Broadway review: Harry Potter and The Cursed Child (4/6/19)

posted by Jeff | Thursday, April 18, 2019, 11:10 PM | comments: 0

Harry Potter is quite a juggernaut of fantasy literature at its core, but then wrap it with the movies, the theme parks, the endless merchandising... it's huge. It seemed both inevitable and unlikely that there could ever be a play around these characters, and here we are, with two plays, technically, that span an enormously epic story.

I certainly love the movies, and I've read a book and a half, which is to say that I'm a fan in a non-committal way. I won't go to Universal Studios and buy a wand or anything. At that level of fandom, I realize that there is enormous canon to draw from across all those books, and I've recently learned that people who know those details have some issues with the play. Cool story, bro, but I'm not going to consider any of that, and just focus on the storytelling, production and performance.

Cursed Child takes place many years after the movies, where Harry and Ginny have married and had kids, as have Ron and Hermione. As it turns out, Draco Malfoy had a child, too, though his wife died at some point. That child, Scorpius, and the Potters' second son, Albus, are at the core of the story. They're both socially awkward and have challenges in making friends, so it only seems appropriate that they end up being friends from the start, meeting on the Hogwart's Express. Both ultimately are suffering from daddy issues, because Scorpius' dad was a dick, and Albus' dad is Harry Freakin' Potter, the boy who lived, and how do you live up to that?

I won't spoil the plays and go deeper than that. The story arc is epic and interesting, and each of the first three acts ends with an epic cliffhanger. The themes around external expectations motivate a lot of bad decisions made by the kids, and while centered in the magical universe of Harry Potter, they translate pretty well to the real world. There are fundamental issues with acceptance and fit, into communities as a child and an adult. The boys have genuinely good intentions, largely designed to win the approval of their fathers and their peers, but it's a familiar story in how these actions lead to unintended consequences. For the parents, there's also a fair amount of time reconciling what it means to be a parent and protect your child from suffering. Without giving too much away, Harry and Dumbledore's painting have a pretty deep conversation about suffering as a key part of the human condition, and the level to which you can or should protect your child from that. As the father of a socially awkward kid with ASD, I live with this challenge daily.

But let's be real, this stuff is all wrapped in the best fantasy packaging. The almost universal appeal of Harry Potter comes in part from the fact that there are adult themes surrounded by accessible action and magic that kids appreciate. The plays work at that level, and J.K. Rowling's story treatment was adapted very well into a stage show. It has the twists and the depth that the books do, and it better because it's going to require about six hours of your time and about $400 for a decent seat at both shows.

The production is at a level rarely seen on stage, but before I get to that, let me draw out the one negative. The show is scored with music from Imogen Heap, and if you know me, you know I've been a fan for about 15 years. She's a genius. That said, the music used in the show is not original to the show, and is mostly a series of arrangements derived from her albums. If you aren't familiar with her work, this is a non-issue, but for me, it quite literally took me out of the moment on several occasions. There's this whole interpretive dance thing early in the first act to "Cycle Song," and I was like, "What is this?" But worse, some of those songs remind me of difficult times, like "The Moment I Said It," which to me always sounded like a break up song and reminds me of getting divorced. Hearing this music in this context was jarring, and I expect it would be for any fan of her music.

With that out of the way, the producers clearly are expecting a lengthy run, because they renovated the Lyric Theatre from top to bottom. That means "H" imprints on the carpet and a general decor that feels right for the material, including some stunning light fixtures inside. (I don't know if the WB film teams had any hand in this.) What I found particularly interesting is how tidy the auditorium is. Most New York venues are nearly a hundred years old, and you'll find some trusses in front of the proscenium with lighting and sound. You'll find none of that here, and most of it, save for a few fixtures here and there, are well hidden. I say mostly, because there are subwoofers sitting largely in the open around the perimeter of the room. If you look carefully, you might even spot some cable rigging for something I won't talk about here, but it'll blow your mind. Even the lobby is quite beautiful, and the merchandise is changed out before the end of the first part (second act).

The scene design is remarkably simple, with arches that invoke Hogwarts, and a pair of stair sets are used quite liberally in many scenes. When things do come on and off, I can't tell if it was all ensembleists (do you call them that in a non-musical?) or stage hands, because they would flip their capes as they moved with objects on or off stage. Being a semi-permanent installation, they are able to use trap doors and other things in the stage, but overall it's brilliantly simple movement from scene to scene.

Lighting helps set the scene and make detailed sets less necessary. I've seen this a lot in newer shows in the last two years, where areas of the stage are framed in lighting to direct focus, and in this show, narrow bands of light from the upstage floor would frame some things that were above the stage (you knew there would be flying). There are a couple of particularly dramatic lighting effects, one with a classic black light trick, another by using video projection mapped to 3D surfaces and fantastic sound design. The lighting also helps to keep you from seeing things that might reveal the tricks used for visual effects.

And wow are the visual effects impressive. The things you've seen in the movies are accomplished on stage, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes not. Flying is rarely that impressive, but there are other gravity defying things, people being sucked into bookcases, glowing things, inanimate objects moving around, and my favorite, people transforming into other people. Some of these effects get applause in the middle of a scene.

The bottom line is that this show is everything you may love about the movies, but in real life. Even if you're not a fan, I think the story is compelling enough and the stagecraft so incredible that you'd have to be dead inside not to walk away impressed. If you see it, just be sure to plan you dinner, because the window isn't short, but it's New York, and you shouldn't wing it (we went back to Bryant Park, where there's a Whole Foods).

Broadway review: Waitress (4/5/19)

posted by Jeff | Saturday, April 13, 2019, 5:14 PM | comments: 0

It was just over a year ago that we saw Waitress on the national tour in Orlando. Because I was listening to the cast recording on the plane and such when we went to New York right after, I kind of associated it with that trip. I loved it so much that I contemplated seeing it a second time, on the last night of its Orlando run, but didn't. I've regretted it since then, and wanted to see it again if we went back to New York. We did, so we did.

I wrote short reviews about all of the shows last season, but here's the important part:

I don't remember much about the film version, but the plot is about a waitress who makes epic pies while married to an abusive jackass that she won't leave. She and the other characters make a lot of fairly terrible decisions about their personal lives, but the show is ultimately about finding the people who really value you, and seeing that change is possible if you're open to it. It's a fairly straight forward journey, starting with the daily routine of sameness, and realizing a better life. We've all made that journey in some way, I'm sure.

The music is what makes it special, of course, and it's amazing that Sara Bareilles could write such a strikingly good series of songs, lyrically and musically. Her own music has always been good, and she's a storyteller for sure, I just can't believe how well those skills translated to an entire musical. The touring cast that we saw, led by Desi Oakley, was really outstanding. I remember sitting there during "She Used To Be Mine," struck by how sad it was, how trapped she felt.

I wouldn't change much about that review, except to say that the show is a lot funnier than I remember, with a lot more comic humping than I remember. Pie baking is used as a metaphor for all of life's challenges, like mourning your mother, getting pregnant and sleeping with your doctor.

