The blog home of Jeff Putz

Retail therapy at scale

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 25, 2021, 7:22 PM | comments: 0

Like a lot of people, assuming they're not enduring financial hardship, I've had a lot of strong urges to buy something to compensate for the half-functional pandemic world. It's an urge that I haven't had in any meaningful way in a very long time. In my 20's I wasted so much money on stupid shit that I didn't need that had no long-term value (and I didn't save or pay into a retirement account, which causes a fair amount of anxiety now). When I got to the point of rebooting life, post-divorce, I mostly spent money on doing stuff.

The experiences-not-stuff philosophy really took hold when I invited my girlfriend at the time, in 2006, on a trip to Las Vegas. We had not been dating for very long really, and despite being naive about early stage relationships, it seemed like a really good idea. As it turns out, we dated for a long time, and I think the success of that trip was honestly predictive of the length of our relationship. The memories of that trip are enduring and amazing, and since that time I've focused (successfully) on having experiences like that.

Having experiences typically involves other people and travel, and obviously in the pandemic there are limitations to that. The routine stuff that we would do is definitely off the table, like cruises and theme parks (Disney isn't even selling passes at this point). The revolving door of friends and families who crash at our house can't do that. No big parties. The bigger things, like big travel and bona fide tourism to places we haven't been are indefinitely on hold.

I remember the hits of dopamine from buying stuff, and getting it home and unwrapping it. Buying CD's was the most economical, certainly. I'd roll in to a Best Buy and talk out with two or three discs, without really knowing if the music on them was any good. The endless string of computer parts were like that too... a little more RAM, another hard drive, or a really special moment, a new video card. Less frequently, there were big ticket things, like a new laptop or a video camera. Of course, the dopamine was erased when my credit card bills came, because I didn't buy any of that stuff on cash. I had significant revolving debt until I was 39, though it was generally manageable by the time I was 33. I didn't make good choices.

These days, retail therapy doesn't even make sense. Even pre-Covid, I didn't really buy stuff in stores that often, unless there was a special or sale or something (last one was this laptop, three years ago). Things like music and movies don't even exist in physical packaging now. I went on a Lego buying binge this year, but all of the sets involved waiting for stock and then shipping time.

Only the really major purchases deliver "the feeling" now, and those are infrequent. Buying a new camera last summer definitely sparked joy, but the pace for buying those is every eight years. There aren't really things that I want the way that I did back in the day. Except maybe a pinball machine, but that seems so superficial. Maybe I don't know how to have fun anymore.

Well, sooner or later, we have to buy another car since Diana's was totaled, but those purchases, even when it was the electric space cars, usually start with purchase regret, not dopamine.


Transitions and contrast from inauguration day

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 25, 2021, 6:00 PM | comments: 0

Joe Biden took the oath of office as the 46th president of the United States under extraordinary circumstances unlike anything we've seen in my lifetime. I can't say that I was particularly excited about his nomination, but his choice for VP in Kamala Harris felt like it balanced out having another ancient white guy in the Oval Office. More to the point though, Biden may be snooze-inducing, but he's a functional adult who has devoted his entire professional life to the service of his country. I might give the old man static about his age, but I do respect people who devote their lives to public service, regardless of their political orientation. This is an unfortunately stark contrast to the outgoing president whose intent was about power, and retaining it even when it wasn't earned. We'll get to the score card in a bit.

Frustrated with the daily nonsense that Trump induced, I started to wonder what I would do if I were president. Between Bush's and Obama's books, I don't think I could survive the campaign process, but as the top manager of the federal government, you have a luxury you almost never have in business: You get to pick your team and drive toward outcomes that have nothing to do with profit. Governing is not like a business at all, but all of the management wisdom that I've gained over the years would most certainly apply to the job of president. My m.o. has always centered around the humility of understanding that I do not have all the answers, and that you must surround yourself with people who fill in all of your blind spots. The more complex and large your organization is, the more you must delegate, trust and enable others to follow through to your desired outcomes.

Biden started to build out a team of experts the moment it was clear that he won the election. The appointees have almost universally been experts in their fields, including a lot of people who have experience governing. Experts and experience are inherently valuable to reach desired outcomes, and there are not shortcuts to this. Contrast this to the Trump administration, which was a revolving door of cabinet members, many of whom had no experience in the relevant departments that they led. Close advisors were family members and associates with no experience in anything relevant. Furthermore, 7 advisors or staff were indicted or convicted from Trump's inner circle, and 34 indictments came out of the Mueller Report, which investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump drained the swamp and filled it with criminals and sycophants that pledged loyalty.

Biden's inauguration speech was predictably about unity and addressing the crises of the pandemic, racial injustice, the economy and climate change. He was not antagonistic toward political adversaries, only hopeful about meeting these challenges. Notably absent, he didn't list grievances or blame scapegoats, let alone declare that we've all been the victims of "carnage," as Trump did in his inaugural speech. Words matter.

The inauguration ceremony itself was weird. Covid alone would have made it weird enough, but then add in the fact that DC was essentially an occupied city, with 25,000 military troops from various agencies and services. It happened just two weeks after a bunch of delusional people followed the previous president's directive to challenge the election, with no evidence of it being fraudulent. It's the kind of thing that you're used to seeing in other countries, where dictators ascend to power by fascist means, discrediting elections, the free press and anything that causes them to appear weak. And of course, Trump was one of a handful of presidents ever to skip out on the swearing in of his predecessor, which I feel is petty and pathetic.

There was good weirdness that first evening though, when a perfectly capable press secretary answered questions as honestly as possible, wasn't really stumped by anything, and was willing to get back to reporters on things she couldn't answer. This is one of the many reasons that I hate moral equivalence arguments about "sides:" this side tends to hold its own accountable and understands the role of the press in this system of democracy.

Biden wasted no time undoing much of what Trump "accomplished" in his term, which is to say that he countered or rolled back executive orders (the ones that weren't already struck down by the courts, and there were a ton of those). Presidents rarely achieve any lasting legacy without passing legislation through Congress. Just ask Obama, as his major achievements included the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, tax relief acts in 2010 and 2012, repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Matthew Shepard Act and some reform of the Patriot Act to reduce domestic surveillance. Not to take anything away from Obama, but basically he got one big win per year in office. (And hey, remember "death panels" and socialism and the destruction of "traditional marriage" by Obama? None of that happened.)

Trump did none of that, despite having party alignment for half of this term. Trump signed a lot of bills, but his administration didn't initiate any significant legislation. The tax cuts in 2017 were a big win for him, but they came from the GOP leadership in Congress. Two years later, the Congressional Research Service reported that the law mostly benefited high earners and corporations, with negligible impact on everyone else. It also added trillions of dollars to the deficit over a ten-year period. 

And if you consider those "wins" at all, was it worth it? There's a pretty long list of negatives that came with it, not the least of which is the complete break of decorum and respect for the dignity of the office. If people had little trust in government before, now they have even less reason for that trust. This is a man who made the argument that the election was fraudulent, even though it was the same election that allowed the GOP to gain seats in the house, even in states he lost. It was then litigated in 50 cases he lost, often with judges he appointed.

Biden is a moderate, old school politician with decades of experience in government, working with seven presidents as a senator, then as a VP. There are a lot of talking points by the willfully ignorant about him being a socialist boogeyman (or more ridiculous, a communist), and the usual batch of fear mongering, but I don't think the Democrats could have picked a more benign candidate. I expect that during this year he'll get the vaccine supply chain under control, propose economic relief as appropriate, and next year, if things stabilize, address racial justice and climate issues.

I am concerned about the wave of white supremacy and fascism that adheres to Trumpism, because even if it is forced into some dark corner of the Internet, it doesn't mean it ceases to exist. I'm also concerned about all of the people who believe that such an association is OK, if only to hope that their "side" is winning. As I've said before, you can engage in right-leaning or "conservative" politics and still disavow the racists. Racism is not a difference in opinion. This is the definitive issue of our national identity, and it's one we've been failing to fix for centuries.

For now, I just revel in the fact that I can wake up and there are no news alerts. No one was fired or called a name on Twitter by the leader of the free world. Another executive order wasn't struck down by the courts. There are no inappropriate phone calls with foreign leaders or domestic officials. No former officials are getting indicted or convicted. Racists aren't being called fine people. The world feels a little more sane.


Maker break

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 24, 2021, 7:18 PM | comments: 0

I seem to have unintentionally taken a "maker break." In the last few weeks, I haven't made very much stuff, after generating a crazy amount of things last year, especially in the last couple of months. I let my GitHub 100-week contribution streak end. I've written very little. No video projects shot or edited. Last week on the beach, I was generally feeling relaxed and peaceful, with no desire to do anything after work other than hear the ocean.

I'm reminded of the fact that I somewhat abruptly stopped doing the radio show last summer (although a college station in Maryland just picked up literally all of them), and that really felt OK. Many of the things that I like to do for fun tend to be projects, so they're not things that I can do in one sitting. Others, like the radio show or the Silly Nonsense videos, are recurring endeavors. Sometimes, finishing things feels a little like work.

To that end, I've been in couch slug consumption mode lately, unapologetically. I watch movies, binge TV, play solitaire on my phone, read from my Kindle. It's satisfying to do nothing at times. I'm also getting the itch to make stuff again, but I'm not rushing into it. I did cut another video, this time a time-lapse of the LEGO Star Wars Mos Eisley Cantina.


Allure of the Seas

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 21, 2021, 10:35 PM | comments: 0

I love that Royal Caribbean has a ship called Allure of the Seas. The name of that ship describes something that has been in my blood for a long time, even if I didn't really understand it. I always enjoyed staying on my dad's sailboat when I was a kid, and I've obviously always liked spending time at Cedar Point, surrounded by Lake Erie and Sandusky Bay. But being around the ocean has intensified those feelings a hundred times over. When we took our first cruise in 2013, I was shocked at how much I loved it. A year later, taking the second one as a Florida resident, I loved it even more. To date, we've taken 19 cruises. In between all of that, we've had days at the beach, both on the Atlantic and gulf coasts.

