Archive: December, 2014

2014 Review: Personal life

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 30, 2014, 9:05 PM | comments: 0

It feels like I just wrote one of these. But not really. It's such a strange time of life, that feels both hurried and slow. I'm told this has a lot to do with parenting.

Raising Simon

Parenthood was challenging as ever, but I'm proud of the way our little boy is growing up. We started the year with an official diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), to compliment the previously diagnosed Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). These probably sound terrible, but honestly it has just meant an extra layer of learning and understanding to help him overcome these developmental delays.

At the core of Simon's upbringing is absolutely his mom. Diana is the most amazing mother possible. Sometimes she's not confident, like any parent, but she tends to get it right. Her ability to always keep on school stuff, therapy, etc., is remarkable and detailed.

Starting in the fall, Simon started attending both the small class with other kids needing some developmental help, but also a regular preschool class. While I was worried that this would completely exhaust him, and some days it does, there's no doubt that it has been really good for him. His teachers are really great, and the one in particular really seems to get him, having a daughter (now adult) who had similar issues. At this point he's at least trending toward an on-time kindergarten start. He's still struggling with fine motor skills around writing, drawing and coloring, but spelling is coming fast to him. I think being in that structured environment is conditioning him to understand that sometimes he has to do work. That's good because, like me, he tends to not be interested in doing anything he doesn't care about.

Simon had a really good ABA therapist for part of the year before the new school year started, and she came to our house. She was making amazing progress with some of his behavior issues, particularly those that involved a lot of unintentionally violent contact (generally with my balls). Worth every penny, obviously! When school started, we lost her because of scheduling, and that sucked. Many weeks later we started with a replacement, but she was not a good fit at all, so he's not getting any outside therapy right now.

Outside of his learning endeavors, this felt like the year where he finally became a communicator, especially in the last six months. We don't always understand him, but he can mostly have conversations. Heck, the kid insists on ordering for himself at restaurants. It's so neat to see all of this personality pouring out of him. While the ASD manifests itself in certain ways, we're fortunate that it's not in any of the ways that make him seem antisocial or distant. He's a talker, he's very affectionate and very polite and kind. He has his defiant moments (or days), but as his teacher likes to say, he's just trying to assert his independence. It's good to have potty training in the past, and the use of a fork and spoon in the present. It's easy to forget those days are relatively new.

Finally, a good career year

As much as I have in the past tried to convince myself that I shouldn't define myself by my career (in part because it reduces flexibility in changing it), this was a really outstanding year. I started the year in an extension of my contract job at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment as a software architect. While it was clear that the job wasn't going to convert to full-time (if you've been following the headlines, you can probably figure out why), it was a very dense year of work, and I'm really happy with it.

The SeaWorld gig wasn't always ideal, but it helped me in a lot of my soft skills, especially around politicking the right things, taking my own ego out of the equation, mentoring, coaching, etc. I had to learn to let go a little bit of certain things around execution, because I had so many different things to do, context switching constantly. The process was not ideal at all, but I feel like I left the place in better shape than it was in when I got there. Oh, and I obviously care a great deal about theme parks, so you probably couldn't match me up to a better industry.

Many months before the end of the contract work, I started to look around at potential opportunities, and got involved locally by doing a speaking gig for the user group, then a couple of talks for the huge code camp event we have here. That scored some visibility for AgileThought, which was hiring some folks for the Orlando office, and that's where I ended up.

My previous experience with companies that work on an agency model has been a total disaster. Every one of them have been awful, and none of them lasted very long. However, this company has an exceptionally good reputation, and is known to be full of really excellent people. After more than half of a year, I can confirm that all of this is true, and it's awesome. I'm not even remotely the smartest person in the room, it's OK to say, "I don't know, but I'll ask for help and figure it out," and the process is awesome. If that weren't enough, there is no mandate to go into an office (aside from meeting clients where appropriate), but those of us local to Orlando go in anyway at least twice a week. It's really the best of both worlds, remote and colocation.

But it's the people... man, I can't emphasize that enough. I've said for a long time that surrounding yourself with awesomeness is a key action to becoming awesome yourself. Even as a Tampa-centric company, we've got people everywhere who are so good at what they do, and share their expertise liberally.

My position, as a technical architect, is to not just set standards, design stuff and do code reviews. I have accountability for the technical execution of projects, as well as the developers in my charge. Some projects involve a lot of bootstrapping and coding, others might require none at all. It appeals to my strengths in a lot of ways. I'm pleased to say that my first project just wrapped, and it was a great success. While I'm sure I had something to do with that, I couldn't have done it without the great people I was talking about.

I was the happiest I had been in a long time professionally working at SeaWorld, and I'm relieved that it's even better in this newer job. I hope this one lasts a very long time.

On a side note, Diana has re-entered the workforce for the first time since getting laid-off by Key about five years ago. She's working part-time at the arts center downtown, and I'm happy that she finally gets to spend more time with adults!

Homeowners once more

After somewhat irrationally diving right back into the housing market within a few weeks of living in Florida last year, we closed on our new house in late February. Diana and I finally have our very own, slightly-customized McMansion that is wholly ours to identify with. That made for five moves in just over four years. Moving almost felt easy this time, but I'd rather not do it again for awhile.

The buying experience was just completely awful. The banks are completely insane about documenting everything, to the extent it's almost an invasion of privacy. And mind you, my credit score is 800, so I can only imagine what someone goes through with a lower score. We almost walked away in the 11th hour, when they wanted to pay my substantial federal tax bill at closing. I had to back out contributed money from my IRA to pull off that trick, and I'm hoping I did the math right to avoid a penalty.

Because we put so much into the purchase, we've been somewhat casual in terms of settling into the place by buying stuff. Curtains have been an extraordinarily slow process, for example. But we do have some stuff on walls, we've right-sized our furniture collection, and we have rough priorities over what we would like to do still. For me at least, it's hard to spend a lot of time and money on further doing "house stuff" because I feel relatively comfortable already. Still, I know there is stuff that still needs to get done.

The hardest thing about it all is probably the financial hit. Being an epic money saver for a year and then draining it all wasn't a great feeling considering the burden that my previous house was. I'd like to be optimistic about the future and value of the house, that I might actually get that money back out some day, but who knows. It's up $20k in the first year, if you believe Zillow, so that's a good start. My mortgage is actually less than the one I had in Cleveland, for significantly more house. That should add context about what an awful situation that was.

For all of the strange feelings around a need to feel a sense of mobility and settling down, I have to admit that I like having a place that's uniquely ours. I started to feel more strongly about it once I started working from home part time. It's cozy, and it's filled with love when the rest of the team is home.

Financial makeover, continued

It's hard to really assess your financial condition when you buy a house. The savings effort was epic, and unlike anything I've ever had enough discipline to pull off. We really didn't vacation during that time, and we generally avoided being stupid about spending.

After closing on the house, it was hard to save money. There were a lot of reasons, including our pent-up vacation desire, some amount of house furnishing, and a pretty significant amount for Simon's therapy (which in my mind was non-negotiable in terms of being required). We ended the year with a smaller savings account than I would have liked, but it wasn't a total disaster. I have to keep in mind that half the year I was also contributing to a 401k, so that counts too.

Still, I did keep to my important declaration that "thou shalt not carry a balance" with credit cards. That used to be so hard for me, but I've stuck to that since mostly paying everything down while we lived in Seattle. I hate the idea of ever operating like that again.

Charity, with time

We've been huge boosters for Give Kids The World for years now. The great thing about living down here though is that we've gone beyond donating money, and now we can give them time. Diana has pretty consistently volunteered once a week, or every other. I've done mostly fund raising help, since I was a "founder" of sorts for the annual Coasting For Kids event. I remind people that even though it's a local charity for me, it's global in reach. They've probably hosted families from your home town.

I also had a few chances to donate some video work at the Dr. Phillips Center, which I'll talk more about later. Money is easy, and these organizations definitely need cash, but it's a lot more personal when you can give time.

I need to do more though. I live a decent life, that has not been without its shitstorms. I feel that if I'm capable of philanthropy, it's very much my duty. I'm challenging myself to get more involved this year.

On health

This is an area that was kind of neutral in terms of progress. Last year I bought a Fitbit, and being accountable for my activity and food intake allowed me to easily knock off a few pounds, and more importantly not feel like a slug. There isn't a day that I haven't had that thing on me, but late in the year I stopped logging food. By some miracle, I haven't gained any weight, but I know I don't feel as good as I did. I've been eating like kind of a moron, and since working remotely, I'm not walking nearly enough.