The story at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre is that they've been rotating in a cast of varying degrees of celebrity, which seems like a brilliant idea except when it might not be. Al Roker played Joe at one point, and if the package they ran on NBC is any indication, he probably wasn't very good and was taking the work of someone better. On the day we went, Joey McIntrye, yeah, from New Kids On The Block, was in his last week as Dr. Pommater. Eddie Jemison, who I know best as "Livingston" in the Oceans movies, played Ogie. That's notable because he played that role in the non-musical movie that inspired the show. Interestingly, Lenne Klingaman played Dawn, while Larry Marshall played Joe, both were on the national tour that we saw.

Good news, Joey has "the right stuff" (sorry, couldn't help it). Of course he can sing, but he belongs on stage. His comic timing and ability to be awkward is pretty great. Jemison, on the other hand, damn near stole the show. I mean, who knew? His portrayal of Ogie makes you want to shake Dawn and take him right away, whereas the guy on the national tour came off more stalker like.

As I indicated last year, "She Used To Be Mine" is the emotional center of the show. It's one of the most intense songs of any show that I've seen. It's too important to the story arc to phone in, and the actress playing Jenna has to give it all to make it work. Blame Jessie Mueller on the original cast recording, but she set a standard. Shoshana Bean has that role now, and she's the new standard. (See video below, which was posted just a few days ago.) Her performance of that show made some people cry and prompted others to give her a standing ovation, in the middle of the show. I've never seen anything like it. The material is extraordinary to begin with, but she takes it to a new level, and I imagine she does it every night.

The seriousness of abusive relationships and feeling trapped in a world you didn't want are serious subjects, but the show ends with such joy. You can feel it as soon as "Everything Changes" starts, and it carries through to the curtain call. A lot of shows based on existing IP feel like ephemeral novelties, while others are more valuable than the things that inspired them. This musical is in the latter category.

Broadway review: The Prom (4/4/19)

posted by Jeff | Friday, April 12, 2019, 11:06 PM | comments: 0

For our 10th anniversary, Diana and I went to The Prom. That's about 27 years late for me, but it was one of the most joyous experiences I've had in a long time.

Let me just get this out of the way now: I'm a little obsessed with this show because it was crazy good and only casually on my radar in the last few months. Having two nights unplanned for our New York trip, we spent the first on what I knew was largely spectacle entertainment (see King Kong), and we felt almost as though we needed to see something that was "high art" just to counter that. But then I was randomly scrolling about Twitter and ran into this:

If you know me, and about my Hamilton problem, you know that Mr. Miranda's opinion has some weight in these parts. It wasn't until later the next afternoon, and hours before curtain, that we ended up in the TKTS booth near Lincoln Center buying tickets (and the best seats for anything we saw on this trip, by the way).

The Prom is about Emma, a teenage lesbian, living in Indiana who is being held responsible for the cancellation of prom because she wants to bring her girlfriend, Alyssa. To make matters worse, her closeted girlfriend is the daughter of the PTA mom making all of the noise. So a bunch of Broadway actors teetering on irrelevance see an opportunity to raise their profile and score some solid PR if they get involved. Hilarity ensues as they make the situation worse.

This is a show that could come off as a terribly preachy assault on bigoted rural folk, but it also pokes at the liberal east coast types and celebrities as well. This level of self-awareness is part of the reason it works so well as a musical comedy. It takes a serious subject, the oppression of minorities and kids who are different (specifically LGBTQ kids), and takes shots at the adults who make the situation so volatile. If you're a musical theater fan, you'll undoubtedly enjoy an entire song filled with in-jokes ("It's Not About Me"), and they're littered throughout the show without being too inside baseball.

There are really three stories going on at once. The first is about the actors as they grapple with getting old and perhaps irrelevant, and these in turn involve one developing a relationship with the high school principal, two coaching Emma and one trying to be the less-than-hip mentor to the other students (while name dropping Juilliard as often as possible). The second is about the evolving attitudes of the townsfolk and students. The third is about Emma and Alyssa trying to find themselves, each other and a more inclusive world where they can just be themselves. All three subplots ultimately revolve around the dance, and all of this action is the reason that it's easy to get invested in so many characters. The girls, actors, the principal, and even Mrs. Greene, Alyssa's mom, feel like richly developed, real people.

The music and dialog tends to flip back and forth between silly and sweet, but never corny or contrived. The dancing is intense and youthful without being abstract or silly performance art. The writing is the funniest thing I've seen since Book of Mormon, without having to rely on borderline offensive humor. Every characters is a mess, so they have a lot to draw from. But what makes the whole thing so joyful is a happy ending. The heart of the show comes in the song "Unruly Heart," which I won't give too much away for, but it is the emotional center of the entire musical. Emma sings, "So fear's all in the past, fading so fast, I won't stay hidden any more. I'm who I am, and I think that's worth fighting for." If you're wondering if there's a soaring chorus after this and an extraordinary message of love and acceptance, yes, there is, and people cry, and the audience goes completely nuts for it. So much joy.

If the material itself wasn't enough, the cast is breathtaking. Emma is played by Caitlin Kinnunen, who brings a genuine sweetness and vulnerability that's so real you want to give her a hug. She's also got pipes like you wouldn't believe. I wondered why I had never heard of her, but along with most of the cast, she's been involved with this show for years as it was developed. Isabelle McCalla plays Alyssa with a similarly genuine performance, filled with the sadness of being stuck between who she is and her mother's expectations. Beth Leavel plays Dee Dee Allen, and looks and sounds like a classic Broadway diva, because frankly she is. She's over 60 and can audibly kick your ass. Brooks Ashmanskas plays Barry Glickman as the archetype of gay musical theater guys, but volleys between over the top and candid. Angie Schworer moves around with her "crazy antelope legs" as the chorus girl stuck in the ensemble for 20 years, with an appreciation for Fosse. Michael Potts plays the principal, Mr. Hawkins, and is the wise grounded character. For Trent Oliver, the Juilliard guy, we saw alternate Josh Franklin, who played the part differently than Christopher Sieber on the cast recording, but not better or worse. Every last one of them are A-players.

They announced this week that this was going to be made into a movie for Netflix for release by fall of next year, which is exciting because I think the world needs it. I am completely enamored with this show and I think it's completely brilliant. I hope it gets the Tony attention it deserves and a tour sooner than later.

Broadway review: King Kong (4/3/19)

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, April 9, 2019, 9:52 PM | comments: 0

For our tenth anniversary trip, we had no plans for the night we arrived. Air travel being what it is, you never even know if you'll get to your destination on time. But we ended up touching down at LGA a little before 3, so we figured we'd go see a show. There were already some things we were thinking about for the next day, but something made me want to see King Kong. I knew that the reviews were meh, but the sheer spectacle of it was intriguing. There's also a part of me that reacts to the somewhat elitist negativity toward known IP like existing movies, anything from Disney or Harry Potter. It sounds weird coming from an alt rock fan, but I don't like the idea that popular things can't be genuine art. And frankly, I just wanted to see a 20-foot, 2,000-pound monkey for real.