This week, we rented a beach house via Vrbo down in Melbourne. It was super clean, with what I call "beach appropriate furniture" and a garage full of beach toys. Not luxurious the way that I typically want in accommodations, but perfectly adequate for families with kids. It was a little pricey, sure, but it satisfied two conditions: The endless sound of surf outside, and a hot tub because it won't likely be warm enough to hang out in the ocean. We made our meals, watched the presidential inauguration, grilled chicken, chased down sand crabs at night and empties six bottles of wine. It was everything that I hoped for. And for the middle three days, I worked remotely while Simon schooled remotely (I was more successful than he was). I didn't even take the time off, but when I took breaks for lunch and retired for the day, I touched sand and listened to that glorious surf.

This partial week near the ocean made me realize that the great peace that I feel when we cruise has a lot to do with just being near the ocean. In the Covid era, not spending much money and wondering what I want to do with life, I wonder if I am meant to live by the ocean. Looking into it, it's not an inexpensive endeavor. If you want to live with the ocean literally in your back yard, prepare to drop a cool million (unless it's a condo tower filled with spring breakers). You can even buy some undeveloped land for around $350k, if you have the cash. I don't see any way that we can afford that any time soon, and I'm not sure that the story gets better even in ten years. That's a bummer.

But we could still be cruising quarterly if that were in fact a thing right now. Watching Captain Kate on IG makes me even want to consider cruising with someone not Disney. Seriously, get me the vaccine, and I'll lick the handrails clean if it means we can cruise.

I dunno, I have this strong realization that the sea makes me feel so present and calm, but it doesn't seem like it's easy for me to reach a place where being near it is my standard operating procedure. That troubles me.


If MLK Day makes you uncomfortable, that's a good thing

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 18, 2021, 7:00 PM | comments: 0

I remember in 2010, shortly before Simon was born, thinking on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, how remarkable it was that we had a Black president. The normal that I knew, growing up in the age of desegregation bussing, had effects going all the way to the White House. The gaps in equality that I even a child could observe, in the late 70's and early 80's was slowly closing. Nothing was "solved," per se, but there was measurable progress.

What was less obvious at the time was that the election of Barack Obama would, in many ways, instigate a "last stand" of sorts among the people not content to see the American order involve the inclusion of people of color. For many years, especially during the Obama administration, I thought that the opposition toward anything he did was simple partisanship. While it certainly was that, it was deeper than that, as we now understand famously that the "base" that Republican politicians cater to, themselves now a minority, root their opposition not in conservative policy in the name of Ronald Reagan, but in the old order of white supremacy. That's not some divisive plotline on my part, it's observing the most ardent Trump supporters: If the goal is to "make America great again," they can only be referring to the time prior to the civil rights era. America wasn't that great then. Even when it achieved prosperity and leadership on the world stage, in the decades immediately following World War II, it certainly didn't include women and minorities.

I'm always stirred by MLK's quote from his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."

White Americans have always had the power to realize change that would result in a just and equal society among races. It's a power that was abdicated by its founders, kicking the can down the road for future generations to deal with. Wise as they were, I'm sure they never expected it go as many generations as it has. They could not have predicted that in 2021, white people would still hold the cards. There was a particularly striking infographic in The New York Times last fall, showing that in various corridors of power, from police chiefs to senators, those with the power were overwhelmingly white, and did not reflect the population of the United States. One of the annoying things about this is the people who suggest that, "The most qualified people should hold those positions, not those who fit a racial profile." Yeah? Then why do those same people insist they be Republicans, who are overwhelmingly white and male?

We objectively live in a country where, on a per capita basis, you're at greater risk of being singled out by police with cause, being denied access to financial instruments, denied the chance to interview for a better job, etc., if your skin is not white. It's mathematically a fact, and no amount of mental gymnastics can invalidate that fact. As a moral and decent human being, there's little opportunity to be ambiguous about your position in this reality. It's not divisive to say you're for changing this, it just makes you a person who believes in the most basic tenets of human respect.

Don't be the white person who dismisses the presence of injustice.


The time you have left

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 18, 2021, 5:20 PM | comments: 0

I probably have quite a bit of time left in my life. Forty, maybe 50 years in front of me. There are always these things that I think about that seem like time has gone by fast, or slow, and in the last year, both. But as Mr. Keating reminds the boys in Dead Poets Society, we're all "food for worms," and for that reason, he encourages the kids to make the most out of the time they have. That's a weighty subject when you're a teenager, one you largely disregard, and honestly, I didn't even think much about it in my 30's, a time of particular crisis and identity for me.

Even at a young age, sometimes we do think deeply about what it is we're going to do. As in, with our lives, with our time. In that discussion that we have with ourselves, the consideration of time, and the rather temporary condition that is life, we consider the meaning of it all. There are two ways that you can go: The brevity of life can make you ask if there's any real point to any of it, but it could also incentivize you to make the most of what you have. A humble person can acknowledge that no one is going to care who they were beyond a generation, or two at best, but it doesn't mean that you can't leave the world better than you found it. I would also factor in that whatever animal instincts we have left drive us to contribute to society as a survival tactic, and for the survival of our children.

Let's be honest, there's a lot of struggle in life. Even when you have advantages, whether it be money or some other socioeconomic condition that you were born into, the challenges combined with the ephemeral nature of life make you wonder why you should fight the struggle. Hope and optimism don't come easy to everyone, but those are the things we rely on to keep moving. I think it's a good idea to help others find it, too.

Like most people, I have certain gifts and abilities. I don't know where they came from, or why I have them when others don't. I can't write a song (or sing one), or inspire anyone with athletic achievements, but I'm pretty good at other things that have a measurable impact on the world. I'm pretty good at helping others find those attributes, too. The scope of impact as it relates to my abilities is unimportant, and chances are that most people have impact, and it's just a question of whether or not it's positive.

I think that there are some basics to strive for when it comes to our time left. The blanket goal I'm after is to leave the world in a better state than I found it. This means reversing hundreds of years of structural discrimination against minorities, women and other marginalized people. I want to do my best to have a light touch on resources I consume, and show others what is possible with sustainable energy, waste reduction and the exploitation of science. I hope to show people that autism isn't a disability, but a different perspective.

What will you do with your time?


The accident "caught on tape"

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 14, 2021, 10:40 PM | comments: 0

The car accident that Diana suffered three weeks ago, as it turned out, was caught on the dash cam of the guy who helped her out of the car and made a statement to OCSO. The short story is that Diana did in fact have a green light, and the other driver turned in front of not just her, but another car as well. FHP apparently cited the other driver.

Obviously this is a relief to Diana, because like any driver, one tends to question if there was something they did to contribute to the accident, or could have done to avoid it. You can see from the video below that the other driver hit her rear quarter on the driver's side, causing the car to spin 180 degrees, then roll backward until it hit the median. (You can also see the driver in the left lane just drive away, which doesn't say a lot for humanity.) It's pretty obvious why the side curtain airbags deployed, that's for sure. The contact was pretty brutal. We watched it frame by frame, looking at the timing of it and making all kinds of observations about the time it took for the car to spin around (2/3 of a second), the time from the start of the other driver's turn to impact (1.2 seconds), etc. I think the unfortunate thing is that the driver in the left lane saw it coming, and by braking blocked Diana's sight line, so there was nothing that she could do to avoid it. Quarter-second variations in any of these factors could have led to drastically different outcomes. Had the driver been going faster or earlier, she might have T-boned Diana, probably sending her into the crosswalk sign, or worse, the signal pole or brick wall. A little sooner than that, and Diana or the left lane driver would have T-boned the other driver, which I imagine would have been worse for everyone.

The driver was young, just turned 18, so presumably still in high school. To that end, I can't fault her inexperience and hold no ill will because the only long-term problem we're aware of is the end of the car (injuries, I guess you never know). But in the moment, for the three hours we waited for FHP (which never did show), she made this strange comment about being "cool" about it and not a "hit and run" driver. Her mom, who came to the scene, was also kind of toxic toward her. At the time, I was just trying to get Simon to relax in the backseat of our other car, after I dragged him out of bed. But as I looked at the car, where it landed, and watched the traffic light sequence several times, I couldn't see any likely scenarios where Diana was at fault. The force to get the car to spin like that had to be non-trivial, so my assumption is that she came in pretty hot for some reason. I can't tell from the video if she was turning from a stop, but Diana had to be going at least 30 (speed limit is 40), getting back up to speed when the light turned green, for the car to roll several car lengths past the start of the median. The rear wheel took the brunt of the impact, and I think she's fortunate that the low center of gravity from the battery kept the car upright. This is why most EV's have solid crash ratings, because they have a low, heavy thing that makes up most of the floor.

So thank you, Nissan, for keeping my special lady safe. Cars may not survive this sort of thing, but they do a remarkably good job of protecting the people inside.


How free speech works on the Internet

posted by Jeff | Saturday, January 9, 2021, 4:50 PM | comments: 0

The big social media companies kicked Donald Trump to the curb this week (about six years too late), and with that, the Internet is now full of self-appointed experts on free speech. Honestly, the First Amendment is not particularly complex, and there have certainly been plenty of cases that test its limits and set precedent, but it isn't fundamentally difficult to understand:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The subsequent case law that likely matters most is that "Congress" is interpreted to mean government at all levels.

When the Internet was starting to expand beyond the niche of nerds like me, the question about what this meant in terms of free speech on the Internet went through a fairly quick cycle of refinement. The thing that was settled early was that Internet services, which is to say Web sites and apps, as opposed to the service providers that have a wire to your house or radio signals to your phone, are not subject to any particular special regulation when it comes to free speech. Indeed, as someone who has operated online communities for over two decades, when Mark Zuckerberg was just entering puberty, I can assure you that we've bounced countless racists, homophobes and xenophobes over the years. The fact is, I pay the bill for hosting the service, and I'm under no obligation to allow anything I don't want there. Twitter, Facebook, Google are no different. Well, except that they make money and I mostly don't.

