow up, it has been fun to watch him start to engage in imaginative play. Sure, it's coming a little later due to his ASD, but it's there, and it's fascinating to watch. I suppose most of your imagination is derivative in your earlier years, but there comes a time when you start to come up with more stuff on your own. Sure, it's always colored by life experience, but the "spark" can still conjure some pretty crazy stuff.

I think it peaks in your late high school or college years. It's a great time of your life because you don't really know constraints. Anything is possible because life hasn't really taught you otherwise. As the years pass, inhibition starts to grow due to failure, social contracts, perception of risk, knowledge of consequences, etc. I suspect your brain continues to imagine things, but we might not notice as much because we quickly cast aside those ideas that pop up as impractical.

Simon gets ideas and wants to try them out, because he doesn't know any better. He sees a box of Duplo, and he wants me to build a bunch of stuff because he doesn't realize there aren't that many blocks, and that they only fit together in limited ways. Even the fact that he can't himself manifest the things he imagines does not deter him. That's fascinating to think about... a child at that age is not deterred by little details like reality.

I hate that we lose that. With the Internet making it possible to reconnect with people after decades, sometimes I'm disappointed when it seems like, well, they settled into a comfortable routine and they're happy. I can't judge, certainly, as I've had more ups and downs than I can count in every aspect of my life. But I wonder if they can even imagine something happier, more awesome or world changing.

Does it matter? It might. I think a lot of people see the world as an awful and dark place. Imagination combined with the will to make something happen is an inspiring force that lifts people up. Whether it's philanthropy, our work, our role as parents or as elected officials, putting aside our constraints and letting our minds run wild can only lead to great things. When it's time to add the constraints back in over the things we imagine, then we're forced to be even more creative and solve problems. The constraints shouldn't make our imagination irrelevant, they should only make it work harder.

Inflexibility and meltdowns

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, October 28, 2014, 8:34 PM | comments: 0

It's certainly not a game that you keep score in, but all things considered, we've been somewhat lucky with Simon's ASD symptoms. A lot of the struggles that you read about, with lack of eye contact and speech, a lack of articulated emotion, etc., are not his issues. He's very social, if gravitating toward adults, and polite almost to a fault. He's pretty good at queueing too, which is a good thing given his already intense love for familiar roller coasters.

But in the past few weeks, Simon has exhibited a great deal of inflexibility over things that don't seem that important. It's the behavior that falls into the stereotypical repetitive and mundane bucket. To the casual observer, he seems like he gets upset just because he isn't getting his way. In reality, the issue is that his brain can't reconcile the variation on established routine and protocol. The reaction is intense.

On Sunday, I took Simon to Magic Kingdom while Diana was working, because one of my old friends from a previous job was in town with his family. The theme of issues at the park is that he needs to be in "number 1" for whatever we're getting on. It starts with the monorail: He needs to sit in the first car. Similarly, he wants to sit in the front seat of rides that have several rows. A lot of parks are not flexible, in the interest of capacity, but unfortunately Disney wants to blow pixie dust up your you-know-what at every turn. Simon is bold enough to just ask for a front seat, and they give it to him before we can ask them not to.

Sometimes things go so quickly that there isn't time for him to even react. We were rushed into the 4th row of a Barnstormer train, for example, so he never had a chance to freak out. On the other hand, he got to a ride op for Pooh and they put us in the front at his request. At the end of our three-hour tour, however, things fell apart when we went back to the parking tram. We refuse to sit in the front because of the noise in close proximity to the tractor. We often sit in the back so he can talk to the spieler though, and he enjoys that. When we got back to the transportation center, there was a nearly full tram about ready to leave, so we jumped into the middle just in time.

The meltdown came fast and without any possibility of consolation. All I could really do is offer comfort, but he wasn't having it. You can't yell at him because in his mind, he isn't doing anything wrong. The only thing he understands is that a routine or convention isn't being followed, and he doesn't know what to do with that.

This isn't the first time I've dealt with this kind of situation, and Simon's therapist says that essentially he needs to work though it so he can "practice" flexibility away from the familiar pattern.

Diana had a similar episode with him today. This one isn't new either. Because Simon essentially goes to school twice, she has to take him out for a bit for lunch. One of the places in the rotation is a Subway, where he has his sights on a specific table. Today that table was occupied, and it was a throw-down meltdown scene to behold. Similarly, she did her best to help him but be firm, to give him the "practice" to adjust. These situations are emotionally exhausting for us as well, because no one likes to see their kid suffer like that.

Oh, and Diana had her first encounter with an asshole third party observer. A woman in the Subway told her that if it was her she'd hit Simon or some such nonsense. I can't fucking stand people like that. They have no context about the situation, and it's none of their business.

The day the elevator was parked between floors

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 26, 2014, 11:36 PM | comments: 0

A very long time ago, the radio/TV department at Ashland University did a televised auction every other year. If you've ever watched a local PBS station, you probably know what this is. Donors send in all kinds of stuff, from small items to big ticket items like cars, and people call in bids. Some items go in brief, hour-long auctions, others go the length of the event. I don't know if they all do it, but ours was based largely on what they do at WVIZ in Cleveland.

The last auction, ever, was sadly in 1993. I couldn't tell you how much money we raised, but we scored a lot of shiny new and awesome equipment because of it. In fact, for my senior year, we had a digital "cart" system that stored audio on a hard disk and played it back instantly. Trust me, that was a big deal in 1994, and a lot of commercial stations didn't even have that yet.

