My dearest friend, who works in a fundraising role for a non-profit, made the "duh" point to me that she was busy because a ton of giving happens this time of year.
Whatever you care about, give a little time and money if you can before the end of the year. God knows it's easy to get wrapped up in all of the stress, commerce, travel and what not. You'll not only help your cause, you'll help the people who have to raise the money.
And if you want to get me something for Christmas, please make a donation on my behalf instead to Give Kids The World. :)
I'm not going to go into extensive detail about this latest cruise, since we've done it three other times (part 1, 2, 3). This is a super convenient itinerary because it leaves on a Friday, comes back in early Monday, and the port is an hour away. Basically this means I only need one day off of work, and if we don't have a ride, the $60 in on-site parking isn't the end of the world. The biggest change this time is that we decided to try concierge, and I'll get to how I feel about the value proposition later.
We checked-in at the terminal just before 11, and we were literally one of the first families on the ship with the now familiar, "Welcome aboard the Puzzoni Family!" We hustled up to deck 11 to Cabanas for lunch, which was just in the process of opening. We picked a nice table in the corner overlooking the space coast. The buffet meals in that restaurant are reliably fantastic, even for a picky eater like me.
Before noon, we rolled up to the concierge lounge, where one of the three concierge managers does a brief orientation with you to explain their services and give you a custom printed itinerary. They also have a shore-based crew that will get you set up with anything you can think of before you sail, and we used that to make sure they hooked us up with a half-dozen Uncrustables sandwiches, our backup for Simon's eating issues. Sure enough, as soon as we got into our room, they delivered the sandwiches.
The concierge lounge is kind of small, but comfortable. It also had stairs up to a private sun deck, which is probably four times as big as it needs to be. They have all kinds of finger foods there most of the day, and lots of "complimentary" alcohol. The bartended working the pre-dinner receptions (there is one for each dinner time) had a rum punch specialty that we very much took advantage of, and it was delicious. The lounge also has bags of popcorn, and you can even borrow an iPad from them if for some reason you can't keep your kids unplugged for three days. Service aboard the ships is already outstanding, and these folks take it to another level.
They try to get the concierge rooms cleaned earlier than the general 1:30 time for the rest of the ship, and I think they actually have more stateroom hosts per room. We wandered into ours just after noon and it was ready.
One of our goals this time was to do a meal at the adult-only Palo, specifically the brunch, but it wasn't meant to be. Simon had a bad experience in the Ocenaeer's Club last time, and we're not sure exactly what happened other than some serious separation anxiety. We took him in during the open house and he started to freak out about us leaving him there, so we had to cancel our Palo reservation.
We also hoped to see Big Hero Six, but unfortunately the best times were only showing in 3D, which Diana has issues with.
Again, we didn't disembark in Nassau, and that gave us a great chance to play around the pool area. Simon is now tall enough to ride the Aquaduck with one of us, and he seemed to be interested by the last day while we were at Castaway Cay. Being our child and frequent visitor to Walt Disney World, of course he decided to pass because the line was too long. Still, he did fully embrace the big yellow kid slide, and probably did it two dozen times.
Similarly, he wouldn't even walk barefoot in the sand two years ago, and now he rolls around in it and loves building sandcastles (mostly to destroy them). The interest doesn't last long, but what a relief that he'll do it. After the play on the beach, and a little lunch, he wanted to return to the ship for more slides and the pool, which was exceptionally warm. I'm really proud of his water play, as it feels like we beat one of his sensory issues.
We actually had a meal that wasn't very good, which is a first on any of our cruises. The chicken I had was really dry, and Diana's first choice of beef was undercooked and super fatty. It didn't matter that night, because we were so full of food and drinks from earlier in the day that we could barely stomach dinner in the first place. The rest of the food was delicious, especially the desserts.
Also new this time, Diana did an on-deck back massage. This isn't the full table treatment, just the chair thing. They were running a special that was $40-something, and she felt it was a pretty good value. The spa was apparently very underbooked, and they were running quite a few package specials.
On our Castaway Cay morning, we also signed up to walk the 5k, and brought Simon along. He technically is not a registrant, but since there's no stopping anyone from doing anything on the island, we just brought him along for the walk. I ended up carrying him on my shoulders for two 1,000-foot stretches, I think more because he was bored than tired. In any case, we finished last with a time of an hour and three minutes, which seemed pretty good considering the small 43" person we had along. I had them put my Mickey medallion on him at the finish line. Oh, this was also the first time we had been out on the former airstrip or the trail out to the observation tower. We definitely want to rent bikes next time.
Overall, our beach day was again the best day, and with a nap late in the afternoon, Simon made it to 10 o'clock after the show (Believe) in relatively good spirits. I still struggle with the fact that we don't get to do night stuff when we're not sailing with friends or family. (I'm looking at you, Team Jandes!) I think overall these trips are more fun with others, provided there isn't some unrealistic expectation that you have to spend every minute together.
So what about staying in concierge? I suppose it depends on how you value the exclusivity and extra service. I calculated that we consumed roughly $170 on "free" stuff from the concierge services. The price difference over the room we would have likely wanted was a little under $700 (they appear higher for next year), and if the pricing weren't so low for this particular weekend, there's no way I would have considered trying it. So the net difference in cost after the drinks and other stuff was around $500 and change for the three of us. It might be less even, because we've never spent so little onboard when you take out the new experience of Diana's massage cost.
Is that worth it? I'm on the fence. I think for a special occasion, if it were just the two of us, definitely. The base prices for the three of us in a good room with a verandah have always come out to around $400 a night, which is comparable to a nice hotel without any of the food, entertainment and the fact that you're at sea, so even the more standard experience seems like a good value to me. And I say that also believing firmly that the service is better than what you get at those hotels. Concierge does take it to another level, absolutely, but I'm not sure I'd pay for it during the higher rate seasons, and even then I think it would have to be a special occasion. I enjoyed all of the extra attention, but short of a crazy good rate, I doubt we will do it again. If we were going to spend extra money, it would be on a cabana at Castaway Cay, provided it's shared with another family/friend party.
