PointBuzz (Guide to The Point) and CoasterBuzz have been with me now for almost two decades. The early days were a lot more fun because of the wild west nature of the Internet. It delivered on the promise that anyone, anywhere, could create something with somewhat limitless potential, as long as they could pay for the cost to host it. That was a challenge for sure, in the early years, even when at one point I was hosting stuff on a T-1 to my house on my own servers, but that eventually gave way to rented servers, and then to the cloud. But even now, it's definitely not free, especially if you want to do it right.
The path to doing this was always advertising, which was generally lucrative enough to pay the bills, and during the recession and layoffs, enough for me to pay my mortgage as well. When Doubleclick (then an agency that sold ads on behalf of publishers) dropped me in 2001, it would have been devastating if I didn't start the CoasterBuzz Club, because my hosting costs alone in those days were over a grand. Fortunately, people didn't expect everything on the Internet to be free, and they stepped up.
Things have changed a lot. Before you even get to the issue of financing a niche community site, there's the fact that people aren't that interested in niche community sites in most cases, or at least not if it isn't a really big niche. People are content to use Facebook for most anything. Original content isn't valued very much. Attention spans suck too, so discourse on the Internet has largely been reduced to 120 characters of stupid by the likes of people like the president. It's all very discouraging. For years I've watched more individuals come to CoasterBuzz, but spend less time there.
But the money problem is worse. Google and Facebook own more than half of the ad market, and of that, obviously Facebook ads only appear on Facebook. That leaves scraps for the various small players, and few of them service small publishers like me. While Google has actually improved its CPM's for our sites, they aren't filling all of the ad inventory. That by itself wouldn't be that big of a deal if it weren't for the fact that all of the secondary ad providers have either shriveled up and died or pay so poorly that they're not worth using.
This year I'll technically take a loss, because I count my travel expenses to the business, and rightfully so, as those are largely a function of maintaining the relationships I've built over the last few decades. There's still some room to squeeze out more savings from the hosting, but not very much.
And here's the pisser: Google has been reducing my payout by as much as a third after the end of the month, attributing it to "invalid traffic." Mind you, there's no human who you can call to ask them about this... I'm just out a couple grand with no recourse. It's infuriating.
I don't know how many more years I'll be up for that. Ironically, the same company that's fucking me and the ad business is also the one that provides a ton of organic traffic. There are 80,000 pages indexed on CB alone. It's just that the traffic isn't worth much these days.
I realized early in my professional life that it's important to take time off to recharge, see stuff, do stuff. When I switched careers and started making software, this became even more obvious to me, I suppose because it can be mentally exhausting at times. Later, when I started managing people, I got kind of religious in making sure people understood the importance of taking time off to avoid burnout. I think I secretly believed that the breaks were also a way to cope with jobs you don't like, too.
But now I have a job that I really like, and I think it might be worse. As we got to the end of this year, I realized that I only used about half of my time. I was checking because I was starting to feel it. I've only taken two days off in the last five months, and then I had the move (those days don't count), a weekend with my team in California, and more weekends of hanging lights, ceiling fans and curtain rods.
One of the challenges is that I feel like time off should be used to travel, but that's harder now that Simon is in grade school. We can't easily just yank him out of school for days, so booking vacations during the school year is hard. The holidays aren't ideal because everything everywhere is crowded. Summer isn't as bad, but it's also not very long. But those two days I did take off were with Simon staying with friends, and that was practically life changing. Best 67 hours or so Diana and I have had in a while!
If I were the type to make resolutions, it would be to use my time off better. My brain needs it.
When I built/bought my first house, it had an old school Honeywell thermostat with a mercury switch. That was a pretty straight forward device, closing the circuit to make the heat (or air conditioning) turn on. I had crazy high gas and electric bills, though it got better when Ohio separated transmission costs from source of energy, meaning you could choose where your energy came from. A rare, forward moment for Ohio.