For us, as students, it was a huge undertaking. All of our departmental classes were cancelled that week, and even some professors outside of the department gave us a break. The fraternities and sororities chipped in, some of the sports teams... it was really fascinating to see so much of the campus come together. An entire hallway was blocked off and locked up as our "warehouse." Most of my duties were fulfilled prior to the start, so I would just pick up shifts directing, running camera or whatever. I think I did phones once, too.

All of those long hours led to a lot of shenanigans. Like any good college campus, this one also had its legends. One of ours was that the ghost of Hugo Young, for which the theater in the building was named for, haunted the building. I don't know if the guy was even dead, or what his significance was, but whatever, it was a good story. It was also a great excuse to do some immature things.

So a friend of mine had an idea, and I was game. Would it be possible to park the freight elevator between floors, and get out of it? She wasn't drunk or anything, and neither was I, but by that point we sure as hell were tired. I can't imagine the building was any older than 30 years at the time, but that elevator was scary as hell.

We went the slow route between the first and second floor, and pulled the e-stop. It stopped with an enormous thud. The rest is fuzzy. I think we had something to stand on in the elevator, and we popped the hatch. Clearly both of us got out, and we exited the shaft on the second floor. At this point we had many good laughs and enjoyed the camaraderie of the situation.

The problem with a prank like this is that you can't really tell anyone about it, but at least we could tell each other. The elevator stayed there for a few days. In retrospect, I hope we didn't have any classmates with accessibility issues, because that building was not ADA friendly, and there was no other way to get to the third floor.

We had our secret, and there was a lot of gossip about it the next week. I suggested it must have been the ghost of Hugo Young, and that stuck for awhile with a few people, until it became just another meaningless and forgotten college prank.

The "Jenny" situation

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 26, 2014, 11:11 PM | comments: 0

OK, time to share one of those college stories. This one is about a girl, who was not actually named Jenny. I choose the name more because it's very common among women my age. Oddly enough, I've had many friends named Jennifer, maybe close to a dozen, but I have not ever seen any of them naked. I don't think I've even kissed a Jennifer.

The start to my sophomore year was kind of rough. Actually, the whole year was rough, for a lot of reasons I'm sure I'll write about eventually. It started about two weeks before classes, as I arrived for residence life training. I was going to be an RA in a building that had a poor reputation (which is relative, as Ashland University is hardly known as a party school), and as a sophomore no less. The circle of people I knew my first year wasn't one I was really tight with, so in some ways I felt like I was starting over. About that time I also learned that my upstairs neighbor, who was something of a best friend, announced she wasn't coming back. It was just a pile of uncertainty that my highly emotional self wasn't ready for.

During RA training, we went off to a camp for an overnight. The residence directors and ARD's got to do a bunch of cool ropes courses and stuff, but the rest of us were doing the usual emotionally intense team trust building exercises. As you probably know, some of that stuff is nonsense in the first place, so I was not interested and not feeling it. I had a mini-breakdown because I didn't feel like I was up for this. I ended up having a confessional of sorts with the director of res life. He was kind of a tool, as I recall, but he gave me a pep talk and I moved on.

As that day began to wind down, I started talking to one of the RA's from an all-women dorm. She was a senior, and for whatever reason, we hit it off. She was extraordinarily driven academically, and I was honestly a little intimidated by her. If that weren't enough, she was also a serious distance runner with all kinds of school records. She was in amazing shape.

My fellow staff all kind of dispersed to the cabins, but I continued to hang out with "Jenny" under a clear starry sky. As you might expect, this led to a great deal of making out. At this point in my life, I was not particularly experienced with women, and I don't know if I was keeping up. Truth be told, I've only been that jacked up on hormones a half-dozen times in my life. I didn't get back to the cabin until around 3 a.m., and I had "the pain."

Back on campus, the next few days, we spent some evening down time together, mostly in her room. I remember watching Arsenio Hall on her TV in her dark room. This was very much a trial by fire affair for me. I hadn't spent a lot of horizontal time with any girls, and there I was. I had no idea what I was doing, or perhaps should be doing. All I knew is that I was making out with this beautiful woman who, the way I remember it, would likely be someone that any heterosexual male would enjoy being with in this situation.

The school year started, and this continued for a few days. We had even settled into something of a serious dating routine even, eating together when possible. Then there was a pivotal event that I was completely oblivious to. In one of our late night make-out sessions, one of her breasts "accidentally" came out of the tank top she was wearing. I was completely clueless. I didn't think it was intentional, but she wasn't in any hurry to correct the situation. It's embarrassing to even think about how oblivious I was. She was coming on to me in a significant way, and I didn't respond.

I don't remember if it was that night, or the next night, but she was a little more direct about my intentions. For reasons not entirely clear to me at the time (and completely regrettable), I told her that I wanted to wait for the "right situation," something that I would later learn did not exist. At that point, she figured that it wasn't going to work out, and she was probably right.

It's easy to see now that I had my head up my ass. I don't think negatively about her intentions or character, because she really was in to me. But given her driven personality, and a lot more experience, she also had pretty clear expectations for a relationship, and wasn't willing to settle for anything less. I respect that.

I would later learn from a friend who had dated her at length that she was essentially a good person, and her sex drive was a component of who she was. It made sense that my hangups were not going to appeal to that part of her requirements. For me, I can't believe how silly I was. There's no question that she would have caught me up on years of inexperience, and I might have been better off for it. It wasn't even the only opportunity I would have like that during that year.

