Archive: February, 2015

Mini-review: Lego Fairground Mixer

posted by Jeff | Saturday, February 28, 2015, 11:05 PM | comments: 0

It has been out for awhile, but a couple of weeks ago I realized that the Lego Fairground Mixer had long since been announced and I didn't buy it. I've mostly resisted the various adult collector Lego sets, especially the Star Wars stuff, but I have to draw the line at amusement rides. That's why I bought the Carousel back in 2010, and this thing, which is essentially a trailer mounted Scrambler, had to be mine. Lego is such a great part of my childhood, and Simon enjoys the end product too (he's starting to get how to follow the instructions to build).

There isn't really anything particularly difficult about the build, and I'm guessing it took just over four hours. It consists of a smaller truck that carries the ticket booth, a working dunk tank and a hi-striker, and a big tractor-trailer that carries the actual scrambler ride. There are also a butt-load of mini-figs in this one. If you have the motor, you can attach it to operate the ride. I have the one that came with the carousel, though the battery pack isn't the rectangular one they suggest for mounting on the truck (although I have that one too, as it came with the train set I pull out around Christmas).

Mechanically, it's relatively simple. The motor (or included crank) connects to a gear box in the center of the trailer, which turns a vertical shaft that the ride mounts on. The three sweeps collapse down for transport, but when they're open, each has a wheel that drags over a flat surface over the gear box. That wheel drives a shaft to the end of the sweep, with a gear that turns the vertical rod that has the seats on it. It works like a champ.

There is also a safety fence that surrounds the ride. While bulky, it does fold up and sits on the trailer. There are quite a few nice details, like glow-in-the-dark pieces on the ride, $100 bills in the ticket booth, a bed inside the truck cab with a TV, real dunking action in the dunk tank, and even the hi-striker really works (though it doesn't ding, since the bell is obviously plastic). There's a juggler on stilts, too. The whole thing is surprisingly solid for something with so much dynamic movement.

These "grown up" sets are kind of expensive (this one is $150), but they're a joy to build. I suspect that Simon will be able to build this himself in a few years, and I do hope he'll be interested in building this, under close supervision.

Is a brain diet a thing?

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, February 25, 2015, 6:38 PM | comments: 0

Back when Simon was diagnosed as having Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), one of the initial therapists talked about him needing a "sensory diet." In other words, he needed a certain kind and volume of stimulation to help his brain practice taking input. That sounded strange, but I suppose it ultimately made sense to me. While we've given him outlets and opportunities, we've never really had a diet exactly, so maybe that's on us when he seems erratic in his physical behavior.

I started to wonder if this concept could be applied to a broader context in life. If I've learned anything in the last five years, it's that being happy requires deliberate action. When I was a teenager, I figured all I would need is my own place and the chance to have sex every day, which may partially explain why I was often a miserable teenager. Now that I'm older and wiser (well, older at least), I understand that it's not an accident.

There are three general categories that I believe contribute to your happiness, roughly grouped as relationships, environment and professional life. And yet, there are things in each of those categories that you seem to require in order for life to be at its best. In relationships, you need that range of superficial to intense interaction. In the environment, you need everything from comfort to unfamiliar. In work, you need things to vary between challenging and easy. Without this diet of activity, it's like some things are less enjoyable or don't go as well as you would like.

For example, I've noticed that I'm more into creating software (whether it's coding or leading a group) when I take time to mindlessly lose myself in video games. I'm a better parent when I learn about the challenge of others. I'm generally more relaxed and able to adapt when I regularly take vacations. I'm more likely to do home projects when I play with construction toys. I'm better about maintaining friendships when I spend time with any friend.

So it's like a more generalized brain diet. Practicing at life makes you better at life, and by extension happier. Sitting around in dull routine does not.