Fast forward 16 years to my third house (all three have been new construction), and I had no idea what I was really walking into. Stuff has changed a bunch, but I hung out just enough with the field manager to understand a little of what was going on, though not enough to get my Nest installation right, it turns out. First off, the installation contains two systems, each with a blower and an outdoor heat pump. One set feeds the upstairs, the other downstairs. Already we've seen how remarkably efficient this is, even if the up front cost is higher. We have 57% more space than in the last house but already our November electric bill was about 15% lower. They're apparently doing this even with smaller floor plans now. That's a big change even in the four years since we started our last house.
The other new thing is that the outdoor units are now bidirectional heat pumps. This was my new discovery, as I didn't really know this was even a thing. Air conditioning isn't all that complicated. It's the process of taking heat out of the air (not putting "cold" into it). It stands to reason that if you can pull heat out of a tiny refrigerator and make the coils on the back slightly warm, you can pull heat out of the cold outside air and put it in your house. It's just the same process that the AC does, just in reverse. So the primary heat comes out of your ducts, not as hot as normal gas or electric heat, but the fan runs longer and heats over more time, ultimately using less energy. When the heat pump can't suck enough energy from the outside, it can supplement with traditional heating coils (in our case, since we don't have natural gas).
This is where the Nest actually does its best work, because over time it will learn what the most efficient combination of heat pump heat and typical electric coil heat is, factoring in the outdoor temperature and ambient heat from the other unit. A regular thermostat simply uses a cut off temperature, where it resorts to the internal heating when the outside gets below a certain temperature. We don't benefit from the thing learning when we're home (because I work from home... we're home most of the time), but for a few weeks each winter we get this algorithmic magic.
The thing I got wrong about the Nest installation was configuring it. I didn't know that it was a heat pump arrangement, and I just guessed on the wiring configuration well enough that air conditioning worked. Last night, I noticed the fan had been blowing for hours, but we were at 67 degrees and not getting any closer to 69. That's when I started learning about what the different wire conductors to the thermostat were used for, and the orange one, sure enough, went directly to the outside, where convention indicated it went to the reversing valve on the heat pump. That does what it sounds like it does... it turns it from an air conditioner to a heater by putting heat into the system instead of pulling it out. Then I remembered that my warranty registration also described the units as heat pumps, and I realized I configured the Nests wrong, without the primary and secondary heat.
After I got it right (at 4 a.m.), I ran a test to find that "auxiliary heat" was traditionally hot, while the standard heat was just warmish, as you would expect if you understood how the system works. Some hours earlier, I did not have that understanding. But by morning, the house was toasty as the outside hit 39, and to hit the programed 72 downstairs by 8 a.m., I imagine the heat pump was already running and the fan blowing.
I'm pretty excited about all of this energy efficiency, and I'm hoping that the other house sells for our target price so we have enough money to install solar and live in the inevitable future. Sustainable energy is not a goal so we can be smug, it's a goal for science and moving forward, proving that it's real and possible today, so others will follow. We can't wait for the government to make it happen, so this is how we can do our part.
I don't write about politics the way that I used to. There are a lot of reasons for that, not the least of which is a suspicion that no one is listening. Another reason is that I think it just adds to the noise. When it comes to politics, I've frankly been outraged most of my adult life. Some presidents are better than others, but I honestly believe they were all decent human beings with good intentions, even when they failed. Donald Trump is not one of those decent human beings.
But being outraged over his latest shit show doesn't change anything. Indeed, I think the fatigue has set in already, which leads to either acceptance or uprising. Fortunately, it seems to be leaning toward the latter. In terms of what any individual can do about it, outrage has few results. Accountability, however, does get results.
We've seen a man rise to power who takes no responsibility for his actions, which isn't itself as disappointing as the people who will overlook those actions (the subject of another post). However, what we're seeing is that those who support a fundamentally immoral person are being called out and held accountable. It's happening in backlash to people in Congress. It's happening at the state and local level. It's happening in the courts. Corporations, educational institutions and non-profits are feeling it. The message being sent is clear: If you choose to be on the wrong side of history, where racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and hate are the order of business, people will remember. We can have spirited debate about economic policy, and that's cool, but when you fundamentally appeal to the worst traits of humanity, people will remember. You will be held accountable.