In any case, I'm self-aware, and I just need to adjust my lifestyle again and get back into that groove. While not an excuse, I know that my mental bandwidth has been used up, and I'm not prioritizing right. What's good is that I don't feel as good, and I would rather that I did, so shifting the priorities should come pretty quickly. I mean, I don't have to go to an office most days, so I have no excuse about not getting out more.


We've now been Florida residents for a year and a half. In some ways, the state is almost as screwed up politically as Ohio, but you know, you tend to overlook a lot of things when you have so much blue sky and no snow. I can't understand how I didn't end up here years ago.

That lack of winter is really the big deal. Cleveland winters were so mentally awful for me. Summers here, oddly, remind me of Seattle winters only 40 degrees warmer. Count on a little rain (OK, actually a wrath-of-God downpour), but trust that you'll also see the sun.

And of course, there's always something to do. We're outside more than we ever were, year-round, living in Cleveland. We have experienced neat stuff like rocket launches, gator sightings, a unique zoo, an amazing downtown scene, some great local restaurants, etc.

Oh, and of course there are the Disney theme parks we live next to. We didn't visit nearly as much this year because of Simon's school schedule, but they're still super fun. The novelty hasn't worn off, but we definitely have a particular m.o. in terms of how we visit. It's usually only during non-busy times, only if we can get Fastpasses that day, and rarely more than four hours unless we're visiting with out-of-town friends (which happens a lot). We stay far away at times like spring break and Christmas.

We still find ourselves missing Seattle in certain ways. We had a nice social circle there, I enjoyed hanging out with my brother-in-law's family, and of course it's just a generally more progressive and vibrant part of the world. Oh, and of course it's beautiful in ways that few places are. I still think that it's objectively a "better" place, but it doesn't necessarily win over Central Florida. It's different, but we love it here too. I think in an ideal world, I'd live in Seattle in the summer, and here the rest of the year.

Living social

We have a growing social circle now. It's a little slow going, but that's OK. There are a circle of good people I know via work, and I even recruited my neighbor into the company. There are many neighbors with kids around the same age as Simon, so in that respect it's a good fit for us. Our circles expand via Diana's contact with other parents of kids with developmental delays, and through volunteering at GKTW. I'm gradually (though not as much as I'd like) getting more active in the local developer community.

Close friendships still don't come very easy to me, but I'm fortunate to have moved to where my best friend was already living. I can't even quantify how much easier it is to move to a place where you have a kind of personal guide like that. And if that weren't enough, she babysits Simon gratis, and engages with him in a non-trivial way that he responds to. She invites Diana out to do stuff. It's fantastic to have someone you can count on like that.

Once again, we managed to see all kinds of people from around the country as they passed through Orlando. That continues to be on one of my favorite parts about living here. Everyone gets here eventually. Our friends from Chicago were here in the spring and we cruised with them. A great many friends will be here in January for a wedding, too. I'm super excited about that.

Evolving technology

This might be the year that I started to back off a little on gadgetry. While I did (as planned) replace a laptop and tablet, I didn't replace my desktop, which has been relegated to the family room, and mostly Simon's use. Not saying I won't replace it next year, but relative to my normal year, this was good. I didn't buy any camera gear at all. I got to the end of the year without replacing my phone, and I waited more than a year for an Xbox One, and then only because the discounts got super deep (and I'm a Halo junkie).

I've backed off of the Internet a little, too. Sure, I post as many photos of my kid and my darling wife as possible (for family, of course), but I've tried to back off a little on overall content consumption. I think I realized at some point that I was too engaged in too many things that largely did not improve my life. It's probably most obvious by the way I've had less to write about on my blog.

Of course, there was one surprising entry into our technology portfolio: An electric car. It happened quickly, but it was also premeditated. Ever since I rented a Nissan Leaf back in the late spring of 2013, I was super interested. Between that and the Tesla Model S, it seemed like EV's had really arrived, at least for commuting purposes. So when Diana's car blew a coolant hose to the transmission, allegedly ruining it (the dealer replaced it under the 100k drivetrain warranty), we decided to get into the EV game on a 2-year lease basis.

The Leaf is a really fun car to drive, and we're spending under 3 cents per mile on energy for it. Range is a non-issue, because it's hard for us not to be a two-car family, and the other car is a Prius V. I'm so not a car guy, and certainly don't care about auto-as-status, but electric is pretty exciting to me.

Hobbies revisited

I feel like I finally took a little time to rediscover some of the things that I love to do. I busted out my cameras a lot more than I have in recent years. Sure, it was mostly to photograph my kid, but I realized when choosing some photos to frame for my office that I've had some really great moments that I'm proud to have captured (only three of those framed photos fit that category, but the point is I reviewed a lot of photos). I'm reminded of something a college professor told me that feels true as ever: Great photos have nothing to do with gear, it's mostly frequency. Sometimes you get lucky. After having glass in my hands for something like 25 years, I can certainly say that I'm experienced, but the best of the best that I've shot happened because of the sheer volume, and not so much intention. The more you shoot, the more likely you'll capture something great.

Similarly, I thought more about video than I have in the recent past. After getting a professional credit in 2013, for the first time in about seven years, I realized that I missed it even though it's a tough business to be in. This year, I spontaneously resolved to just get something recorded, cut and finished in a few hours, quality and technique be damned. That exercise resulted in a short I did about a typical night with Simon, and the guy who wrote the song I used featured it on his YouTube channel. (It's still hard to let go of everything technically wrong with it.) Later in the year I volunteered time and gear doing some shooting for the Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts, which was fun because it required little more from me beyond taking direction. (Small world: The creative director at the time was a producer for Blair Witch Project, and we both got started in earnest with non-linear editing using Media100 systems.)

I don't diversify my leisure activity enough, and maybe part of the issue is that I strongly prefer to create things as a result of that activity.

We went back to Ohio, and North Carolina

It's hard to believe, but we returned to Ohio three times this year. Two of those were to Cincinnati and Kings Island, the first for media day, the second for a CoasterBuzz event. We had a shockingly good time in both cases, staying at the beautiful Great Wolf Lodge. It's crazy how much that park has improved in recent years, and Simon loved it. Banshee is a fantastic ride.

We also went back to Cleveland for the GKTW Coasting For Kids event at Cedar Point. The event was supposed to be Sunday, and we were staying three nights over the weekend, with a generous comp room no less! That Friday night was both Coastermania and the Luminosity kickoff party. It was such an amazing night, and it felt like a homecoming to see everyone. Unfortunately, early the next morning, the Great Water Main Break of 2014 happened, shuttering the park for the weekend. It was really heartbreaking, especially for Simon who loves the park even with Magic Kingdom in his back yard. We were fortunate enough to do a whirlwind of rides that Monday morning before flying home, thanks in part to our friends at the park.

For Thanksgiving, we finally made it back to my in-law's North Carolina cottage in the mountains. The drive was much longer than I expected, but otherwise it was such a nice getaway from our routine. I didn't have to take time off because I simply worked from there. It was a little chilly when we left, but they have such a cozy place. We had not been there in almost two years, going for Thanksgiving 2012, then leaving Simon with Nana and Papa as Diana and I did a Disney week.

Cruise critters

We took three cruises this year, all the same three-night itinerary leaving from Port Canveral. I can barely wrap my head around that. We did one early the year before, which seemed largely experimental at the time, and this year we went kind of nuts, as we were vacation starved leading up to the house purchase. Aside from the obvious fact that we enjoy these trips, there are a lot of reasons they make sense.

Living in Orlando means the port is just an hour down the road, and that's low-stress. There are Florida resident discounts. And frankly, the value is extraordinary compared to a lot of other options. If the three of us fly anywhere, we've spent a grand before we've actually done anything or put our heads on a pillow. Add a hotel, food and activities, and you're flirting with two grand. The itinerary we've been doing is often around $1,400 and includes everything except alcohol. I wouldn't call that inexpensive at all, but there isn't any travel that I've ever done that's as worry-free and makes me feel so well taken care of.

All of our cruising has been aboard Disney ships, and that will likely continue. It's not because of the mouse (really, outside of proximity, I'm not sure I would classify us as "Disney people"), but more because the quality of the experience has been awesome and we're racking up loyalty perks. When we're in port with three or four other ships, the thing that is so striking is that there's a certain classic elegance about the Disney boats. They invoke a feeling of sophistication or something, with elements of fantasy. It's hard to explain, but you know it when you step into that atrium for the first time.