The First Amendment has nothing to do with these services. Those services are not government operated, and as such, not subject to the First. Is there a moral argument about the power these companies have to potentially censor people? Maybe, but isn't it a "conservative" value to be hands off and let the market decide if the product and behavior of these companies is not appropriate? Apparently, only when it's convenient for some. The fact remains that anyone can access the Internet and build their own thing to facilitate whatever speech that you want.

The president recently kept calling for the repeal of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which the dipshit doesn't really understand is probably the only reason that he was able to post the nonsense that he did. This bit of law says:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

In other words, if someone posts some incendiary shit on your service, you aren't responsible for the content of it. This is the only reason that Twitter, et al., can safely allow someone to post things that are potentially dangerous or likely to incite harm, because they can't be held liable for it. But the question about whether or not they should allow it is an entirely moral question, and it's the one that the social media services have been beat up for a lot in the last few years. Crazy assholes like Alex Jones eventually pushed them to ban the right-wing conspiracy nuts, in the same way that they would ban jihadists or anyone trying to radicalize people toward violence. Unfortunately, the president became one of those assholes, and for the longest time they gave him a pass because, as a world leader, he was a person of particular consequence. They were under no obligation to do this, and I suspect after last week, they regretted doing nothing for as long as they did.

Now, the party of victimhood and constant grievance (and the people that follow them) insist that it isn't fair, or whatever, even though they are the party who champions free market capitalism (which they understand about as well as free speech, it seems). If you're a "real" conservative, you don't try to regulate these companies, you let the market sort it out. What I love about this is that the right-wing conspiracy nuts could certainly have their own social networks, but they are niche in interest and hard to fund with advertising, since advertisers mostly don't like to support the white nationalists and insurrectionists that the niche has been hijacked by.

It's also important to recognize that free speech doesn't mean that speech has no consequences. Sure, you're free to shout fire in a theater, but it's still a crime. Defamation law has a pretty clear test where you will lose if you knowingly say things about someone or some company that isn't true, and their reputation is harmed in the process. It seems like there's a lot of entitlement around saying whatever you want, and so you have professional lives ruined because people get online and say racist things or support racist politicians. This seems like a pretty horrible time to commit to doubling down in support of Trump, as the Internet doesn't forget, and your words are one search away from some future employer.


The faithless at the direction of the aggrieved failures

posted by Jeff | Friday, January 8, 2021, 5:30 PM | comments: 0

This has certainly been the most bizarre week in my lifetime when it comes to the operational integrity of our democracy. But what's increasingly obvious about it is that it's an entirely manufactured problem. It comes down to two fundamental issues: The leaders who do not accept responsibility for their failure, and those who stoke faithlessness that they created. Let's dive deeper.

I've been in leadership positions for a very long time. Most of my professional career, I've had to "manage" something or someone, and I've had to deliver things. I can say with almost universal certainty that at no time was it possible for me to attribute my failures to others. I mean, that's what being a leader is fundamentally about... it's your position to reach an outcome as charged by the nature of that position. I've dropped a lot of balls, to use the sportsball metaphor, and while there have certainly been times where I was not easily positioned for success, it doesn't change the fact that it was on me to deliver it, and I didn't. Sure, I've had legitimate reasons, not the least of which is not having the right resources to get the job done.

The GOP has been cultivating a world of scapgoating back to the Reagan days. On one side (theirs), you had people who were pulling up their bootstraps or whatever and doing the hard work to maintain a quality of life and deliver on the American dream. Even two decades ago, the people who were getting in your way of that were mostly politicians spending money on things that the "lazy" took advantage of, especially the entitlement programs that intended to lift the disadvantaged out of poverty. They rarely acknowledged the causes of the poverty, and usually attributed it to character flaws. As you might expect, these were mostly, but not all, people of color and minorities who were living a world of systemic racism that persists today.

In the Trump era, the gloves came off and he went right for the people that were always the intended scapegoats, among them, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants and Black "welfare moms." The thinly veiled racism was gone at that point. And now, as Donald Trump, in four years went from a Republican majority in both houses of Congress and the White House, to losing it all on his watch, he blames the system. This is the system that was largely uninhibited for the first half of his term, during which the only meaningful thing he did was get a tax cut passed that benefitted primarily the wealthy and people who made six figures or more. There is no objective fact behind this failure. No one cheated, the voting public just wasn't having it.

Then, in November, about 7 million more people voted for Joe Biden than did for Donald Trump, and the next president was chosen. After a run-off election in Georgia, it also came to the point where Senate control flipped to Democrats. The election was litigated in the courts, often by the judgment of Trump-appointed judges. Not a single case brought by the Trump campaign won. The Supreme Court wouldn't even hear a case brought by Texas, which wanted to sue Pennsylvania for the way it ran its election. The facts are that the election was secure and fair, something that the appropriate agencies even in the federal government confirmed.

But the sycophants that supported Trump with blind loyalty, including a nontrivial number of congresscritters, insisted that the election was ripe with fraud. They beat this drum daily, for two months. Now they insist that a significant portion of Americans, almost two-thirds of self-identifying Republicans (which equates to around 15% of the population) believe that the election was not free and fair. But let's think about that for a moment... who has asserted that the election was not fair? The very people who now assert that a 15%-ish of Americans say it wasn't fair. What a nutty, cyclical predicament! It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy. This assertion has no evidence. The dipshit lawyer who keeps blaming the voting machine company is now getting sued by the voting machine company, because free speech is free, but it has consequences.

To review, people charged with leadership failed, and blamed everyone but themselves. Then the failed leaders stoked feelings of unfairness, without evidence, and cited the very feelings of unfairness that they created to attempt to legitimize their failure. That's sad.


The assault on the Capitol

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 7, 2021, 11:00 AM | comments: 0

I watched more continuous TV yesterday than on any day since 9/11. It was the second time in my life that I didn't recognize the nation that I've always lived in.

I'm often frustrated with America's inability to shake its original sin, the one where it declared that "all men are created equal," but didn't really mean it. It still doesn't really mean it. But it has been trying hard for almost 250 years to correct that, to varying degrees of success. It eventually relented and allowed women to vote, then Blacks and other minorities, though it regionally did its best to stifle that, and that practice continues today. Elections are the process by which we improve things. It's a slow process, but it has been consistent.

In November, we engaged in this process as we do every four years to elect a president. It was a little different this time in certain places, as the pandemic shifted voting to mail. I've been voting by mail for most of the last 30 years, so it's certainly not novel to me. When I lived in Washington state, I didn't even have to do anything other than get a driver's license. In those 30 years, I've only missed one election (in 2011 when I moved, and I missed voting on a local road tax that unfortunately failed due to the short-sightedness of other city residents). I take this civic duty very seriously.

The election was close in certain states, but it ultimately named Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. Donald Trump mounted legal challenges, and he lost all of them, often in courts with judges that he appointed. His campaign continued to fabricate the lie that the election was "stolen," and the president himself went so far as to call the Georgia Secretary of State and suggest he "find" more votes. A relatively small number of congressional Republicans insist there was widespread fraud without evidence, too, despite the fact that it had been litigated, legitimately, in the courts, and now former members of the administration have declared publicly that the election was secure and fair. The outcome of the election, objectively, and without much need for critical thinking, is legitimate.

But Trump wasn't having it. He encouraged his fans (I'm not sure what to call them, but being particularly attached to any politician seems odd to me) to protest and riot, repeatedly, finally suggesting they march right up to the Capitol. Then when people asked him to make a statement to calm them down, he threw more gas on the fire, suggesting they were righteous in their pursuit (but don't hurt the police!).

It was disturbing to see a guy wrapped in a Trump flag taking selfies in the Senate president's chair, along with the countless other images made yesterday. Worse, it further demonstrated that there are two Americas, that our original sin is prevalent as ever. We just ended a year where we deeply understood the role that race plays in determining not only your fate, but the consequence of your actions. In Louisville, police emptied 32 bullets into the apartment of a woman, Breonna Taylor, in what might be charitably described as a botched raid in the wrong place by poorly trained officers. No one was truly held accountable for that. And yet, thousands of entitled white people broke into the Capitol, while both chambers were in session, seemingly without consequence. And for what? Because their guy fairly lost an election? The saddest part of this is that, like the morons they were, all they could do once inside was take self-incriminating selfies and post them on the Internet. They had no demands, or plan. They're just common criminals. The cowards were driven out and largely dispersed shortly after nightfall, and the Congress returned to finish its work.

Some members of Congress were clearly shaken by the incident, and realized that they had gone too far. Some reversed their position to object to the electoral count, which was little more than a symbolic time waster anyway. Those sticking to their position insisted that there were "irregularities" and acts by the states that were "unconstitutional," even though those issues had their days in court, and again, were struck down in part by appointees of the aggrieved president. The process worked as it has for hundreds of years. This year was no different.

The Internet has made the division more obvious than ever, as a small number of white people insist that there's a double standard: It's OK to endorse the Black Lives Matter movement, but not... whatever the MAGA people want. These moral equivalence arguments are the core issue that plagues us right now. Black and brown people do not enjoy the same safety and opportunity as white people, for complex reasons rooted in hundreds of years of systemic discrimination. We can observe this, objectively, in a hundred different ways. To draw some parallel between the a centuries-old struggle for civil rights and aggrieved white people butt-hurt about their candidate losing is wholly absurd.

At the end of the day, Joe Biden will still be president, and now he will have a congress to work with that is friendly to his agenda. In four years, Trump ruined the GOP's dominance. I'm not sure what they'll get done, but America has spoken up, and no amount of lies about the election will ever change that. Congress did its job, exercising the will of the people. It's time to move on.


Car stress

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, January 5, 2021, 9:51 PM | comments: 0

Progressive declared the car a total loss, so now we're trying to figure out what we do next. We finally got a rental as part of our insurance last weekend, which took longer than expected because apparently even during a Covid Christmas, cars were hard to come by in Central Florida. We'll have that for 30 days, and then I'm not sure.

I'm surprised by the basic anxiety that I have now when Diana leaves the house. With Simon returning to school, she has to drive him everyday, not because buses are high risk (though I wouldn't want him on one), but because technically he was supposed to switch schools again this year, so the bus doesn't go to his. We've got new buildings here practically every year. But even when she goes out for groceries or some other appointment, it makes me nervous because of the accident. It's an irrational fear, yes, but it's one I've been feeling really since the great crash in Bristol, Tennessee. I believe every drive has some inherent risk to it.

