Archive: October, 2012

Developing speech

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, October 31, 2012, 11:50 PM | comments: 0

I know I've written quite a bit about Simon's speech development, and when I really look at it objectively, it has been a very long and difficult road. I think to some extent, I may have even become a little complacent about how slow it was going.

Lately, I'm pleased to hear him form sentences, when identifiable phrases started to come just a few weeks ago. He's still behind, certainly, but in some ways it feels like I'm hearing him for the first time. He's trying so hard to talk to us now.

With this developing ability, he's also experiencing some emotions with the kind of intensity we've never seen before. Whenever he flips out and has a tantrum, we've always encouraged him to "use your words," and boy does he do that now. We can't always understand him, but tantrums have ascended to a whole new level, interspersed with phrases. I think we may indulge him a little too much at times, because we're so anxious to hear what he's saying. It has become problematic at bed time.

Still, to hear Simon talk is wonderful because it's an extension of his personality. He tells us things now about things going on around the house that are totally obvious, but it's still awesome.

Sharing paid apps between users in Windows 8 (and RT)

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, October 31, 2012, 10:22 AM | comments: 0

This is totally not obvious, and hard to figure out (or find on the Google), so I thought I'd share. One of the nice things about Windows RT is that it is still Windows, so you can set up user accounts on your tablet. That means each user can set up live tiles and arrange them to their taste.

Buying stuff, like Angry Birds Space, ties the app to your store account, so by default, other users won't see your apps on the same machine. To allow them to be used by others, you have to go into the store settings on their account, and change the sign-in to yours. Then go into the store, swipe in from the top (or right-click) and choose my apps, and install the apps that you've already purchased.

By the way, this works across machines as well, so you can install the same apps on your desktop, for example.

Natural disasters

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, October 30, 2012, 11:27 PM | comments: 0

Seeing the photos from New York City and coastal areas of New Jersey are almost surreal. I think the most striking thing about Hurricane Sandy was that it hit in one of the most concentrated areas of humanity anywhere in the world. I can't imagine what people are going through there, particularly in areas with flooding and fires.

I was surprised at how bad it got here in Northeast Ohio. With two straight days of rain (and counting), there are a lot of flooded basements and leaking roofs. Wind damage is somewhat widespread, and people who still had boats in the water in Lake Erie marinas may have had issues with them breaking loose and washing ashore.

These kinds of events really make you think about what you would do if a natural disaster really got the best of you. It's too easy to be complacent here, because the odds of anything really causing widespread havoc is pretty low. At worst, a tornado could essentially erase entire neighborhoods, but I'm not sure there is anything you can really do about that beyond trying to stay safe.

I did think a little about earthquakes when we lived in Seattle, but never really acted on any notion to be more prepared. Chances are reasonable that our dwelling would survive a significant quake, but power outages could last quite awhile. Road damage is certainly a potential issue as well. I think in those cases, you're really doing your best to prepare for a week or two of inconvenience more than anything else.

We rely quite a bit on technology. It's hard to imagine most of it becoming irrelevant when half of your town is essentially washed out to see or blown away. My thoughts are with the people who endure that reality today.

Tech news also replaced by punditry

posted by Jeff | Monday, October 29, 2012, 9:09 PM | comments: 0

One of the most annoying things about "news" is that it has largely been replaced by punditry. Sure, a couple of the big newspapers and the big three TV networks more or less do real news, but for the most part, the rest of the field is filled with punditry and opinions. And worse, that's what people seem to prefer. See: All cable news.

Technology news has started to go that way as well. You used to have a number of sites that really focused on reporting the news, and there were podcasts and video pieces that did it too. Most of that has been replaced with "top 5 reasons company X blows goats and will fail" and other such nonsense. Deep dives on businesses that make stuff are getting to be rare as well.

The reasons for the decline are pretty obvious. First of all, it's pretty cheap to put up a bunch of words that don't mean anything beyond what some blowhard thinks. But second, and this is the really sad part, people apparently want this dipshittery.

About six years ago, this wasn't the case. If you were into nerdy stuff, there were fantastic places on the Intertubes to really get into it. There was no race to be first to talk about something. Thoughtful analysis was coupled with bona fide news.

How did it get like this? I suppose part of it is that the really geeky stuff is pretty mainstream. I mean, when I got the first iPhone, most "normal" people I knew just looked at me and asked why I needed it. Now, well, pretty much everyone has an iPhone.

There's a part of me that would love to write about the nerdy stuff in the fashion of which I once coveted. I've got a fun domain name for it, even. But really, there is very little win there. There's no money in it, I would rather spend that time parenting, and frankly, I'm not into the whole online micro-celebrity personality thing. (The irony there is that said phenomenon is probably what makes people "successful" at it.)

I need different time wasters.

Review: Microsoft Surface RT

posted by Jeff | Monday, October 29, 2012, 10:49 AM | comments: 1

I was pretty excited when Microsoft announced its new Surface tablet, if you don't count the fact that they did so without any indication of price or availability. "Here's something exciting, but we're not gonna tell you when you can have it or how much it will cost!" As I've said before, the tablet is a weird thing that I've always felt was a consumption device that I might not have a lot of use for, and yet I still have an iPad. In fact, the comparisons are impossible not to make.

So why buy? First, the "Metro" interface in Windows Phone showed a better way for mobile computing. Since so much of it is social in nature, why not bake things like Facebook right into it? You put in your various online accounts, and it lights up with stuff. My wife is one "object" on the phone, across Facebook, e-mail, text messages, etc. She gets her own live tile. Windows 8 expands on this, and since it has been available to the curious (and MSDN subscribers) for many months, I knew it could deliver that experience on a tablet or desktop computer.

Before I get to the software, and that Windows 8 detail is important, let me talk about the hardware. Microsoft has been surprisingly open about the design process and work that it took to design this thing, and it's clear from the finished product that the time was well spent. Made of that goofy magnesium alloy ("VaporMg"), it has a nice metallic feel to it, without being slippery. It also looks like a continuously fingerprinted mess unless you wipe it down a bit. They made a big deal about the edges being tapered to 22 degrees, and I don't know if that really matters, but it's fairly comfortable to hold horizontally. It's a little tall to hold vertically, but just as our eyes are horizontal, so goes viewing this thing. In fact, the 16:9 aspect ratio really seems to fill your vision better than the 4:3 of something like the iPad (or any older computer, for that matter).

The hinge for the kickstand seems like it would be something weak and stupid, but it's far from that. The click it makes when you open and close it is satisfying like that of a new luxury car. It seems like something stupid for the designers to have spent time on, but it feels nice.

I opted for the touch cover keyboard, which is just slightly thicker than the iPad smart cover. Its connection to the tablet is the most solid magnetic thing I've ever seen. It will support the weight of the tablet. It only kind of works in your lap, but on a table it's remarkably not terrible to use. I was missing the space bar a bit at first, but after pecking out a few forum posts, I actually adjusted pretty quickly. If you flip it back behind the unit, it doesn't interfere with holding it. It also doesn't flop around like the iPad smart cover, since it has no folds. The mouse surface is a little small, but since the screen is touch, I find it generally unnecessary. You could use a Bluetooth mouse, if you wanted. Is it worth the extra hundred bucks? I think so, because clearly it's one of the differentiators that makes this feel more like a laptop when you want it to be.

Much has been made about the screen resolution, which is low compared to the Retina iPad. There's no question that text on the iPad is something of a miracle, whether it's in a Web browser or the Kindle app. That said, it's not as much of a step back on the Surface as I expected. Video looks great, which isn't surprising given the size of the screen and compression of Web-based video. The Metro user interface looks great, too, even with text or image heavy live tiles. I did end up increasing the zoom in Internet Explorer to 125%, partly because it makes the text more readable, but also because it just seems to fit the screen better. At 100%, most Web sites with fixed widths don't fill the screen very well. The screen is bright and contrasty overall (brightest and highest contrast of any tablet, according to one of the reviews I saw), and the fear of a lower resolution seems largely unfounded.

So about the software... this thing runs Windows RT, the build of Windows 8 intended for ARM-based devices (which run most tablets and phones). What this means is that it is pretty much Windows, but stuff compiled for the desktop version of Windows, including stuff made in the last 30 years, won't run on it. What does run on it is the Metro-style apps you can download from the store, as well as the included Office suite, which I'll talk more about later. There will be a "pro" version of Surface released in the next few months that runs on an Intel CPU, and is a full blown computer in tablet form. It will (in theory) run anything ever made for Windows.

