Archive: December, 2013

2013 Review: Personal Life

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 31, 2013, 6:42 PM | comments: 0

I've been doing these year-end posts for a long time, and every year I manage to loosely describe the year in a paragraph or so before diving into the details. For 2013, however, I don't think I can. My initial reaction is to say that I grabbed life by the balls in ways that I never have before, but further analysis shows that my confidence often wavered, and the world shook me up a bit. What I can say for sure is that I'm happy with the outcome.

Mitigating the great mistake of 2011

I've had to come to terms with the fact that moving back to Cleveland was a bad idea. This isn't me hating on Cleveland. It really is a great city with a lot of great things going on these days. It's just we were very much done with it. Professionally, it offered very little for me, and the winters were physically depressing. Cleveland did not have the "scene" that I loved in Seattle.

I still find myself missing Seattle regularly. It's not just the natural splendor of the mountains, either. I hate that Simon is growing up apart from his cousins, and I miss the circle of friends we made there. If money were no object, and I was truly able to do it, I would live bicoastal and spend summers in Seattle. I do think it will get easier over time, however, because I'm not resenting the place I live now. That makes a huge difference.

To recap, part of the motivation to move back was to occupy the house we couldn't sell, and as I've said many times, that really did pan out financially to our advantage. But I can't tell you how many times, often in random circumstances, I thought, "There's something better for me somewhere else."

Diana had a chance encounter with someone at a yard sale who was moving to Florida, and she asked why we had taken it off the table as a place to live. It was the schools, we said, especially in the Orlando area, where we figured offered the most opportunities. I started to look up school ratings, and indeed, many were very poor, but it just depends on where you look. When Orlando came up into the conversation, I had been there several times in the last year. I went last October for my stepdad's memorial, again in November on a vacation, and again in February for a cruise. It always made us happy to go there, so why not live there? That started the conversation, and the career and money parts started to fall into place.

Real estate and the plan

The first requirement for getting out was getting that fucking house sold. It was a good house, made better by the modest improvements we made to it, but I resented it as the primary reason for our move there. Early in the spring, I talked to our Realtor®, and she felt that the house would move quickly if it was priced right. I might even get out at a break even point against the loan (which is still a huge loss, because it meant I had zero equity after a dozen years). When we moved to Seattle in 2009, we did so with two houses to sell, and it was a mess. We didn't want to make that mistake again.

So based on the selling advice, I started shopping for work in Orlando, and once I had an offer, the house went up for sale. It went in 48 hours, for the asking price, and that was that. It was sold before the "for sale" sign went up. Four years of agony were done.

As it turned out, this accelerated a plan we made in the spring. I was doing a contract gig that paid stupid high rates (more on that in a minute), and we decided that I would work that gig as long as I could, bank as much as possible, then spend a little time researching the work market in Orlando, while working on our quilting community project. When the time was right, and we felt it was worth the risk, we'd move to Orlando.

It ended up coming together faster than planed, because of the job offer and quick sale of the house. I didn't have enough time to finish our project either. It all happened very, very fast.

And keep in mind, my attitude toward money is still focused on saving and avoiding credit as much as possible. On the surface it sounds like moving to a new place, potentially without a job there, is a huge risk, but I wasn't going to do it without money in the bank. I'm careful like that.

But wouldn't you know it, all of that new and inexpensive house construction going on in Orlando was very attractive. I'm still not entirely sure that buying a house is the right thing to do, but there were a couple of things that drew me in. Interest rates are still relatively low, but they aren't going to stay that way. We're used to prices up toward $200 per square foot in Seattle, but they're a little more than half that in Orlando. Buying a house is cheaper than renting one in this area. And above all, I think Diana and I want a place that's entirely ours. It could be a bad idea, but we're going with it anyway.

So a few days after our stuff arrived on a truck, we ordered a new house. What followed was a load of crap in getting approved, because lenders can't figure out what to do with someone working on a contract basis. Even now, the deal is still contingent on getting my taxes filed at the end of January. That blows, because it would be crushing to lose the house after watching it go up.

Career, forward

When I left Humana at the very end of 2012, it was with somewhat mixed emotions. The small company that hired me showed a lot of promise, where I could exercise my interests in coding, managing people and product development. I was able to initially stop the bleeding there in terms of process, but things kept reverting and leading to client issues, largely due to decisions by the owners. Things came to a head when I was being asked to be what I felt was dishonest to clients, and it was clear that I needed to get out of that situation. I take pride in what I do, and being dishonest is just not something I can be.

I bowed out of that when a contract gig came up that was likely only a few months, but the rate was so, so high. It was a backward step in terms of career, but being short term, I didn't care. That was largely against my own advice, where I often quote the awful gig I had in 2004 where I had a great rate, but bored me to tears.

I learned on the first day why the pay was high. It was a project with a slipping schedule, and warring personalities on the small team. If that weren't enough, the personalities spent so much time worrying about things that ultimately did not matter (you know, like how many new lines separated your code). It was mentally exhausting, but again, at that rate, I was content to stick with it.

I knew I was selling myself short, and that this wasn't advancing my career. I kept focusing on the money. Then an interesting thing happened at the media event for Cedar Point's GateKeeper. I was chatting with Matt Ouimet, the CEO from Cedar Fair. I'm very fond of him, as he's so far removed from all of the C-level people I've met running public companies. His leadership style and focus is mesmerizing. I told him about the situation, and our desire to move, and he told me what I already knew. You can't focus on the money, because it will make you miserable. I knew this. I decided then and there that I had stop whoring myself out.

I dropped out of the project. All I could think about when I was driving home is how I was squandering my potential, and how there was something better. It was already two false starts since leaving Humana, which also didn't feel good.