This is yet another adaptation of the story everyone knows. In the spirit of our time, Ann Darrow is written as an independent, strong, African-American woman, which beats the classic scenario where she needs saving. Let's just get this out of the way... the writing isn't good. This is all the more surprising because it's the same guy who ran with J.K. Rowling's mind-blowing story for Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, which we saw a few days later. The songs are throw-away filler to a large degree, though they do serve the outstanding dance numbers. The characters are all flat and uninteresting archetypes with no decent dialog to work with. In the span of two hours, you get exactly what you expect: Ann goes from naive and hungry to regrettably famous, Carl Denham goes from nice guy to ego maniac and sideshow Lumpy goes from exploited to slightly less exploited. The performers are all top notch, what you would expect for a Broadway show (including the understudy we saw for Ann), but the show's entire soul is wrapped in the monkey. 

That's not a horrible thing. The puppetry of the King is extraordinary, as orchestrated by I think 10 people on stage, and another 5 backstage controlling all of the facial movement and sounds by remote control. I've seen it all compared to a theme park experience, but the annoying thing about theme parks, and especially the Universal parks, is that everything has become a screen and 3D glasses. It's refreshing to see this enormous, physical thing in real space moving around. The love and craftsmanship that goes into the puppet and its performance is obvious and deep. For that reason, even though you know his end isn't good, the emotions he communicates by his facial expressions and sounds feels genuine. The price of admission is worth this spectacle to me, even if the storytelling is basic at best.

In fact, the production design in general is mostly brilliant. It's the first show I've ever really noticed how great the sound is (and wouldn't you know it, the second such show is Harry Potter). I knew we were in for a treat when I noticed the usual stack of speakers was accompanied by a stack of subwoofers. The scenery is dynamic and anchored with a curved video wall. One of the most effective scenes is on the boat, as it bobs up in down on the water with a moving platform and synchronized video. The jungle scenes are made to be a little more abstract.

When the visual effects are married with the monkey, the results are mostly good, but there were some poor choices there. While the effect of Kong climbing the Empire State Building was brilliant, they decided to do a very long, gratuitous running-through-New-York scene that goes on long enough to bring you out of the illusion. Similarly, a fight with a giant serpent moves too slow to feel right. That one was particularly odd, because he wins the fight in shadow, so I don't know why he sustains an injury in unintentional slow motion.

The net product is what I might describe as a really amazing theme park show with an extraordinary budget. I've heard they spent $35 million on this, which seems like a lot, but I also happen to know that Disney has spent as much as $10 million on a sing-along show, so it's all relative.

In a world where Love Never Dies (the biggest steaming pile of shit I've ever seen) can continue to tour and evolve, I feel like this show just needs a v2. It may never get it, given the empty seats already, but one can dream. What does it want to be? An homage to the classic film and classic song-and-dance musicals? A feminist or animal rights opus? The Muppets Take Manhattan? Donkey Kong? There's so much love in the puppet and production design, and the human actors have little to work with. But they could... they could rebuild the story so we cared about the three principal human characters. They aren't background filler because Kong is so spectacular, they're background because the story is so thin.

I enjoyed the show, but I was still disappointed that the story wasn't better.

New York anniversary trip

posted by Jeff | Sunday, April 7, 2019, 10:37 PM | comments: 0

We went to New York a year ago for our anniversary, and I felt pretty strongly that we left unfinished business there. It was my first time, and Diana had only been back once since she lived there about two decades ago. This year's anniversary really crept up on us and we didn't really have any plans together until very recently. We got friends and family to watch Simon, but booking travel didn't come until a few weeks ago. Was it going to be lazy leisure travel (cruising) or adventure travel? We decided to pick up where we left off last year and go back to the city.

The only thing we booked in advance was the Harry Potter plays, and Waitress at the last minute. Seeing a bunch of shows was our first intention, and we planned to wing it the rest of the time. (Show reviews forthcoming in a separate post.)

We got in earlier than anticipated on Wednesday afternoon, and got into the city before rush hour even. Seeing as how it was our tenth anniversary, we were willing to spend more on stuff that was frankly unnecessary or excessive. That started with the travel, doing seat upgrades for the plane, and private cars to and from the airport. I had an overall budget in mind, a per diem cost, if you will, and we did stay under it. It was cheaper than our honeymoon. Flights were really cheap, we had some good deals on shows, and really the biggest splurge was on the hotel. That's the one thing I was a little disappointed with last year.

I wanted to stay in Midtown, generally close to the theater district, because I remember how fried I felt at the end of the day after shows and I wanted a quick walk back. We stayed on 41st next to Bryant Park in a hotel called Luma. It's about two-years-old, wedged between a couple of old office buildings, with only five or six rooms per floor. It's super trendy with beautiful rooms and exceptional service. It has a small restaurant and bar, but the building is not very large. From the 26th floor, our view was mostly the side of the Bank of America building and the back side of "the ball" at Times Square. We really liked it, as a not-cheap but not bank-breaking hotel.

To minimize friction after getting there, we hit this little Irish bar a few blocks away for dinner, eating there last year, knowing they had decent food. We got tickets for King Kong at the Broadway and started our week with that.

Thursday started with breakfast at the Red Flame Diner on 43rd, a very fast place to eat, also found last year. At this point we still weren't sure what show we would see that night, but after Lin-Manuel Miranda recommended The Prom on Twitter, that made it an easier choice. We figured we would get down to the TKTS booth at Lincoln Center later that afternoon to see what kind of deal we could get.

After breakfast, we made our way first to B&H Photo. It sounds kind of dumb to visit a store on your vacation, but understand that I've spent thousands there over the last 20 years on camera stuff. I wanted to go last year, but it was closed for Passover (a large percentage of the people who work there are Jewish). I got to see the two cameras I've been thinking about for a year or so, Panasonic's EVA1 and Canon's C200. My two previous video cameras were both Panasonic, as was much of my gear at my last video job. I was unimpressed with this offering. While it's cheaper, it feels like it, and it doesn't even have a proper viewfinder. The Canon, on the other hand, was very robust. Diana patiently waited while I nerded out for a little bit.

A few blocks away, we were going to meet up with one of Diana's friends for lunch, and hopefully see another who was working a gig at The Shed, a new performing arts center at Hudson Yards. It's always interesting to meet people from Diana's pre-me days. I know her pretty well after all of these years, but it's interesting to fill in the blanks with little bits. Her "sound guy" friend was there and gave us a quick peek in The Shed, and it's exactly what was described... a big open area with a roof structure that slides over it. It's hideous, but still pretty cool. After that, we had lunch with the other friend (also with theater history).

You may have seen recently that this big goofy structure called The Vessel opened. It's this big, 150-foot tall structure that looks kind of like a pineapple from the outside, and you can climb up all of the stairs in this open air thing until you get to the top. We did it, and the view is pretty cool when looking toward the river at least.

From The Vessel, we hopped on the 7 to Times Square, then jumped on to the 1 (or 2 or 3, I don't remember) up to Lincoln Center. I jokingly said we're checking off all of the Ghostbusters locations, but I didn't do a Bill Murray and twirl around or anything. The fountain has been replaced since the movie, and it was gloriously warm to sit on, so we did for a bit while the city chickens walked around us.

Two blocks up, we landed at the TKTS booth and scored tickets for that night for The Prom. The discount wasn't huge ($89 was face value I think), but they were the best seats of the trip, orchestra center, I think seven or eight rows back.

