Archive: January, 2016

The music that gets you through

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 31, 2016, 11:39 PM | comments: 0

A friend of mine was chatting with me about favorite music, and music that impacts you in significant ways in relation to significant events in your life. Of course we agreed that Def Leppard's Pyromania was one of the best albums of the 80's. No contest. Obviously.

But there are also songs that frame something in your life in a certain way. These aren't necessarily tunes that are universally popular, and maybe not even music you would ordinarily be into. Yet they find a way into your life and they stick with you. I have some favorites in a bigger context, mind you. "Sound" by James to this day challenges me to see the world and myself positively in it. "Shine" by Tracy Bonham reminds me to see the good and beauty in people that I love.

As one would expect, one of the most difficult things I've ever been through was divorce. The split itself was hard enough, but the reconciliation with the person was only half of the challenge. (In the end, we remain friends, something I'm eternally grateful for.) The other half of the challenge was learning to understand myself in the context of relationships, and how I derived my own value. In that case, the thing that got me through was Life For Rent, by Dido. To this day, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that I would find the album, let alone love it the way I did. I suppose I gave it a chance for a shallow reason, like thinking Dido is cute, adorable even, but I can't think of any series of compositions that tell relationship stories as well as that record. Starting with "White Flag," seemingly a refusal to give up, and ending on "See The Sun," a declaration of moving on, it's perfect. I spent a year at least listening to that a few times a week. The live version of "See The Sun" that she recorded at Brixton Academy in particular, which does not go out quietly, just stuck with me. The bridge is so perfect:

Do you remember telling me you'd found the sweetest thing of all
You said that one day of this was worth dying for
So be thankful you knew her at all
But it's no more

It was that sentiment that ultimately helped me out. The title track eventually made me realize that we have to make our own future.

Is it a bunch of sentimental crap? Maybe. I'd like to give Dido more credit than that. Music has a strange way of affecting me, despite declaring so much of it these days is garbage. (Except for Garbage, which is gold.) I'm thankful for music.

They grow up so fast

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 31, 2016, 10:31 PM | comments: 0

That damn this day in your life thing on Facebook is likely making me too nostalgic for my own good. It has been routinely reminding me of how small and cute Simon was just a few short years ago. It doesn't remind me of the diaper changing, the sleep deprivation, the difficulty communicating with him, the seemingly random vomit, etc. I do remember, however, thanks to blog posts, the anxiety about his development. He still has challenges, but things could have gone so poorly were it not for Diana's intervention, and the help of his therapists and teachers.

Today I had one of those days where I remembered more than usual, the changes in the evolving push-pull struggle of raising a child. I admit, I'm probably too hard on him at times when he struggles with things. I mean, food that's too hot (mac-n-cheese) or hard to crunch (a tough cookie) literally can cause him to meltdown, and I'm inclined to let him wallow in it. But then when he isn't feeling well, as he was today, I just baby the crap out of him. He's reached the point where he can independently shower, but today he wanted a bath, and he wanted me to come in with him and help. How do you say no?

I logically understand that he's not even 6, so he has a lot of years left of being a sweet, cuddle monkey kind of kid, but I already dread the idea that it won't last forever. On the other hand, he's at that age where all of this personality is developing, and it's funny, sweet and often silly. He's still excited to see me after work, and it never gets old.

I vaguely understood in his earliest years that they wouldn't last forever, but it seems like I was too damn tired all of the time to really appreciate it. Now that the feeding and ass wiping and bathing is a thing in the past, he's really at something of a golden age to need us and love us, but be more independent. I just wish I could slow it down a little.

The Martian, in print and on the screen

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 31, 2016, 5:17 PM | comments: 0

A few days ago, I finished reading The Martian. I had been meaning to read it for some time, after hearing about it on a tech podcast, but after more than a year, my dad fixed that problem when he sent it as a gift. I don't read a lot of fiction, but knowing that it was sciencey, and that it would be a Matt Damon movie, I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie. Now I've done both.

I loved the book. The science stuff is all reasonably straight forward, in that it's the kind of stuff you would learn in high school for biology, chemistry and physics. The narrative is largely told by way of journal entries by Mark Watney, stranded on Mars, interspersed with more conventional storytelling on Earth. It works pretty well, and I think it was necessary in large part because it would be pretty dull to see the character's actions described without his own personality injected. I mean, a lot of his time is spent sitting around, when not having to "science the shit" out of his problems.