The first attempt at an adjustment actually came before leaving the contract gig. Through a strange sequence of events, I ended up in Redmond interviewing at Microsoft in May. It was a PM gig in an area that I approximately wanted to be. While I had my doubts about the suitability of the job, I figured I could rock it for a year and move within the company, as having the company relocate me solved all kinds of problems. I thought it went pretty well at first, but each person wanted to be more and more abstract, which is that thing that makes so many MSFT people suck at interviewing. The "as appropriate" guy at the end in particular seemed annoyed with me because I kept asking him questions about the problem he wanted me to solve. (For reference, the dudes who interviewed me the first time I worked there gave me real problems.) I didn't get the job, obviously, but that may have been for the better.

With the aforementioned plan moving forward, the first gig I had pitched to me in Orlando was with SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. This sounds silly, but it really never occurred to me to try working for a theme park company and work in software. Yeah, I know, two things I'm passionate about. While it was only a contract gig, I flew down in June on my own dime and interviewed. We had a follow up phoner, and I got the job. This moved the whole sell-move-work timeline way forward, but it was a good problem to have.

It's a pretty interesting thing to work on, because it combines the software problems of an amusement park, hospitality business, restaurants, retail and zoos into one business, spread across six big parks and a handful of water parks. I think I've done more work and learned more in the last five months than the two previous years combined. I'm really into it.

My contract goes through June, at which point I'm not sure what will happen. They could renew, convert to full-time, or wish me good luck. In that sense, it's hard to get overly invested in the job or the company, but no matter what happens, I've got fantastic experience and some really excellent niche domain knowledge. What I choose to do with all of that is up to me.

Our big scare

Amidst all of the excitement around our mid-year life reboot, we had what you can only describe as "the big scare." This is the one where your wife goes in for a mammogram, they see something they don't like, they do a biopsy, and then you wait. And if that weren't bad enough, I was going to be on the road or already in Orlando when the results came, since I was going a week before Diana and Simon to start work. Not that there is a good time for this sort of thing, but this was certainly less than ideal.

There are all kinds of things that go through your mind in a situation like this, none of which are that breast cancer is one of the most treatable, and has a high survival rate. Instead what you think of is the worst case scenario, what the person closest to you will go through, with awful treatment and the conversation you might need to have with your child about what happened to one of his parents.

It was a huge relief to get the good news, obviously. I wouldn't wish even the threat of the disease on anyone. It's really awful.

The growing challenge of the growing boy

Simon was a serious handful this year, but I can't tell you how great it has been to be his dad anyway. To see this little personality continue to evolve and grow is completely amazing. I do the best I can to make sure I'm spending quality time with him whenever possible, and I try to remember when I just need "me" time so as not to resent him. It's a hard balance to strike.

His developmental delays were well established last year, but we could see that the birth-to-three intervention program he was in was helping. That is of course, until he turned three in March and they booted him out. The evaluators after that failed to recognize him as requiring more help, and it wasn't until we appealed that decision that he was entitled to public schooling again. By that time, the school year ended, and it didn't matter anyway. Fortunately, we got him back in down here in Orange County pretty quickly, and he's enjoying school five days a week.

We've had him further tested to better understand what causes his delays, and he's been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, as well as dyspraxia. He's also mid-process in testing for Autism Spectrum Disorder, which often goes hand in hand with the other conditions. Of course, there's a wide range of severity in these conditions, so while we don't expect him to labeled as non-functional, knowing exactly what we're dealing with helps us build a plan to get him up to speed. It seems like there's a very intelligent little boy in there, but he's definitely wired a little differently.

Challenges aside, the progress has been amazing to watch, even if it is late. We're finally having something resembling conversations, and he's on a kick now where he wants to describe everything he sees. I think he's very proud to be able to communicate to us. He's starting to take interest in drawing, his block building is more skilled, and he's using his imagination. He's unfortunately excessively physical at times, a symptom of SPD in that he seeks stronger sensations and physical feedback, but he's also a big hugger. The kid is definitely part Italian!

One of the more exciting things for me and Simon is that he's very into roller coasters now. Again, he craves those intense physical sensations, so coasters are perfect for him. It was a proud moment for me when he had his first ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Magic Kingdom, his first "grown up" coaster, and he immediately asked to ride it again.

Diana is the mother of all activity planning mothers though. She tries to get Simon involved with all kinds of things, including more domestic things like cooking. Sometimes he's interested, sometimes he's not. I have to give her most of the credit in parenting Simon, since she spends the most time with him. She's a completely awesome mom.

Travel and tourism at home

This started out as an epic year for travel. In January, we had a very last minute trip to Cincinnati for an overnight at Great Wolf Lodge, and a trip to the steel fabrication plant where they build roller coasters, including Cedar Point's GateKeeper. As Diana has been serving on the GWL moms panel, it was a great chance to try another location. I even got to have a few drinks with a friend of mine I hadn't seen in years.

February was even better. My almost-mother-in-law hatched a plot back in September to surprise Diana's dad on a Disney cruise. So the Snoqualmie Mattoni's and formerly Snoqualmie Puzzoni's all stealthily got on the boat, and while walking around the deck, we blew his mind. It was a well-executed surprise. We did a three-night Bahamian cruise, which seemed like an ideal length of time for someone like me who wasn't sure what to make of a cruise. We were aboard the Dream, which is amazing. I loved it, not because of the tropics or ports, but because the service was insanely great, and the ship itself was just fascinating to me.

Between Diana's GWL affiliation and our desire to get Simon swimming, we did quite a few nights in indoor water parks. We went to GWL and Castaway Bay in Sandusky a bunch of times in the winter and spring. Each time, Simon was a little more into it. He seemed to enjoy the whole experience, including eating out, doing the kids stuff in the evening, and of course, using the elevators. In the awful grayness that is the first four months of the year in Northeast Ohio, these little trips made a huge difference.

May brought the start of another season of Cedar Point, the one thing that we consistently loved about Cleveland. It wasn't so much the park itself, though it was particularly fantastic with the new front gate and GateKeeper, but it was our favorite people there. We have such good friends working there, and it just felt like home when we were there. We enjoyed a number of great events there early in the year.

