When you don't feel like you can make a difference

posted by Jeff | Sunday, July 24, 2016, 3:39 PM | comments: 0

The world is probably not as awful as people are making it out to be. If you go strictly by the numbers, the world is a much better place than it was even 10 years ago. It's not without its problems, but in aggregate, it's not worse off.

This doesn't mean there isn't plenty of work to do. In fact, the progress we have made as a species wouldn't be possible if it weren't for the people who have taken up the cause to advance us. I don't know what really motivates people to devote energy to world improvement. For me, at least, I know it was easier when I was in college, when my biggest concerns were skating by to pass classes, obtain beer and hope that there were girls who wanted to play with my dingdong. There was plenty of energy left over to change the world.

Life gets a little more full over time. Career, relationships, children take up significant portions of that energy. I find that with age, I'm more likely to acknowledge that somethings are not simple. Some problems require complex solutions. Whereas it used to be easy to just say, "Racism is bad, stop racism," now I have to think about the underlying socioeconomic issues, public policy, history and a dozen other things to understand why racism is even still a thing. How do you instigate change when the problem is hard?

Politics in the general sense are like this. The left and right are both in constant blame mode (blaming the rich and brown people, respectively), and the solution is to stick it to those groups. As a rational person, I can't take up either side as a cause. And when people around you treat these factions as a sports rivalry, blindly and almost religiously adhering to one side, there's little you can do to change that. Arguing with people on the Internet gets you nowhere, and trying to win the hearts and minds of people who don't want to consider any bit of nuance is exhausting.

And yet, as a parent, you don't want your kid to grow up in a dysfunctional shitshow of a world that is always hellbent on hating someone. You feel like you have to do something, you know, for the children. How do you do that when the act of parenting and all of that life stuff pretty much expends all of the psychic energy you have?

I don't have an answer, but I think about this a lot. I've often considered that your scope of influence is not really that critical to feeling like you add value to the world, so maybe doing what you can do is adequate. It just feels like an uphill battle.

Press: Truthful, not neutral

posted by Jeff | Friday, July 22, 2016, 4:00 PM | comments: 0

I've been extremely disappointed in the mainstream press during this election cycle. I think the bizarre rise of a narcissistic demagogue like Trump is something shared by a willfully ignorant public and the press. I can't do much about people who want to be ignorant (and endorsing a human who is a racist misogynist just because he "speaks his mind" is most certainly ignorant), but I'm perfectly content to lay into the people who aren't doing the work necessary to be called "journalist."

The other night, Christiane Amanpour, of CNN International, appeared on The Daily Show and nailed down exactly the problem with the press. She said there's a difference between being truthful and being neutral. Correctly, she points out that being neutral implies moral equivalency between two sides. Equivalency, by extension, grants legitimacy. That's the thing that I've been trying to articulate. Keep in mind that I'm taking about "real" news outlets, like TV network news (not the abomination that is cable "news"), the big newspapers and stuff picked up by the syndicated services.

Is truth surfaced elsewhere? Yes, but not in the places that one typically would go to for news. Countless blogs that pander to a particular political orientation do this, but they only do so when it suits their echo chamber. Comedy and entertainment shows like The Daily Show also do it, with a somewhat better record of bipartisan shaming, even if the level of batshit crazy has certainly peaked on the right. But the problem is that we used to rely on Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw to be the people who set the standard, less interested in being neutral and indeed looking for truth.

Something interesting happened in the democratization of media that was the opposite of what I expected. Before the Internet, there was a certain amount of trust placed in the press because it was scarce. There were a limited number of TV licenses, and it wasn't cost effective to have more than one newspaper in most markets. While this scarcity seems like a bad thing, there was a sense of responsibility among the practitioners of journalism to uphold a sense of truth. That's not to say there wasn't a certain amount of bias (we are talking about human beings, after all), but there was definitely a desire to be truthful and not neutral.

The Internet, along with virtually unlimited cable channel availability, made the scarcity problem go away. It also made it hard to recoup the cost of real journalism as the audience fragmented, which gave way to talking heads that were paid to give opinions. Many organizations focused on a particular faction because they could make it profitable, the most obvious example of this being Fox "News." Pandering to an echo chamber is lucrative, as it turns out. The remaining players, especially network TV news, lost their way to being neutral, not wanting to be lumped in with the cable news and blogs. Neutral isn't what we need. If it smells like bullshit, then call it that.

Our Disney relationship

posted by Jeff | Friday, July 22, 2016, 9:00 AM | comments: 0

I had to renew our Walt Disney World annual passes yesterday, which marks three years of living in Orange County. We went to Epcot the night before, and it was the first park visit we had in probably a month, because of our time away on the cruise, work and just a natural lag. It's unusual to go that long. This year we opted for the lesser "gold" tier passes they introduced last year, after we renewed. They have a reasonable blackout date range, specifically the last two weeks of the year and two weeks in April for spring break. These are times we never go anyway because of the crowds.

It got me to thinking though, what is our relationship to Disney? It's extensive, though I don't know that I would consider us super fans. I mean, none of us have a tattoo of the castle or anything. But we consistently enjoy ourselves at the parks, and for the frequency of our visits find it to be a pretty good value. It's an easy way to catch up with friends from up north since everyone seems to get here eventually. Given the proximity, it's fair to describe WDW as our back yard. It's especially surprising to see how much we hang out at Epcot, in large part due to Food & Wine and Flower & Garden. So much good food and music.

Our biggest Disney spend is with the cruise line. Doubly so this year, with the Alaska cruise (ouch!). Their boats are my happy place, and we have a consistently good time on them. For us the expense is worth it, and the convenience for the itineraries leaving Port Canaveral is pretty hard to beat. These trips have the best beach days ever. I'm disconnected, and I don't have to think about anything. They even tell me when to eat.

The films are something we regularly consume, given our 6-year-old. I was really enamored with the musicals of the 90's, but lost interest until the more recent renaissance started. Now that the company owns Lucasfilm, I suppose we're much bigger Disney movie fans than we were. I know there are people who cringe at Disney's massive influence on entertainment, but I think the quality of what they offer is generally pretty high. It's OK if art is popular and profitable. I won't apologize for enjoying Tangled.

It is strange to see how much money Disney does get from us. Annually, it's second only to Target (where we buy much of our groceries). This year, because of Alaska, Disney may actually win. That's pretty crazy, that one company can be the single largest recipient of the part of your income you spend.

Rethinking cameras

posted by Jeff | Sunday, July 17, 2016, 11:05 PM | comments: 0

I've sunk a lot of money into Canon camera gear over the last dozen years or so. Well, technically I did before that as well, but it was for film gear, and the lenses I had then I have long since sold. But way back in the summer of 2002, I bought the D60 body, an "affordable" DSLR for the masses, and I was hooked. I traded up after that to a 10D (higher sensitivity), and eventually I scored a 5D, full-frame, in 2008. Along the way, I picked up some nice mid-range "L" lenses, including the 24-105mm f/4, 17-40mm f/4 and 70-200mm f/4. I also have a wonderful 50mm f/1.4. In 2009 I also bought a second body, a 7D, because it could record video.