Aside from some challenges we had with Simon, and my frustration about not having a chance to do the grown-up stuff more as a result, it was another solid getaway. It's so nice to be unplugged and not really have to think about anything other than where you're going to eat. With Simon getting more into the water stuff, that's making it more fun as well. We already booked a "placeholder" for the next one to get 10% off. I suspect we won't wait all that long to use it, and we're looking at some other itineraries as well. Would love to do Alaska or Hawaii if I can figure out the scheduling.
I had one of those evenings where I felt I could do no right with Simon. I like to go out with him on some nights that Diana works. Usually it's just two or three hours to one of the theme parks, or dinner at a kid-friendly place. Tonight he was being rude, yelling at me and generally unpleasant. Instead of responding rationally, I did so mostly emotionally, and probably reinforced the behavior in the process. Not a proud moment for me.
There's a reason I worry as much as I do about my perceived failings. Keep in mind that I'm not the shitty parent trying to protect my kid from adversity and failure by giving him participation trophies, but I don't want to do anything that could have a lasting negative effect. The kid has a memory like a stone tablet. He remembers stuff.
So do I.
About the time I was 7 or 8, my family was in the car driving somewhere, probably for a camping trip. Like most kids my age (before DVD players and iPads), I often passed the time by trying to engage with my parents in some way. For me, it was reading the road signs. I would add that there are a lot of interesting names to sound out in southwest New York, like Salamanca and Allegany State Park. At some point, my sign reading annoyed my step-father to the point that he yelled at me to "shut up."
That moment, seemingly unimportant at the time, stuck with me (obviously, since I'm writing about it as a 40-something). There are two important outcomes from that moment that I wasn't able to identify until adulthood when chatting about something seemingly unrelated with my therapist years ago. The first is that I ceased sharing in anything that I thought was academic success. If I did well in school, I was doing it for myself and never shared it with my parents. Second, I felt that anything I had to say was unimportant or wrong in his eyes, and that got worse with age. It took a long time to learn to be wrong, and I still suck at it. I trace it back to that moment. How screwed up is that?
That experience is why I worry as much as I do about screwing up Simon and his relationship with me. It's probably an unfounded worry most of the time, but it still worries me. He's going to have enough challenges with all of the "normal" issues of growing up, augmented by ASD specific issues. He doesn't need me making it worse.
Fortunately I have a partner in Diana to put my mind at ease, and at least most of the time we're good at handing off the primary parent role in the moment when we feel like we're doing it wrong. Her patience is remarkable compared to mine. It's definitely a team sport.
If you pay any attention to news (and by that I mean journalistic accounts of events, not talking head morons on cable "news"), I think it's easily to get sucked into this feeling that the world has really turned into a shitty and scary place. I've found it difficult to spend a lot of time thinking about it, because honestly I don't have the mental bandwidth for it, especially as a father charged with bringing my kid into this world.
In the last few months, I must have started a dozen blog posts trying to organize my thoughts, but every time I've deleted the starts because it just felt like noise. It occurred to me that I can't make anything simple and solid because the issues aren't simple. It's not so much that I don't believe certain things: I believe that racism is most certainly still a problem in the US, that there is an accountability and training problem with a minority portion of police, and that the Internet has enabled a strange mob mentality.
I was listening to the Triangulation podcast with Dr. Drew Pinsky, where he briefly talked about the psychology of mob mentality as it concerns the Internet (watch the whole thing if you can... it's really great). Basically he asserts that when people get angry about something, they stop caring about facts and they want blood. The Internet is particularly good at fostering that behavior, and people find it intoxicating to be a part of that anger in a way that they wouldn't ordinarily get involved because it doesn't require empathy. This phenomenon seems particularly toxic among people who believe there is no wrong doing and no racism in Ferguson. Hold that thought for a moment.
The violence and looting in Ferguson following the different phases of the Michael Brown case was very obviously wrong and doesn't solve any problems. This was in fact mob behavior at its worst, but there are two important things to remember. The first is that those committing violent acts among the protests were a minority. The second is that this behavior did happen in a certain context. There are always opportunists, sure, but people don't riot and protest unless they feel they're at a disadvantage or are in some way being treated unfairly with no recourse or hope. There's a well documented history of racial profiling by police in that town, so regardless of whether or not Brown constituted a real threat to the officer's life, the shooting still represented a breaking point. Even if you can't be empathetic, it's important to understand the context. Disagreement with the action doesn't mean the context isn't there.
So what about the angry mob of mostly white people, and the even more strange association with so-called "conservative" politics that assert there is no problem? I have to admit, I don't understand that at all. Much of that angry mob doesn't even have skin in the game (no pun intended). That mob is so far removed from the situation that I'm surprised they would take any stance at all.
These angry white people can't all be racists, can they? I'm not talking about the usual dipshits who anonymously post hate speech on the Internet, I mean the educated people we all know and probably call friends. Surely they can't all be reverting to the habits of people generations back. I'm not an anthropologist, but I do have some theories. The first is that a lot of people my age and younger may find it difficult to believe that racism is still a thing. I'm not making excuses for anyone, but I believe that's plausible. I think there's a segment of the younger population that believes that we're so above the civil rights era that any allegation of racism is just people looking for an advantage. My other theory is that people just perceive racism as a black and white thing, so if you're black and feel oppressed, white people are the enemy and don't want to be associated with that. It's not rational, but I can kind of see that angle.
But like I said, the context of the fear and uprising is critically important, because without it, you are just left with random criminal action. If Bernard Tyson, the CEO of Kaiser, says he's worried about what happens when he gets pulled over as a black man, then I think maybe we should consider what he has to say. No one is condoning violence, but to brush it all aside and pretend that there is no problem doesn't mean there is no problem.
Which get us to the police problem. The death of Brown was certainly tragic, and the circumstances of him being unarmed causes a great deal of concern. What I find upsetting is that people have become so cavalier about the death of a human being that they can justify it with any argument about following the law. We have due process here, and if Brown was guilty of something, he should have been charged and tried. He'll never get that chance. I wasn't there, but I have a hard time believing that emptying a clip into the kid was the only solution to de-escalating the situation.
Here's the thing, most officers are professional and would just assume never draw their guns. I've had the honor of working with police in two different municipalities, and they're top notch people who truly believe it's their duty to serve and protect. I'm thankful for what they do. I know that they're highly trained and have earned respect. I believe they're the majority of what people in the profession are all about. They certainly wouldn't take down a guy three times their age after (incorrectly) assessing an expired license plate.
