Archive: June, 2012

Five years of touchy feely phones

posted by Jeff | Saturday, June 30, 2012, 11:22 PM | comments: 0

The fifth anniversary of the launch of the iPhone just passed. Things changed so fast, no matter what kind of smart phone you have, that it seems nearly impossible to remember just how fantastic and amazing that phone was.

Prior to the iPhone, there was the old Windows Mobile, which was clunky and plagued by horrible battery life. There was also Blackberry, which was functional and loved by people with a poor work-life balance, and had a hideous user interface. Probably the most striking thing about the iPhone was that its key feature was so obvious... a glass touch screen. Is there any more of a natural way to interact with something than to touch it?

When iPhone was announced, Steve Jobs was pretty serious about making the point that you didn't need to develop applications natively for it. The Web was your app, and awesome things could be built to run in the browser. The app store came a year later. The thing is, games aside, Jobs was right, because I would bet that 90% of the apps most people use frequently could just as easily be browser-based.

Later, Android came to market, and in terms of overall OS share, took over. Palm made a go of it and failed. Microsoft eventually released Windows Phone, and finally evolved the user experience to something I believe is hands down better. But no matter what you might use today, it started with the iPhone in 2007.

I didn't get it the day it came out, because waiting in line seemed insane to me, but I think it was a day or two later. The lone Apple Store in town had a reasonable amount of stock, and I was contract-free. I got the 4 gig model, and it just amazed me. I remember going on trips and vacations and being surprised that I could simply bust out my phone and see stuff on the Internet.

Two years later, I upgraded to the iPhone 3GS, which did real GPS and location stuff. I also had a fantastic hard case for it that, to this day, is the only phone case that I've ever had that I really liked.

A little less than a year and a half later, I was able to buy a Samsung Focus, one of the launch Windows Phones. It didn't take long to feel that, while lacking a few things, it was definitely a step forward in user experience for phones. I still use that phone every day, and I will keep it until some new Windows Phone 8 device comes out later this year.

I can only imagine that teenagers completely take these things for granted now. They don't know a time when no one had cell phones, let alone smart phones. Isn't it funny how we have such great amazing things and people complain about how shitty things are?

The "system" still has some integrity

posted by Jeff | Friday, June 29, 2012, 12:12 AM | comments: 0

One of the things really lost in the news of today's Supreme Court decisions was that the institution of the court itself still functions as it should. With our elected Congresscritters, you can pretty much predict their behavior based on where they sit in the chamber. The justices, however, are tasked with interpreting the Constitution and applying it to the laws that the critters come up with.

To that end, knowing that the justices obviously have some political bias, they did the right thing anyway. Justice Roberts, the conservative who upheld the ACA, apparently said during oral arguments or in the written majority opinion, that it isn't the court's place to question the wisdom or morality of the law, but rather its constitutionality. That's so critically important to understand, whether you agree with the law or not.

Similarly, the court upheld that a law making it a crime to lie about military service or honors violated the First Amendment. Yes, obviously, you have to be a serious douchebag to do such a thing, but using words to be a douchebag, for better or worse, is protected free speech.

Whether you agree with the politics or not, I think it's important to recognize that our system of government works. It doesn't mean that it always does the right thing... far from it. It does mean that the authority is still the document we've followed for more than 200 years.

Laws can be modified and repealed. If we can, as a nation, get past all of the divisive bullshit and talk through complex issues, maybe we'll actually start fixing problems instead of bitching about them. Am I naive to think that's possible? I'm certain that the with-me-or-against-me culture is not going to get us anywhere. It's certainly not going to lead us to elect better people. The more divisive people are, the more these assholes will pander to this low level of anti-intellectualism.

Health care reform, revisited and judged

posted by Jeff | Thursday, June 28, 2012, 6:57 PM | comments: 0

When Congress passed the big health care reform bill two years ago, I was surprised at just how divisive it was, and less surprised at how unwilling people were to look at the underlying law itself and what it requires. I weighed in on it in March, 2010, and for the most part, my opinions about it remain essentially the same: It does a lot of good in terms of consumer protection, but the mandate requiring insurance and the funding issues are things I'm not entirely comfortable with. I'm surprised my opinion hasn't changed much, especially working in the health insurance industry now (and not with a good opinion about it).

Today, the US Supreme Court weighed in on the law, and I think to the surprise of everyone, upheld the provision that requires individuals to have health insurance or pay what amounts to an annual fine. The majority opinion, which included conservative Justice Roberts, said the mandate is essentially a tax, which is within the rights of Congress to impose. Of course, Congress insisted that it wasn't a tax, so the people who voted for it are in a pretty awkward place right now.

As I said two years ago, I'm not entirely comfortable with the mandate. One could make the logical argument that it makes sense, since no one is ever turned away from a hospital in this country, and someone eventually has to pay for that health care, so you might as well get them in the system and force their participation. We all know that real life isn't that simple.

The other issue I have is with subsidizing the insurance, partly because the government can't afford it, and partly because an entire industry is awarded new business they didn't earn. Think about the opposing moral issues there. On one hand, you're propping up private enterprise, on the other, you're requiring insurance for children who have no say who their parents are. That's why it's too hard to take a strong all-or-nothing stance on some aspects of the law.

The things that really matter, no one really talks about, or opposes. I don't think anyone is going to argue against requiring the insurance companies to pay for care on preexisting conditions. There is some good in that law.

What really sucks is that the law does nothing to address the astronomical amount of money we spend on health care relative to our overall GDP. That's why the timing of the law in particular is suboptimal. Maybe that's not even a concern of the government in the first place (though I don't think the free market is in any hurry to change it).

My annoyance is less about the law and more about the lack of intelligent discourse around it, especially on the Internet. It's just noise... "Socialism!" "Corporations!" "Middle class!" "Black guy with a funny name in the White House!" No one wants to get into the details, and everyone wants to be for or against everything. You're with me or you're against me. It's annoying. If you wonder why the United States isn't winning, look no further than this irrational division.

Everyone has a story

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, June 27, 2012, 10:35 PM | comments: 0

It's true, what REM used to say, that "Everybody hurts." The thing is, you never know quite how much.

There was a news story on CoasterBuzz today about a dude who climbed a roller coaster and intended to jump off. Fortunately, he was snagged before he could do it. Some jokes were made, and several people commented about how the jokes were insensitive at best, and offensive at worst. Several members talked about their depression, thoughts of suicide, and one even described the hell his life has been since losing his son to a drunk driver. You never really know how much shit a person has had to endure.

You'd think that people would be more sensitive to this fact, but they're not. I'm certainly no better than anyone else (though my purest distaste is for people who exemplify illiteracy via the Internet). Some people endure more shit than others. Sometimes it's for catastrophic life events, sometimes it's for the color of their skin or sexual orientation. Sometimes it's a painful divorce.

I suppose we could all be better people if we stop to understand that everyone has a story that has shaped who they are.

Read more, write more

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, June 26, 2012, 11:22 PM | comments: 0

I finished reading Kevin Smith's Tough Shit: Life Advice from a Fat Lazy Slow Who Did Good tonight. It was a pretty quick and entertaining read, if you don't mind his frequent references to semen. Aside from his surprising tales about what a dick Bruce Willis is, I realize now that he has made a career out of telling stories about what he knows, and that's pretty cool.

I've discovered in the last year that I really like to read, though much of what I like is non-fiction. A lot of it is quasi-non-fiction narrative (I know we had a clinical term for it in J-school), which is stuff that is loosely based on real events, but heavily stylized for entertainment value. Think Ben Mezrich's books that became movies.

In many ways, I find it easier to write when I read more. That probably makes sense. In some ways, that's probably why I should read more fiction, because then I could write the screenplays that are cloudy in my head. There's some danger of being derivative, I suppose, but what generally helps me is the exposure to structure and use of various literary devices that advance a story. Maybe I should have actually paid attention in those literature classes I despised.