The film made a lot of concessions in the plot and detail, and as much as I'd like to be a purist about the book, I admit that for visual storytelling they were necessary changes. Interestingly, they left a lot of stuff out entirely. To an extent I felt like he got off easy in the movie by comparison. Major road blocks to him being rescued were simply left out. There was one change that really bothered me, and that was the final scene in space (the book ends with him en route with crew, not on Earth, as the movie showed it). They added a lot of drama that didn't need to be there if they would have let it play out as it did in the book. There were some minor science things they got wrong too, in particular the patching of the Hab (it wouldn't blow around with external wind, and he used excess canvas, not what appeared to be plastic wrap, which would not hold that pressure difference).

The casting was generally pretty good. Damon as Mark was perfect, as was Jeff Daniels as Teddy, the director of NASA, and Kristen Wiig as the smart-ass PR boss. I'm not entirely sure why they cast an African guy in the part of the Indian character who runs the Ares program. He had some great lines in the book about being Hindu and praying to more gods than others for the safe return of Watney. In my mind I had cast the dude who played the InGen CEO in Jurassic World. They did cast a few roles too young, including Mindy the satellite operator and Rich the astrodynamics guy. But you know, movies.

Still, I did enjoy the movie, and the book did pretty well in the suspense department. I can't be too hard on the movie for some of its choices. It didn't quite reach a "pander to stupid people" level, and I can live with that.

Being younger

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 28, 2016, 10:15 PM | comments: 0

Have you seen the show Younger? It's on TV Land, and if you're not watching it, you should because it's hilarious. It stars triple-threat, Tony Award-winning, 40-something adorkable Sutton Foster as a divorced mom of a college student rebooting her life in the city by lying about her age in order to get back into the work force. While it certainly makes fun of Millennial and aging Gen-X stereotypes, it does speak to the different ways we act at different ages, and the expectations of others.

I feel like I've always been "younger," which is weird because right up through college I always felt like I was older. This could mean that I've been in my mid-20's since high school, in terms of my mental position. See, I still think that age is more a state of mind than it is a physical condition. When I say that, I'm talking more about certain fundamental ways in which you view the world. I think it enables you to be more optimistic, perhaps see less gravity in daily matters, conform less to expectations, etc. I realize that there are idiotic things that people do when they're young, but I'm not really talking about those.

What's cool about that is that every year brings more experience, and experience, if you really make it a point to learn from it, adds wisdom to the "young" perspective. It's a quality that I find attractive in people my own age, and they seem to be the standouts in our age group in terms of happiness and success at life. They don't seem beaten down by the world.

I think that feeling "younger" is probably the reason that Diana and I ended up being a good match, but I'm not sure what circumstances got us to that. I bet a lot of it had to do with being child-free still in our mid-30's. I tended to date younger before meeting her (she's the only date I ever had that was older than me), I coached teenagers, I worked with a lot of younger people, and frankly it's somewhat atypical to have no responsibilities beyond yourself at that age. There are definitely external influences.

The funny thing is that, now, with a kid, I want to see the world through his eyes more than ever. I spent some years seeing very little wonder in the world, and watching Simon be fascinated by the simplest things feels instantly familiar and amazing. I'm very grateful for this arrangement. I'll take being naive and optimistic over cynical and pessimistic any day.

How I became an Android fan (sort of)

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, January 26, 2016, 10:15 PM | comments: 0

I wrote before about how I was surprisingly happy with Google's Nexus 5X back in October, and how it made me realize that there was little point to also get a Windows Phone. I held on to Windows Phone for entirely too long. The surprising thing is that Android has changed a lot for the better, to the extent that I might call myself a fan. I even bought a Nexus 9 tablet, which I also adore.

But there is a strong caveat that comes with my fandom. It's gotta be pure Android. That's why I was willing to try it out, because the Google provisioned devices are free of any carrier or manufacturer stuff on top. No crapware or clever UI and OS tweaks, just the operating system. More importantly, it's updated pretty much in real time with Google's updates, so there's no waiting for the carriers or manufacturers. I think that's important too. Collectively, these conditions overcome the objections I had a few years ago, along with the significant improvements in overall UI language that they're using. It certainly helps that Google had LG and Huawei make really nice hardware. HTC did an OK job with the tablet, too (the screen being the key win).

The other consideration is that, honestly, I think the value around the competition isn't what it used to be. By that, I mean Apple's iPhone. I bought the first one, then the 3GS, before Microsoft bought my first WP. They were fantastic phones, out in front. The current iterations are also excellent, but I get hung up on two things. First, I feel like iOS hasn't really iterated in any meaningful way, especially in the context of the app launcher that provides almost no additional functionality. There is no equivalent to live tiles or widgets. The second issue is that the average iPhone is not $250 nicer than, say, my 5X. It might not be made of aluminum (that no one ever sees in a case anyway), but the camera is just as great, the screen actually has a higher pixel density, all of the same apps, for the most part, are available, and I get widgets and alternate app launchers. There's a serious premium to buy Apple, and with subsidized contracts a thing of the past, the value proposition is turned on its head.