And keep in mind, it's not a left or right issue. There is plenty of ridiculous behavior to go around.
Activism is not likes and shares on social media... that's just outrage. It is our duty as Americans to hold those accountable that work so hard to tear down 200 years of slow progress. Let your elected officials know they are accountable. They work for you (this includes the president). Support those organizations that engage in accountability.
Outrage takes too much energy to sustain. Use that energy to demand accountability.
I was fully expecting that I would hang on to my original Pixel (in Really Blue) for the full two years, but I was thinking about what to do for Diana. Her Nexus 5X just kind of died after two years. It came back to life once for me, but has since been deceased. She took my 5X then, which is the same age. Then Google did a Black Friday deal with a $100 of Fi credits and trade-ins, in what amounts to cutting a Pixel 2 cost in half, or a BOGO deal. So while I didn't need a new phone, the deal brought the cost down to something reasonable, and Diana doesn't have a hand-me-down.
Most importantly though, we get the new cameras, which are arguably the best (or tied for best) on any phone. I took 1,600+ photos in the last year, so that's important.
First impressions: It's a Pixel. The first version of this phone was fantastic, and the second improves on it in most every way. I know some people complain that the design is "meh," but I'm not sure how many more variations on a rectangle you can have. On this one, they reduced the glass on the back to just the top fifth. No glass on the back would be better (especially if you don't use cases), but I understand the radios need some breathing room. I got the white one, and it looks great. The metal has a less slick texture than the previous model, for the better. I kind of wish they did the front bezel in white, because I liked that about my blue Pixel. I know everyone loves the thin/no bezel thing, but as someone who has a tick where I rub the edges of the case, I'm OK with bezels. Also, the room for the speakers makes for pretty good speakers. (Sidebar: Spigen makes really solid, inexpensive cases that protect the phones without hiding them. This is my third phone with one of theirs.) I'm super annoyed about Google (and everyone else) ditching the headphone jack, but at least they put a dongle in the box. I imagine they partly did it for the water resistance, but it still sucks.
The screen is another great OLED (can't believe Apple is still doing backlit LCD on the 8), and unlike the original Pixel, this one isn't tweaked out. I had to use a developer option to tone down the color on the old one, but this one has an option in settings for "Boosted," "Natural" and "Saturated." Saturated was the default color space of the old one, but this one landed on Boosted. Natural feels a little flat to me. I like the always-on time and notifications on the screen, which on OLED doesn't take much energy to sustain.
A primary consideration for going all-in was the new camera, as I said, but I haven't done much with it yet. I can tell you that the power button double-tap to taking a picture is nearly instant. The processing, even when you turn on portrait mode, is crazy fast as well, and they haven't yet turned on the dedicated photo processor chip yet, which I believe is supposed to offload the HDR and depth of field stuff at a lower energy cost. That update is starting to roll out now with Android 8.1. Instead of having two cameras, they use what sounds like Canon's dual-pixel trick, where pixels next to each other can calculate distance (used on the Canons for auto-focus improvement) as well as computationally arrive at wider dynamic range. Google is using it to aid in the portrait mode and whatever other visual effects they decide to roll out.
My "tolerance" for Android was opened up a few years ago (as Windows Phone continued to die a slow death) with Google keeping its own phones on the latest bits, and they're at a pretty amazing place now. Widgets are the answer to WP live tiles, and contextual menus are occasionally useful. The live backgrounds are fun. Mostly, the OS gets out of the way now. The fine grained control of notifications has evolved to near perfection, and it's contextual to each notification. Careful logging of energy usage and data makes it easy to find the occasional rogue app (I'm looking at you, Walt Disney World).