What sucks is that what is essentially isolated, if very well publicized, incidents become a problem for the people and departments who do right by their communities. If that weren't enough, part of that aforementioned mob insist that excessive force or even death is justified, and you've got morons selling T-shirts that say, "Breath easy, don't break the law," after the choking death in NYC of Eric Garner. That doesn't make anything better. Nobody wins. I don't know if there's a training problem, if it's the militarization of local forces with surplus military gear, or what, but again it's important to not just brush aside the context and pretend there's no problem. Clearly there is, and we're starting to see a lot of chiefs speak up and take ownership of their departments to reinforce the values of community policing and building trust.
All of these issues are difficult on their own, and combined create a hot mess. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that people want to simplify this hot mess, choose a side, and make it political. That's never going to get us anywhere. "Facebook activism" of drive-by re-posts intended only to further enrage people or satisfy their echo chamber will move us backward. You don't have to condone violence or protest, but try on a little empathy, even if it's putting yourself in Bernard Tyson's shoes. This isn't imagined context... it's real life.
More than a year ago now, when I started working as a contractor at the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment corporate office, people were all up in arms and asking, "OMG, Jeff! What do you think about Blackfish?" In case you've been living under a rock, that's the "documentary" about the alleged mistreatment and sadness around the treatment of the orcas. That it's all bullshit has been well-documented around the Internet, but if you choose to live in an echo chamber (willful ignorance seems more prevalent than ever), you probably don't care to know the truth. As best I can tell, the "experts" interviewed are disgruntled former employees, and certainly not marine biologists.
Obviously I can't tell you about everything I learned on the inside, but I can tell you that it's my opinion that there isn't likely another company on the planet that cares more about the animals in its care. To say its people are passionate about that would be an understatement. One might even argue that if it weren't for SeaWorld's 50 years in operation, a lot of these animals may have been hunted to extinction. Sure, these are all self-serving conditions of the company's well-being, but it sure makes sense to me.
Now the word comes that the CEO is stepping down, and they're laying off about 300 people across the chain. That's unfortunate, and I think it's an over-reaction (the company is still profitable), but it's also not surprising. Is it because of Blackfish? I don't think you need insider knowledge to know the answer to that question. As someone who has observed the theme park industry for around 15 years, I think it's obviously not that.
The company has said that it relies heavily on the Orlando park as its flagship, but look at the execution of the last few years. While Walt Disney World built-out the New Fantasyland and Universal built their second Harry Potter zone, SeaWorld Orlando built... nothing. Antarctica opened the year before and it's just, I don't know, bizarre as an attraction. Yet, they still priced the gate like their competitors despite the lack of a marketable new attraction. With all of the discounts, I'm skeptical that people were paying that, but still. There is no universe where you can charge more and not give the guests something new. And if that weren't enough, most of the parks in the chain lacked anything new other than Busch Gardens Tampa, and their ride was down until late in the summer (another fine Intamin product). I have no idea what they were up against in each of their markets in terms of competing attractions, but that you have to sink some cap ex dollars into theme parks to keep attendance up isn't some secret sauce. Disney, Universal, Six Flags, Cedar Fair and even independent parks like Holiday World get it. That's where SEAS is failing.
Do I think SeaWorld is a good company? Fundamentally, yes, I do, and that feeling was reinforced every time I met some of the people at the park level, or anyone who had anything to do with zoological operations. Do I think the company is on the right track? Well, now that the board is seeking out new leadership, yes. I met Atchison once, but I don't know anything about his leadership style or decision making skills. Maybe that in itself is telling. The company hasn't been public for even two years, but I think it's clear that it needs new blood to reimagine itself, and shed its legacy of A-B/InBev leadership and process and be its own company.
I enjoyed the year that I worked there as a contractor. It wasn't perfect, but I think there are good people there and the markets they operate in are full of opportunity.
Over the Thanksgiving break, Amazon was pushing, among other things, a deep discount on their Fire TV, a little tiny box that allows you to play all kinds of streaming stuff on your TV. Truth be told, there are already three things sitting in our living room that could play stuff, including the TV, the Xbox 360 and the Bluray player, but what caught my eye was that this little guy also did Amazon Music, where I keep everything I own backed up and ready to play in other ways. If that weren't enough, they also knocked the price down to $69. They do make the cheaper "stick," but I wanted the additional connectivity options and I was intrigued by the voice search. Sold.
The unit itself isn't much bigger than a large cell phone, perhaps a deck and a half of cards. (Do kids know what playing cards are?) It's impossibly small. I'm using just the HDMI output connected to a receiver which switches between the various devices and outputs them to the TV. The remote is a tiny and simple thing, though presumably because of the voice search, does not work with my Logitech Harmony remote.
Again, that it works with Amazon Music was the first win. In fact, it ships already knowing about my account when I plug it in (just as the Kindles and tablets do). In my case it needed to do an update for the music, but once there, my entire collection, 6,801 songs, was there and ready to play. Back in the day we used an old Apple TV (the original) or iTunes via a laptop to play music, which was suboptimal at best. Now it's all there. In fact, I don't think we really need iTunes for anything anymore, which is awesome because it's a steaming pile of crap. Xbox Music is bad too, if for different reasons. Oh, did I mention that it has artist photos and lyrics for songs it knows? That's a nice touch.
Watching Amazon video and movies is a really pleasant experience, because it starts up impossibly fast. I don't know what their secret sauce is there, but if you choose a movie, it starts playing instantly. It seems to hold the quality level more consistently than Netflix, too, because it doesn't drop to blocky video noise at all.
The other video apps generally perform better than their Xbox counterparts, namely Netflix and Hulu. The user experience is otherwise about the same, but they're a lot more responsive, to say nothing of the fact that they require no boot up time (a problem solved by Xbox One, from what I understand). The real surprise for me though is the Vimeo app, because I have a whole mess of video I've uploaded there. It looks fantastic on my TV, which surprises me even though I took great care to upload minimally compressed stuff. It's fun to watch "old" video of Simon as a baby.
The box will also do photos, but I haven't uploaded any photos to the service, outside of one album's worth just so the screensaver has something to do.
The voice search works incredibly well. It has hit stuff in my music collection, and movies, most every time I've tried it.