The development story is better, for sure. Yes, I've done some experimentation with Xamarin and such, but even straight Java is easier to build with than the awful iOS native options.

I am surprised about the tablet situation. For reading and surfing, I was somewhat happy with my cheap 8" Dell Windows tablet I bought a few years ago, but even after the Windows 10 update, the browser situation still wasn't ideal. Edge is better than IE, but there's a lot of weird behavior still in terms of touching and input. Android's version of Chrome works entirely as expected, and it feels a lot faster. And of course, it also has solid, frequently updated versions of Facebook and what not. 8.9" is a little smaller than an iPad, and a little bigger than the Dell, but it's still feels like an appropriate tablet size.

I still don't think I would consider a device that wasn't commissioned by Google. I feel pretty strongly about regular updating, and you don't get that on the average Samsung device, for example. So I'm an Android fan with an asterisk. I just wish I wouldn't have waited so long.

What do you call a midlife crisis that isn't a crisis?

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, January 26, 2016, 8:22 PM | comments: 0

Diana and I were talking the other day about what a "midlife crisis" is supposed to be. If you read something like the Wikipedia entry on it, it sounds like something terrible and negative. The stereotype is where you buy expensive cars, or get into hookers and blow. (She says she'll leave if I get into drugs, but didn't say anything about the hookers. Just kidding.)

In reality, I think that unless you hate your life, some of the things that you do as you approach midlife are more about the maturing process. For example, some may interpret someone leaving a "secure" job as a crisis, but why can't it just be a refocusing on things the person is interested in, or accepting that the old gig creates stress that they don't need? If someone decides to do an Ironman, that doesn't have to be a crisis, and maybe you do it because it's there. These are actions of a self-aware person, not someone in a panic to feel relevant or younger or something.

I find my own behavior and outlook to be changing, though it's hard to say if that's a function of age or being the parent of a young child in a thriving marriage. I'm really into being with my darling little family. I may not be typical, in that I'm more open to new experiences than I ever was at a younger age, instead of getting set in my ways (I largely credit Diana with this influence). OK, so maybe I want to do some stereotypical things like (finally) get a tattoo or something, but I feel like I'm having an awakening of sorts about what being a human being is all about. Life is rarely about missing the good old days (though I think I've seen more than my share of shit in life), and it's not about constantly looking forward to some ideal future state. It really is about how great the moment is right now. The next may not be as good.

No crisis here, just a better outlook.

The devaluation of political truth (it's your fault)

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 25, 2016, 4:30 PM | comments: 0

I was reading an article (probably on HuffPo) where they interviewed a journalism professor or some such thing, asking why it is "the media," which I would not confuse with "the press," hasn't taken Donald Trump to task over, well, anything. They don't question his history and character as a business man, they don't ask how he could possibly do any of the nonsense he says he'll do, they don't ask how his foreign policy (or lack thereof) could possibly work. Most importantly, they don't take him to task about being a loud mouth that panders to fear and anxiety.

I've said this before, and I still believe that it's true: Journalism still exists if you're willing to look for it. The Internet offers unprecedented opportunity for it, even. However, being a journalist, fact checking and doing the work is not easy, or cheap. This is why I've always been suspect of "citizen journalism." A lot of what we label as such seems intended more to incite mobs than to find truth. Reporting is hard, issues can be complex.

The last part is where I shift responsibility away from the nebulous media, and squarely in the lap of John Q. Voter. We don't hold our media or our politicians to any standards. That a reality TV star can gain traction in a primary says as much about our culture as it does the sad state of the GOP. If we're content to watch partisan talking heads and call it "news," we're screwed. Yet people aren't interested in complexity, or nuance.

I don't know what we can do about that. Telling people that they're stupid or wrong never changed any minds. Oddly, changing your mind about something is viewed as weakness now, even though it's the very thing that makes adults be grownups. And yet, people don't want more data, they just want to believe what they want to believe. That's weird, because few things have been more freeing in my life than accepting that I don't have all of the answers.

This is one of those things that I try not to trouble myself with that much, because it's frankly a little depressing. I know people are better than that, but they're so disengaged, probably for the same reasons I am.

Upping my education and mentoring game

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 24, 2016, 10:00 PM | comments: 0

I know I've written about this before, but I sincerely believe that to improve the quality of work performed by the software industry, not to mention get more bodies into the field who write good code, it's critical that we spend time educating and mentoring people. I still believe that our craft has more of a blue collar aspect to it than a lot of people are willing to admit. Just as carpenters and electricians learn their skills from others, so should developers.