The transition was fairly easy. Contacts have been synced in whatever service you prefer for years, and since mine are all in Gmail, this "just works." They now have some merging and copying capabilities too, in case you have your stuff spread across multiple accounts. From a security standpoint, it makes sense that not all passwords and accounts get copied, but with Google's auto-fill functionality, most recent apps that I've installed don't make me guess the passwords. The only thing that really bothered me in the move to the new device is that Google is hell bent on changing notification sounds every new model. I really liked the "Hey!" notification for texts in the last Pixel, so I downloaded the file and restored that. I also like a "real" phone ring, and for whatever reason, that carried over for me.
Net cost for these phones was $350 with the trades and Project Fi service credits. And remember we're averaging about $55 per month total. These are top of the line phones, state of the art, and it doesn't involve a grand for the phone on top of typical carrier pricing.
One of the things I've tried to do in various jobs is keep stakeholders and other people around a business in the loop on how the software development effort is going. Sometimes this involves just summarizing major accomplishments and velocity in a sprint, sometimes it means more widely distributed, generalized information. At my current job, I do a monthly update to the whole company, and share the accomplishments of the development team and the themes around the work we're doing.
Last month I reviewed the last year in my update, because I just crossed my first work anniversary. This month I was thinking a lot about where we were headed, and it got me to thinking about a major innovation phase. When I really stopped to think about it and look for innovation as a pattern, I realized that it's one of the few generalized phases that young technology companies often go through.
I've seen this go both ways. A lot of companies, or their internal software/IT efforts, are in a continuous battle to just barely stay ahead, and never get around to breaking new ground to serve their customers, internal or external, in a better way. In companies where the effort is just a cost center that supports a bigger business, they can kind of limp along this way, but for pure technology players, it's bound to lead to certain death.
On the other hand, when I worked at Insurance.com, my longest gig on a single product and in a technology company, I joined around the time that the innovation phase was just beginning. (A lack of innovation is not what eventually killed that company... that's another story.) In the years prior to me joining, the had been through the struggles and pain of trying to scale and figure out what the product was supposed to be. In my time there, we were dreaming up all kinds of things and building on a pretty stable platform where we could measure everything. We did nutty things that people take for granted today, like decide what kind of picture on a form resulted in higher sales conversion for specific demographics. I'm not sure that we measured the ROI on those projects, but it was still pretty cool.
The idea that we're headed into this phase is pretty exhilarating. It's what every technologist wants to be a part of, but honestly, we don't get to do it very often. As someone who has always struggled with job satisfaction, it's personally important.
There has been a lot of focus lately on whether or not homework has any value in school. I remember in my experience, only paper writing outside of class really helped me. The rest was of questionable value at best.
My kid is in grade 2 now, and the common core math stuff bothers me. That's ironic, because when I was in school, I was always in trouble for not showing my work, largely because I developed the shortcuts myself (i.e., 37+29=37+30-1). The problem is, as I appreciate more than ever with a kid on the autism spectrum, different brains are wired differently, and what makes perfect sense to one person does not to work for another person. My wife can't always grok it, I can, my kid is in the middle. But to a friend's recent point, the strategies are checklist items for some test the kids eventually have to take, and that's messed up. The goal should be finding working strategies, not mastering every one of them.
While my story is only an anecdote, there's no question in my mind that more structure and more homework would have been detrimental to me. I barely had any fucks left to give in high school, ranking somewhere in the upper middle of my class, while placing in the top 2% of ACT scores nationally. Then I B-/C+'d my way through college for grades no one has ever asked for. Education was just flexible enough to accommodate my personality while moving me forward. I don't see it being that way now, and it causes me and my kid a lot of anxiety.
I bring these scenarios up because the homework doesn't really change the outcomes. I find it particularly useless at younger ages, when frankly kids are already enduring too much structure and not enough world interaction, friends, the environment or whatever they're interested in. Projects are even worse at young ages, because frankly the kids don't have the ability to follow through on that kind of work, so it rests on the parents.