Non-specific urgency

posted by Jeff | Monday, June 25, 2012, 11:19 PM | comments: 0

Have you ever been in a place where you feel some great sense of urgency for life in general? I'm having that, and it's totally bizarre. I feel like time's a wasting', and I have to get to it. I don't even know what "it" is. But I do think I know what instigates the feeling. In no particular order:

  • My birthday next week. I'll be 39, which borders 40, and that's more weird than I thought it would be. I figured, since Diana got there first, whatever, no big deal. But it is most certainly on my mind.
  • Death. Feels like there's been too much of it, close to home. I have a friend who committed suicide two weeks ago, some local kids died in a senseless car accident, and something reminded me of a few classmates who died a number of years ago. While I don't necessarily fear death, the reminders that it could come at any time are unwelcome.
  • Health. This one actually goes both ways. There are days where I feel like my body is suddenly extra aware of its age. Shit hurts that never did before. That said, begin able to sustain a two-hour tennis match last week, and not feel bad the next day, has me feeling like I'm correcting the issue. I just worry something might break or I'll get cancer or something.
  • Career. This one goes both ways as well. I'm doing pretty well given my age, and a career change after college, but some people are doing better. It's not an issue of ego or envy, more of an observation that maybe I'm not doing the right things. Of course, I'm not one to chase wealth or titles at the expense of my soul, either, so there is that.
  • Money. It's so weird how my perception of cash has changed. I used to squander it, now I hoard it. If I can't hoard enough, I get a little stressed. I wonder if I can get to my goals by 60, all while making sure Simon is taken care of for school.
  • Marriage. It's wedding season. People are getting married. They're also getting divorced. For me, I'm actually thrilled to have gotten right this time. My marriage doesn't stress me out, it's just frustrating sometimes that I made mistakes the first time around, and the biggest cost was time. I don't know why this has suddenly started to wear on me, except perhaps because of the age thing. I wish someone would have told me 12 years ago, "Don't get married just because it's the next logical step."

The unfortunate result of this non-specific urgency is that it's hard to act on since it's not, uh, specific. I've been pretty good at reminding myself to live a little more in the moment though. I spend time with Simon watching him do mundane toddler stuff, I find quality alone time with Diana, I play a video game now and then, and I've been looking up at the stars more often during hydrotherapy. Life is mostly good.

Windy City weekend

posted by Jeff | Monday, June 25, 2012, 11:20 AM | comments: 0

We spent about 42 hours in Chicago this weekend, and it was quite the whirlwind trip. Diana's cousin, Michelle, had her wedding on Friday night.

I actually volunteered to skip the wedding, to watch Simon and his two cousins, Nina and Mason. I didn't feel comfortable hiring a stranger to watch them in the hotel, and really, I miss the kids. Most of the people at the wedding I see frequently enough that it's no big deal. In a strange coincidence, I also didn't go to Michelle's brother's wedding in LA a few years ago, because after a day of travel (and that was just getting through LA!), Simon was in no shape to take to a wedding.

I generally tell people that I don't like Chicago, because almost every time I've been there (not counting lay-overs), it has been driving. Chicago isn't meant for cars. There are too many people driving, and they're all maniacs. Even the pedestrians are stupid, jumping out in front of cars. But if I take away the driving into it part, there are certainly a lot of great things about the city. We rolled into town at almost 3, because of accidents in Ohio and Indiana, and it sucked. I was so glad to give the keys to the valet.

We stayed at the JW Marriott, which is next door to the Sears, er, I mean, Willis Tower. No, we didn't do the Ferris Bueller thing, because I kind of forgot about it by Sunday morning. It was a great location, in the L loop with a station around the corner. The hotel is only a year old or so, molded into a former bank building. It smells like the Venetian, and I was always looking for the slots. I really liked it, and we got a solid rate under $200 for the wedding. Overall it was a pretty good value for a downtown hotel with rooms that comfortable, though the $55/night to park the car obviously sucked. Whatever... I felt like we got a good deal.

When we arrived, everyone was gearing up for the wedding, and at that moment, I kind of felt left out, and briefly regretted the offer to watch the kids. However, once Mason got over the departure of his parents (in all of 15 seconds), the fun started. His favorite phrase for the night was, "Watch this, Simon!" While Nina pretty much crashed for the night, the boys had a good old time running between the connected rooms, flopping on the king bed and jumping off stuff. I really feel bad that Simon doesn't get to play with his cousin almost every day the way he did when we lived in Snoqualmie. Sure, they have their sharing issues, but they clearly have a good time together.

For the first time ever, at least that I can remember, Simon actually asked to go to bed. Mason zoned out in front of the TV, and I put him down, and Nina also zoned in her bed. They were all down by 9 or so, and I retreated to the Internets to catch up on the news of the day. I started to feel a little left out again as I saw the photos coming from the wedding on Facebook, but I got over it.

On Saturday, we ventured down the street to a little restaurant recommended by my in-laws, and had a nice breakfast. From there, we rolled down a few more blocks to Millennium Park to see what was going on there. Not even 10 a.m., and there were tourists everywhere, touching Cloud Gate ("the bean") and splashing in the creepy water wall face video wall thing. There was also a massive yoga class going on in the amphitheater. I love to see urban life thrive like that, even though I don't think I'd like it. Growing up in a bad neighborhood in the city and moving to the 'burbs soured me.

While Diana went to a yarn shop, I crashed in the room with Simon for a nap. It was one of the most satisfying naps ever. In fact, the whole trip seems to have reset my sleep, because I had an exceptional few nights of rest, even once we got home.

In the afternoon, we left Simon with his Uncle Joe, and Diana and I hopped on the Brown Line to go see the Blue Man Group. There were pride events going on around town, and it looked like they were either going to have a parade or already did, judging by the stacks of road barriers in the area near the theater. There was a lot of colorful hair and clothing, and the tattoo and piercing shop had a line (no matching tattoos for us this time, either). It felt diverse and inclusive, the way Seattle does to me. It's un-Cleveland.

We had an early dinner at a place called Jack's, a block down Halsted from the theater. We had mimosas and giant sandwiches that were fairly delicious. We also ate them in record time, as somehow my intention to leave the hotel early with time to spare translated to us getting our food at 3:35 (the show was at 4). I would have liked to have had more drinks.

I already wrote about the show. On the way back we had a good time people watching on the train. There was a cute girl with long hair and one side of it shaved, but I was complaining about her giant hipster glasses. That's such a silly trend. Do we really have to relive 1989?

On the way, Diana got a text that the remaining family at our hotel was at a restaurant on the other side of the loop, with Simon, so we stayed on a few stops to meet up with them. We had a lovely Russian waitress that Simon was very fond of, and he actually managed to eat some restaurant food. We had drinks and some fried cheese, since we ate earlier. I would've liked to have stayed longer and had more, especially after being super dad the night before, but Simon's impatience was starting to annoy people, so we took off before everyone else. We're working with him on being patient in eating situations, but this was just not the place. That, and Simon managed to launch marinara across the room from a spoon catapult, though he took most of the damage.

Back at the hotel, the kids again had the run of our connected rooms. We moved Simon's pack-and-play into Joe's bathroom once the kids were down, and the four grownups hung out in our room. It was nice to spend time with them, and when we went to bed, and left the next day, I again felt the regret that we don't get to do that like we used to. We're not down the street anymore, and it sucks.

Sunday morning started with an unsuccessful attempt at the same breakfast, since the place was closed. We ended up in the Irish bar of a neighboring hotel, with unremarkable food. But we got more sib-in-law hang out time, and Simon got more cousin time, so that was nice. We packed it up and one of the valet dudes entertained Simon while we waited for the car.

We had one stop on the way home (well, technically a second because the f'ing Wendy's in South Bend where I got lunch gave me a diet Coke, so I had to stop at the next service plaza). We made really good time, with 43 mpg.

It was a nice little diversion of a weekend. It was kind of expensive for the length of time, but I feel like we got what we paid for. With Simon being the age that he is, these short weekend trips work really well for him. Still on the fence about going to Orlando this December, or waiting a year. Almost 18 months since our last visit, and I'm getting the shakes!

Blue Man Group Chicago

posted by Jeff | Saturday, June 23, 2012, 11:57 PM | comments: 0

I finally saw the Blue Man Group show in Chicago today. It was my eleventh show overall: Three in Vegas, three in Orlando, four on the Megastar tour (in three cities). I've wanted to see one of the smaller venue shows for awhile, to see how they handle the constraints.

After reading the program, I noticed one of the dudes played on the Megastar tour, and oddly enough, I recognized him from the DVD of that show. This show has a three-piece band, which is the smallest one I've seen. The theater itself has almost no lobby, and it's a far cry from the opulence of the Vegas theater in the Venetian (they're moving to the Monte Carlo in October). But hey, they have the bathroom song in the bathroom. I need to find that so I can play it in my own crapper.