I've probably been more talk than anything about this for the last several years, and I tell myself that it's because there are only so many hours in the day. Like anything else, it just depends on how your prioritize your time. To that end, I'm trying to adjust those priorities within reason. At work, I've been very active in suggesting that we turn up our mentoring game, and I'm doing that with two people new to positions similar to mine. In a growing company, I feel pretty strongly that the culture and standards are best handed down, because it's hard to legislate or codify that sort of thing. In this spring's Orlando Code Camp, I'll once again speak for a couple of sessions on topical stuff. I'm doing a presentation for the next monthly user group meeting as well.

I'm not sure why this sort of thing is so hard for us, as an industry, but I suppose it might partly be because of the personality stereotypes that, well, can often ring true. Also, when you're newer to the game, you tend to concentrate more on being clever and "smart" instead of doing as little as possible to meet acceptance criteria. (Yeah, there's a difference between lazy thinking and doing as little as possible, believe it or not.) Of course, when you work in the context of crappy process, that doesn't help you hone your skills either. Being a good developer isn't a technical problem at all. Like most things, it's a people problem.

For me, it's easy to recognize that I've been fortunate enough to work in some really great teams that do stuff "right." There are a lot of core similarities in these experiences, even if the in-the-weeds execution has varied a bit. It's funny how often I come back to the Agile Manifesto, because those four points almost always settle arguments when people start to get dogmatic about the way one builds software. (For reference, I get tired of arguing about the way to phrase user story titles.)

The reality that we need to live with is that there aren't enough warm bodies to fill seats that are really good at this, unless you want to start paying them well above fair market value. So the next best thing is to help each other along. We can learn a lot from the trades.

Hair color

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 24, 2016, 9:35 PM | comments: 0

I have always been fascinated with hair color and styling for women. I'm not sure why exactly, other than it being something that can really dramatically alter the look of someone. I only half-jokingly used to tell people that if the whole software monkey thing didn't work out, I'd learn to cut and style hair.

Probably a year ago, Diana and I saw some photos of Amy Sheppard, from the band Sheppard (they sing "Geronimo," and their cover of Lorde's "Royals" is amazing), and she had this amazing greenish-blue hair. Very rock-n-roll, and very cute. A few months ago, Diana thought it would be fun to add some colors mixed into her hair, pointing to a coworker for reference, who had blue streaks underneath her darker hair. Of course, who am I to get in the way of that? About a week ago her really excellent hair ninja added some purple and dark magenta bits. It looks really cool, and it suits her creative side. I love it.

(Sidebar: In the almost nine years I've known Diana, it's crazy how many variations she's had in her hair. Lots of different lengths, many styles, mostly curly, some straight, some highlights.)

Women have certainly been coloring their hair for a long time, or in a lot of cases bleaching it out. I've been a fan of the slightly more radical color since college, I suppose, maybe because as a DJ I fancied myself to be more rock-n-roll than I actually was. I dyed my hair lighter for a long time, because I never much liked the dull brown it was. My first wife, Stephanie, also experimented with color quite a bit (mostly black and shades of red). I notice a lot of kids with interesting hair color at Walt Disney World, and I'm glad that parents are OK with their kids trying it out. Heck, even adult women have fully embraced the color fade, and not just the pinups on Suicide Girls. I think it's neat because it's another form of expression. And for the record, I don't think it's vain, I just think it's having fun with your appearance.

I suppose I'll never go to cosmetology school, but I enjoy seeing the resulting efforts of others.

Respecting the play space

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 24, 2016, 7:58 PM | comments: 0

When I was a kid, my brother and I had some exclusive space in the basement to play in. It was chilly down there at times, being a 100-year-old house, but it was still a comfortable place to mess around. I used to pull the TV cart up to the side of a cheap tent and play Star Raiders on the Atari 2600. We had steel shelves that acted as high rises for everything from our stuffed animals to G.I. Joe's Cobra forces.

But there were times, periodically, when my mom would insist that we clean up. Now, understand, especially when it comes to G.I. Joe figures and vehicles, there were often battles in progress. Setting it all up the way you wanted was a lot of work. Since no one ever had to cross through that space, I couldn't understand why it had to be cleaned up other than to satisfy some desire to bring order to something viewed as disorderly.