As Diana's arm and belt line return to a normal color, now the new stress is figuring out what to do next. The Leaf was a leased car, so we fully expected to replace it in August. Part of that expectation was that we had another six months to save for a reasonable down payment on the next car. In fact, we've been trying hard to figure out a way to get down to just one car payment, because financial makeover me would very much prefer that. That's not as easy since our choices after going electric are more limited (and we're never going back to gas).

To be clear, mostly this amounts to inconvenience more than anything else, but the uncertainty about how this year and the economic recovery will go makes me cautious about everything because we really don't know. I don't want to do anything that will undo a decade of discipline, because I only have so many keystrokes left on the keyboard of life and I can't make up the time. Our "out" in this case is probably that we're going to get a little money back from the refinance of the house, basically a month's payment, just because of when in the month it closed.

Realistically, we could probably go without a second car, for awhile at least. And since I'm being irrational, you know what the down side of that is? Not having a second car to run out and pick up the other if one of us is in a car accident, as we did two weeks ago. That's the weird place my head is at. Sure, you can Uber, they say, but they didn't hear about the nightmare of getting a 10-year-old with ASD out of bed in the middle of the night to drive by a wrecked car and pickup mom.

I have to remind myself that the worst part of this was really a bruised wife, and we had a nice Christmas anyway.


The art of hiring software people

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, January 5, 2021, 9:05 PM | comments: 0

A friend of mine recently asked for advice about hiring, suggesting that I had a "pretty successful record" of hiring. I suppose that he's partially correct, but he isn't familiar with the times I crashed and burned back in the day. I haven't really thought about it deliberately, not in recent years at least, because early in my career I treated it more like a technological problem where I just had to match the right keywords and like magic have an awesome team.

Mercifully, this year I only had to hire two people, but the search was pretty long. Being able to use the pool of an entire nation as a remote organization sure helped, but in some ways it also made it harder because you attract more noise that way. By sheer coincidence, I hired two people out of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, so not local to me or the mothership.

My last hire fail was a few jobs ago. It was a remote person who ended up having the mistaken impression that being remote meant you didn't have to collaborate with the team. He lasted two days before he quit voluntarily. My biggest mistake ever was a in the midst of a consulting contract many years ago, where I had to put together a small team for a three-month project. I hired a guy who would bill 10 hours a day, but his output volume was terrible. It was technically correct, but we weren't going to deliver anything useful on the budget we had, and I let that go for weeks. Lesson learned.

So what's the real "secret?" I would narrow it down to a few simple things:

  • Do the gap analysis. What can't your team do that you need it to do? Now plus it a bit. If you need someone with deep experience in a certain framework, look for that person, but with extras. The soft skills are the best extras, and peripheral tech skills help too. It's OK to aim high here.
  • Always ask in the phone screen about their learning process. You'll sniff out the fakers quickly this way. Anyone who can't describe how they learn a new thing isn't evolving. Learning is the first stage in problem solving, and if they can't convince you that they're good at that, run the other way.
  • Understand their mentoring relationships. If you're hiring a newbie, find out how they have taken advantage of people willing to teach them. If you're hiring an expert, find out how they make people around them better. What you really don't want is the person who goes heads-down and just churns through assignments without interaction.
  • Value business and customer empathy. I know that the stereotypes of technical people imply all kinds of nerdy constructs that lack social skills, but that's nonsense. The best software people want the "why" in what they do, and want to connect to it. This makes for better outcomes every time.
  • Be thorough in the technical assessment process. Most medium to larger companies have a process for this, but if it's small or a startup, you'll have to design that process. Don't do the bullshit brainteaser dotcom nonsense, because you're not a psychologist qualified to see "how people think" in a way that usefully improves outcomes.
  • Above all, the most important advice ever given to me was, "Don't settle." If I look honestly at my bad hires, this is where I really failed. Look, I realize the market favors the workers, but you need to work harder to sell your team to the people who will really improve it.

I don't think that any of those points are unusual, controversial or difficult to arrive at. The environment that you work in definitely makes a difference though. Companies that are not software companies (well, a lot of the time they are and they don't realize it) tend to look at people as interchangeable cogs, which of course they're not. At a company that nerds hard, you don't have the pressure of simply filling seats.

This is my art, yours may vary. Be patient, don't cut off your ear.

(Disclaimer: These are my opinions, and not any kind of official platform of any employer, past or present.)


What I did for Christmas vacation

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 3, 2021, 10:16 PM | comments: 0

I took off starting Christmas Eve for 11 straight days of not working. It's the most continuous time I've taken off of work in more than four years. Ordinarily I wouldn't take off that much time unless I was traveling somewhere cool, but I had to use some days or lose them, and that wouldn't be OK. This year I took off a week in July, but only a few long weekends since that time. It seems a little easier to go that long when you like your job, but you need to get away from it from time to time. I can quite honestly say that I go back to work tomorrow feeling refreshed.

What did I do? I guess the biggest thing is that I finally got SillyNonsense on the air. I'm not sure if what we put together is any good, and I'm even less sure that I care, because it just feels good to make things. And the YouTube channel only needs 995 more subscribers before I can start making tens of dollars! I've got video to edit for another 11 episodes, and some ideas for others. I think I want to commit to making 26 for the year, and see where that leads.

The first thing I did on vacation was pick up Diana from a car accident, and that wasn't a fun start to things. Still haven't heard back about whether or not the car is totaled, but it took a few nights before I could sleep continuously, not thinking about what would have happened if it was more serious. Diana is what keeps shit together around here, and Simon and I love her very much, as one would expect.

I did a ton of reading. I bought a Javascript reference book, actually on paper and to replace the edition I had from 15 years ago, so I could catch up on all of the stuff I fake my way through. I've got a new hire starting this week who is fantastic and a front-end expert, and I don't want to be a total ignoramus around him. I read a few papers on Keynesian economics, believe it or not, because I'm fascinated by the theories around the government's role in stabilizing economic systems. I also started plowing through Obama's most recent book. Unlike the memoirs published by his predecessors (Clinton's rambles aimlessly, Bush's is a bit of an indulgent sorry-not-sorry interpreted by a ghost writer), Obama is a surprisingly good storyteller. He's very self-aware and confident at the same time.

I wrote very little code, just enough to keep up my weekly contribution streak. I have some ideas for my next big project, but it probably won't be another open source thing. We'll see.

I finally built the Lego Star Wars Mos Eisley Cantina. It's very cool, and has a ton of mini-figures. Of course I time-lapsed it, so I'll post that eventually on the new channel. Maybe I'll try to bang that out this week.

We had a strange Christmas, where we put up a Zoom link and kept it open all day, inviting anyone who wanted to drop in to do so. Our Seattle counterparts were on with us pretty much for five straight hours, and my friend from DC dropped in for a long bit as well. On a different day, we opened Zoom while playing a four-way Halo slayer session, with me and Simon here in the OC and my BIL and nephew in Seattle. Microsoft had a sale on Xbox Game Pass for $1 for three months, so I actually spent some time playing a few different games. Forza Horizon is a lot of fun, in fact.

Maybe most importantly, I took some naps, and several times, put on the noise-cancelling headphones and just closed by eyes and got lost in music. Those are such great ways to relax and recharge.

Last night, we went out to Give Kids The World Village to check out their holiday lighting, the weirdest fundraiser in the weirdest times. They had to close the village earlier in the year because with the theme parks closed and not having any idea how to safely host families, many of whom have immunocompromised kids, they really couldn't operate. So Disney donated lights and their furloughed employees donated time to dress up the central buildings and villas with 3 million lights, and they invited people to buy tickets and see the place. Think about it, the public generally can't just stream into the place when families are staying there, so it was a unique situation. They're going to resume partial operations, with tons of consultation from our local children's hospital and the safety advice of the parks, in a few weeks.

It was a solid week and a half, if you don't count the accident. We're going to do a "working" vacation at a beach house soon, meaning Simon will remote school and I'll still work, but with an ocean view. In the April time frame, I hope we can do something similar. In the summer, if the vaccine rollout makes significant progress, maybe we can finally do something resembling normal travel. Wouldn't that be nice?


Canon lens mount change

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 3, 2021, 5:19 PM | comments: 0

I can't even tell you how much computer stuff I've cycled through in the last 25 years, and technology stuff in general. What has lasted for more time than I ever could have expected though is my Canon camera lenses. The trusty EF mount has been around since 1987.

And it might soon be obsolete.

I bought my first Canon camera, the Elan IIe, a film body, around 1998-ish, I think, and it had an EF mount. I had two different digital bodies with crop sensors until I bought the full-frame 5D in 2008, and the crop 7D the year after (because it makes video). I still have both of those cameras, and with them I've shot thousands of photos. I've done vacations, landscapes, engagements, 5K's, parties, babies and even my own wedding (well, a friend did the shooting with my gear). Now, 12 years later, I still have those cameras and I still use them. What other technology lasts that long?

Back to the lenses... Canon's best lenses, the faster ones that are sharper and more versatile, they designate with an "L" in the name. I bought by first L lens, the 70-200mm f/4L, in 2006. In retrospect, it was a steal for $600. I bought the 5D body in a kit with the 24-105mm f/4L IS, easily the most versatile and awesome lens ever made, in my opinion. It has spent more time on my cameras than the other lenses combined. Again, what else can I get great use out of after 12 years?

In 2013, I bought the 17-40mm f/4L as a gift to myself for working a ridiculous contract job as long as I could stand it, but also so I could experiment more with wide-angle video and landscape photos. It's just extraordinary when used with the 5D. It's neat to stand in front of a tall building and photograph the whole thing so close.

My least-credited lens is my trusty 50mm f/1.4, which is not an L lens (it feels kinda cheap, in fact), but it makes those pretty portrait photos with short depth-of-field in a way that still looks far better than the algorithmic simulation of that look by Google and Apple on phones. You can't quite fake it accurately.