The staging constraints only detract from the show by way of forced asymmetry. The video screen is stage left, with the band on top, and the drums and tube instruments on forced to stage right. I suppose the gum ball and marshmallow tossing is also less impressive because the distance is less.

Having the smaller band does take away from certain parts of the music. For example, the "wire man"/"stomp your feet-clap your hands" bit is just outright missing half of the instrumentation. It's visually impressive, but doesn't sound as good. Ditto for "Rods and Cones," as I wasn't fond of the arrangement at all. On the other hand, you can see where "PVC IV" works just fine with a smaller band. They also don't do the "Chant Jam" that Vegas had (and I think Orlando opened with at least), because when I listen, I hear more instruments than three. I don't know if any of the shows do that anymore with the arrival of the giPads and dance party finale, but it would be a shame. The build of the PVC and the band on that was perfect.

The use of the enormous giPads is a pretty neat addition (they look like huge iPads), and they actually get used quite a bit, replacing the old TV's and bits they used to do with them. They're used as a visual component in video as well. It's my understanding that all of the shows have evolved a bit to use these.

The Chicago show does the paper finale, with the addition of the big floating balls. I'm not entirely fond of the music choice. Actually, the adaptation of KLF's "Last Train to Trancentral" remains my favorite finale song. The balls also seem at odds with the paper, and standing up to bounce them around while the strobes are firing is hard. The continuity of the show just seems broken when they start making jokes about their balls. I dunno... the ending is here to stay, and I know they do it elsewhere, but it doesn't seem to capture the same energy.

It's a really entertaining show, as I would expect, it just doesn't have the same epic quality as the bigger shows. It does come with many of the updates, particularly with lighting in the last five or six years, but lacks the video projection. I think if you're a fan, you need to see it at least once.

Head in the cloud

posted by Jeff | Thursday, June 21, 2012, 11:43 PM | comments: 2

I have been really hungry lately to push myself technologically. I want to try new stuff and learn new things. Work is not satisfying that appetite. The solutions that I'm charged with providing aren't particularly new or novel, they're just the kinds of things that should already be in place. While thinking ahead to the new and novel, I'm so far from a place where I can do it.

Still, I've been thinking about ways to engage on my own time, and I'm pretty excited about where Windows Azure is going. That's the umbrella term for the cloud platform of the mothership. They recently announced all kinds of new stuff, and the pricing just keeps getting better. It's really great stuff.

Of course, I'm somewhat biased, but will freely say it wasn't always great stuff. My favorite project while at Microsoft was the reputation system we built for the MSDN/TechNet properties. It's the stuff that handles all of the scoring and virtual medals on user profiles (check out the points on this dude). We were the pioneers for our org to use Azure, before it was entirely ready. To say we encountered some issues is sort of an understatement, but we worked through them, and I believe we delivered a pretty awesome system.

It was a great project to build on the platform, because we had a number of moving parts that could generally work independently of each other. We used databases, queues and storage pieces for glue. In the event that any particular part needed more horsepower, it was just a matter of firing up more instances of it. I don't know what the traffic to the system's API was, but I believe it was at least nine digits a month.

In my little world of Web sites, I don't need that kind of scale, but the pricing is getting close to the point where it may still make sense to use it over conventional server rental. The dream is to not need to feed and care for a box, and to automate deployments. The cloud really frees you of all of the IT crap one might normally have to put up with, and it makes the old way seem like and archaic way to deliver software on the Internets. The idea that you need people to setup servers and maintain a network just seems crazy now.

I've got some experiments in mind that I'd like to try, in terms of building out some distributed components to satisfy my curiosity. Some of the limitations we had to live with when I was at Microsoft no longer exist. It's pretty exciting.

Tablet mania

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, June 20, 2012, 4:04 PM | comments: 0

Computers in the tablet form factor seemed to be something of a fantasy for a long time. Most notably, Microsoft was pushing laptops that converted into things with screens you could use a stylus on. They actually gained some traction in the medical niche, but widespread use never caught on.

Touch and gestures became obvious for things that weren't ATM's when the iPhone came out in 2007. It's weird to think about how obvious that is now. When the iPad was announced, and then released in the spring of 2010, I figured, sure, I'll buy one. They aren't cheap, but they're not expensive, so why not?

But I never did buy one, at that point. My gadget problem did not get the best of me, and I didn't do it. My better judgement held me back, because I didn't really see where I would use it. I finally did buy one, a year later, mostly so I could see what my sites looked like in the browser, and how they worked in a touch scenario. I replaced that iPad a year later because of a generous trade-in from Amazon and no-contract LTE hotspot sharing on the new model.

Once I finally had one of these devices, I started to understand where it fit, but also that it wasn't an entirely necessary object. What it really came down to is that the iPad is almost strictly a consumption device. You don't really create stuff on it. Yes, you can peck out e-mail and respond to forum posts, but it's not a place you want to do any serious writing, or otherwise create media. It's not that you can't, it's just ergonomically awkward. You certainly can't write code on it or unleash your Photoshop masterpiece.

What the iPad did do successfully is push the engineering and industrial design to places it had never gone before. That's a big deal. Being a decidedly different kind of computer with different goals freed it of the constraints that computers have had since the IBM PC. It didn't need to have certain ports or be expandable or whatever. Tweaking geeks hate this (especially when it comes to the slim Mac laptops), but let's be honest here... you can generally get three or more years out of these machines without changing them, and even resell them after that. The simplicity and elegance of the iPad is part of its allure.

Now we have Surface, from Microsoft. I might be a little biased having worked there, but I firmly believe that what they're capable of is huge. I think they finally woke up and realized that no matter how great the software is that they're making, you can't entirely rely on manufacturers to build great hardware around it. This has become painfully obvious with laptops, where it has taken four years to start making hardware as great as the Apple stuff, and it's still not "better." They took things into their own hands and announced their Surface tablet this week.

What surprises me is that it's not a "me too" product. They didn't just make a tablet in the image of iPad and put Windows on it. I already knew that the user interface and connected service integration would be better, by way of the Windows 8 betas and almost two years using Windows Phone. What they did was blur the line between the "PC" (an increasingly stupid term, because I frankly believe that an iPad is also a "personal computer") and the tablet. They did this with a genius cover that's also a keyboard. They decided to put USB and HDMI ports on it. You can even use a stylus on it. If I were to summarize what's different, I'd say that it's not strictly a consumption device the way the iPad is. That's the important distinction.

That said, there is some potential for confusion. What they announced is actually two variations on the tablet. One runs on the lower power ARM chips similar to those running the iPad and Android tabs. The other is actually a full-blown Intel CPU computer, in a tablet package. The former can only run the tablet specific Metro apps designed for it, while the latter can run anything Windows can. If I were strictly a pundit, I'd say, that's fine, so much of what anyone does anymore is browser based anyway. I don't know if regular consumers will understand or appreciate the difference, and I worry that this will be a serious point of confusion. Maybe it won't matter at all.

It's also not entirely clear what Microsoft's intentions are. OEM's can still make their own tablets running their software, so does that mean they're really just making the ultimate reference design? A template for others? While it's hard to say, my hope is that they're in it to win it. While licensing the operating system is the company's heritage, and it has made ridiculous coin doing so, one could argue that there's high potential for high margin in these devices. Apple makes cool software, but let's not kid ourselves... they don't license OS X or iOS because the money is in the hardware they sell, often at ridiculous margins. With carrier subsidies, they're doing as much as 60% on the iPhones, and the laptops and iPads up to 50% (not accounting for R&D, mind you). Who doesn't want to be in that business?

Regardless of what you like to use, seeing Microsoft finally come to the party is pretty exciting. I'll buy a Surface, sure. I doubt I'll be the only one.

Revisiting a very painful day from 2005

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, June 20, 2012, 12:30 AM | comments: 0

I'm exhausted out of my mind after a two hour tennis match, but I just can't sleep. Part of it is my brain looking at what I did well and what I didn't improve on. Part of it is a few aches. But the weird thing that kept popping into my head was a volleyball match that happened more than six years ago.

I wrote about it at the time, but the executive summary is that we lost our game four, and the match, because of a bad call. Not just a bad call, but the wrong call. My favorite kid blasts a hit from the strong side, and it bounces off of the block and out of bounds on our side. It was our point. Everyone in the gym, including the opposing team, knew this. The idiot ref, did not. Even the down ref couldn't make him understand he was wrong, and he was too stubborn to admit it. I cared very deeply about those kids, and to date, I consider that team my greatest achievement in coaching. Wronging them was like wronging my own children.