Obama haters: You are the problem

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, February 25, 2015, 11:30 AM | comments: 0

OK, you're not really the problem, except when you are. The title is link bait to an extent, because like everything in politics, it implies that if I'm for something, I'm against something else. The truth is, I happen to think Obama has been a total disappointment, incapable of getting anything done. I don't blame his opposition, because I voted for him because he talked a good game of bringing people together and solving problems. I don't hate him, and frankly I haven't hated any president in my lifetime. But as with Bush before him, I disagree with much, but not all, of his policy and his approach.

I've been thinking about this for a long time, but it wasn't until Giuliani's completely absurd comments about Obama's lack of love for America that I really understood the heart of what was going on. Obama's opponents have already established a platform that isn't about policy, but rather simply it's about opposing him. To add to that, now it's about ad hominem attacks.

And if you engage in hero worship for someone like this, look at the other blowhards like Palin, Trump and Cruz. None of them are taking any positions on policy or offering solutions to anything. They're arguing about who amongst them is more patriotic, more conservative, more whatever. It's like they're trying to win superlative titles in their high school yearbook, not lead a nation.

So let me break it down for you: When you legitimize this bullshit, you are helping the very president that you're so intent on hating. Step by step, this is what happens:

  • Obama attempts to execute or propose some ill-conceived policy.
  • Opponents oppose Obama, but offer no counter policy.
  • You endorse the opponents who offer no policy, and legitimize high school bullshit.
  • Because no counter policy exists, Obama's policy is the only game in town.
  • Obama's policy wins by default, and he is not accountable because his opposition is not accountable.

So when you engage in this nonsense with your Facebook faux-activism, you play right into the asshats' agenda. No one has any good ideas, and they're not held accountable because you're perfectly content to make everything concerning Obama about his apparent desire to kick puppies and hate the flag. The asshats don't need to lead or do anything constructive, because you do exactly what they want by focusing energy on everything but real intellectual discourse.

I'm not actually too cynical to believe that it doesn't have to be this way, but I've never seen it go to these depths. We will continue to elect ineffective people from both parties as long as we keep the discourse in the shitter. Is that not obvious?

Full-time vs. self-employed vs. entrepreneur

posted by Jeff | Monday, February 23, 2015, 11:10 PM | comments: 0

The other day at work, we were talking a little bit about the kinds of work we go after. In the business of making software, it's interesting that we have all three major flavors of work: Working for The Man, self-employment and entrepreneurship. Various forms of these categories are often glorified as the ultimate thing, but I don't think there are any clear winners or losers among them. Your personality, interests and life in general have a lot to do with what works and what doesn't. (See what I did there?)

Working for The Man gets kind of a bad wrap in certain professions for some reasons, because of some implied servitude or something. Working for a company comes with a lot of wins, not the least of which is that you aren't likely putting your own money at risk to conduct business. As long as the company is stable and you're adding value, there's a good chance that you'll be in a good place. If the company culture is particularly awesome, you'll get to collaborate with great people and be a part of something interesting.

On the flip side, it's not uncommon to work with people who add very little value and fly under the radar, maybe for years. They might lose the ability to innovate and improve on their work. They're free to make a radical shift and suddenly decide they don't need you anymore. In some places, it might be difficult to have any impact at all that you feel good about. And of course, the big corporate culture of constant promotion is not for everyone.

Self-employment, which is different from being a true entrepreneur, can give you a great deal of flexibility. It's the kind of role where you may augment full-time staff, or be a consultant. Depending on the arrangement, it's very possible that you have extreme flexibility in when and where you work. You can choose the interesting work and let the uninteresting stuff go to others.

This has it's drawbacks as well, not the least of which is that you're always on the lookout for the next thing. In good times, it's not a big deal, but when the economy isn't great, it will seriously wear on you. You're also not really a lasting part of anything, which may or may not matter to you.

Being an entrepreneur is often regarded as the ultimate job. You start a company, and you build it. You choose the people you work with, and you bring something to market. You get to be the boss, and you make the rules.

This is obviously the most risky work mode. You might be able to set your own hours, but you have to work your ass off to make things happen, especially early on. People depend on you to do things right, because you also sign their checks.

