Archive: March, 2012

Open source adventures with... wait for it... Microsoft

posted by Jeff | Friday, March 30, 2012, 10:54 PM | comments: 0

Last week, Microsoft announced that it was going to open source the rest of the ASP.NET MVC Web stack. The core MVC framework has been open source for a long time now, but the other pieces around it are also now out in the wild. Not only that, but it's not what I call "big bang" open source, where you release the source with each version. No, they're actually committing in real time to a public repository. They're also taking contributions where it makes sense.

If that weren't exciting enough, CodePlex, which used to be a part of the team I was on, has been re-org'd to a different part of the company where it is getting the love and attention (and apparently money) that it deserves. For a period of several months, I lobbied to get a PM gig with that product, but got nowhere. A year and a half later, I'm happy to see it finally treated right.

In any case, I found a bug in Razor, the rendering engine, before the beta came out. I informally sent the bug info to some people, but it wasn't fixed for the beta. Now, with the project being developed in the open, I was able to submit the issue, and went back and forth with the developer who wrote the code (I met him once at a meet up in Bellevue, I think), and he committed a fix. I tried it a day later, and the bug was gone.

There's a lot to learn from all of this. That open source software is surprisingly efficient and often of high quality is one part of it. For me the win is that it demonstrates how open and collaborative processes, as light as possible, lead to better software. In other words, even if this were a project being developed internally, at a bank or something, getting stakeholders involved early and giving people the ability to respond leads to awesomeness. While there is always a place for big thinking, experience has shown time and time again that trying to figure everything out up front takes too long, and rarely meets expectations.

This is a lesson that probably half of Microsoft has yet to learn, including the team I was on before I split. It's the reason that team still hasn't shipped anything to general availability. But I've seen what an open and iterative development style can do for teams, at Microsoft and other places that I've worked. When you can have a conversation with people, and take ideas and turn them into code quickly, you're winning.

So why don't people like winning? I think there are a lot of reasons, and they can generally be categorized into fear, skepticism and bad experiences.

I can't give the Web stack teams enough credit. Not only did they dream big, but they changed a culture that often seems immovable and hopelessly stuck. This is a very public example of this culture change, but it's starting to happen at every scale in Microsoft. It's really interesting to see in a company that has been written off as dead the last decade.

Lottery dreams

posted by Jeff | Friday, March 30, 2012, 9:31 PM | comments: 0

The press coverage of the giant lottery prize today is kind of interesting. It really seems to capture imaginations. 

Like anyone else, I certainly have ideas about what I would do with that kind of money, and undoubtedly, I'd mostly give it away. I know some people think about how they'd have people wipe their ass for them, but other than picking a new place to live (or two), I'd have to figure out how you use the money you have to best benefit the world. Every person can have meaningful impact on the world. I know this because I've seen the fruits of my labor. What money buys you is scale.

That said, I also don't think a lot about landing some random windfall sum of cash. It happened to me once, when someone randomly decided to buy from me for $100k. Two things came of that. First, I realized how little money that actually is. Second, and this is strange, you treat cash differently when you don't earn it.

And that might be why I don't spend a lot of time dreaming about hitting the lottery. I think more about how I'm going to get to a certain level of financial stability, earned, and see what I can do as I go along. I tend to get the most satisfaction from things that intrinsically motivate me.

Extreme smoking

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 28, 2012, 10:51 PM | comments: 2

If there's one thing I've noticed about people in Northeast Ohio, it's that they seem to smoke a hell of a lot more than they do in the Pacific Northwest. Here I thought the public at large was generally getting it that it's a destructive and expensive habit, but apparently that momentum is regional.

The reason I care at all is because restaurants with outdoor seating tend to allow smoking, since it's prohibited by law indoors. While I used to think it was a stupid law, believing that a business should decide for itself, now I'm at the opposite extreme. I don't even think they should be allowed to smoke in the outdoor areas. Yeah, I'm now chasing smokers away from being outdoors. What can I say, I like eating outdoors. Maybe May through August, they reverse it and let people smoke indoors so we can go out.

I don't care if that sounds like elitist douchebaggery. If people want to do unhealthy things, that's their business. But if disrespecting your health can disrespect mine, then I'm not the douchebag.

Nokia's new Lumia 900: Windows Phone's big break?

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 28, 2012, 3:53 PM | comments: 0

With a great deal of fanfare and loads of marketing cash, Nokia is going to launch its Lumia 900 this weekend. The Windows Phone operating system isn't new, but this is the first hardware we've seen that really pays attention to industrial design and quality. And at $99 with a contract, it's not expensive either.

It's no secret that Diana and I have been Windows Phone fans ever since launch, about a year and a half ago. Since we got them for free via work, there was obviously no real risk to giving them a shot. What I didn't expect is that we would not only not miss our iPhones, but we would actually prefer the new phones. The Samsung Focus is a nice phone, if a little on the plastic side, and has Gorilla Glass for durability. The camera is a little mediocre, but beyond that, I've been mostly happy with it.

I've had a lot of discussions about why I think WP is better than iPhone, and it's always so hard to make the case. While iOS is very "app driven," for lack of a better word, WP is more "task driven." So for example, if you want to update your status on WP, you tap the "me" icon, then post a message, and off you go. It'll even post to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, simultaneously. Sure you could do that via apps for each one, but this is part of the OS itself.

Same thing for photos. Touch the photos, and you can see what you've synced from your computer, what's on Facebook, etc. I can touch People, and see what's new via Facebook and Twitter, aggregated. When I look at Diana's profile, it shows me her contact info as stored in my Gmail account, and combines data from Facebook.

Love the live tiles. I can see the current weather without opening the app, as well as the latest status from Diana. I can even "deep link" to stuff within different apps and pin it to the start menu.

There are less frequently used "cool" things built-in as well. It will listen to music and tell me what it is. I can point the camera at foreign text (even Asian character languages) and it will translate it for me. I can point it at a barcode and it will tell me how much the item is at Target with reviews.

A lot of this magic starts when you just turn it on, plug in your Gmail, Facebook and whatever accounts, but that's hard to communicate. The marketing so far also doesn't demonstrate all of this goodness. So how does Microsoft overcome the slow start? Clearly they're betting on AT&T and Nokia to help make that happen.

I haven't held one in my hand, but if you go to an AT&T store next week, the 900 is what they'll be pushing. I have to wait a few months (allegedly) until they'll let me upgrade, but you can bet I'll jump on it. It's a nice looking phone, and the photo samples are really impressive.

The bigger problems have more to do with perception than anything else. Some people just can't imagine using something without an Apple on it (a feeling I still have about laptops). Others think there aren't enough apps for it, as if 70k isn't going to have you covered. Still others just don't believe in the task based approach until they've tried it. All of the mediocre hardware, even if it was basically the same as Android stuff, sure hasn't helped.

I have high hopes for the new phone, and for the platform in general. I honestly feel it has pushed the experience of a mobile device to a better place, and I'm reminded of it every time I use my iPad. Windows Phone is just a more evolved experience to me.

Health care and the Supreme Court

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, March 27, 2012, 8:46 PM | comments: 0

The Supreme Court is spending some time talking about the 2010 health care reform law, affectionately referred to as "Obamacare" by people that still don't understand that Congress and its endless committees ultimately write legislation, not presidents. After two years, I still tend to believe most of what I did then, that there were some provisions of the law that were long overdue, and others that were questionable.

The primary focus of the court seems to be whether or not you can legislate that everyone buy something from private entities, namely insurance. This is the part I had the hardest time with as well, and it's actually really exciting to hear the court talking about it. You don't hear politicians talking about it in a scholarly context. It will be really interesting to see what they decide.