I'm not suggesting that I have all of the answers. I'm also in the camp of people that hates all of the participation trophy snowflake bullshit. But the problem with education is that it's stuck in a mix of expectations set by tradition and newer efforts set by people too far removed from front-line implementation to have valid opinions. My teacher friends all seem to love their jobs but hate the requirements. That's unfortunate, because I don't think there are many professions as important as teaching, and it seems like no one is listening to them.
I hope there's some momentum in this homework reduction thing. I'm all for it.
Microsoft is planning a significant renovation to, apparently, most of the campus over the next few years. In their blog post, they talk a lot about how people work best, the shift to collaborative spaces and such. I worked in Building 6, and later Building 5 (and then Building 34 after that), and it was kind of neat to be in those original buildings. In fact, legend has it that my coworkers that worked on Visual Studio Galleries at the time in 6 were using one of Bill Gates' original offices as their team room. 5 had some parts that were reconfigured for team rooms, focus, rooms, etc., but most of it was still the old school offices.
A few weeks ago I was Intuit headquarters for the small biz hackathon there, and it took place in one of their more modern buildings. We were of course surrounded by Google, and Facebook wasn't far away, with other big names like Amazon and Microsoft sprinkled about the area. You could tell even from the outside that many of these buildings were designed with the new open space concept in mind. There's a lot of debate over whether or not this evolution of office space is ideal, especially for software developers. Microsoft was famous for having individual office space, and culturally was in the midst of the shift to shared spaces when I was there. My personal opinion is that gigantic wide open rooms are not ideal. They're noisy and full of distractions, and when you look around at all of the headphones on, you can see everyone is battling that. But I do think that smaller team rooms are pretty great, and even awesome. I think it starts to fall apart when you have more than 8, maybe 10 people in the room.
But the bigger thing is that maybe we don't need offices at all. I totally get that some businesses and occupations needs butts in the seats. I'm not here to argue that. And yes, I'm a disciple of books like Rework and Remote, but does anyone ever really think about the cost of real estate? Most major cities are under $2 per square foot, but places like Seattle are over $3, San Francisco over $5 and New York City over $6! So assuming that a person can operate in 25 square feet, each employee costs you at least $600 per year, not including the common areas, and that's $1,800 in New York. Imagine you have a hundred employees... you do the math.
There are people who insist that collaboration suffers with remote, distributed teams, but I can tell you, after doing it five of the last six years, it does not. That doesn't mean you can't hire people who suck at working remotely (and I wonder if they'd be any better co-located), but technology makes it pretty easy. At my previous gig, I had people spread out across Florida, one in Seattle, one in Atlanta, one in nowhere-PA... all over. They were some of the best people I've ever worked with, and we delivered awesome software. My current team is similarly spread out, and output and quality is also super high. We also have a cultural expectation of using video calls when we talk, so it's far more personal. No taped-over web cams here!
While I get the allure of a technology campus, and maybe even miss it, it does seem limiting and expensive to seek having your people all in one place. Remote work works, and has not been an impediment for me. I'd like to "get the band back together" more often, sure, but our remoteness does not cause us to be ineffective.
I'm not afraid to say that the original Phantom of The Opera is what initially got me hooked on musical theater. I know, theater hipsters don't care for it, maybe because it's too popular, or whatever, but it sucked me in during my high school years, enough that I channeled that interest into minoring in theater for a year in college.
I finally saw the Vegas version almost 20 years after the show began its run in London. For the show in the desert, in a custom-built theater at The Venetian, they ditched the intermission, moved the chandelier stunt later in the show (where it makes way more sense), and made the venue itself an integral part of the show. I saw it there three times, and hearing "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" literally brought me to tears the first time. It played so well for someone who had built literally almost two decades of expectations around it. I wouldn't see it again until the tour that opened our beloved Dr. Phillips Center here in Orlando, and the changes and tweaks to the direction, along with the reimagined set design, were pretty great.