Next up, given the beautiful weather we were having, we decided to cross through Central Park and take the long way around back to the hotel before dinner. It's crazy to get into the park, surrounded by all of that chaos. I bet it's lovely (and crowded) in the summer. When we got back down to 59th, we got back on the subway and took it back to Times Square instead of walking the 18 blocks. We had already walked about 7 miles at that point.

After a robust nap, we ventured out to a Thai place call Pongsri near the Longacre Theatre, home of The Prom. Yeah, I can get curry anywhere, but it was so good, and the most satisfying meal I had. I did not leave a drop on the plate. From there we were two doors down from the show. After the show, we met up with the third of Diana's friends, this one an electrician at Kinky Boots, for a couple of glasses of wine.

On Friday, the weather took a serious turn for the worse. So did we... getting out of bed was a struggle, having logged about 8 miles and 30 floors on the Fitbit. We were seriously dehydrated, because when you aren't sweating a lot, because it's not very warm, you don't appreciate how much water you need to replace (#floridalife). We both had headaches and felt generally shitty. We went to this chicken place a few doors down called Sticky's that had some amazing sauces, and everything was hand-breaded. Fried food definitely helps. It was 39 degrees and raining, so we watched TV and hydrated. For dinner, we got stuff at Whole Foods across the street, and Tylenol at CVS.

We finally left the hotel, feeling much better, and went to the Brooks Atkinson for Waitress. We saw the tour in Orlando about a year prior, and I really wanted to see it again. They were currently featuring Shoshana Bean as Jenna, Joey McIntyre (NKOTB) as the doctor, and Eddie Jemison (the Oceans movies) as Ogie. Mercifully, Al Roker was no longer playing Joe. In fact, Dawn and Joe were the same actors we saw on the tour in Orlando. After the show, we had a drink at the hotel, because we certainly weren't ready to sleep.

The weather went back to amazing for Saturday, which in some ways is unfortunate because Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is a play in two parts. You see the first part in the matinee (2:00), the second part in the evening (7:30). We went out for breakfast, and from there just walked a few blocks out of our way to walk into Grand Central, just because, then up the Library Way. The shows were in the Lyric just across Times Square (did I mention I hate Times Square?), so it was easy enough to go see the first part, then return to the room with takeout before the second part. We capped the night by watching SNL, which was happening just a few blocks away.

This morning we went to breakfast again at The Red Flame, after getting up late, and before you knew it, our car was there to pick us up. It all went by so fast, and we had a lot of money left on our Metro cards (good for 18 months). I have a ton of thoughts about the city, again, but I'll write about them some other time. Again, I feel we have unfinished business. I wouldn't mind going back again next year, if we can find people to watch Simon, but maybe we'll wait until May, even if it's not our anniversary. I love visiting the city, but it reminds me why I live in Orlando. I don't care for the cold.

Jeff + Diana: 10 years

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, April 3, 2019, 8:42 AM | comments: 0

Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of that crazy day where we got married on a beach and partied on a boat. It feels more recent than that, until I consider all of the miles since that time. That, and the 9-year-old that we made.

Any time that I try to characterize my relationship with Diana, it tends to result in emphasizing the general lack of effort needed to maintain it. Well, on my end at least, because I know I can be difficult and and impatient, but I may take for granted how easy it is to get along with this lady. I've been joking for a decade that our biggest challenge is loading the dishwasher, but that's not even really an issue. If I dig a little deeper, I think what makes it work is that we keep each other up as necessary, and it's infrequent that we think we aren't getting what we need from each other. I'm not saying it never happens, because I can be needy at times, but for the most part we're a solid team. It usually takes us being separated for some reason, like a work trip, to make me realize how just having her there at the end of the day makes life better.

The hardest thing we do, of course, is parenting, and there is no better mom than Diana. When we met, I couldn't imagine her being a stay-at-home mom, but her commitment and drive to keep our little boy on track is something to see. We sometimes have differing philosophies about things, and she tolerates my sometimes inflexible opinions, but I think we get it right most of the time.

I think the biggest problem with life before Diana was that I wasn't very open to the possibilities that life offered. It isn't that she unlocked the new perspective, but she was the right person at the right time to share it with. We never planned to move six times through three metros, and I really had no idea what my career was supposed to look like, and I never anticipated turning into a cruise junkie, but here we are. Life is not dull.

So we'll begin the next year in New York City, since we weren't really done with it after our visit at nine years. Hopefully we've got another 30 or 40 years at this, because we got a late start. I love this woman. With all of life's challenges, she doesn't add to the pile, she makes it smaller.

A budget for the new college graduate

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 31, 2019, 2:06 PM | comments: 12

In today's edition of "no one in politics gets me," I'd like to talk a little about the cost of college. While I'll be the first to say that I'm all for some kind of socialized healthcare (in part because nearly every industrialized nation but the US does it), I can't get on board with the free college thing. I don't understand the problem that it's trying to solve, or even the problem that college solves. This may seem counter to my general advocacy around education, but I'm not convinced that college is the answer that solves some particular problem.

So let me get this out of the way: I know college costs in real dollars have been on the rise for the last two decades, which is to say they significantly outpace inflation (source: US Department of Education). This narrative also often suggests that wages have not increased, which is true, but they have kept pace with inflation for about 40 years (source: Pew Research). I'm going to put all of that aside, because I'm saying the current debt loads being incurred by college grads is in fact manageable with the right budget.

Every figure I'm going to use here on out is in 2018 dollars, using the fed's numbers. Let's start with the basics from the DOE: The average debt for a 2018 graduate was $33,000, and interest rates varied between 3.76% and 4.66%. Let's say that averages at 4.5% even though it would be less. The loan term is 10 years. This puts the payments at $342 per month. Again, we're working with averages here, so don't bother me with anecdotes higher or lower.

I can't find an authoritative source about average starting salaries out of college, but for 2018 the sources tend to average about $50,000. (I found a lot of studies about expectations that put the number at $60k, with a fifth of people expecting $80k!) Let's work with a lower than average salary at $45,000. Assume that 30% comes out for benefits and taxes (and that should even cover a 401k contribution if it's available), and that gets us to a monthly budget of $2,625.

Quicken has a simple budget calculator, so let's use that! I'm going to roll with expenses here in Central Florida, which is generally not bad but the rent here is crazy high, like almost mortgage territory. Let's make some assumptions here: You share a place with a roommate, your car is a new leased Toyota Corolla with nothing down, a functional but inexpensive phone on Google Fi, etc. Here's what I came up with:

Rent (your half) $600
Renter's Insurance (your half) $50 
Utilities (your half) $150
Cable/Internet (your half) $50
Cell phone $50 
Car payment $250 
Car insurance $100
Gas $100
Student loan payment (see above) $342
Groceries $150
Clothing $50 
Entertainment $100 
Savings (5%) $131
TOTAL: $2,123 ($502 unbudgeted... save or make extra loan payments!)