What I really can't stand about the Republican presidential candidates (who are making the same mistakes they did two years ago, as I look back at my post), is that they're on this "repeal Obamacare" nonsense. It's nonsense because voters are apparently too stupid to understand that presidents don't repeal laws any more than they create laws, and also because there are enough good things in the law that you don't do the baby-bathwater thing. I am frustrated to no end with insurance companies who arbitrarily stop paying for stuff or make it impossible to get what you are entitled to, and the law offers some solid consumer protections that should remain in place. No part of that is more true than the part that prohibits denying care for pre-existing conditions.

And that's apparently one of the things that the court is going to address, whether or not the provisions of the law can be separated so that any part found to be unconstitutional can be repealed without throwing out the whole thing.

One thing that I have flip-flopped on a bit, in relation to the requirement to buy insurance, is subsidizing insurance for those who can't afford it. That's a tough call, because children don't get a say on the family they're born into. At the same time, with the hope that military spending is drastically reduced, it feels like we are in a dire position to reduce spending overall. The timing isn't good to spend more.

In any case, it's cool to see this being debated by the court. Few things they hear have as wide an impact as this.

Three feet of two-year-old

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 25, 2012, 11:05 PM | comments: 0

You know how when you live with someone, you don't really see physical changes in an obvious way? This is especially true when you have a pregnant wife. From flat stomach to giant baby bulb, you don't really see the change because there are roughly 280 tiny changes from one day to the next. It just kind of hits you when you look at photos at some later date.

Such is the case with a child. Simon is about three feet tall now. Doors are no challenge for him, and he can even climb on the spare bed. Stairs are no match for him either. This weekend, I spent a lot of time with him, particularly yesterday while Diana was gone. I was struck by how tall he is. We were lying on the floor of his room yesterday before nap (he likes to crawl up next to you and get right up in your grill), and I was just amazed that my little boy isn't that little anymore. In fact, I hope that he gets potty training before he can't realistically be on his changing table anymore. The kid is huge. This was further confirmed by the photos scrolling by on the computer screen saver.

It really is a bittersweet thing going on. I'm excited that he's becoming more self-sufficient, and that it won't be long before we can ride roller coasters together. On the other hand, he's not the tiny human I can football-hold. Heck, it's a challenge just to have him rock on my shoulder at this point.

It has been a very fast two years. The window for cuddles and playground slides is not huge, and I'm becoming increasingly aware of this. I've been fortunate enough to spend an enormous amount of time with him the last six months, compared to the six before that, and I don't take that for granted. Simon being 2 can be challenging for us, but a part of me wishes it would last longer.

If I had a million dollars

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 25, 2012, 10:52 PM | comments: 0

Yeah, I hope that song is stuck in your head now.

Diana started watching that PBS drama about some fictional British aristocracy from a hundred years ago, and it's crazy how screwed up that culture was. Coming into money and power through no action of your own, short of being born, is so bizarre.

I suppose you can come into money in a number of different ways. You can earn it, you can have some kind of windfall event or you can inherit it. I'd like to think that most people in democratic nations tend to earn it these days, but certainly coming from money opens a lot of doors to earning your own.

We never had a ton of money when I was growing up, and we certainly didn't live in a good neighborhood. Even when we moved to the suburbs, I wouldn't call it nice compared to the McMansions all around us. To a degree, I resented the other kids who had money, or thought that it mattered. Few would be what I'd describe as wealthy, as it wasn't a particularly wealthy suburb, but an awful lot of kids had cars they didn't pay for.

In college, I think I was even more soured on people with money, because there were definitely a lot of kids there that came from serious cash, and they were dicks about it. They were all Republicans, too, which probably is why I was so left-headed at the time. It probably didn't help that my majors (radio/TV and journalism) were not exactly fields that were going to make me rich, either.

Eventually, I saw a calling in software development because of that Internet thing that was getting hot, and I finally started making a respectable salary. Everyone I worked with was also doing OK, and the dicketry I saw from my youth was not present. Then I moved to Seattle, and it seemed like everyone made six figures, some chose to drive nice cars, and for the most part, no one really cared. That one of the cofounders of the company was also the richest man in the world and giving most of it away certainly helped with the old perception that money makes people awful.

Meanwhile, back in Ohio, I was surprised at how many people still care about the appearance of money. The middle class definitely has more screwed up priorities, which easily explains, in part, the people who can't pay their mortgages. Lots of houses and cars that people couldn't afford, but want to look like they can. Maybe it's my inner-city upbringing, enforced by my time in the company of other nerds who did OK, but I don't understand the vanity thing at all.

Which gets me to thoughts on what money means to me. I think the most important thing is that it never becomes a reason for me to indulge in vanity or treat others poorly. I'll always be a T-shirt and jeans kind of guy, driving a modest car, sleeping in a modest house. I'll always be giving money to things I believe in (it's time to help out GKTW again, by the way). I'm inspired by people that do great things with money. That's the example I want to set for Simon.

I've also come a long way toward believing that wealth is less about how much money you make, and more about how low your expenses are. That doesn't mean you have to be a cheap ass who never takes vacations, but it's OK to buy clothes at Old Navy and acquire used toys for your kid.

So if I had a million dollars, I wouldn't start trading up on everything. Well, I wouldn't eat Kraft Dinner (can't let that song go), because I already eat Annie's Organic Shells & Cheese, and it tastes better. I'd pay off my house and my cars, lock in Simon's college fund, and probably move to some ideal place. I just can't tell you where the money would come from. I think in my mind, I see it happening from some crazy bonus at some job, or maybe selling a business I haven't thought of yet. Oh, I'd also open up my own volleyball facility. Can't forget that.

The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

posted by Jeff | Saturday, March 24, 2012, 3:47 PM | comments: 0

Simon and I are buddies today while Diana is out doing yarn stuff in Toledo. The rain ended before we got up this morning, so I figured it was a good time to go to the zoo, since I didn't get a chance earlier this week.

Given my love-hate relationship with Cleveland, you probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that I very much love the zoo. I grew up just a few blocks away from it. While I only went to it a few times each year, it was pretty consistent from the time I was born. Heck, I even had a field trip from my school where we walked there, in grade five. (Side note: It's sad that there is no trace of that school, Milford Elementary, anywhere on the Internet.)

Naturally, I like going there with Simon. While parts of it have changed dramatically since I was a kid, like the huge new elephant habitat or the Australian section, some of it has barely changed at all, like the crappy bear and sea lion habitats. And of course, there was the old Fulton Rd. bridge that had been crumbling since before I was born, with a refreshment stand tucked under the massive structure. That finally came down in 2007, and a new one opened in 2010.

We bought a zoo membership shortly after we moved back, and were planning on buying one for the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. I think it's a good value, but I also think it's great to support these kinds of institutions in any city.

A few thoughts on the new iPad

posted by Jeff | Friday, March 23, 2012, 5:22 PM | comments: 0

When they announced the new iPad, I was completely indifferent about it, but a combination of things compelled me to upgrade. One: Amazon was willing to give me hundreds of dollars for my old one. Two: The Verizon 4G version can do hotspots, without contracts, which has enormous appeal to me with the travel in our future. Three: I'm learning very quickly now that I have to test all of my crap on this new high resolution display (annoying). None of those things individually would have made me think about it, especially considering how infrequently we used the old one, but I suppose it wasn't getting more valuable.

With no sense of urgency, I ordered online, with a three week ship date. Then it became obvious that you could get them in stores with their online ordering and in-person pickup. So I cancelled the online order and ordered one from the Apple Store in Akron for pickup.