Things changed dramatically in July, because of the move, and the order for the house. We had to bank cash, and frankly, things are different when you're already living in an area that is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world. Knowing Simon and Diana would be stuck in a hotel for a few days, and that we no longer had access to Cedar Point, we scored annual passes to Walt Disney World almost immediately.

As it turns out, one of the things that was great about having a pass to CP is also great for WDW. You tend to enjoy it more and at your leisure when there's no pressure to try to do as much as you can in a compressed amount of time. For the most part, our visits have been a few hours at a time, maybe once or twice a week. It felt weird that something that used to be exclusively the domain of once-a-year trips was now at our disposal at any time, but I think we're over that. Visiting the parks makes for great exercise (especially Epcot), and a boy with dyspraxia benefits from walking, roller coasters and circular rides. I don't know if it will get old eventually, but the three of us consistently have a good time, together.

But there is a problem, in that we barely left the county since moving here, going no further than up to see my mom in The Villages. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is that taking time off means not getting paid, and that would interfere with saving for the house. And again, when you're already in a place with palm trees and sun, every weekend feels a little like a vacation. Still, we're planning to spend some quality time getting away in the coming months, to explore the state a bit.

The happy meter

Last year, I felt very much like I was in transition, moving toward something, but not entirely satisfied with where life was. This year, it's a different story, and I really am quite happy with how things turned out. I made a lot of deliberate decisions, took some chances, and I feel like I'm better for it. Hopefully I've done right by my family as well. Diana has been a partner in all of this change, and we had many serious conversations.

The challenge in the coming year is to keep the momentum, be present in each moment, and not get too bogged down in what the future might hold.

2013 Review: The business

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 31, 2013, 10:40 AM | comments: 0

It seems like I just wrote up last year's post, but here we are! This was a strange year for my little endeavor, in part because I've spent most of the year working as a contractor. That means all of my income flows through the business, and I have to write checks to the IRS and buy my own health insurance. If I pull all of that out of the accounting, this year was similar to last year, with certain ups and downs.

On the open source front, I released two major versions of POP Forums, and I'm pleased to see it did over 2,000 downloads this year. I used to dread working on that app, because it seemed like I had to keep rewriting it. Fortunately, since the last rewrite about 2.5 years ago, it has been really easy to maintain and update. It could definitely use a lot of clean up in places, but I'm happy with it overall. Also exciting, I finally had a pull request for a language translation, and it's now available in six languages!

CoasterBuzz had a pretty great year. The effort I put into search engine optimization and speed really helped in the bigger discovery context. Unique visitor counts were up double digit percentages this year, while overall visits and page views made modest gains. The win came from the long-tail search traffic. Tens of thousands of people showed up from some of the strangest things they were looking for.

I didn't generate a ton of content, but I did get to do a fun tour of the plant where they fabricate roller coasters. We also had an event at Kings Island that was well received, after missing several years there. I really don't enjoy doing events, but I'm thrilled that parks are doing more on their own. Folks did a nice job supporting GKTW, too.

PointBuzz had a really strong start to the year, which should come as no surprise since Cedar Point opened the first significant new roller coaster in several years. GateKeeper was a huge hit, and we had a lot of fun covering the construction and the park's media day. It opened the opportunity to do something technically interesting as well, doing a "live blog" app that could (in theory) handle any traffic you threw at it. That was fun to build.

Unfortunately, we also saw how fickle the Cedar Point fan audience is. It was almost as if the day after GateKeeper opened, the kids got bored with it and traffic went back to no-new-ride levels. That was disappointing.

The big problem with traffic either way is that ad revenue just isn't what it used to be, and that sucks. Last year I had the massive 10% decline, but this year it stabilized, and was essentially flat. This is why straight content sites suck without some other form of revenue. If CoasterBuzz Club wasn't a thing, I'd probably stop doing it (memberships were up, thankfully). The P&L just doesn't stay very comfortably in the black.

Despite knowing that content sites suck, what did I do? I started a new content site project! In the spring, Diana and I talked through what we would do if we built what we thought would be a great quilting community site. I think we have good ideas. When I ended the contract gig I had in the spring, I decided I was going to make working on that my full time job. I did about two months of solid work on it, about 25 hours per week, and used a whole lot of new technology in the process. Then I got the gig in Orlando, and I essentially stopped to prepare (mostly getting the house ready for sale).

Here's the thing... I haven't had the time to get back into it. That sucks because it's really most of the way there, aside from solving a couple of the harder problems. I wanted to finish it this year, so we could start to grow it and develop some kind of real business model around it that isn't entirely ads (we have some ideas in mind). Not following through and making the time to get this done causes self-resentment. It's just hard to find the time when you have a normal day job, and then you consider the fact that you have a child, a wife, and presumably some time devoted to leisure with them.

Same thing with the "server metric" project I started last year. That could actually be a viable product if I finished it. I don't know if anyone would use it or pay for it, but it would at least be viable.

As much as I treat the business as a hobby, at least I'm getting more serious about how I do work for it. I actually put on my day job process hat and map out the work, with some level of planning. I have goals and milestones in mind, but without dates attached to them since there isn't a lot of time I can map to them in a realistic way.

Regardless, the work I did do for my projects this year was fun. I saw results. That makes me happy, even if I haven't had any clever ideas about how to make the fun pay with cash. Indeed, it continues to be the journey that makes this stuff fun.

My 2013 playlist

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 31, 2013, 10:24 AM | comments: 0

I mentioned on Facebook the other day that I had a really, really long playlist this year. I've been doing annual playlists for a very long time, and never have I had one that included 45 songs. Last year it was only 20. It was an exceptionally good year for music that I like, including a lot of songs that were probably one-hit wonders, but also a lot of good albums. There were some new favorites and some new efforts by previous favorites.