Is this doable? It was for me, because believe it or not I still use the same version of Microsoft Money I did when I was right out of college, and I actually know what I spent money on. It was very nearly this budget, I drove a Toyota Corolla and had a roommate (then-future first wife) who was in grad school, no less. Things were tight for me, but where I went horribly wrong is that I was paying another $200 in credit card debt every month which I was actively replacing with about $200 worth of eating out and buying CD's and DVD's (these small plastic discs that once contained music and movies). I also didn't do any of the saving or retirement account deductions, so I really pissed away a lot of money.

Let's also keep in mind that I went to school for radio/TV and journalism, careers that I abandoned after four years to chase dotcom dreams. I never had any illusions of making a ton of money. Because I went to a private school, my student loan debt was actually more than today's average at $40k (adjusted), and my loans were all at 8%, so my payments were higher, too. My schooling had zero impact on my career: Nobody has ever cared where I went to school, and in recent years, didn't even care that I went at all.

But I digress... I didn't want to get into whether or not college was worth it, I wanted to look at the cost for today's graduate. There are all kinds of variables you could throw in here, like, "But I work in San Francisco!" or whatever. Countless people will say, "But I needed a masters degree, so my student loan debt is twice that!" Sure, we all make choices. I know a lot of MBA's who used to argue that they "needed" that degree to get ahead, but now say they're not ahead because the ROI wasn't there.

I know a ton of software developers who didn't go to college at all making six figures before they're 30. I've met trades people making a comfortable living on $60k a year contracting on their own terms. I know a guy who moved to Nowhere, Montana to work in radio there on $35k a year who lived comfortably. The more I look at the college debt "problem," the more I wonder if the underlying issue is a combination of choices and expectations. I'm not convinced that these factors have significantly changed in 20 years, even if the cost of college has. And if more people go to college, then the pure economics dictate that the cost goes up because of demand while the value of a degree goes down because of market saturation.

I'm digressing again. Tell me why that budget can't work?

Routine busting

posted by Jeff | Friday, March 29, 2019, 10:21 PM | comments: 0

A good indicator that a job has run its course for me has been when I find myself watching the clock or the days just drag on and on. Conversely, when I'm into a job, or at the very least keeping very busy with it, time goes quickly, week after week. The biggest thing that I notice is that my kid keeps getting taller. It's not a grind, but I'm acutely aware of a certain amount of monotony. This is made worse by the fact that right now I don't take time off frequently enough. I've committed to taking a week off quarterly, but each time I hit that point I'm anxious to bust out.

Which gets to the real problem: I need to bust my routine from time to time. It felt pretty obvious to me today. I started the day by going to work when I intended to take the day off, because I did not stand my ground, took meetings and had lunch with a new peer of mine (that part wasn't like work). After that, I got into the car to head to the hotel on the far side of town near the place where we have our annual Orlando Code Camp. This is my sixth year doing it, and it involves a speaker party the night before. Most of the time, I don't feel a great need to do stuff without my family, but this is a rare exception. Just driving out and doing something not routine during the work day feels good.

I'm off this week, with a little adventure travel for our 10th anniversary. I have to not wait for special occasions for routine busting.

First burn

posted by Jeff | Saturday, March 23, 2019, 11:32 PM | comments: 0

Diana and I were comparing notes today, and discovered that we both took the remarkably stupid action as young children of putting our hands on hot electric stoves. I don't know why kids would do something like that, and by the way, I remember it vividly. That's not a memory I have ever been able to forget.

Simon had his first burn today, which I'm campaigning for parent of the year on, because I probably should have seen this coming. Generally speaking, we want the kid to learn how to do stuff and be self-sufficient, so today we helped him load a pan in the oven with some french fries. All went well getting them in. All went well getting them out, too. Then I encouraged him to dump the fries on to a plate, and that's where things went horribly wrong.

First, a little background. Simon has horrible situational awareness. Try as we might, it doesn't seem like a skill that we can teach him. It's part of the reason that he spent the better part of his first six or seven years finding new and inventive ways of hitting me in the balls. He often does things that cause spills, things to break or other things that hurt one of us. He immediately follows the event with, "It was an accident," but he's just not good at accident prevention.

Anyway, he lifts the hot tray, with oven mitts, and tilts it away from him. I'm behind him, so I don't entirely see what he's doing, but he tags the underside of his chin with the tray. He quickly puts down the tray, looks at me with the most panicked eyes possible, and bursts into screams and tears. I look, and I can see the skin peeled back where he hit it. The screams are not good. Eventually we get him calmed down enough that I can hold a bag of ice under his chin. Diana uses the video call doctor thing we get through our insurance ($10 beats an urgent care visit), and the doctor is able to basically see the damage and prescribe a cream to put on it. With some instruction about care, we're off in 15 minutes and the prescription is available within an hour or so.

We went on with our day after that, but of course I feel terrible. He didn't do the ridiculous thing we did as kids, he's just kind of clumsy. How he can have such poor situational awareness but master Portal is beyond me.

Red curry chicken

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 18, 2019, 7:13 PM | comments: 0

I do enjoy curry in various forms. I love the smells of Thai-style curry, and you can get about the same thing everywhere that serves Thai food. Indian curries don't smell as good, but they're often a little thicker, depending on what they're made with, and most importantly, they're hot. It's my understanding that Indian restaurants often use the powders made elsewhere, but some do make their own.

So here's the recipe I've been refining. Like everything I've tried to recreate at home, it doesn't quite taste like anything I've had in restaurants, but I like where this landed. I think it's a combination of what I like about Thai and Indian curries put together, which makes sense since I'm using Thai paste and Indian style powder together. It has the great smell along with the sweet richness of Thai curry with the kick of Indian curry. (I know you can make Thai curry hot by request, but the base doesn't seem to start there.)

  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 5 cloves minced garlic
  • 2 tsp Penzey's hot curry powder
  • 1/2 jar of Thai Kitchen red curry paste
  • 2 tsp brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 2 cups of rice
  • rice vinegar
  • salt

Bring everything to a slight simmer in a frying pan except the chicken. Gently stir it until it's a smooth consistency. Taste it to see if it's seasoned to taste. Cut the chicken into small pieces, add to the sauce. Increase heat, bring to a slightly higher simmer and keep stirring until the chicken is cooked through. Make 2 cups of rice (preferably in a rice cooker), when finished, add a pinch of salt and some rice vinegar. Serve the chicken and sauce over rice. Serves two people.

The unrealistic expectations of theme park workers

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 17, 2019, 3:46 PM | comments: 0

The realization that I could buy a season pass to Cedar Point, because I was a grown up, came to me about 20 years ago now. Starting PointBuzz (then Guide to The Point) came shortly thereafter. The thing that I recognized almost immediately when entering that community was that a lot of people looked at a job in the theme park business as the ultimate gig. However, the expectations about that arrangement tend to be, on the whole, fairly unrealistic. Now that I live next to Walt Disney World, I see it even more.

The first unacknowledged reality is that supply and demand tends to drive wages down significantly. Seasonal jobs at regional parks are getting a little more competitive in some markets, but if you're a college kid wanting to dispatch roller coasters, there are 30 people lined up behind you to take that job if you don't want it. The front line jobs in particular are not high skill jobs, so they aren't going to pay a ton, even if you stay in them for a long time.