I've spent all of my professional life in the first and second scenarios, and I've experienced all of the pros and cons. While I do have my own business, it's certainly not "stay home money," it's just a hobby. It's crazy that each of these situations can get you out of bed in the morning, and the same situations can make you want to never get up. As much as we want to decouple our sense of self from work, the truth is that we want to be vested in what we do, to connect to it. When those businesses fail, or contracts end, it doesn't feel good at all if we were into the gig. Jobs can be like relationships in that sense.

One of my former coworkers just set out on his own a few months ago, and I give him all of the credit in the world. He left a really good thing that I'm enjoying a great deal. But it reinforces my point, that there is no perfect way to work. It just depends on your life situation.

The little developing mind

posted by Jeff | Sunday, February 22, 2015, 11:10 PM | comments: 0

I had a really good weekend with Simon. Honestly, I needed that, because I feel like I've been very impatient with him, and he doesn't deserve any hostility from me. Diana worked Friday night and Sunday afternoon, so we had some good time together. Saturday, all of us went to Magic Kingdom for a few hours, which was somewhat challenging because he's not adapting to crowded situations lately, unfortunately (another marathon weekend, lots of people).

The biggest part of our bonding was around the construction of a new Lego set that I bought, the Fairground Mixer. It's a brilliant design, an amusement ride that folds up and mounts on a truck. This is the third such guilty pleasure I've bought in the last five years, one of the expensive sets intended for adults. I don't buy a lot of "toys" anymore (in the literal or figurative sense), and like many people, Lego was a part of growing up. For me it was one of the most fond memories I have of my childhood.

I've done some building with Simon on one of the newer "junior" sets, and he did pretty well. His fine motor skills are still not great, but he's able to put small pieces together. He seems to get the spacial relationships in the instructions, too, though he isn't very confident. On something like the mixer, obviously he's not ready for that, but he sits with me and does the kinds of things you might expect from an ASD kid. He picks out the wheels and stacks them up (he did an unprompted stack of Luigi's tires from Cars, which was awesome). He also pulled out all of the seats and organized them by color.

When it was finally finished, he had no interest in watching it operate with the motor, preferring to crank it around by hand and watch how it works. Imaginative play is still not his strong suit, he can spend hours watching how something works, and I do think he's taking it in and understanding. It's fascinating to see how that little brain is working.

I see so much development, which is a constant cause for relief and concern. While his writing is dreadfully behind, we notice him reading words more and more. He doesn't seem to understand the act of coloring is to shade in an area, but he'll watch one of my roller coaster videos frame by frame to find the brakes and point out how the kicker wheels move the train in to the station.

I think it's hard for us to just take it for granted that he'll figure it all out, and I'm sure he will, because we don't want him to get behind. That's a thing that sticks with a kid even after he's "caught up." There's clearly a brilliant kid in there, even if he's not "neurotypical," as they say. Hopefully we're helping him develop that brilliance.

The state of fake and real news

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, February 18, 2015, 8:51 PM | comments: 0

A lot of people have been pretty bummed out about John Stewart's announcement that he'll be giving up his post on The Daily Show. In a world where real journalism has been hard to find, it's strange, but a lot of people have found solace (and entertainment) in Stewart's show because he's made calling out politicians and cable "news" a sport. He's often labeled as left leaning, but he's been pretty brutal on Democrats. I tend to theorize that the fringe right is just a lot nuttier than the fringe left (or at the very least, there are more nutty voices to the right).

People were bummed about Stephen Colbert leaving his show to replace Letterman, but I have to say, Larry Wilmore is really outstanding. I never really got Colbert's schtick, but Larry hit his stride very quickly. I haven't missed a show yet.

Then there's the whole Brian Williams controversy, where he exaggerated his proximity to some action during the Iraq war. As important as journalistic integrity is to me, given the degree and all, I'm actually willing to cut him a little slack. The practice of "embedding" reporters in military units during that war by its very nature influences the narrative, as the reporter is no longer an observer, but a participant in the story. It's the whole basis for "gonzo journalism," a la Hunter S. Thompson. One could argue that whether or not Williams was in the helicopter that took fire is irrelevant, because the narrative of what happened is still about the same.