All of that gear definitely appears a little weathered, but it all still works. In fact, I bought my video camera in part because it works with those lenses. My old video camera even works with those lenses (with a mount adapter). But after a 33-year run, it looks like Canon will not be introducing any new EF lenses, as they appear to be transitioning to the RF lens mount for use with their new mirrorless cameras. The flagship of that line is the R5, a body that has a crazy 45 megapixel sensor and can shoot 8K video 10-bit video (until it overheats, at least).

If I ever flip to an RF camera, and I don't think there's a lot of hurry for that, there are adapters that let you use your EF lenses, official and made by Canon. My aging lenses can easily go another decade! But it definitely is something of a new era, that's for sure. It also makes me wonder, OK, what would I buy going forward?

This is where the Internet gets in the way of opinions since I'm only a hobbyist. I deeply admire Philip Bloom, because the dude can make great video from almost any tool. I mean, he made a short film with a Barbie doll camera. But because he does this for a living, he doesn't really have to choose between his Canon, Sony, Fuji and whatever gear, because he has it all. He's gone all-in with the new Canon gear, and he has a whole lot of EF lenses. I don't have that luxury, because I can't easily justify spending on a bunch of gear that's just for the hobby.


2020 Review

posted by Jeff | Thursday, December 31, 2020, 12:53 AM | comments: 0

I've been doing these for years, and I have to say, I never thought I would be revisiting a year like this. It's safe to say that I've never had a year like this, and probably no one else has either. I'll try to break it up into the usual categories, but I can summarize by saying the year was a shit-show, if not always for me personally, it was for the world at large.

To that end, I like to reflect on the previous year, every year. This is just my story, and whether or not it's better or worse than someone else's isn't the point. It's real to me, and that doesn't preclude me from being empathetic to others enduring difficult circumstances. Don't be one of those people who wants to out-woke others and be judgey. There's a lot I'm leaving out this year, so what I am reflecting on is not a complete picture. It never is. This year took a lot from us, and having income did not make up for it.

The pandemic

Obviously the thing this year will most be known for is the Covid-19 pandemic. We end the year with over 340,000 deaths in the US alone, losing 3,000+ people per day because of multiple levels of failure in government and personal responsibility. The enormity of that weighs on me, even though there's little I can do about it.

Early on, in March, we understood so little about this virus that most societies reacted the only way they knew how: stay home and avoid people. The science evolved and it was fairly well understood, but poorly communicated. Avoid the three "C's:" close contact, confined spaces and crowds. This led to some counterintuitive behaviors, where going to Walt Disney World was relatively safe, but having a dinner party or your parents over was not. A lot of people just did whatever they wanted anyway, so you ended up with places where the hospitals were overwhelmed, in both space and staff, and literally 1 in 800 people of the population of North Dakota simply don't exist anymore. Nationally, 1 in 1,000 people in the US have now died.

My friends have lost family members, and those who were infected more often than not had lingering symptoms for weeks. We've done our best to be careful by just observing the basic protocols. With Diana's history of respiratory health problems, Simon's two bouts with pneumonia, and my overweight ass, we all have varying degrees of higher risk factors.

A lot of the things we would normally do this year we simply couldn't, even if we disregarded the risk. We couldn't cruise, we couldn't keep our guest room occupied by friends from Norway or Seattle. We couldn't road-trip up the coast to amusement parks. No Food & Wine Festival. No parties. Instead, we had solitary beach trips and Zoom playdates. School happened through a screen.

Like everything in America, it was disappointing to see a disregard for science and binary, divisive thinking informing people's actions. For people unwilling to go just a little deeper, the binary choices were shutting everything down indefinitely or going about life as usual with no regard to the consequences. Of course, the reality is that we're suffering economic chaos and the greatest public health crisis of our time, but people don't seem to see that either. Meanwhile, Australia has daily cases in the single digits, and is having a proper summer. I hate that American exceptionalism has become about what we can't achieve instead of what we can.

Career

Funny how things change from year to year. I ended last year feeling like I had set up a path for success this year, having reached all the measurable goals I had. After getting back from the holidays and a tech conference, I realized that my enthusiasm was not shared, for reasons I'll probably never fully understand. I spent a lot of time analyzing the situation, to learn from it, but regardless, it was time to move on. The next move came down to two options. The one was a contract gig that would have been the most ridiculous rate I've ever seen. It was yet another fixer-upper kind of gig. I feel like that's where I've landed over and over again since I landed in Florida, whether it was consulting or SaaS companies. Build from the ground, rip and replace, fix all this... it was a pattern, for sure. The other option was to join a growing company where I had to manage a team after the previous manager was promoted. It was not a fixer-upper. I took that job.

We've all had that friend that was in a toxic relationship, where they didn't see how terrible their partner was, and from the outside, you wonder how they could possibly not see it. Professionally, for me, that pattern was the fixer-uppers. I've had a lot of success in that respect, and my special sauce is definitely team building and adapting situations toward predictable outcomes. Grooming people to think for themselves about the outcomes works and scales. I assumed that the challenges in the last decade just came with the territory of my career stage, that it was natural to be in a constant pinch. I was wrong about that, and I just had to see a better scenario to prove it.

Part of this also has to do with company size. Large to huge companies tend to have more opportunities to do whatever you're good at, get promotions and have reliably high compensation up front. Smaller companies require you to do more of everything, probably not as well, with potential but uncertain long-term financial incentive. I've landed in a place that's somewhere in the middle, for the first time. Almost everywhere that I've previously worked had less than 150 people or more than 10,000. This middle road is interesting, because I have many peers with similar backgrounds, while the most senior leaders trust us to create the high level outcomes they're after. It's challenging without being difficult, and no one has made the asinine suggestion that maybe I'm not enjoying work very much or that my talents are underutilized.

In fact, it has given me the room to really think about my own skill inventory, and how I want to develop, without having to waste time on the aforementioned toxic relationship stuff. The consulting on and off for the last two decades has given me a lot of experience in areas of project and product management, team building, development processes and of course all the technical architecture stuff that I now mostly rely on others for. Where I want to grow is a number of areas that are somewhat more abstract, but slowly coming into focus. Most obvious is just navigating and collaborating across a larger organization, and figuring out how best to segment it in ways that continue to be more outcome based and not hierarchical. I also want to better understand where I sit on the vision-operator spectrum (the Steve Jobs vs. Tim Cook spectrum, if you will), and how I can strengthen the end where I am not, or both if I'm in the middle.

I had a great year-end review, which was not unexpected (if you're surprised by any review, your manager isn't doing a very good job). A number of people have tapped me to work on more global things while my directs have given me positive and constructive feedback. It has been a great year. It admittedly causes some survivors guilt in a year where we've seen entire industries suffer in the pandemic.

The hobby business

Continuing with the weirdness theme, this was the year that I thought I'd spin up a new opportunity to counteract the continuing slide in ad revenue. Late last year, I decided I should make a commercially hosted version of POP Forums, and early this year, that's exactly what I did. You give me a credit card, and in a matter of minutes, you have a hosted forum. It has a dozen or so themes built-in, you can roll your own and it can even support ads. The performance is off the chart high and the scale can go a lot further than I've tested it. To prove this out, I moved the PointBuzz forums there so we could decouple the rest of the site and work on it independently. It's. So. Fast.

My intention was to let that marinate a bit, to prove it out, then start to sell it. Then Covid hit, and I started the new job. I never came up with any real marketing plan, and definitely wasn't going to spend money on marketing it, because I didn't have the mental bandwidth, and I've been fiscally risk averse for obvious reasons. So to date, I'm the only customer.

The site revenue took a huge, huge shit this year, by 32%. Traffic was obviously down, because many amusement parks didn't open, or were opened at reduce capacity. CoasterBuzz was down about 20%, so the 20th anniversary was a bust. PointBuzz I'm not sure, because I wasn't tracking traffic on the new hosted forum until late in the year. The club revenue on CB really took a dive with almost no events this year.

On the plus side, I was able to migrate everything to the latest .NET bits, which means that it all runs on Linux now, another sure sign of the apocalypse. What this means is all of that performance and redundancy is only costing me about $200 a month. I've had zero downtime this year.

Acts of creation

The forum work led to a lot of code commits early in the year, but that barely scratches the surface of the nearly 400 open source contributions I've made this year. I finally open sourced my blog app, and added the bits necessary to also syndicate a podcast (necessary to migrate the old CoasterBuzz Podcast to Linux).

My biggest and most unlikely accomplishment is that I built my own cloud music service, which I called MLocker (as in music locker). If you would have told me a year ago that I would endeavor to do something like that, I'd say you were silly. But with the death of Google Music, I needed a place to park all of the stuff that I already paid for, because the only music service I'm paying for is the curated one from SiriusXM. I use it every day, on my phone, and it's fantastic, if not perfect. I've got almost 8,000 MP3's that no longer need to be moved from place to place.

All told, I wrote about 12,000 lines of code this year for the open source projects, which doesn't count the proprietary stuff written to host the commercial forum version. Not bad for someone who is more manager than maker.

I also decided to do a radio show called the Modern Gen-X on PRX, and it aired in Alaska, Guam and Maryland. I made 21 hours of radio, and then abruptly stopped. I may pick it up again at some point, because I really enjoyed it. It was just something to pass the time and revisit the old days. I did it "live" style, not scripted or edited, because that's what was fun when I did radio for a living and radio sucked less.

I wrote over 200 blog posts this year, because I really concentrated on doing it more toward the end of this year. My rhythm in recent years has been around a dozen a month. When I do write, I write deeper than I used to, but I still wanted to do more of it. Writing helps me cope with anxiety by processing things out of my head.

I bought eight Lego sets this year, all of them fairly large. This isn't really creating things in the strict sense of the word, because you're following instructions, but it is one of the most calming activities I can do. My favorite of these was the Haunted House, which has a freefall tower amusement ride inside of it, of the most brilliant design. I did time lapses for most of these.