That leads to the fact that there isn't a ton of upward mobility in your average park organization. Managers that did come from within tend to stay there for a very long time, and aren't likely to give up those jobs if they like them. They don't pay particularly well either, but again, there are a bunch of people who would love to have those jobs. Paying your dues isn't a path to advancement, because there isn't much opportunity to advance.

There's also a gross misunderstanding about the difference between front-end line jobs and professional office jobs. Things like finance, IT, communications, engineering and the like require experience in those areas, just as they do at any other company. Experience selling churros doesn't count. Having worked in the corporate office of a theme park company, there tend to be a lot of professional managers from different industries, and professionals from all walks of life. (There were a fair amount of B-players from another theme park company, but that's another story.)

Salaries for professional gigs tend to vary a lot by company as well. I encountered one job here in Orlando that was at least $50,000 below the market rate, and they eventually hired someone willing to take it (with matching skills and experience for that salary). On the other hand, another company pays market rate, and another pays above it.

One of my best friends was a total park nerd in high school, went to college, and within a year of graduating reached the job that she thought she wanted on the marketing side of the business. She was underwhelmed by the job (and probably the pay), and eventually found something else with greater purpose. I worked in a corporate headquarters here in Orlando and made solid money as a contractor, but even if they could have converted it to full-time, it wouldn't have been enough to keep me there. That's just the nature of the business.

I say all of this not to discourage anyone. I get the allure of snorting pixie dust and being in the business of fun. But it's important to be realistic about what that means in terms of career and salary outlook. I see young people on Twitter frustrated that they only make $10 an hour herding kids on to Dumbo, with a strange sense of entitlement that implies they deserve more. Maybe they do deserve more, but they'll never get it in that job.

I know some people who have been in the business for a long time, many of them among the best at what they do... general managers, vice presidents, directors... all-around top notch professionals in every case. They work a ton of hours and in many cases don't make as much as counterparts in other industries, but they love it. If you don't have that love, or it doesn't counter the shortcomings, it's not the business for you. If you're expecting to make a good living in a line job, I can't urge you enough to pursue a skilled career in anything else.

Software development really is getting easier

posted by Jeff | Saturday, March 16, 2019, 9:12 PM | comments: 0

I've been on something of a streak committing stuff to my open source project, POP Forums. This app has been OSS for 15 years now, through several rewrites, countless improvements and deployments to CoasterBuzz and (less frequently) PointBuzz. Now that I'm back to a job where I'm not writing code, permanently I assume, it's important to me to stay in it, if not for street cred, then to simply engage in a creative endeavour that's relevant to my job.

In the years of neglect, one of the things that bothered me about the app is that I never really made it into something that could scale out. For non-nerds, scale out means making it so it runs on many "servers" (in quotes because it's all virtualized these days), so when your browser talks to it, it can be a different server every time. This is good to handle load, certainly, but it's also nice just to have that redundancy.

That gets to the point of this post: It's so flipping easy to do this these days. Logically, the app has to do a few things. It has to response to requests from web browsers, it has to do stuff in the background (like index a thread for searching) and it has to persist data somewhere, like a database. To make it faster, I've been storing data in memory when it doesn't have to change often. No point in going to a database for that. The problem is that if you're running it on a multi-node arrangement, you can't refer to stuff in memory because there are a bunch of servers, and they don't all know what's current. So you have to use a separate thing, a cache, to keep that stuff, and every server uses that instead of its own memory.

You'll also want to use some kind of third-party entity to index and search all of your stuff. There are lots of choices for that in a cloud world, like ElasticSearch running on all kinds of stuff (like AWS), or Azure Search. Then you'll need something to run all of that background stuff outside of your web serving, because you don't want multiple copies of that running. This is that "serverless" thing that's all the rage, like Azure Functions or AWS Lambdas. 

If it weren't enough that you can provision all of this stuff with a few clicks (and automate the provisioning), you can also run it all locally with emulators and Docker containers. Specifically, I'm able to run locally with the web server associated with .Net Core, docker containers for Redis caching and ElasticSearch, and the Azure emulators for Functions and storage (for queues). It's like magic, and it all just runs and works together. When I commit code, there are free mechanisms to make it all build and deploy into the cloud and be running a few minutes later.

This is not a recent revelation, mind you, but when I think about how hard and expensive it was to do this back in the day, it's crazy. If you're starting something up, you can run all of this for less than $200 per month, when you used to have to spend thousands, before you even had a single customer. And more to the point, you can run it all on a single laptop by running a few command line entries to spin up the stuff virtually. You don't even need to install stuff anymore.

The evolution of software development in recent years reinforces my m.o. about what the job is really about for most people: composition. We'll always need people who are really good at writing algorithms and managing memory, but I suspect that the overwhelming majority of the work these days involves composing solutions. The best people in most jobs are those who write the best glue.

My historic allergies

posted by Jeff | Thursday, March 14, 2019, 6:58 PM | comments: 0

My allergies got so bad yesterday that I stayed home from work. The night before was a perfect storm of congestion and mouth breathing, leading to a sore throat, and then taking Benadryl so as to completely knock me out. It felt like someone had poured concrete into my sinuses. I can't really remember feeling this bad over allergies, and in almost six years living in Florida, they've barely been an issue. I sucked it up and went to work today since I felt "better," but it took caffeine a bunch of snot rags.

From puberty to my mid-20's, allergies in the Cleveland area meant I would endure about one miserable month, typically the last two weeks of May and first two weeks of June. Since that time, the misery period has been more like two weeks. When I moved to Seattle, I had no allergy problem at all, or if I did, it was minor and short-lived. Moving here to Florida, I noticed some minor and short-lived reactions early in spring (i.e., right now), but nothing serious enough to cause discomfort. I think I may have taken a Claritin once. The worst part is that even the "non-drowsy" medications knock me out. I seriously won't drive after a single Benadryl.

Anyway, I'm over this. I'm hoping that we'll finally get some rain this weekend and washout the air. It's so dry that we're seeing brush fires on the freeway because of the fuckwits that flick cigarettes out their windows.

Nostalgia gaming

posted by Jeff | Saturday, March 9, 2019, 10:46 AM | comments: 0

Last week, I busted out the old Portal 2 and the Orange Box, which has the original Portal. I remembered seeing somewhere that they were now compatible on the Xbox One, so while they're 8 to 11-years-old, I have fond memories of them. I played them through to the finish, staying up way later than I should have. I can't even tell you how satisfying those games are, and they were just the right amount of challenging to me.

Those games aren't that old, but they're definitely not new. There's a huge market for old games, as evidenced by Nintendo's reissue of their NES Classic and SNES Classic. Of course I bought both of them, even if I don't really spend that much time playing them. Just holding the old controllers evokes a satisfying feeling. Those old 8-bit and 16-bit games don't really capture my imagination all that much, in most cases, but they're fun to mess with for a bit. The old Xbox games are a lot of fun, too, and I'm glad I didn't purge those over the years.

Gaming as an industry hasn't gone away, certainly, but I'm so much less likely to buy games. I'll typically buy the Lego smash-and-collect games whenever they're released, but that's about it. The Tomb Raider reboot grabbed me too. Beyond that, I'm not sure why I generally don't seek new games, given how much I used to enjoy playing them. I'm not even plugged into what's out most of the time. Maybe it's just a change in life priorities, and I should readjust them.