The "Jenny" situation was not one of my stronger college moments, to say the least. The things I learned from the encounter wouldn't actually be obvious to me until many years later, after my divorce and during my dating years. Put simply, everyone has a certain view on how they integrate sexuality into relationships. No one is right or wrong (though one could legitimately argue that some people exhibit unhealthy behavior), but it's critical to communicate those standards and decide whether or not they're compatible for you. Building a relationship can be hard, so why make it complicated by requiring a lot of guess work? "Jenny" did the right thing, even if her efficiency sounded a little cold.

Mental exhaustion: I haz it

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 26, 2014, 8:17 PM | comments: 0

My brain is like goo right now. I have to admit, I've only felt that a few times in my life. It's a little like physical exhaustion, in that it slows you down, but more than anything I find it makes you seek out experiences that require no intelligence. Wow, that sounds a lot like being a 13-year-old boy.

Part of it is my job, and I'm not complaining. It challenges me, and staying plugged-in at a high level most of the time leads to pretty satisfying results. Given my long history of struggling with job satisfaction, that's a good thing. Surprisingly, a lot of that plugged-in-ness comes from constant evaluation over whether or not I'm distributing my time effectively. My job combines a lot of things that I've had to do independent of each other in various gigs, but now I have them all. That's awesome, but it requires practice. Plus, you know, making software requires a lot of mental gymnastics regardless of role.

We're in the home stretch right now for the project, and the client is super happy, so we just need to deliver. Being the "new guy" of sorts, after almost five months and on my first project, obviously I don't wanna screw that up. It has been hard to switch off at the end of each day.

Outside of work, there are challenges at home with Simon. Some of them are familiar, and some are new. In every case, I spend a lot of time trying to separate my desire to respond emotionally from a more clinical and analytical response. Nothing is harder than not responding emotionally to the actions of this little human that you made, because you care so much. As he gets older, ASD manifests itself in different ways, and his extreme responses to things he can't process are harder to contain. Sometimes the best you can do is let these reactions run their course. It's hard to let him suffer and constantly wonder if he's able to learn from negative experiences. I give a world of credit to the parents who deal with a wider range of challenges, and can't really judge anything they do.

When I say I'm mentally exhausted, it's not that I'm complaining, exactly, but more that I need to acknowledge that I desperately need to unplug. Being that engaged all of the time can take a toll on you, and burn you out, and that makes you less effective in your job and as a parent (your other job).

Relive those college days

posted by Jeff | Saturday, October 25, 2014, 10:10 PM | comments: 0

I was thinking the other day how the lack of a widely used Internet in my college days means I didn't write much in those days. Well, I did, but that was my weekly newspaper column. Those are fun to read, because they remind me about how I was naive and sometimes a little overly idealistic.

I certainly never wrote about my personal life in the newspaper, which in retrospect was something of a train wreck. I really sucked at relationships. I had a habit of making girls my best friends, was oblivious to those that outright wanted to fuck me, and my first love was about as immature a relationship as you could have (long distance, no less). Oh, and one of my female friends ended up being a psycho who stalked herself and apparently blamed it on me, I later learned. Those were strange times.

My professional ambitions were also a little nuts. I wouldn't go as far as to say they were impractical or unrealistic, but more that they were desires not fueled by anything other than fantasy. It's hard to say if that's good or bad, because we certainly have a bell curve we follow in terms of risk over time.

I need to write about some of those stories. They're a staggering 20 years in the past now. They're fun to think about because in some ways they make me think more about my present life. I don't know how I could have been so clueless about so many things then, but certainly some of it was that I just wasn't willing to take anyone's advice as the gospel. I'm still that way, though now it's more of an issue of consideration and not disregard.

Now where do I start...

The quest for the die-cast monorail toy

posted by Jeff | Monday, October 20, 2014, 10:41 PM | comments: 0

I don't know if it's parental influence or intrinsic motivation, but Simon does not generally desire toys. Even at 4, while he understands the process of purchasing things, he doesn't really ask for them. Many of his toys are hand-me-downs or used, and he tends to lock in on certain things for awhile and then defers them to standby status.

He really likes vehicles on tracks, but he kind of does the same thing with the variations he has (and there are several). He lines up the included or native vehicles, then adds cars trains or whatever to them, lines them up, and that's his "play." Honestly it was one of the earliest signs of ASD, before he was even 2, when he "parked" cars in size order against the wall. He doesn't have much of a history of imaginative play, which is something that has deeply concerned me.

A funny thing happened though, when we moved to Orlando. As we traded Cedar Point for Walt Disney World, Simon was now exposed to a world of transportation that included trains, buses, boats and of course, the iconic monorail. He eventually figured out who Mickey Mouse was, but it was the transportation that seemed to capture his obsession. Before too long, he was reciting cast members and recorded spiels. Even though he was struggling with language, he was moving toy cars around and talking about them coming to "a 'plete stop."

A friend of mine generously gave us his toy monorail, the thing that's $80 in the gift shops. While probably not an ideal toy for a kid Simon's age, he was completely enamored with it. More importantly, he wanted to accessorize it with a place for people to get out. The Duplo platform was born with some help from us, and it was followed by other things like a "hotel" that was sort of inspired by the Contemporary. Sure, we put him up to it originally, but more spiels came, and he started to tell us about how things were supposed to work.

At about the same time, we were struggling a bit with potty training. The kid wouldn't drop a deuce in the toilet, even though he knew how. He preferred to get a diaper on and go there instead. We happened to be in a gift shop at WDW, when we saw they had die-cast parking lot trams. One of his favorite things is to sit in the back row and talk to the spielers, so one of us came up with the idea that we would incentivize pooping on the potty with the tram. He earned the requisite number of stickers in almost no time flat. It worked like a charm.