I bought a new camera this year, the only major purchase I made all year, hoping it would spark my video creativity. I just haven't been out in the world shooting stuff in a long time, and I miss doing it, even if I'm not even sure what I would make with it. So at the very least, we're going to make a series of videos with the aforementioned Lego time lapses, some videos about drinks, food and other stuff. I don't really have a formula in mind, and that's why I'm associating it with my now-ancient SillyNonsense brand. Yeah, I brought it back. I end the year with around 10 episodes complete, though they're not all yet posted. I don't really enjoy doing stuff on-camera myself, because I was never good at it, but I'm limited to doing stuff with the people in my house at the moment.

All this stuff made it a lot easier to feel good about doing passive things, for sure. I watched a lot of streaming TV and movies in the last year, and I feel strongly that we're in kind of a new golden age of episodic video. I read a bunch of books, all non-fiction, mostly a combination of memoirs and business advice books. I also subscribed to Masterclass again this year, and watched a ton of classes.

Many of the Masterclass series that I watched were about filmmaking and writing, which lead me to the one thing I did not do this year: Write a screenplay. I did finally buy a Final Draft license though! Judd Apatow's class really stuck with me, for one specific point: You have to write something terrible if you ever expect to write anything good. If I keep that in mind, I'm confident I can write something.

Creating all of this stuff has been incredibly satisfying in a way that I haven't felt in a long time. I don't really care what others get out of it, if anything, because it just feels good to make things. I listen to music every single day on a player that I built myself, which feels really good.

Health

This was not a good year for health for people important to me. Covid doesn't even start to capture it, as we've seen more cancer and death than would seem normal. It's been rough. Those aren't really my stories to tell, but they've certainly impacted us.

For me, I am actually ending the year five pounds lighter, which would feel like failure in any other year where 12 months ago my risk profile was scary and a little more urgent considering I'm not getting younger. But the reality is that this year, with the stress of the pandemic, a work transition and serious parenting challenges, maintaining the status quo is a win considering my history of eating my feelings.

At the end of the previous year, my doctor (who Orlando Health let go of, in a pandemic, without notifying me) had all of the predictable advice: I had to get my cholesterol and blood pressure down, both just a little higher than normal. Weight loss would help with both. He suggested that I try intermittent fasting, which means no eating between 7 p.m. and 11 a.m. I was super consistent about that at first, which is why I lost those five pounds pretty early. It also helped that the job change and working from home meant no more snack closet and chef making meals three times a week. The flip side is that my physical activity basically stopped. It has been mentally difficult to get up and get out most of the year. The thing that probably helped the most is that I finally broke my soda habit by transitioning to flavored soda water. I still get a fountain Coke and a little Sprite now and then, but I've reduced my intake by a significant magnitude.

I'm not sure where my blood pressure is, because I used to measure that at the grocery store I don't go to anymore. I didn't get a blood panel in the summer because the replacement doctor in the office wasn't doing blood draws in the office anymore. I don't expect any material improvement in those because I haven't done the work. The last time I had 10,000 steps or more was February 19. In late spring and early summer, I was in a weekly rut of pigging out and making cocktails every Friday. Like I said, I'm approaching this all as "could have been worse."

The weird thing is that with all of the social distancing and mask wearing, I don't think any of us were "sick" this year. That's weird. All three of us had some interesting allergies, but no colds or flu.

After a crazy run of perfect vision, I've noticed now that anything within 18 inches of my face is harder to focus on than it used to be, but only when I'm tired and/or it's dark. Everything beyond that point in space is sharp as ever. I'm not expecting this to last forever, and genetically I don't know how my sight ended up the opposite of my parents.

Mental health has been a mixed bag, but not all bad. The lorazepam that my previous doctor prescribed has helped me a great deal when I get the panic attack symptoms, and when I observe that I'm not in fact having a heart event, it's calming and reassuring, breaking the anxiety loop around health. I don't need the drug very often, about every three weeks on average. Overall, I feel like I've been able to manage the anxiety better this year, and maybe even reduce it. My IBS symptoms have been less this year, and since my diet hasn't fundamentally changed, I credit the stress management inputs.

The world's apparent disregard for science and America's increasing tolerance of fascism definitely was a grind, but it was really parenting that caused the most mental health discomfort. I'll get into that later, but it's a pretty dark place to be when you feel like you can't steer your little human toward a life of relative success and sense of belonging.

I was inconsistent about seeing my therapist this year, and I don't have any excuse for that, considering it's remote and my benefits cover it. But I still landed some solid realizations this year that help. I've learned that I'm often too eager to give trust to others, to the point of being taken advantage of. I have been lonely for much of my life and compartmentalized that to the point of not even realizing it. I've made up my mind that I don't need validation or affection, so I do not seek or expect it, yet it's clear that when I get it, it transforms me in a big way. I harbor a lot of disappointment toward people, professionally and personally, that were supposed to be my champions but never provided the support I needed. The pandemic reminds me that I don't need to be widely adored or social, but I do need a small number of meaningful relationships, and that's clearer than ever.

What does one do with all of that? I have no idea, but it informs my daily recognition of how I behave in the world, which in turn helps me be a better person for myself and others.

Family and parenting

If there's one thing I can take from living in these "unprecedented times," it's that I am grateful for the maintenance-free relationship I have with my darling wife. I know this year has put stress on a lot of relationships, but ours functions as usual, which is to say without a lot of work. People famously say that marriage requires work, and with us, it just doesn't. We have minor, ephemeral frustrations with each other sometimes, as any two humans would, but they have almost no shelf life. Diana and I trust each other to use money wisely, we tag team on parenting, and defer certain responsibilities to each other. There's no score keeping. When one of us needs something from the other, we ask, and don't expect that we should just "know" what the other needs.

I wish I could say that the parenting was as easy, but this has certainly been the most challenging year yet. Some of it is rooted in the developmental delays associated with ASD. Simon is emotionally immature for 10, and the hardest part of this is that he can't deal with any challenging situations. What I consider easy, he considers challenging, so sometimes putting on a shirt is at the same level of difficulty as subtracting fractions. The distance from calm to meltdown is short. As a dad, I can rationally understand his wiring, but I can't always understand his motivations and what behaviors are just him being a stubborn 10-year-old.

For me, things typically go poorly around bedtime in particular. When I gently remind him that it's time to stop playing, to take a shower, he starts to get angry. In the shower, he'll demand help because there is soap over his eyes, and instead of solving that problem, he'll ask for help with a towel or not just put his face under the water. I am getting better at allowing him to just flail a little and not be angry, but as you can imagine, the situation often devolves into accusations that I don't care about him or the usual things that parents are often accused of. What makes that so hard is that it's over things that are not inherently challenging, they're just easier if someone else helps.

There's a thread here that I think helps explain this (one I've not yet talked to his therapist about). Simon is very, very lonely, which was an issue even before the pandemic. He openly expresses this sadness to us. He's a little "different" to say the least, and kids can be real dicks about it. He hasn't really found his people. Now it's even worse, because his social interaction is limited mostly to virtual play dates to play video games with his cousin or some of the area kids he knows. Because of all this, I theorize that his desire to be helped on relatively simple things is in part out of a desire for interaction.

School has been really difficult in the remote situation. His grades have been pretty good, but he's had Mom at his side most of the time, every single day. When he's forced to work independently, he struggles to stay plugged in (we've switched ADHD meds already this year). We see this in testing scenarios in particular. It has been hard to figure out how to get him to understand the relative consequence of failure. The prospect of getting something wrong is an irreconcilable scenario for him, and irreconcilable scenarios are what causes a person with ASD to stop functioning and meltdown.

Next week, he'll be going back to face-to-face school, where he'll have the benefit of more frequent help from his teachers and ESE teacher. We struggled with this decision, but the school has followed the science and created protocols that reduce the risk pretty well. The Covid cases that have occurred have not been the result of in-school spread (because in these sub-communities they are rigorously contact tracing). Honestly, we don't know how he'll do wearing a mask all day (he still has some sensory issues), but if it doesn't work, we can move him back to remote.

For me, I'm trying to approach working with him in a more clinical, intellectual way, but it's hard not to react emotionally to emotions. One of the things we really miss out on is the old "boys' nights" that we had when Diana was regularly working. Sometimes they were as simple as doing something at home, or more often, going to a theme park for a couple of hours (because there's no cooking and plenty of activities). With outdoor stuff happening at Diana's work, she's slowly picking up some time there, and we had a couple of good nights together.

Cats

Second only to the pandemic on the list of things that are unexpected, is that we're ending the year with two different cats than those we started with. I think we've been anticipating Emma's end for a long time, because 18 is pretty old for a cat. Oliver was unexpected, and we figured he had at least another year or two. Losing both this year hurt. Maybe worse than losing them is seeing Simon's reaction when saying goodbye to them. Obviously in Covid times, you can't all go to the vet, so Diana took them in while I did my best to comfort Simon. Maybe that was better, because trying to explain euthanasia to a 10-year-old on the autism spectrum would have been rough. We didn't lie to him, indicating that the vets would give them medication to relax without pain as they died. Sometimes you have to settle for a half-truth.

These two were the last of the "blended pride," my cat plus Diana's three when she moved in with me. They traveled with us to Seattle and back to Cleveland, and then her three came with us to Orange County. It's strange now that none of them are with us.

In August, ragdolls Finn and Poe joined us. I can't really put into words how good the timing of their arrival has been, between the loss of the other cats and just the basic need for a distraction that sits on or next to you and purrs. All of the breed stereotypes have come true for these two. They just want to be loved, and don't mind being picked up. They follow you around like dogs, and they're rarely aloof like most cats. They're also enormous, which was one of the considerations for wanting this specific breed. At almost eight months, they're both well over 10 pounds already. They're very robust.

Finn is the ultimate cuddle cat, and almost every night, at least once, he jumps on Diana and kneads around her head while he purrs. He'll do whatever it takes to get belly rubs. Poe also flops on his back for the rubs, but his charm is that he's more food driven. He'll nibble your toes if there is no food to eat. They don't mind sleeping together and groom each other constantly. They're all asses-and-elbows when they chase each other around the wood floor with their fuzzy paws, sliding into each other and the walls. When they've exhausted their energy and crash, they're just adorable, stretching their furry legs and demanding that they be rubbed. There is so much love in these little guys. I can't imagine this year without them.