Simon, 9

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, March 5, 2019, 10:14 PM | comments: 0

The last two years I did a "year in pictures" post with Simon, but after going through the stack for the last year, I didn't really take a ton of photos of him that were particularly interesting. That, and it was hard to get candids of him, thus I'm left with a lot of "my two big front adult teeth" smiles.

This year has had its ups and downs, for sure. We've watched him academically catch up even while we struggle to get the right balance of ADHD meds in him. His mechanical understanding of things, and curiosity about them, is stronger than ever, which is usually a good thing (though he doesn't just accept the "magic" of theater and theme park attractions). He's tried new rides and found that he enjoys them. He struggles socially more than ever. He's becoming an extraordinary swimmer. The kid who doesn't understand sarcasm can be intentionally funny. He's all of these things.

Nine means he's half-way to legal adulthood. That scares the shit out of me because I feel like there isn't enough time to really prepare him for the world and give him a happy childhood at the same time. And puberty is only a few years away, so it won't be long before he doesn't want to cuddle up to you on the couch for a movie. It feels like it was just last year that I could football-hold him, and now he has opinions and complex emotions. I can't believe how fast time has gone.

But Simon still does the things that has made parenthood amazing. I'll never get tired of his greetings when I get home from work or he gets home from school. We like to do some of the same things, like build giant Lego sets, but he loves board games and I... don't. Thankfully Diana can tag in. His empathy skills are slowly coming around, and he sees the value he brings when he helps with chores. At the most fundamental level, Simon creates something few things other than a child can: lots of love.

Shortly after his last birthday, Simon finally took a chance and learned that he loves Space Mountain. I mean, we live 11,000 feet from Cinderella Castle, it would be a shame if that wasn't his thing. We've scored lots of excellent on-ride photos, but none as great as this one with this teen emo girl up front who clearly hated being here with her parents.

Simon once again managed to enjoy three cruises this year. The interesting thing is that in the last cruise, over the holidays, he was confident to start swimming without a life jacket.

Among the things we share interests in, we can now put pinball machines on the list. He went to a friend's birthday party where they had a couple of machines, and he really engaged. Screens aren't the only thing... this kid really loves the tactile experience of an actual thing moving around with physics.

In the fall, we made a weekend trip to Daytona Beach, where Diana had a quilt retreat. Daytona is a total dump, but the kid does love the ocean. We also toured the speedway.

I can't even tell you how important Lego has been in our lives. As a kid, I had three or four large sets, and the memory of those is among the best of my childhood. Today I'm able to buy the big grownup sets for me, but there's an entirely new set of classics that Simon has received as gifts. Whereas he would struggle to build them just a few years ago, he's now able to build things like the police and fire stations on his own.

It seems weird to post a photo of us in an elevator, but for better or worse, the kid loves elevators. It's carry over from his toddler days, when doors fascinated him, and now you add a mechanical component and a service component that he enjoys. He loves "helping" people get in and out, and holding the door for others. There's no shortage of opportunity to do this on a cruise ship.

Unfortunately this is the back of Simon, but the moment was sweet and I love that I at least captured it. On our New Year's cruise, there was a couple named Suzy & Alex that performed at various places on the ship, and Simon charmed this young Brit at every performance. Maybe it was the other way around. I dunno, either way, she sat down next to him to sing in the atrium, and it was a lovely moment.

Taking Simon to see Hamilton felt like a risk, because three hours is a long time for a kid to sit still and observe theater etiquette (many times over when ASD is at odds with such social contracts). But the kid loves the music, and no matter what the cost, I felt like he needed to see the show. He definitely struggled to hold his questions, but seeing him physically react to "Yorktown" was all the validation that I needed to know we made the right choice. At his age, who knows if he'll really remember it, but I hope he does.

When I was still regretting moving away from Seattle on a regular basis, one of the strongest reasons for that was that Simon didn't get to see his cousins very often. But his cousins have a house now on the gulf coast, and they visited us three times in the last year, including the better part of a week just recently. Naturally, they have passes to Walt Disney World, so that makes for some great cousin time, like the time they met Belle.

When you don't seek validation

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 4, 2019, 9:32 PM | comments: 0

I had an exceptional day, when I was able to observe some positive outcomes of some decisions I made. Then another person further validated those outcomes. I'm so not used to getting that kind of validation that it routinely surprises me. I'll unpack this in a moment, but I generally don't seek validation. I think people generally reach a point in their life where they just don't bother with looking for it if the absence of it causes you to question your value in the world. It's vaguely related to that thing where you stop caring about what others think of you.

Getting validation feels good though. That's reason enough to make sure you give it liberally to others. If you do seek it, I think you have to be careful about where you expect to get it from. There's so much about the world that you can't control, so whether or not you can get any meaningful validation from people, institutions, relationships, work... I'm not so sure you want to be fishing there.

I think the reason I don't seek validation is that there simply haven't been many times in my life where I've received it. I mean, this is total therapist material, but going back as far as I can remember, from childhood to college to adulthood, it just wasn't there. I'm sure my inner survivalist at some point decided that if I was going to derive some self-worth out of anything, it would be out of working toward outcomes that I wanted. Let the outcome be the validation. It sounds lonely when I put it that way, but it's probably not wrong.

Looking for validation isn't a terrible thing. I think it's one of the many things that make human connection different from the way animals interact. I imagine that it's appropriate to ask people for validation, to set that expectation that you need it from time to time. Without that, it's like that dysfunctional thing in relationships where people measure love by how much others do stuff for them.

Verizon sucks, and moving your service still isn't easy

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 3, 2019, 10:30 PM | comments: 0

A little over a month ago, I was visiting my mom up in The Villages, and we got to talking about her cell phone service because her crappy phone was misbehaving regularly. The phone screen wouldn't come on when it was on a call, no matter what you did. Of course she took her year-old phone to Verizon, where the solution they offered was for her to buy a new phone, of course. Oh, and she was paying almost $70/month for a single line, and generally used less than a half-gig of data. Yeah, those bastards were trying to take advantage of my 70-year-old widowed (twice) mom.

I was pretty pissed about all that, so I talked her into moving her service to Google Fi where we would both get some service credits (referral link) and she would likely end up spending less than $35 per month, given her data usage. On the down side, she had to buy a phone, but the Motorola she got for $200 is actually pretty nice, and definitely an upgrade. I think she'll really enjoy it for what little she uses it for. She has a fingerprint sensor on this one too, so she's not walking around with an unlocked phone anymore.

That said, transferring service was not straight forward, because my mom doesn't know her passwords and such. I tried to walk her through it over the phone, but couldn't do it. She couldn't find her WiFi password, so that was the first barrier. So I drove the hour to her house and helped her out. By the time I got there, she found the WiFi password, but the menu sequence was still not super obvious to get service transferred, and I think the Fi software is pretty good. At first it just didn't ask for her Google account, which is what the service order was tied to. And then it asked for her Verizon PIN along with her billing info, which may or may not have been right. Fortunately, it took what we gave it, and her number rolled over to the new phone in about five minutes and I could call and text her on it.