I personally don't think that the inability to run old Windows stuff on a tablet is a big deal. The last remaining things I run on Windows are mostly development tools, plus ancient versions of QuickBooks and Microsoft Money. I would assume that I'm not alone in that, but I suppose the market will decide. The odd thing is that they include the classic Windows desktop in Windows RT at all. I'm sure this is in part because that's the environment the Office apps run in, but also because all of the configuration and control panels and all of that run there as well. Critics have said this is confusing, but since it's consistent with the desktop version, I'm not entirely sure it matters.

One of the big evolutionary steps in the Windows 8 UI is the edge swiping. Because the Metro aesthetic is all about ditching the chrome around stuff, it keeps the screen clean by not having stuff on it. You therefore reveal it by starting a swiping motion from off of the screen. Context menus, appearing above and below, are summoned from swiping down. The "charms" bar comes in from the right, which includes settings and search functions. Swiping in from the left brings in other running apps. A swipe in and back out let's you choose which one to activate. There's also a lesser known one, from top to bottom with a pause in the middle, that allows you to kill the app entirely.

You can also snap apps to the sides, so you can multitask a bit. For example, you might pin the mail app to the side, which shrinks to just one column (mailboxes, messages or message detail), while you have the People app occupying the rest of the screen. While I don't have a lot of need for this, it's kind of neat since other tablet systems can't do it.

As I mentioned before, the Surface RT version comes with actual Office applications, specifically Word, Excel, Powerpoint and OneNote. Particularly when you combine this feature with the keyboard cover, it puts the tablet into a product category that isn't what the line of iPads and Android tablets are. This makes it seem more like a computer and less like a media consumption device. You can save files to local storage, USB sticks or, I suspect as Microsoft would like, in your SkyDrive. In fact, OneNote syncs so flawlessly across the Internets that it's one of the coolest apps ever made (it has a free Web-based version, and even one for iOS).

Office isn't the only thing about this almost-Windows that's useful, either. It also has the Remote Desktop client. Windows 8 syncing works with your desktop settings (provided you use the same Microsoft ID).

I have run into some weirdness, which isn't unique to Surface, but problems with Windows 8. The first is that the photo app doesn't seem to work with Facebook as it should. It wasn't obvious at first that you can pinch to go to a better thumbnail view. It also thinks that there is only one or zero photos in a lot of the albums on Facebook, and you can't force it to refresh. This is annoying, because I have no desire to put the original photos on the device itself. That's what all this cloud junk is about! I've seen the People app outright crash once so far, too.

The sharing functionality rooted in the charms bar doesn't really work. I mean, yes, you can e-mail some object, for example, but you can't share Facebook items the way you should be able to. The iOS Facebook app has the same problem, but given that sharing is so core to social functions, this is frustrating.

As far as apps go, the store is already quite filled with some useful stuff, and I'm sure that's going to take off. There is a little weirdness there, however, because apparently there are some apps in the store that are only for the full Intel Windows 8, not Windows RT. Chief among these are the Microsoft Solitaire and Google apps.

I've used the mail app a little, and I find that it's generally adequate. Again, having the keyboard cover to type makes a pretty huge difference here. My only complaint about it is the same one that I have about every mail client: It doesn't understand the difference between delete and archive for Gmail. Touching delete appears to remove it from the Gmail inbox and allows it to appear in "All Mail," but a hard delete requires moving it to the Gmail "Trash" folder. I may have set the IMAP delete to do that from the Gmail settings, but I don't remember if that's an option. It's worth noting that the full browser-based Gmail works just fine in Internet Explorer.

Speaking of IE, it doesn't suck. I look at the mobile version of CoasterBuzz and it looks like it's part of Windows. I really like the way the chrome and UI gets out of the way so the content fills the screen. Bookmark management is a little clumsy, though you can edit them in the desktop IE. There are a few sites I've encountered that don't play well with touch, but I've tried them on the iPad to find the same issues. Again, I have it set for 125% so most sites better fill the screen. It also has... wait for it... Adobe Flash support. The one caveat is that it only works in sites that Microsoft has approved, which is total nonsense. I don't care for Flash, but if you're going to have it, then have it.

Some of the preinstalled apps are hit and miss. The weather app, for example, is nice but I find the radar imagery to be too small and not current enough. The maps app is just completely awesome. Xbox Live integration means more achievement whoring in games. The Skype app is really nice. Kindle is here, and not bad as long as you stick to horizontal viewing. The crack-like game of Windows Phone, Wordament, is also available and free, with achievements!

The media experience is generally pretty good, though it's the one part of the UI that isn't as snappy. I haven't jumped into the Xbox Music experience yet, with the streaming and such, but I do plan to check it out. Personally, I'm looking for two things: A version of the Amazon Cloud Player for Windows, and Amazon Instant Video, since we're Amazon Prime members and get a lot of stuff for free.

Beyond that, it's pretty easy to get stuff on the device. You can pull it in via network if you're a little more savvy, but otherwise, hook up a USB hard drive or USB stick, and away you go. The music and video apps have a pretty easy import function.

The development experience, as far as I've engaged in it, seems to be pretty solid. If you did any kind of Windows Phone app development, you should be right at home doing it for Windows 8/RT. The namespaces and availability of certain classes is a little different, but it's not a big deal. The biggest change is probably understanding the state persistence, which is a little different. Hopefully I'll get one of these apps done soon.

Inevitably, the thing people ask is, "Should I buy one?" The answer depends on what it is you're looking for. If you want a tablet to check e-mail, surf the Web, watch video online and play Angry Birds, I would say that the Surface RT is fantastic for that. If you want something that acts a little more like a full-blown PC, it's even better. It's too hard of a question to answer. If you were to ask me, "Is it worth $499, plus another hundred for a keyboard?" In that case, I would say it's a fantastic value. The hardware is fantastic, and if the Office apps in particular are highly valued to you, it's an easy decision.

And what about the iPad comparisons? I'm a little biased against the iPad only because I don't care for the iOS interface. I find it dated, and prefer the task-based approach of Windows to the app-based approach of iOS. If you're tethered to the iTunes ecosystem, obviously it's hard to get away from the DRM that locks you in there. If you have a ton of non-DRM MP3's and AAC's, you're good to go.

The only serious check in the winning column for iPad, for my use cases, is that mine has Verizon 4G access, so I can literally use it anywhere. Microsoft said that in their research, only a sixth of tablets sold included cellular connections, and of those, only half were ever activated, so they didn't include it. Now, if the replacement phone I buy in the next month can do tethering or hot spot functionality, I essentially no longer need the iPad.

The Surface RT does have more memory for the money compared to iPad, and it also has a MicroSDXC slot in it, so you can add another 64 gigs for all of your porn video and music, if you so desire. That's pretty huge if that's what you're looking for.

Overall, I think that Microsoft has a huge winner. The only bigger win that I can think of is the future release of the Surface Pro, because it will be a full-blown PC with an Intel CPU and a higher resolution screen. However, if you already have something light and awesome like a MacBook Air, you probably wouldn't need it (though that doesn't mean you wouldn't want it).

It sure is pretty (so is the woman on the lock screen).

The much hyped kickstand (plus the mini HDMI, USB and power ports).

The touch cover that works better than you would expect.

I like Central Florida

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 28, 2012, 5:22 PM | comments: 0

My visit to the Orlando area last week was obviously not under ideal circumstances. It was the first time I had been since January 2011, and I think the first time that I went with zero tourism intentions. I also remembered how much I like the area.

If you go back about a year, you'd find that in my chatter about moving back east, that Orlando was a serious contender for future residency. As I said back then, I fancy us as pool and palm tree people. (I know, a family of fair-skinned people, probably not ideal.) The housing down there is stupid cheap. Like mansion for $250k cheap. No state income tax, no snow.

Truth be told, I still mostly feel that way about Central Florida, but the more that I looked into it, the more I kept getting blocked by one serious issue: The schools generally suck. They doubly suck when you compare to the Seattle east side. This is not a condition that fits well with a kid who will be school age in another three years.

But I didn't realize how much this annoys me until I spent some time down there. Socially, we don't know all that many people down there, but I enjoyed being there, in the warm sun with occasional showers. I like palm trees. Of course, I like theme parks, too, but I don't know if those would get old after awhile. The school thing is a deal breaker though.

I'm kind of pissed off about that. I fancied myself as a resident at one point. I still do, but probably not until Simon is out on his own. I'd love to sell churros as an old retired guy at Disney World. Then I'd meet Diana when she was done working part-time at one of the shows. See? Doesn't that sound like a beautifully simple thing?

I'll have to get my fill when we do our grown up WDW trip in a few weeks.

