Archive: June, 2017

Healthcare reform is not this

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, June 27, 2017, 11:00 AM | comments: 0

Congress is trying hard right now to take on the issue of healthcare reform, but the result is not the reform anyone is looking for. If you were to define the desired reform as broadly as possible, it would likely be to devise a system that results in lower costs and better access for everyone. I'm positive that not everyone wants that, but it seems like that's what the majority of Americans want. The new legislation doesn't make it cheaper, and it reduces access. It feels like it's almost just to spite a former president that left office six months ago.

The problem is pretty well defined: Healthcare is paid for by insurance, which is generally tied to employment, which is generally tied to socioeconomic opportunity. While I understand some people adhere to a strong ideology that access to healthcare is not a right, I am troubled by this because we don't really get to choose our health. One day, we can simply learn we have cancer. When we're children, we have no choice as to who our parents are or whether or not they're in a position to obtain healthcare for us. It's like the lottery, only we're all forced to play, and the consequences are a reverse lottery slogan: We're all in it to lose it.

I don't know what the solution is, and the Affordable Care Act only partially solved the access problem, but did little for the cost problem. Repealing the provisions that at least partially address the access problem, reducing the insured by 22 million, is not a win. I don't think our lawmakers really understand the economics involved here, because they see them only from the view of government expense. However, the poor get poorer when they can't afford care, and frankly even the well-off risk financial ruin when they can't pay. There are a hundred ways that the poor drag the economy, and that affects everyone. Further, think of the missed opportunities: People may stay in a job that they're not well suited for only for the health insurance, or worse, are unlikely to risk starting a new business that could have a ripple effect of growth for others, because they are too scared to leave their job for the health insurance.

Other nations, most of them even, have taken a more hands-on approach that results in higher quality care at a lower cost, particularly if you measure that care by life expectancy. The US spends the most per capita but ranks in the 40's for life expectancy. We don't get "better" for our money. Everyone else has some variation on single-payer systems (consolidated risk pools), national administrative systems, etc. Opponents describe these as broken, expensive systems while failing to acknowledge that we have a broken, and more expensive system. That seems intellectually dishonest. If we can't even have the conversation about the way others do it, then we aren't having a debate. We're only killing the conversation on the basis of high ideology that today offers no solution.

We can't innovate in the US either, because of existing regulations. There was a time before the Great Depression when you could pay a flat fee to a local co-op of doctors and hospitals, all of whom shared information and managed your care, but you can't do that now because it would run afoul to insurance regulations. We know that the inability to coordinate and share information is part of the problem, and this would help, but you can't do it.

What's most disappointing is that after seven years of saying that the ACA is a disaster, without qualifying what makes it a disaster, the GOP leadership has completely failed to architect an alternative that works for everyone. It's an enormous missed opportunity. They've been so busy pitching a way to save us from the past administration's signature legislation that they've completely neglected a way to save us with something better. That might appeal to the base that just wanted to stick it to the former president with a funny name, but it's not leadership.

As long as we fail to debate ideas in favor of supporting politics as a sports rivalry, we will get nowhere. Demand more from your government.


Silicon Valley bros and broken culture

posted by Jeff | Sunday, June 25, 2017, 12:52 AM | comments: 0

The CEO of Uber is finally out, though as a huge stakeholder and board member, he won't be very far away. If you haven't followed along, this is the guy who went nuts on an Uber driver who complained the company was hostile toward drivers, all while a female engineer described a "strange year" of HR violations and another account puts the executive in an escort bar in South Korea. To say that any of this is not cool is an understatement.

I've worked in technology most of my adult life. My experience ranges from gigantic Microsoft to startups. I've seen success and failure up close. In every situation, the reward has been the chance to work with awesome people. Sure, it pays well, but it's not hard to get excited about building something cool, virtual as it may be, with people who share your passion for changing some part of the world. Those people include men and women, people from everywhere from India to Russia to China to Serbia to South Africa, people gay and straight. The diversity is fantastic.

But the stories out of Silicon Valley like the Uber situation are not uncommon. Tales of misogyny aren't the only recurring theme though. There are also tales of extraordinary burnout caused by unsustainable expectations and impossible work weeks. Investors throw gobs of money at long shots, looking for that one unicorn that will pay off. People shout cheers about innovation and fast failure, but the only thing they're trying to build is an exit and a payout. Seriously, how does a company like Uber lose $800 million in one quarter?

Silicon Valley is not the center of the universe. It's not reality.