The marketing push seems to be about the high resolution display, and sure enough I can see a difference. I'm not convinced that most consumers would notice (watching "DVD's in HD on their HDTV's" and what not), but text is so incredibly crisp. The Kindle app shows text as sharp as an e-ink Kindle, though I'm not sure if back-lit LCD reading is tolerable for long periods of time. Any app that renders stuff with vector graphics looks good, and many have already been upgraded to take advantage of the new screen. Anything that was mostly text, like Facebook or Twitter, looks better.

That said, the screen is also a huge liability. For apps that haven't been updated, you can get a weird mix of results. The Weather Channel app shows sharp text with "jaggie" graphics. The maps in particular are hideous. The Wired magazine app borders on unreadable, because whatever they do to render text, it ain't native. Web browsing benefits from the best text you've ever seen on a Web page, but suffers from soft and fuzzy graphics that have been up-sized for the screen. I don't have to tell you that crappy Web video won't magically be better either.

In terms of faster CPU and other improved specs, I don't notice any difference. The in-memory caching on the Web browser does seem bigger though, as I would often have tabs reload after a few were opened, particularly while using Google Reader. That makes sense, if it does in fact have more memory.

The camera might have been upgraded, but it's still terrible. It's super noisy. Ditto for video. Plus, you look stupid holding up an iPad to take a picture, so don't do it.

I haven't fired up the 4G LTE service yet, but I don't even know if it's available where I live. Again, the incentive for that was more for travel.

Overall, if you have an iPad 2, and you don't want to upgrade for more storage or cellular capability, I wouldn't upgrade. The screen resolution alone isn't worth it, and like I said, it seems to hurt as much as it helps. If buy-back programs continue to offer top dollars, it kind of makes sense, if your threshold for depreciation is in the $150-250 range. (I think I "lost" $175 in the upgrade, which isn't that bad for what amounts to one year of depreciation.)

I know I sound like a hater a lot of the time when it comes to iPads, but I'm not. The utility for me is limited because it's largely a consumption device, and I'm more of a creator. It has actually been extremely valuable for testing out mobile UI stuff. I totally get why it's popular.

I also think that iOS just hasn't evolved much. Yes, I was dazzled by the Windows Phone experience, and it changed my expectations. For consumption activities, app-hopping seems inefficient, and that's what iOS is. I mean, I had to put my AppleID in like six different places! I'm really looking forward to Windows 8 tablets later this year, and I hope someone has the industrial design to make a sweet machine.

The importance of non-pro sports

posted by Jeff | Thursday, March 22, 2012, 10:27 PM | comments: 0

When I was in high school, I sucked at everything. Basketball, baseball, running, even my beloved volleyball. (It took me years of college club ball and a year or two of coaching to get it.) Granted, I didn't play anything prior to high school either.

As an adult, I got a lot better at volleyball. Now that I'm playing tennis (if you can call it playing at this point), I see how important sports can be for so many different reasons. Playing a sport, whether it's organized or pick-up games or whatever, does quite a bit for you.

There's obviously the health benefit of being active. That's a big deal for people like me who can't stand exercise for the sake of exercise. I mean, I really loathe it. Of the most serious athletic endeavors of my life, they've all had great benefit, but I did them for fun.

Active fun tends to trump passive fun. Sure, it's fun to play video games, but they'll never give you the mix of hormones and whole-body good feelings that sports will. In high school I would spend half-days on a bicycle and feel great for the next week. In some of my coaching positions, I'd get to play every day and feel great. Now I'm finding the same thing in tennis. My body thanks me and the game aspect of it is super fun.

Most of these activities are inherently social, too. You can just imagine, as someone currently working a remote gig, how much I need that.

One thing I've really come to understand better is how important sports are for kids. I've always been an advocate of youth sports, particularly for girls, but I understand their importance now more than I ever did as a kid. Just being a part of something like that inspires confidence and achievement, as well as an understanding about the importance of discipline and dedication.

Let me be clear that I also understand that sports are not for every kid, and I've seen first-hand how toxic it can get. I've had parents pressuring their kids to get a D-1 scholarship, when they're 5'6" and 110 pounds, and seen them crushed when they realize it won't happen. I've also seen the annoying habit of just giving kids trophies for coming in last place. Those situations don't do kids any favors.

Still, where it fits, it's a valuable thing for people of all ages to play some kind of sport.

It could still snow

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 21, 2012, 11:38 PM | comments: 0

I might have been living in the lovely Pacific Northwest for a couple of years (and strongly question my motivation for leaving it), but I'm not at all surprised at the warm weather we've been having here in the Midwest. Truth be told, this winter has been pretty easy. I can only think of two or three ugly flat gray sky periods, and I managed to not get overly depressed.

Meanwhile, if you check the weather, it's going to get super crappy this weekend, and it looks like we'll flirt with 30's the weekend after that. True to form, Ohio weather will lift you up, then kick you in the nuts and take your lunch money.

Still trying to figure out why it's news.

Camera problems

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 19, 2012, 10:47 PM | comments: 0

Life is less complicated with still photography, when it comes to equipment. Even in the film days, you could put inexpensive glass on a cheap body and get great results with practice (assuming you remembered what your exposure was like). But video was just video until a few years ago. It's complicated.

High definition made 480 interlaced lines obsolete. Then we had cinema adapters, bigger sensors, form factors ranging from ENG-style cameras to tiny handhelds to SLR's. After shooting video for the better part of a decade and a half, I was drawn to what made this new stuff not look like video, and look more like film. Specifically, shooting at 24 fps, and getting shallow depth of field with the bigger sensors, offered more creative control.

First I bought the HVX200 back in 2006, because it was arguably the first HD camera with pro gear that was (sort of) affordable. It immediately served me well that year on some freelance work, in part because it had real audio. I've also done a lot of run-and-gun documentary-ish stuff. I like how it looks, but even when you do some color grading, it still tends to look like HD news footage.

In 2008 Canon released the 5D Mark II and it did video, if a little hackish. The win was a huge sensor and all the lenses you could have. A year later, the 7D was released, which had a smaller sensor, but it was a step forward, and I bought it. With a stack of gear around it, I could shoot video with it, but the audio situation isn't great, and the form factor is awkward for shooting documentary-style. When I can lock it down though, it can make amazing images.

So where does that put things these days? Obviously you can see that there are two things that I care about. The first is the versatility to get the "film look." This admittedly comes from toting around SLR's for 25 years, starting with that big heavy Nikon F I borrowed from my dad. I like figuring out how much I want my subject to be isolated from the surroundings. It's crazy hard with stuff moving, but when you get it right, it's awesome.

At the same time, I value ergonomics because so much of what I shoot is on the go. The ergonomics generally come with real audio capability (XLR's, level pots, etc.), which is important.

In a perfect world, I'd buy the new Canon C300, because it solves all of my problems, and I can use all of the lenses I own today. It has pro audio, build-in ND, you can hold it in your hand and you can practically shoot with it in the dark. I mean, it has built-in scopes! (See camera porn here.) If cost were no object, I'd buy one. Well, if they were more readily available and cost were no object, I'd buy one. I'm just not sure if I can justify it.

Meanwhile, Panasonic put out what is essentially a variation on the HVX last year, the AF100, only it has a bigger sensor and uses whatever lens you want. It solves a lof of the issues, but to use it with Canon lenses, you need an expensive adapter. The compression is a little on the high side as well, but it seems to do OK in low light. It's relatively inexpensive.

Canon also just announced the 5D Mark III, which starts shipping this week. It's still an SLR camera, but it addresses some of the shortcomings of its predecessors, specifically audio monitoring and levels. Yes, the form factor is still not ideal, but it's a step in the right direction. The Mark II has been used extensively for films, and they even shot a few episodes of House with it. Heck, the SNL opener was shot with it. It's a little cheaper than the AF100, and obviously I have lenses for it.