If that weren't bad enough, I had two problematic parents, one who wanted me to coddle her kid, the other suggesting I needed to yell more and be a dick. He even went as far as suggesting I didn't even care.

Once the gym was cleared, I had a mini-meltdown.

With all of the years the have passed, I can offer a little more context about why that was such a painful day.

It wasn't widely known then, but Stephanie and I were separated at that point, and she was living in Kent. Earlier that day, we went to see our couples therapist, and it didn't go particularly well. It was the first time I had considered that we might not get back together. We agreed that perhaps we should see other people, which arguably isn't likely to go well when you're still technically married. After 11 years in a relationship with someone, the only significant long-term relationship I knew, I felt completely lost.

To combat those feelings, and find some definition in life, I quit the crappy contracting job I had to worry exclusively about coaching. I had a varsity team at a tiny school, and I committed to challenging them to be bigger than they were. The athletic director scheduled a much harder schedule for them, too, which meant they wouldn't breeze through the season like they did the previous year, but I felt they'd be better for it. One of my former J.O. kids graduated from there the year before, and she talked me into it as a "fixer upper" opportunity.

I immediately connected with most of the kids. They were super smart, driven, and most were very open to learning whatever I threw at them. I think we ended just over .500, but we had epic battles against big schools, and they went from the junior high "W" serve receive to a swing offense that they ran themselves, in only a few short weeks of practice. The kids taught me that people will rise to the challenge if you let them.

I was emotionally invested in their success and development, so you can understand how the parent issues, which only got worse as the season went on, really took a toll. In retrospect, many were the "participation trophy" types that are turning our kids into crybabies. I remember after only one of the kids showed up to see the first round sectional (we earned a bye), in part because they all had other clubs or things to be at, my JV coach and I sat them down and told them that they were not going to be special this way, that the kids they'd compete with for college were all self-described over-achievers. It was a reality check they didn't want to hear, but I vividly remember one girl coming up to me after, and saying, "I know you're right... I'm sorry I didn't go to the match." That year, I had four former J.O. kids playing in college, all walk-ons. I knew what commitment could do.

In any case, it was the only time that an official cost my kids the match, and there are only so many times you can take getting kicked in the nuts in one day. It was not a good day. That moment I made eye contact with the ref, just before I walked the crying kids outside, stays with me, and still hurts. I remember what I said: "You're awful. You have no business officiating high school volleyball."

To look back at that period in my life, I see how much I defined my identity by my marriage, and my coaching. It's tempting to categorize that passion as destructive, but if you can't be passionate about things that you might fail in, you can't be passionate about the things where you succeed. The risk of the pain is worth the risk of the joy. It's the difference between making life happen and letting it happen to you.

Weeks later, in our last home match, the second against the much bigger Western Reserve Academy, my kids owned everything. We won in four games, convincingly. It was the validation that I so desperately needed, and to this day, that match defines why I love coaching. I also started to engage in another relationship after that difficult night. While complicated (as you'd expect when you're still married), it made me realize that people wanted to be with me, and it turned me around from the gloom and doom. Had I succumbed to the pain, I might never have experienced the joy.

These were great lessons for me, at just the right time. Maybe holding on to the pain of that day isn't constructive, but maybe it usefully reminds me of the joy that came later.

Tennis win by loss

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, June 19, 2012, 9:50 PM | comments: 0

They put me in the second singles slot today, and I lost. It was still a fantastic match. We were on the court for a little over two hours, and I lost tie breaks in both sets, 5-7, 5-7. It was the kind of exhausting experience I haven't had since the days I'd get on a bike and ride between 50 and 80 miles.

But it was a good experience. The dude I was playing also had never played a singles match competitively, so it was new for both of us. We were about the same age, he was slightly taller and probably in better shape than me. At the end, I don't think either one of us has much left, and yet, the tennis got better and better. The thing that I noticed was that I was so tired near the end that I don't remember doing any of the things I should. For example, serving, I don't remember the quality of my tosses, getting my left hand up, or following through. Every other serve receive, I'd stop and think, oh yeah, watch the toss and the swing.

Being exhausted in the second sense actually helped. While I wasn't giving up, I wasn't going to be sad if it ended either. That meant I stopped backing off on serves and what not and just let it rip, with some degree of success. Similarly, I'd really let it rip on every swing. I think my opponent had the same idea, and that's why the points kept getting longer.

Being honest with myself, I made mistakes, but it wasn't the same mistakes over and over. I didn't get into ruts, and I was able to adjust. That has been my biggest issue so far. At the same time, I probably should not have lost the first set. I was up 4-1, then 5-2, and had several chances to win the set after that. I got a little too confident for my own good.

While it was technically a loss, it felt like a win. We got our money's worth. I didn't feel like a stranger to the game. My team won the other four matches, so overall, it was still a win. Unfortunately, I'll miss another match this weekend, and then we have a bye. I'll only get to play four total, out of eight, since I was sick two weeks. That's a bummer.

A new laptop

posted by Jeff | Monday, June 18, 2012, 11:17 PM | comments: 0

When Apple announced the new "retina" laptop a week ago, I ordered it immediately. That sounds as if I have a serious gadget problem, but I'm putting it into perspective... I bought the last one more than three years ago. If I really had a problem, I would have bought either a MacBook Air or a standard 15" with the high resolution screen in the interim. I didn't buy either one.

Fortunately, my previous one found a good home with a friend, and he's getting the SSD in it, too. I suspect he'll get many years out of it. I found the old receipt, and can't believe that I paid nearly $2,700 for it. That sounds like a lot, but consider that it was top of the line everything at the time, and no one made laptops with screens that nice, or big. Considering it's still more than viable, and sellable, after three years, puts that price in perspective. I had a little bit of purchase regret at the time (mostly because I got laid-off six weeks later), but I got a whole lot out of it.

I figured I'd replace it at some point this year, if they did some combination of the features that made sense. They had to do a 15" with solid resolution, though they ended up exceeding "solid" ridiculously, and it had to be thinner and lighter. Adequate RAM and an SSD had to be part of the package, and they announced all of the above. It had to be something that would last me the next three years, and it would be nice if it was a little cheaper. $500 cheaper is good.

In any case, it came today, and my initial reaction is awe. If you've used a new iPad, you know what it means to not see pixels. I'm surprised to have the same thing on a laptop. Now tweak the settings to allow "more space," and I essentially have the real estate of the 17" only with much sharper text. It also weighs more than two pounds less.

Obviously I haven't done much in the way of real work on it, but I copied over my Windows VM, and grinned when it booted in nine seconds. Since I got the 16 gig model, I can give the VM 8 gigs of RAM. There are still 5 free overall. Everything is just so ridiculously fast.

The thing that surprises me most is that they really figured out the heat problem. I recently got out my old 15", the first MBP,  released in 2006, and I did a restore to send it to the recycler for a few bucks. That thing always got too hot. This new machine barely breaks a sweat, pushing to 110 degrees in certain parts with the VM running, but you can't tell. It doesn't feel hot, and you can't hear the fans blowing, despite allegedly running 2000 rpm.

There are some minor issues in the short term. Chrome hasn't been updated to use the display, so it's ugly with jagged text. They have said they're working on it. In the mean time, I can get by using Safari, though it's not my favorite. Where it really shines is with Aperture. Photo people are just going to love it.

The haters complain that you can't replace anything on it, but aside from replacing the DVD drive with an SSD on my old one, I didn't do anything to that in three plus years. There are some people hanging on to those old days when you replaced parts on your computer continuously, in a non-stop upgrade. That was sort of fun, I guess, always trying to make stuff go faster, but I have no interest in ever doing that again. I just want to turn shit on and see it work, and get three or more years out of it.

So the initial impression is, holy crap did they build a great computer. If what you do for a living involves software development, why would you cut corners on something that isn't as good? Again, critics suggest you pay too much for Apple, but I tried to price a Dell with similar specs and can't get it cheaper. Ditto for HP and Lenovo.

Nine seconds.

Being a dad

posted by Jeff | Sunday, June 17, 2012, 10:27 PM | comments: 0

I know this makes me sound a little like a poopy pants, but Fathers Day is one of those days I generally categorize as a "greeting card holiday." It just feels like something made up to sell greeting cards. I would also say that you don't really get recognition just for procreating. I mean, I've been thinking about that act pretty much all of the time since I turned 12! That's hardly an achievement.