But, more to the point, cable news networks make shit up and "report" talking head opinions like fact every day, and no one gets fired or suspended for that.

In the 80's we could more or less trust that what we saw on the "big three" TV networks was legitimate news, and relatively free from bias. I think that's still somewhat true, as those news divisions do enjoy a certain amount of autonomy. The Internet, I always thought, would be the great thing that surfaced truth, but mostly it just reinforces people who aren't interested in truth if it's at odds with their beliefs. Still, it's possible to get a lot of perspective if you're willing to look around for it. The US broadcast networks, combined with the big newspapers and other sources like the BBC and al Jazeera America, tend to give you a well-rounded reality.

It's fantastic that we have sites like Politifact and Factcheck these days, because at least someone is holding politicians and pundits to some level of anti-bullshit (even if no one is apparently listening). I tend to think that the existence of truth is less of an issue than people not being interested in learning what it is.

How my electric vehicle fascination changed

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, February 18, 2015, 6:45 PM | comments: 0

My initial interest in electric cars was largely based on the fascination over energy efficiency and the general technology used to make it happen. The combination of software and battery science is nerdy, I know, but that's kind of my thing.

Now that we've had an electric car for almost six months, my interest has evolved into something of an anti-combustion thing. When I go back to drive the other car, I think, "It's absurd that I'm getting around by having this thing burning liquid and making thousands of small explosions every minute to make the car go." Doesn't that seem crude and ancient?

I know that sounds totally like the anti-car-guy, but you're talking to a guy who has always been content driving a cheap Corolla. In a practical sense, I've generally viewed cars as utilitarian things to get you between points. It was a pretty big leap for me to spend more on a hybrid, and even then that was more about the tech. Ditto for the Leaf, which is a little pricey for its size.

But the first time I drove a Leaf, a rental on my prospecting/interview trip to Orlando, the torque was pretty exciting. I had driven electric gokarts before, and it was like that, only on the street. I've driven powerful gas cars, but it's just different because those feel powerful in the mid to fast range, whereas electric launches from a dead stop.

So these days, it's about the torque, the cheap energy and the software. It's all really exciting to me. The problem is still the cost, which is high. If GM can really deliver on the Bolt, and therefore put pressure on Nissan and Tesla, things could get really interesting in 2017. I can't justify an $80k car, even if I made two or three times as much as I do now.

Sorting out my contribution to the world

posted by Jeff | Sunday, February 15, 2015, 10:53 PM | comments: 0

I've spent a lot of time lately thinking, "Well, how did I get here?" (No, this has not involved any bad chroma key.) When I look at the world lately, it feels a lot more fucked up than it ever has. Whether that's actually the case or not, and I have no idea how one objectively measures that, is hard to say. There is just so much hate in the world, and it bums me out.

In so many ways, I got lucky. It's a fundamental truth that we are in many ways a product of our environment. I could have been born and raised to be something completely different. We're afraid to admit it, but our religion and even our patriotism are not things that we chose. We adopt them because they were given to us. We don't like to admit this, or challenge it, because it's not just our beliefs we're talking about, these are things that are core to our very identity. Not only do we fear questioning who we are, but what others might think.

Think about that for a minute. If those are things predetermined by the place of our birth, it's no wonder that the evolution of humanity is so slow. It explains how we could rationalize slavery or follow Hitler. As I approach midlife, I realize that experience can help us challenge what we learned the first 20 years of our lives, but only if we have resolved to question everything about ourselves and the world. What's worse is that it seems people seem to get more set with age, clinging to what they know, instead of seeking greater breadth in their experience.

Am I any different? I hope so, but I don't know for sure. My experience thus far, tied to my profession, has exposed me to diversity in ways that I would not have had otherwise. I've embraced this amazing world of different cultures and religions, and I don't have the time or desire to hate on people like that. Where I struggle is what to do about people who can't be like this. They have to hate on someone, because to not do so would question their sense of identity.