The great news is that these things are still awesome, and unlike most technology, aren't really at risk of being obsolete. Sure, you can get more pixels, more stops, but these things get it done in most every situation. I even discovered last February that I could shoot portrait stuff if I really try. I've always liked photography, since my dad put his classic Nikon F (as in, no number designation) in my hands in 1990 so I could shoot for yearbook. It's a hobby that I often come back to, then forget, then go back to again.

But the honest truth is that sometimes I don't want to be the photographer, and I really don't want to carry the gear around on vacation. I thought a lot about this leading up to our Alaska trip. Capturing moments only works if you have the camera with you, and the truth is that an SLR is big and heavy. The results are often lovely, but you've gotta carry the goods. In my mind, I used to think as I did with video cameras: If it's not on your shoulder, it's not a "real" camera. For still photography, I felt that way about SLR's.

Still, I've had a series of small Canons with fixed lenses, the last of which was a wonderfully compact S90 that I bought in 2010 right after Simon was born. It had enough manual control to satisfy my control desires, it recorded raw format files and it easily fit in my pocket. Last year it was starting to bother me a little because of a stuck pixel, but a potentially awesome compromise came up last year.

Back in 2012, when I bought my AF100 video camera, there was excitement in the fact that I could put potentially any lens on it. The mount was for micro-4/3, but with an adapter I could also put my Canon EF lenses on it (with a significant field crop, mind you). However, for more journalistic, run-and-gun situations and docs (like my Holiday World mini-doc), I needed a lens that was compact and could do a range of things. While the cost was painful, the 12-35mm f/2.8 (24-70mm SLR equivalent) Lumix lens was perfect for this. It can do beautiful, soft depth of field, and it's super sharp when you need to fill the frame with something.

As it turns out, Panasonic was making cameras that use the same mount (Olympus, too), and they had a nice, relatively compact camera that could use the same lens. Mind you, this camera body was less than half the cost of the lens, but I could use this fantastic glass on a small camera! So that's what I did. The included lens is the same focal length range, but it's not a continuous f/2.8 throughout the zoom. It's perfectly adequate in outdoor light, if you're not trying to isolate a certain depth, though it gets kind of soft in the corners with full-frame shots of stuff. So marrying this body with the good lens isn't pocket-worthy, but it's still way smaller and lighter than the equivalent with one of my SLR's.

I've taken it with me on a two cruises now, including the Alaska trip, and I love it. It works reasonably well in low light, but you do have to be a little more careful about overexposure. I've captured some great portrait style shots of my kid (and his cousins), and it looks great using the wide angle as well. They also make a 35-100mm f/2.8 (70-200mm SLR equivalent), but I'm trying to resist buying that because it's a expensive and I don't think I'd use it enough.

You don't get something for nothing with the smaller camera, in terms of noise and such, but the idea that you could get image quality this good just a few years ago was not obvious. Unfortunately, history is repeating itself, so while micro-4/3 is a lens mount shared by a few manufacturers, Canon and Nikon are of course doing their own thing. I had the lens anyway, so this camera, which unfortunately they stopped making already, was a pretty good move. Physically bigger cameras aren't always necessary.

Our Alaska adventure on the Disney Wonder, July 2016, part 2

posted by Jeff | Sunday, July 17, 2016, 11:06 AM | comments: 0

In part 1, I wrote mostly about the onboard experience on The Wonder, so here I'll talk about our stops in the ports of Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan.

Looking aft into the port of Skagway at breakfast

Our first and most northern stop was in Skagway. This little town of 850 people sits wedged between the mountains at the foot of a long trail and railway that heads up into White Pass at 2,888 feet, where you connect to British Columbia in Canada, and further into Yukon. It's a gold rush city that mostly is a tourist destination. It's filled with shops and various forms of entertainment, and arguably the most important business there, the rail line.

The excursions on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad are a lot of the reason that the Alaska cruise itinerary was so appealing. Having a 6-year-old naturally means a love for trains, and it's a pretty amazing way to see sights that you can't otherwise see very easily. There are a number of different trips offered, going to different lengths, but ours stopped at the Canadian border. It's about 20 miles of track to the summit, which means it's somewhat steep in places to get to almost 3k feet. There is a lot of history, as you can imagine, in the trail as it stood, as well as the railway itself, which was built just before the turn of the century. Lots of death, too. There's a cross erected on a ledge that's actually a house-sized boulder that fell on a couple of guys and their animals during construction, for example. There's a beautiful steel bridge up there that was an engineering marvel for its time, that has since been retired.

It's neat to see how the line snakes up the sides of the mountains. As they run a number of trains at any given time, you can see another one either above or below you, miles away. There's a particularly breathtaking view near the top that looks all the way back down to the town, where you can see a little dot that is the cruise ships. Just after the summit, next to a 5-mile long lake, there is some room for a second track where the trains do a ballet of passing each other and heading back down, reversing by moving the engines from the front to the back. It's a neat trick, because the seats in the passenger cars simply flip the backs.

I was struck by the sheer scope of what nature created there, and also what humans achieved in 1898 in getting up there. I suppose greed gets partial credit as a motivator, but it reminds me that people have been able to achieve great things when they wanted to. In light of all the terrible things going on back on the mainland, it helped me keep perspective. Mother nature is pretty good at reminding us how small we are.

Looking back down from near the summit. That little dot on the water is the Disney Wonder

It was fantastic that you could hang out of the train between cars, but also frightening that there were sheer drops everywhere

We started to walk around in Skagway, but Simon and I got pretty bored with it quickly. It's mostly a bunch of shops selling a bunch of crap. Diana was motivated, however, for some specific items and looked around a bit more while Simon and I returned to the ship. We were blessed with nearly perfect weather, so we hit the ice cream machines. That cold that I mentioned before was also starting to wear on me a bit, so I crashed for a bit before dinner, the onboard Frozen themed party and that night's theatrical show.

The next day put us in Juneau, the capital of Alaska. The weather was dry but cloudy, and the cold symptoms were definitely slowing me down. We booked a short excursion that bused us out to the national park to see the Mendenhall Glacier, then offered quick shuttle service a few blocks from the ship to the Mt. Roberts tramway. Being the government seat for the state, it was somewhat entertaining to hear our various guides throughout the trip regularly disavow Sarah Palin. I get the impression that Alaskans are very anxious to distance themselves from their former governor.

The national park service has a nice setup with a short nature trail and a longer trail that takes you to the Nugget Falls, along with a visitor center. A sign there points out that the glacier was actually 1 3/4 miles closer to the center when it opened in the late 50's, obviously a symptom of climate change (the difference, looking at the photos on Wikipedia are staggering). Unfortunately, the tour we booked gave us only about 90 minutes, so we couldn't go out to the falls. If we ever do this itinerary again, we'll find a way to spend more time there.