I will say that we definitely have more fun on the cruises with friends or family. The first one in 2012 was with family, and this year we did one with our friends from Chicago. I'm not saying the Team Puzzoni-only cruises aren't fun, but it's even better with others.

Yikes, but politics and world events

This was an ugly year for news. The politics were as awful as usual, and we had our share of scary things like terrorism (primarily overseas), disease, catastrophic weather, race issues and xenophobia... it really felt like the world was falling apart at times. I think what bothered me the most was that people are just so determined to hate on other people. I don't understand this insatiable desire to classify people in some way, and then tear down that group. Homosexuals, immigrants, African-Americans (still?), the poor, the rich, Christians, Muslims, even rape victims. Why are people so hell bent on going to war with someone? Everything is a versus situation, and must have winners and losers.

Younger me would have jumped right in and gotten involved, but I just don't have it in me lately. The more obvious reason is that my immediate zone of influence is far more important to me. The less obvious reason, and the one slowly becoming more clear to me, is that I've evolved to a degree into this third party that holds contempt for any two opposing views. It's like I see self-labeled Republicans or Democrats tearing down the other based on really stupid shit when there are perfectly legitimate and constructive reasons to criticize. Why aren't we having those conversations instead?

It's exhausting to argue with people who don't want to be challenged or think critically on their own, so why bother? I hate that this results in apathy. To be continued.

Am I happy?

For as long as I've been doing these annual retrospectives, I didn't start asking this question until 2010, which was one insane year. In 2011 I candy-coated the ending where we mistakenly moved to Cleveland, and in 2012 I was like, yeah, that was stupid, but at least I worked from home and had a great home life. Then there was great decision to move to Florida last year, and here we are.

Happy means a lot of things, but it doesn't mean a constant state of euphoria. What it's really about is whether or not the general course of your daily life gets you out of bed. While the stress of the house purchasing definitely put me on edge, the net result of the year is that I'm probably the happiest I've been in my entire life. Seriously, I thought hard about whether or not I could really make that claim. Even with the self-awareness of things I'm not crazy about, this is the best place I've ever been mentally and emotionally.

I would like next year to be even better, but I'd settle for as-good. I'm not sure I can realistically expect it, but I'll do my best. I'm pretty excited about 2015.

2014 Review: The business

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 30, 2014, 8:36 PM | comments: 0

I'm not sure if there is much to tell about my little hobby business this year. It's all about what I expected.

Ad revenue was down a little, proportional to traffic, which is actually good because it means that the CPM's mostly held their ground this year, after many years of decline. Membership revenue was up a little, which is reassuring. Overall, the lesson is that it isn't so much traffic that affects revenue, not like it did in the old days.

CoasterBuzz was down a little in traffic, I'm theorizing (based on the traffic patterns) due to a slight decline in news and its organic ability to rank in search. That, and honestly I just didn't pay that much attention to it. I did zero features this year. It was a little harder to focus on it this year because, surprisingly, working for an actual theme park company kind of makes you not want to think about it in your spare time. My life priorities have shifted a little, and even though the site was never a huge time suck, I wish I spent more time on it. It will be 15 years old in January. At the end of the day, I can deal with a minor decline, because 2014 still saw 26% more people than it did in 2011, and that's not insignificant.

PointBuzz is a victim of the usual ups and downs of Cedar Point's attraction development. On an off year with nothing new, traffic takes a crap. But it's all relative, I suppose, because if you were to compare to 2011, a wholly unremarkable year, traffic was up 42% in visits and page views. Hold that thought though... there's a bigger trend to look at around the numbers for both sites.

We actually did a semi-baked new version of PointBuzz, just a few weeks ago. The old version was getting SO crusty, running on .NET v3.5-era code. With the new forum version taking shape, and a surprising amount of code I had already written, Walt and I decided to just go for it and launch a sort-of-done-but-not-really version and start getting feedback. There are some photo pages that aren't styled, and there is zero ability to administer the photos at this point, but that's OK in the off-season. We finally moved to a responsive design and I got a ton of rapid feedback for the forum app. It even works pretty well on my old iPhone 3GS! Still quite a bit of work to do there.

I should mention that QuiltLoop, the site we thought of back in early 2013, was something I finally got back to and finished enough to publish. The idea wasn't that it would be "done," considering I had a new version of the forum in the pipe, and it was about as designed as, well, it wasn't designed. So we did a soft launch, and then promptly stopped paying attention to it. I went on to other things, and Diana didn't have time to devote to it either. Will it ever go somewhere and get more love? Maybe, but doing so would mean we'd have to coordinate our efforts, and that's a lot harder.

While not strictly a business endeavor, POP Forums is something I publish as an open source project under the company name. This year I moved it to GitHub, because it's very clear that CodePlex is being allowed to die a slow death. The commits were inconsistent this year, but I'm close to a new release. I kind of got distracted, building for big scalability, which is something that I don't actually need. I just wanted to do it because I think I can. While I've left some of that effort in the source code as a placeholder, it will be "unsupported" for now. I turned my attention to using a more modern CSS framework (Bootstrap), and adding some features that I've desperately wanted to add for some time. It's running on PointBuzz right now.

So what's the story with ad revenue? Like I said, it isn't just about page views, as mobile use, crappy ad rates and dynamic page mechanisms have changed things a great deal. I noticed this in particular on CoasterBuzz, where in 2012, the forums introduced infinite scroll topics. Instead of paging through to the next block of posts, they just load in the page. So what happened? There were 26% more users in 2014 than 2011, but 17% less page views. If you look around at the stats, a significant portion of that is because forum users aren't looking at additional pages, they're looking at one ever expanding page. That's great for users, not so great for ad views.

And then there is the mobile problem, which CB doesn't handle well at all. It uses mobile views and smaller ad formats and it's just a mess. With a third of traffic using that ill-conceived mobile view, of course the ad revenue is going to take a crap. I think we've made the adjustments on PB that will help to correct for this, but it's too early to tell (that, and December is the slowest month of the year).

I can't do anything about CPM's, and I don't want to enable a crappy user experience just for ad views, so I can see where a little focused energy will likely improve the situation. As is generally the case, I just need to find time. It's a fun hobby, but it's not my only one. I do have to accept though that if I have too many years in a row where I'm not putting energy into it, traffic differences won't be minor. As I said, maybe I'll be more into it now that I'm back out of the fold.

"I don't believe in social bullying"

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 30, 2014, 5:15 PM | comments: 0

We bought an electric car this year because it's really fun to drive. Also, as a technologist, this sort of thing is pretty much as gadgety as you can get. The science of batteries and torque and such are neat-o to me. And yes, the green cred doesn't hurt. Conversely, I view the Cadillac Escalade as one of the purest examples of American excess and desire for status. It's a completely ridiculous car by every measure I can think of, but I try to be zen about it and kind of shrug my shoulders over people who need that kind of recognition.

This story isn't about any of that.

I was pulling up to Ikea, a pretty bad idea between holidays, when I noticed that one of their electric/hybrid/fuel efficient spots was open. Right on, I thought. I turned around the corner, where a woman in an oncoming Escalade pulled into the spot. I was pretty speechless. It wasn't that I desperately wanted to park there (a little walking never hurt anyone, and the lot was not very full), it's that this person had the nuts to park there.

So I rolled down my window, ready to ask her if her giant car was fuel efficient. Before I could even get a word out, she began the exchange.

"Sorry, I don't believe in social bullying."

I was so taken aback by this that I wasn't even sure what to say, so I said, "What?"

"I don't believe in social bullying."

I'm assuming that she meant that there were some societal forces judging her for driving a big and ridiculous car, but that thought crossed my mind a few moments later.

"No, you don't believe the rules apply to you."

I started to drive off, and I think I muttered "asshole," possibly audibly, but I was kind of giggling at the sheer absurdity of her statement. All I could think of was the hilarious scene in The Big Lebowski where Walter goes nuts when he thinks Smokey stepped over the line while bowling.

Sure, we encounter ridiculous rules all of the time. Sometimes we follow them anyway, and go about our lives. Whether or not you think Ikea should be designating parking spots for certain cars probably doesn't matter, but good on them for making some kind of statement for driving toward the future. At the end of the day, it's Ikea's store, and I think you follow their rules. It's like if I ask you to take your shoes off at my house, even if I have black carpeting. Whatever, it's my house.