Optimistic (and probably naive) me believes people like that will eventually be left behind while the rest of the world rises above it. It makes sense then to not throw my arms up and give up, but to focus energy on what can be changed, what can move humanity forward. I'm not sure that there is any other choice.

Maybe other people are well suited to changing minds. I don't think I am. I get so frustrated with people who choose to be ignorant. I'm going to try to make a more concerted effort to focus on what good I can do, no matter how small or large the scale is. That's constructive use of my time.

One year of home ownership

posted by Jeff | Sunday, February 15, 2015, 6:05 PM | comments: 0

I don't know where the last year went, but on Saturday it will have been a year since we closed on the house. I'm thankful to have that awful financing experience further behind me (and now my credit score is at 845, if you can believe that).

Financially, it was a good idea considering that our mortgage will be lower than a comparable rental, even after the property tax kicks in. Zillow puts the house at $11k, more than where we bought it, and I assume with more expensive houses going up around us, that will continue to trend upward. Of course, I try to be realistic too, after the mess that was my first house. I thought that experience might have soured me on owning a house for the rest of my life.

Money aside, I think there was a psychological thing going on with houses for me that I had to overcome. We moved five times in four years, including to Seattle, back to Cleveland and then Orlando. I wouldn't describe that as fun, but it felt like we had quite a bit of mobility, and we were free to explore. As if being non-committal about where you live was a thing. Being able to sell the Cleveland house (after four years) in 48 hours felt even better. It seemed insane to put money down on a house within a couple of weeks of being here, but it was logical.

After a year, I feel pretty good about it, for a ton of reasons. I had some purchase regret at first, but after saving a little money and spending more time at home once I started working quasi-remote, the anxiety went away. I've been comfortable where I live, but the last time home felt like home was probably '04. All the chaos and change made it hard to feel like the house was home.

We're pretty comfortable in the area, too. We've gotten to know some of our neighbors. We're definitely in the 'burbs, but not too far away from anything. We have a few local establishments we like. It's super easy to get on cruise ships and see rocket launches. Oh, and there are some theme parks a mile down the road. You might be familiar with them. There is no winter here, either.

Do I miss Cleveland? Not at all. I miss easy access to Cedar Point and the Winking Lizard, but that's about it. Do I miss Seattle? Every day, but I'm not sure I would want to live there full-time. Actually, if I could spend summers there, that would be perfect. We don't have the Cascades, but Space, Splash and Big Thunder Mountains aren't bad.

There was a time when we had written Central Florida off the list because of schools, but once I started to look deeper into it, it was clear that it would just depend on where you went. There are some really terrible schools here, but despite the size of the Orange County district, some of the schools are pretty solid. Simon's pre-K teachers have been absolutely amazing. If things stay on schedule, he'll go to a new elementary school down the street starting in grade two. The high school he goes to (once the lawsuits and nonsense go away) will only be a few years old by the time he gets there. Of course this all assumes that we stay put, but it's not a bad place to be.

I can't say that it has been a joy to work with KB Home. We had to act as their QA department during construction, which frankly scares me because I could only point out the issues that I knew and understood. For example, they originally wired a light switch to the pantry on the outside, so you'd have to reach behind the fridge to turn on the light. The half-wall at the top of the stairs could literally be moved six inches in either direction until they shored it up to a beam below it. But what really rubbed me the wrong way was the way the customer service guy tried to play everything off as him doing us a favor. Referring to repairs as a "courtesy" or attributing everything to settling. Stuff that had to be resolved was mostly the result of shitty work in the first place, and the contractors who fixed stuff weren't shy about saying so. Honestly, Pulte was no better on my first house, but you still hope for something better.

We haven't gone nuts decorating, and in fact we still don't even have curtains in the living room. We did have a guy paint the kitchen/dining/living room area though, as well as our bathroom. Sometimes I watch HGTV and just want to hire an interior decorator, but what I hate about that it isn't "you" at that point, it's what someone else wanted for you. The house is definitely cozy, but it needs some accents here and there. It just doesn't feel like an area where we want to put energy most of the time.