The Mendenhall Glacier

After visiting the park, we headed up the mountain on what is apparently the steepest and/or tallest tram of its kind in the US. While it was a little cloudy, the views were still stunning from up there. There was a longer tail that went to the summit of Mt. Roberts, but my cold made me disinterested in going much further than the closer trail loop we did. After going back to lunch, where seaplanes were taking off and landing at eye level next to deck 10 of the ship, I crashed for a long nap while Simon and Diana went and did some laps on the tram. Fortunately, that evening was a turning point in the way I felt.

The view from up on Mt. Roberts

There's our floating hotel at left

Our final port was Ketchikan. This is a largely blue collar fishing town mixed with a robust tourist business. We didn't plan anything in advance for this port, though there was a lot of buzz about the lumberjack shows a few blocks from the dock. They warned us the night before that it rains pretty much every day in Ketchikan, so imagine our surprise when it was sunny and warm. Like the other ports, the immediate area near the waterfront is filled with shops and jewelry stores. That said, this town has a very vocal group of local business owners intent on letting you know that they're local. We noticed the duck boats driving around and various busses and carts meant to take people to different things, but we decided instead to just walk around a bit through some of the local parks. In particular, we walked along Creek Street, which is, as the name implies, a series of shops along a creek with a connecting boardwalk. I didn't spot any salmon, but they apparently hang out here.

We didn't spend a ton of time in town, but we got a lot of walking in, and as I was feeling infinitely better, it was nice to be moving about. We were pretty content to return to the ship as Simon was being difficult.

Looking back at the ship from the end of Creek Street

The pretty part of Ketchikan, bathed in a rare late afternoon sun

Exploring the ports on a cruise is new territory for me, despite having eight prior sailing under my belt. All of our cruises were 3 and 4-day Bahama itineraries that only stopped in Nassau and Castaway Cay. We never get off in Nassau, partly because of its reputation, but mostly because it doesn't offer anything that we can't enjoy on the ship (yes, I realize we could go to Atlantis). Alaska is so opposite of the tropics. It's just insanely beautiful, and navigating through the inner passages in particular is wonderful. The locals are generally very friendly. If there's any big takeaway from this trip, it's that it will be a great way to sample Europe, hopefully in the next few years. But I also want to do this itinerary again at some point. I realize that duplicating the weather isn't likely, but still, what an amazing place.

Headed out to our last day at sea

Our Alaska adventure on the Disney Wonder, July 2016, part 1

posted by Jeff | Saturday, July 16, 2016, 3:00 PM | comments: 0

OK, I definitely need to commit some of this fantastic trip to a blog post. I'm going to split it into two parts, the first part being about the time on the ship, including the voyage up Endicott Arm, and the second part about the time spent in Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. There's a lot to cover!

The Disney Wonder has a summer routine of departing for Alaska on 7-day trips out of Vancouver. As Disney Cruise Line enthusiasts (to say the least), it was long overdue for us to break out of our Bahamas routine, normally convenient because we can board an hour from home, and Alaska was too amazing of an opportunity to pass up. Originally, we figured we would fly into Vancouver, spend a day exploring the city, then board the ship, but flights were at least $180+ more per person, and there wasn't a lot of flexibility in flight itineraries. Then, on our February cruise with my brother-in-law's family, they booked the same cruise and asked to join us. That meant that we could fly to Seattle instead, save a little money on flights, spend time with them, and drive up the three hours to Vancouver together. As much as I wanted to see Vancouver, I think this was a better thing all around.

The view from deck 10 before leaving Vancouver

The drive from Snoqualmie, an east side suburb of Seattle, was pretty easy. The last few miles into Vancouver were a little slow, but it wasn't bad. Drives in the Pacific Northwest are lovely even when the weather is suboptimal, as it was that day. The ship docks at Canada Place, which, if you watched the Olympics in 2010, is the building they were always showing on the waterfront with the tent-like structures on top of the building. It's a different experience than Canaveral since they don't have an exclusive lease on the building, but it's still relatively efficient. The weird thing is going through US customs to board, though I suppose that makes more sense than doing so in Skagway.

The lobby of the Disney Wonder

I had some minor anxiety about the Wonder, because it's the second oldest ship in the fleet (1999), and it hasn't had the significant drydock overhaul that the Magic had about a year and a half ago. The Magic is a year older, but they stripped it down to the steel, and in many places started over. I hadn't been on it before, but we were on the second cruise out after that drydock, and it was amazing. The Wonder ended up being about what I expected. Like Disney World itself, it feels like it opened yesterday unless you look harder. The constant upkeep means the ship is in generally good condition, but there are places that are tired. So while the soft goods in the staterooms are all new, the dressers and such are a bit beat up. Ditto for certain interior areas, especially restrooms. While certainly very clean, it's not hard to find peeling wallpaper, chipped tiles and the like. The Animator's Palette restaurant has an old show that includes some very dated video screens. The grand drydock is coming in September, and everyone on the ship was buzzing about it. Regardless, there was no doubt you were on a high-end, Disney ship.

The pools were mostly open during the day, particularly the adult pool. The water was like bath water, so even on chilly days, especially the one in Endicott Arm, you could enjoy the water comfortably, unless you got out. I spent a little time in one of the adult hot tubs, but really should have done more. The exterior decks were really busy on the days at sea, because being on the inner passages made for plenty of beautiful scenery. As much as I figured that a verandah room wouldn't be worth it, now I'm rethinking that. The extra cost was significant, but maybe it would have been worth it.

Our stateroom was on deck 6, forward and starboard. We learned on the Magic (the ship's twin) that being aft meant a lot of engine noise, so we deliberately went forward. Originally, we booked an interior room, but knowing how we often retreat for a break, I was uncomfortable with the idea of a not having a window. As it turns out, we could get a very specific room rated as a "deluxe interior" room but with a window, partially blocked by the window cleaning apparatus. This turned out to be fantastic, and without spending a lot extra. Plus, we were always close to the theaters, the adult pool, the lobby and the bars. As with almost all of our cruises, we booked onboard previously, for 10% off the regular rates, plus an onboard credit, which in this case was $200 because of the length of the itinerary. Total savings was almost $800. Pro tip: Now they allow placeholder reservations for a flat $250. You'll get the discount and onboard credit without choosing a specific itinerary. We have two booked.

We learned in February on the Magic that the spas offer a lot of discounts if you'll book for the day of departure. That makes sense, because I don't imagine people are that anxious to spend an hour plus missing the departure party, dinner, entertainment and the like. So Diana and I booked hot stone massages. I unfortunately did miss a pretty dramatic sail under a low bridge in Vancouver, but it was worth it. This tiny, 4-10 Filipino woman managed to push the limits between pleasure and pain, and I felt amazing when it was done. The deal this time was I think 75 minutes for the price of 60, but I had an additional 20% off only because I asked if some genius designed the ship with the basketball court over the treatment rooms, since I heard a lot of banging around (this was the case).