Like I said, this isn't a kid with strong desire for "stuff," but his borderline obsession with Disney transportation and our desire to get this done were a good match. We repeated this with autonomous butt wiping, which he needed for school (Disney buses), and in the last few weeks, peeing standing up (a smaller, die-cast monorail). The monorail train was really hard to find, and the kid was crushed when we couldn't find it on Saturday for our first family visit to Magic Kingdom in many weeks. Diana went the distance, and found a number that pointed her to the gift shop at the Swan hotel of all things. She brought it home today, and we kept our end of the bargain.

Simon still does his parking exercise with the transportation vehicles, but I feel like we hit another milestone for imaginative play. He kept the box, and he's parking the new monorail in it as if it were a hotel. He explains it has to stop just so, that way the people can get on. It's a step in the right direction. I understand now that he's wired to think about doors, elevators and the order and alignment of objects, and we can't change that about him. But we also see that we can help him develop the imaginative play in addition to those stereotypical behaviors.

We have a new therapist starting with Simon, and it will be interested to see what she can bring out of him. He seems like he's on the edge of a major and rapid breakthrough on language skills, which is a huge relief. We're definitely dealing with some severe sensory issues (he's pushing his head or chin into us in very painful ways lately), but clearly two sessions of school per day are having a serious impact on his learning.

Spicy chicken and waffles

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 19, 2014, 6:29 PM | comments: 0

My BFF asked me how I make my spicy chicken and waffles, so I figured I would just blog about it and share my gift with the world.

I cut chicken breasts length wise first. The Schwan's cuts I use make about three strips a piece, but grocery store tits will definitely be larger. Marinate them for at least six hours in this mixture:

  • Lime juice
  • Sriracha sauce
  • A little soy sauce
  • Olive oil

After the chicken has soaked that stuff up, make three little pans:

  • Egg (Beaters or equivalent are fine, maybe better)
  • Flour mixed with generous amounts of Penzey's Berbere seasoning
  • Panko bread crumbs

Spray some cooking spray on a baking sheet. Dip each strip of chicken in the egg, then the flour-Berbere mix, then the egg, then the panko bread crumbs. Put the strips on the baking sheet.

Bake at 400 degrees for 18 minutes. Serve over waffles with butter and maple syrup (not that fake corn syrup shit). Enjoy!

Why I'm not writing much lately

posted by Jeff | Friday, October 17, 2014, 9:29 PM | comments: 0

There was a time where I used to blog like the words were diarrhea. If I didn't get the words out, they were uncomfortable and I felt all cramped up and uncomfortable. As it turns out, I often blog in my head in those moments where I have the brief opportunity... while driving, standing in the shower or while having a movement. Sometimes that's good enough to alleviate the mental cramping.

And sometimes I worry that I won't have something documented that I'll want to look back on. For example, I can look at posts from 2005 and 2006, scary but in some ways amazing times, and get a pretty good feel for how I felt back then. That's despite the fact that I left a whole lot of details out, specifically my split with Steph, and some extremely important relationships during that time.

I want to write more, but there are things holding me back:

  • I don't have the mental bandwidth. Part of the evolution I went through in writing, especially from 2004 to 2009, was to think more carefully about how and what I would write. A short rant about something isn't my style anymore. That kind of consideration means letting the gears turn. The gears are already fully involved at work and trying to think rationally about how to respond to challenges at home with Simon. Sometimes I just don't have anything left.
  • My time is prioritized differently. While my key writing time used to be late in the evening, I tend to go to bed a little earlier and get up earlier for work, despite working from home 60% of the time. I want to play with Simon, talk to Diana, learn about new things and maybe even play some video games now and then.
  • I don't want to add to the noise. It used to be that people who wrote on the Internet had something to say, and tried to be informed about their opinions. Sure, I'd like to think that's me, but I worry that I would be just another asshat, like the talking heads on cable "news."
  • I've dialed back on what I feel I want to share. Back in 2006, I openly wrote about starting a job and not caring for it at first. No one I knew read that stuff. Now I have my name in the domain name. I'm not hard to find.
  • The deterrent that I'm least proud of is the fact that I'm actually tired of hearing from people criticizing my sharing and observations around Simon's ASD issues. I famously disregard what people think of me, and here I am worn down by it. Acknowledging this causes a fair amount of self-loathing.
  • Stop me if you've heard this one. I feel like some of the things that I want to write about are total repeats. I might be running out of stories, or my life is far more repetitive than I realize.

The truth is, life is good, my job is pretty kick-ass, the sun shines almost every day, there are people who love me and that I can love back... things are generally peachy. It's just that writing isn't serving me right now, and I've never done it for an audience.

I'm sure I'll come around eventually. There is no shortage of topics in my brain.

People need to be scared of something

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 12, 2014, 7:42 PM | comments: 0

I have a million thoughts about this subject, but I don't have the patience to write about it right now. People, or specifically, Americans, don't seem content unless they're scared of something. Politicians know it, and they play into it. Whether it's the economy or terrorism (and now Ebola), they're selling fear. Various forms of media know it too, because it retains an audience.

I can't related to people so intent on being scared.

What do I do with my time?

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 12, 2014, 7:27 PM | comments: 0

Today I had a strange urge to just sit around and daydream. I used to spend a lot of time doing that when I was younger. I don't mean living in my head and overthinking every little aspect of my life, but just letting my mind wander to whatever, fantasize and let go. I honestly don't think most people can do it.