Overall, it's a neat little device, and I have to admit that the robustness of the movie delivery from Amazon is such that I suspect it will get me renting more from them. I think that's largely the point with all of Amazon's devices. I was indifferent about their tablets, and their phone is a joke, but I think this is a fantastic gadget. It has a lot of value, even for the relatively small amount of video we watch.
The first big touring show to hit the Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts is the new production of Phantom Of The Opera, and I was fortunate enough to go see it Sunday night. Diana works there part-time as an usher, and after seeing bits and pieces of it last week, she encouraged me to go see it.
I've been fortunate enough to get involved a bit with the center on a volunteer basis, and even had a chance to tour the facility while it was still under construction. I hope people in Orlando understand how awesome it is to have something like this here. It's a really beautiful set of venues, and it sounds like it's generally very functional. (That sounds obvious, but ask people who have occupied theaters built in the 70's and 80's how functional their space is.) I was really excited to see an actual production in the building.
Like most people, I know the music from the show because it has been around for decades. Prior to this, I had only seen the show twice, both in Vegas when it ran at The Venetian. That show borrowed heavily from the other productions in New York, London and such, but had some changes to compress it a bit and drop the intermission (essentially the movie arrangement, with the chandelier shenanigans later, in the second act). It was also the most technically advanced, taking the chandelier gag to new levels by making it this multi-piece thing that rotated all around the theater to its center, with a guy repelling out of its center. In fact, much of the auditorium was used to simulate the Opera Populaire.
This show was a reboot in terms of its staging, with mostly minor tweaks to dialog and music, as best I could tell. So without being bound to the original technical gags like the chandelier rising off the stage during the auction, the big staircase for the masquerade, the Phantom in the proscenium, the portcullis in the Phantom's lair, etc., there was an opportunity to do something new that had not been seen before, and I suspect it has meant that the show travels better as well. My point here is probably half review and half observation of the "new" show.
In terms of casting, I'll cut to the chase: The show is pretty solid overall with a great cast. The understudy Carlotta was on this performance, and she was fantastic. I still think in terms of skill, that's an underrated part because you have to sing well while playing it a little silly and inept. Her opposite, the Piangi character, got a lot of laughs, as did the managers. Madame and Meg Giry played their parts much as you would expect. I don't know if the role of Raoul is easy to sing, but every one of them that I've seen has been great in the part, and this one was no exception.
They cast Chris Mann, who mostly is just known for being on The Voice, as the Phantom, and if I'm being honest, he's not very good. I've heard five different Phantoms now (live and recorded), and he's easily the weakest. He's fine during the "angry" parts of the show, but when he has to convey emotion and connect with the audience, it feels like he's phoning it in. The show only works if you can feel bad for him, and he doesn't convey that. He also can't hold the big notes, wanders excessively into speaking lines (that might be a directorial decision) and went really flat a few times. At the end of "Music Of The Night" he just completely crumbled and gave up while the orchestra kept going. Not impressed. His resume isn't long enough for that role, compared to his peers.
On the other hand, Katie Travis as Christine was fantastic. That role is another that you can't just fake, you've gotta make the audience believe that she has feelings for the bad guy, the good guy and a whole lot of baggage over losing her father. "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" has always been my measuring stick for that, because when it's done right, and you're really plugged in, it should almost bring you to tears. I'm probably alone in thinking that, but I think the song is what ties everything about the character together, bridging the musical legacy of her father with the Phantom's obsession over developing her talent. Travis just nailed it.
From a technical standpoint, the scene, lighting and sound design choices were great to geek out over. The company uses a false floor with various lighting effects in it, flash pots and a track for a rotary set piece that acts as a descending wall (with disappearing steps!), a housing for the managers' office, external walls to the dressing room and the Phantom's lair... it's very versatile. Two large columns on either side rotate to be either exterior/dungeon walls or the theater boxes that merge with a fake proscenium. At one point where Buquet gets hung, they cleverly stage it so it appears that you're seeing the ballet performing on stage while looking backstage. I thought the whole thing was clever and probably more practical for a touring show, and it felt fresh, as if I was seeing a different show.
I'm a big lighting nerd, and I was surprised to see that very little of the house infrastructure was used for the show (in terms of house instruments and such... no idea if they used their control system or wiring). There were a few washes used above the boxes. The FOH electrics weren't used at all, and they instead flew a truss just above the front of the proscenium. Even more interesting is that it was composed almost entirely of automated lighting. Vertical trusses on either side of the stage included more of the same, as well as a few specials. They used one house follow spot and two just off stage inside the upper corners of the proscenium. Not sure what they were using further up stage, since I was in the balcony.
They were also a big fan of lighting from a low angle. A few automated washes were positioned under the boxes, and a number of specials were mounted at the front of the mezzanine. They also had a video projector there, which was used sparingly to display "cobwebs" during the auction, and tell the Phantom's backstory in shadows on a wall. Oh, and they had video monitors of the conductor up there.
Sound was just amazing, in part because that theater sounds so great. There were times where I wasn't sure if I was hearing an actor directly or amplified. It was so clean and I hesitated to cough because all 2,700 people could hear me. The show also mounts small theaters all around to throw the Phantom's voice, and allow for the "police" to indicate that they've "locked the doors" when they try to catch the Phantom in the second act.
Overall, I think it's a great evolution for a show that has been around for so long. It felt new to me. I really wish they would have cast someone with more experience as Phantom, but judging by the crowd reaction, people apparently loved him anyway. I enjoyed it, and I'm glad Diana encouraged me to go see it.
Very early yesterday morning, 4:20 a.m., actually, I got out of bed, showered, and went to pick up my best friend and her roommate to drive out to Canaveral and attempt to see the Orion launch aboard a big ass Delta IV Heavy rocket.
I had a really great viewing location in mind that's a little off the grid if you're not aware of it, and when we got there at 6:30, indeed, there were only about a dozen cars there. We were treated with an unobstructed view of the broad side of the rocket, better than I expected.
You know how things went, starting with that damn boat that was in range and causing a delay. Despite being 0 for 2 now on launch observation, I really enjoyed the sunrise and had lots of great conversation with my friends. The sheer volume of people lined up on 528, and the photos from surrounding areas, was insanely impressive. People are obviously excited about the space program again.
I couldn't bring myself to go back this morning, and of course I instantly regretted it as I watched the launch on TV this morning. We had a break in the clouds (we're directly west of the cape) and got to see it as it breached the upper cloud deck. We even saw where its vapor trail ended.