The dinner food is about what we've come to expect, which is to say there are a lot of dishes that you wouldn't ordinarily get at a local restaurant. The presentation is fancy, and it's surprising how well they do given the sheer volume that they have to prepare. I'm not a foodie, so I may not be the best to judge. The first three nights were more or less the same menus we've seen on the Dream and Magic. It was the new things on the other nights that I found pleasing. I'm a picky eater, but they had a nice jerk chicken appetizer, surprisingly good turkey one night, and chicken schnitzel that was perfectly cooked. The desserts are all amazing, and while I had my share of variations on chocolate cake, I had Mickey bars every single night. That's seven of them. I don't know what to say, other than I love the dark chocolate that they use and the texture of the Mickey sprinkles. And hey, at WDW, that's $30 worth of ice cream novelties!

Breakfast and lunch were not nearly as robust as they are on the other ships, and I believe that has a lot to do with the fact that the Beach Blanket Buffet, in the upstairs aft position, is an old-school buffet line style layout. Compared to the newer Cabanas restaurants on the other ships, which feature long walk-up areas (no lines), there isn't enough room to serve much variety. This was pretty disappointing, but they will be converting the space in drydock. The quality was OK, it's just that it was mostly the same things every day. We didn't try Parrot Cay, the one downstairs restaurant that they lit up for a lunch buffet, but our servers indicated it was the same stuff. While disappointing, there was a day when they finally had the spinach orzo that I've had on the other ships, and it's fantastic. The taco bar that day was also surprisingly good.

The counter service and room service were what we've come to expect, which is the usual variety of pizza, burgers, chicken tenders and the like, plus the soft serve ice cream. For the most generic of American convenience foods, the quality is solid. The cool thing they had that we haven't seen before is soft pretzels, salted or cinnamon. We took advantage of in-room breakfast just once this time, because we ended up being up and about early enough (read: Eastern time) so it wasn't necessary.

I didn't drink a lot this trip. I don't know that I was ever even buzzed, which is unusual for me and cruising. I attribute this to the lack of a beach day and what I think was a cold that started the night of the Endicott sailing. I didn't really feel like myself until midday in Ketchikan, our last port (day 6). I had some fruity drinks, sure, but not many. One silly thing I like is that you can get the UK version of Strongbow aboard the DCL ships, which is not the overly-sweet stuff they switched to in the US.

Entertainment on a 7-night includes the expected three stage shows, as well as some filler magicians and comedians. We only did the stage shows, and the night that they were showing Finding Dory. On one hand, we were happy to see some refinements in The Golden Mickeys, the show that I think is playing on every ship. The main character, a "stage manager" forced to host an awards show (don't get Diana started on the silly stereotypes), gets more time on stage singing now, and they've added a lot of new projection effects and dancing. Those revue-style shows can be pretty "meh," but the improvements help. Toy Story: The Musical, exclusive to the Wonder, felt generic and uninspired, with forgettable songs. I was disappointed. It's a slow-moving puppet show in some ways, without any big song and dance numbers. Dreams, which we've seen on other ships, was just OK. All three shows suffer from the same problem: The chorus is tracked and the choreography isn't that interesting. I think there are four or five actors at best that really get to show their talents, and that's unfortunate. It's entertaining, but knowing what the company is capable of, I know they can do better.

We also saw part of The BFG, but Simon got bored with it and we bailed. We ended up watching Finding Dory a second time, because it really was a great follow up, a decade later. The other movies we had either seen or weren't that interested in.

Diana and Simon playing foosball

As for other activities, we did a lot of trivia sessions, but didn't win any of them. Diana and I were late and missed the theme park trivia, which we would have likely cleaned up in. Joe and I did a tour about the design of the ship, which in many ways was similar to the offering on the Dream done in one of the bars with a slide deck. Of course Simon had to play foosball, so that was a win. Character meets were frequent, and although we didn't go to any on purpose, we met Daisy in the Castaway Club gold/platinum reception, and Ariel was very generous with her time when Simon ran into her in the hall. Oh, and that reception was awesome, with free drinks and officers chatting about. We made paper ships one afternoon.

Our first full day was at sea, following various inner passages between Vancouver and the US border. It reminded me a little of driving through various parts of I-5 between Seattle and Portland, only on water with a giant cruise ship. There were waterfalls all over the place, and these beautiful valleys. While the channels were not wide, the depth of the water was a staggering 150m or more, as you could simply draw a line from the mountain sides into the water. There were whales to see, but I was never on deck at the right time to see them. Kind of kicking myself for that. Double kick because the last day was at sea through many of the same routes.

The glacier in Endicott Arm

The second day was scheduled to go up Tracy Arm, a fjord south of Juneau with massive glaciers at the end. However, because of the massive chunks of ice in the fjord, the captain, along with a "pilot" that joined us onboard from the state, made the decision that it wouldn't be safe, and we instead went up the adjacent Endicott Arm. This was a gradual sail inland, with impossibly high mountains on both sides. Each valley off the sides was covered in waterfalls in a way that reminded me of the helicopter ride over Kauai's ancient volcano site. The difference was the snow at the top. There were more and more chunks of ice as we got closer to the glacier at the end. Finally, as we made a final turn, there it was, in all of its blue glory. A smaller ship was already there, with people boarding inflatable rafts to get a closer look. I imagine that we were at least a mile and a half away, and it still looked enormous. They rotated the ship you could see it from all over, and it felt almost like the ship was wedged between the sides of the fjord. It was cold, but there was some kind of spiked hot chocolate I had in a souvenir cup that was delicious, and I hate hot drinks. The kids spent time playing shuffleboard with some kids from Hawaii, which was neat because we were in Alaska.

This experience was, like much of the trip, an amazing contrast between the vastness of nature and the smallness of its inhabitants. Even the ship, a gigantic, modern marvel of engineering with thousands of people on it, seemed small in this context. If ever you need perspective about life, this is the kind of experience that gives it. Alaska is every bit as beautiful as Hawaii, only in different ways.

In part 2, I'll talk about the specific places that we visited in each of the three ports.

The most uninteresting of gadget purchases

posted by Jeff | Friday, July 15, 2016, 7:55 PM | comments: 0

I had to buy a new cable modem this week, after getting six years out of the old one. I suppose I shouldn't complain, because over that time I probably saved $150 versus renting the cable company's modem. It's just that spending anything at all feels lame because there isn't really any gadget that you could buy that's less interesting.

So what happened? The going theory is a lightning hit. When we got back from our vacation, the "receive" light on the modem was green instead of blue, meaning that it was only receiving on one channel. It can normally do up to 8, which is why it could (in theory) download as fast as 304 Mbits, but was stuck at 38 or less (we pay for 50). It was also dropping connection any time we really started pulling data down, as in streaming video. That made work hard, because it's not uncommon for Simon to be watching something, maybe Diana watching something else on her iPad in her sewing studio, and me working with an IP phone, VM connections, desktop sharing and regular Interneting. It was a real drag.