My first instinct was to feel bad about it, like this wasn't a good use of my time. How did I arrive at that? I can only assume it's a symptom of getting older, with some vague notion that time is not unlimited. But how am I spending that time, and what's wrong with spending some of it daydreaming? I was a lot more creative when I spent more time doing it.

I sleep about 50 hours per week, which seems like a lot when you think about it. Sometimes it's less, because I end up staying up late, which always leaves me feeling tired the next day.

It's easy to calculate time spent working. Since my job involves client work, we have to make sure we reflect the time accurately so they know how much to bill. As you would expect, I spend something between 40 and 45 hours a week working. When you like what you do, that's perfectly reasonable. While I do get the growing urge to unplug from it over time, it's nice to enjoy it.

During the week, I spend about three hours a day total with Simon, which isn't a lot when I think about it. Weekends, we're pretty much together all day, though Diana and I trade off a bit when he requires attention or supervision. After he goes to bed, Diana and I have time to connect, catch up and such. That time also involves TV or Internet stuff, but it varies.

I probably spend 8 to 10 hours per week coding for fun. I likely spend 5 to 8 a week reading news on the Internet, most of it around technology. Eating and thinking about eating is immeasurable. Then there are miscellaneous leisure activities that are random in amount, like visiting theme parks, shooting video or photos as a hobby, playing video games, etc. There used to be a good 5 to 10 hours per week in engaging in physical activity, but I've totally slacked on that, and I feel it sometimes.

What would I like to do be doing with my time? Mostly the same stuff, but in different proportions. Ironically, the two things I would like to do most on a weekly basis oppose each other. I'd like to get out walking more, and I'd like to have a three-hour lunch in a cool outdoor place while I write code for fun. I'd also like to have date nights with Diana more regularly, but we haven't been great at making that happen.

It's OK to be that forum guy

posted by Jeff | Friday, October 10, 2014, 10:55 PM | comments: 0

I've joked about how Internet forum software is almost a curse, especially after I worked on the MSDN forums at Microsoft for awhile. That's when I got more serious about making POP Forums open source as well. I think at some point I decided to just embrace it, that the app would be with me for a very long time. I've definitely not been consistent in giving it attention, but lately I've been making a lot of commits.

Part of the desire to maintain it has always been to stay sharp regardless of how much coding I was doing in my day job. I wasn't doing much at all in my time at SeaWorld Parks, and in my new role, I do some bug fixing, a lot of pairing, code reviews and such, but as a percentage, it's not a lot of coding. And that's OK, because that's the career band I'm in, and where I want to be. What's motivating me now is that I work with such excellent people that I feel like I can and should raise my game.

I've actually done quite a bit of feature work, some of it obvious, some of it not. I did a lot of work to make it scale in a multi-node environment, pulling out all of the caching so it can run across many servers and be redundant. I finally did post preview, too. I adopted Bootstrap for the UI so it's easier to skin. The biggest feature is enabling Q&A forums, which is something I wanted to add for awhile. I need to roll it into CoasterBuzz to confirm it all works, then I'll do a release.

I suspect there will be significant refactoring to do after this release, when vNext of the various frameworks is real. That's why I haven't done any significant refactoring around the code (and it definitely needs it).

I need a vacation

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, October 8, 2014, 6:52 PM | comments: 0

One of the things I did very poorly last year after moving to Orlando was take time off. Part of this was because I was contracting, despite higher rates, and time off meant no money. Given my militant saving practice for the house, I didn't take much time off. The other thing though was that I made the rookie Floridian mistake of feeling like I was sort of on vacation just by living here.

Now I have a salary job so I don't lose out for time off, either by personal time off or holidays, so that's awesome. I still get the Florida feel though, and I keep needing to remind myself to use some of that three weeks off I'm earning. I've already got about a week to use. But I've only used one day so far.

I really like my job, and I never get up thinking I don't want to go. It has been awhile since I've had a gig like that. The desire to have time off has nothing to do with job satisfaction. It's just that it's too easy to get mentally burned out if you don't get a solid break now and then. Sometimes I forget that, but I'm feeling it. I'm near the end of a specific product, and I've tried my best to bring my "A" game and do what I do. It's almost time for a break.

Fortunately, the holidays aren't far away, and given the time I started, I do have to use about two days of my time before the end of the year (there's a limit to what you can carry over). I look forward to spending time with Simon and Diana this year, seeing the lights at WDW (we didn't get to much last year due to Diana's foot surgery), and making our first home together feel Christmasy.

I do need to bank some time next year, because there will be some trips up north for sure. I'm not even sure where, but Sandusky, Charlotte and Santa Claus sure are on the list!

Charitable giving is a personal thing

posted by Jeff | Monday, October 6, 2014, 10:30 AM | comments: 0

I think anyone who says they weren't tired of seeing crappy vertical cell phone video of people dumping water on their head on Facebook during the ALS ice bucket stuff is totally lying to you. It blew up and faded away in amazingly record time. Anthropologically inclined people found the whole thing fascinating, and understandably so. I think it's great that it raised a lot of money for ALS research and awareness, but I was a little troubled by the tone of the participants at times.

There were two things that left me uneasy (well, three, but the part about people doing the stunt and not donating anything is hard to quantify). The first was the desire of some to publicly shame others who were not interested in participating. I mean, we're talking about adults who were exerting peer pressure and bullying tactics toward others. Still others would get in to pissing matches about whether or not they were doing the challenge right. Seriously? If someone donated and encouraged others to donate, who cares?