Separation anxiety and broken words

posted by Jeff | Saturday, October 27, 2012, 11:33 PM | comments: 0

Simon seems to be exhibiting separation anxiety. Maybe it was happening before, but if not, it seems obvious since I got back from Florida. Diana said he flipped out a bit when we ended the Skype call I did Wednesday morning with my mom from Florida, and was asking for me at night.

It's the bed time thing that's really getting out of control. He doesn't want us to leave him, and he gets super angry and throws super tantrums. He tries to say something, and it's consistent, but we can't tell what it is. So we're left in the awkward state of wanting to understand him, but at the same time, it doesn't matter what he really wants because it's time for him to go to bed regardless. We normally trade off, and one of us sits with him to finally wind down before getting into bed. Tonight, he flipped out if either one of us even suggested leaving. This was even after getting into bed two hours later than normal.

It's not just that. He wants to be held for a bit after getting up from nap. He doesn't like it when one of us leaves the house, even to get the mail. I like that he wants to be affectionate, particularly when it means cuddles, but I find it necessary lately to really cut the cord and let him work it out.

I'm sure it's a passing phase, but this one can't pass fast enough!

Closing Cedar Point again

posted by Jeff | Saturday, October 27, 2012, 11:10 PM | comments: 0

It's closing weekend for Cedar Point, and with a poor weather outlook tomorrow, we decided to take one last lap around the park tonight. It was really a last minute decision. Simon had a birthday party and trick-or-treat at the grocery store this morning, then a long nap, so we figured we'd go for it.

It was around 50 and very windy, so a number of rides were closed. That didn't appear to thin the crowds, however, and the midways were packed. Once again, a Saturday in October looks a lot like a Saturday in July. Only the Saturdays in July don't really look like that anymore. I think some portion of the population has moved their once-a-year visit to Halloweekends. Perhaps we should go more often in July!

This was our first full season back in Cleveland with Simon. The park feels like a totally different place, and the truth is that riding stuff is not really a priority. We just enjoy walking around the park, and trying to do a kiddie ride now and then. Actually, one of the bigger hits this year was the train, and it's the ride that we finished the year with, as a family. Simon did try other various rides, but was not a huge fan.

It's always a little sad to close the park, especially when it's not quite the last day. We had fun staying there a couple of weeks ago, even if staying in the cottages meant that Simon would say "choo choo" every time he heard the train when he should have been going to sleep. He really does love to go there, and I'm happy that he loves to walk around it so much. I wish I had more video of the park so he could watch it during winter. He already seems to prefer it, even over Sesame Street, Word World and Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.

For me, I'm sure there will be winter visits. We're hoping to do another tour at some point, perhaps to raise a little cash for my favorite charity. And of course, spring will bring the smell of new paint, mulch, a new entrance, and of course, a new roller coaster.

My first visit to the Give Kids The World Village

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 25, 2012, 11:43 PM | comments: 0

It has been quite a few years since I initially started asking folks from CoasterBuzz to donate to Give Kids The World. It was such a natural fit for anyone who already had an interest in the amusement industry, or even the broader hospitality industry (are there such things as hotel enthusiasts?). Once I became a parent, it seemed like an even bigger deal, because I couldn't imagine my child not being able to have something resembling a normal vacation, where a family could create important memories.

Since that time, Kara, one of my BFF's, started working there, and I've gotten to know the president of the charity a little as well. The weird thing, however, is that after nearly four years, I still had not been to the village. Part of the reason was that it just wasn't convenient, but I think a part of me was a little worried about what I would see there. Since I was already in Florida this week for a funeral, and didn't have my family with me, it seemed like the timing was as good as it was going to get to make a visit.

By the time I left, my commitment to the organization doubled. I'm sure I'll continue to donate, but I'd like to offer volunteer hours or anything else I can do as well. What I saw there was amazing. The marketing materials are one thing, but when you see a kid in a wheelchair having fun with his family on the carousel, or a little girl with no hair splashing around in the pool, it changes you. These families are having the same experiences that any other healthy family would have, only without cost or worry. They're surrounded by others having a difficult time. If that weren't enough, they're surrounded by volunteers doing their best to show them a good time. It's the very best of people in action.

The resort itself, and it really is a resort, is beautiful. The villas are cozy, and range from colorful to classic Florida style. The playground and main pool are easily as good, if not better, than the typical resort. There are train rides, mini golf, a carousel, games, live entertainment, horse rides... so much to do! Perkins Restaurants staffs the main dining hall, and yes, you can famously have ice cream for breakfast. As much as families may run off to Disney World, they have a wonderful and comfortable environment to come home to.

The lightness of the environment in part hides the gravity of the situation that so many of these families share. Kara showed me the small, faith-agnostic chapel, where you can write anything you'd like in books there. The ceiling has a series of layered clouds, and stained glass windows represent the four seasons. She told me the story of a family that visited, and the child, despite his illness, was being a typical kid, throwing his blanket up in the air while his dad wrote in one of the books. Later that night, they couldn't find the child's blanket at bed time, and so they finally asked him if he knew where he left it. He told his dad, "I threw it up into the clouds in the chapel, so Jesus could hold it for me when I go to heaven."

Regardless of your religious beliefs, or if you don't identify with any faith at all, the story really puts into context the intensity of what these families go through. I can't honestly imagine a child having to deal with the knowledge of his or her imminent death. Most adults don't even have to deal with it. It seems insane for a child to ever have to think about it.

And again, that's what I love about GKTW. The organization helps thousands of families put all of that into the background, even if it's just for a few days. It might be the only happy week a family gets, and those memories are priceless. Some kids do recover from their illness, and you never really know if the hope and joy of that week has something to do with it.

So that's my pitch. You can donate at If now isn't a good time, it would be great if you could participate in Coasting For Kids again next year (date forthcoming), or one of the other events. Now that I've been there, I'm going to bug you even more to help me out.

Critical thinking

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 25, 2012, 9:51 AM | comments: 0

I noticed this morning, in the weird tired state that comes with getting up early for an early flight, that I haven't written anything all week. Or more specifically, I haven't posted anything this week.

The truth is that I've written quite a bit. I get a few paragraphs in, or even finish, and I decide not to post. I actually felt almost cowardly about it, as though I was filtering because I didn't value what I had to say. As most anyone who knows me personally would tell you, I'm not really one to filter. I tend to be very direct because I feel it's the most efficient way to communicate.

What I think is really going on is that I've started to apply critical thinking to writing, in a way that I haven't before. In fact, I'm even thinking about the value of this kind of thinking when it comes to something as relatively unimportant as a personal blog. Do I short circuit my own discovery when I'm not talking "out loud?"

It's easy to take things at face value. The simplest explanation isn't always the right one, but we want it to be. Look at the political discourse in the US. Politicians spoon-feed the simplest nonsense to people and they willingly gulp it down and accept it. The availability of information hasn't led us to carefully consider it, perhaps because the volume of it is too daunting. We take the easy way out.

My frustration with our culture's reluctance to dig a little deeper and be informed is pretty obvious, and not something I've done any filtering on. I think that's why I've applied more critical thinking to writing. I can't bitch at everyone else and not hold myself to the same standard.

Doing fall stuff in the Midwest

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 21, 2012, 11:21 PM | comments: 0

One of the things that I've noticed after moving back to Cleveland is that fall is definitely more cherished. In Seattle, fall is more the start of winter, which is basically the same as fall. You have super rainy November, and then less rain each month until there's almost none at all. And unless you live in a high elevation, people are still out doing stuff all winter because it rarely snows, gets super cold, or downpours. Oh, and it's still very green.

But here in Cleveland, October is pretty much your last chance to enjoy the outdoors, because before the year is out, it's going to snow, and you're going to freeze your tits off. If that weren't enough, the sky will turn flat and gray for weeks, and you'll begin to contemplate ways to harm your body. For kicks, everything appears dead, and nothing is green. It sucks.

So to get one last hurrah, people go apeshit with pumpkins, hay rides, Halloween parties, and cider. Up here, they also crowd into Cedar Point in record numbers, happy to get that last roller coaster ride, even if it dips into the 40's after dark. After all, May is a very long way away.

Looking at our calendar, we're pretty deep into the customs as well, and fortunately there are some cool things to do. Friday we did Boo at The Zoo, at the CleMetZoo. It's not included in our membership, but at eight bucks each, it's totally worth it to see the zoo at night. I grew up a few blocks from it, and had never seen it at night, and I noticed all of the fantastic atmospheric mood lighting was temporary because night operation is so rare. I've never seen the lions so active.

The preschool PTA group that Diana belongs to (yes, a PTA without the "T") had a fall party at a local farm yesterday, and that included the usual hay rides, playing in the barn full of hay, pumpkin picking, and of course, apple cider. Simon really enjoyed climbing the hay pile, but had no idea what to do when he got to the top.