For me, I consider every day a gift to be Simon's dad. That sounds like a cliche, I know, but when I look at all of the suboptimal situations that many parents and children deal with, I don't take it for granted that I have a healthy little family. I am extraordinarily grateful for every day.

Being a dad has given me purpose that I didn't have before. Mind you, I don't feel like it has replaced any part of my life, but I'm me plus this. It's strange to look at the things that make up your life, and wonder how you can add something that adds so many demands, and brings you so much joy.

Simon is so many things to me. He's extra glue between me and Diana. He's a constant challenge. He's a great photography subject. He reactivates my earliest memories. He's a wrestling partner. He's my son. It never stops being weird to say that.

I'm hesitant to take a lot of fatherhood credit because Diana plays a much bigger role in parenthood. Sure, that sounds a little like I'm falling into 1940's gender roles, but half of Simon's waking hours are exclusively with his mom, the other half are almost all with both of us. Sure, I'm the one with the income right now, but being a good parent is not, in my view, something you can buy. As such, I feel sometimes that I play a disproportionate role. I feel like I've got the easy part (except when work is frustrating or otherwise not fun).

I think what I really like most is that I smile a lot more. Like today, he climbed into the spare bed at nap time, and I crawled in next to him. He just looked over at me and giggled. Or in the afternoon, just watching him play with his blocks caused me to smile, in awe of the way he's growing up. It's the simplest things.

Being a dad is a wonderful privilege. Few things in my life have been this awesome.

The sauce is boss

posted by Jeff | Saturday, June 16, 2012, 8:29 PM | comments: 0

I like hot sauce. I like stuff to be spicy. When I go to an Indian restaurant, I'm like, "Make that the hot curry, please." At Buffalo Wild Wings, I go as high as Mango Habanero, third from the hottest. Diana's "hot" is my "mild."

So today I notice on the Famous Dave's menu that they have something hotter available for their wings/boneless wings than Devil's Spit. I like the spit, but I wouldn't describe it as particularly hot. It's warm and cozy, like an electric blanket. (Do they still make electric blankets, or do they cause cancer too?) I figured if the sauce on the table is described as "hot," then maybe this other stuff is hot the way I'd like it.

The waitress offered to get a sample, but I figured, whatever, I'll just get it. How hot could it be?

The boneless goodness comes out, and I eat one. Definitely a lot of heat, but that's good, that's what I wanted. I eat a second, and I notice that my nose is starting to run, and eyes are starting to water. I start swishing the soda around in my mouth, and the burn isn't going away. For reasons I don't understand, I eat a small, third one. At this point, I'm ready to admit that I made a serious mistake.

The next time the waitress swings by, I tell her it's just inedible, and hope she'll replace them with a new batch that has Devil's Spit. It was my own fault, but she was sympathetic, and I got the replacement. It's the first time I've tried something hotter that I couldn't handle. The last time was when someone gave me an "atomic" wing at Quaker Steak. It burned my lips and my ass by morning. Yikes.

I'm concerned that there is gastric distress in my future. The worst part is that I think it was still delicious, despite the discomfort.

I hate it so much I can't stop playing it!

posted by Jeff | Thursday, June 14, 2012, 11:44 PM | comments: 0

Those of us with Windows Phones are undoubtedly familiar with Wordament. Think Boggle, only every word counts for your score, and you play against everyone else who is playing. It was one of the apps built by Microsoft employees (we got free access to the app marketplace), and the company eventually asked the two dudes to keep developing it as their full-time job. Then they made it an Xbox Live title, so it now has achievements!

I was always pretty good at playing Boggle against other humans. Well, against my family on camping trips, mostly. This game frustrates me for some reason. I typically land in the top third of each game, but for some reason I think I should be smarter than that. Diana usually gets the top fourth, though she plays it more than I do.

Until the last few days, I didn't play much, but suddenly I'm more interested in it. It's kind of genius... you can play for two minutes and instantly see how you rank. It reminds me a little of NTN Trivia in bars and Buffalo Wild Wings, only it doesn't take a half-hour to get through ten questions and see your rank.

Part of it is that I just happen to admire what they built. From a technical perspective, it's interesting, and the simplicity of the networked gameplay is brilliant. I wish I would have thought of it. The cheerleader in me likes that it's on Windows Phone, too (it will apparently be on Windows 8, too).

Making your new financial reality

posted by Jeff | Thursday, June 14, 2012, 10:42 PM | comments: 0

The next presidential election is already devolving into out-of-context sound bites, mostly with regard to the economy. It's totally annoying. Fueling this, in part, was the report that the average American net worth is down a ridiculous amount in the last five years. What gets lost is that it's on par with 1992 levels, and 2008 is when the housing and credit bubbles finally popped. The housing bubble is a particularly important event, since so many people have their worth tied up in their houses. My house was worth $210k six years ago. Now it's $155k.

My point is that this has nothing to do with any president, past, present or future. These guys can't make your house worth more. The hard fact you need to live with is that you took a risk when you took out a loan on your house, and now you'll pay for it. I'm in that boat too. If you're one of the irresponsible people who couldn't do high school math and got into a ridiculous ARM loan destined to screw you, I have no sympathy. In fact, I blame you for making the bubble worse, and my house worth less.

Now that I've got that rant out of my system, we've tried to live in a new financial reality. When the job market sucked and we were upside down on two houses, with tens of thousands in credit card debt in 2009, it's an understatement to say that we had to make some adjustments. Oddly enough, having a child didn't really make life more expensive, because for the first year or so, we never really did anything! That's not exactly true, but we definitely went out to eat less, and perhaps out of obligation to Simon, spent less on ourselves.

By late 2010, we were in a much better place. I don't remember when we got to a debt free point (other than the mortgage), but I promised myself I would avoid debt and start saving like crazy. Right now I commit to saving literally half of my net income. I've mostly been able to do it, but then we had the car accident on Christmas Eve, which zapped our savings five digits. It's still going fairly well, but still not as fast as I hoped.

I'm finding that the reason for that is the old credit card trap. I tend to buy stuff from Amazon, or on vacation, using the credit card because I'm always pushing the cash flow hard from saving. This month, it finally caught up with me, with a bunch of big expenses like my license plates, vacation expenses, large charitable donations, prescriptions (because my benefits are shitty), and non-essential things like Star Wars on Bluray. I can pay the stuff off, but it comes at the expense of saving, which strangely hurts more than getting nowhere on a card balance ever did. For the first time in the last year, I had to back off on a savings transfer, and I'm self-loathing a little.

But that's ultimately the positive reality that I should have been living in since the day I opened my first checking account. Hindsight and all, but you have to wonder if I'd be kicking it on a beach or something by now if I was smarter about things from the start.

I'm able to let go a little because I can't really put a price on the memories and goodness that came out of some of those spending categories. I so needed that vacation, and we really enjoyed ourselves. The best things in life might be free, but money still buys you some nice shit that makes you comfortable.

Getting technically behind

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, June 13, 2012, 11:05 PM | comments: 0

I realized today, after a day at work that I found to be particularly frustrating, that I'm starting to fall behind a bit on keeping up. In other words, as the technology areas that I'm most familiar with continue to evolve, I'm not spending nearly enough time thinking about them or playing around with them. That concerns me.

Historically, I've always tried to stay on top of what's going on in the Microsoft world. I continue to do that, in part because I still have a fair amount of access to people who keep me in the loop (under NDA, of course). I also try to keep up a "feel" for things going on in other stacks, platforms and frameworks, because they often involve novel concepts that apply well to any practice in technology.

But lately, it's not happening. Historically, at any job I've had in the last ten years, I would reach a point before lunch, or just after it, where I would take a break and read up on whatever I had encountered via RSS or shared links or whatever. That also meant that I would experiment and play, sometimes at work, but more often late at night. I'm not doing that either. I think the problem is some combination of mental fatigue at work (mostly from navigating and slowly trying to change a culture that is in dire need of change) and a lack of opportunity to come up for air more often. I suppose that essentially makes it a time management problem.

Last week, Azure was essentially relaunched, and as far as I can tell, it's awesome. I was fortunate to work on the platform early in its life while at Microsoft, and while it was slightly a mess back then, I really started to love it for all of its promise and simplicity. It's a part of my expertise that I don't want to get stale. For that reason, I need to find some time to get into it and mess around.