The other thing that was uncomfortable was that giving to any charitable cause is, for many, an intensely personal thing, and this was a decidedly public display. I understand that's how these social media phenomena work, but I think we all get involved in certain things for certain reasons. I mean, would I throw as much time and money as I do toward Give Kids The World if there weren't some deeply personal reasons that I believe in the cause? Probably not. And while I will solicit donations from others, I do understand that not everyone will be interested. That's cool, I'm not going to judge. We all have limited resources and are careful about how we choose to use those resources.

At the end of the day, we give of our time and money to things that we feel a connection for. The satisfaction we get from that should first and foremost be the support and execution of a non-profit's mission. That's what really matters.

Why does everything have to "kill" something else?

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 2, 2014, 11:31 PM | comments: 0

It seems that every time a new something or other comes around, it has to be described as a potential "killer" of something else. It's completely annoying.

It's especially bad in technology. It seems like everything has to be a Google, Facebook, Apple or whatever "killer." Why can't something just be what it is, even if it's just occupying a parallel subset of space? Is it because we like the idea of some upstart underdog taking down some established thing? Is it because we're obsessed with the big hits, and anything less is failure?

It's crazy how much people talk about what the biggest and most popular things are. Business is like that, too. A guy can't open a burrito stand that does a few hundred G's a year without someone comparing it or expecting to be the next Chipotle.

Movement routine disruption

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 2, 2014, 9:41 PM | comments: 0

One of the best things about living in Central Florida is the fact that you can pretty much do stuff outside all year, and it's rare that you need more than a light jacket. That said, I've had a pretty awful time prioritizing life in such a way that I'm active, and I'm feeling it.

The good news is that I haven't gained any weight. I'm actually down a few since my binge-eating stressful spring. I'd still like to drop another 20, but in the last two years or so I've been more focused on whether or not I feel fit and not the scale. And lately, I feel slightly crappy and unfit.

I'm up against several things I haven't managed:

  • Since Simon started school, he's out more than 7 hours a day. That means earlier bed time, and that we aren't doing our little boys' nights out at the theme parks. We would easily walk four or five miles on those excursions, probably once a week. It's great bonding time for me and the little man, and we don't have time. Even getting out into the neighborhood after dinner is difficult, with the window between dinner and pajama time an hour at best. And you know, sometimes he just wants to play at home, and I respect that.
  • It's been damn hot and or extra rainy. July and August are a bitch, with high humidity. I'll still take that over being snowbound for three months of the year, but it's gross. Last year I beat this by going to the mall near work once or twice a week to walk around indoors.
  • Speaking of work, I spend more time at it. I'm not killing myself, and I generally top out at 45 hours at most, but some of the problem is that I don't respect boundaries because I'm at home typically three days a week. I start at 8, bring lunch to my desk, and quit a little after 5. I don't have an excuse... I should be making an hour to get out and walk, go to the pool, the gym or something. And when I'm at the office downtown, I have access to this beautiful park around Lake Eola. I've circled it only twice in four months.

I know there's a problem because when we do get out to the parks for a few hours, lately only every other week, I feel it in my feet. I think I'm at a pretty critical age where if I don't use it I'll lose it. It's harder to come back the older you get.

Slowly working off the regret

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, September 30, 2014, 9:50 PM | comments: 0

I can't say I've ever had any true regrets once time has passed, but I do have one that has been nagging me for a couple of years. Today I had another of a series of events that have helped me correct it.

I've made no secret that I think moving back to Cleveland after two years in Seattle was a horrible decision. I think this despite the fact that financially it exceeded my expectations in every way, and to be sure, we had some really good times and made some great memories there. More than anything, it was the professional regret. While I wasn't crazy about the team I switched to in those last six months at Microsoft (because it never shipped anything), I think in the bigger context there was a place for me there. At the very least, there was no shortage of great opportunities around town. The weird thing is that I remember standing at a window in Building 34, looking out at the mountains, accepting a job that I knew deep down was probably a mistake. But I put that instinct aside with the thought of finally getting ahead and not paying for two houses. That, and summers at Cedar Point.

About six weeks later, I started that job in downtown Cleveland, working for a marketing agency. I remember something about an email exchange I had with my would-be boss during the drive cross-country that set off red flags, though I don't remember specifically what it was. As fall was setting in, and Cleveland went from green to gray, I was already getting a sinking feeling, like I made a horrible mistake. I felt like I had failed and I couldn't even tell you why.

After a week and a half at that job, they still had no work to give me. Not content to sit around, I spent a couple of days prototyping something that I thought they needed, and that would differentiate them from other agencies around town. I brought it to a partner, and we did some napkin math around what it would take to build it. It felt like something interesting was happening, finally.

By the end of the third week, the only billable work I had to do was to FTP some files for someone. That wasn't exactly something that was using my skills. That day, they called me into the office and let me go, not because they didn't have any work for me, but because I didn't adhere to their strict policy about office hours. So they wanted me to physically be there until 5:30 and navigate awful downtown traffic at that time after doing only whatever I could find to keep busy.

What had I done? I moved my new little family for that? Was I, in some way, just being unrealistic? I was so used to working with amazing people. I felt awful for the stress I was putting on Diana over the situation. Fortunately, it was bonus and vesting time just before I left Seattle, so there was no real financial danger. I also never really stopped looking, and had an interview that very afternoon. It wasn't long before I had an offer from Humana, and began working remotely. Still... I remember being in that dark, downtown office in a trendy repurposed century building, and thinking I made an awful decision.