Today we were considering another hit to Cedar Point, but a quick check of the Web cam showed a very full parking lot, so we passed on that (don't tell Simon, as he'll be crushed). Instead we did some stuff around the house, in the sun, including some weed management and hot tub water replacement. That should time the next water swap to January, and April after that, so only one true winter procedure.

The really cool thing that we did today was take a walk through the little nature trail in a county park at the center of town. For a lot of reasons I can't entirely sort out right now, I hate this town, but this little spot is calming and pleasant, if without mountain views. The leaves were in full blown color mode, and the sun was at golden hour. Two weeks from now you'll be able to see from one end of the park to the other, but today it was awesome.

I'm dreading winter, but it has been an action packed fall so far. We've got two vacations on the books for winter, and I imagine we'll throw in an indoor water park weekend or two to discourage suicide. Hopefully the weather helps us out for one more "Cee Po" visit next weekend. You know, for Simon.

The political false dichotomy

posted by Jeff | Friday, October 19, 2012, 11:04 PM | comments: 0

Some would argue that as you get older, your political beliefs tend to swing one way or the other. While there may be some truth to that, the idealist in me would like to think you stop seeing things in black and white, as life experience teaches you that most things are a big gray area.

In this, an election year, the single most annoying thing that I can observe is that most people want the false dichotomy that suggests there are two choices. You're for or against, left or right, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, with me or against me, black or white (literally and figuratively).

So for example, the Internet offers no shortage of opportunities to engage in political conversation. I've been critical of both presidential candidates, and also pointed out how stupid and irrelevant some of the "talking points" are. In every case, it's immediately assumed that I'm an advocate of the other guy. Ultimately, I vote for the dog catcher because I think he has a better shot at catching dogs, not because of the color of his tie.

That's one of the strange things I find about that gray area. I would think that most people would be swing voters, and not self identify with a particular party. This year, I find it hard to understand how anyone can be so passionate about either candidate enough to campaign for them.

The excellent thing about not being too wrapped up in either side, even if you have already voted (as I have), is that you can cut through a lot of the bullshit and emotional hyperbole and get to actual issues. I can't even tell you how liberating that is. Most people can't tell you what they like or dislike about either guy's policy, but instead focus on matters of personal history or even more ridiculousness like the whole "birther" and communist stuff.

Certainly the political ads don't help (having a DVR, I never see them), but imagine a world where people spent less time trying to create division over things that don't matter and actually discussed policy. Imagine a world where people actually had enough clarity to vote on issues instead of personality. Sadly, I don't think this world can exist if people can't turn off their fucking TV's, but again, my inner idealist believes it's possible anyway.

More Cee Po, please!

posted by Jeff | Friday, October 19, 2012, 10:52 AM | comments: 0

Simon covers his eyes when he's standing near a roller coaster and it goes by (unless it's quiet, like Maverick), and yet, he is borderline obsessed with watching video of roller coasters.

It started when I was cutting video from Cedar Point on my computer, where he insisted on being a fixture on my lap. When I was done, he got upset, and wanted to watch more. So I found some other edited video clips, and played those for him. Before too long, he was coming up to me every time I was sitting in front of a computer, asking, "More Cee Po, please." It's starting to sound more like Cedar Point every day.

Then I made the mistake of realizing that I could put the video clips on a USB stick and plug them directly into my TV. Actually, my intention was to see how the compressed video looked on a 55" TV (answer: better than I expected). Now, he knows exactly which remote to bring me, since the only thing the dedicated TV remote is used for is playing back USB clips. One of the clips, from the Gatekeeper announcement Q&A, he gets upset because it's mostly John and Monty talking, but he loves the ride animation. I've created a monster.

My hope is that his desire to watch the rides translates into a desire to ride them, eventually. We got as far as sitting down in Jr. Gemini last weekend, but he wanted to bail once we got into the train.

Simon's school

posted by Jeff | Friday, October 19, 2012, 12:57 AM | comments: 1

Simon's school had an open house today, which was very exciting for him because it meant he got to go twice today!

Our little man goes twice a week, for two hours each time, to attend a class to help him catch up in his speech and motor skill development. The school is operated by the county board of developmental disabilities, and they have an amazing facility that also serves adults. For all of the things that I knock about living here, this is one thing I think the community should be especially proud of, and I hope they will continue to support it next month on election day. The program that Simon is in I believe is at least partially subsidized by federal programs.

To get into this program, experts had to test Simon to see where he was in meeting certain milestones for kids typical of his age. They aren't necessarily looking for learning disabilities, which are hard to pin down that young, just the gap between where he is and where he should be according to averages. His school visits include time with occupational and physical therapists.

His motor skills have always been a problem, in part because we had a tendency to help him too often, and also because he was just a really big kid. It's hard to roll yourself over when you're huge at nine months! What he lacked the most was core strength, so climbing was difficult. It didn't take him long to catch up on this, but he still has issues stepping up with one of his legs. Fortunately, he's able to walk up and down stairs without holding on now, though alternating steps isn't there yet. His fine motor skills have improved a great deal, too, and just this week he's doing a really good job using a spoon now. It helps that he's generally pretty neat for a kid his age.

Speech is coming along, but he still speaks more "Simonese" than English. What's encouraging at this point is that the rate of improvement seems to be quickening. We're hearing sentences now for the first time, like "I see the moon." He seems genuinely motivated to try and use as many words as possible, because he understands it's the only way he can successfully communicate his most intense emotions of frustration and anger. "I love you" used to be just "luh," then "love," then "I love," and tonight he skipped right to "I love you dad" at bed time. That happened pretty much in two weeks.

I think it's awesome that programs like this exist, and I'm glad we can take advantage of them. We're not those psycho parents looking to create all kinds of false security and advantage for our kid, and we tend to agree about the times when he needs to fail at things. But this gives Simon access to experts that help us as well. As a taxpayer, why would you not take advantage of this?

Before Simon turns 3, he'll be evaluated again to see if he is eligible to attend the local school district's preschool. On one hand, you want him to not qualify because it would mean he has caught up a bit, but on the other hand, it's an opportunity that he would get a lot out of. Being an only child, it's encouraging to see him get excited about school, and I hope that remains a part of his personality.

Remembering my stepfather

posted by Jeff | Friday, October 19, 2012, 12:05 AM | comments: 0

My stepfather, David Beecher, died last night at home in The Villages, Florida. He's been in home hospice care for a couple of months now, and my mom said the last few weeks in particular have been kind of rough.

I'm not sure how to react, or how I think I should react, in part because this is a day I knew was coming. I suppose I've prepared for it a number of times, with various heart attack scares going back 20 years. This is a guy who couldn't catch a break in terms of his body doing battle against him, from the multiple bypass surgeries to the knees that made him largely immobile in his later years.

Fortunately, I also remember a time when he was able to play tennis and chop wood on camping trips. David and my mom got married when I was in grade two, at which point he had already raised another family. It takes a brave soul to virtually start over like that and do it again, and at least for me, that's certainly the thing that I will always remember him most for.

I remember in the very earliest of years that his baldness was a frequent topic of discussion and humor. I guess I didn't know anyone else who was bald at the age of 7! I also remember one of his kids, which were essentially grownups for me at that point, joke about the way he would stare over his glasses at you when you were in trouble.

We didn't always have the greatest relationship, which probably wouldn't come as a surprise to most children of divorced parents. You're always confronted with the weirdness of having a biological father and a stepfather, but if you're lucky, the issues between your parents are mostly hidden from your view, as they were for me (until my adult years). As with any parent, I challenged his authority more and more as I went through my teen years, but by the time I was in college I wanted to chop that wood on camping trips. By the mid-90's, we had plenty of good conversations as adults, thankfully.

When I look at the years that I knew him, one of the most remarkable things about David's life is that he was really from the last generation of people who had a predictable professional life, to a point. For years he worked for the North American Coal Corporation, which had an office in Shaker. He wore a suit and took the bus every day across town, and had a pension. He was a traffic manager, and from time to time brought home really cool toys from railroads, including a Burlington Northern die-cast engine that I vividly remember.

In 1987, they showed him the door. I don't remember if the company in general was in trouble or what, but he had a nice sendoff from his co-workers, and in some ways, the whole thing was a blessing in disguise. It enabled us to move out of Cleveland, which was a real shit hole at the time. They also gave him an old Apple II+ computer that was used to do spreadsheets, and I don't have to tell you what that did for me in the long run. It also made things harder, because pushing 60 doesn't exactly put you at the top of the list of people companies want to hire. I never really knew how bad things got, and he took his duty as family provider seriously.