I'm not sure what to do with all of that data. I don't shoot video/"film" for a living anymore, but it's the thing that I'm most passionate about. It's the creative part of me that I too often allow to languish. This is the year where I try to get back to all of the things that make me who I am or want to be, so it's important that I get into this. The gear I have today leaves me a little dissatisfied, and I want to make an upgrade.

This sort of thing was a lot easier when I had someone else's money to spend!

Priorities, man

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 19, 2012, 5:06 PM | comments: 0

Diana had a good post about setting priorities. It resonates with me because I'm constantly aware that we don't have a lot of time, so among the things we'd like to do, we have to pick winners and losers.

By default, I tend to prioritize Simon over a lot of other things, in large part out of obligation, but also because I like to spend time with him. Diana is the best mom ever, because not only does she spend time with him, but she plans a great deal of activities with him that obviously enrich his life and help with his development. Sometimes I worry that this prioritization will cause resentment, not toward Simon, but toward the situation of having a child.

Doing the things you want requires a certain truth: If you really want it, you'll do it. That's something that people say about losing weight all of the time, but I think it's true for most things. So what do I want to do more?

  • I can never spend enough time with Diana and Simon, but obviously I have to balance that with everything else. Working from home, I'm actually winning here, because I'm already home for lunch and have no commute. The missing thing is more date nights.
  • Shoot more video. I just kind of stopped doing it while in Seattle, if you don't count my little romp around Pike Place. There is strong potential for doing some stuff at Cedar Point this year. I suspect there will be an equipment purchase this year as well, but that's another post.
  • Ramp up the physical activity. This is already in progress with tennis. Now I just have to add in some more, probably with the bicycle.
  • Finish CoasterBuzz vNext. It feels like work, and I hate that. I guess my problem is that I don't want to half-launch it, I want to do everything that I've ever had an idea for, and that's not realistic.
  • Play video games. Not a lot, but I rarely do anymore, and it's fun to blow shit up now and then.
  • Read more. I'm a non-fiction kind of guy, but I have several books on the Kindle and a stack of magazines that I'm behind on.
  • Write more. Blog, screenplay, aggregate advice book.

I think that covers it.

Rebuilding CoasterBuzz, Part II: Hot data objects

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 18, 2012, 11:51 PM | comments: 0

This is the second post in a series about rebuilding one of my Web sites, which has been around for 12 years. More:

After the rush to get moving on stuff, I temporarily lost interest. I went almost two weeks without touching the project, in part because the next thing on my backlog was doing up a bunch of administrative pages. So boring. Unfortunately, because most of the site's content is user-generated, you need some facilities for editing data.

CoasterBuzz has a database full of amusement parks and roller coasters. The entities enjoy the relationships that you would expect, though they're further defined by "instances" of a coaster, to define one that has moved between parks as one, with different names and operational dates. And of course, there are pictures and news items, too. It's not horribly complex, except when you have to account for a name change and display just the newest name.

In all previous versions, data access was straight SQL. As so much of the old code was rooted in 2003, with some changes in 2008, there wasn't much in the way of ORM frameworks going on then. Let me rephrase that, I mostly wasn't interested in ORM's. Since that time, I used a little LINQ to SQL in some projects, and a whole bunch of nHibernate while at Microsoft. Through all of that experience, I have to admit that these frameworks are often a bigger pain in the ass than not. They're great for basic crud operations, but when you start having all kinds of exotic relationships, they get difficult, and generate all kinds of weird SQL under the covers. The black box can quickly turn into a black hole. Sometimes you end up having to build all kinds of new expertise to do things "right" with a framework.

Still, despite my reservations, I used the newer version of Entity Framework, with the "code first" modeling, in a science project and I really liked it. Since it's just a right-click away with NuGet, I figured I'd give it a shot here.

My initial effort was spent defining the context class, which requires a bit of work because I deviate quite a bit from the conventions that EF uses, starting with table names. Then throw some partial querying of certain tables (where you'll find image data), and you're splitting tables across several objects (navigation properties). I won't go into the details, because these are all things that are well documented around the Internet, but there was a minor learning curve there.

The basics of reading data using EF are fantastic. For example, a roller coaster object has a park associated with it, as well as a number of instances (if it was ever relocated), and there also might be a big banner image for it. This is stupid easy to use because it takes one line of code in your repository class, and by the time you pass it to the view, you have a rich object graph that has everything you need to display stuff.

Likewise, editing simple data is also, well, simple. For this goodness, thank the ASP.NET MVC framework. The UpdateModel() method on the controllers is very elegant. Remember the old days of assigning all kinds of properties to objects in your Webforms code-behind? What a time consuming mess that used to be. Even if you're not using an ORM tool, having hydrated objects come off the wire is such a time saver.

Not everything is easy, though. When you have to persist a complex graph of objects, particularly if they were composed in the user interface with all kinds of AJAX elements and list boxes, it's not just a simple matter of submitting the form. There were a few instances where I ended up going back to "old-fashioned" SQL just in the interest of time. It's not that I couldn't do what I needed with EF, it's just that the efficiency, both my own and that of the generated SQL, wasn't good. Since EF context objects expose a database connection object, you can use that to do the old school ADO.NET stuff you've done for a decade. Using various extension methods from POP Forums' data project, it was a breeze. You just have to stick to your decision, in this case. When you start messing with SQL directly, you can't go back in the same code to messing with entities because EF doesn't know what you're changing. Not really a big deal.

There are a number of take-aways from using EF. The first is that you write a lot less code, which has always been a desired outcome of ORM's. The other lesson, and I particularly learned this the hard way working on the MSDN forums back in the day, is that trying to retrofit an ORM framework into an existing schema isn't fun at all. The CoasterBuzz database isn't bad, but there are design decisions I'd make differently if I were starting from scratch.

Now that I have some of this stuff done, I feel like I can start to move on to the more interesting things on the backlog. There's a lot to do, but at least it's fun stuff, and not more forms that will be used infrequently.

Red State

posted by Jeff | Saturday, March 17, 2012, 11:07 PM | comments: 2

I finally bought Kevin Smith's Red State, after kind of forgetting about it for awhile. I'm a big fan, of course, in particular of Clerks 2 and Dogma, and to a lesser degree, Zack & Miri. I like his movies because the dialog is generally solid, and the writing always stands out.

There were a lot of interesting things about this movie before it was even released. First, it's way out of his comfort zone, firmly planted in the horror and thriller genres. More importantly, it was made for next to nothing ($4 million) and he basically gave the middle finger to the film industry by showing it at Sundance, then taking it on a theater tour starting at Radio City. Each showing was followed by a Q&A, and tickets weren't cheap. Then he did on-demand TV. Eventually, Lions Gate picked it up for home video. The movie apparently turned a profit without spending a dime on marketing.

I wouldn't characterize the movie as Smith's best writing. Not even close, really. But in the end, it doesn't matter because the performances are so strong. Michael Parks is easily the single creepiest movie villain I've seen in years. There really isn't a good guy to speak of (other than the John Goodman character, but the movie isn't really about him), so having a super naughty villain is key. I was also surprised by Kerry Bishé, who I only know as the Zack Braff replacement from Scrubs. She was damn funny in that, which is why I was surprised, because her role wasn't comedy. There's a scene where she's pleading with her family to hide from the feds, and she's so incredibly intense (the screaming child certainly helped).

In the end, I liked it because it had brilliant dialog that was very obviously inspired by Tarantino, and it had components of drama, horror, action and even a little comedy. It wasn't the movie that Smith really described prior to making it, but it was certainly a departure from his typical film.

The one thing that I will say for the script is that it does a nice job bringing up the equally scary parts that religious nuts and the government can play in our society. The Waco disaster is a bit of a distant memory, but the lessons of it seem just as important, 20 years later.