When I saw the Space Shuttle Atlantis back in February, it was kind of a life-changing experience. I know that sounds a little dramatic, but it's true. I was obsessed with the space program when I was a kid, and I kind of lost that sense of wonder with age. I think combined with having a child of my own, I've started to get that back.
Space travel is important for a lot of the reasons that Kennedy suggested in his speech decades ago. In our time, it feels like the world is selfish, superficial and filled with bad news, even though objectively one could argue that life is a lot better than it used to be. Space exploration makes us feel like there's something bigger and more important going on. I feel like we need that. My hope is that the Orion program is a going to be a part of that.
Late last year, I looked into coaching volleyball again, in a USAV capacity, and while I did the paperwork and everything, I quickly changed my mind. The problem here in Orange County is that, unlike most of Ohio, there's one big school district with giant high schools of three or four thousand kids, and not a lot of kids playing volleyball. All of OC has I think fewer than a dozen high schools, whereas the Cleveland area probably has a hundred.
The long and short of it is that there are very few clubs, and the one I was talking to acts more as a factory than anything else. It's a giant assembly line intended to get a few people paid, and that sucks. The more I understood that, the less I wanted to be involved.
Then today, a friend of mine posted a photo circulating on Facebook that summed up the biggest problem in youth sports:
"Your child's success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are. But having an athlete that is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient and tries their best IS a direct reflection of your parenting."
Back in the day, you certainly had parents at the high school level who were a pain in the ass. After all, the pool of candidates for your high school team isn't going to be that deep. We were largely isolated from this in club ball, because you were getting a better choice among kids from many schools. Not only that, but by the time the kids were 14 or 15, you knew which kids weren't a good fit, or which parents had a reputation.
My last club season was in 2006. It was unfortunately an 18's team, with all of the baggage that goes with that. They were good kids, but only a few of them were really motivated to learn. It was not an ideal season. In late 2010 I signed up to coach with a Seattle club, but things had changed. The parents were trying to micromanage careers of kids that were never going to play beyond high school. In the end, we couldn't keep enough kids to make a team, and I lost the chance to coach. I blame the club director to an extent, because he was just as much a party to the games the parents were playing as the parents themselves. It was so disappointing.
So you have this ugly situation now where the scene is too small here in Central Florida, and on top of that, it has been poisoned with all of the bullshit that makes coaching kids suck. I'm convinced that, short of opening my own club, I would hate getting into it again. I'm not sure if everything that I loved about coaching is even attainable anymore.
It's not impossible to enjoy it with toxic parents. Even though the parents didn't see it this way, I still believe the high school team I had at The Elms in Akron was an enormous success story. Those kids from that tiny school (literally 10% of the school played volleyball) played against, and defeated much bigger schools with much bigger kids. When they were on, it was like watching magic. This from a group that a year earlier was taught to do the "W" on serve receive. I'm definitely proud of many of the individual kids I had in my club seasons, but that team made impossible progress that makes me smile whenever I think about it. This, despite the fact that three or four of the parents were total assholes about everything. Fortunately it didn't rub off on their kids.
Still, it's emotionally exhausting to fight the wave of entitlement and lack of work ethic when little Sally is led to believe she can do no wrong. The greatness of my best kids wasn't achieved by way of trophies or titles, it was achieved by getting exponentially better at their sport, and so much of that in volleyball is the ability to coexist with other kids and thrive. One person, a coach, can't lay that foundation... it takes parents to go along for the ride.
It's hard to believe that Star Wars Episode VII is going to be a real thing about a year from now. It's probably the most enduring science fiction of all time.
I know for sure that I saw Return of The Jedi in the theater, and maybe even Empire. The only other movies that really stuck with me that long was the Indiana Jones series. The original three movies are an epic part of our culture, even when George Lucas messed with them to "improve" them. The three prequels get a bad rap, and while it's hard for me to disagree with the criticism, they were definitely a story that I think we all wanted to hear. It's just that they would have been better as one single movie. The story of the rise of the empire (and by extension the rise of the emperor and Vader, along with the disappearance of the Jedi) was certainly important.
And if we're being honest, at the time that Episode I came out, we were all clamoring for it, and could only be so critical. It was a universe that was new and at the same time familiar. We're all grateful that it didn't ruin Natalie Portman's career.
When Disney bought LucasFilm, it was pretty obvious that there would be new Star Wars movies. Then they made everyone even more happy when they declared there would be three sequels that continued the story arc, interspersed by origin stories. Still, that's a lot of pressure. I think fans tolerated the prequels because they were kind of already in Lucas' head as established, if not published, canon that set up the original films.
Having JJ Abrams take over, I think, is the right move. While I'm not sure that his Star Trek reboot made "instant classics," (seriously though, other than Wrath of Kahn, were any of the originals classic?), the thing that I most respect about him is that he's an excellent storyteller. If you've never seen Super 8, it is in my opinion one of his best works. Mind you, he cast the perfect kids to carry that movie, but it's so well written. His touch on many of the TV series he produced is also comforting.
Today we got the first trailer for the next film. It doesn't really tell us much, but it's instantly recognizable as Star Wars. We know it takes place 30 years after Jedi, and that Han, Luke and Leia will be in it, appropriately aged. The rumors suggest they're there largely to transition to new, younger stars.
What's great about it, as a fan, is that we have so many questions about what happened in those 30 years. It certainly appeared that the empire was done at the end of Jedi. And yet, we see storm troopers, dudes flying X-wings with rebel logos on their helmet, and one scary looking dude with a light saber (that has already been torn apart by the Internet as being unsafe for the user and ineffective against adversaries). In a post-empire galaxy, it seems like not everything turned out as expected.
I think the first film worked because it was unlike anything we had ever seen before in terms of scale and imagination. You don't get the opportunity to create something like that very often. The closest we've come since is Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter, both of which were books first. Everyone knows that this new Star Wars will print money, but what everyone really wants is for it to be the kind of art that the original was. We all want it to inspire and make us stand up and clap when it's over. I give Abrams a 4 in 5 chance. I think he can do it.