David was also a competitor, almost to a fault. We obtained a used ping-pong table when I was in high school, and he did not hold back. For someone who mostly sucked at sports at the time, it was good to be challenged. It was the only thing I was best at in my sophomore gym class. But he was cut throat even in Yahtzee on camping trips, which was only luck to begin with! He would also make up words in Boggle, so we had to keep a dictionary on those camping trips. Those were good times, holed up in the camper on rainy nights.

I owe some of my curiosity in mechanical things to David. When I was in grade school, he often had a way of improvising with stuff, whether it was with some kind of home repair or fix. He never prevented me from using his tools, and I know I trashed a number of drill bits cutting through Radio Shack project boxes and such. He taught me how to solder, and I think it was a broken headphone jack on a cassette walkman.

I loved that he was always very sweet to Stephanie (my first wife). He always turned on the charm for Diana, too. The last time I spent with him was a bit over a year and a half ago, when we were last in Florida. Simon made him smile, and I was surprised at how well his mind was holding up relative to his body. It was hard to see him so immobile, the guy who used to chop wood on camping trips.

On a reflective day like this, I don't think much of David in his later state, but rather in those other times. It's most remarkable to think about how his life with us was really part two after raising his first family. If we measure a person's life by the impact they have on others, he had twice as much as most people. We should all be that lucky to have that kind of life.

The hardware keeps getting better, but iTunes keeps getting worse

posted by Jeff | Monday, October 15, 2012, 11:24 PM | comments: 0

I've become completely annoyed with iTunes. The only thing that I really need it for anymore is to sync photos to my iPad. I suppose it's the source for music and playlists synced to my Windows Phone, but I could just as easily use Zune for that (or whatever it's called going forward).

Tonight I blew away my iPad after weeks of trying to successfully sync photos. The good news is that it worked, but the bad news is that it took hours to get all of those photos back on. It also meant having to setup all of my logins for various apps, too. It's like the thing wasn't really even sure how much room was available. It would tell me "random number items did not sync, see iTunes," only iTunes was not aware of any such shortcomings.

Having to sync anything these days is silly. That's what I love about Windows 8 (and Windows Phone 7 before it): Put in your various accounts, and everything just lights up with stuff from the Internet. I don't have to sync photos from my phone (though I can), because it gets them from Facebook. My contacts come from Gmail. My calendar comes from Google, too. Contacts are even aggregated between Gmail, Facebook and Twitter. My music comes from Amazon Cloud Player, in a Web browser (no WP version yet), or from an app on the iPad. I don't mean to make this another iOS rant, but come on, man.

BooBuzz 2012, Cedar Point trip report

posted by Jeff | Monday, October 15, 2012, 2:10 PM | comments: 0

Last weekend we had BooBuzz at Cedar Point, a CoasterBuzz event that we've been running now since, I think 2006. Seven years is a long time. Last year was a bit of a dud in terms of turn out because the timing relative to other events was so poor (a problem that led to the outright cancellation of our Holiday World event this year). Fortunately, this year roped in about a hundred people or so, a dramatic improvement.

We also got to meet up with our friends from Chicago, including Mike, who has been doing the podcast with me since the start (though we pretty much haven't done it this year). It's strange to think about, but I knew them when they were dating, and I think I've done amusement park events with them with every person I've had a significant relationship with. They're the stability in my turbulent years! It's interesting the way the Internet has enabled those kinds of friendships, and it seems like you can easily just pick up and go with it when you go a year between meetings. This time around, we had a room at Lighthouse Point, while they were in Sandcastle Suites.

We arrived Friday afternoon at about 3. The line at the LHP/campground office was about four deep already, and by the time we headed to the park, it was probably 30 deep. That building is completely inadequate for the fall Friday runs. In any case, I had not done LHP since 2008, because I found the cottage to be dirty, with cobwebs everywhere, a dirty toilet and half of the lights burned out. I didn't care if it sold out anyway, I wasn't going to be a part of that at over $200 a night. Nostalgia got the best of me, and I wanted to do it again this year. It was clean and in generally good working order, and it was good to see the improvement. The units are a bit overdue for a furniture and paint refresh, but in my interview with the CEO last spring, it sounds like that's in the works. The location is fantastic as ever.

The resort shuttles were already running starting at 2, so we jumped on one and took it to the front gate, arriving a little before 4. ERT was at Millennium Force, and I could tell on approach that the nearly full trains implied we had a good sized crowd this year. I actually skipped riding, so Diana could take a few laps while I watched Simon. She still had not been on the ride this year, and I had more than my share of laps. Simon is not a fan of the roar as the ride rushes by, but I think he's getting used to it.

After the ERT, we headed over to Maverick for early entry rides. Mike and Artemisa had not been to the park since 2006, so this was a new ride for them. The ladies took the first lap, and Mike and I took one after that. No waiting again, which was fantastic. This was one of the best laps I've had on Maverick, in this case sitting one from the back. It was impressively smooth and without head banging. In fact, there was no real lateral shimmy at all in the train, which is usually the thing that makes an Intamin or B&M "rough." I assume it's the bushings on the guide wheels that cause this, but the ride was tip-top. The launch in the tunnel seemed to go on forever. It was a fantastic ride.

From Maverick, we made a brief stop in the arcade, where I was horrified to see that the Skee-Ball machines were removed. I played a game of DDR, and didn't die. After some quarter dropping, we headed over to Eden Musee, the new haunt, for a lights-on tour.

I give the park a lot of credit for building this new haunt building. It's the first structure that was purpose built to be a haunted house, where as the others are or were old queues, enclosed picnic shelters and buildings with prior uses. They built this one in the infield of Mean Streak. It's a standard "inexpensive" steel building, with a big garage door at one end so they can configure the space any way they'd like going forward. Being themed to a wax museum, you can see how it's creepy when in use. The detail is wonderful as usual, even if it's likely lost somewhat in the dark. There are even recycled Disaster Transport parts in it. If you look hard, you can find an old photograph of the attraction for which it was named.

We had dinner in the usual place, with the usual food, and it I'm always impressed with the cookies. Cookies are one of those things the park does so well, so fresh. It was good to see such a large portion of the dining room being filled this year.

It got really cold after the sun went down, but we bundled up Simon and headed over to Boo Hill. Simon didn't really care, and he nearly missed the candy bag at the end. From there the girls did the hay maze, but we decided to bail as Simon started to wind down. We had a quiet night in the cottage, though the little man was thrilled to sleep in a big boy bunk bed.

We started Saturday with breakfast at the Breakwater Cafe, which does a breakfast buffet. It's $12 for adults, and $7 for kids. Not so sure the kid price was worth it, but I had my fill, and it wasn't bad. I had never been in that restaurant before. It has a fantastic view of the lake.

The park's general availability started at 11, and we started in the Gemini kids area. Simon walked into the Jr. Gemini queue with Violet (Mike's younger daughter), but once he sat down in the train, he was "All done!" We bailed, but I was proud of him for at least getting that far. He had some nice interactions with scarecrow Snoopy, but other than that, the only thing he wanted to do was Snoopy Bounce. Even that, he only goes just inside the door.

Walking toward Planet Snoopy, Diana and I got a spin on Super Himalaya, the ride that I credit with breaking me into bigger rides in my pre-teen years. It's still a ton of fun, and I don't think I had been on that ride since it was over by Gemini (where Snoopy Bounce is, I believe). That's a very long time!

While the girls did face painting, Simon watched Dodgems a for a little while. We all met up back at Planet Snoopy, where mostly the kids ran around, but Simon and Diana did the train. He wasn't that enthused.

Lunch at Famous Dave's. Solid as usual, and reasonably priced for an amusement park. Unfortunately, this is also where Diana realized that her drivers license escaped her pocket, and we haven't seen it since. That's no good.

We spent the afternoon back at the cottage, attempting to get Simon to nap. However, every time the train whistle blew, he'd shout out, "Toot! Toot!" No napping occurred. We suited him back up, for what was shaping up to be a windy but very warm day. We walked out on to the pier near the lighthouse, then did the walk all the way around Sandcastle Suites and up to Breakers. Simon covered his eyes when Magnum went by, and I tried to make him understand that he should cover his ears. We played in the sand.

At this point in the afternoon, I was ready to rendezvous with the Family Jandes, when Diana pointed out the threatening appearance of the sky. I checked the radar with my phone, and we aborted. We got caught in the rain on the walk back, but it wasn't a total soak.