That said, what really bothered me was the "social bullying" thing. I can't even wrap my head around how stupid that is. Is this well-to-do white person, with her honors students at private schools (she has the stickers to prove it), really suggesting that in some way society is somehow causing her to be at a disadvantage for the car she's driving? That she's being pressured into driving something else? I can't rationalize this or see her point of view at all. I mean, does she feel her life is being disadvantaged by some organized conspiracy to promote alternative energy?

What's most disheartening about this, and admittedly I could be reading into it, is that even people who have money and status are complaining about how they're victims. As a compassionate human being (which apparently makes you a bleeding heart liberal now), I can empathize with people who are disadvantaged for some socioeconomic reasons, and if they're actively trying to overcome those issues, I fully support them. Entitled people who already have it good? Not so much. If you're crying in your pinot noir because someone told you "no" or doesn't include you in something, you're not a victim.

I do worry that this is an extension of the people raising kids with participation trophies and going with them to job interviews. Life isn't always fair, and sometimes it's hard, but if you think being told where to park your Escalade is social bullying, then perhaps "mo' money, mo' problems" is true. I fear for your children's' future.

Book of Mormon: December 28, 2014 (matinee), Walt Disney Theater @ Dr. Phillips Center

posted by Jeff | Monday, December 29, 2014, 2:34 PM | comments: 0

We finally managed to see Book of Mormon, and it was every bit as hilarious and vulgar as I hoped. Diana worked the show last week (and will at least once this week), but we finally got out together to sit down, as guests, and see something.

Despite the rave reviews, I was admittedly a little uncomfortable about a musical that made fun of any particular religion (and seriously, have you ever met any Mormons who weren't wonderfully polite people?), but it wasn't quite what I expected in that regard. Yes, they take some hard stabs at Mormon missionaries, and some slightly less sharp jabs at the religion, but I think it's more of an indictment of organized religion in the general sense, and the dogma that is piled up on it with its institutions. At the same time, I think it makes a case for religion in the general sense because it can provide people with hope and purpose regardless of what it is. Mind you, it's not always a very good purpose, but it's not without merit. That was unexpected from the guys who regularly tear Scientology a new asshole.

In between the non-subtle social commentary, the show is filled with potty humor and F-bombs. I'm amazed that it manages to walk the line of shock value but doesn't really go over it (though keep in mind that I'm not easily shocked by language or crude sex jokes). There comes a point where it's so absurd that it can't help but be funny. If this kind of thing ever stops being funny to me, it's game over, life got too serious.

If it weren't for the South Park movie, you would wonder how the hell something like this came from the same guys. Like Family Guy Seth MacFarlane, apparently many comic geniuses are also masters of musical theater. This is no exception. All of the things that you like about musicals are found in this show, interspersed with characters like General Butt Fucking Naked.

Oh, I don't have to tell you how well the Orlando jokes played to this particular crowd.

The cast was completely amazing, end to end. There wasn't a weak person in the entire show. The three leads in particular were so good, and surprisingly young. We were especially impressed with the female lead, Denee Benton, who happens to be a local making it into a big tour right out of college. She's got the pipes, the stage presence and she's strikingly beautiful. Nothing is more awesome than watching someone so young be that good at anything.

The theater tech geek in me was also super interested in how much automated lighting has changed the art-science of theatrical lighting. It's amazing how much you can do with so little now, something I noticed with Phantom a couple of weeks ago. Comparing the plot they use for a show today compared to what we had to hang for traveling shows, even simple ones, in college, is mind boggling. I wish I was still doing it for a community theater or something.

And yes, I smile every time I get to be in that building. What a remarkable and special place we have here, in the heart of downtown no less. I'm jealous that Diana gets to be there at least once a week.

Right-sizing the child gift giving

posted by Jeff | Sunday, December 28, 2014, 8:59 AM | comments: 0

We had a pretty awesome Christmas this year, in part because I think Simon is finally playing along with the idea of Santa and such. Diana agrees. I think we're a bit more cautious about gifts for him than other parents might be, and it comes down to a few core things:

  • We emphasize experiences not stuff. We don't even buy each other much of anything, instead opting for travel spending. Simon may remember certain toys, but he still talks about places we went a year ago, and I think that's what sticks with him.
  • Maybe it's his ASD issues, but this isn't a kid who seems to need a lot of toys. I've seen him lock on to a single thing for hours, perfectly content. I don't know that more would be better with him.
  • More than anything, we don't want him to have the expectation that he simply gets what he wants. I don't think we need to worry about that, because even though he understands that we buy things from stores, he rarely asks for anything. When he has, we've made agreements (around things like potty training or chores).
  • And of course, we don't want him to believe that Christmas is simply about getting stuff. We might not be super religious, but I don't think you have to be in order to understand the underlying spirit of the holiday.

I know it comes off as judgey (now judge me for making up a word!), but I find it a little weird the way some parents just go nuts buying stuff for their kids. I'm sure that much of it has a short shelf life. I kind of associate it with the participation trophy phenomenon, that they get stuff just because they're your kid.

To be honest, we don't spend a lot of time thinking about this, it's just the way it plays out. There was a period of time where we wondered if we didn't buy the kid enough to stimulate his development, but fortunately his former therapist made some suggestions.

Things don't suck as bad as you think, so Merry Christmas!

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 23, 2014, 10:06 PM | comments: 0

Right now, it seems the fear du jour is about foreigners and racial tension, which seems like a nice break from the fear about the economy. Wait, why are we scared of the economy again? What? It doesn't actually suck? But, Obama!

I know I've said this before, but I'll say it again: I think Obama has been the most do-nothing president of my lifetime, and he has mostly squandered every opportunity he has had to be a truly transformative leader. I'm not saying he hasn't accomplished anything at all, or that the environment wasn't challenging, but the dude ended up being mostly hype and little substance.

So you might be wondering, "Gosh, if you're not an Obamafan, then why would you defend him?" If that's what you're wondering, then consider that I'm not defending the guy, but rather making note that the nonsense that people criticize him for is completely silly and often outside of the context of anything he did in the last six years. I mean, do you remember all of the stupid shit that came out of the 2012 campaign? For example:

  • Romney said he could bring unemployment down below 6% before the end of his term using no specific policy (source). It hit 5.9% in September, and is now down to 5.6% (source). It's the best job growth we've seen in 15 years (source). I don't think Obama had anything to do with it... this is the market at work.
  • All of the GOP candidates slammed Obama for the GDP growth at that time, where it was stagnating under 2% annually (source). Now it's closing in on 5% (source).
  • Remember Newt Gingrich? He said gas would end up being $10 under Obama, and he could make it $2.50 (source). As you're probably aware, gas is now under $2 in a lot of places (source: drive around). Anyone with even a basic understanding of economics knows that no president has anything to do with gas prices.

The point is that all of the talking points in politics tend to be nonsense. Government can certainly do things that materially affect the economy, and one can argue all day about whether or not such meddling is logically and morally a good idea, but the idea that any one president can make or break the country in economic terms is silly, if only because it's the congresscritters that need to actually pass the laws. Where presidents do the most damage, I would argue, is in foreign policy, but that's a different problem (and one with plenty of room for legitimate Obama criticism).

And what else about the economy? Auto sales are about to hit a level they haven't seen in 14 years (source). Charitable giving is up 9% over last year (source). All of the theme park companies (except SeaWorld Parks) are reporting record revenue, implying a whole lot of vacations.

Now, all of that said, I'm not naive enough to believe that there is no problem in terms of a shrinking middle class in the US. As a worker in a profession that pays exceptionally well, I can certainly thank the GOP (and their corporate sponsors, er, donors) for keeping my tax burden low, too. I remember reading earlier this year (found it!) about how screwed up our "bottom 90%" is compared to that of other countries, and it's staggering that we keep electing people who can't look around the world to see how it's going. It's a complicated problem that isn't getting better.

But the emotional optimist side of me doesn't accept that we're stuck with whatever we've got. I'm amazed to learn about small local companies that still roll like classic small businesses. Regional opportunities like North Dakota have unprecedented growth. The volume of jobs in the trades, again regional, is staggering (seriously, if you're a carpenter or plumber, they need you here). I think if people can be flexible, in what they're willing to do and where they can do it, things will get better. Maybe I'm being naive, but I can say with certainty that things don't get better when you're only negative.