So after a service call yesterday morning, I bought a new modem from BestBuy (on sale, cheap as Amazon), but it didn't work. Second guy came out late, and the new modem was putting out too strong of a signal, so it was likely defective. Shit. Then, this morning, I went and exchanged it for another, and sucked it up to buy a more expensive one that could go up to 300 Mbits if I wanted to pay for it. Sure enough, they lit it up, and I was back to my 50-ish down, 5 up. The little plastic object has since been banished to a place under my desk, where I will never think about it again until it breaks.

Unfortunately, I still have one other issue, in that my Airport Express won't see the backup drive that I have connected to it. That's a drag, because that's where we backup our stuff from the desktop and laptops. I imagine it could also be lightning related, and annoying because the routers are not as cheap, and I lost one about 18 months ago to lightning. Come to think of it, I should double check the grounding on the outside of the house.

Still, boring purchase. On the bright side, I'm not spending a lot on the business lately (pretty much anything related to connectivity is a business expense because of the sites), so it's not a big hit. It just doesn't do anything, except enable everything.

Vacation clarity

posted by Jeff | Friday, July 15, 2016, 2:15 PM | comments: 0

Our trip to Alaska was amazing, and it's the longest vacation I've had since our honeymoon in 2009. That was entirely too much time in between. The last few years in particular we have limited our trips to five or six days at most. A week and change is better because I think it's enough time to fully bring you out of your routine. When you're able to get out of that routine, it makes a difference in the way you see life and the world around you. You get clarity.

I've been thinking a lot about the things in life and work that cause the most problems, and it's usually the things that you can't see. I also believe that the issues are invisible to an extent because they're too close to you. It's a terrible analogy to use actual sight, but there's some truth to the idea that some things are too close to obviously cause a problem. I don't have the magic code for seeing those issues.

Still, I do see one way to surface problems, and that's to get the hell away from them. Unplugging and getting away from regular daily life, and being distracted by some of the most beautiful things in nature ever, definitely have a way of bringing things into focus. I remember lying in bed, the last night we were in Seattle, feeling like everything about my world was clear. It doesn't all make sense, but I can see it at least. Clarity makes it easier to act.

What did I need to get away from? Well, daily life, I guess. The grind. I was feeling slightly unhappy and stressed, and I wasn't sure I entirely understand why. Now I get it, and I know where I can make adjustments. I just needed clarity, and a long vacation gave me that.

Home is complicated

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, July 13, 2016, 7:10 PM | comments: 0

We returned home last night after 10 days away. We went to Seattle, where we joined my brother-in-law's family and drove up to Vancouver, where we boarded the Disney Wonder and did a 7-night cruise to Alaska. It was easily the biggest vacation I've taken (in terms of distance and cost), and it was completely amazing. So much to write about. However, it was the time in Seattle, or more specifically the eastside suburb we lived in, that I found challenging.

We left Seattle in late 2011 after living there for two years, to chase our financial goals as they related to my unsold house. I've written about that countless times, and yes, I still have a hard time letting go of that decision as awful. As a family, we returned in 2012 for week or so, and then I went back for a day in 2013 to interview at Microsoft again (the job was, to say the least, not a good fit). I haven't been back since, so that's more than three years.

Being back in Snoqualmie was emotionally weird for us. While we only lived in the area for two years, being there made us very happy. It's such a naturally beautiful place, full of interesting and diverse people and a thriving technology job market. I think it is, objectively, an amazing place to live. Certainly it has its drawbacks, mostly the cost of housing, earthquake potential and a lack of theme parks, but it's mostly a winning place. The night we got there last week, on my birthday, it was amazing to be there in bed and just listen to the sound of trees and birds outside, with the window open.

This is not to say that we don't like living in Orange County. We live a life mostly free of cold weather, and we enjoy theme parks, rocket launches and cruises in the tropics. The flat land and hurricane potential isn't ideal, but it's no deal breaker. It's awesome here in a completely different way.

That's the thing that we struggle with... home is not easy to define. I think we wish that there was an ideal world where we could simultaneously live in two places. I suppose the only thing that we can say that home is not is Ohio. That's a weird thing to consider, that the place you lived most of your life isn't really a place you want to be. It isn't dislike as much as indifference.

Yesterday was the three-year anniversary of my arrival in Florida, and it's been a pretty great three years. I have no desire to move again, but I try to be pretty zen about what it means to be "home."

Deferring the kudos

posted by Jeff | Friday, July 1, 2016, 3:00 PM | comments: 0

I received a really great email today from my client, giving me praise for leadership and execution. I've said before that I don't generally seek out validation, but it sure feels great to get it when it does come. It probably doesn't come enough, even if I'm not willing to admit that. As good as it may feel, sometimes it makes me uncomfortable, especially in a leadership position where I feel my job is to serve the people and process to move things forward.

That said, my response was largely to defer the positive feedback to the team. While I generally find myself adapting my views on everything over time, the one thing that I keep reinforcing is that you and your success are only as good as the people around you. Being a one-man band is hard and failure prone, but if you surround yourself with an amazing guitarist and drummer, your band can rock. (What an awful metaphor, but I'm sticking with it.)

I don't intend to trivialize how hard it is to surround yourself with good people. It's not easy. Professionally, especially when your influence on hiring may be limited, it's hard to get good people. (In your personal life, it's much easier to eject the people who mostly bring you down.) I think that may be one of the reasons I'm somewhat fanatical about acquiring, training and retaining good people. It makes an enormous difference in the way things go in your day to day work. I can't understand companies that don't get this, and working at a company that gets it is part of the reason I dig it.

Always, always be sure to high five your team. It sucks for everyone when the only feedback they get is when something isn't going right. It affects morale, retention and productivity. If you're in a leadership position, part of that is deferring the kudos as they come.

Inciting a mob is not democracy

posted by Jeff | Thursday, June 30, 2016, 7:30 PM | comments: 0

I had an interesting exchange today on Facebook about the state of politics. It started from a link I posted to a status update from Bernie Sanders, who in very short terms, pointed out that the 62 most wealthy people in the world had more money than the entire bottom half. Now, keep in mind, you can make just a grand a year and still be in the top half. Sanders says this is immoral.

Here's the thing, I respect Sanders in that he actually has well thought out policy decisions and plans. I don't agree with him on a ton of stuff, but it's not just talk. That said, one of the unfortunate things, as his campaign went on, was that his acquisition of supporters came by way of statements like the one he made today. It isn't intended to argue policy, it's intended to spark outrage. It panders to fear and anger. It's intended to incite a mob. In fact, it's the mob that insists he was cheated out of the nomination.

If this sounds familiar, it's because Donald Trump has done the same thing from the beginning. While Sanders has enraged the everyman who feels they've been disadvantaged by "the system," Trump has enraged the racists, xenophobes, misogynists and homophobes. What's worse is that Trump doesn't really have concrete positions or plans for anything he can't fit into a tweet.

Still, both have resorted to inciting mobs reacting to fear. Whether it's based on hating brown people or rich people, both cases suck. Certainly I can criticize them for a lack of leadership (again, super disappointed in Sanders for this), but the broader pool of voters are to blame. They want to elect people who will dumb it down, and they apparently believe that people who will do that can fix everything (whatever "everything" is). It's a sad state.