Eventually we all decided to leave the park and get pizza at Chet & Matt's. What kiddie rides and Famous Dave's did not make obvious was that the park was mobbed. Driving out, even in the rain, we could see a Millennium Force line that was probably over two hours, with two trains running. Car were parked all the way back to the tolls and poop chutes (that building out there is apparently a sewage pump station). We hoped the rain might empty the place out a bit, because it was likely that the rain would clear out by 9.

Going out for dinner at 7:30 was a tactical error. Simon fell asleep in the car on the way out. I stayed in the car with him an extra ten minutes, with the idea that sometimes these little power naps invigorate him for another few hours. Not this time. When I brought him in, it was melt down city. I also managed to dump a beverage on my lap. We ended up getting our pizzas to go, and put Simon down for the night.

Mike's family eventually came over to the cottage, and we had adult beverages. A little after 9, Mike and I decided to go back into the park. We started in the back and obtained Canadians. The full Maverick queue implied that the rain had little impact on attendance. On the walk to the front, about a mile, we encountered more of the same. Even Raptor had a full queue, which is less common late in the day. So we obtained another beverage, this time at the front of the park. Eventually we just sat down in front of Giant Wheel to take in its lighting package and talk about Disneyland.

By 11, we were watching the acrobat show on the Luminosity stage. It's a fairly impressive show, though the lighting design is kind of a mess. Given the toys that they had to play with, I expect more. While observing this show, we noticed that Iron Dragon had zero people on the platform, and we finally got a ride on something! I don't care what anyone says, I still really enjoy that ride.

We ended the night at Magnum, getting in about 10 minutes before the park closed. We went for the ejector seat (1-3), and it was running exceptionally well. Still a favorite after all of these years.

Sunday was even warmer and super windy, but we opted to avoid the park for the day so we could get home at a reasonable time and unwind a bit. Two days with no naps definitely took its toll on Simon. Mike and I were talking about how different our amusement park visits are these days, with the kids, but it's better in a lot of ways. For me, I just love spending time with Simon and Diana, even if we don't ride anything. An amusement park is a very stimulating place for someone little, and it's a lot of fun to see him react and interact with it. As much as I look forward to him getting older, I'm soaking in every moment that I can while he's at this age.

Traveling light with camera and video stuff

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 11, 2012, 11:58 PM | comments: 0

One of the things about my hobby in video (or filmmaking, if you can call it that, and you shouldn't, since no one uses film anymore) is that my professional past in the field is kind of a burden. It's a burden in part because of the extra stuff that I "need" to get what I want captured on film, er, bits. I know what it takes to acquire better quality images.

If I'm shooting something, you can be sure that at the very least I'm going to pay close attention to sound. That means I'll have a shotgun mic on the camera, and probably put a lavalier on my subject with a wireless transmitter. If I'm not running and chasing someone all over the place (I'm looking at you, Mr. Ouimet!), then I'll also have lighting. Maybe that's just a bounce reflector, maybe it's a couple of lights with umbrellas and sandbags. And gaffers tape. Real men use the tape, not that crap meant for heating ducts.

And if that weren't bad enough, the cameras have become smaller, but I'm always covering the cameras in gear. Support stuff is necessary to shoulder mount the cam, use a follow focus, keep pressure off the mount if you have a long lens, or if you have a matte box to keep light off the lens and use filters. I'm a poser, so I don't even have filters for my matte box (yet). Oh, and you may end up mounting wireless receivers, lights and outboard recorders or monitors on the camera, too. (I don't own this stuff, but I'm not above renting it.) Did I mention that my current camera can also work with all of my SLR lenses? I have three that work pretty well, plus two made specifically for the camera's mounting system. Oh, and don't forget the tripod!

What this amounts to is a big heap of stuff to carry around. For location shooting, I have a dolly that can wheel around all of it. The problem is actually for the times where I just want to show up, run-and-gun around a place quickly, and get it done. I think I may have cracked the code today after messing around a bit for this specific scenario.

First off, let me explain the "everything" arrangement. I have two awesome PortaBrace bags. The older one I bought for the HVX200 I used to have, and it carried pretty much everything for ENG style shooting. Only the tripod and lighting stuff had to be external. Now I use it for the matte box and all of the support rods, clamps, follow focus and such. I have a second bag, an enormous backpack style, that holds the newer camera, with the lens removed, and has room for all of the lenses, audio and on-camera light.

I'm not going to haul all of that stuff around, so I got down to business. What do I need, for example, to go to Cedar Point and shoot mostly roller coasters, scenery and maybe a person? Obviously I need the camera, plus the tripod and perhaps different lenses. That's it! So what I decided was that the camera itself can sit in my trunk, since it never leaves my side anyway when I'm not in the car. The tripod goes in my other hand. The lenses go where they would if I had my SLR... in my shoulder sling SLR bag! Problem solved.

Now of course, when I don't need the stuff, I can neatly store it in the two bags, and that keeps the dust off of it and out of Simon's grasp.

Sleep evolution

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 11, 2012, 11:37 PM | comments: 0

I haven't thought all that much about Simon's sleeping habits, or the time around when he sleeps, in the recent past. I think that might be good. It is worth noting that we've made some changes lately.

First off, bed time is getting a little bit better. He's at least willing to brush his teeth about half of the time. We've even seen a few occasions where he knows he's tired, and voluntarily climbed into bed in the afternoon or evening. I think a lot of the problems around sleep is that he just doesn't want to miss anything, but he's starting to understand the value and comfort of good rest. That's certainly a relief for us.

We're also limiting and reducing naps. After our week in Seattle, with the time changes and all, Diana is generally keeping him up on school days, Tuesdays and Thursdays, though making room for exceptions when he obviously needs a little rest. He doesn't get home until 2:30 at best, and his late naps were clearly affecting his overnight sleep. When he does nap, we're not letting him go two or more hours. The length is still fluid, but 90 minutes seems like a sweet spot.

He's going to bed by 8:30 most nights, though later is OK when we're traveling or we go to Cedar Point in the evening. He seems to be rolling pretty well with that. He's getting up in the morning a little later, but I haven't been paying enough attention to see how much later. All I know is that I've sleepily noticed Diana still in bed with me a lot of mornings when my alarm goes off just before 8. That sure beats 6!

Simon is really growing up fast, and seeing him start to transition to a kid who understands what bed time is about is one of the things I won't mind. One sad point, however, is that he no longer wants to sit on my lap to read books before bed, as he prefers to sit in his own chair. On the bright side, he does seem to like to cuddle more when watching Sesame Street.

Ignorance isn't bliss, it's just stupid

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, October 10, 2012, 11:07 PM | comments: 0

I give my apathetic friends a lot of shit for being apathetic when it comes to politics. I can't entirely blame them though, and at least they're more willing to toss their hands in the air and say they're done with it entirely.

It's the people who just repeat everything they hear as fact, then use that as the basis for their positions, that annoy me. For example, they read and accept as fact some opinion piece nonsense about the "top 5 reasons puppies will bankrupt America," which cites other opinions or takes some half-truth out of context, or worse, is a total strawman tangent that has nothing to do with the position.

If you're going to engage in politics, and get behind a particular candidate, use the Internet that you're so fond of posting bullshit on and actually find the facts. They're out there. For real. If you're going to be one of the mindless sheep that doesn't bother to verify anything as fact or fiction, you're further pulling us down into a divided pit of shame and stupidity where we get the very government we deserve. Our politicians will never be held to a higher standard, and will continue to serve delicious bullshit to you if you're perfectly willing to consume it.

Lose yourself

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, October 10, 2012, 11:01 AM | comments: 0

When is the last time you put on headphones, or turned up that stereo, closed your eyes, bobbed, danced or swayed to some bit of music? I mean really lost yourself in the sound?

It may not help you finish some task or deal with something that bothers you, but I can almost guarantee that it will make you feel happier and more alive. I have to remind myself to do it more often.

First hibernation day of the season

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 7, 2012, 9:48 PM | comments: 0

I didn't do anything today. I watched a little TV, and spent most of the day horizontal, or close to it. I had cider, a doughnut and pizza. The weather was rainy and cold. This was the first hibernation day of the season.

Life finally caught up with me today, and I decided early that it would be a day to let go of. You get into that routine, where you get up in the morning, go to work, come home (yes, technically these are the same place for me), have a little dinner, play with your kid and wash him up, try to squeeze in a few things you wanted to do before going to bed, and out you go.

I was having none of that today. My BFF was in town for a wedding and stayed with us last night, and after seeing her off early this morning, I went back to bed. Later, I watched TV with Simon, watched TV with Diana, and we shared pizza with some family. After Simon went to bed, I took a shower to clear my sinuses (something in the house is making my allergies go nuts), watched some more TV, and here we are. I didn't really even waste much time looking at the Internets.