And I think that's what I'm really getting at. Bitching about Obama or any politicians isn't going to make anything better. It might even obscure reality or opportunity.

Merry Christmas, and may the new year not suck even more than this year.

The 2014 playlist

posted by Jeff | Friday, December 19, 2014, 8:00 PM | comments: 0

I mentioned on Facebook that I thought this was a great year for music, and in fact this is the longest playlist I've had since starting around 1991 or so. Surprisingly, there are a few people who are interested in what I listen to, so I thought I would again share the list this year.

It's worth noting that a lot of my music discovery mechanism is the AltNation channel on SiriusXM. It reminds me a lot of how "alternative" radio was in the mid-90's, in that it's kind of diverse and not afraid to play stuff that has little or too much commercial appeal. I guess when you're simply a part of a wider service with many different genres, you don't have to appeal to a broad range of listeners with too narrow of a playlist.

So before I get into a few notes, here's the big list, clocking in at 54 songs:

"The Wire" Haim
"Let Go [Feat. Kele, Mndr]" RAC
"Electric" Atlas Genius
"House Of Gold" Twenty One Pilots
"Cannibal" Silversun Pickups
"Doses & Mimosas [Explicit]" Cherub
"Dangerous (feat. Joywave)" Big Data
"Cardiac Arrest" Bad Suns
"Thunder Clatter" Wild Cub
"Fall In Love" Phantogram
"Young Heart" Blondfire
"It's About Time" Young The Giant
"Elephant" Tame Impala
"Let It Go" Idina Menzel
"Bridges" Broods
"Coming of Age" Foster The People
"Pseudologia Fantastica" Foster The People
"Lanterns" Birds Of Tokyo
"Deadbolt" SKATERS
"Says She Loves Me" Aer
"I Wanna Get Better" The Bleachers
"Happy (from Despicable Me 2)" Pharrell Williams
"Digital Witness" St. Vincent
"Recover" Chvrches
"Waves" Sleeper Agent
"Lazaretto" Jack White
"Stolen Dance" Milky Chance
"Luck" American Authors
"High" Young Rising Sons
"Work It out (Radio Edit)" Knox Hamilton
"Flaws" Bastille
"Come With Me Now" Kongos
"Come a Little Closer" Cage The Elephant
"One Minute More" Capital Cities
"Coffee" Sylvan Esso
"Riptide" Vance Joy
"We Sink" Chvrches
"Geronimo" Sheppard
"Royals (live on AltNation)" Sheppard
"Firelight" Young The Giant
"Busy Earnin'" Jungle
"Rollercoaster" Bleachers
"Beggin For Thread" Banks
"Budapest George" Ezra
"clouds" Kasabian
"eez-eh" Kasabian
"Yellow Flicker Beat" Lorde
"Mother & Father" Broods
"Mess Is Mine" Vance Joy
"Tongues [Feat. Kopps]" Joywave
"You Haunt Me" Sir Sly
"Bad Habit" The Kooks
"Hypnotic" Zella Day
"Cycle Song" Imogen Heap

This list is kind of single-heavy, but don't let that fool you. There were some great albums this year. The stand outs were Chvrches, Sleeper Agent, Kasabian and Young The Giant. The last two in particular caught me by surprise. They're really, really good. On the other hand, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed by Imogen Heap's album. Here's the thing, she's a brilliant composer, and I think the collaborative nature of the work, while gratifying for her, kind of dilutes her own genius. It's not bad at all, it's just not nearly perfect like the previous effort.

I have to give special mention to Sheppard though. They only released an EP in the US, and I'm sure "Geronimo" played really well to the pop crowd. But listen to everything else and they are really talented. Check out their cover of Lorde's "Royals." Best version of the song ever.

And yes, there were a lot of really good singles. I can listen to this playlist every day and I don't get tired of it. I love "Work It Out," by Knox Hamilton, and it might be one of my favorite songs this year.

Gifts to charity

posted by Jeff | Thursday, December 18, 2014, 9:41 PM | comments: 0

My dearest friend, who works in a fundraising role for a non-profit, made the "duh" point to me that she was busy because a ton of giving happens this time of year.

Whatever you care about, give a little time and money if you can before the end of the year. God knows it's easy to get wrapped up in all of the stress, commerce, travel and what not. You'll not only help your cause, you'll help the people who have to raise the money.

And if you want to get me something for Christmas, please make a donation on my behalf instead to Give Kids The World. :)

Mini trip report: Disney Dream, 3-night Bahamas itinerary, December 2014

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, December 17, 2014, 10:56 PM | comments: 0

I'm not going to go into extensive detail about this latest cruise, since we've done it three other times (part 1, 2, 3). This is a super convenient itinerary because it leaves on a Friday, comes back in early Monday, and the port is an hour away. Basically this means I only need one day off of work, and if we don't have a ride, the $60 in on-site parking isn't the end of the world. The biggest change this time is that we decided to try concierge, and I'll get to how I feel about the value proposition later.

We checked-in at the terminal just before 11, and we were literally one of the first families on the ship with the now familiar, "Welcome aboard the Puzzoni Family!" We hustled up to deck 11 to Cabanas for lunch, which was just in the process of opening. We picked a nice table in the corner overlooking the space coast. The buffet meals in that restaurant are reliably fantastic, even for a picky eater like me.

Before noon, we rolled up to the concierge lounge, where one of the three concierge managers does a brief orientation with you to explain their services and give you a custom printed itinerary. They also have a shore-based crew that will get you set up with anything you can think of before you sail, and we used that to make sure they hooked us up with a half-dozen Uncrustables sandwiches, our backup for Simon's eating issues. Sure enough, as soon as we got into our room, they delivered the sandwiches.

The concierge lounge is kind of small, but comfortable. It also had stairs up to a private sun deck, which is probably four times as big as it needs to be. They have all kinds of finger foods there most of the day, and lots of "complimentary" alcohol. The bartended working the pre-dinner receptions (there is one for each dinner time) had a rum punch specialty that we very much took advantage of, and it was delicious. The lounge also has bags of popcorn, and you can even borrow an iPad from them if for some reason you can't keep your kids unplugged for three days. Service aboard the ships is already outstanding, and these folks take it to another level.

They try to get the concierge rooms cleaned earlier than the general 1:30 time for the rest of the ship, and I think they actually have more stateroom hosts per room. We wandered into ours just after noon and it was ready.

One of our goals this time was to do a meal at the adult-only Palo, specifically the brunch, but it wasn't meant to be. Simon had a bad experience in the Ocenaeer's Club last time, and we're not sure exactly what happened other than some serious separation anxiety. We took him in during the open house and he started to freak out about us leaving him there, so we had to cancel our Palo reservation.

We also hoped to see Big Hero Six, but unfortunately the best times were only showing in 3D, which Diana has issues with.

Again, we didn't disembark in Nassau, and that gave us a great chance to play around the pool area. Simon is now tall enough to ride the Aquaduck with one of us, and he seemed to be interested by the last day while we were at Castaway Cay. Being our child and frequent visitor to Walt Disney World, of course he decided to pass because the line was too long. Still, he did fully embrace the big yellow kid slide, and probably did it two dozen times.

Similarly, he wouldn't even walk barefoot in the sand two years ago, and now he rolls around in it and loves building sandcastles (mostly to destroy them). The interest doesn't last long, but what a relief that he'll do it. After the play on the beach, and a little lunch, he wanted to return to the ship for more slides and the pool, which was exceptionally warm. I'm really proud of his water play, as it feels like we beat one of his sensory issues.

We actually had a meal that wasn't very good, which is a first on any of our cruises. The chicken I had was really dry, and Diana's first choice of beef was undercooked and super fatty. It didn't matter that night, because we were so full of food and drinks from earlier in the day that we could barely stomach dinner in the first place. The rest of the food was delicious, especially the desserts.

Also new this time, Diana did an on-deck back massage. This isn't the full table treatment, just the chair thing. They were running a special that was $40-something, and she felt it was a pretty good value. The spa was apparently very underbooked, and they were running quite a few package specials.