Non-travel

This was supposed to be an epic year for travel, but it wasn't, for obvious reasons. Right after the new year I flew in to Cleveland for the Codemash conference in Sandusky. It was a good reminder about why I was happy to not live in Ohio anymore, because of the weather. We had two cruises planned as well... a weekend hop in mid-March, and a grand revisit to Alaska in late June, while Simon stayed with his cousins in Seattle. The latter would have been the longest vacation that Diana and I had taken without the boy since his birth. It was going to be glorious.

We were two years into a tradition of going to New York in the spring around our anniversary, and I was hoping we would continue that given the shows and her friends there. And if that weren't enough, my work office is actually in One World Trade, so I have additional reasons to visit.

There were some other things potentially on the table as well, including an east coast driving trip, a DC visit, maybe some time at Cedar Point, and definitely some shoulder time in Seattle before and after the Alaska cruise. Instead, we've not left the state, and let Simon's passport expire. I didn't use all of my time off (a week rolled over), because all of things we like to do, and the new places we hoped to go to, we couldn't because stuff was closed.

In July, we did get a beach rental at a property that had about a dozen guest house units, in the Cocoa Beach area. That was a nice diversion for a few days. One of the neighbors was making noise at night, which was annoying, but being right on the beach in an area that was not in the big public parking beach areas, was great. I'm not sure why we had never done that before, because there are countless rentals up and down both coasts.

We also had a road trip down to Naples to pick up the kittens, which came at the same time as a dead 12V battery in my car, so I didn't enjoy the drive in a rental, unfortunately.

Even in the first half of next year, the good news is that we (as in the world) know how to roll relatively safely with Covid. Things don't need to close in a desperate way unless things get desperate, which is always a possibility while people are having dinner parties and holiday gatherings. But beach rentals and more exclusive outdoor things are very possible to do, and we'll keep looking at those.

Fiscal situation

I've been working hard for years to right the stupidity of my youth and the debt we were in around the time we were married. This year has been the strangest of all. If you were able to stay employed this year, the odds are good that there were less things for you to spend money on. I had no meaningful interruption in income, fortunately, and with our big trips cancelled, got a bunch of money back that I had considered spent. On top of that, well, we just didn't do stuff, and we didn't really buy much stuff. For the first time in my entire life, I actually have more than three months of savings. A decade ago I had over $30k of debt on credit cards and no savings. It took a long time to fix that.

And if that weren't enough, we just refinanced the house, after living in it only three years. Under normal circumstances, that's not something that people do, but when the interest rates bottom out the way they have, it would have been irresponsible not to. Going from 3.999% to 2.875% is basically like finding a few hundred dollars more per month, and the "pay back" period, to compensate for the costs of the loan, is about nine months. This draws a lot of attention to why home ownership is such an important aspect of American life, and why it creates disparity that is problematic. If you rent, you get nothing back for that expense other than a roof over your head. If you own property, you get the roof and (most of the time) it appreciates in value that you'll get back. This seems like an inherently broken system to me, especially when you can further reduce your cost in a time of economic distress.

On the plus side, I've been able to do more charitable giving this year than I ever have. I've typically preferred to give to organizations that meet needs, but this year I've given to a broader range, including civil rights organizations and museums and such. Vetting non-profits is a lot easier than it used to be, too, thanks to sites like Charity Navigator.

This year being what it is, we couldn't escape completely unscathed. Diana was in a car accident the day before Christmas Eve, and now we're having to consider buying another car, seven months earlier than planned. Her Nissan Leaf was up for a three-year lease in August, and so we expected to save our pennies in those months to put down a reasonable amount for its replacement. Not sure yet how that's going to play out, because we haven't officially received the "total loss" declaration. We may try to just have one car for awhile.

World outlook

As if the pandemic wasn't enough, we saw extraordinary attention brought to the fact that there are two Americas, and how you are treated by society has a lot to do with the color of your skin. This year I observed presumably intelligent white people proclaim that systemic racism is not a thing. As is the case with a great many things in the world, you can observe with math that this racism is real, and history is pretty clear about why and how it persists.

If that weren't enough, the same people who refuse to see how society has rigged its systems against people of color now believe, with no evidence at all, that the election was rigged against Donald Trump. Then you can pile on the irony that his party is the one that has been persistently trying to suppress voters for decades. They're the same people who think that climate change, another observable fact, isn't real, and then they extended this rage against science toward the pandemic. "It'll just disappear," their dear leader said. These folks can't even see that they supported a racist.

The spread of willful ignorance and war against expertise and experience is one that concerns me a great deal. That people can be manipulated into thinking that experienced experts are the enemy, or valued the same way that anyone with an opinion and an Internet connection is, scares the shit out of me. That 74 million people could vote for a person that followed the same pattern as history's most successful fascists is not encouraging. Again, this pattern is observable fact. And to write it off as "both sides are bad," that tired moral equivalence argument... how do you even get there?

My generation was supposed to right this ship, after our parents' generation showed little follow through with the civil rights movement. We basically got a Black president elected and called it a day. The younger generations show promise, but then you get these stories of entitled white rich kids slinging the "N word" like 8-year-olds making fart noises. It's hard to feel good about where we're headed.

The thing is, I can't live a life of pessimism, because that would be exhausting. If I am to point to the lessons of history, then I am forced to accept that things do improve, even if the rate of positive change is slow and there are setbacks. The old thing about only knowing happiness by way of pain rings true. It's hard to say what "normal" will look like, but vaccines, a boringly typical president and hopefully some real change toward reconciling America's original sin will restore some amount of sanity to the world.

What will I do? I'll stay involved. I'll keep donating to the organizations forcing change. I'll do my part to promote diversity and inclusion. I'll shine whatever light I can on the people who move the world forward.

But am I happy?

I'm not sure how I can arrive at a concrete answer to this question given everything I've taken inventory on, but the answer might be mostly "yes." As I discovered last year, a lot of the time, I was dealing with anxiety, and you can multiply that several times over this year, but being anxious and being happy are not mutually exclusive. The crazy thing is just how high the highs are, and ditto for the lows.

As I mentioned up front, this year took a lot out of us in a lot of different ways, well beyond the narrative here. It has been a long time since I felt the world took more than I gave. I think the only reason that I can call it a net win is because most of it is behind us. The transition to a new year is largely symbolic, but I can't think of any time in recent history that we're in more dire need of symbolic change. We just need to get through the next six months or so, and hope that others play along.


The 2020 Playlist

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, December 30, 2020, 3:26 PM | comments: 0

In what was otherwise a fairly terrible year, we did have a solid year for music. This year's playlist is not as long as others, but it isn't propped up by musicals, and we finally had entire albums that were good.

First off, yes, I copypasta'd Sofi Tukker's "Purple Hat" from last year, because as the year began, I just wasn't done with this song. Also, I might have a grade school crush on Sophie. When Covid hit, they committed to live streaming DJ sets every day, which they did for most of the year, and have since turned it over to various guest DJ's. But they also released "House Arrest," which became something of an anthem for a pandemic:

I decided not to leave my house and go outside
I held myself sweetly, made myself a lullaby
This won't last forever, treat your sadness with a smile
We can't have what's next 'til we hang inside it for a while

This is house arrest...

Meanwhile, The Naked And Famous, still one of my favorite bands, released Recover. It didn't grab me at first, but then I recall that their first album didn't either, and now it's one of my favorites of all time. Recover grew on me, and while it's not my favorite of the four to date, I dig it. I just wanted it to have more noise, which they tend to have less of as they become better song writers. The song "Come As You Are" is a wonderful, chill tune that puts me at ease every time I hear it.

Grouplove released Healer this year, and it unfortunately did not really grab me the way their previous albums did. But the first single, "Deleter," came at a time when I was completely disappointed with the people in the world (and my world) that we designate as leaders. Talk about the right song for the right time! I wish I could say the same for the Alanis Morissette album, which doesn't really stand out in any particular way. It's repetitive and down. I included "Smiling" in the list because it reminds me vaguely of "Uninvited" or "Still."

There was a time when I wondered if The Black Keys were just one of those radio-friendly rock bands that could keep churning out hits, but I don't even care now. "Let's Rock" is one of the best rock albums I've heard in a very long time. It's so good. I haven't really been much of a guitar-driven rock guy in a long time, but this album is a masterpiece.

The big surprise album for me was Missio's Can You Feel The Sun. The title track is just fantastic, maybe the best song this year. I'm also fond of "Vagabond" and several others. I investigated the album when the title single started playing on AltNation, and was surprised, because this is the "Middle Fingers" band. Not that that wasn't a good song, it just felt like a novelty. But they're the real deal, this is a great album.

The year had a number of predictable returners, like Billie Eilish. She's one of those people I recognize as a great talent, even if most of her songs aren't really my thing. Glass Animals is another one that surprises me, with three songs this year. AJR makes big radio hits at least a few times a year. I'm super excited about what beabadoobee might be. "Care" is a song that reminds me a lot of a cross of Juliana Hatfield and Liz Phair, and she looks amazing as this tiny guitar shredding woman. I'm very intrigued by Paris Jackson, whose first song is pretty good, and nothing like anything her late father ever made. Next year, I'm looking forward to the new Foo Fighters album, because the first single, "Shame Shame" is really good. Dave Grohl is gonna keep making music until he can't.

I also had to throw in the title theme from The Mandalorian. What a cool composition that is. I mean, who thinks to combine a plastic recorder with electronic elements and a full orchestra, and it still sounds like Star Wars? It's brilliant.

Of course, it's worth noting that music was a big deal for me this year, as I built my own music cloud service, and I did 21 hours of radio shows on PRX. I listened a lot this year.


I'm not sure what to do next with POP Forums

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 29, 2020, 12:25 AM | comments: 0

This has been a big year for me in terms of writing codez, and that's serious since I don't do it for a living at the moment (I'm manager, not maker, these days). I created a whole lot of stuff, and now that I'm coming up for a breath, the question is, what do I do with POP Forums next?