I've said many times that I'm totally annoyed with the app-tastic nature of mobile devices. Most apps that aren't games are little more than thin wrappers around API's that could be just was well served by a Web app. It used to annoy me because, as a software developer, I have no interest in coming up with three or four variations of the same thing, not able to share any of the UI code. Now my annoyance is more because of the "islands" that apps create, and the totally bastardized versions of Web sites made for mobile.
On the mobile side, I didn't always feel this way. I used to have a mobile version of my forum app, but it was only the UI that was different. The underlying business rules and logic was shared under the hood. Mostly my approach was just to hide some stuff and make it a lighter payload. When I went down that road, going on three years ago, responsive design was in its infancy and hard to do. Now I'm against it for a number of reasons. While I took care to make sure the underlying code was the same, many sites have totally different code bases and you simply can't do all of the same things. When grandma only uses an iPad and you force her to use that different site, I can't help her, and we don't have the same experience.
And apps... ugh... how many possible ways could they break the Web? At the very least, not being able to pass of a URL to someone means they can't see what you see. They need to download an app and find it themselves. If you have the wrong version of the mobile OS, you're out of luck, or worse, if you have the wrong OS you're even more out of luck. You have to update the damn things constantly, whereas something appearing in a browser is always the latest code. And by the way, the research indicates that very few of the apps you download ever get used more than once.
Annoying as this all seems (to me), I think we're getting closer to turning a corner. Because the upgrade cycle of phones and tablets is apparently very short, the old fashioned Web browser keeps getting more and more powerful. The various frameworks and tools to run software in a browser keep getting more and more compatible and awesome. The long and short of it is that it's getting to a point where we can deliver great experiences in a browser, without an app. That makes me happy.
What a whirlwind of a year 2014 has turned out to be. The timing of the holidays has caused us to reflect a bit on how Simon has been doing in overcoming some of his challenges, and overall, things are going pretty well. Lots of wins, still some concerns, but we're very proud of our little guy.
It's funny (though not in a "ha ha" way) how we tend to identify our lives by where we've lived. By the time Simon was 4, he had lived in five places. So in this case, we think in terms of our move to our current house in the February/March time frame. Thinking about how Simon was doing then, he has made some massive progress. We finished potty training completely, with only a single overnight accident since then. Where we could barely get him to talk about or describe his day at school, now he talks about activities and friends. Stairs were still a non-alternating foot affair, now he alternates and doesn't need a railing. Counting was mostly by chance, now he's deliberate. He's very interested in spelling. He's the kid that the other kids want to play with in class. Zippers are easy, and even socks are less of a challenge. His progress has been amazing.
Simon is still behind in a lot of things, but the pace of his learning and development seems to be good. We've seen some growth in fine motor skills, using a computer mouse, but his muscle tone is still poor and it's a struggle to get him to write or color. My hope is that his interest in spelling will drive his desire to write. We find odd things that he struggles with, like understanding gender and how it's used in language. Working imagination into his play is something that comes and goes.
As for his ASD issues, it's also a mixed bag, but mostly positive. Simon's understanding (or acceptance) of many social contracts is pretty solid. Granted, his obsession with doors means he's not so much being polite when opening doors, it's just what he needs to do. But he is extremely polite most of the time, almost to a fault. He orders his own food and drink at restaurants. What's a little concerning is that he's having a lot of trouble with certain variances from routine. He's having classic autism meltdowns around things like the order of bedtime activities, or things that just can't be helped (like a theme park ride closure). While making for some difficult moments, we're learning how to adapt and adjust, just as he is.
This fall has been a little tough for him, because he has been switched on most of the time. During the week, he has school, twice a day, with the regular pre-K class in the morning, and the "special needs" version in the afternoon. On top of that, we were also having a therapist over twice a week, meaning he was getting like an hour of unstructured time per day, and that sucked. We ended up discontinuing the work with the therapist, because after 10 sessions, he was just not clicking with her at all. I think it was a combination of experience and personality, but we were seeing a toxic side to him unlike anything we would see at other times. He just wasn't building the rapport he had with the previous therapist (who couldn't meet with him so late after school). At school, he just tends to zone out when he's not interested, a trait that I'm intimately familiar with.
The bigger consensus right now among his teachers is that he's on the right track to start kindergarten on time, but it's still a little early to know for sure. I think everyone believes there is great intelligence in that boy, but connecting to it is definitely going to require some non-standard effort. Selfishly, my greatest joy is that he seems very open to emotionally connecting, and he seems to like to pal around with his mom and dad. Diana has been nothing short of super-mom in making sure that he's getting the help he needs, but without being one of "those" parents who hovers and shields their kid from all forms of adversity.
So the news is good, with some amount of cautious optimism. We're getting a better feel for what is 4-year-old behavior, ASD behavior and other developmental delays. I wouldn't trade Simon for anything in the world.
With Thanksgiving this coming week, I think it's safe to say we're in "the holidays" for this year. With that season comes the inevitable flood of nostalgia, and probably some things you'd rather forget.
I've always had a complicated relationship with the season, to say the least. While there are many great feelings recalling childhood, there's a whole lot in the middle that wasn't so great. I try not to dwell on the worst parts, but they're there. I've had a great many triumphs as well, and when I take stock, believe me when I say that I've had an amazing life thus far.
But it does beg the question, is the old cliche about needing exceptional pain as a frame of reference to appreciate the good times true? In other words, do I think my life is amazing because at times it was total shit?
I think pain and suffering is overrated, but I can see how this arrangement might be a real thing. I often tell people that I've managed to have four truly great love stories in my life (well, maybe five, but I'm still not sure if the first one counts), but I can see how that might be in part because of the heartbreak and pain I've felt in other situations.
No matter what though, I think the pain can serve as a reminder for how durable you've managed to be in life. It can be hard to have that perspective, but it's a lot like my philosophy where you have to take loss as a chance to see how good something was, and smile and be happy you had those times.
It's probably OK to quietly revel in your own awesomeness for a bit. You probably earned it.
We had some downtime on Tuesday night for our sites, about two hours or so. On one hand, November is the slowest month for the sites anyway, but on the flip side, we pushed a new version of PointBuzz that I wanted to monitor, and I did post a few photos from IAAPA that were worthy of discussion. It doesn't matter either way, because the sites were down and there was nothing I can do about it because of a serious failure in protocol with Microsoft's Azure platform.