Democracy should, in theory, prevent mob rule, but I suppose it depends on the size of the mob. I don't know what it takes to convince people to expect and engage more.

Our forthcoming EV dilemma

posted by Jeff | Friday, June 24, 2016, 8:47 PM | comments: 0

Being an electric vehicle enthusiast has been pretty exciting these last two years. It hasn't gone at all the way we expected, which is to say it has been an awfully expensive endeavor. Almost two years ago, we started by leasing a Nissan Leaf, and then last year, when it was clear that the Tesla Model 3 was a long way off, we pulled the trigger on the Model S. Today, the future is clear, but things still aren't moving as fast as we would like.

The Leaf ended up being an extraordinary deal, or at least, great for cash flow. We put down $5k, and had a payment of $100 a month. We did a 2-year lease because we wanted to minimize risk in terms of having a purely electric car. It turns out, there really wasn't any risk, and the car has been a really fantastic commuter. It's fun to drive, has that awesome EV torque, a fantastic small but tall size, plenty of room, and the range works out to nearly 100 miles. Plenty of distance for going almost anywhere in town. It didn't take us very long to learn that charging is a largely irrelevant issue, because you leave each day with a full "tank," and plug back in when you get home.

The Model S is only a year old. It really is the best car ever made. I do think it's too large, but otherwise, it's amazing. I've never been a car guy, but this thing blows my mind every time I drive it. That said, I don't imagine we'll keep it all that long, because it's expensive, even with the big down payment we made. I'd like to replace it after three years, when there are less expensive options.

What is clear is that we don't want to go back to gas cars. It's not even an environmental issue for me, it's just that combustion engines seem completely primitive. I like never having to stop at a gas station. It's an extraordinary convenience. The problem is, we need to do something as we approach the end of the lease with the Leaf. Diana called Nissan, and apparently we can extend it another six months, continuing to pay $100. That gets us to mid-February. Then what?

Well, we did put money in for a Model 3 reservation. Best case scenario is that it ships late in 2017, but the realist in me says early 2018. It isn't our next car. If we're staying electric, these are our options:

  • Chevy Bolt. This is a big question mark because we don't know if GM will meet its ship date late this year, and even if they do, there's no telling what the availability is going to be like. The press was impressed with it, and the pricing looks about right. I'm not sure if we would want to buy or lease. It will be eligible for the $7,500 federal tax credit. It will have range around 200 miles.
  • Nissan Leaf (30 kWh battery). I think we would consider the new, upgraded Leaf with slightly longer range. We like the car we have. Given the extraordinary depreciation of the Leaf, because of the increasing range (a 200-mile range model expected the next year), there's no way we would do anything but lease.
  • BMW i3. I love this car, but unless there's some crazy deal to be had, it's too expensive. It too is in the range upgrade cycle, making their value questionable. Definitely a lease car if at all. Again, we'll check to see if there's desperation to sell existing inventory, but it's not a likely choice.
  • Prius Prime. This would technically be a return to a gas car, but it kind of depends. The Prime is a high-tech plug-in version of the new hybrid, which can go entirely electric for about 22 miles. This would cover most of the local activity we engage in except for going downtown, before requiring gas. The problem is, no one knows how much it will cost or when exactly it will ship. The way that Toyota has been screwing around with hydrogen, I'm convinced that they may screw this up.

Regardless of what happens, I dread having to buy another car from a conventional dealer. It's just the worst fucking consumer experience anyone can have. Even the Leaf involved us walking away, telling the sales manager to go screw himself after dicking us around, when the floor sales rep called and asked what happened, inviting us back for the deal we wanted. Then when we closed the deal, it took almost three hours to get out of there and get stuff signed. The Model S, which admittedly was crazy expensive, involved no negotiation, precise specifications and ordering online, and even an online down payment. Paperwork was signing a few things, and we could have been in and out in five minutes if they weren't eager to give us a thorough tutorial on the car and answer questions.

I would imagine we will replace the Model S at three years with a Model 3. It will have a minimum of $17k in equity (likely more) at that point because of Tesla's guaranteed resale value. We'll see what happens. It all depends on the realistic ship targets of the 3.

These are exciting times for electric cars, but we're definitely not to the price/range ratios that all make sense. We're getting close though.

I drove down Orange Avenue yesterday

posted by Jeff | Friday, June 24, 2016, 5:30 PM | comments: 0

I was talking today with my client for my current project this afternoon, for the first time one-on-one. After mentioning that I was Orlando based, he asked how things have been going here since the shooting at Pulse. Things are definitely different here. While most of the world was getting into politics within a day or so, that transition hasn't happened yet here. In fact, I don't think it's viewed the same way here compared to the rest of the world. Also, press coverage has been very different domestically versus internationally.

Yesterday, I drove down Orange Avenue, passing Pulse. I've driven by it a hundred times, at least, by now. This time, there's a fence around it with a black screen, and temporary barriers in the road close down one lane. It looks so small now, with that huge sign out front. It doesn't seem like 49 people could have lost their lives there. It doesn't seem like a place that could be a mile and change from where we work. That's the thing that makes this different for me, because unlike the church shooting a year ago, any number of school shootings, or even 9/11, it's not possible to just compartmentalize what happened because of the proximity. None of my friends were there, but there is only one degree of separation to people who died there.

Locally, the politics of the murderer aren't that important, but it is absolutely viewed as an attack on the LGBT and Latino communities. The US press didn't seem to get that angle as much as the foreign press did. I'm not sure how to interpret that. There are rainbows everywhere you look here. I fear that most of the world has moved on, but it's been amazing to see people step up and donate to any number of non-profits, including giant employers like Disney and NBCUniversal. The local faith communities, including all of the major religions, have also come together to help the community heal.

I will say that there has been somewhat of a transition. The initial reaction was for people to take care of each other in a time of impossible sadness, and the community did that in an extraordinary fashion. It makes me happy to call this area home. By the time of the big vigil around Lake Eola last weekend, the focus had transitioned a little to one of joy that we could take care as well as we did. A friend of mine, who is very active with LGBT advocacy groups, mentioned yesterday that, while there are still a lot of intense emotions in play, people are starting to have a little fun again at events and gatherings. As I said, things aren't "normal" here, and I don't even know what that looks like. It's too close to home.

If you would like to donate to the victims and their families, consider a donation to the OneOrlando Fund. Heal Orlando also has a good round up of places to donate (and other ways to help).

Voltron reboot

posted by Jeff | Friday, June 24, 2016, 1:31 PM | comments: 0

Netflix brought back Voltron from the dead, and rebooted it. This was a treasured show for me. Along with Robotech, I remember it as being a kids show that wasn't afraid to actually develop a long-term story arc and not dumb everything down. So it's with great relief that I can say that the new Netflix version is faithful to the spirit of the original, while being its own thing. And best of all, no car Voltron.