It's not an impending doom scenario, it's just something I've become very aware of lately. I'm not doing enough nerd stuff. The nerd stuff pays bills.

The ups and downs of two

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, June 13, 2012, 8:48 PM | comments: 0

There are days where Simon is pretty much the best and only thing in my world. Other times, I feel bad because his behavior grates on me so much that I want to be as far away from him as possible. The funny thing is that the bad stuff is completely worth enduring for the good stuff.

The meltdowns are the start of what's hard. Some days, I can roll with every tantrum. Other days, he gets to me, and I can't help but responding emotionally, exactly the opposite of what I want to do. And I feel like a dick, because when I see parents that I openly criticize in public for being shitty parents, I know that I'm being that parent. I don't give them a pass, and I won't give myself one. I never hit him or anything, but I have yelled at him, and that's stupid.

The single hardest thing for me right now is that bed time sucks about half of the time. I basically get two and a half hours with him after work, and I want it to be nice. Nights like tonight, he was all wound up, and while watching TV he was hitting me for no reason. Then he does everything he can to stall going to bed, including fighting us to brush teeth and read books. He goes into the crib and the crying and screaming over nothing in particular starts. I hate this, because I want my limited time with him in the weekday evenings to be special.

With all of the dread and frustrating points, the truth is that Simon has never been more of a sweet little boy. He has become very fond of giving hugs and kisses. It's nice to be on the receiving end of that as a parent, certainly, but in some ways it's even more cute to see him do it with others. For example, when we left Cedar Point last weekend, he gave the PR rep and the president of GKTW a big hug and kiss. It was just too adorable for words.

He sort of enjoys cuddling now, too. He loves to wrestle on the spare bed in the morning. If he's really, really tired, he'll pass out in your arms, with his head on your shoulder (challenging because he's so tall). Last weekend in the hotel, he wouldn't sleep, I guess because we were in the room. Then I crawled into bed with him, and snuggled up close to me, and slept. That was cute.

Simon also does a lot of cute and kind things. He gets super excited any time he can help, which frustratingly often involves opening or closing doors, but also watering the plants outside, putting stuff away (when we're lucky) and bringing you stuff that you may or may not need. He also likes to share food sometimes.

It's strange to say out loud that this is the best and worst time being Simon's dad, but it's true.

Tennis fail

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, June 12, 2012, 11:50 PM | comments: 0

Finally had a USTA match tonight, after being on vacation, a bye and two weeks missed because of the sinus infection. What a disaster it was. Lost 2-6, 0-6. Maybe that's me being harsh, because most games went to deuce or at least 30-40. It felt at times like it could go the other way, but it didn't.

I'm trying to cut myself a little slack, because I've played one actual match in my four months of tennis experience, and even that was against Diana, not total strangers. I kind of expected this outcome, because I just haven't played enough outside of lessons. I think a part of me just thought I might get away with more. I suppose not touching a fuzzy ball in about a month doesn't help things either.

I felt bad for my partner, who has been playing a lot longer, and gets out with his wife to play a few times a week. He has the benefit of being retired, which sure helps. We held our own pretty well through a lot of points, but I never hit a solid rhythm from the base line.

It's the weird shit that I'm good at. We gave up two high returns ripe for overhand destruction, and in both cases, I snagged the balls out of the air to return them. That's the volleyball reflex, I would think. The problem is that crazy stuff, while exciting and crowd pleasing (if there were a crowd watching), isn't particularly useful without the basics down.

I have to accept that I'm probably going to be slightly miserable with my skill level for awhile. I want more, faster, and obviously you can't just shortcut experience. I've gotta figure out how not to beat myself up over that.


posted by Jeff | Monday, June 11, 2012, 10:13 PM | comments: 0

While I was having a good time at Cedar Point most of the weekend, some of my friends buried Mary, one of my friends from the Penton Media bust-boom era (about 1999 to 2001). She wrote for one of the magazines I worked with there, and was part of the Moe's lunch crew. During that time, and in the years that followed, she would be a regular at our parties.

If you didn't know her, but you were at those parties, all I have to tell you is that she was the blonde with the laugh. Yeah, that laugh. I don't know how a person naturally arrives at such a laugh with that kind of sonic penetration, but Mary did. I suppose some may have found it bizarre, but I think we all loved her for it.

I last saw Mary about three years ago, at a party at the Freeze's. I didn't sense anything particularly different about her. In fact, a lot of her general themes were consistent, that she felt underpaid, not professionally appreciated, and concerned that she'd lose her job. I used to write off some of that as goofy paranoia, but being blonde wasn't always great for being taken seriously as a journalist. Given her feminist tendencies, I understood where she was coming from. After that party and my move out west, I largely lost touch with her because she wasn't very active online.

I knew that she had eating disorder issues earlier in life, though I didn't recall the conversation I had with her about it until last week. It's an issue I'm sensitive about in part because I've coached a lot of teenage girls, but also because one of Stephanie's college roommates eventually died of anorexia, a couple of years after Steph graduated. It always troubled me that my last memory of this wonderful person was her at a skeletal 80 pounds.

Friends who were closer to Mary saw a change in her about a year ago, and apparently it just got worse. I don't know the specifics, but it sounds like Mary probably died of some combination of the eating disorder or mental illness. Closer friends spent a lot of last week wondering what they could have done differently, and I'm just not sure that they could have changed anything. The sad reality of these kinds of illnesses are that the person has to want help. There's only so much failure you can attribute to friends, families and our institutions.

To that end, having seen a person deteriorate like that before, maybe I'm glad that I never saw Mary that way. It doesn't make me less sad about her passing, but I'd much rather remember her as the life of the party. I remember her dancing at my first wedding, being a considerate smoker away from me in my back yard, and having lunch with her and having conversations about the most brutally honest topics.

A quick search shows some nice things written about her. She went back to Penton, years later, and this editorial definitely captures her professional spirit. Here's one from Tire Review as well. For all the personal insecurities she might have had, she really knew the industries she covered.

Mary was only 37. The world is definitely going to miss out not having her. I'm so glad that I had the chance to know her.

Me and Mary, in 2002, at the Freeze wedding.

The best computer ever

posted by Jeff | Monday, June 11, 2012, 9:10 PM | comments: 0

About three years and three months ago, I bought a 17" MacBook Pro, and it turned out to be the best computer I've ever owned.

You might think that every computer with better specs is automatically better than the last, but that hasn't been my experience. My first one was a Sony, back in the Pentium III days, and it cost an astonishing $2,500. That was even more ridiculous in 1999 dollars. It had a dial-up modem, and a CD-ROM, built-in! It may have even played DVD's.

A few years later I bought an HP, and it ended up being a pile of shit. The power connector inside came loose from the board, and on occasion would even short. In 2005, I bought a Dell, and it wasn't bad. It had a really high resolution screen (complete with dead pixels, a problem in those days), and it was the first laptop I felt I could do real work on.

When 2006 rolled around, Apple started making computers with Intel CPU's, and I bought the very first one the week it came out. I used Boot Camp to run Windows. I still have it in its box somewhere, and I used it for three years. The current 17" was new in 2009.

The goodness was largely rooted in having a big screen with lots of dots. This computer has been the source of hundreds of blog posts, tens of thousands of lines of code, video and photo editing, and of course, a whole lot of Web surfing. It connected to corpnet at Microsoft, WiFi in Hawaii and has presented many a deck. It has traveled with me tens of thousands of miles.

Last year, I put a solid state drive in it, and it was like getting a new computer. I can boot up a Windows 7 VM in about 19 seconds. Having 8 gigs of RAM has always been fantastic. Everything about it has been fast and fun. When new, the battery (when not using VM's) could get as much as 10 hours. I can still do 7 without much trouble. After 460 charge cycles, the battery health is still between 85 and 90%.

The only real negative has been the size and weight. It's only an inch thick, but naturally it's pretty big with a 17" screen. You don't get battery life like that without a huge battery, either, so it's heavy. It was never a deal breaker, but sometimes a long haul across a large airport, you know you're carrying it.

Today, Apple announced a new, thinner and lighter 15" laptop, with twice the RAM and CPU cores, and four times the screen resolution. It basically handles my size and weight issues while retaining the resolution, and it still costs less than my 17" did. So I ordered one. Three years is an excellent run, but I kind of budgeted for a new workhorse this year anyway.