I'm going to try and be constructive here. I'll start by talking about the old days of dedicated hardware. Back in the day, if you wanted to have software running on the Internet, you rented servers. Maybe you had virtual networks between machines, but you still had physical and specific hardware you were running stuff on. If you wanted redundancy, you paid a lot more for it.
I switched to the cloud last summer, after about 16 years in different hosting situations. At one point I had a T-1 and servers at my house (at a grand per month, believe it or not that was the cheapest solution). Big data centers and cheap bandwidth eventually became normal, and most of that time I was spending $200 or less per month. Still, as a developer, it still required me to spend a lot of time on things that I didn't care about, like patching software, maintaining backups, configuration tasks, etc. It also meant that I would encounter some very vanilla failures, like hard disks going bad or some routing problem.
Indeed, for many years I was at SoftLayer, which is now owned by IBM and was formerly called The Planet. There was usually one instance of downtime every other year. I had a hard drive failure once, a router's configuration broke in a big way, and one time there was even a fire in the data center. Oh, and one time I was down about five hours as they physically moved my aging server between locations (I didn't feel like upgrading... I was getting a good deal). In every case, either support tickets were automatically generated by their monitoring system, or I initiated them (in the case of the drive failure). There was a human I could contact and I knew someone was looking into it.
I don't like downtime, but I accept that it will happen sometimes. I'm cool with that. In the case of SoftLayer, I was always in the loop and understood what was going on. With this week's Azure outage, that was so far from the case that it was inexcusable. They eventually wrote up an explanation about what happened. Basically they did a widespread rollout of an "improvement" that had a bug, even though they insist that their own protocol prohibits this.
But it was really the communication failure that frustrated most people. Like I said, I think most people can get over a technical failure, not liking it, but dealing with it. What we got was vague Twitter posts about what "may" affect customers, and a dashboard that was completely useless. It said "it's all good" when it clearly wasn't. Not only that, but if you then describe that there's a problem with blob storage but declare websites and VM's as all green, even though they depend on storage, you're doing it wrong. Not all customers would know that. If a dependency is down, then that service is down too.
The support situation is also frustrating. Basically, there is no support unless you have a billing issue or you pay for it. Think about that for a minute. If something bad happens beyond your control, you have no recourse unless you pay for it. Even cable companies have better support than that (though not by much).
Microsoft has to do better. I think what people really wanted to hear was, "Yeah, we messed up really bad, not just in service delivery, but in the way we communicated." The support situation has to change too. I have two friends now that had VM's more or less disappear, and they couldn't get them back. They had to buy support, which then failed to "find" them. Talk about insult to injury.
Hopefully this is just a growing pain, but a significant problem can't go down like this again, from a communication standpoint.
We've been addicted lately to watching Rehab Addict on HGTV. Sure, part of it is because Nicole Curtis is extraordinarily charming and legit, but also because the show is more like a documentary than a reality show. I think it might be perceived that I'm a hater of old stuff, but that isn't the case.
Yes, we bought a completely new house, a "McMansion" if you will. It's completely non-extraordinary, aside from the fact that it's ours and no one else ever lived there. There are some details in certain places that certainly required some craftsmanship (where we spent extra), but otherwise it's pretty much a production house. It's not like the million-dollar place down the street with stairs carved out of reclaimed wood from an old castle in Germany.
My objection to older houses is a combination of the energy efficiency (or the lack thereof) and the drafty nature of them. I grew up in a house that was a hundred years old, and it was always cold, even with space heaters upstairs. I recall Diana's house was just freezing for reasons I couldn't even explain. You could feel cold air blowing on you.
But the show has demonstrated that a combination of restoration and some clever design can make an old house special. It often requires stripping it down to the studs, mind you, but it can obviously be done. I'm amazed at how much stuff she can repurpose. That process can in some cases result in wins like modern insulation. Certainly the geography matters in those cases. I guess the point is that an old house isn't that old when it has been renovated.
The biggest difference in old versus new really does come down to craftsmanship. It's very obvious to me after building two houses that you get what you pay for. I think the biggest issue in the production house business is that the skill of the guys doing the rough trades is almost always suspect, and that you have to serve as the QA department for the builder is ridiculous. On the plus side, much of the framing is done by machines off-site, which you can trust to get the math right.
A hundred years ago, things like wood detail and tile were done with great care. Now, not so much, unless you pay more for something nicer. When I look at our house, the only things that feel "nicer" are the things that were extra (the frameless shower door and some molding on the cabinets is all we really did outside of flooring).
The long and short of it is that an old house doesn't have to suck if you're willing to put some time, love and money into it. Lots of money, I think.
PointBuzz has been with me since 1998, only then it was called Guide To The Point. Eventually I connected with Walt, who started Virtual Midway in 2000. On May 12, 2004, we launched the joint effort that is PointBuzz. It was a good match, because he's a great designer and enjoys creating content, while I love the process of writing software for online community.
You would think that splitting the duties would mean it was easier to maintain the site, but sadly that's not the case. You know, day jobs, families and stuff. We didn't launch the second version of the site until December 16, 2007. The new version we're kind of calling v2.5, because it's mostly just a port to new tools with a new skin. It's not so much new features. But yikes... November 15, 2014, almost seven years.
From a professional standpoint, the most striking thing about this reinvention is how much things have changed in that seven years. These days we're using Git, and the use of MVC is making it exceptionally easy to collaborate on our respective parts. Instead of going for a big bang moment, we just wanted to get it out there and start iterating over it.
From a geek standpoint, consider that the old site was built on WebForms, the forum version was v8 (I'm on the v13 now), and it was really hard to change. Now we're using MVC as the presentation framework, really simple Entity Framework for data, and most importantly, we're using Bootstrap as the front end framework. I wrote before about why I hated all the frameworks that came before, but having completely overhauled the forums with it, I'm sold. It's not too heavy (though not light). That you can realistically do a responsive design without a lot of extra work is the win.
Next up at my end is to finish the Q&A functionality for the forum. There is a bunch of back-end stuff I'd like to do as well, but I've gotta ship v13 eventually. It has been awhile.
I'm ready. I don't care if it's mid-November, I'm ready to start celebrating, because I've earned it. Let me get this out of the way, I'm referring to "the holidays" because that includes Thanksgiving and the New Year. So before you get your Christmas panties in a bunch, know that I'm referring to the entire season. That, and just because I celebrate Christmas doesn't mean everyone else does.