I have the original series on DVD, but it's neat to see the ideas revisited in this new series. It's true in style to the original, Japanese animation, and it emulates it quite well. It translates well to high definition. There are well developed characters, significant back story, some light political commentary, and even a fair bit of humor.

In fact, my 6-year-old finds it hilarious. The exaggerated facial expressions they use crack him up. Thankfully, he is responsive to the idea that a bunch of robotic lions forming a giant super robot is really fucking cool. I think he has probably watched the first season start to finish three times at this point.

There's a bigger point to this, for me at least. I'm surprised at how much of my viewing habits have shifted from traditional network TV to original streaming services. All of my favorite things in the last year have been on Netflix, Amazon or Hulu. There are a few holdouts on network, probably just The Blacklist and Blindspot, but that's about it.

Sports championship drought

posted by Jeff | Monday, June 20, 2016, 12:09 PM | comments: 0

Much has been written about the championship drought that Cleveland has endured since 1960-something. As Cleveland is my original home town, I can agree that being a Cleveland sports fan is pretty much an act of masochism. The Browns toyed with almost going to a Superbowl when I was a kid, and have cosmically sucked ever since. The Indians made it to the World Series when I was in my 20's, and they got beat down pretty hard. But the Cavaliers, they've been to the NBA finals or conference finals more times than I can count. They've never been able to close the deal.

Then last night, after being down three games to one, they won three straight, ending in a real nail-biter, to win the championship. All of the Lebron James drama may have finally paid off. He cried like a big baby (or maybe he was still crying about his wrist that he fell on minutes before). Importantly though, this wasn't some contrived conglomeration of superstars, like Miami. This was him and some dudes who were pretty good, and worked their asses off. He went "home" knowing he had to work hard.

I don't watch sports on TV very often. I'll watch the Superbowl, mostly for the commercials and the terrible half-time shows, and I'll watch the Cavs in the playoffs when they're there. This time, I didn't get very invested, because it usually doesn't end well. With the shit storm of bad news here in Orlando in the last week, I was really disinterested. But then they made a series of it, and I had to watch game 7. It's too bad it couldn't have been played in Cleveland.

I'm happy to see my home town finally get a win. If you can deal with winter, the city is definitely trying its hardest to be awesome, and it succeeds in a lot of ways. I don't miss it, but hooray for Cleveland.

Two years, same job

posted by Jeff | Thursday, June 16, 2016, 4:00 PM | comments: 0

Today is my 2-year anniversary at my current job. I've felt for a long time that you're only as good as the people that you surround yourself with, so it says a lot about my coworkers that I'm still there. I feel like I'm moving forward.

I suspect for people who don't know the profession, two years seems like a non-achievement. That's fair, but consider this: I was laid-off in 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2009. Honestly, I changed jobs in 2001 to avoid a layoff. I also worked in a contract capacity in 2004, 2005, 2008, 2013 and 2014, so those are time-boxed engagements anyway. The bottom line is that with the nature of contracting in the software profession, along with economic volatility, and a strange attitude that treats people as interchangeable commodity workers (despite paying them really well), it's not unusual to move around a lot. Sometimes it's by choice, but often it's not.

My longest job ever was three years with the City of Medina, as the first cable TV guy there. Perfect for a know-it-all right out of college, but I got to do TV stuff from every angle (production, engineering, talent). I left because I made half of what my peers in neighboring cities made, and I was pretty sure that Internet thing was going to catch on. Second longest job was Insurance.com at two and a half years. I was laid-off as the company began to fall apart, and it was a mixed blessing because I kind of plateaued there in terms of skill acquisition and leadership potential. Third longest job was Microsoft at two years, which I left to return to Cleveland to live in my unsold house. Smart financial move, cosmically stupid from a professional and social angle. So my current gig will likely make second place, unless something unexpected happens.

Job hunting is exhausting, even in an environment where you're practically harassed by recruiters (mostly for poorly matched jobs). Maybe it's my stage in life, now as a parent, but I like to think of stability as an important aspect of work now. I also have to balance that against a need to advance, not monetarily, but in terms of career. Particularly during our transition in to Florida, I spent a lot of time thinking about where I want to be in the long run, and it's definitely leading groups of people to execute on technical work. I knew my gig at SeaWorld Parks provided relevant experience, and the appeal of my current job is the depth and breadth of the projects that I get to lead. I imagine that there will come a point where I want more responsibility, even if I'm not sure what it looks like. I do know that I'm not that interested in the heads-down developer role... something I essentially went back into at Microsoft. It's not that I don't enjoy writing code, and I'll always do it in some capacity and offer my open source project, but I've learned that I'm most effective leading with technical expertise.

So hurray for two years. I'm surprised it has mostly been a good fit as it has, because the short spurts I've had working with companies that have an agency model has been universally awful. This company gets it right, and the value I've been able to deliver to clients has been extraordinary and high quality. I can't predict how long it will last, but it's been a good two years so far.

There aren't any words

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, June 14, 2016, 7:17 PM | comments: 0

I got up kind of late Sunday, because Diana was out late after work, and I have a hard time sleeping when she's out without me. When I did get up, Simon was already up, and I was surprised to see a notification on my phone that I had never seen before. It was a friend using Facebook's Safety Check. Knowing how it has primarily been activated only for natural disasters and serious terrorist attacks, I wondered why it would be activated here. I don't have to tell you what happened.

It was a few hours before I saw all of the names I was looking for, and that was about the time that the victim count went from 20 to 49. The feeling of relief was only that the proximity of the murders at Pulse didn't include anyone I knew, but it didn't take that long to find that it did include friends and coworkers of friends.

For much of the day, we were checking in on TV to see what was going on, which led to some difficult conversations with Simon. How do you explain something like this to a 6-year-old? That Mr. Rogers quote (assuming it's real) about looking for the people who help in a crisis was the angle we played. I told him that someone went to hurt a lot of people, and the police and ambulance workers all were there to help. Then I tried to explain donating blood, and that was a wholly ineffective conversation.

While 9/11 did result in the loss of my job at the time, I admit that for the most part I could compartmentalize the event and keep it at arm's length. The proximity of this event is too close to do that. Diana was out almost until 2 that night, and one of her coworkers considered going to Pulse instead of out with them. We both work 1.4 miles down Orange Ave. My best friend works three blocks from the club, and we've had lunch at the Chipotle across the street countless times. There are no shortage of people, friends and coworkers, that are part of the LGBT and Latino communities. We might be Orlando transplants, but this is where we live our lives.

I didn't have any words, and I spent much of Sunday just kind of doing nothing. Monday had me fully engaged at work, though I did reach out to a friend to figure out where we (my employer) could direct a substantial donation for victim relief. Today I spent some time at the arts plaza to see some of the tributes, notes, signs and photos left there. There were hand-written notes to specific people that are no longer with us. I still don't have any words. I feel like I should be doing something other than making donations, but I don't know where to start.