It occurred to me during all of this loafing today that I have been switched on to epic proportions lately. With work and life, and maybe a little too much worry about stuff not worth worrying about. No wonder I find myself so tired at times.

As we wind through fall, with classic "jacket weather," feelings of dread creep in with the coming Cleveland weather. Fortunately, we already have a great deal of stuff planned to head some of it off. Days like today help me remember to let go a little and let my mind relax. It's classic Ferris Bueller stuff, journey not the destination, and that general category of stuff.

Bootstrapping is hard with a day job

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 4, 2012, 11:12 PM | comments: 0

As a technology dude, I'm always interested to follow and read about technology businesses. I'm less interested in the rare super success stories like Facebook or whatever, but more interested in the smaller to medium success stories about companies that solve a particular problem, do it well, and have a nice niche and sustainable business.

What annoys me about that scene is the focus on the typical Silicon Valley story. Some dude has a clever idea, gets a shit-ton of VC money, works himself and his hires to death, and flames out (or rarely, sells out). It's the Hollywood blockbuster formula of business: Put enough crap out there and hopefully a few of them stick to make back your money. These are not the ideals that the really big success stories, like Google and Amazon, were built on.

That's why I find it inspiring to read the stories about people who build companies by bootstrapping their efforts, without taking outside money. Much of the advice from these folks suggests that you do what you can, with what you have, even if that means doing so in your spare time. In fact, that's the ultimate risk mitigation, because if you can build something after hours and it ends up failing, you still have your day job to fall back on.

The problem is that it's hard. If you're like me and have a low risk tolerance, a natural condition when you have a small mouth to feed, it's likely that you also value your time differently than someone who wants to go all-in. You like to spend time with your kids, make love to your significant other, travel, dine out, do some gardening or knitting, play video games, or whatever. So when you spend your day at your job, no matter what it is, it's really hard to engage in your "second job" at home. It's just hard to have that energy.

I very much fell into my business. While it has never been a quit-your-day-job thing, it has been a don't-need-unemployment thing when I've been laid-off. I never started content sites with the intention of making money, but they definitely fund my career development efforts and equipment purchases. I've found enough time and energy to continue to evolve them, just barely, for a dozen years now.

My next trick is a service that admittedly has a pretty narrow focus, but honestly, if it managed to keep 50 paying customers per month, I'd be happy as a clam. The problem is that I haven't been able to consistently sustain the effort needed to finish it. It's not hard work, it's just work, and work is hard when you spend your first eight hours in a day working. I'm not hitting my deadlines and milestones the way I'd like.

I suppose it's like anything else in life, that if you want it bad enough, you'll go get it. This particular thing has to compete with everything else, and sometimes it loses. Maybe a part of it is that I don't view it as a bigger thing. As I said, I view it as income augmentation, not a replacement for my day job. Perhaps that's the problem? I don't know... I need to go check on my kid.

We're going to Disney World (again)

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 4, 2012, 10:36 PM | comments: 2

We decided that it was finally time to take a vacation without Simon, now that he's headed toward the age of 3. Plus Nana and Papa said they would watch him, and they did a good job with Simon's cousins. We love him dearly, and we've toted him all over the country, but it was time for team Puzzoni to engage in some adult shenanigans, free of goldfish crackers and PBS Kids. So where did that lead us? Walt Disney World, of course.

It wasn't our first thought. If you want to truly enter an adult world, naturally Las Vegas comes to mind. I've been there with Diana only once (in 2008, I think), at the trailing end of a conference. I got a crazy sinus infection from a powdered pepper spill at the Paris breakfast buffet, and got very sick, very quickly, so that sucked. I did some pricing, and there are a lot of great rooms out there that are very cheap.

Then, all at once, I saw a Facebook friend mention she booked WDW, and we got a flyer in the mail promising 30% off for certain dates, and I had to check it out. When you look at a package there with theme park tickets and the dining plan, and compare it to hotel, food and entertainment (and gambling) in Vegas, what I call "classy" Vegas, the truth is that there isn't much cost advantage to Vegas.

So to up the ante (in Las Vegas parlance), I priced Disney at a deluxe resort. In the last six years, I've been there four times, and I stayed in Pop Century each time. It was the newest hotel of the value resorts, and for the amount of time spent there, more than adequate. This time, because grown-ups only trips will likely be rare, I wanted to stay in a nicer location, as close to Epcot as possible given the great dining (and potentially drinking) there. Beach Club in particular appealed to me, as a place where you could walk to the Off Kilter stage in five minutes.

Beach Club it is, for four nights. While I wouldn't characterize it as cheap, the overall package was about $1,300 less than the last time I priced it without any discounts. Disney math is hard, but I think the room rate probably works out to less than $250/night after tax, if you're assuming that the theme park tickets and dining plan are the regular listed amounts (ticket discounting is pretty rare). The listed rate is $385 per night, so I'll take that, given the fantastic location. The biggest win on these packages is always the dining plan, because at $51 per person, per night, your total food cost tends to be north of $75, which includes a table service meal with dessert, a counter service meal with dessert, and one "snack" item, which for us was often an ice cream novelty or popcorn, typically.

We haven't been to WDW in three years, and Diana was pregnant at the time, so I had to do Space Mountain and the like solo. We did Universal Orlando almost two years ago, with Simon, which ended up being a lot of fun because of my pal Kara tagging along, a solid parent swap system, relatively small crowds and the hotel proximity. It's definitely time to go back, and we desperately need some quality "us" time. Given how much fun we had in our pre-parenthood days, this definitely makes more sense. We're not the pin-trading, mouse ear-wearing types, but we sure have a good time there. With the Christmas stuff in place, perhaps a Segway tour, and maybe another shot at drink-around-the-world, this could be an epic trip.

Visiting Seattle

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 4, 2012, 3:55 PM | comments: 0

I'm finally getting around to collecting my thoughts about visiting Seattle last week. It does seem kind of strange to take a vacation to a place that you used to live, but a year is a long time after you pick up your life and move from a place that you were so fond of. I already wrote about the one year anniversary of our move, but I'm sure that some of those thoughts will likely creep back into these thoughts.

Our first reason for the visit was of course to see the people that were central to our life there, starting with my brother-in-law's family. I can't emphasize enough how important it was to have them there, making the whole process of moving, with a pregnant wife, a whole lot easier. Think about all of the wins... you have family there who can tell you where to eat, what roads to take, etc. More importantly, we had family just a couple of years ahead of us in terms of raising children, so the first year in particular had a lot fewer surprises when you could see the future of the process. It was also nice to have an "older brother" down the street, and to have cousins that Simon could see regularly, since he won't have any siblings. We miss having the Snoqualmie Mattoni's in our daily life.

It was also important to see our PEPS circle. I love that the parent group formally disbanded after however many weeks, but it's still as strong a social circle as ever. When Diana put feelers out to get people together, one of the moms stepped up and hosted a party at her house. It's so crazy to see all of Simon's little friends walking around and talking. They're good people, and fun to be around.

For me, there is also the work circle of friends. While the group once known as "Server and Tools Online" has been reorg-ed several times, and people have moved to new teams or left the company entirely, it's still a great group of people that I'm very happy to keep in touch with. It's good to see the friendships last beyond STO.

Mostly by coincidence, we also got to see Garbage play in Seattle. Since they weren't playing anywhere else close to Cleveland, this was a nice bonus. A further coincidence meant we got to meet up with a friend who just moved out there from Cleveland.

Another reason to be there was just to be there. The topography is awesome in ways that most places aren't, where you can stand on a hill and see two different mountain ranges. That never gets old. Right up until we moved, I would have those moments where I said, "Holy shit, I live here." That feeling and that smile you get from being in a place like Hawaii or the Grand Canyon, it's something you get every day there (save for days that are extra rainy or foggy). It's such an amazingly beautiful and green place.

Don't forget the various places we used to hang out. We didn't get to Boxley's in North Bend, but we did hit a few others. And even though going downtown can be a pain at times, it was nice to get down there for an evening (and by the way, the Pyramid Brewhouse across from Safeco Field way exceeded our expectations).

The hardest thing for me was going back to the Microsoft campus. That a year has passed since I was last there was really hard to wrap my head around. As we parked in the giant underground parking garage under the Commons, I had a slight feeling of panic. I suspect I'll always second guess myself for leaving the company. I didn't dislike it, but I also didn't feel like I was getting what I wanted out of it. It's a strange thing to contemplate. I've never been fond of a company the way I liked Microsoft.

People ask me all of the time if I would go back to Microsoft, and I always say that it depends. I wouldn't settle for any job (my options weren't great in 2009, thus the willingness to move), and I wouldn't allow myself to be under-hired (it was in many ways a career step below where I was in previous jobs). And of course, it depends on if they'd actually hire me!