We've thought about building out the patio on the side of the garage, with a big old bird cage, but we're not anxious to spend money on that just yet. I'm not even sure how much we would use it.

The worst thing about building is that after it's done, you see all kinds of things you wish you would have done. Different flooring, different options, etc. The thing that I miss the most are six-foot windows, which I had in Cleveland, but see very rarely in Florida. Our builder just put up a new model for the next phase of the development, and they've got those bigger windows. They make such a huge difference in the amount of sun that comes in. (Odd observation: People in FL seem obsessed with covering their windows 24/7 using blinds, which seems pretty weird in the Sunshine State.)

Regardless, I'm still pretty happy to have a house again. It's a little more house than we need, but I love having 143 square feet of office space all my own, and the most functional kitchen of any house I've ever lived in. What makes it ideal has more to do with the people I share it with, the work I get to do and the sunny location. Without all of that, it would just be another McMansion.

The intersection of images and technology

posted by Jeff | Sunday, February 8, 2015, 9:40 PM | comments: 0

I strongly believe that one of the greatest things about the Internet is that there is an enormous long-tail of niche communities to serve every interest you can think of. Running a couple of sites for roller coaster nerds, naturally I have to believe this. One of the things I valued quite a bit around the turn of the century was the many communities devoted to video and photography. I was already out of video by then, but it had made the digital leap in professional circles, if not yet high definition. Photography was just starting to go down that road, and I remember buying a Nikon Coolpix 990 in 2000, Time's "Machine of The Year."

It's probably important to understand that before this time, there were a lot of constraints to capturing images. In video, we had to deal with crappy sensitivity to low light and the fragility of tape (including digital... solid state media would take another five or six years). You learned the craft, to bring lights, and plan ahead. Photography had essentially not changed in decades. While auto-focus systems kept getting better, your biggest constraint was still film. It was not free, and the feedback loop was long because you had to process the film before you could see what you got.

As many people have said, constraints force you to be creative, and when video and photography went digital, the constraints largely went away. This doesn't mean that people entirely stopped being creative, but it did feel like people were less interested in the creativity and more interested in the technology.

What got me to thinking about this was a recent product announcement from Canon. I went looking at some of the old message boards and such that I used to frequent (video and photography... as this particular camera line does video too), and it didn't take me long to remember why I stopped going to those sites. Craft has taken a back seat to pissing matches over megapixels and half-stops of dynamic range. There are people who will run out and buy the latest thing, and they're only hobbyists. Imagine if people devoted that kind of energy to talking about technique!

Again, I'm not anti-technology. I think the hipster-dick directors who insist they have to shoot on film are completely full of shit. But the people who look at cameras and think, if I just had more pixels, or could push the sensitivity one more stop, or go just a little wider... what do they really hope to achieve? Is the expense worth it?

My two camera bodies are 7 and 6-years-old. My video camera is only 3, but I had the previous one for six years. It's one of the gadget areas of my life where I don't spend very often, because it's a series of small incremental changes over time that aren't worth it. That I don't work professionally (well, maybe once or twice a year, at most) isn't the reason, I just don't think I need it.

Video and photography are media used to tell stories. It's too easy to forget that. I mean, Philip Bloom made a short film with a goddamn video Barbie. Here's a guy I greatly respect in terms of his technology knowledge and ability, and he pulled off something clever with the worst tool imaginable. That's why the dude gets work with CNN.

Bloom is actually a great filter for noise in the video world, because while he understands the tech, he lives in the bigger world of finite budgets, real-world ergonomics and "good enough." The tools don't make him, his work does.

So while the bedwetting continues over the latest announcement, and people lust after the newest thing, take comfort in knowing that the money they're spending may not be the wisest thing. Stick to the art, and the creative process. That's what makes you something more than an operator.