My favorite album this year was undoubtedly In Rolling Waves by The Naked and Famous. Second albums have a bad reputation, but this one is a total winner.

For the curious, here's what that list looks like.

  • At Home, Crystal Fighters
  • Default, Django Django
  • Skies Over Cairo, Django Django
  • Sweater Weather, The Neighbourhood
  • High School Lover, Cayucas
  • Where The Kids Are, Blondfire
  • Safe and Sound, Capital Cities
  • Radioactive, Imagine Dragons
  • Take A Walk, Passion Pit 
  • Ho Hey, The Lumineers
  • Wild, Royal Teeth
  • Global Concepts, Robert DeLong
  • Change, Churchill
  • Cut It Out, Kitten
  • Sacrilege, Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  • Entertainment, Phoenix
  • S.O.S. in Bel Air, Phoenix
  • Waves, Blondfire
  • Believer, American Authors
  • Diane Young, Vampire Weekend
  • Up In The Air, Thirty Seconds To Mars
  • Because the Night, Garbage and Screaming Females
  • Skyfall (The Voice Performance), Amber Carrington
  • Cups (Pitch Perfect's "When I'm Gone"), Anna Kendrick
  • Hurricane, MS MR
  • Doin' it Right, Daft Punk feat. Panda Bear 
  • Get Lucky, Daft Punk feat. Pharrell
  • Royals, Lorde
  • Wake Me Up, Avicii 
  • Best Day Of My Life, American Authors
  • Pumpin Blood, Nonono
  • Came Back Haunted, Nine Inch Nails
  • Ways To Go, Grouplove
  • A Stillness, The Naked And Famous
  • Hearts Like Ours, The Naked And Famous
  • Rolling Waves, The Naked And Famous
  • Team, Lorde
  • Pompeii, Bastille
  • A Light That Never Comes, Linkin Park X Steve Aoki
  • Mind Your Manners, Pearl Jam
  • Sirens, Pearl Jam
  • Yellow Moon, Pearl Jam
  • Bitter Rivals, Sleigh Bells 
  • 24, Sleigh Bells
  • The Walker, Fitz & The Tantrums

Puzzoni Christmas 2013

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, December 25, 2013, 11:21 PM | comments: 0

Simon's Christmas IV is in the books! It got off to a rough start on Christmas Eve. The boy was not being pleasant at all, and not particularly interested in establishing Christmas traditions. Sprinkle in the new surroundings, and maybe a little of the lack of "holiday weather," and things just felt kind of weird. Thank God for A Christmas Story running all day on TBS. Regardless, I had my first fatherly endeavor around building something the night before. We bought Simon this epic table with Cars themed wood track toys, and it took about 2.5 hours to build.

Simon got a good night of sleep, even if we didn't (he's still battling some coughing and cold symptoms), and the Cars table blew his mind. In fact, he played with it most of the day. Getting him to take a break for food, getting dressed or other activities pretty much was a futile effort. In fact, he still has presents he hasn't opened yet!

Diana and I again made a pact to not get gifts for each other, because of the forthcoming home purchase. I did cheat, however, and got her an inexpensive Pandora charm for her bracelet. I'm not very good at pacts.

We invited my mom and brother over, as well as my aunt and uncle, for dinner. Diana's mobility is improving, and due to excellent planning, she even worked in some down time to get her foot up. It was kind of a Thanksgiving type spread... a turkey breast, mashed potatoes and such, and it was delicious. If I wasn't such a picky eater, I'd weigh 300 pounds, because Diana is an exceptional cook, and she just keeps getting better.

Simon got a few more gifts, and did open those from my mom, because that's what grandparents live for. She scored a couple of toys that fulfill his other character obsessions, including Buzz Lightyear and Woody from Toy Story, and a little "sail car" with the Jake and Neverland Pirates characters. I saw him do something that, given our concerns over his development, really made me happy... he was making Buzz fly around. It's such a relief to see him imagining and not just organizing with toys.

After the family folk left, we followed up with some phone calls to various places around the country, and settled in to watch The Family Stone, one of the movies on our holiday rotation. Admittedly, things felt a little weird this year, but it was a good day. I think we'll still brave the crowds at WDW to see the Christmas lights there before they take them down, as Diana hasn't been there in four weeks because of the surgery.

For me, the biggest gift is the people who are closest to me. I feel very fortunate to have people looking out for me, and people to look out for. This was a challenging year to say the least, but I think Team Puzzoni has come out strong. We use "living the dream" as something of goofy cliché, but I think it's a pretty accurate way to describe what I'm feeling these days. Things are pretty solid, I don't need more than that.

Poor persecuted everyone

posted by Jeff | Saturday, December 21, 2013, 11:13 PM | comments: 0

Last year I mentioned how silly it was that people get all bent out of shape when someone says "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas." This year, I've noticed that there's a larger trend of people bitching in general, worried that their lives aren't going to be awesome anymore because of some external force they don't control.

Now, I know something about being a white, heterosexual, fairly well-to-do, vaguely Christian male (or, for the purpose of this post, a "majority power"). The truth is, it's pretty awesome. With humility, I will tell you that I have worked my ass off to be where I am today, and I'm certainly not going to be apologetic about it, but I also will freely admit that I haven't had to deal with the obstacles that frequently get in the way of people who are not part of the majority power.

So in addition to the people who complain about people willing to understand that not everyone celebrates Christmas, they're also complaining that some people believe Santa Claus can be black, migrant workers want to do the work Americans don't want to do, people should be able to say ignorant, moronic things without being labeled ignorant morons, gay people shouldn't be able to marry, etc.

What's going on here? What it seems like is that a class of people that have always maintained the majority power are worried that their place in the world isn't what it used to be. What's worse, it's the completely oblivious notion that this place was held largely because of their demographic attributes. In a particularly ironic twist, it seems to be the same people who extol the values of working hard and making a life for themselves. I guess that's still true, so long as they have an advantage.