So while I don't understand the haters toward the original, it's still a special show for me. The only thing that I could ever pick about it was the chandelier crashing at the end of the first act, because that's certainly something a venue doesn't come back from, and they start the second act like, "No big deal, let's do another show!" And hey, they fixed that in the Las Vegas run (and in the movie). The idea that someone can appear evil and yet have good intentions, the villain who seeks redemption, that's a classic story. That someone can be inspired by this paradox of a person is great stuff to explore. There's psychological weight to the whole premise, and the music and lyrics serve the story.
And frankly, they should have left it there, with Meg holding the Phantom's mask at curtain.
Love Never Dies has apparently been around for a decade now, in what could only be described as a big budget workshop. It did a West End run first back in 2010 (with Sierra Boggess as Christine, who played the Vegas gig that I saw), and the critics hated it. Then it did a run in Australia, and a few minor runs around the world, before someone decided it was a good idea to tour it this Broadway tour season... for a show that has not in fact played on Broadway.
Let me say this up front: There is a lot of creative love in the show, for sure. The sets, lighting and costumes are beautiful. It's visually a beautiful show. Remove the terrible plot, and you have a lot of energy put into making this a spectacle that would serve the story well, if the story didn't suck. As Diana put it, "Well, a lot of people do get to work professionally because of this show." I suppose that's a good thing.
But the story... it's absurd. I'm going to just load you up with spoilers, because this milk is so beyond the expiration date that it'll give you the shits if you see it. Love Never Dies takes place a decade after the original Phantom, where he had made his way to New York, where he hangs out with (or maybe finances) a vaudeville/freak show at Coney Island. Apparently, the angry mob did not catch him at the Opera Populaire in Paris. I guess US Customs weren't as thorough back then. He starts the show banging on his organ complaining that his musical mojo just isn't there, and partly because he hasn't gotten over the fact that Christine took off to, you know, not hang with a murderous asshole.
Let's be clear about something though... Christine humored him in part because she confused the Phantom for her father, a musician himself that inspired her. While she does kiss him at the end of the show, I never thought there was a sexual vibe there. In fact, he even says very clearly, "That fate which condemns me to wallow in blood, has also denied me the joys of the flesh." To me that says his wiener was also deformed or absent as his nose. Hold on to that... we unfortunately have to come back to this point. So again, whatever Christine felt for him, it was largely platonic.
Meanwhile, Meg Giry, the ballet/chorus girl and daughter of Madame Giry, who ran the ballet, are for whatever reason starring in and producing the Phantom's vaudeville show in New York. They were apparently not above fleeing from the murderous freak, and they helped him cross the ocean.
As for Christine, she became a big star, she married Raoul, and they had a kid named Gustave. But all is not well in the family. It turns out that Raoul is kind of a dick with a drinking and gambling problem, and this entire premise is established in two lines of a confrontation with the paparazzi as they arrive in New York so Christine can sing at some new opera house. And hey, since she's in town, the Phantom can't help but visit her (at which time she hilariously faints, and I may have LOL'd). This is where shit gets really absurd, because now she's all mushy around him and acts like she wants to hump him, which is contrary to the "friend or father" vibe of the first show. They spent most of the first act of that show establishing the allure, genius and charm of the Phantom, and now, in the course of two minutes, following a decade of marriage and child raising, suddenly she has a toner for him. And that's after he went on a killing spree, dropped a chandelier on people and threatened to kill Raoul. It's fucking stupid. But hey, since he'll offer more money, she'll go sing at his show instead, because Raoul's drinking his cash away.
Oh, but it gets worse... a few minutes later, the Phantom meets Gustave. He plays a few bars on the piano, and the Phantom is like, "Holy shit! He's a musical genius like me! Wait, are we related?" The answer is yes. The seemingly non-sexual relationship from the first show, you know, where he declares that he can't bone hot singers because of fate or whatever, apparently boned the hot singer and gave her a child.
At this point, the show has lost me. I was so pissed about the plot and its many holes that I couldn't wait to get to intermission (I also had to pee). So the Phantom declares his new purpose in life is to give this kid the chance to also be a genius. Meanwhile, the Giry's are like, "Fuck, well, I guess he doesn't need us anymore. We're screwed." Meg, the innocent child of the first show, is now a narcissistic and jealous freak, while her mother goes ape shit stage mom.