Sure, we've seen a few exceptions in the last two decades of extraordinary new companies born in the valley, but Google and Facebook are those unicorns. The popular stat is that 90% of startups fail, and of those, often half of them die because there's no market for what they're selling. Think about the arrogance there: Founders so convinced that they have thought of something so great that people don't even know they need it.

The truth is that the valley culture is broken and full of money. The lack of constraints doesn't force any kind of creativity or establish a solid "why" for any company to exist. More to the point, there are real, sustainable technology companies all over the world that are making the world better, regardless of actual scope. Most of the technology world is not by the bay.

The most unfortunate thing about Uber is that it has an actually great, disruptive idea coming out of San Francisco, and it's largely obscured by all the things wrong with that valley startup culture. It's an (allegedly) $70 billion company, but at what cost? I wonder if things would have turned out differently if it was started and lived somewhere else.


Forever things are not real

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, June 20, 2017, 11:30 AM | comments: 0

We're in a bit of an HGTV thing at our house, I guess because we're planning to move yet again. There's nothing quite like feeling great about a move when some couple in California is spending a million dollars on a 1,500 square-foot dump, and feeling negatively uppity when a nice family fixes up a place that only cost $50k. Simon is fascinated with the tiny house shows, until we explain to him that having a tiny house would require him to give up pretty much everything he owns (which isn't even that much to begin with).

Aside from the hilarious and often ridiculous expectations of house hunters and renovators, I'm struck by the number of people who say that they're looking for their "forever home." That's the strangest damn thing I've ever heard of. Granted, pre-2009 me felt really stuck, and I suppose a crappy economy and years of non-acknowledgment that being a grown-up meant I could move caught up with me. But from that year, I went on to move five times in four years. What brought me happiness wasn't the idea that I could run from a bad situation, it was the idea that I could move forward to whatever it was that might make me happy and create a better situation.

One of the great truths in life is that we just don't know what tomorrow will bring. We make our own future as much as we can or are willing to, and in doing so we're free to change things. And while it might be sad or scary to think about, we also don't know how much time we have. More to the point, we can definitely steer our lives toward intended outcomes, but the variables make the specifics impossible to predict. I mean, I have some clarity on where I want my career to go, but some random thing could come up that leads me to a different, maybe better path.

A friend of mine put this more succinctly on Facebook: "I often have to remind myself that this is not the last home/car/beach umbrella I am going to buy in my life. Pull the trigger. Do the best you can. Move forward."

This is the truth. Things happen, good and bad, and we move forward. The idea that I would move into a "forever home" is quite frankly morbid to me. I don't want to choose the place I die because I'm not even half way there. The amount of adventure available to me is infinite, and I'm not going to miss it.

Now excuse me while I ironically get the words "nothing is permanent" tattooed on my body somewhere.


Making tangible things

posted by Jeff | Saturday, June 17, 2017, 7:38 PM | comments: 0

One of the great things about my job is that I make things. Well, at this stage in my career, I'm half collaborating among people to get things made. I believe that this is what I was built to do, and while it's different from the things I got to make in my TV days, there is something there as a result of my job. That's very satisfying.

A friend of mine that I met almost 20 years ago is in town this week for work. His company, along with his partners, quite literally make roller coasters. They're building a new ride here in the Orlando area, so he invited me to bring Simon and Diana down to the site and see the almost-finished project. When I was standing there in the coaster train that he designed, with inverted track overhead, on a wood coaster, I thought back to the time we first exchanged email, while he was still a college student. I'm not sure why that struck me as so remarkable, except that it demonstrates how you can grow up to be a person that does something very cool.

It wasn't just his career progression though. That thing I was standing in exists today because of the sheer force of will to create something. The stuff that I make, thousands of people virtually "touch" it every day on screens, sure, but this thing made of steel and wood... it has weight to it. It just feels different than the bits that I make.

When I think about what I want to do in my spare time, I'm drawn to the idea of making more tangible things. Perhaps after we move, when I have more room, I can take up wood working or something. The challenge is coming up with something to build, because I definitely learn by way of doing. I'm already starting to think about house "mods" and plan to fully photograph the place before the drywall goes in.


Making software is hard

posted by Jeff | Thursday, June 15, 2017, 7:34 PM | comments: 0

I run the software development operation for a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company. The product is fairly young, and the thing that makes me most anxious is staying in front of the crazy high potential we have in front of us. That's not really a complaint, because honestly this is precisely the role I've been looking for since, well, probably the last decade. It could be a very exciting ride.