I grow tired of all of the bitching and moaning from people who feel persecuted, but are not. Seven years ago, we didn't carry super computers in our pocket connected to all of the knowledge in the world. Twenty years ago, we didn't even have the network to access that information. We're in a time of unprecedented access to knowledge and opportunity, in a way that human history has never seen. What's possible today, for each and every person in this country, is nothing short of a miracle.

Stop acting like victims and make something happen. You're not at a disadvantage, you're just being fearful because privilege no longer fits into the opportunity.

Five months in the OC

posted by Jeff | Friday, December 20, 2013, 11:59 PM | comments: 0

Diana and I were talking the other night on the drive home from date night, amazed that we've been living in Central Florida now for five months. We had dinner at the Polynesian, where we both have particularly favorite dishes. We do visit various Disney location frequently, but real sit-down dinner on the property is pretty rare, because it ain't cheap.

It was odd, driving up World Drive, because it still doesn't feel routine for us. I'm sure it will eventually. But regardless of what seems like normal or routine, most things about living here just feel right. I think this mostly has to do with the fact that we're never stuck inside. Winter here is like summer in Seattle, only without the mountains. It's easy to be active and moving about because there aren't any real reasons not to be.

Living here is not without its quirks and issues, but it's a whole lot better than a lot of other places. We aren't going to miss Seattle any less by living here, but we sure are glad to be out of the Midwest, especially this time of year. The weather matters. I don't know why that's a surprise... there's a reason most small talk tends to be about the weather.

Overall, the adjustment of this move came fast and easy. It's relatively easy to get around, despite the toll roads. The weirdest thing is that we've barely been out of the county in five months, outside of a couple of visits to my family up in The Villages. Travel just hasn't been in the cards.

What a whirlwind this relocation has been. My contract at SeaWorld Parks has been extended through June, so I've got a period of stability for the next six months or so as we get into the new house. Beyond that, I don't have anything specific in the plan, but I'm not worried about it at all.

Review: Dell Venue 8 Pro

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 17, 2013, 11:59 PM | comments: 0

I admit that I have a slight gadget problem. When I was researching tablet options, I did settle on the Surface 2 (which I love, by the way), but I was also intrigued by Dell's little 8" thing because it was Intel-based, ran full Windows, and it was (relatively) cheap at $299. I liked it a lot playing with it in the store, but went for the Surface because of the amazing screen, keyboard covers and the kickstand. It's my go-to lunch reading, VM-remoting, couch-surfing thing that Simon doesn't mistake for the iPad (which is kind of "his" for now).

Then Microsoft offered the Dell for the doorbuster price of $99, and $199 the rest of that day. Even now, Amazon is selling it for $250. I couldn't pass it up as a replacement to my Kindle Fire HD, which was great for reading, but browsing and app performance was pretty crappy. As I've said before, there's something to be said for having a smaller tablet for reading.

I probably wanna talk a little about the Windows software, but I'll get to that. In terms of hardware, this little thing runs on an Intel Atom CPU, with the 32-bit version of Windows 8.1. It is, in most senses of the word, a PC. You could use a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard and do stuff in Visual Studio if you wanted to (silly as that would be).

I was not a fan of the screen resolution, only because I kept comparing it to the iPad, Surface 2 and my phone (a Lumia 920). However, using it a bit, it's actually above average. Yes, it's not as sharp as those other devices given the lower pixel density, but it's still super readable. I had to turn off the auto brightness because it's too aggressively dimming. Once off, it's quite bright, and the color reproduction is pretty solid.

The body feels very solid. It doesn't flex or bend, and it's covered in some grippy plastic stuff. It feels more premium than it is, which is a good thing. The bezel around the screen is barely large enough to allow for the swipe-ins necessary for Windows. They didn't do a capacitive start button on the bezel, instead moving it to the top-left side in landscape mode. It's a little awkward in portrait mode or when headphones are in, but not as awful as some reviews make it out to be. It does have cameras, and I'm sure they suck. I did manage to scratch off a little of the rubbery stuff against something in my bag on one edge, but it's not a big deal.

Battery life is pretty amazing, though I haven't really measured it. All I can tell you is that I can get through an entire work day listening to tunes and doing a little reading at lunch, with power to spare.

Probably the coolest thing, and this is true for most of the Windows tablets, is that it has a slot for a micro-SD card. So you get the 32 gig mode, buy a $40 64 gig card, and you've got 96 gigs of storage. You'll still be under $300, which invites all kinds of comparisons to iPad in terms of value compared to storage.

I've never been a person who is apptastic, so the debate about whether or not there are enough apps or the right apps in the Windows app store isn't that interesting to me. Even with the iPad, I mostly used it for Web browsing (until the Facebook app was finally usable). I use the Surface the same way.

That said, being Intel-based and not ARM-based like the Surface 2, you can run Chrome on it, which is pretty fantastic. They have a "Windows 8 mode" now, and the only thing really missing is pinch zoom. It otherwise works pretty well.

I also copied all of my music to an SD card, and Xbox Music eventually indexed it all. To get my aging iTunes playlists, I had to do a little hacking of the iTunes XML file, install iTunes (then get rid of that vile thing), before Xbox Music would import the playlists. The music matching to work across devices kind of sucks... it only matched a third of my tunes. Not that it was a feature I was intent on using, but it was a good idea. Amazon has a desktop app that is so not touch friendly, but it's good enough to get new purchases on to the device quickly.

By the way, all of that hacking around with files is what makes the device kind of neat for a nerd like me. Unlike a traditional tablet, you can do whatever you want to it, like hack iTunes files and such. That's not something most people would ever care about, but not being in a locked down environment means you can control a lot more and do stuff that maybe the manufacturer hasn't thought of. It's really versatile like that. Of course, the negative is that you literally have to update drivers and firmware the way you would on a PC, which sucks. Not all of that stuff goes through Windows Update.