The second act is exactly what you think it is, because there's nowhere else to go: Ultimatums are made, and Christine has to choose between the murderer she's now so fond of, or the alcoholic husband, while the Giry's just want this whole clan to go away. So much so, in fact, that Meg kidnaps the kid and threatens to throw him off a pier to drown. The Phantom talks her out of it, then Meg pulls a gun to kill herself, and of course shoots Christine instead (more LOL's). Christine tells Gustave, with her last breath, "Sorry I'm dead, but the deformed dude is actually your father. Good luck with that!"
So let me at least go back and say that the stagecraft was fantastic. I pay a lot of attention to scene and lighting design, and I was immersed enough in the visuals (or maybe just distracted by the hideous plot) to the extent that I just took in the eye candy. I get why this show takes 16 trucks to haul around. It still doesn't make up for the terrible book.
This show has never been on Broadway, and it doesn't belong on a subscription series with shows that have. It's an off-Broadway tryout gone horribly wrong with a big budget. I have to force myself to believe that it never happened so as not to harm the love I have for the original. And the thing is, there are some good songs and wonderful choreography in there, but putting lipstick on a slaughtered pig is still bacon. It's not good for you.
You have to wonder how this didn't ruin Andrew Lloyd Webber, but I guess he was battling cancer late in the development, and that might be part of it. He bounced back pretty strongly with School of Rock, which seems to have generally great reviews. But then, he collaborated on that with Julian Fellowes... yeah, the Downton Abbey guy. Two Brit greats doing a musical based on an American Jack Black movie about kids in a rock band. If that's not artistic achievement, I don't know what is.
Anyway, don't see Love Never Dies. It really should just die.
This Thanksgiving was weird for us, because Diana worked in the evening. This wasn't one of those crappy retail job things, but rather the theater where she works had a show. It just happened to be that the sequel to Phantom of The Opera is in town this week (which is horrible, and worthy of its own blog post). We delayed the family dinner by a day.
This has been a difficult year, in a lot of ways, most of which I don't write publicly about. It's the first time in years that I've felt a "weight" on me that I couldn't entirely control, and that resulted in a certain amount of stress and bursts of discontent. Now that we're nearing the end of the year, I'm reflecting more on it, and the thing I'm most thankful for is perspective.
Challenges aside, I had a great year of work, and while it wasn't planned, we moved into a house that better suits our needs and wants. Indeed, things could be worse. The thing that really drove this home was a chat with an electrician that visited our house. He seemed like a pretty cool guy, did good work, and we got on the topic of unexpected things happening. That's when he mentioned losing two daughters in the same year, and seeing his own health go downhill fast. That's a lot of terrible stuff for one year.
Perspective is a gift. The hard part is acknowledging it while right-sizing the reaction to the scope of your own challenges. Just because there are "children starving in Africa," as your mom used to say, doesn't invalidate the way you feel about something. Indeed, the measure of our character is in how we react adversity.
One of the things I didn't talk much about when writing about the hackathon we did last weekend was about the vibes of a big tech company. Intuit has a fairly large campus, next door to Google in Mountain View. Facebook is just down the 101 a bit. I'm no stranger to these big tech company campuses, since I worked in Redmond for two years for Microsoft. (Side note: In terms of real estate, the Seattle east side is cheap compared to Silicon Valley... the AirBnB we rented was a 2,000 sq. ft. house that sold a few years ago for nearly $1.3 million!)
There's something cool about these places, beyond the big modern buildings with their own coffee shops and open spaces. You know that there's interesting, impactful work happening at these places. You can feel it. And make whatever jokes you want about Intuit, QuickBooks and TurboTax are old brands that made the full-on flip to real SaaS products with insanely high market share. You have to respect that. They make pretty good software. They did the small biz hack in their Building 20, which has a big atrium with stadium seating, some garage doors and exposed concrete. It reminded me a lot of a combination of different buildings in Redmond.