So if you're interested in a 17" MacBook Pro with a Core 2 Duo 2.66 GHz CPU, 8 gigs of RAM and a 320 gig hard drive (sorry, I'm keeping the SSD), I have one to sell. They've apparently discontinued the 17", which is going to piss off the video community. It's in excellent condition, with a few minor scratches, but I take care of my stuff.

Midlife crisis, mitigated

posted by Jeff | Monday, June 11, 2012, 5:15 PM | comments: 0

Diana and I have had some really deep and serious conversations lately. It borders on meaning of life type stuff, typically reserved for people having a midlife crisis. Research shows only a small percentage of people actually have a "crisis," typically in their mid-40's, but I think it's a safe bet that everyone, as they close in on that age, start to ask a lot of questions about how best to live the second half of their lives.

At 42 and almost-39, we're not quite there, but getting married and having a child in our mid to late 30's (Diana was 40 when Simon was born) definitely frames your view on life in a different way. I'm not suggesting it's better or worse, it's just different.

Most of our conversations surround career and location. Location is a hard one to think about, because we've really struggled with the absence of Seattle in our lives. At the same time, having a real summer with hot weather, driving trips and Cedar Point, we're having the fantastic kinds of times that we couldn't have out west. I'm not even sure that I would describe us as being unhappy, we just aren't sure what to do with this state.

Career is trickier. For me, I'm at a pretty great stage where I work in a field that is in high demand, and my skill set is diverse enough that I can start to think more about doing exactly the kinds of things I want, instead of taking what's available. The funny thing is, I'm not always sure what I want to do when I grow up!

Imagine where Diana is. My fiercely independent better half stopped working for the first time in her life to concentrate on being a mom. While she loves that job, she doesn't want it to be the only thing she does. However, being out of the workforce for a number of years makes life tricky, and that's just in the kinds of corporate work situations that are more common. She's been out of theater even longer, and even if she could go back, what would the price be in terms of family life? I don't envy her.

Of course, the overreaching theme rests around what it means to have our little family, and how we allocate our time. We're very Simon focused since he's so young, and we certainly don't want to lose ourselves in just being parents. We have to be spouses, friends and generally social people beyond that. We're learning more about what we need to do to make sure we are generally well rounded, for the sake of our happiness.

The good thing is that I don't see any Porsches, hookers or blow in our future. I wouldn't rule out some big vacations, radical relocations or maybe some tattoos, but overall I think we're heading into the second act with our heads on straight.

Big weekend for Give Kids The World

posted by Jeff | Sunday, June 10, 2012, 10:41 PM | comments: 0

Back in 2009, we endeavored to promote an event via CoasterBuzz for a little fundraiser at Cedar Point to benefit Give Kids The World. The next year, the event was duplicated at all of the Cedar Fair parks, coast to coast, and in Canada. It grew a little each year, and this year, collectively Coasting For Kids raised more than $109,000... a staggering amount! Coaster geeks, as it turns out, are very good fundraisers.

Two close friends have worked at GKTW, which admittedly was the reason I initially got involved, but it took all of five minutes to realize that it was the most obvious charity you could possibly promote when your audience is composed of coaster enthusiasts and you have a lot of active relationships around the amusement industry. Essentially, the village makes it possible for families of kids with life-threatening illnesses to enjoy the kind of family vacations that make memories that most of us just kind of take for granted. Since becoming a parent, even of a healthy little boy, it's ten times as important to me.

I didn't attend the event in the second year, when it spread across the parks, but I did the third year, and again today. Today, as I did the first year, I spent much of the day (and dinner last night) talking to Pam, who runs the charity. You get an interesting perspective on what they do, and what it means to really have meaning behind your job.

I can only imagine that it's difficult at times. I met a father today who lost his daughter to an illness just days before last year's event. They had been to the village prior, and he talked a bit about the gifts and memories that came out of their visit. He brought a duffle bag, with the GKTW logo on it, and it was filled with things that his daughter received on their visit. He said he hoped they could go to another child.

Looking in that bag made me incredibly sad... with everything from mouse ears to board games and small plush animals. I suspect it was difficult to some degree to keep those objects around. At the same time, it was easy to imagine a family that got to have a "normal" time for a few days, which is every bit as important to the surviving family as it was to their daughter. That's usually how I pitch it when I solicit donations... it's every bit about the families as it is the kids.

I'm proud to play a small part in a community who can have this kind of impact, but on a more personal level, this is the kind of thing that really gets me out of bed in the morning. There is so much meaningless bullshit in life on a daily basis, but when you can impact the lives of others in a positive way, whether the scope is large or small, that's what life is about to me. With each passing year, I find my focus shifting more in that direction. Today was a very good day.

Review: Cedar Point's Luminosity

posted by Jeff | Saturday, June 9, 2012, 3:01 PM | comments: 2

Cedar Point has a new evening midway show, and it fundamentally changes the character of the park at night. I've seen it twice so far, once during the preview week, and on its opening night.

First, it's important to think about where the park is coming from. For around 15 years (I don't know the starting year), the park had a big projection screen on what was once known as the "Million Dollar Midway," where a number of flat rides used to live. With Iron Dragon and Wildcat bordering the area, they would pack people into the area for a laser and fireworks show, with video and laser projections on the screen. Over the years, the show barely evolved, using the cheesiest "patriotic" themes, college fight songs and uninspired light shows. Tired doesn't even start to describe it.

So late in the off season, the park decides to scrap it, take down the screen, and build a stage for Luminosity, a show with live singers, dancers, drummers and aerial performers. The staging is essentially on par with an arena pop music concert. Lots of lights, video and of course, lasers. To keep it intimate, several large concrete "hockey pucks" are spread around the plaza for the performers.

The show is anchored by four singers, two male, two female, and a supporting dance troupe. The music is tracked, but the percussion is live. A constant mix of popular music flows from start to finish, mixing the current and classic in a reasonably seamless way. The show ends with a DJ platform that rises out of the stage, and starts a dance party that ends at some later time, after the park closes.

Luminosity succeeds in keeping the energy of the park's guests very high until the moment they leave. It's intended to cap the day with something visually energizing, in the way that Disney theme parks have for years using parades or night time shows (who doesn't think of Illuminations when they think of Epcot?). Cedar Point manages to do it in a way that is contemporary without alienating anyone. It may sound like hyperbole, but the character of the park is dramatically changed in a way that is completely unexpected. I didn't realize how stale the park had become until this show came along. It's a change for the better that will leave a remarkably good impression with people, and hopefully, bring them back.

To that end, the show definitely meets its goals of providing that "kiss goodnight," as the new CEO put it in his interview with me. As a piece of art, I think its worthy of a deeper critique.

The show has a loose theme of land, sea and air (and space) in terms of its video, costume and staging elements. While not necessary, it does elevate it slightly beyond a pop music variety show. It starts with a high energy impression, tapers off a little, and then builds in the last third. It is, perhaps, slightly too long. I'd drop the number with the song about New York, as it seems wildly out of place. I would keep the song with the female solo (the performer I saw nailed it on the first night I watched).

There are, as best I can tell, a pool of singers. Someone mentioned there were three of each gender, so I've seen all three women, but only two of the guys. The first show, one of the guys was not good at all, but he was solid the second time. Of the women, the one I saw doing the solo in my video absolutely blew me away. She's got pipes. Overall, they're a very capable bunch.

The dancers don't inspire me, necessarily, but I don't have any knowledge to judge them beyond the observation of some sloppy choreography. They're just not very tight yet, and I assume that will come sooner than later. The introduction of props seem to make it worse, especially the sails and the sea creatures. The dude with a seahorse pogo stick... it looks wrong on so many levels. The dancing is very contemporary, but the routines they work with don't have any "gee whiz" moments.

The staging is very over the top, in a good way. They use a lot of lighting elements and video tiles to overwhelm you with volume. It isn't always the most creative use of what they have, but there are subsets of cues that do a good job of exaggerating the scope of the stage. That's what I like to see. My opinion is that more automated fixtures up stage at the base of the scenery would exaggerate that scope even more, and "wrap" the viewing area on all sides.

There is one gimmick that they need to refine. At the end of the show, they use drums with water on them to make a visually interesting statement. I'd say it's borrowed from the Blue Man Group, but it doesn't use the elements that make it great. I understand that they don't use paint, which would look better than water, but they need to increase the intensity of the lighting from underneath, or consider a high frequency strobe. Also, if you really want to blow people away, mic those drums! With all of the percussion in this show, I never get that feeling of that driving, tribal beat that you get from a BMG show. There's a sonic opportunity there!