I happened to install RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 on it, just because I can, but certainly that's not a very easy thing to play without connecting a mouse. I'm actually intrigued by the stylus Dell offers, and maybe I could do it with that. There were huge complaints about it at first, but a firmware update seems to have quieted the critics. I'm just intrigued to use a pen to write and sketch.

The bottom line is that this is a really great device, which shocks me because it's from Dell. They mostly do commodity crap. Also consider the price. At $250, you don't quite get the high pixel density of an iPad Mini, but you're already $150 below that cost, with twice the storage. Add a cheap SD card, and the value gap goes into the hundreds of dollars. Again, it depends on what you do with it, and whether or not an app ecosystem is important to you. For me, the only things I would like are an Amazon Cloud Player app, and perhaps one for Amazon Instant Video (because I'm a prime subscriber), both as "metro" apps. The video I can do in browser, but audio cuts out as the screen goes off.

So many screens

posted by Jeff | Monday, December 16, 2013, 10:35 PM | comments: 0

I mentioned on Facebook last Friday that I just scored a Dell Venue 8 Pro, which is an inexpensive little Windows 8.1 tablet that happens to have had some serious sale prices lately. It lists for $300, but has gone for as little as $100. For that price, I was compelled to buy one. I will write a review of it soon.

In any case, me the "I don't need a tablet" guy continues to have evolving opinions on the subject. I mentioned when I got the super cheap Kindle Fire HD that I totally understood small tablets. My experience to that point had been almost exclusively with the iPad (the "2" version then the "Retina" model). As I said then, I thought the Kindle UI was just completely terrible, but for the inexpensive price, and smaller size, it totally made sense to me.

Smaller tablets are great for straight consumption. They're also better for reading than full-size tablets. As lovely as the text is on a big tablet with lots of pixels, it gets heavy after awhile. They're OK for video in a pinch, and browsing through music to listen to. They're not terrible for Web browsing is a site is designed right. Above all, they're super portable.

Larger tablets are fantastic for video, and generally preferable for couch surfing or table-top viewing. The latter is three times as true with the Surface, because of the kickstand and keyboard covers. Text from the Web renders so cleanly (on both the iPad and the Surface 2). Basically they're great laptop substitutes for when you don't need to do any "real" work or do a lot of typing.

My laptop I tend to use now just for real work and for writing. I can kind of see why a lot of people are content to just use a tablet, though I'm endlessly annoyed at their insistence that everything has to be an application. The Web is the application, dammit.

And yes, there is a fourth screen: The phone. That screen has a lot going for it, not the least of which is that it's connected to the Internet no matter where you are. But the thing is, phones are great for text messages and some kinds of minor Web browsing, as well as some gaming, but they're not so great any real content consumption. Even Facebook is less than ideal at that size.

I think our connected devices try to be a lot of things, and at a basic level, it's true that they can all sort of do the same things. It's just that certain form factors are better than others for certain use cases. I'll concede that.

It really is my job to understand this stuff, but it's hard for me to put myself in the shoes of the "average consumer" because I'm not. I think a lot of people are content to have a phone and a laptop, and that makes a lot of sense to me.

For the record, I wish people would put the damn screens down and engage with their families, friends and coworkers that are right in front of them.

The critical path of change

posted by Jeff | Sunday, December 15, 2013, 12:05 AM | comments: 0

You know how it is when we get to the end of the year. The change in calendar brings with it a flood of nostalgia and reflection. I keep thinking of things that seem recent, but they're fully a year or more behind us. Today we were talking about the day from one year ago, where we took Simon to a parent group outing at a fire station, had lunch at Red Robin, Diana got her nose pierced, and we did a little shopping at Target. I was crafting my resignation from Humana. Even in the midst of all that change, there was a ton more to come.

Change can be hard. It can be uncomfortable. We tend to devote a lot of energy toward resisting change. Even Simon, at the tender age of 3, tends to flip out when he's forced to adapt in a changing situation.

Adaptation, the way we deal with change, is also hard. What often sucks is that the world is going to change around us whether we like it or not. And yet, sometimes, people can't or won't change. I tend to think these are not the happiest of people.

That observation is largely built on my own experience. There were certain things in my life that I wanted to stay the same forever. When one of the most challenging changes happened, when I got divorced, I was forced to look at what change was possible.

There's something insanely freeing about giving in to change. You have ideas, values and goals, and they're important because they help make up who you are. Allowing those things to be malleable is akin to selling out, or some such nonsense. But in reality, what you're doing is embracing change on the strength of new input.

Dealing with change is another one of those cultural problems. Some people can't let go of racism. If a politician changes her mind, she's a pandering flip-flopper. You can't live on less because you're used to more.

This year brought unprecedented change for us. It was exciting, and we embraced it. Life's circumstances will change whether you like it or not. It's best to adopt change and roll with it.

A bona fide regret, sort of

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, December 11, 2013, 10:27 PM | comments: 0

The recurring theme in my life lately has been me walking out of work, a store or whatever, and smiling because I'm stepping into the sun and not wearing a jacket. I'm not getting used to it, because it feels awesome every time. I also think it's because there's a certain validation that goes with it. We made up our minds we would move here, did so with a certain amount of risk, and made it happen.

If you go back and read my blog posts from the fall of 2011, you might find similar enthusiasm about moving back to Cleveland. Well, it was tempered enthusiasm. I still remember saying that all of the things we didn't like about Cleveland we still wouldn't like, but hey, at least we wouldn't be paying for two places to live.

The part that keeps creeping into my head, however, is just how shitty that first month back really was. I was never mentally committed to thinking the job I scored from 2,500 miles away was going to be the best ever, but walking around the crappy part of downtown Cleveland, having nothing to do at the job, and being told I had to be there 9 to 5:30 to do nothing was not exactly cool. Even though I had an interview elsewhere on the very day they told me it "wasn't working out," I still felt like I made a colossal mistake.