One side note, they used Canon SLR's as some of the B-cameras, which is pretty awesome.

Design head

posted by Jeff | Saturday, March 17, 2012, 12:14 AM | comments: 0

A couple of weeks ago, I started spending a great deal of my spare time working on a replacement for CoasterBuzz. I started it with a great deal of energy, in fact. Then things started to slow down. Over the last week, I count six hours I spent working on the coaster submission page, and it's still not done. Obviously I didn't actually spend all of the time in those six hours actually doing anything.

The weather turned nice, and I just couldn't work on it. Still, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about user interface design, in the general sense. I really enjoy it, and I try to think more critically about it. I've always considered myself somewhat inept around design, but I probably don't give myself enough credit.

We're definitely in a less-is-more trend right now, and I think that's a good thing. When I rewrote the forum, and continue to refine it, I find myself constantly asking if something is necessary at all. I recently visited a forum that uses vBulletin, which used to be the gold standard of forum software, and couldn't believe how awful it was. It's really terrible, filled with buttons no one will ever use (have you ever used a "clear form" button?), and a ton of extraneous crap that doesn't facilitate the goal of a forum, specifically, discussion.

The new hotness is mobile, which offers even more focus and constraint, because phones are not exactly overflowing with screen space.

I have a feeling that a lot of people will hate the new CoasterBuzz when it's eventually done, because whatever I end up with will undoubtedly be underdesigned. If I could get rid of the ads, I would. Generally I hope to get completely away from gradients, rounded corners, reflections and all of the other stuff of questionable value. Yes, the Metro influence has gotten to me.

Camera musings

posted by Jeff | Thursday, March 15, 2012, 8:38 PM | comments: 0

As a technology nerd and wannabe filmmaker, I've been fascinated by the steady rise of (relatively) inexpensive equipment that gets you oh-so-close to the kind of quality and characteristics that "real" film is known for... That combination of resolution and big sensors that allow you to achieve shallow depth of field. I was happy just to get the resolution when I bought my HVX200 back in 2006, at great expense (it's for sale, by the way). Later, for much less, I got a Canon 7D that could record video, and use all of the sweet Canon glass I already had. It's still not a perfect system, but we sure are getting closer.

The enthusiast circles have formed this great online community around these gadgets, and people are doing amazing work. Still, there are so many compromises you have to make, in most cases. The single biggest pain in the ass is that an SLR camera is not really meant for the kind of run-and-gun, documentary-style shooting that I love to do. Even with the rigging that I have to go with it, it's just not ideal. Combine this with the fact that there's no audio monitoring, or great audio solutions period, and it frustrates me.

Things are getting interesting though. A couple of hipsters built a prototype "digital Bolex," inspired by the 16mm cameras from the 60's, and to mass-produce it, have so far raised almost three times their goal of $100k to make it real. If they can pull it off, in some ways they will have succeeded where RED failed, particularly the part about recording raw.

I did my quarterly look around and the current tech and the pricing, and I am being teased and tempted by the Panasonic AF100, which is on sale, has a $500 rebate until the end of the month, and is shipping with a kit lens. Sigh. I want that camera in the worst way, because it's a micro-4/3 variation of my HVX, only it records on cheap SD cards. With the business debt free, it's hard not to act on that.

The renewed interest is because I'm working on doing some doc-style stuff at a certain amusement park in the coming months. Something I could really get excited about.

Tennis: Ongoing

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 14, 2012, 10:35 PM | comments: 0

After my six weeks of tennis were done, a number of people in my group were up for another six weeks. Tonight we had the second of those.

Last week wasn't enjoyable at all. We have a different instructor, and I don't like his teaching style. He spends a lot of time talking instead of having us go at it, so we're not getting as much repetition. He also has us do a lot of stuff that's what I'd call "tennis pretend." That's stuff that you simply don't do normally when playing, and as a coach of 15 years who finds that kind of stuff ineffective, I loathe it.

This week started the same, but I think he finally got the message that after seven weeks, we (except for the new kid) are kind of beyond that. When we started having the chance to just rip on the ball properly, everything started to fall into place, and we looked like people who had been at it for a few weeks. That is to say, we looked like advanced beginners. I think if he allows us to continue along with more hardcore play, we'll continue to improve and have a lot of fun.

For me personally, I'm slowly starting to get a little more consistent. My forehand can be insanely fast if I don't crowd the ball. My backhand is getting better. Both are really contingent on moving my feet and having the right proximity to the ball. I feel like I'll get really dangerous if I can get that right, but I don't think it will unless I spend more time playing, or at the very least, do high repetition drills that require me to move.

In addition to the group lessons, I'm going to try and get some private lessons on the books as well. I'm still on the fence about playing in a league this summer, but only because I don't know if I'll be "ready" by then.

Kool-Aid drinkers are the worst

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 14, 2012, 10:22 PM | comments: 0

Tonight's hot tub talk included groans about Kool-Aid drinkers (yeah, we know how to party). You know, the people who are so compelled with blind allegiance to the company they work for, or some brand, that they refuse to see any of its problems.

The worst that I've ever encountered, believe it or not, were not Apple fanboy customers, but Microsoft employees. These are people who wouldn't use anything if an alternative from Redmond were available. To be fair, they're becoming increasingly rare, but when you meet one, you can see why the company spent so much time stumbling around in the dark, and still does in some areas.

This is a completely toxic scenario for any company. It's almost like a bizarro variation on being arrogant. It's impossible to see the most obvious problems when they're right in front of you. What's worse, you get so wrapped up in the company that you're oblivious to what your competition, the market and your customers are up to. Get too many like-minded Kool-Aid drinkers working on the same thing, and disaster is inevitable.

You see it among consumers, too. The Apple nerds are among the worst, sure, but look at the people who align themselves with a particular American car brand, especially in the last decade when all they made was crap.

Just as being self-aware can make you a better person, being aware of what your business does poorly, dispensing with the denial, can have a huge impact on your ability to be successful. I just don't understand why that's not obvious.

The crippling effects of negativity

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 12, 2012, 11:31 PM | comments: 0

I was talking to a friend today about how one has to make a conscious decision to be happy. I augmented the discussion when I mentioned how being around Simon and his countless giggles made me laugh. It seems so easy when you're a little person and not burdened with the world. (Granted, a puzzle you can't solve can also send you into meltdown at that age, so I suppose there are tradeoffs.) What happens to us that we lose that easy happiness?

In a nutshell, it's the heaping piles of negativity that you encounter. It comes from all angles. I was stewing much of the evening about my previously-blogged business issues. Sometimes, stupid things at work wear me down. Other times, it's dealing with insurance companies or some other business with whom you're supposedly a customer. Don't even get me started about political nonsense. Sometimes even Simon's negative behavior can get to me, for no other reason than he's being a toddler.

There are a lot of ways we cope with all of that toxicity, often with rainbows and puppies, but there are times when it just keeps mounting in a steaming pile of shit. It's those times that I tend to check out mentally. My interest in doing much of anything disappears, and it becomes really hard to engage. It doesn't happen very often, but it's an ugly state to be in, that for me only causes additional self-loathing.

Fortunately, for a lot of people, just getting on to the next day is enough to snap out of it. That usually works for me, as does a great song, good weather, or more and more, interactions with Simon. I think it's important to understand though that some people need more than that, especially if they suffer from depression.

Tonight I sat around checking Facebook over and over again, because I had one of those days. As I wrap this up and think about going to bed, one of my cats is purring loudly beside me, and tomorrow looks like a sunny day. Some of my issues will linger, but I'll move on. At the end of the day, what other choice do we have?