And let's make one thing clear. Using auto-tune was artistic exactly once, when Cher did it in 1998. It's the single worst thing in pop music today. It's awful in the show. You've got very talented singers, so why would you pipe their voices through that crap? For the love of all that is music, please, stop it. It's not cool, it's not trendy, it just irritates the shit out of me.

One minor pick... I don't like that the performers never get to take a bow. They deserve it. They just kind of fade into the background as the DJ takes over. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't like that.

Overall, it's a really entertaining show. As I said, it really changes the entire feel of the park for the better. I can only hope that this represents a renwed commitment to live entertainment at Cedar Point. I really believe it's a key part of the ideal experience at the park.

When small towns don't suck

posted by Jeff | Thursday, June 7, 2012, 8:37 PM | comments: 0

I'm not exactly shy about saying how much I hate small town bullshit, and the people who engage in small town bullshit. Maybe I'm an elitist dick or something, but I think it's that I just don't like it when people are boastful about some little place they're from. Maybe it's because the suburbs were not kind to me when I was a teenager. Whatever.

Last weekend, a car full of kids, some of whom were hours away from graduation, apparently went too fast over a railroad crossing, when the car caught air, flipped and hit a tree. Four of the five kids died. I know that crossing well, and I remember doing it once, scared out of my mind, with one of my friends while in high school. I probably did it once with my dad, too, but he used to rally professionally. I suppose in any case, it's a pretty stupid stunt to do, and in this case, those kids unfortunately paid with their lives.

In a big urban school district, it would be on the news and people would forget about it, but the support of the small town in tragedies like this is inspiring. You can see it all over town, with blue and white ribbons and home made signs. They're in front of houses and in businesses. There's a real sense of unity for the moment, where people want to help out their neighbors.

Today we noticed it isn't just here, but our neighboring city to the north, the classic high school rivalry, appears equally supportive, with the ribbons and signs and such. I even saw a green and blue sign that said "Mustangs got your back." That's nice to see.

I couldn't tell you anything about the kids, or what goes on at the high school these days, but for all of the things I don't like about living in a small Midwest town, this kind of self-support is not one of them.

What's next?

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, June 6, 2012, 10:29 PM | comments: 0

I was sitting here on the couch tonight, while Diana worked her way through a Downton Abbey episode, just hanging out and surfing for stuff. It occurred to me that I'm not really engaging in anything specific.

In mid-April, I did the CoasterBuzz relaunch, which was one of those really big projects that I get into every few years. I suppose I spent another few weeks fixing stuff I broke, but for the most part, I've spent the last month not fully engaged in any particular project. Well, that's half true... I have actually been shooting a lot of video and getting back into that. It's not a project, but it's something spare time-ish and hobby-like.

Now I'm starting to wonder what's next. I'm trying to get commitments with some people about a documentary I'd like to shoot, but at the moment I'm still waiting for some response. It would be a really interesting story to document, and I get pretty excited about what its potential might be. I just have to wait for some green lights. I feel like it's a 50/50 chance of it going forward.

Of my software projects, the one that I feel could potentially be a business is the one I feel most strongly about trying to do, but not so strongly that I feel like jumping into it. This guy has enjoyed doing more creative stuff lately that doesn't involve C#.

I've actually been doing a fair amount of leisure stuff that isn't a project. I'm reading a lot right now, for example. Granted, none of it is fiction, but that's OK. I'm watching a lot of movies, most of which I've seen before, but it's fun to visit some things I haven't seen in awhile. I've been replacing door knobs around the house, vanquishing more tacky faux brass. I even chased a baby bunny out of the garage.

Keep in mind, this is mostly stuff I do after Simon goes to bed. I try to spend time with the little man after work and on weekends, even if it does lead to some unfortunate water park experiences with him. I even took him to school last week! I don't know how Diana keeps up with him every day, especially now that he's all terrible-two.

Diana and I have another date night coming up. We so need to make those a higher priority. I don't want being an adult doing adult things with my wife to become just a hobby.

Pensions and unions and government, oh my!

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, June 6, 2012, 9:21 PM | comments: 0

There have been some very emotional political issues lately in the news. They all deal with government, and the people that work for it. In California, two big cities had a vote to eliminate or reduce pensions, and the voters passed the issues. In Wisconsin, an effort to recall the governor was made after he managed to strip the unions of government workers from collective bargaining rights. These issues all came about because state and local governments are seeing less tax income due to unemployment, and unlike the feds, they can't endlessly borrow money.

Why do so many people get so bent out of shape about this? Naturally, because government employees in this case are teachers, police and firefighters, arguably some of the most noble professions in our culture. These aren't people that you want to slight.

That said, voters appear to be fatigued by the cost of local and state government. Some states and cities are clearly better than others. The disconnect with the people who oppose these cuts is that you simply can't avoid them unless you want to pay more taxes. No one wants that.

It's unfortunate that it gets framed as a "think of the [teachers/cops/firefighters]" argument. No one wants to hurt people in these professions, but public sector jobs have a very real connection to the health of private sector jobs and the economy overall.

There are workable solutions. I've always been impressed that my city, for example, doesn't play games with budgets, it flat out says, "If you want this fire station coverage, we need this much, and we'll dedicate this new tax just for this one thing. If you don't vote for it, we can't pay for it." Can you imagine the feds working like that? Ha!

I know a lot of people are apathetic or completely skeptical of everything government does, but I'm glad to see people getting involved about things that aren't ridiculous moral issues. I pat myself on the back for being optimistic.


posted by Jeff | Sunday, June 3, 2012, 9:49 PM | comments: 0

Last night, we watched the Bill Mahr pseudo-documentary Religulous. Mahr tends to fancy himself as an intellectual entertainer, from kind of a dark place, so seeing him tear down religion seemed like it might be funny. In parts, it certainly was, because as you well know from other movies of this genre, it's not hard to find people who say really stupid shit on camera.

Mahr's argument is that organized religion is essentially the root of all problems that keep mankind from moving forward, and none of the three big religions are too sacred to tear down. What surprised me is that he does actually make an attempt to be fair about it. He had two priests from the Catholic Church who were very frank about the problems with some of the things the church does. If anything, it paints the church as potentially progressive, if just the right people could have the right voice.

One of the things he doesn't really get into is the difference between religion and faith, as they're not quite the same thing. I tend to agree with him that the institutions of religion have been fundamentally central to the majority of conflict in recorded human history. Even within the borders of the US, religion has been the backer of everything from slavery to this bizarre anti-gay marriage thing. And perfectly rational people will get behind the causes of their religion.

Faith is more complicated. I'm not ready to dismiss faith outright, but it certainly has its problems. I think the true motivation for having faith has nothing to do with the religion, but more because it's a useful device for us to deal with things we can't explain. We can write off things we can't explain or that suck without having to prove anything. I'm not criticizing that arrangement at all... I admire anyone who can do it.

The bigger reason I can't outright write-off faith is that it's a double-edged sword. On one hand, it compels otherwise rational people to engage in really stupid behavior. While dismissing the logical "shit happens" facts about something tragic is a useful trait of faith, replacing it with "God's plan" or something, many people choose to dismiss logic to reinforce their biases or desire to control others.

Conversely, faith drives people to do a lot of great things as well. They build houses, give money to charities, volunteer at soup kitchens, etc. A lot of good occurs in the world because of faith. Of course, what others will argue to counter my point is that you don't need to be a God-fearing citizen to do good things, any more than you need laws to know that murder is wrong. See, it's never a black and white issue.

I still tend to agree with the original premise of the film though. Religion goes a long way toward making the world suck. It's not a reason to outright dismiss it, but trying to get people who subscribe to it to apply it for just the "good" reasons is hardly a doable solution.

Lost week

posted by Jeff | Sunday, June 3, 2012, 8:26 PM | comments: 0

For the first time in literally a week, I'm starting to feel human. Last Sunday night, I started to get the shivers and the fever, and the week just never got better than that. I struggled to be effective at work, I was a lousy parent in the evenings, and despite trying to go to bed by 10 every night, I wasn't getting sleep because I was coughing all night.

I don't know what it is that makes me feel so concerned about losing time to uncontrollable circumstances. I mean, if I choose to just do nothing, and enjoy it, it's all good.