I had been in Cleveland for about five weeks when my Humana interview was scheduled, and getting the job there was a slam dunk. As it turns out, 2012 was actually a pretty awesome year in some ways. Working remote was great, and while Humana was not ideal, there were some really critical personal achievements and skill sharpening going on there.

I still wonder what would have happened if we stayed in Seattle. Certainly I wouldn't be missing my friends from there to this day. I don't think I would have stayed at Microsoft, but I definitely could see going back, especially now as the company is starting to find its mojo again, and is little by little casting aside the things that get in the way. Certainly my house would have sold eventually, but we would likely be renters for a very, very long time.

So there is still a little regret about that move. Seattle is awesome, and I do miss it. What eases the regret is that we did bank a lot and reach a financially stable place, and that move is what ultimately got us to Orlando, where frankly we're building a pretty happy life.

As I've said before, I'm not usually one to feel regret. It's a toxic emotion that doesn't serve anyone. I don't regret my first marriage, or anything else. Even the suboptimal parts of life can serve as something that ultimately helps you grow as a person. But that SEA to CLE move... not a great choice. It almost qualifies as a bona fide regret.

Breathing Underwater

posted by Jeff | Monday, December 9, 2013, 10:28 PM | comments: 0

I absolutely love the song "Breathing Underwater" by Metric. It's not a very involved set of lyrics, but the simplicity of it is lovely. It asks so many questions about whether or not you're living the life you should be, if you're in over your head or otherwise not where you should be. I think they're fundamental questions that successful and smart people ask themselves daily.

Last week was rough. It reminded me that even in our world of sunshine and theme parks, this has not been an easy year. Yes, we're "living the dream" to an extent, but the parts I'm less likely to write about publicly aren't any less real or difficult. It's just that on a day like today, it's easier to put all of the hard stuff away on a shelf and not think about it.

I think breathing underwater now and then makes it that much easier to get beyond the next hard thing.

When life is too full

posted by Jeff | Sunday, December 8, 2013, 12:35 AM | comments: 1

I can't even tell you how many times I've written blog posts in my head lately, in the car, at lunch, or even while watching Sesame Street with Simon. My writing frequency has reached an embarrassingly low level lately. It got me to thinking about all of the other things I'm not currently doing that I would like to be.

This was kind of a rough week. The stress of Diana having surgery took its toll on me mentally. Then add in having to take off work (mostly involuntarily, because of the holidays), some frustrations at work, restarting the whole paperwork nonsense with the lender, figuring out the right ways to work with Simon in light of the dyspraxia issue, trying to keep Diana comfortable and healthy while not totally exploiting my extended family, getting Simon up and on the bus for the first time, Simon getting me up overnight... it all took its toll. I can genuinely say that I was a little unhappy, and I haven't felt that way since early this year (for different reasons).

The thing I realized is that life is full. At the moment, it's overflowing, and that's probably what was getting to me. In fact, when I really look at life objectively, I'm actually happy about the fullness of life. Time management is the hard thing.

If Simon and I are both awake and in the same place, I can generally say that we'll be together doing stuff 75% of the time. Maybe that's more than most parents would do, but I love it. Whether it's getting him showered or taking him to occupational therapy (the tourists call it "Disney World"), I engage with him a ton. I've also got my darling wife to look out for, and be her partner and husband, which is also awesome because it's very much a reciprocal arrangement. Add in another 40 hours plus commute time every week for work, and you can see that most of my time is accounted for.

This leaves me in a difficult place, because there are so many things that I want to do, for leisure, hobbies, or my little side business, and there is no time. I don't want to reduce the father/spouse duties, because those are the things that make my life so genuinely fantastic. And yet, it causes me some distress that I'm not doing that other stuff.

The motivational speaker nonsense about, "If you want it, go get it," is such a dramatically oversimplified view of life. It's incompatible when you don't want to give up the things that already make your life a happy thing. Again, where I beat myself up is that I can't do the other stuff as well.

I'll eventually figure this out, of course. I'm living the dream, and I have a great life because of the two very important people I'm with every day. I just don't want to lose the other things that have always made my life enjoyable... especially the endeavors that are creative, imaginative and sometimes intellectual. I'm reminded every day about how important these things are via the eyes of my little boy, who sees the world in a fascinating way. I love that sense of wonder.

All the toes fit to trim

posted by Jeff | Monday, December 2, 2013, 11:34 PM | comments: 0

Diana had surgery today to correct a bunion, which I recently learned was not a growth or tumor or anything like that, but rather the result of the big toe growing out in an abnormal way. Not only did the doctor do some magic on that toe, but he shortened the second one as well so everything aligns correctly. There's no narrative here, but I do have a brain dump on all kinds of things related to this.