On our Castaway Cay morning, we also signed up to walk the 5k, and brought Simon along. He technically is not a registrant, but since there's no stopping anyone from doing anything on the island, we just brought him along for the walk. I ended up carrying him on my shoulders for two 1,000-foot stretches, I think more because he was bored than tired. In any case, we finished last with a time of an hour and three minutes, which seemed pretty good considering the small 43" person we had along. I had them put my Mickey medallion on him at the finish line. Oh, this was also the first time we had been out on the former airstrip or the trail out to the observation tower. We definitely want to rent bikes next time.

Overall, our beach day was again the best day, and with a nap late in the afternoon, Simon made it to 10 o'clock after the show (Believe) in relatively good spirits. I still struggle with the fact that we don't get to do night stuff when we're not sailing with friends or family. (I'm looking at you, Team Jandes!) I think overall these trips are more fun with others, provided there isn't some unrealistic expectation that you have to spend every minute together.

So what about staying in concierge? I suppose it depends on how you value the exclusivity and extra service. I calculated that we consumed roughly $170 on "free" stuff from the concierge services. The price difference over the room we would have likely wanted was a little under $700 (they appear higher for next year), and if the pricing weren't so low for this particular weekend, there's no way I would have considered trying it. So the net difference in cost after the drinks and other stuff was around $500 and change for the three of us. It might be less even, because we've never spent so little onboard when you take out the new experience of Diana's massage cost.

Is that worth it? I'm on the fence. I think for a special occasion, if it were just the two of us, definitely. The base prices for the three of us in a good room with a verandah have always come out to around $400 a night, which is comparable to a nice hotel without any of the food, entertainment and the fact that you're at sea, so even the more standard experience seems like a good value to me. And I say that also believing firmly that the service is better than what you get at those hotels. Concierge does take it to another level, absolutely, but I'm not sure I'd pay for it during the higher rate seasons, and even then I think it would have to be a special occasion. I enjoyed all of the extra attention, but short of a crazy good rate, I doubt we will do it again. If we were going to spend extra money, it would be on a cabana at Castaway Cay, provided it's shared with another family/friend party.

Aside from some challenges we had with Simon, and my frustration about not having a chance to do the grown-up stuff more as a result, it was another solid getaway. It's so nice to be unplugged and not really have to think about anything other than where you're going to eat. With Simon getting more into the water stuff, that's making it more fun as well. We already booked a "placeholder" for the next one to get 10% off. I suspect we won't wait all that long to use it, and we're looking at some other itineraries as well. Would love to do Alaska or Hawaii if I can figure out the scheduling.

There's a reason I likely overthink parenting

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, December 17, 2014, 9:33 PM | comments: 0

I had one of those evenings where I felt I could do no right with Simon. I like to go out with him on some nights that Diana works. Usually it's just two or three hours to one of the theme parks, or dinner at a kid-friendly place. Tonight he was being rude, yelling at me and generally unpleasant. Instead of responding rationally, I did so mostly emotionally, and probably reinforced the behavior in the process. Not a proud moment for me.

There's a reason I worry as much as I do about my perceived failings. Keep in mind that I'm not the shitty parent trying to protect my kid from adversity and failure by giving him participation trophies, but I don't want to do anything that could have a lasting negative effect. The kid has a memory like a stone tablet. He remembers stuff.

So do I.

About the time I was 7 or 8, my family was in the car driving somewhere, probably for a camping trip. Like most kids my age (before DVD players and iPads), I often passed the time by trying to engage with my parents in some way. For me, it was reading the road signs. I would add that there are a lot of interesting names to sound out in southwest New York, like Salamanca and Allegany State Park. At some point, my sign reading annoyed my step-father to the point that he yelled at me to "shut up."

That moment, seemingly unimportant at the time, stuck with me (obviously, since I'm writing about it as a 40-something). There are two important outcomes from that moment that I wasn't able to identify until adulthood when chatting about something seemingly unrelated with my therapist years ago. The first is that I ceased sharing in anything that I thought was academic success. If I did well in school, I was doing it for myself and never shared it with my parents. Second, I felt that anything I had to say was unimportant or wrong in his eyes, and that got worse with age. It took a long time to learn to be wrong, and I still suck at it. I trace it back to that moment. How screwed up is that?

That experience is why I worry as much as I do about screwing up Simon and his relationship with me. It's probably an unfounded worry most of the time, but it still worries me. He's going to have enough challenges with all of the "normal" issues of growing up, augmented by ASD specific issues. He doesn't need me making it worse.

Fortunately I have a partner in Diana to put my mind at ease, and at least most of the time we're good at handing off the primary parent role in the moment when we feel like we're doing it wrong. Her patience is remarkable compared to mine. It's definitely a team sport.

Police, race, empathy and mobs

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, December 17, 2014, 2:15 PM | comments: 0

If you pay any attention to news (and by that I mean journalistic accounts of events, not talking head morons on cable "news"), I think it's easily to get sucked into this feeling that the world has really turned into a shitty and scary place. I've found it difficult to spend a lot of time thinking about it, because honestly I don't have the mental bandwidth for it, especially as a father charged with bringing my kid into this world.

In the last few months, I must have started a dozen blog posts trying to organize my thoughts, but every time I've deleted the starts because it just felt like noise. It occurred to me that I can't make anything simple and solid because the issues aren't simple. It's not so much that I don't believe certain things: I believe that racism is most certainly still a problem in the US, that there is an accountability and training problem with a minority portion of police, and that the Internet has enabled a strange mob mentality.

I was listening to the Triangulation podcast with Dr. Drew Pinsky, where he briefly talked about the psychology of mob mentality as it concerns the Internet (watch the whole thing if you can... it's really great). Basically he asserts that when people get angry about something, they stop caring about facts and they want blood. The Internet is particularly good at fostering that behavior, and people find it intoxicating to be a part of that anger in a way that they wouldn't ordinarily get involved because it doesn't require empathy. This phenomenon seems particularly toxic among people who believe there is no wrong doing and no racism in Ferguson. Hold that thought for a moment.

The violence and looting in Ferguson following the different phases of the Michael Brown case was very obviously wrong and doesn't solve any problems. This was in fact mob behavior at its worst, but there are two important things to remember. The first is that those committing violent acts among the protests were a minority. The second is that this behavior did happen in a certain context. There are always opportunists, sure, but people don't riot and protest unless they feel they're at a disadvantage or are in some way being treated unfairly with no recourse or hope. There's a well documented history of racial profiling by police in that town, so regardless of whether or not Brown constituted a real threat to the officer's life, the shooting still represented a breaking point. Even if you can't be empathetic, it's important to understand the context. Disagreement with the action doesn't mean the context isn't there.

So what about the angry mob of mostly white people, and the even more strange association with so-called "conservative" politics that assert there is no problem? I have to admit, I don't understand that at all. Much of that angry mob doesn't even have skin in the game (no pun intended). That mob is so far removed from the situation that I'm surprised they would take any stance at all.

These angry white people can't all be racists, can they? I'm not talking about the usual dipshits who anonymously post hate speech on the Internet, I mean the educated people we all know and probably call friends. Surely they can't all be reverting to the habits of people generations back. I'm not an anthropologist, but I do have some theories. The first is that a lot of people my age and younger may find it difficult to believe that racism is still a thing. I'm not making excuses for anyone, but I believe that's plausible. I think there's a segment of the younger population that believes that we're so above the civil rights era that any allegation of racism is just people looking for an advantage. My other theory is that people just perceive racism as a black and white thing, so if you're black and feel oppressed, white people are the enemy and don't want to be associated with that. It's not rational, but I can kind of see that angle.

But like I said, the context of the fear and uprising is critically important, because without it, you are just left with random criminal action. If Bernard Tyson, the CEO of Kaiser, says he's worried about what happens when he gets pulled over as a black man, then I think maybe we should consider what he has to say. No one is condoning violence, but to brush it all aside and pretend that there is no problem doesn't mean there is no problem.

Which get us to the police problem. The death of Brown was certainly tragic, and the circumstances of him being unarmed causes a great deal of concern. What I find upsetting is that people have become so cavalier about the death of a human being that they can justify it with any argument about following the law. We have due process here, and if Brown was guilty of something, he should have been charged and tried. He'll never get that chance. I wasn't there, but I have a hard time believing that emptying a clip into the kid was the only solution to de-escalating the situation.

Here's the thing, most officers are professional and would just assume never draw their guns. I've had the honor of working with police in two different municipalities, and they're top notch people who truly believe it's their duty to serve and protect. I'm thankful for what they do. I know that they're highly trained and have earned respect. I believe they're the majority of what people in the profession are all about. They certainly wouldn't take down a guy three times their age after (incorrectly) assessing an expired license plate.