My frustrating battle with Google AdSense (a battle against no one)

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 12, 2012, 8:49 PM | comments: 0

The last month has brought a great deal of stress to something I would much rather enjoy in my spare time, namely the operation of my Web sites. While they did grow into a small side-business many years ago, and I've even relied on them at times when I wasn't working, they're still there for me to enjoy, not be a source of problems.

For the unaware, CoasterBuzz and the other sites show advertisements, sold by a number of different companies, and essentially "chained." So when one doesn't have an ad to show, it passes it down to the next company to show an ad. Fill rate, the percentage of impressions filled with ads, is obviously better when higher.

The advertising revenue pays for the rental of a server, the software it runs, and the bandwidth it requires. It also pays for the software required to develop the sites, and the computers that I do the work on (both tend to be on three-year cycles, software was last year, hardware is this year). For a lot of years, it was a losing proposition, but these days, there's usually enough left over that I can afford to at least reimburse myself for some of the travel and/or other equipment (like cameras).

In any case, for some time now I've been using Google's AdSense as the primary means of generating advertising revenue. Prior to the last six months, there were long-term swings up and down, mostly due to seasonal traffic and changes in the ad market. In recent months, the changes have been erratic, even on a daily basis. Some days I'd make a third of what I had the day before, with no change in traffic.

The reporting has been suspect as well. One day I have 80 clicks, the next day, 8. The single worst discrepancy started on February 9. At some point during that day, they changed how they calculated page views, showing a fraction of what they did the day before. These are all huge red flags.

The reporting issues are one thing, but now I believe they're taking money from me. The site just posted what I would be paid for last month, and it's half of what the reporting says I made. Small discrepancies are normal from auditing processes, but half is not normal. There are two huge implications here. The first is that if the reporting is that incorrect, I can't change the mix of where I'm sending ad impressions. If they can't get it done, I'll send them to someone who can. The second problem is that part of the revenue, for PointBuzz, is shared with my partner on that site. How do I know how much to send him if the amount Google pays me doesn't match the reporting?

The bottom line is that I'm frustrated and angry because I have no recourse. Unless you generate six figures with them annually, there are no human beings to ask to look into it. There's a part of me that wants to sue them in small claims court, but I hardly want to travel to California to do it. So I'm a little stuck right now. It's not even about the money, it's about the unethical and lopsided power they hold over content publishers.

I'm not sure what my next move is. I can't keep asking people to join CoasterBuzz Club, because I think that market is probably tapped. I'm going to need to get creative.

It's so hard to start writing

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 11, 2012, 1:12 AM | comments: 0

I've noticed lately that I'm having a hard time writing. Specifically, I have a hard time starting to write.

There are a number of writing projects that I'd like to start. The short and feature-length screenplays, of course, plus the compilation of advice columns, even the daily desire to write about relatively unimportant things in my blog, and I just can't get started. Naturally, I'm searching for answers.

My suspicion is that I'm worried that what I will write isn't very good. As a published author of technical non-fiction (seven years later, that still seems too bizarre to say out loud), you'd think I would at least have some level of confidence that I can put together words to form a sentence. I think there are different concerns for different kinds of writing. For blogging stuff, I just think that no one wants to read about the mundane bullshit I want to write about. That's counter to my assertion that I don't write for an audience. For the compilation project, I worry that I can't make it cohesive.

The screenplay issues are more complex. The first one I wrote, eight years ago, was rooted in a gimmick and populated with aspects of my own life. When I look back at it, I'm not proud of it because those aspects were among those that I disliked the most, some bordering on pathetic. I got a lot of good feedback about structure and what not, having submitted it to a contest, but it just feels gross. Where this eventually leads me is to a desire to write something that is truly fiction, and wow is that hard.

In any case, I've been bitching about stuff like this for years. I need to write and just go with it. If it sucks, it sucks. I can always iterate on it, the way I do when writing software. It's never perfect up front, and perfection isn't something you can reach anyway.

Busting out of those four walls

posted by Jeff | Friday, March 9, 2012, 10:23 PM | comments: 0

I've mentioned before that there are definitely some challenges associated with remote working. There are times when the four walls feel like they're closing in. Right now, the only thing I do to really mitigate this is go out for lunch, which is probably not the best plan in terms of looking out for my health. Don't get me wrong, there are a great many advantages to this arrangement, not the least of which are the ability to poo on your own toilet, see your family at lunch, not risk getting killed in rush hour traffic, etc.

But I'm learning to deal with the quasi-isolation by looking for more opportunities to do stuff when I'm not in that room. The weekly tennis lessons are a step in the right direction, and I'm hoping to add a second weekly session, damn the expense. Improving weather and a later sunset also get me outside more often, with occasional walks with the little guy. More than anything, I'm starting to wake up to see the things that I'm passionate about again, in a way that I haven't in some time.

One of the things that I keep coming back to is prioritization. The day has a finite number of hours, and that will never change. There are a lot of things I enjoy doing, things I want to do more of, things that I want to do less of. I'm trying to sit and do nothing less in my free time, which is hard because I'm definitely a man of leisure. Not leisure as in hiking, but leisure as in sitting on my ass. I'm trying to better understand the things that motivate me, and get that motivation in place.

It's funny how ten years ago I'd keep telling myself that it was important to balance out your life with different things that made you whole. Older and wi-... uh... older, now I think that it's more a matter of prioritizing things and looking for the reward of the moment. Feeling whole is a real-time experience. As the cliche goes, the journey is the reward.

Developmental ups and downs

posted by Jeff | Thursday, March 8, 2012, 11:05 PM | comments: 0

It's interesting to me that many of our (relatively) new parent friends share our concerns about the development of our respective children. I suppose that's true for any parent, and it's easy to be completely neurotic, or completely complacent about the growth of your child. With Simon turning 2, he's had regular physical check ups as well as some recent visits to the county agencies that do the occupational and developmental therapy for kids.

The good news, I guess, is that he's still above average in height. He's just about three feet tall now, putting him in the 90th percentile for height. I don't know why I care, other than I always hated being short (or average). Perhaps it's from coaching volleyball players, or even dating women taller than me. Generally speaking, he appears to be in good health.

He's still lacking upper body strength, which is something that has plagued him pretty much since birth since he was so reluctant to crawl or roll over on his own. Sure, he was extra chubby and a huge kid, but it probably didn't help that we were always helping him. Now we see him struggling at times with climbing. We took away his stools, which has forced him to climb on to the couches. He can do it, but boy did he protest at first. Now if he could only get on to the lower bed in the spare room.

His fine motor skills vary, depending on the task. Therapists have all of these checklists of things, some of which he can't or doesn't do, but when I look at how meticulous he is in the way he segregates the beads on his abacus, I'm convinced that he's doing just fine. I taught him to fist-bump in a matter of minutes. He gets it.

Simon is behind on speech, which is hardly a surprise. This is another thing that I tend to not worry about that much because he generally understands us, he has been signing in context for a long time, and now that he has decided to mimic us, he does make pretty good stabs at words, often without prompting. Heck, he randomly points to stuff and tries to say what the thing is, often to our surprise. He knew what the moon in the sky was without us ever pointing it out in anything other than books. You don't make those connections if your'e not thinking.

His biggest emotional challenge is still processing frustration. It comes when a toy doesn't do what he wants, or he can't fully communicate something to us. On the other hand, he has been making himself physically available in terms of his emotions. He's really enjoying cuddle time, giving hugs and kisses and generally being very affectionate toward us. Simon has really opened up to me in the last few weeks, I think in part because he sees me more. I'm no longer just the guy who hangs out with him on weekends and gives him baths.

I can't give Diana enough credit for following up on the opportunities for therapy and what not. I probably would not have even known these things existed if it weren't for her. That she does her best to keep a social calendar for him is no small undertaking either. Simon is very lucky to have such a great mom.