Passing on your worst traits

posted by Jeff | Sunday, February 8, 2015, 8:41 PM | comments: 0

While the evidence isn't conclusive, it is theorized that autism is at least in part a genetic thing. But honestly, it's some of the personality traits that he picks up that worry me more. I suppose they could also be somewhat genetic, but more likely he gets some things from observation. Of me.

Let's take impatience, for example. I am not very patient. I've become a lot better about letting things go that aren't in my control (like traffic or long lines for retail), but some things still get to me (politicians, the willfully ignorant). I'm not proud of this, but patience with Simon is not something I'm super at either. My first and only attempt at getting him to ride a two-wheel bike, to move on from the tricycle, ended poorly.

I see him get the same way at times. If his clothes get inside out, sometimes he doesn't even attempt to right them before putting them on. Now, on one hand, the kid has the kind of spacial perception that blows my mind, especially when it comes to navigation. Similarly, he seems to follow Lego instructions pretty well, with help. On the other hand, it's possible that his dyspraxia makes turning the clothes difficult. Regardless, he doesn't even try, and his impatience make me impatient. It's a crappy circle.

I think he'll get over that with time, and a lot of encouragement, but his disregard for things he's not interested in... boredom... is an issue. I was an overachiever in school until I got to high school. I got bored with it, and no one challenged me. When I did finally get to challenging stuff in my last two years, I felt like I didn't need it. I was bored with it. My ACT scores, which put me in the top 4% nationally (and top 2% in science) largely confirmed that my issue was not intelligence. I see Simon do this already. I catch him not doing things because he just isn't interested and he doesn't feel like he should have to do them. School is going to be a struggle if we can't turn that around.

There's little doubt that I overthink this stuff, but when I look at the things that I don't like about myself, I can very easily trace them to things I learned from my family. A little self-awareness never hurts. And hey, to his credit, he hasn't taken up dropping F-bombs yet, despite my own habit, so there's a minor parenting win.

The seemingly ancient world of the aristocracy

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, February 4, 2015, 10:39 PM | comments: 0

It's no secret that Downton Abbey is like crack for a lot of people. If you've never seen the show, it's a serial period drama about a family and its servants that occupy an estate in the English countryside in the early 1900's. It's set in the historical context of the time before and after the first World War, and importantly, during the time that so much of the accepted social protocol and hierarchy was challenged. It's that transition that I find so fascinating. The series has really chronicled the changes in terms of socioeconomic classes, the role of women in society (and also interestingly the evolution of their clothing), the integration of foreigners, the impact of socialism... it's completely fascinating to me.

The series has for some time danced around the inevitability of change, especially as it relates to the aristocrats and their relationship with the folks "down stairs." They cemented this with the elevation of one character in particular who started as a driver and eventually marries one of the daughters. An Irishman, he believes strongly in a balance of socialism and capitalism, and while he is a part of "the system," even he can't be persuaded to take up the pure cause of the working class.

While the drama of the show will run its course in a glorious exposition of fiction, we all know what happens to the aristocracy. Over time they lose their influence and role in government. The show has characters who willingly participate in the custom and tradition of it all from both sides, and those who question it live up and down stairs as well. In the most recent episode, one character just spells it out: There comes a point where custom just gets in the way if you become a slave to it. Imagine that in the context of getting dressed up in a tux every night for dinner.

Indeed, progress has many casualties, though there is a certain amount of greater good that eventually works itself out. The proud United States has a great deal of despicable behavior in its past, but if we ever needed a reason to thump our chests over something, it's our ability to evolve. We've been fighting for civil rights since the Declaration of Independence was signed. That world where black people were slaves and women couldn't vote isn't all that long ago in the bigger context of recorded history. It's not "all good," but what progress we've made, especially in the last 50 years. I'm reminded of this as same-sex marriage bans fall, one state at a time.

I suppose my point is that it's hard to say where we'll end up. Wealth distribution leaning to the smaller, higher percentile might be a thing, but clearly the other voices are never going to respect people just for bank accounts. These are interesting times.