  • You can see how it's done in computer animation. If you want something more graphic, check out some actual surgery. It's not as disturbing as I thought it would be, though saws and bones don't seem like compatible objects.
  • This is the second surgery Diana has had in the not-quite-seven years I've known her. The previous surgery was the C-section she had for Simon, ordered largely because of risk associated with previous hernias. She was awake for that, and the amount of blood and fluids was astounding.
  • If you needed more reason to think that the job-insurance-healthcare associations are fucked up and broken, consider this. She couldn't have the surgery at the foot clinic because insurance would only cover it at the hospital. If that weren't enough, the doctor warned that if he needed to use more than one screw for each toe (he used a second one on the second toe), insurance might not cover it. You know, because an insurance company knows better than the doctor.
  • The amount of paperwork generated for any medical procedure is staggering. I can only imagine how that alone can drive up the cost. It's insane. Granted, it seemed that the Cleveland Clinic was better in that sense, as we saw much less paper when dealing with them. The hospitals here and in Seattle, not so much.
  • The pain meds to me are almost as scary as surgery. Diana doesn't seem loopy on the hydrocodone-acetaminophen, but when I took it a few years ago for a ridiculous and painful sinus infection that made swallowing feel like eating glass, it f'd me up. Not a fan of that feeling.
  • Getting Simon to understand that Mommy has a serious boo-boo is not easy. That he's eager to be so rough and physical lately doesn't help.
  • Diana had a hard time getting her nose ring back in after just six hours, despite the piercing being almost a year old. I thought noses were one of the more easily healing varieties, but I suppose everyone is different.
  • Downtown Orlando intrigues me. A relatively new city like this isn't going to be a center for culture and the arts, but parts of it remind me of Seattle, believe it or not. We need to spend some time out there.
  • After dropping off Simon at school this morning, we stopped at the grocery store early. I kind of enjoyed being there. Sometimes I wouldn't mind swapping jobs with Diana, for a week or two.
  • Simon is going to have to take the bus tomorrow. I'm a little worried that he's going to freak out. Until Diana is in much better shape, she won't be able to drop him off.
  • I'm stressed about having to miss more work than I originally thought, but I hate to talk about it, and it's nobody's fault. It is what it is.
  • The surgery all came up in a hurry. Originally, the plan was that today would be the last day of four that we took my mom to Disney World. She's lived here 8 years and has only spent a day in the parks. We figured it would be a great opportunity for her to spend time with her only grandson. Today, she watched him at home instead of going out.
  • Speaking of timing, it was a perfect storm. Diana's foot pain has been very gradually increasing over the years, so this surgery was inevitable. The younger you can have it, the better. We met our insurance deductible for the year, and we have to change it by January anyway, so this was as good as it was going to get in terms of cost.
  • Diana likes to be a caregiver, so it's weird for her to receive care. She's usually in charge, and I get out of the way.

Down 10

posted by Jeff | Monday, December 2, 2013, 9:50 PM | comments: 0

I have been carrying a Fitbit now for about two months, and have dropped about 10 pounds in that time. I was really shooting for 12, but honestly didn't fully commit at all times. In fact, today was the worst, where I actually ate just slightly more than I burned. I was stress eating today due to Diana's foot surgery and a number of other things on my mind.

Today aside, I'm really pleased with the practice of tracking activity vs. food. I've said this for a long time, that weight loss isn't that complicated, but it's certainly more effective when you can measure things in a low friction way. That's what's cool about the Fitbit, or more specifically, the online component. The calories burned is definitely a best guess based on your height and weight, but the food part is reasonably accurate. Most weeks I come in about 4,000 to 6,000 calories under-budget.

As much as I may focus on the weight loss as a result, it isn't exactly the primary goal. I dropped about 30 pounds back in 2005, under the pressure of a failing marriage and a decade-early midlife crisis. But even then, that was more an exercise in learning how to eat right, and in the right amount relative to my activity level. That's largely what I'm trying to do now, but also be accountable to some minimum bar of activity, primarily walking. I'm not eating differently as much as I'm eating less. I know I still need to back off the sodium to a certain extent (mainly from eating out).

I'm not sure where I'll level off. In my mind, I'd like to drop another 20. That's still not quite the ideal range by various measurements, but those tend to suck and don't account for things like muscle mass or bone density. I mean, I had a 24-inch vertical leap when I was 32, which is off the charts high. It's probably not that high now, but I can feel when I get on a bike that much of that muscle is still there.

It only gets harder to take care of your body as you get older. Officially in the 40-and-older range, now would not be a good time to slack off.

Growing up is hard

posted by Jeff | Monday, December 2, 2013, 5:40 PM | comments: 0

There was a great piece on Slate about how an entire generation, now closing in on 30-years-old, is incapable of functioning in the world. I hate the idea of generalizing about an entire generation, especially after mine was labeled the slacker generation (and fuck you, by the way... we brought you Google, Amazon and laid the foundation for Facebook, you're welcome). But there seems to be more and more evidence that American society has done a shitty job of raising "kids" who are now around 30 and under.

The reasons are important only because I want to understand them, so as not to cause Simon to turn out the same way. This might be harder for us in the short term, because he has already been identified as having dyspraxia, and some degree of autism spectrum is somewhat likely when he's tested for that. Things are already a little harder for him, so it's hard to decide when to let him struggle a little, and when to help. I labor over decisions already for the most ridiculous things, like whether to give in to his demands to get water, or help him when a shirt is difficult to get off.

The bigger theme seems to be the "helicopter parenting," which means that parents are constantly hovering over kids to help them make every decision, and protect them from failure. I can understand this to an extent, because no one wants to see their kid be miserable or unhappy. But it also seems obvious to me that if a kid can't experience failure, and understand the balance of risk and reward, action and consequences, how can they ever do it on their own?

College seems to be another issue. There's a strong feeling among members of this generation that college entitles you to some measure of success. I think in this case, there's plenty of blame to go around. My generation was urged to go to school in our high school years, but it seems like that emphasis now starts when the kid is born, and never lets up. Worse, it's made out to be your ticket to success. College definitely matters, but it surely isn't the slam dunk competitive advantage it used to be.

I think there are two things that are important for making a self-sufficient human being. The first is to help them develop the basic life skills that get them through life... decision making, playing nice with others, handling conflict, self-care, etc. Ironically enough, in questioning the need for college, I think college is a great place to develop those skills if you live on-campus.

The second important thing is education, but not in the blanket, one-size-fits-all approach. Maybe college is the right thing for a kid, maybe it isn't. Regardless, I think it's important that they have context about what their options are, where the opportunities are, how they get there, and maybe most importantly, that they can always change their mind. I keep hearing about the shortage of qualified electricians here in our area, but that's a very different training path than one for becoming a doctor.

I try not to over-think this stuff, and it still feels like parenting is to a degree an exercise in not screwing up your kid too much. :)