Overall, I don't think we can be down on where he is. The part that we play in it all has changed dramatically in the last year, because we're a lot more willing to let him "suffer" through things that make him unhappy so he learns to deal with them. It means putting up with a tantrum now and then, but man can that kid adapt if you give him the chance.

Two months with a Prius V

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 7, 2012, 10:50 PM | comments: 0

We've had the new Prius V for two months now, so it's probably a good time to write a little more about it. I still find myself missing the sedan a little, because it was a nice looking car before that hilljack totalled it. At the two month mark, we've got a little over 2,100 miles logged. A lot of those are Diana, I'm sure, since I really only go out during the week to go to lunch. Perhaps she should be writing a review!

It's still weird to have a red car, but after countless white and black cars, I suppose some amount of change is good. As I said in my initial impression, it does pretty much drive like a regular 3rd-gen Prius, except that it feels heavier when stopping. Gaming the fuel economy works pretty much the same in terms of technique, though the results are very different.

Before I get into that, I'll say again that the controls are a huge step up. The dash makes more sense. The touch screen and navigation are still not particularly vital, but they're kind of neat to have. The climate controls make a lot more sense than the button wall of the sedan.

We opted for the V first and foremost because of the additional space. "More cargo room than 80% of small SUV's" was a huge appeal, and the reason I was willing to take the drop in fuel economy. It very much lives up to this claim, having made an Ikea haul and some other chances to move stuff. The sliding rear seats also make it super easy to install Simon's car seat, where the hook is on the back down near the floor. You can get in and stand enough to really tug on the straps and tighten it down. The lack of cup holders in the back seat itself is slightly problematic for Simon, but Diana bungeed a little plastic tote to the armrest, and that's close enough, if a little ghetto.

So about the fuel economy... that's the whole point in having a Prius in the first place. The sedan was rated for 51 city/48 highway, and I could routinely get mid-50's even driving through huge elevation changes east of Seattle. The V is rated at 44/40, and so far, I think that's pretty close to realistic. I've noticed a number of different things:

  • Econ isn't as good when it's cold. I started to see this with the sedan before it was trashed, and a lot of it has to do with longer warm-up times, I suspect, when you first start driving.
  • Toyota says it's the shape that hampers it, given it has the same drivetrain, and I believe it. A strong headwind on the highway will tank your economy by 3 or 4 mpg.
  • Merging on to the freeway is expensive, and you need a good run to compensate for it if you want 40 mpg. In practice, with shorter freeway runs (about 6 miles, in my case), that segment of driving will leave you with 38 mpg. Otherwise, flat terrain and normal weather seems at 69 mph seems to yield 41 mpg.
  • City driving can be gamed much higher than 44 mpg, but again, cold and short drives hurt it. The tank of gas that I'm on now I was able to get 47 mpg in the first 75 miles, and I think if it was warmer, I could get 50. The shape of the car is less of a detriment at lower speeds, obviously.
  • Doing 75 mph (turnpike limit is 70) will drop your fuel econ down at least 2 mpg compared to doing 65 mph. Not surprising, but annoying when you're trying to hyper-mile.
  • The first few tanks of gas ended around 38 mpg, and I was really disappointed. Now, with it warmer, and extra care, I think I can get it consistently in the low 40's.

I do enjoy driving it. It's a nice looking car, and oddly tall. The back is a pain in the ass to keep clean. Red paint scratches are way too easy to see compared to a black car. I can't wait to take it on its first big trip in a couple of months.

The least exciting Apple product launch ever

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 7, 2012, 10:09 PM | comments: 0

Let me preface this by saying that I love my shiny aluminum iCrap. My laptop, even after three years, remains my favorite computer ever. My iMac screen is wonderfully amazing. I love that my wife has a MacBook Pro that I almost never have to support. My wireless network is powered by an AirPort Extreme and an Express to extend it. My first-gen AppleTV is like an iPod for my stereo. My DVR runs on a Mac Mini.

The iPad has been, from the start, something I never entirely understood. As someone who got an iPhone the day after it became available, I loved it. A similar, larger device, seemed like a weird proposition to me. I thought I'd buy one, but didn't until the second generation came out, and even then, it was mostly out of curiosity. To this day, I don't use it much.

But over time, I started to get it a little. For couch surfing, and other activities that are strictly consumption oriented, it's useful. For people who don't make their living with a computer, I can see the usefulness even more. When I look at how much my in-laws get out of their iPad, it totally makes sense.

However, when I take off my general consumer hat and put my techie hat on, the introduction of a new model with more power and a higher resolution screen, I'm a bit underwhelmed. Considering the number of people who watch only standard definition TV on their HD sets, I think the drool-worthy screen will be lost on most people. Still, the fact that this incremental upgrade has brought down Apple's online store is remarkable. Steve Jobs might be gone, but his reality distortion field lives on.

I think what disappoints me the most is that iOS just isn't evolving. They developed a user experience paradigm, and it hasn't changed much. This is particularly noticeable when I go between my Windows Phone and my iPad. It's still something that's hard to explain to people, but the task-based workflow of WP is progressive and forward thinking to me, while the icon grid just feels old fashioned. With Windows 8 adopting much of the same UX philosophy, I'm hopeful that someone can deliver awesome hardware to match the software, because I'd buy a Windows 8 tablet in a heart beat.

Still, I'm a huge fan of Apple's industrial design. I'm still hoping that the rumors about a 15" MacBook Air, with a high resolution screen, are true. That's something I'd be all over.

Don't be an idiot voter: 5 tips to do the right thing

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 5, 2012, 2:30 PM | comments: 0

I've been ranting a great deal about how voters have lost their minds. It's not as bad as 2000, when we had a pool of mediocre candidates on both sides (though a race between the common sense McCain of those days and Bradley would have been far more interesting), but I suspect that's only because one party has an incumbent. So in an effort to help you not fall into the trap of being an idiot voter, I thought I'd offer some tips to help you cut through all of the bullshit.

1: Ignore any sentence that includes the words "liberal" or "conservative."

The Republicans this year have nearly turned this into a drinking game, with a pissing match about who is more conservativey. When a candidate opens their mouth and utters one of these words, they're offering a convenient escape from addressing any policy points specifically. It's like saying that you're more fragrant. It doesn't say what you'd do about a particular issue, but being fragrant may or may not include the right course of action. The reality is that you just stink.

2: Avoid the trap of contrary positions. There may be a third option.

I had an exchange with a friend who felt that a particular candidate aligned well with her values, contrary to what candidates on the other side were trying to assert. While that makes sense, there is a third, better option, and in this case it's supporting a candidate who isn't trying to assert any values at all. The political spectrum is hung up on black and white absolutes, and nowhere is this more true than in moral issues. When you strip away the absolutes, you start to realize that who someone else sleeps with, or uses birth control, or where and what they choose to worship doesn't matter. It's not the government's business to establish a moral baseline.

Similarly, someone asked why it was OK for a pundit on one side to talk nasty about someone on the other, but the reverse wasn't true. Well, it's not OK either way.

3: If you don't understand, it's OK.

The world is a complex place full of complex issues. If a candidate tries to promise something as a simple solution to a complex problem, your crap detector should go nuts. A lot of our woes around debt and the value of the dollar involve macroeconomics that most of us don't understand. In cases like these, we can take a stab at educating ourselves, or remain blissfully unaware. If you choose the latter, any candidate positions around the issue you don't understand should be disregarded.

4: If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

Politicians like to promise outcomes for things they can't control. For example, gas prices are all the rage right now. On one hand you have people blaming Obama for high prices, and on the other you have Gingrich suggesting he can get gas down to $2.50. The reality is that gas prices are determined by a combination of supply and demand, commodity trading and geopolitical unrest that skews the former two things. The bottom line is that no president, past, present or future, can alter these forces in a meaningful way. Don't be sucked into promises no one can keep.