The goals in the last year or two were all exciting to meet. I wanted to make sure I could scale it out and up to handle most any traffic, not because I needed to, but I wanted to see if I could. I have no idea what the upper limit is, because I don't have the resources (or expertise) to load test it to the breaking point. I wanted to get it entirely on .NET Core so I could run it all on Linux services, because it's cheaper. I wanted to knock out some simple features that had been on the backlog for a bit. I wanted it to be current on all the packages. It's so damn fast and it generally works pretty well.

Now what? My issue is that I don't like that it still depends on jQuery on the front-end. I'm also not crazy about committing to any of the typical front-end frameworks because a forum has to be as easy for machines to index as possible to keep your Google juice in tact, and turning it into an "application" with dynamically loaded content could end badly. If I was just interested in eliminating jQuery and using vanilla Javascript, that's actually not a huge lift. I could go there, and maybe that's what I should really go after.

But there's something to be said for the template and data binding magic that you get with the frameworks. A version or two ago of the forums, I converted the admin area to use Vue.js, and once I started to "get it," I really enjoyed building it out. It has some quirks, but it's such a low-usage part of the app that I can live with the weirdness. What felt particularly good about that endeavor is that the whole admin "app" lives in two big old files, so other than some basic parsing, I'm not compiling and packing a hundred different files. I'm not sure why this triggers me, but it does. I hate when you create a project with these frameworks and end up with 30,000+ files on your computer. Still, I would overlook that if you could use Vue as little component fragments all over the place.

Templating is something you can definitely swing yourself with vanilla JS, too, but it sure feels like reinventing the wheel. I've experimented with that before, and it's not the worst thing ever. I just need to brush up on the "right" way to structure things, because I still write script like it's 1999. I haven't even gone particularly deep on TypeScript, when maybe I should.

Of course, after building MLocker, my personal music service, now I'm tempted to go deeper with Blazor. Yeah, there's an up-front download cost, which in practical terms looks like it's under 2 MB for most real conditions, but that's not really the big deal that I think it is. And from a search engine perspective, it's stupid easy to render pages on the server with the same components that run in the browser. It's hard for me to not look deeper into that. I could end up with less Javascript instead of more.

I'm sure I'll think of something and pick a direction.


Christmas crash curse

posted by Jeff | Thursday, December 24, 2020, 5:01 PM | comments: 0

Diana was in a car accident last night, because 2020 couldn't leave well enough alone. She was driving home from work around 11:40, on a road with relatively little traffic that time of night, when a very young girl traveling from the opposite direction turned left and tagged the back left of her car hard. She spun counter-clockwise another three car lengths past the start of the median. Side curtain airbag deployed and her arm is probably going to get colorful today, but she's otherwise OK. The wheel bowed out pretty hard, with damage to the rear right door, fender and bumper, and I've gotta think that the frame took a hard enough hit to sustain damage. I'm not sure how the battery modules are mounted in the 2nd generation Leaf, so it's not clear to me if it was damaged or not. I'm fairly certain whatever emergency disconnect there is was triggered, because the car was quite dead.

I got Simon out of bed and we went to wait for her. Nissan roadside assistant was pretty good about getting a truck out there, but there's a weird thing where the Orange County Sheriffs don't do accident reports in this case, Florida Highway Patrol does. They were busy with another accident down the road. The OCSO guy eventually told us to exchange information and self-report the crash online, so at the moment, no one has been cited. I don't see how Diana could be at fault from the sheer physics involved, but the wife of the guy who helped her out of the car did apparently make a statement to the OCSO officer.

The other driver said she had a green arrow to turn, which I doubt, because for her to hit with that kind of force, she would not have been turning from a stop, and without being in the lane, she wouldn't get the arrow. Florida (and maybe other places, I don't know) likes to do blinking yellow arrows, which I hate, because especially if you're from other states (Ohio at least, seven years ago), that's not a thing. You get a solid green and you turn left only if it's clear to do so. These arrows are suggestive in a way that seems counterintuitive.

This is pretty much my worst anxiety scenario, because when Diana texts me to say she's leaving work, I count the minutes, and have played out the whole thing in my head where she's late and I get a visit from the police about an accident. That's irrational, because I imagine there's more risk of accident during the day, but here we are. Hopefully we'll get news on the car soon, but because Leaf's depreciate so quickly, and who knows what has to be fixed because it's electric, I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up being totaled. The car is only worth about $13k if it's perfect. It's a lease, up this August, so it's not our problem long-term no matter what. If we have to replace it, that throws a wrench in my 2021 financial planning before it even begins. I was hoping to pay off the other car, then just have one payment, but that was supposed to happen over six months.

A few hours short of nine years ago, on Christmas Eve 2011, we were rear-ended by a woman in Bristol, Tennessee, on the way to visit my in-laws (which is why I always get the car rental coverage now). That feels like a very strange coincidence. That car ended up being totaled. If we go back a few more years, Diana and I followed a drunk driver on Christmas day, 2008, as he bounced off of other cars and eventually plowed into an off-ramp guardrail on I-71 in Cleveland. Again, it feels like a pattern, or a curse, when it comes to driving near Christmas.


Relearning so much video stuff

posted by Jeff | Thursday, December 24, 2020, 2:26 PM | comments: 0

If rediscovering video production has revealed anything, it's that I don't remember how to use the tools as well as I used to. It's funny how the composition skills stick with you, and don't need to change much over time, but tools, they change. And you know what's funny? Having learned to edit with tape, I was always so careful to make sure I shot coverage of everything I needed, and kind of edited in my head as I was shooting. Now, on the Internet, no one even cares if you have jump cuts, but it's easier than ever, because computers, to not have jump cuts.

Anyway, I'm still getting to know the C200 a bit, and the compromises with it aren't really as scary as I though they were since the release of the C70. For what I shoot, it would probably be better to have the 10-bit recording as the normal thing, but if I want to do serious shooting for a short film, being able to record raw and convert to 10-bit 4:2:2 after exposure correction. What I'm learning now is how to get good stuff without noise, and over exposing the highlights by as much as a stop seems to be a real win. If I did shoot raw, I could be totally sloppy.

The thing I'm really liking is that the face priority auto-focus is nothing short of amazing for this goofy standup work I've been doing. My only complaint, and it's really subtle, is that sometimes I can see a little bit of lens breathing, since my lenses are photography lenses. Most people don't know what that even is, fortunately. I imagine that if I do shoot a "film," I'll want to invest in some good manual cinema lenses that don't do that.

I've had to relearn lighting a bit too, now that everything is LED based. Relearn might be too strong a word, and instead I should call it discovery. It's so crazy easy to get a "look" with LED lights, because controlling their output is something you can dial in, instead of using physical means to control the output of the light. It's easier than ever to get that soft three-point lighting, and I have relatively inexpensive lights.

My audio game isn't great. I have some inexpensive Shure SM11 lavaliers that have been made for decades (pretty sure we had them in college). They're super durable, but they pick up too much ambient noise. I really need a fancy long shotgun mic, but need to experiment with the one I bought with my first pro camera, an Audio-Technica AT875. I know it sounds great for ambient sound or people in front of you, but I've never tried it in a standup arrangement.

The software is where I really feel like I'm restarting a bit. Adobe Premier Pro feels downright unfamiliar, and After Effects, which I loved when I first started working with it (in 1998!) fundamentally works the same, but can do way more. It's funny too how rendering simple motion graphics at 4K means that render times are still not much faster than they were with NTSC 20 years ago. The thing that has definitely improved is that there are plugins and features now that help compensate for crappy acquisition, like room echo.

I have to keep in mind that Hollywood professionals are posting stuff online that is suboptimal from a technical standpoint but often interesting (see John Krasisnki, Brie Larson and Josh Gad, for example), so content is what really matters. But I want to get the technical part right for the silly things that I make.


Star Wars finally found its potential

posted by Jeff | Monday, December 21, 2020, 4:30 PM | comments: 0

One of the most remarkable things about Star Wars is its cross-generational appeal. As a member of Generation-X, we probably have the deepest attachment to it. The original movies debuted when we were kids, and the toys were insane and comprehensive. I didn't have any of them (we were GI Joe and Transformers kids), but my step-brothers had pretty much all the Star Wars things.

When the prequel trilogy started, we were blown away at first. We managed to overlook the terrible dialog and acting just because it was so satisfying to finally get the Darth Vader origin story. By the time it wrapped with "Vader-Nooooooooo," and the goofy Luke-and-Leia-are-born-while-Padme-dies B-movie style, it felt good to see it through. As time passed though, and a hundred different variations of the originals were released (VHS, VHS Special Edition, DVD, Blu-Ray, streaming), we started to realize that the prequels were kind of bad. Terrible dialog, a political fascist subplot that people didn't get, a childish crush relationship story... it's a miracle that Natalie Portman's career survived any of it.

The sequel trilogy was definitely better. Even though episode 7 felt familiar in plot, it was at least self-aware. ("How do we blow it up? There's always a way to do that.") It didn't feel like Lucasfilm had a solid plan to end the Skywalker saga, and the changing directors and such felt like no one was really steering the ship. I don't blame JJ Abrams... he made it pretty clear that he was honored to start the new series, but got tired of being the reboot/sequel guy. They tapped him to finish it anyway. The sequels didn't have a tight story, but they did understand what it meant to advance the story in service of the fans and existing canon. There was a lot of joy in those movies. I mean, we named our kittens Finn and Poe.

The one-off side stories showed promise though. Solo was just OK, but I thought Rogue One was outstanding. The sequels gave a lot of reason and space to fill in some gaps, in fact, the way Rogue One did between episodes 3 and 4. The universe is so expansive that there's so much to explore in between, and Disney's larger content strategy, to emphasize streaming, where the people are, needed a seed. That seed was The Mandalorian.

The intention of the show was likely to take one of their most valuable properties and give people a reason to subscribe, which it definitely did. What may or may not have been by design is the discovery that Star Wars works really well as a serialized TV show. And just as they've found a ton of opportunities to tell more Marvel stories, the potential for Star Wars is equally huge. There was already a precedent for this, with the animated Clone Wars show, and it was pretty good.

I'm really looking forward to more Mando, as well as Ahsoka and The Book of Boba Fett.