Now, to keep some amount of perspective, even then I knew that the feelings of regret were over something that was likely short lived. I had been there before. The layoffs in the early part of the decade and in 2008 most obviously led to new things. Life isn't permanent, and as it turns out, not much that happens in life is either.

Since that time, there have been several events that have helped heal that regret. I haven't been able to totally let go, but I'm getting there.

It started with my year at Humana. While the work and the position wasn't always as challenging as I would have liked, what was completely validating about it was the fact that I was working remotely. For me, it not only proved that I had the discipline to do it, but it proved in the general sense that distributed teams can work. It meant that geography wasn't nearly as important as I thought.

I did leave Humana to be proactive (I wasn't convinced my position would be there much longer), but after some less than stellar contract work (that did pay insanely well) and the whole desire to change climates, we landed in Orlando and I got a year to work at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. The work wasn't unfamiliar, but the scope was insanely huge. I was making design decisions that would impact the company for some time to come. I was having opportunities to mentor developers, learn new things about security and compliance, work with some great vendors, and, oh yeah, it was a theme park company. I don't know that I would've had an opportunity with that kind of scope and responsibility when I was in the PNW.

Then there was something that happened today. Keep in mind that I've had a number of false starts with companies that make software on a sort of agency model. I joined one early last summer, sort of. While it is a company that makes software as a third-party, its methodology is a lot closer to what a pure software player would do, and does it exceptionally well. In fact, it's not really an agency model at all. The short version of my position is to run a development team in a technical capacity, which can include everything from design and code review to in the weeds coding. I have a lot of autonomy (and work mostly remote again). Today one of the senior managers from the client I'm working with cornered me after a meeting, and was just gushing about how awesome our team has been on this project. I deflect most of the credit to the team, but secretly it feels awfully good to get that kind of validation that you're doing it right.

I miss Seattle every day, including everything from the people to the mountains. But there's no question that the future I've tried to make since then has been remarkable. There's an important lesson there, that I've learned before, but don't always retain. There are few things that end in your life that don't make way for something new, and you're likely going to be better for the experience. Being in that shitty office in downtown Cleveland on a dreary day in October felt gross, but it gave me focus, and I'm in a better place because of that seemingly poor decision. That regret is finally starting to fade.

There is no typical autism

posted by Jeff | Thursday, September 25, 2014, 10:58 PM | comments: 1

We've met a great many parents of kids on the autism spectrum, as you would expect given school, therapy and community groups. Obviously we're not experts on the subject, and always learning given Simon's challenges. The thing that has surprised me the most is how different every kid is. The course of therapy and education is dramatically different for everyone.

Not only are the therapies different, but so are the range of issues, which is part of the reason that they lump all of these things into a "spectrum." There isn't a lot of awareness around this range unless you're in the middle of it. I'm trying not to react with anger when I hear people say things like, "He seems normal," because the truth is that they just don't know or understand what autism is.

If you're my age, your first exposure to autism is probably the movie Rainman. Later you had people associating it with Aspergers specifically due to the "Jerry" character on Boston Legal. Then you have any number of TV and movie kids, to say nothing of news stories, about kids who don't talk or make eye contact. You know how many of the kids I've met exhibit any of these specific issues? Zero.

In fact, we're very fortunate that Simon is the exact opposite of some of the most stereotypical behaviors. The kid queues like a champ, and is super polite to adults, almost to a fault. He can make eye contact, and be very expressive (if not understood) when he wants to. On the other hand, he plays in the stereotypical ways a lot of the time, organizing and aligning toys instead of using his imagination. He struggles to adhere to directions. He has the classic meltdowns periodically. It's completely strange how no two kids share the same checklist. And if that weren't hard enough, there are varying degrees of the behavior and the ability to modify the behavior.

So sure, Simon seems "normal," and I suspect he will seem so even more if his therapy and IEP are successful. The mystery that is autism includes a lot of circumstances where kids can learn to learn in a way that suits their different wiring. That's the reason it's so important to be proactive.

My displeasure over the "normal" comment (and for the record, the best thing I can come up with is "atypical wiring") might be tempered to an extent if people could just understand that what they perceive is an oversimplification of the reality. I don't think my kid is broken, and by me talking about it, neither should you. I share because despite the uniqueness of every situation, sharing information is what makes this all a little easier for someone.

The takeaway for you should be this: There is no typical autism. It's an enormous range of stuff. It's usually not Rainman. We're not being overbearing or overcautious parents. But it would be a disservice to our child if we didn't do everything we could to address what professionals have identified. He's a beautiful kid, and he's the joy of our lives.

Bootstrap in POP Forums, and why I resisted

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, September 24, 2014, 8:58 PM | comments: 1

I haven't been writing much lately, in part because I spent a good portion of my free time in the last week overhauling the POP Forums UI to use the Bootstrap framework. You can see what it looks like on the demo site. It took me a long time to cave and do this, but I think I had pretty good reasoning.

The forum app has always been at the core of my personal site projects, chief among them CoasterBuzz. I'm a little meticulous about markup and CSS. I hate having too much of it. I hated using jQuery UI because it felt like bloat. Grid frameworks always seemed to require more markup (and they still do) and global CSS almost always causes trouble with other stuff when you drop it in. All prior experiments with these things failed, and let's be honest... a two-column layout is a nut that has long since been cracked and requires very little markup or CSS. In order to bend the forums a little to match the rest of the site it would be contained in, there's incentive to keep it light in terms of CSS.