5: Don't reinforce your opinions, challenge them.

I should subtitle this, "Turn off your TV." We all have our biases and experiences that color our perception, and there's nothing wrong with that. Where it becomes a problem is when you do nothing but reinforce your position with rhetoric and nonsense. Right-leaning people have Fox News (which isn't actually news) for this, and left-leaning people have a great many Internet outlets to affirm what they already think. This doesn't make you smarter or more knowledgable, it just makes you an idiot voter. I think we all start out leaning heavily to one side in our youth, and as we get older we gravitate more toward the middle. Or, as I said, maybe we start to see a third option. Unfortunately, too many people start sounding like the candidates.

A friend of mine made the point that it's hard to figure out who the experts are, and where the truth lies. I tend to agree with that to an extent. However, we ultimately can hold ourselves, and the people we elect, to a higher standard if we choose to. We get the government that we deserve, and right now, it feels like we deserve a shitty government. Don't be an idiot voter.

Simon, 2

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 4, 2012, 10:22 PM | comments: 0

Two years ago today, Diana and I went out for chocolate lava cake around the corner from our apartment in Issaquah, then up to the Microsoft park-and-ride lot in the highlands for some quiet alone time. I was starting my leave, and to distract myself a little, was thinking about the upcoming internal release of Visual Studio 2010 at work, and the media day at Kings Dominion coming in a few weeks. I could barely reconcile that I had just moved and started working for the biggest software company in the world, and yet all of that paled in comparison to the fact that I'd be a father in less than 12 hours.

I remember that weekend like it was yesterday, when Simon came into the world. I can vividly remember every detail about the hospital, the nurses, the blood (there was a lot of blood), the awful hospital food, and strangely enough, the new baby smell. Everyone who has had a baby knows what I'm talking about. I also remember having a burrito'd Simon propped up next to me on the folding bed in the Boppy pillow, unable to sleep because of the warning label about SIDS. I remember the great rocking chair, sustaining periods of simultaneous sleep and awake for hours. Diana was so pale, and she had the weird machine hooked up to her legs to keep the blood flowing. It was the most exhausting 48 hours of my life.

Then we strapped Simon into his car seat for the first time, and days became weeks, weeks became months, and now months have become years. We have a two-year-old little boy. The change has been constant. Every day is a new adventure. Few things could bring so much joy, frustration and love. Of the things I've accomplished in life, they all take a backseat to being a dad.

This is a particularly special time for us, because after some weeks of high frustration, Simon has been very affectionate with us, he's using more words, and as Diana put it, he's enjoyable to be around. Yes, we worry about a hundred little things that probably aren't worth worrying about, but we've got this amazing little human growing up in front of us. It's just spectacular.

Diana, being the excellent mom that she is, executed a perfect Sesame Street themed party for Simon today. People singing to him made him cry, but otherwise, he had a really good time with his playmates, cousins and the grownups.

For me, the biggest challenge is making sure that I spend enough time with him, while respecting my own time. I often second guess every decision, big and small, thinking about how it affect him. I still struggle with moving him away from his near-age cousins and friends in Washington (though honestly, I struggle with that for me, too). He's at that age where I want to make sure he's having a happy childhood without spoiling him or coddling him. It's easy to over-think it, so hard not to.

This morning, he got up entirely too early. At 6:30, still fairly dark outside, I scooped him up from his crib, and he put his head on my shoulder and gave me a squeeze. We sat down in the chair and he gently looked up at me, offered me his Tiger lovey, and cuddled in my arms. If you have to be up that early, it's not a bad way to start your day.

Happy birthday, little dude! I can't wait to see what you do tomorrow.

A date night, finally

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 4, 2012, 1:04 PM | comments: 0

Diana and I finally got out last night, without Simon. It's the first time in the five months we've been here, and that sucks. We did go out one night while in North Carolina visiting my in-laws, but under the circumstances (namely the car crash), I can't say that it was much of an escape. Not that I didn't have a good time, but my head wasn't in it.

Diana has been screening and searching for babysitters, and found a couple that we feel like we can trust. What sucks about this is that it's not free. We're really missing our network back on Seattle's east side.

In any case, we did dinner and a movie. Honestly, we go out to eat all of the time with Simon, but it's hard to talk about us and connect when you have a toddler who demands your attention. We love to take him everywhere, but we've become aware of how hard it is to really focus on our relationship. I've been in that disconnect scenario before, and I don't want to go there again.

Checking in is essential. We both get overwhelmed in our own worlds, to some degree. For me, it's work and my role as household accountant, for Diana it's nearly everything Simon and house related. I think we appreciate the scope of each others' responsibility, but we don't always appreciate how much it can wear on us. That's why the check-in is so important.

One night out certainly isn't enough, but at least we got to thinking about ways we can prioritize "us" a bit more. I can only imagine how hard it is for couples who really have to work hard at it to begin with.

OMG panic about Google!!!!1!!

posted by Jeff | Friday, March 2, 2012, 1:55 PM | comments: 0

I was kind of surprised to see all of the panic about Google's new consolidated privacy policy. In all of the fear and nonsense around it, there are two very big points being overlooked. First, the policy isn't that different from the one they used last week, and second, you can still opt-out of stuff.

Putting all of that scare stuff aside for a moment, let's look at what people do with Google. I suspect a lot of people are like me. They use Google to search, they use Gmail (or Google Apps with your domain name) and they witness advertisements served by Google on a bazillion sites they go to. As you can rightly assume, the combination of these things give Google's machines a pretty good view of what it is that you do on the Internet to some extent. The win for Google is the same win for you: They can serve you targeted advertising.

So which part of that is bad? I'm trying to understand why people fear that. Google will show you a summary of what they know (or infer) about you, and even allow you to opt-out. I'm just not sure why you'd want to. If they can focus advertising shown to me on stuff I care about, like theme parks, Las Vegas hotels and technology stuff, I would very much prefer that over ads for tampons, boner pills and reality TV.

As a content publisher who pays the bills (to an extent) with ads from Google, I would prefer my audience enjoy the same targeted advertising. If I could not subject the audience to ads and still pay for the server, I would, but since I can't, targeted ads makes it less ugly.

Personally, I don't care what some series of bits on a computer somewhere say about my Internet usage habits. If they're not randomly giving that information to governments, I don't care. Internet anonymity has always been a myth in the first place, but even so, Google lets you opt-out. Their Chrome browser even has an incognito mode. In fact, you don't even need to use Google at all... there are plenty of alternatives.

As with many things technology related, the noise about this is just that... noise.

Don't blame the politicians, blame the voters

posted by Jeff | Thursday, March 1, 2012, 8:21 PM | comments: 0

The Republican primary race has gotten really out of control. Aside from Ron Paul, all of the "discussion" is rhetoric, devoid of any policy whatsoever. There is no intelligent approach to any of it. The talking points are around who is more conservative, making up nonsense about religious persecution, and completely ridiculous assertions about changing gas prices. I can't remember the last time it was this ridiculous.

The intelligent voter knows that the "most conservative" title won't balance the budget or get Congress to play along, and that gay people won't ruin anyone's marriage, and that market forces influence gas prices, not presidents. The intelligent voter also comes to the conclusion, after you strip all of that nonsense away, that most of the candidates haven't actually said anything.

I think most people would tend to put the responsibility of this stupidity on the candidates, but I don't think that's it. I think the responsibility lies squarely in the lap of the voters. When you see man-on-the-street interviews on TV, it's clear that people eat this shit up. They want the side show. I would even argue that the lust for this side show is why we've elected countless people into office that have allowed or caused every crisis related to the US government, from both sides of the aisle.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. We get the government we deserve.