The community response has been breathtaking. The unity of the city, safety forces, hospitals, advocacy groups, religious communities and various charities has been extraordinary. Equality Florida's victim fund is in the millions now, and Strengthen Orlando's OneOrlando Fund has been seeded with $1 million from Disney. I know the rest of the outside world is already content to talk about politics, but the local focus is about everyone taking care of each other. I wish we could bottle that and keep it long-term, and spread it around the world. It seems that it takes the worst of humanity to bring out its best at times.

Words can't reconcile something this terrible. All we can do is hug each other and look out for each other. We can work on fixing stuff later.

Review, Garbage: Strange Little Birds

posted by Jeff | Saturday, June 11, 2016, 10:22 PM | comments: 0

I've been a garbage fan from the start, and I've had so many opportunities to see them live. We watched the band's frustration with the music industry and each other lead to Bleed Like Me, an album that was good, if feeling a little lost. Years later, Not Your Kind Of People made us remember why we loved them. Strange Little Birds goes even further, hooking us almost immediately, start to finish, the way that "Supervixen" to "Milk" did. This album is brilliant.

With any band, you hope that they'll keep making music that brought you in, without making the same album over and over. I'm not a musician, but I imagine that's hard. Garbage manages to do it. You can tell as soon as you spin up Birds that the moody, atmospheric sounds are Garbage, with Shirley Manson's sweet vocal on top, but it's like hearing them for the first time. "Empty," the first single, is unmistakable Garbage, wonderfully dark and maybe even a little angry, but it feels more raw. Many of the other attracts make you wonder if they were listening to some combination of Nine Inch Nails and Jesus Jones (remember them?) until the influence rubbed off and made its way into the music.

Usually you don't associate simplicity with any music described as atmospheric, because of all the production that goes into such songs, but describing Garbage has always been hard. There are plenty of noisy guitars, but more interesting bass lines and harmonies. Many of the songs are longer than we're used to as well, something usually reserved for their live arrangements. "So We Can Stay Alive" is this brilliant journey of joy and loss, with stinging guitars, electronic sounds and a bass line that has to be seen live. It's like everything awesome about Garbage wrapped into a new package, in three acts (the second bridge is amazing), that makes you want to get up and cheer, right to the end.

This album deserves critical and commercial success. It might be a little dark in spots, but it's the brightest thing in music I've heard in a long time.

Kindergarten is done!

posted by Jeff | Friday, June 10, 2016, 10:01 PM | comments: 0

Simon finished kindergarten on Wednesday. I can't believe it. You know, where does the time go and all of that. Simon is, academically, where he needs to be for the most part. In terms of reading, he's already approaching a second grade level, if I'm to believe the online stuff he was using through school. I'm amazed at how well he reads and spells.

It may be easy to just dismiss this milestone as stuff kids do, but in the context of where he has been, it's a huge relief. He's been in school since he was 2 in order to address developmental delays, and a small army of teachers and therapists have been there to help. Even two years ago, there was some lingering question about him starting kindergarten on time, but it all worked out.

No one deserves more credit than Diana, the super mom. She's the one who has been on the front lines, especially in dealing with homework and managing deadlines, not to mention following the daily schedule. The amount of time she has spent engaging with him is staggering. I know it's been hard, and I've seen her emotionally spent when I get out of work more times than I can count.

I worry about him socially. He sometimes seems like the "weird kid," but he can also be completely sweet, even though kids can be dicks. I had a hard time in school, so naturally I worry about him. I'm not going to fight his battles though, and it's a constant struggle for me to let him "suffer" a little. He's also going through a very defiant phase, and doesn't really understand cause and effect when it comes to his behavior. On the flip side, he's very close to us, and can be very kind when he wants to be. For as much disciplinary action as we have to take, that's also a relief.

I can't help but think of the line that Bill Murray makes about having kids in the movie Lost in Translation:

"But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk... and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life."

True words.

It's a sophisticated interlocking brick system

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, June 8, 2016, 7:00 PM | comments: 0

Simon has really got the Lego bug now. Over the last two or three years, we've introduced him to a few really small sets, but it wasn't until probably the last six months or so where he was willing to sit down with the instructions and actually build himself. My observation was that he was well on his way to understanding the spacial relationships to pieces, but the fine motor skills really didn't catch up enough until recently. He still can't always tightly snap pieces together.

Shortly before he was born, I started to gain a real awareness about toys in the bigger sense. We had just moved to Seattle, and there was a Lego Store in the Bellevue Square Mall. It was entirely too uppity for our shopping needs, and the only other interesting store was the Apple Store. I really had not thought much about Lego in a very long time, but there were some pretty amazing sets out there. I have very fond memories of the sets I had as a child. Back then, the boxes had a flip open front, and there were plastic trays where the pieces sat (now there are just bags of pieces inside of a box). I had a police station set and a space moon base, along with a few smaller sets. While I did manage to put together some pretty sweet imitation Transformer models with the limited dynamic pieces I had, mostly it was enough fun to follow the instructions and build the sets as designed. It was super critical in my mind that every piece make it back to the right place on disassembly.

Back to 2010 though... as ridiculous as the cost was, I bought the Carousel anyway. I think it was something absurd like $250, but after the big move and about to have a child and being in a new place, I wanted to buy something for myself that was just about me. Almost two years later, I got a train to put around our Christmas tree. It would be three years before the next thing, which was the Fairground Mixer, a trailer-mounted Scrambler ride. A year after that, the completely amazing Ferris Wheel, then another train and a train station. These are all kind of expensive, really more for grownups, I think.

Which leads us to The Lego Movie. Simon has wanted to watch that thing almost every day lately. (I'm thrilled that the sequel will be about Lego Batman, who was hilarious in the first one.) That movie has a funny way of relating to our real life though, because ultimately it's about being creative and building whatever comes to your imagination, and not always following the instructions. The bad guy, President Business, wants to use the KRAGLE (i.e., KRAzy GLuE) to permanently put everything together so "people stop messing with my stuff." There's a heartwarming plot with real humans where the father doesn't want his stuff being messed with.

My big sets are obviously the coolest thing ever, and surprisingly, Simon mostly respects them as "Daddy's toys." He has a few small sets, typically in the sub-$30 range and usually some kind of vehicles, where I have to use all of my restraint to be zen about how he wants to play with them. As the kid used to play in the less interesting, autism stereotype ways almost exclusively (mostly lining up cars), now he uses his imagination. He likes to build platforms, as if the toys are amusement rides. He also likes to use the various wheel pieces propped up on wooden blocks to pretend they're the drive wheels found on roller coasters in the station. It's pretty cool to see that. He gets how things work.

To be fair, I'm not totally like the dad in the movie. His thing was about stuff being "weird" and deviating from the instructions, whereas my concern is more about, "Hey, this stuff is expensive and breaking a set is by extension expensive." While I'm not going to let him borrow pieces from the carousel or the Ferris wheel, I'm getting better about him otherwise playing the way he wants. I'm mostly thrilled that he has taken an interest, and he's getting pretty good at helping me build even the complex stuff.