We've had quite a bit of holiday travel and festivities in the rotation for the last several years. We've spent days up with my in-laws in the mountains of North Carolina, hosted and went to various dinners, assembled Lego trains around trees, witnessed epic light displays... we get our merry on. This year we'll put up a tree in the fifth house in as many years. We'll also add a quick Christmas cruise into the mix, because that's how we roll down here.
Yes, the retail blitz is absurd, and gets longer every year. Honestly we don't buy much stuff anyway. Experiences not stuff is our thing. But still, I don't see anything wrong with six weeks of awesome. We need it this year. I wouldn't characterize it as an unhappy time, but it certainly has had its challenges.
Bring it, holiday cheer.
Every single year, the news (and everyone on Facebook) announces the first snow fall as if it were completely unexpected.
Every. Single. Year.
I thought snow was pretty cool when I was a kid. My fascination with it was lessened when I had to start walking to class through it, and when I started driving to work in it. By the time I had my own driveway and sidewalk, I was done with it completely, even with a snowblower.
Snow was one of the many reasons I was ready to move in 2009. Cleveland was generally in the shitter in terms of economy and jobs in my line of work. Seeing so many friends move and find bigger and better things heavily influenced me. Diana had lived in a number of places as well. It was just time.
Seattle was awesome. I miss it every day. It really opened my eyes in a way that I desperately needed, and should have had years before that. Way back in 1998 I went to Portland for a conference, and it was my first time out west. All I could think was, "Wow, these are my people, and this place is awesome." It took a lot of life shaking things up, 11 years, before I actually lived in the Pacific Northwest. Today I talk with friends who have moved around, and we're amazed that we ever lived in Brunswick, Ohio. It's not that we're judgmental in those discussions, but wonder more if people realize that there might be something more out there.
We went back to Cleveland and didn't last even two years, and most of that was because of winter. It's not just the cold winters keeping you stuck inside, it's the flat, gray, featureless sky that dominates your vision for weeks at a time. Say what you will about Seattle's perpetual winter mist, the sun still comes out almost every day for a little while, there are evergreens everywhere, and there are goddamn mountains with snow on them everywhere you look.
Central Florida is not as pretty as the Pacific Northwest, but what it lacks in scenery it makes up for in sun and blue skies. My mom told me when she moved here that she was amazed at how much better she felt in the general sense. Given the fact that depression is an issue on that side of the family, I totally get what she meant. Seasonal affective disorder kicked my ass every year of my life living in the Midwest. It's just awful. I never had it in Seattle, and I certainly don't in Florida.
I'm always reminded of the movie Orange County, where the main character spends his senior year plotting how to get the hell out of town (and dating Schuyler Fisk, lucky bastard). An author that he admires and finally meets talks about the conflict that people have with the place they're born. That's me. I don't hate Cleveland, I just don't want to live there right now. I certainly don't want to deal with snow.
We've had a couple members of our leadership team from Tampa in the Orlando office in the last few weeks, which inevitably leads to lunch out. Today, again, I the conversation turned to how fantastic Orlando is for all of the reasons most people don't know. When I landed here a little over a year ago, I was oblivious as well. Now I feel like it's a little secret that should be kept, maybe.
If you come to town as a tourist, you probably know 528, a few miles of I-4 and I-Drive. If you're really adventurous, maybe you know a few miles of the coast (Kennedy and the cruise lines), and maybe Legoland or Busch Gardens Tampa. That was probably my limitation as well when I moved here, and working for a theme park company may have even reinforced that. But I did obviously land in a place to live that was away from all that, and you have to branch out if you're going to live in any area. Don't get me wrong, I love me some theme parks, and it was a consideration for moving here, but it's a fraction of what Orlando is about.
This job opened my eyes quite a bit, in part because our office (where I got twice a week) is right in the middle of everything, downtown. Yes, Orlando has a downtown. The arena is two blocks away, the mixed-development revival of Church St. is a block, across the street is the amazing new Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts, Lake Eola is diagonally a few blocks... it's really fantastic. I'm told it's not a great place to live yet, because you need to actually get out of downtown for regular retail needs, but as a place to work and play, it's really fantastic.
In fact, you'd never know that the area was so in the same city as the attractions. There's a sense of an up-and-coming city when you're downtown, with a mix of start-ups and technology companies, as well as the typical big financial firms and such. Of course, a world-class performing arts facility is important to us, but I look at how those places benefit Cleveland and Seattle and I see how important it is to the general atmosphere and vibe in a downtown area.
There are a lot of areas that are uniquely "old Florida," as a friend calls them. I'm not entirely sure how you describe that... it's kind of a mix of old south, 60's modern, but not tacky. You find a lot of great old houses, family businesses and restaurants that have survived for decades, and a whole lot of money. Not sure what these folks do for a living, but they're well-off.
It's all a nice surprise to me. I've enjoyed getting more involved with local business and non-profits, as well as our local software development community. I'm guilty of seeing the area as one-dimensional, and in some ways relieved that it's not.
Today was a great day to be in my line of work, especially with the tools and the stack that I work with.
At a personal level, we reached a spot with my project at work where we're nearly ready to ship, and by most objective accounts, it has been a successful project. Being my first with this company, it's a bit of a relief to get that done. While I am in that place that technical leaders like to wallow in a bit, looking for the things I could have done better, it feels good to get 'er done. I had an amazing team to work with, and that makes a huge difference.
My partner for PointBuzz made the suggestion last week that we should just bang out a minimum viable port of the site to all of the latest frameworks and tools so we're not stuck forever in 2007. I was already pushing the forum app in that direction, and as it turns out, I had done a bunch of groundwork on the technical side. He checked in a bunch of code today, I did more backend stuff, and what do you know... we're in an enormously good place. I can't even put into words how great that feels.
If that weren't enough, Microsoft went into detail on its vision for the next version of everything, and it's awesome. At the top of the excitement is that pretty much everything will be open source. That matters because it opens more doors to using skills on more platforms. Not only that, but things will be more modular and easier to maintain (hopefully).
Of course, all of this new stuff means I need to find time to play with it, which is pretty scarce, but I'll get there. In the mean time, I need to put the wraps on v13 of POP Forums, which will add Q&A style forums. I need to get those up and running on a real site so I can validate they work as expected.