Overall, it was a really fantastic trip, which is weird for going to a place mostly important because you used to live there. The weather was pretty solid, too. We really do miss it.

Love the look of the AF100 (roller coaster porn)

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, October 3, 2012, 11:50 PM | comments: 0

I got a chance to do a quick loop around the Gatekeeper construction site yesterday at Cedar Point. I brought my camera out in hopes that there would at least be dudes working on the foundations, and fortunately, there were.

I can't even tell you how pleased I am with the quality of the images coming off of this camera, despite the relatively high compression (which could be overcome with an external recorder, by the way). I've got it set for a relatively flat color profile, and now that I've had some practice with the exposure, I feel like I'm getting good results.

A lot of my happy-joy feelings also come from being able to use my Canon lenses. Sure, it requires an expensive adapter and comfort with going all manual, but I think the results are really worth it. Even with something relatively uninteresting like dudes pouring concrete, I love the sharpness of the images and the nice depth of field I'm getting. This one was shot with a Canon 24-105mm f/4 L. I suppose I should be happy with the results, because these are lenses I bought originally to be really happy with the still photos I was shooting. Even though the camera only captures 1/4 of what the lens sees (because the sensor is smaller than that of a full-frame SLR), I love to see video almost appear as though stills have come to life.

The other thing that I'm really having fun with is color grading. Because I shoot with a fairly flat color profile, and just below the edge of clipping the highlights, I pretty much have to make some adjustments in post to get it looking the way that I want. Straight out of the camera, it just looks kind of washed out. And yet, in some of the better exposed shots, you can see nice detail even in the relatively ugly gray sky.

I can't explain why, but I approach it very differently from still photography. With stills, I tend to make sure that I'm getting as much detail out of the photo as possible, and maybe make some minor color adjustment. I tend to like stills to almost have an "extra real" appearance. With video, I find myself wanting to make more decisions about atmosphere and texture. With the tools I use (primarily Magic Bullet's Colorista II), I can actually highlight certain things and animate masks to follow subjects, for example. It's to the point now where I see it going on in feature films. It's rarely necessary with most of the stuff I've shot on this camera, given the largely architectural nature of my subjects so far, but I did do it a little in the spring with the Luminosity video to correct for the harsh stage lighting.

For this video, the stuff straight from the camera was a lot warmer and brighter than it felt when I was there. I cooled it off quite a bit and tried to make the textures of the sand more "dirty" by squishing the midtones a little. How stupid does that sound? As if it were some kind of art. Still, it's fun to play with these ideas.

Walking in the sand, a new roller coaster

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, October 2, 2012, 11:55 PM | comments: 0

I was out at Cedar Point very briefly today to tour the construction site of Gatekeeper, the new roller coaster opening next spring. None of the structural components are there just yet, but they've already started pouring footers for the station, lift and the first inversion. It's the first roller coaster that they've built that really has extensive scope since Maverick, though they started on that one completely under the radar a full year early. Walking in that sand reminds me more of the construction of Millennium Force back in 2000.

Watching something like this take shape is very interesting. You see them dig holes in the sand and pour concrete with bolts sticking out that are within millimeters of where they have to be. Then a bunch of impossibly heavy steel starts showing up and they start bolting it together into a roller coaster. A building pops up over the station, thousands of feet of wiring is connected and landscaping fills in over all of that dirt. A ride opens in May.

This new ride is interesting for me personally because of all of the change in my life. In fact, it was on the day of the media event for Maverick that I met Diana (I'll spare you the retelling of how I was tired out of my mind for our date, and she talked about rehearsing calls for a show she stage managed). This is the first big ride I get to see open with her, and our little man. Of course, he won't be able to ride it for a few years, but I'll have these great new memories with him and his mom.

It's funny how, in the long run, these rides always end up being about the people and not the geekery of the ride itself.

New merchant account

posted by Jeff | Monday, October 1, 2012, 11:41 PM | comments: 0

I ditched my shitty merchant account and signed up with a new company a couple of weeks ago. It's only the second time I've done so in the dozen years that I've accepted credit cards on the Internet. For the uninitiated, a merchant account is an intermediary between a customer's credit card bank and your own bank account.

The good news is that the discount fees, the percentage that the bank keeps before giving you the rest, are significantly lower. The per transaction fees are about the same, and there's also a minimum, but it will be just slightly in my favor overall in the slower season where I don't sell a lot of memberships on CoasterBuzz. In the spring and summer, it will most certainly be a beneficial change. I also made the switch because I hope to turn my little project into a business.

Banking in general still feels like such a scam where consumers always lose. It really seems even worse for businesses. It's not horrible for me, because most years (when I'm not buying computers or cameras), it's a fairly high margin business. But I can't imagine having to sell real goods and having to price them high enough to make a profit and cover all of the fees.

App lust annoys me

posted by Jeff | Monday, October 1, 2012, 11:05 PM | comments: 0

I'll never forget the announcement of the original iPhone. By that time, I already had the first MacBook Pro and a Mac Pro, both Intel machines, and I was drinking the Kool-Aid®. Later in that day, Apple posted the video from the announcement, and I watched it enthusiastically. The thing that really stuck with me was Steve Jobs' position that the Web itself was the app, and that there would not be native development for the phone. That seemed like an exceptionally bold, and in my opinion correct, position to take.

A small but vocal group of people went ape-shit over this. How dare Apple deny me the ability to write software for this phone! (Most people, as is often the case with Apple products, just went along with whatever Steve said.) I don't know what the reality of the situation was, if the issue was really just that the SDK wasn't ready, or they eventually gave in to a market demand, but I think the original position was excellent. As it took only weeks for people to come up with little frameworks and styles to make Web pages look like a native iPhone app, I was pretty happy to see how things were shaping up.

The App Store for the iPhone opened about a year later, and smart phones became apptastic. At that time, I downloaded a few games, but that was about it. The core of the phone still did most of the useful things I was looking for. With the tablet, that became just slightly more complicated because, as a bigger form factor, you can certainly do more with it, but I still find myself primarily Web browsing with it.

And of course, the tech pundits have no shame declaring the end of one thing or another, like this gem from MG Siegler who says the PC is dead. He's actually arguing two different things. The first is that the "PC" is dead, which is pretty ridiculous hyperbole. This is largely an argument of semantics, because a personal computers is arguably everything from a desktop tower to a phone. It's true that we don't need the towers anymore, even on the desktop, but to suggest everyone is perfectly content with a screen 10 inches or smaller at all times is silly.

But even more silly is the suggestion that everything is going to be about "apps." While there's no question that phones all have some really cool thing that you (think you) can't live without, this notion of an app-dominant universe is not realistic for so many reasons. First, the Internet would suck if everything could only be access via apps and not Web sites. Good luck sharing a news article or some other content if it's walled-in. Second, the world of phones is already insanely fragmented. Android accounts for two-thirds of sales, and new version adoption of the OS is awful. iPhone accounts for a quarter of sales, with everyone else filling out the rest. Third, people are already getting enormous utility from Web-based services that are platform agnostic, because they want that.

And by the way, we've been here before. It was widely predicted that Flash would replace the Web as an app platform. How'd that turn out? Didn't the world just cry out in protest to the use of Flash, beating it into submission?

If you strip away this hyperbolic nonsense, you can have a more sane discussion about how computers of all sizes and form factors are going to be used. The fact that I can write code on a MacBook Air, and consider it as good as any computer I've ever had, says a lot about how things have changed. It's true that I don't need a big tower on my desk. My phone is good for certain things, as is my tablet. This winter we've got an entirely new product cycle of computers that are both tablets and "PC" in the traditional definition.

What I would like to see is more meaningful discussion about how to get back to platform agnostic application design. Does anyone remember the crappy old days of computers? "Oh, that's available on Atari and Commodore, but not Apple." Later, it was, "Oh, you don't have a fast enough CPU or RAM." We're finally getting to the point where the hardware basically doesn't matter, and now you want to fragment with different operating systems, programming languages and frameworks? This desire is even more insane given the fact that much of the hard stuff doesn't even happen in your hand, it happens on the network.

John Gage and Sun Microsystems turned out to be right that "the network is the computer," which is why this desire to sandbox everything with needless complexity into "apps" is so annoying. Yes, I get it, games and certain things have to run natively (for now). However, most of the apps I use, and even the hooks in the operating systems (Windows Phone, Windows 8, iOS and OS X) are just thin UI wrappers around services on the Internets. How is it efficient or OK to have to build these wrappers for every platform? It's not.