Our founder said to me the other day that, "Making software is hard." He was half making a joke, but he was also serious because it's true. There are a lot of little decisions that you make every day that often have a bigger context. Business rules change constantly. You minimize complexity but encounter complex problems. And because it's never really "done," especially with a SaaS product, it never really ends.

But today was a good day, because the feedback we got from one of our customers demonstrated that the product will pay for itself many times over. That's awesome. We're fortunate to have a core group of early customers who are bona fide stakeholders, so we're very much building the right thing. (Sidebar: This always takes me back to my second position at Microsoft, in a group that never shipped anything, where my manager insisted, despite my protest, that we knew better than our customers in terms of what they wanted and needed.) Software might be hard, but it sure is awesome when you're making life easier for the people using it.

I've known this for a long time, but to this day I'm still amazed at the impact that having the right people makes. One of my strengths is guiding the process, but that's just a framework without people who can kick ass. You know you're doing it right when you can challenge people and they own the task and exceed expectations. I see it every day. Another strength I have is mentoring, but that's also not useful without willing and motivated people. The whole horse-to-water thing holds true.

Making software is hard, but even with daily challenges, is sure is satisfying when you get it right.


Looking back at our 2016-17 Broadway season

posted by Jeff | Saturday, June 10, 2017, 10:30 AM | comments: 0

We finished up our Broadway Series season this week, after seeing seven shows. I really enjoyed myself, as did Diana even though she also works those shows. It's not an inexpensive endeavor, and I wish more people could see live theater, because there really is something very special about talented people coming together to create, support and perform a show. And to do so in such a beautiful new building is icing on the cake. I love going downtown for dinner, then spending an hour or so just hanging out with drinks on the patio there. It's probably the best kind of date night we can have without leaving the area.


The Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts in Wicked green. Frustratingly, they don't play with the amazing architectural lighting they have in place very often. The third theater, the acoustic theater, is now under construction in the space on the left.

I wanted to write a quick recap of the season, by show. We sold our tickets to our neighbors for the first show, The Illusionists, because we weren't really that into the idea of seeing a magic variety show. For the most part, this was a really strong lineup, and better than the previous year (we weren't subscribers, but did see a few shows).

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I mentioned this show back in November because, quite obviously, a show about a kid with autism is going to generate a brain dump. It was the only non-musical show of the season other than Illusionists, and I thought it was brilliant. The material is challenging because you have to try and convey what it's like for a kid who is wired differently, and create empathy for that different view on the world. And if that weren't enough, the production design did a remarkable job of helping tell that story, without being too gimmicky.

An American in Paris

If you like classic Gershwin tunes and singing and dancing in old Hollywood musicals, this is all of that on stage. I don't think I ever saw the film, but I had a basic idea of what to expect, and it was definitely entertaining, if not the deepest thing I've ever seen. It was a bit long, and probably could have ended a good 10 minutes sooner.

Wicked

You know, Wicked is one of those cultural phenomenons that I knew I would eventually see, and to that end, I tried for years to not really learn too much about it. (I was going to do that with Hamilton, but failed entirely.) I only knew the music through peripheral contact, and the stars of the original Broadway run by way of what they did after. So beyond high expectations, I managed to go into the theater without knowing too much other than people love this show.

It definitely did not disappoint. The hype was all justified. It's a great show, start to finish. The music did not entirely grab me at first, but the more I heard it around the house, the more it has grown on me. I think I'd like to see it a second time, because there are things I'm sure I missed. The thing I walked away with the most is what a slamming critique it is of our society's tendency to fear the people we don't understand. It's not even subtle.

As a bonus, we made a new friend in the show who went to high school with a former girlfriend, and it's been fun to see him document his adventures on tour around the country. He showed us around backstage, and silly us, we didn't get a selfie with the Wizard of Oz. It's also crazy to see how much heavy stuff they fly in that show.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder

Another show that I didn't know anything about other than seeing it on the Tony's one year, but it ended up being fairly hilarious. I think you can often get away with cheap laughs in theater, and there were plenty, but it was also clever. You'd think that reviewing clever ways to kill people wouldn't be that funny, but there it is.

The Little Mermaid

Let me get right to it.. the nostalgia wore off by the intermission. I tried in my mind to even defend the show for a few days after that, but it was pretty fucking terrible. I saw Disney's Lion King in Vegas some years ago, and it blew me away, so I expected they wouldn't screw up a classic. But alas, they did. The production looked cheap, the humping mermaids were weird choreography, and the new songs didn't really improve the story. The actor playing Sebastian got some good laughs, but that was one of a small number of bright spots. The plot changes from the film were more filler than anything, and an excuse for the lead to sing what was in her mind when she has no voice.