It's important to remember my experience in Redmond, because it was a mixed bag. The MSDN/TechNet subgroup that I worked in (I'd give you the formal name if it hadn't been reorg'd a dozen times) was a fairly excellent group of people doing great work. We were made up of a bunch of small teams working on stuff that literally millions of people touched. Being a cost center, in that sense, had its advantages, because we couldn't solve our problems by throwing money at them. And to my boss' credit, we hired right.
I've told the story many times about how my second gig at the company wasn't that great (and maybe it's because money was not an issue for it). The context here is that giant tech companies are really like many small companies, and some parts are better than others. Furthermore, when you do break it down, you start to see how scope and impact really does not correlate to company size. At Microsoft, our small, constrained teams on the MSDN Forums, CodePlex (RIP) and such impacted huge numbers of people. The other group I worked in never shipped anything, even with all of the people involved.
Vibes are important for people. Now I get to guide a small engineering team, developing a product for which we don't really know where our ceiling is. Because we work so closely with our customers, we know first hand how much better we're making their working lives. That's rare for a company of any size, and we're doing it with a relatively small team spread across four states. That's a lot of good vibes. The impact we're creating is huge, even if the scope is still growing.
It's easy to be sucked into big tech company vibes, but I caution anyone who thinks that size is indicative of success or great, high impact work. And definitely run the other way if a recruiter starts talking about foosball tables.
Growing up with distinct seasons and the various holidays that fall within them very much ingrains a routine on you. That was somewhat disrupted for me when we moved to the PNW, because the seasons there are less extreme. It doesn't usually get crazy hot in the summer, and you'll likely see a day or two of snow at most in the lower elevations. But then we moved to Central Florida, and you have three or four months of swamp-ass hotness and eight months of general fall-like weather. Well, fall-like if you consider highs in the upper 70's and cool nights to be fall-like. You only have to be here for a year or two before that's your normal.
But the shift is particularly interesting for us when you roll in the theme parks. Fall nights at Cedar Point, west of Cleveland, were a tradition that endured my entire adult life. Sometimes it would get down right chilly, into the 40's. So that was our Halloween season. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, it was more of the same, and we would generally see snow by Christmas, even if it didn't last. Now, our "fall" weather comes in November, and while Thanksgiving hasn't occurred yet, the theme parks are all-in on Christmas decorations and entertainment. While you might be inclined to blame this on the sad commercialization of Christmas, I don't think that's what's going on. The issue that the theme parks have is that not everyone is going to compress their Christmas visits into the three weeks around the actual holiday. (In fact, week of, it's too crowded to even bother with the place.) So as families spread out their travel plans, some of which occur around Thanksgiving, they literally flip a switch after Halloween and get dressed up for Christmas. Magic Kingdom is notorious for doing this all in one night.
We have fallen into a similar pattern. We're not decorating on November 1, but especially this year, with the move, there's little point in putting the stuff away when it doesn't even have a designated home yet. Diana started ramping up almost a week before Thanksgiving this time, and I'm pretty excited about it. We don't have a single photo hanging on the wall, but the garland lights are wrapped around the railings and the stockings are hung. We've got red and green lights on the front of the house. After years of artificial second-hand trees have started to show their age (and miles... about 6,000 of them), we splurged on a new one. There's nothing wrong with six or seven weeks of Christmas celebration.
I'm not alone. As I write this from the patio, I can see icicle lights two houses down behind us (the most hilarious kind of decoration in Florida), and around the corner they're putting up a giant inflatable Santa Mickey and Vegas-style chaser lights across the front of their house. We're still four days from Thanksgiving.
It really is the most wonderful time of year, even when you're not freezing your tits off in three feet of snow. I don't care what religion you choose to believe, because the joy around the birth of Christ is bigger than that. For a month or so, we can do our best to stop being assholes to each other, help others out, demand peace and hope for a better future. We can bust out the stack of movies we watch every year. We can make turkey. And if you live here, we can go to the beach. I like this version of Christmas.
"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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.