There were some other quirks too, including the fact that it installed the crappy Verizon apps that came with her old phone. But we got those cleaned up and the important stuff like her photos worked out. On the negative side, fucking Verizon had its own contact app instead of using the one from Android, and there was no straight forward way to get those out. She spent this evening manually copying those from the old phone.

This stuff is still too hard for non-techy people, and if you buy your phone at retail, those assholes aren't going to help. Still, initial friction aside, Mom has a nicer phone with a better camera and will pay half as much for service.

The problem with Trump has never really been about policy

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, February 27, 2019, 9:00 PM | comments: 0

Former Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified to Congress today about a bunch of stuff that we mostly already know about, even if it was previously attributed to anonymous sources. Cohen is arguably one of the dirtiest people associated with the president, and a liar on top of that. But it's telling that the committee members attacked his credibility without even once trying to defend the man who has lied thousands of times, undisputedly, specifically the man in the White House.

Presidents in my lifetime have all faced a great deal of valid criticism over their policy. Obama's health care plan was always controversial. Bush's war in Iraq arguably hatched the next wave of terrorism. Clinton screwed himself by screwing around with an intern. The elder Bush promised no new taxes and passed them anyway. Reagan insisted that trickle-down economics were a thing (we still haven't been able to shake that one). I barely remember Carter, let alone Ford and Nixon, so I can't comment on those with first-hand knowledge, though I think we all know how Nixon went out.

So American presidents have all been unpopular for one reason or another, to varying percentages of the public. But even with those that I strongly disliked, and I can assure you I strongly disliked Bush, my disagreement with them was always about their policy, and never about the people themselves. I can't believe we had to endure eight years of Bush, but I can recognize that despite making terrible decisions, his intent was probably in the right place. Certainly he handled the days and weeks after 9/11 as well as anyone could.

Trump is something different. He's never really had any policy positions to speak of, only rhetoric that brown people (and Democrats) are ruining the country. "Make America Great Again" is inherently racist and a classic from the fascist playbook, that suggests the good old days were worth revisiting. The problem is that those days involved fewer civil rights for all minorities, including women, so I'm not aware of any greatness in that sense. Disenfranchised people have wholeheartedly bought into this, and they have nothing to show for it. Trump has not successfully done anything other than sign a bill with massive tax breaks for the wealthy in his first two years, despite having same-party control in both houses. No president in my lifetime has done so little.

Absent of real policy, the distaste for this president is rooted in his character. He's a pathological liar, in a way that no one can dispute. He is, again without dispute, lying more and more on a daily basis. There is strong evidence that he had affairs. By his own words he believes he can "move on women like a bitch" and "grab them by the pussy." He's an apologist for the Russian autocrat. He's on pace to take more vacation days in 2.5 years than Obama did in 8 (and he promised in the campaign that he wouldn't have time to golf). It has been proven that he did not build his own fortune. He's had countless failed businesses. He refuses to share his taxes, which we can only assume means they'd further show what a fraud he is. He has disparaged and disrespected veterans over and over again, including John McCain. But worst of all, he and his supporters attempt to overlook all of this on the basis of "but Hillary" or other people who oppose him. Think about that... justifying reprehensible behavior by comparing it to (allegedly) reprehensible behavior by others. Is that really how low the bar has become?

Culturally, we're so exhausted by this that we've allowed it to become normal. A significant, but minority, part of the population is willing to overlook the actions of an objectively immoral man only because he aligns himself with the "right" team. If he were a Democrat, I can't imagine that anyone with a functioning moral compass would feel any different about him. He might not be making any real policy, but the toxicity he's injected into our daily conversation has not been good for the country.

The problem with Donald Trump has never been his party affiliation. He's just an immoral person.

Movie cameras

posted by Jeff | Monday, February 25, 2019, 10:03 PM | comments: 0

It was a very satisfying thing, in 2006, to buy my very own HD semi-pro video camera. The HVX200 was amazing for recording to solid state cards (that were crazy expensive at the time), and it had a mini-DV tape recorder too. I spent about $8,000 on it with 8 gigs of storage, and then another $2k on audio gear, an extra battery, light, bag, etc. I was a newly single guy and this was a revolution in video I had to be a part of. I actually made about a third of the cost back on two freelance gigs, but mostly I bought it for making roller coaster and amusement park stuff. I told that story about two years ago.

A year and change ago, Panasonic and Canon both came out with 4K cameras that were something in the realm of affordable, which is to say they're under $8,000. They both have some compromises, but the big deal is that they use the Canon lenses that I already have, and those lenses have made more than a decade, thousands, of great photos for me. My video nerd self is amazed at the pictures these cameras can make.

But aside from gadget lust, I haven't really been serious about buying another camera. My old AF100 had a Canon lens adapter that stopped working, which sucks because that camera made some pretty things, too. I don't have any fantasy about using a new camera to make any money, and I don't even feel like I have to justify it, since we've invested quite a bit in Diana's quilting equipment. I do feel like I'm not allowed to spend money on anything that isn't a vacation or savings, and I don't know why I'm selectively stingy like that.

There's that chicken and egg thing I've been enduring for about a decade now, where I want to make a movie, and I can't decide if I need to write a thing first or have a camera to inspire the writing. I've got a notebook of writing ideas, scenes written from disparate ideas, just nothing cohesive that I'd call a "movie" or even a short. The general feeling that I can't write anything "good" doesn't help move any of that along.

I got to thinking about my old gear when I was alarmed that maybe I left batteries in the wireless audio stuff (which naturally would eventually swell and corrode, but they were not installed). And I thought, man, I used to spend a lot more time thinking about this stuff. Maybe I need to redirect some energy back to it.

Don't make it so complicated

posted by Jeff | Monday, February 25, 2019, 7:10 PM | comments: 0

I spent part of the weekend, and a solid hour at lunch today, just getting out and moving around. I went bowling by myself Saturday. I saw ducks and geese at Lake Eola today. Right now I'm sitting on my patio listening to that wonderful time of year where no air conditioners are running. There are times when life feels so uncomplicated.

So if I'm willing to concede that happiness is at least in part a choice, do we also choose to make life complicated? It's probably true that we often adopt routines and practices without really asking if there's a more simple way to do things. For example, I viewed hiring people as this big complicated thing because I only knew it as a job candidate, but once I started to hire people, I realized that what I knew was needlessly complicated. Heck, electric cars, vastly more simple than those with internal combustion engines, were a solved problem a hundred years ago for most use cases, and yet we ignored the tech for a century. In interpersonal relationships, especially the romantic variety, we put all kinds of work in try to make the partner into an ideal they are not, or do not want to be, instead of just moving on to someone who does fit the ideals (seems like we all need to learn that).

I'm generalizing about life, sure. But that goose, he admittedly has a tiny brain incapable of making or giving fucks about complexity, and his existence seems so much simpler. What kinds of things am I making more complicated?

As a sidebar, this is a common problem with writing software. We go through stages where we think the right thing to do is be clever instead of simple, so we deliver complicated stuff that could have easily been handled in a more simple way. I appreciate this more than ever as the author of the same software for 15 years or so, and I'm still finding lingering stuff that was like, "Why did I do that?"