I mostly achieved this. The number of overriding classes was not huge, and more global stuff around common elements mostly worked. You could basically drop the forum inside of a div and be on your way. It even worked pretty well on tablets, and in my last significant set of tweaks back in 2012, doing a responsive design didn't feel like a priority.

And then there was the mobile experience. One of the trade-offs for responsive is that you typically end up with more markup and CSS instead of less, so I wasn't ready to fully embrace that. Some people still weren't on LTE networks either, so I was bit conscious. Since the UI rendering was done by ASP.NET MVC, it was easy to strip down the UI to mobile-specific views, and it only took a few hours to do it for the entire app, as well as CoasterBuzz. I also didn't force it, and users could choose mobile with a link at the bottom of the page. In fact, you can see it today on CB if you scroll to the bottom. It's super fast, super light weight and concentrates on the reading of text. You can debate the merits of different views vs. responsive all day, but in this case it did exactly what I wanted with very little effort.

Around the time of that CB release in 2012, Twitter open sourced Bootstrap and it was starting to get popular. Early last year, it seemed like the web in general was starting to adopt its own look and feel, largely due to Bootstrap. It's like the web as an OS started to have a UI style guide. I was finally starting to think seriously about it because its use was so widespread, and they were even baking it into the MVC project templates. Then they released v3, and it broke a lot of stuff. That threw me back into caution mode.

Since that time, several things have motivated me to reconsider Bootstrap. Again there's the bigger issue of adoption, which has become pretty epic in scope. Then there's the large number of themes, which are available in great numbers, and range from free to cheap. It isn't hard to make your own either. I've also been dissatisfied with using mobile ad formats, because they don't pay, and the regular ones aren't well suited to mobile specific UI. After two years of phone upgrade cycles, more people have more bandwidth and faster connections. On top of that, the devices themselves are faster at rendering. Oh, and most importantly, Bootstrap itself has very clearly matured. That's pretty compelling.

So I made the revisions and committed them. The admin pages haven't been updated, but I'll get there. I feel like this gives me a good fresh start to make more changes and continue to see its evolution.

One month with an electric car

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, September 24, 2014, 2:48 PM | comments: 0

Time flies when you're being a smug EV driver. Just kidding, I'm not smug. We've had the Nissan Leaf now for a month, and I thought I would share our experiences with it.

First off, this is a commuter car, and it's practical because we have a second car that runs on gas (well, it's a hybrid, but you know I mean). I obviously can't take the Leaf to Tampa because its range is limited to around 90 miles. That's OK, because when I need to go that far, I can just as easily drive the Prius V. So for the people who ask that question, no, you probably can't use it as your only car if you need to travel further. I know some people who don't have a car at all, so I suppose it depends on how you roll.

The range is completely a non-issue then. Unless we're leaving Orange County, it's completely unlikely that we'll ever need to drive 90 miles. In practice, it looks like you could squeeze 110 miles out of it pretty easily in ECO mode and no air conditioning, but I'm not sure why you'd want to. When I drive it into the office downtown twice a week, there are charging stations there. Diana takes it GKTW Village about once a week as well, where there is a free charger. Believe it or not, we don't charge it at home very often at all.

At this point, I don't think we'll install a 240v charger in the garage. The advantage would be that you could get a 100% charge from zero in four hours, or zero to 80% probably in two or three. Given our driving habits, that's never necessary. For one thing, we never get much lower than 25%, and the conventional 120v charger has yet to not finish overnight. It's rated for 20 hours for zero to 100%, but again, it's usually the last 20% that takes the longest.

In terms of comfort and space, it's surprisingly cozy for a small car. Even the back seat isn't terrible, though anything is smaller when comparing to a Prius (no idea how Toyota squeezes so much space into those cars). I especially like the arm rest on the console, which is soft and squishy for my delicate elbow. In great fits of irony, this is the first car I've ever had that had seat and steering wheel heaters. You know, now that I live in Florida.

Then there's the whole thing about driving it. The acceleration of an electric car is addictive. I always had hints of this when driving the Prius in PWR mode, but being purely electric is something amazing. From a dead stop, you can launch it. It's not like a muscle car either, because the wheels don't spin, though they will screech a little around corners as the car will slide a bit. And honestly, because the cost per mile for energy is about half of what a hybrid is, and almost a fourth of that of bigger cars, there isn't much expense to driving like a bit of a moron. All of that acceleration is cheap!

The car has a "B" braking mode, which is the equivalent of engine braking, and familiar to people who have a Toyota hybrid with a continuously variable transmission. The guy at the dealer plugged this as an enhanced regenerative braking mode, and while that's true, it's not really what it's for. It's for going down hills, down-shifting as it were with a typical automatic or standard transmission. If you want the more aggressive regenerative braking and somewhat neutered acceleration for the sake of range, it has the ECO mode for that. It might give you five or six more miles on a charge, but it makes it considerably less fun to drive.

The verdict at this point is that it's a pretty great car to drive, and surprisingly inexpensive to own and operate with the tax incentives (in this case given to Nissan since it's a lease), the rebates and the cheap energy. Even if our electricity here is two-thirds oil generated, it still comes up pretty green because of the efficiency of that electric generation over the single-car combustion engine. The net carbon footprint is obviously substantially lower, by half or more compared to an ICE car, depending on which research study you look at.

We like it, and it's definitely the most fun I've had driving any car in my garage. It's no Tesla, sure, but it's still a lot of fun.