What sucks is that what is essentially isolated, if very well publicized, incidents become a problem for the people and departments who do right by their communities. If that weren't enough, part of that aforementioned mob insist that excessive force or even death is justified, and you've got morons selling T-shirts that say, "Breath easy, don't break the law," after the choking death in NYC of Eric Garner. That doesn't make anything better. Nobody wins. I don't know if there's a training problem, if it's the militarization of local forces with surplus military gear, or what, but again it's important to not just brush aside the context and pretend there's no problem. Clearly there is, and we're starting to see a lot of chiefs speak up and take ownership of their departments to reinforce the values of community policing and building trust.

All of these issues are difficult on their own, and combined create a hot mess. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that people want to simplify this hot mess, choose a side, and make it political. That's never going to get us anywhere. "Facebook activism" of drive-by re-posts intended only to further enrage people or satisfy their echo chamber will move us backward. You don't have to condone violence or protest, but try on a little empathy, even if it's putting yourself in Bernard Tyson's shoes. This isn't imagined context... it's real life.

What do I think about SeaWorld? Isn't it obvious?

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 16, 2014, 4:59 PM | comments: 1

More than a year ago now, when I started working as a contractor at the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment corporate office, people were all up in arms and asking, "OMG, Jeff! What do you think about Blackfish?" In case you've been living under a rock, that's the "documentary" about the alleged mistreatment and sadness around the treatment of the orcas. That it's all bullshit has been well-documented around the Internet, but if you choose to live in an echo chamber (willful ignorance seems more prevalent than ever), you probably don't care to know the truth. As best I can tell, the "experts" interviewed are disgruntled former employees, and certainly not marine biologists.

Obviously I can't tell you about everything I learned on the inside, but I can tell you that it's my opinion that there isn't likely another company on the planet that cares more about the animals in its care. To say its people are passionate about that would be an understatement. One might even argue that if it weren't for SeaWorld's 50 years in operation, a lot of these animals may have been hunted to extinction. Sure, these are all self-serving conditions of the company's well-being, but it sure makes sense to me.

Now the word comes that the CEO is stepping down, and they're laying off about 300 people across the chain. That's unfortunate, and I think it's an over-reaction (the company is still profitable), but it's also not surprising. Is it because of Blackfish? I don't think you need insider knowledge to know the answer to that question. As someone who has observed the theme park industry for around 15 years, I think it's obviously not that.

The company has said that it relies heavily on the Orlando park as its flagship, but look at the execution of the last few years. While Walt Disney World built-out the New Fantasyland and Universal built their second Harry Potter zone, SeaWorld Orlando built... nothing. Antarctica opened the year before and it's just, I don't know, bizarre as an attraction. Yet, they still priced the gate like their competitors despite the lack of a marketable new attraction. With all of the discounts, I'm skeptical that people were paying that, but still. There is no universe where you can charge more and not give the guests something new. And if that weren't enough, most of the parks in the chain lacked anything new other than Busch Gardens Tampa, and their ride was down until late in the summer (another fine Intamin product). I have no idea what they were up against in each of their markets in terms of competing attractions, but that you have to sink some cap ex dollars into theme parks to keep attendance up isn't some secret sauce. Disney, Universal, Six Flags, Cedar Fair and even independent parks like Holiday World get it. That's where SEAS is failing.

Do I think SeaWorld is a good company? Fundamentally, yes, I do, and that feeling was reinforced every time I met some of the people at the park level, or anyone who had anything to do with zoological operations. Do I think the company is on the right track? Well, now that the board is seeking out new leadership, yes. I met Atchison once, but I don't know anything about his leadership style or decision making skills. Maybe that in itself is telling. The company hasn't been public for even two years, but I think it's clear that it needs new blood to reimagine itself, and shed its legacy of A-B/InBev leadership and process and be its own company.

I enjoyed the year that I worked there as a contractor. It wasn't perfect, but I think there are good people there and the markets they operate in are full of opportunity.

Review: Amazon Fire TV

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, December 10, 2014, 10:03 PM | comments: 0

Over the Thanksgiving break, Amazon was pushing, among other things, a deep discount on their Fire TV, a little tiny box that allows you to play all kinds of streaming stuff on your TV. Truth be told, there are already three things sitting in our living room that could play stuff, including the TV, the Xbox 360 and the Bluray player, but what caught my eye was that this little guy also did Amazon Music, where I keep everything I own backed up and ready to play in other ways. If that weren't enough, they also knocked the price down to $69. They do make the cheaper "stick," but I wanted the additional connectivity options and I was intrigued by the voice search. Sold.

The unit itself isn't much bigger than a large cell phone, perhaps a deck and a half of cards. (Do kids know what playing cards are?) It's impossibly small. I'm using just the HDMI output connected to a receiver which switches between the various devices and outputs them to the TV. The remote is a tiny and simple thing, though presumably because of the voice search, does not work with my Logitech Harmony remote.

Again, that it works with Amazon Music was the first win. In fact, it ships already knowing about my account when I plug it in (just as the Kindles and tablets do). In my case it needed to do an update for the music, but once there, my entire collection, 6,801 songs, was there and ready to play. Back in the day we used an old Apple TV (the original) or iTunes via a laptop to play music, which was suboptimal at best. Now it's all there. In fact, I don't think we really need iTunes for anything anymore, which is awesome because it's a steaming pile of crap. Xbox Music is bad too, if for different reasons. Oh, did I mention that it has artist photos and lyrics for songs it knows? That's a nice touch.

Watching Amazon video and movies is a really pleasant experience, because it starts up impossibly fast. I don't know what their secret sauce is there, but if you choose a movie, it starts playing instantly. It seems to hold the quality level more consistently than Netflix, too, because it doesn't drop to blocky video noise at all.

The other video apps generally perform better than their Xbox counterparts, namely Netflix and Hulu. The user experience is otherwise about the same, but they're a lot more responsive, to say nothing of the fact that they require no boot up time (a problem solved by Xbox One, from what I understand). The real surprise for me though is the Vimeo app, because I have a whole mess of video I've uploaded there. It looks fantastic on my TV, which surprises me even though I took great care to upload minimally compressed stuff. It's fun to watch "old" video of Simon as a baby.

The box will also do photos, but I haven't uploaded any photos to the service, outside of one album's worth just so the screensaver has something to do.

The voice search works incredibly well. It has hit stuff in my music collection, and movies, most every time I've tried it.

Overall, it's a neat little device, and I have to admit that the robustness of the movie delivery from Amazon is such that I suspect it will get me renting more from them. I think that's largely the point with all of Amazon's devices. I was indifferent about their tablets, and their phone is a joke, but I think this is a fantastic gadget. It has a lot of value, even for the relatively small amount of video we watch.

Phantom Of The Opera: Dec. 7, 2014, Walt Disney Theater @ Dr. Phillips Center

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, December 10, 2014, 2:30 PM | comments: 0

The first big touring show to hit the Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts is the new production of Phantom Of The Opera, and I was fortunate enough to go see it Sunday night. Diana works there part-time as an usher, and after seeing bits and pieces of it last week, she encouraged me to go see it.

I've been fortunate enough to get involved a bit with the center on a volunteer basis, and even had a chance to tour the facility while it was still under construction. I hope people in Orlando understand how awesome it is to have something like this here. It's a really beautiful set of venues, and it sounds like it's generally very functional. (That sounds obvious, but ask people who have occupied theaters built in the 70's and 80's how functional their space is.) I was really excited to see an actual production in the building.

Like most people, I know the music from the show because it has been around for decades. Prior to this, I had only seen the show twice, both in Vegas when it ran at The Venetian. That show borrowed heavily from the other productions in New York, London and such, but had some changes to compress it a bit and drop the intermission (essentially the movie arrangement, with the chandelier shenanigans later, in the second act). It was also the most technically advanced, taking the chandelier gag to new levels by making it this multi-piece thing that rotated all around the theater to its center, with a guy repelling out of its center. In fact, much of the auditorium was used to simulate the Opera Populaire.

This show was a reboot in terms of its staging, with mostly minor tweaks to dialog and music, as best I could tell. So without being bound to the original technical gags like the chandelier rising off the stage during the auction, the big staircase for the masquerade, the Phantom in the proscenium, the portcullis in the Phantom's lair, etc., there was an opportunity to do something new that had not been seen before, and I suspect it has meant that the show travels better as well. My point here is probably half review and half observation of the "new" show.