Matilda

I adored this show and it surprised me. I didn't know the underlying story from the book or movie in any detail, so the storytelling inside the story and how it became another character's story was brilliant and surprising. The abilities of the child actors were staggeringly amazing. They were so good. This was also the show that I felt had the best scene and lighting design (sorry, Wicked), as it served the story perfectly without being a spectacle. This was my favorite this season, and I'd love to see it again.

Finding Neverland

Our last show, just this last Wednesday, the same day we returned from our 5-night cruise. I knew more about what to expect in this show in terms of plot, and I can happily report that it delivered. Again, the children were great (as was the dog), and there were plenty of laughs. It's another one of those musicals where the music doesn't particularly leave an impression, but it's contextually entertaining. Like all of the Peter Pan fiction that has come since, it goes pretty deep into the exploration of mortality, and there are some moments that are very serious. In fact, there's a beautiful "death scene" in this show that is beautifully elegant, and I'd high five the production designers if I could.

Overall, I'm sad that we're done for the year, but the next season begins in September. There are more shows, nine total, but it's more of a mixed bag. I'm not that interested in On Your Feet!, and we're already groaning about the Phantom sequel (which we'll see if only to confirm the groans). Rent is coming, which I like as a story but have never understood the love for it or the music. Also, we'll see The King and I, which is a classic, The Book of Mormon returns and I'm stoked about that, School of Rock, The Lion King, which I've seen before, Waitress and Something Rotten. Being a subscriber this year means you'll be there for Hamilton the year after, and I imagine we'll do our best to see that more than once.


Cruise XII: Disney Dream, 5-night Bahamas with two Castaway Cay stops, June 2, 2017

posted by Jeff | Thursday, June 8, 2017, 10:50 PM | comments: 0

I'm not going rehash all of the stuff I've written about before, because at its core, this is the itinerary we've done eight other times, with extra days. The important distinction here is that this one stopped at Castaway Cay twice.

It was about three years now that we sailed with our friends from Chicago, and we shared a cabana for that trip. I declared it the best beach day ever, which doesn't even capture how great it was. The bigger pile of awesome though is that it's hard to beat a day at Disney's private island, Castaway Cay. You've got an enormous beach with twice as many chairs as there are people, two barbecue locations, tons of activities, bike rentals, stuff in the water to do, an adult beach... we've barely scratched the surface and that's after spending 12 days on that island. It's a beautiful place to go.

Our stops on the island were Saturday and Monday, with the stop in Nassau in between. The cruise was, as best we can tell from talking to a former server, the most booked of our experience, with well over 3,000 guests. You wouldn't know it on the island, because there's so much room to spread out. Also, maybe the threat of rain deterred some people, but it was flawless, with just enough cloud cover to make it more comfortable than usual. That first day, we were in the sand by 9:30 and didn't return to the ship until a bit after 2. Simon played in the sand, Diana and I had some beverages and stayed cool in the water... it was everything a relaxing day should be. Simon got a private tour of Scuttle's Cove, the island version of the kids' club, and he ended up spending about 90 minutes there. It was another fantastic example of how good the youth counselors are on these cruises. I really think they understand my kid better than I do at times.

On the second visit to the island, Simon went right into Scuttle's Cove. The timing was good, as we got to the island a bit late because we all slept in, and some of the aforementioned behavior issues influenced our morning. We needed a break, and we got it. Simon never even made it to the beach proper. He didn't communicate his needs very well at lunch in the club, so he didn't eat then, but we actually had a nice family lunch. I do love the spicy chicken sandwich they have on the island, and it seems to be better than the one they used to serve (it seems to have a more natural breading color, too). After lunch, the boy went back to the cove, and Diana and I finally did the walking trip out to the observation tower. It's about a mile each way from our usual "camping" spot, and I actually did it in flip flops without issue. It was very humid that day though, and a bit oppressive given the dehydrating substance I had been drinking. Disney thinks of everything though... there were water coolers along much of the route.

The most important thing about our aquatic adventures though was that Simon finally got on the Aqua Duck, the kind of boring water coaster that circles the upper decks. He did it with Diana while I was getting a massage on the Nassau day (we never go ashore there), and was quite proud of himself. He wanted to ride with me at night so we could check out the lights, and so we did. We did one final lap on the last day (at sea), and we've got ourselves a fan.