In terms of casting, I'll cut to the chase: The show is pretty solid overall with a great cast. The understudy Carlotta was on this performance, and she was fantastic. I still think in terms of skill, that's an underrated part because you have to sing well while playing it a little silly and inept. Her opposite, the Piangi character, got a lot of laughs, as did the managers. Madame and Meg Giry played their parts much as you would expect. I don't know if the role of Raoul is easy to sing, but every one of them that I've seen has been great in the part, and this one was no exception.

They cast Chris Mann, who mostly is just known for being on The Voice, as the Phantom, and if I'm being honest, he's not very good. I've heard five different Phantoms now (live and recorded), and he's easily the weakest. He's fine during the "angry" parts of the show, but when he has to convey emotion and connect with the audience, it feels like he's phoning it in. The show only works if you can feel bad for him, and he doesn't convey that. He also can't hold the big notes, wanders excessively into speaking lines (that might be a directorial decision) and went really flat a few times. At the end of "Music Of The Night" he just completely crumbled and gave up while the orchestra kept going. Not impressed. His resume isn't long enough for that role, compared to his peers.

On the other hand, Katie Travis as Christine was fantastic. That role is another that you can't just fake, you've gotta make the audience believe that she has feelings for the bad guy, the good guy and a whole lot of baggage over losing her father. "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" has always been my measuring stick for that, because when it's done right, and you're really plugged in, it should almost bring you to tears. I'm probably alone in thinking that, but I think the song is what ties everything about the character together, bridging the musical legacy of her father with the Phantom's obsession over developing her talent. Travis just nailed it.

From a technical standpoint, the scene, lighting and sound design choices were great to geek out over. The company uses a false floor with various lighting effects in it, flash pots and a track for a rotary set piece that acts as a descending wall (with disappearing steps!), a housing for the managers' office, external walls to the dressing room and the Phantom's lair... it's very versatile. Two large columns on either side rotate to be either exterior/dungeon walls or the theater boxes that merge with a fake proscenium. At one point where Buquet gets hung, they cleverly stage it so it appears that you're seeing the ballet performing on stage while looking backstage. I thought the whole thing was clever and probably more practical for a touring show, and it felt fresh, as if I was seeing a different show.

I'm a big lighting nerd, and I was surprised to see that very little of the house infrastructure was used for the show (in terms of house instruments and such... no idea if they used their control system or wiring). There were a few washes used above the boxes. The FOH electrics weren't used at all, and they instead flew a truss just above the front of the proscenium. Even more interesting is that it was composed almost entirely of automated lighting. Vertical trusses on either side of the stage included more of the same, as well as a few specials. They used one house follow spot and two just off stage inside the upper corners of the proscenium. Not sure what they were using further up stage, since I was in the balcony.

They were also a big fan of lighting from a low angle. A few automated washes were positioned under the boxes, and a number of specials were mounted at the front of the mezzanine. They also had a video projector there, which was used sparingly to display "cobwebs" during the auction, and tell the Phantom's backstory in shadows on a wall. Oh, and they had video monitors of the conductor up there.

Sound was just amazing, in part because that theater sounds so great. There were times where I wasn't sure if I was hearing an actor directly or amplified. It was so clean and I hesitated to cough because all 2,700 people could hear me. The show also mounts small theaters all around to throw the Phantom's voice, and allow for the "police" to indicate that they've "locked the doors" when they try to catch the Phantom in the second act.

Overall, I think it's a great evolution for a show that has been around for so long. It felt new to me. I really wish they would have cast someone with more experience as Phantom, but judging by the crowd reaction, people apparently loved him anyway. I enjoyed it, and I'm glad Diana encouraged me to go see it.

My space race

posted by Jeff | Friday, December 5, 2014, 3:27 PM | comments: 0

Very early yesterday morning, 4:20 a.m., actually, I got out of bed, showered, and went to pick up my best friend and her roommate to drive out to Canaveral and attempt to see the Orion launch aboard a big ass Delta IV Heavy rocket.

I had a really great viewing location in mind that's a little off the grid if you're not aware of it, and when we got there at 6:30, indeed, there were only about a dozen cars there. We were treated with an unobstructed view of the broad side of the rocket, better than I expected.

You know how things went, starting with that damn boat that was in range and causing a delay. Despite being 0 for 2 now on launch observation, I really enjoyed the sunrise and had lots of great conversation with my friends. The sheer volume of people lined up on 528, and the photos from surrounding areas, was insanely impressive. People are obviously excited about the space program again.

I couldn't bring myself to go back this morning, and of course I instantly regretted it as I watched the launch on TV this morning. We had a break in the clouds (we're directly west of the cape) and got to see it as it breached the upper cloud deck. We even saw where its vapor trail ended.

When I saw the Space Shuttle Atlantis back in February, it was kind of a life-changing experience. I know that sounds a little dramatic, but it's true. I was obsessed with the space program when I was a kid, and I kind of lost that sense of wonder with age. I think combined with having a child of my own, I've started to get that back.

Space travel is important for a lot of the reasons that Kennedy suggested in his speech decades ago. In our time, it feels like the world is selfish, superficial and filled with bad news, even though objectively one could argue that life is a lot better than it used to be. Space exploration makes us feel like there's something bigger and more important going on. I feel like we need that. My hope is that the Orion program is a going to be a part of that.

Wanting to coach again is like being in love with someone I'm not married to

posted by Jeff | Monday, December 1, 2014, 6:42 PM | comments: 0

Late last year, I looked into coaching volleyball again, in a USAV capacity, and while I did the paperwork and everything, I quickly changed my mind. The problem here in Orange County is that, unlike most of Ohio, there's one big school district with giant high schools of three or four thousand kids, and not a lot of kids playing volleyball. All of OC has I think fewer than a dozen high schools, whereas the Cleveland area probably has a hundred.

The long and short of it is that there are very few clubs, and the one I was talking to acts more as a factory than anything else. It's a giant assembly line intended to get a few people paid, and that sucks. The more I understood that, the less I wanted to be involved.

Then today, a friend of mine posted a photo circulating on Facebook that summed up the biggest problem in youth sports:

"Your child's success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are. But having an athlete that is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient and tries their best IS a direct reflection of your parenting."

Back in the day, you certainly had parents at the high school level who were a pain in the ass. After all, the pool of candidates for your high school team isn't going to be that deep. We were largely isolated from this in club ball, because you were getting a better choice among kids from many schools. Not only that, but by the time the kids were 14 or 15, you knew which kids weren't a good fit, or which parents had a reputation.

My last club season was in 2006. It was unfortunately an 18's team, with all of the baggage that goes with that. They were good kids, but only a few of them were really motivated to learn. It was not an ideal season. In late 2010 I signed up to coach with a Seattle club, but things had changed. The parents were trying to micromanage careers of kids that were never going to play beyond high school. In the end, we couldn't keep enough kids to make a team, and I lost the chance to coach. I blame the club director to an extent, because he was just as much a party to the games the parents were playing as the parents themselves. It was so disappointing.

So you have this ugly situation now where the scene is too small here in Central Florida, and on top of that, it has been poisoned with all of the bullshit that makes coaching kids suck. I'm convinced that, short of opening my own club, I would hate getting into it again. I'm not sure if everything that I loved about coaching is even attainable anymore.

It's not impossible to enjoy it with toxic parents. Even though the parents didn't see it this way, I still believe the high school team I had at The Elms in Akron was an enormous success story. Those kids from that tiny school (literally 10% of the school played volleyball) played against, and defeated much bigger schools with much bigger kids. When they were on, it was like watching magic. This from a group that a year earlier was taught to do the "W" on serve receive. I'm definitely proud of many of the individual kids I had in my club seasons, but that team made impossible progress that makes me smile whenever I think about it. This, despite the fact that three or four of the parents were total assholes about everything. Fortunately it didn't rub off on their kids.

Still, it's emotionally exhausting to fight the wave of entitlement and lack of work ethic when little Sally is led to believe she can do no wrong. The greatness of my best kids wasn't achieved by way of trophies or titles, it was achieved by getting exponentially better at their sport, and so much of that in volleyball is the ability to coexist with other kids and thrive. One person, a coach, can't lay that foundation... it takes parents to go along for the ride.