Speaking of that massage, it occurred to me now that every single massage therapist on every ship has been a Filipino woman under five feet tall. That can't be a coincidence, so why does the spa company hire that way? As an aside, I would like to mention that while I will generally suck it up and pay the crazy prices for a massage, I hate how they play a lot of games with the rates. They generally offer some kind of special for embarkation day only, but then they dick around and offer some lower rate a day or two later. I also get tired of them trying to sell product or acupuncture. They look at me like I'm an asshole when I say no thanks, because science.

This was the first time that our dining service team wasn't excellent. They were just "very good," as the surveys go. They weren't what I would describe as disappointing, but our previous teams have just been so good that the bar is incredibly high. In fact, we've seen them around quite a bit on the various ships, and this time we ran into our favorite and talked to him for a bit. We had one disappointing instance where we sat outside for lunch in port at Nassau, because the dining room was pretty full. They were discouraging people to sit there because of birds, literally with people standing at the doors, but what we quickly found is that the birds were only a problem when unbussed tables sat there with food. I complained about it, and the response was largely one of inaction. It made me realized that being a customer-focused organization isn't necessarily about resolution, it's about taking action and owning a problem. Rare dropped ball for DCL.

We went to three shows this time around, including a magician the first night. Simon was surprisingly engaged for that show. We saw Villains Tonight, which has never been a favorite, but there was new stuff in that one. We closed with Disney's Believe, one of my favorites because it has a few original songs, pretty good dance numbers ("Step In Time" from Mary Poppins and "Dig A Little Deeper" from Princess and The Frog) and interesting scene design. My frustration with a lot of the onboard shows is that the tracked choruses are jarring and sound fake, when they seem to have enough vocal talent to do it live. The older the show, like The Golden Mickey's, the more obvious this is. If the newer, modern shows like Frozen and Tangled have a lot of tracked vocals, it's at least not obvious.

Also, and this might be because I married a bona fide theater professional, I don't like that there is no recognition for the performers or technical staff at all. I realize that they're not identified in the theme parks either, and I'm not expecting a Playbill, but come on, even regional park chains put up the names of their performers on the venues.

Other notes... I think the "cellular at sea" network works with Project Fi, because I had a pretty solid signal away from ports most of the time. Granted, traveling around the Bahamas usually involves close proximity to one shore or another, but still. I did a lot of Facebook sharing when I thought we were out of range. On the beverage front, I was relieved to see proper British Strongbow onboard, without all of the sugar. A US Coast Guard helicopter buzzed the ship 20 miles north of Nassau, for some reason. You know you're on a ship with children when FunnelVision shows an episode of "Nina Has To Go." We've never seen the adult areas this busy. I did the design tour for the ship, finally, and it was very cool. I mostly stuck to my "no elevator" rule to counter all of the gluttony, and over five days walked about 30 miles.

Overall, it was a great chance to unplug for a few days, and I loved the 5-night, 2-Castaway stop itinerary. It wasn't particularly adventuresome or different for us, but that was kind of the point. Now we just need a chance to do one without our little guy. Mom and Dad still haven't used our "free" credits to dine at Palo as platinum members.


My vacation wasn't as perfect as I let on

posted by Jeff | Thursday, June 8, 2017, 7:31 PM | comments: 0

I found it appropriate that yesterday my blog post from last year about how "your online persona is a lie" came up in my Facebook "on this day" feed. It was also funny that my best friend asked me today how my cruise was last week, as if she didn't know by all of my Facebook posts. But no... it was far from perfect. There were some real struggling moments we had as parents, to say the least. I suppose that's what parenting is, but usually you hope that a vacation is relief from the things that stress you out.

I'm not going to sit here and say that our five night swing through the Bahamas was bad. We did have some extraordinary moments, and it was the most human I've seen Diana in the last six weeks following her extended battle with constant migraines. It was nice to not think about computers during that time, too. But we did have a series of challenges with Simon's behavior, particularly at dinner time. I think the biggest realization that we had is that we've not had a night away from Simon in more than a year, which is pretty bad. We love our little boy, but shit, it's not normal to be plugged in that long without a break.

Anyway, I'm rambling, but my point again is that you should never take what you see about a person online at face value. We all have challenges and our share of shit. I may proclaim gratitude and thankfulness for having a charmed life, but it's not all charming. I just don't think family and friends are interested in seeing or hearing about the crappy parts.