As a parent myself now, I remind myself of this all of the time. Simon likes to spread out, and while his style of play is becoming more about pretending (finally), there's still a lot of structure and organization that he engages in, typical of ASD kids. That means "parking" a lot of cars in lines. In fact, tonight he did so separating the Hot Wheels cars from the non-Hot Wheels cars (I wish I could take credit for instilling that in him, because there is a quality difference). He has some things set up in both our front room and the living room that he considers theme park attractions. He runs cars, and now his Disney tram, from one room to the other. One of the attractions is actually a K'nex roller coaster. He uses wooden blocks to make platforms, dividers, roads, etc. It all makes sense to him.

Honestly, I think our house has more than enough room for three people, and while there are times when I feel like I need to have some living space be more orderly and grown up, I try very hard not to just arbitrarily force him to clean up. If it gets stagnant, and it usually does, I'll ask him to put stuff away, but otherwise I try hard to be zen about letting him do his thing. I dunno, maybe it's because he's an only child, maybe because his style of learning is different, maybe because his imaginative play is under-developed.

Photography bug

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 24, 2016, 6:21 PM | comments: 0

My best friend just got engaged, and she asked if I would take some engagement photos for her. Of course I said yes, but with the caveat that portrait photography is not my favorite thing. With that in mind, I figured I should get some practice first. Against my better judgment, I brought Diana and Simon out to the "waterfront" one street over. I say against my better judgment because it was about 2:30, with harsh sun. So many over-exposed frames! I wanted to wait until the "golden hour," when the sun was solidly behind our row of houses but still casting a warm glow about, but my darling wife had to be off to work.

I snapped off 120 or so shots, and predictably, the sun made exposure difficult. The only "safe" place for them was in the shadow of a tree with the water or horizon in the background, and even that tended to be a little rough. But whatever, that's why I wanted to do some shooting. It's not that I don't remember my rules or experience, I just tend to disregard them because I don't consistently get in the right mindset. (Notably, I have the same issue shooting video.)

Having a beautiful wife and a cute kid fortunately makes it a little easier to overlook the technical mess, but we'll definitely get out and do it again some time soon. Diana recently had some color added to her hair, and I did want to get it while it was still fresh (those saturated colors tend to fade quickly). Simon has been growing like a weed, and I feel like I'm going to miss something if I don't get more snaps of him.

I love candid photography, shot in more of a journalistic style, because you capture more genuine moments, I think. That's why I asked my friend Tyler to shoot our wedding, and the results were fantastic. He actually had portrait experience, and experimented quite a bit at home with excellent results, and combined with a run-and-gun scenario, he did an amazing job.

I actually shot one of my best friend's charity events for the Community Food & Outreach Center, their Quack Attack 5K, and had a lot of fun doing that. Plenty to see capture there! I was pretty disappointed with a bunch of under-exposure on that one, so I suppose it all balances out.

Still, I'm really hard on myself on technical quality. Composition has always come easy to me, but exposure problems, soft focus, etc., bothers me to no end because I know how to avoid it. Fortunately, I live my subjects, and I can do it again soon.

Blog do-over update

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, January 19, 2016, 5:10 PM | comments: 0

Over the Christmas break I ported this blog app from the somewhat messy version it was in 2009. It was based on the first version of MVC, and I wanted to get to the new, but not final version. There is still work to be done...

  • Comments are broken. Why? Because there is something broken in the hosting software for the runtime that works locally, but not on IIS and in Azure. They already committed a fix, but we won't see it until RC2, presumably next month. Basically, I need the user's IP address because I have to send it to Google for the CAPTCHA test, but that IP always comes up null.
  • I still don't have a clever idea for the header. It's not impossible that the post-it notes may come back, but I have to think of something clever to make them scale down and be responsive.
  • On the plus side, the response and rendering times for what was already a pretty simple app are considerably faster. The home page, with all of that text (last 20 posts) used to arrive in about 1.0s, now it's often under 500ms from Google's point of view. Individual posts and content pages were upwards of 200ms, now they get as low as 50ms. The database hasn't changed and is the "slowest" option, and there isn't any caching going on either. They've clearly optimized the shit out of the new framework.
  • I did finally update the resume, and fix the content (my Vimeo imbeds were all broken with ancient markup).
  • I need to get the canonical meta tags in there. I see Google starting to index it with the www. on the domain, which no one really does anymore.

Importantly though, I have a lot of notes for my next ONETUG talk coming up in about three weeks and I can start putting that presentation together. It's kind of a win-loss situation, in that I can only cover so much in an hour, and I can only cover so much in an hour. Since the topic is about finding the new stuff in these new projects and frameworks, I can prioritize and hit what I think the audience will want most.

We went to the circus

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 17, 2016, 7:29 PM | comments: 0

(In the interest of full disclosure, I did a short contract through work for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the Ringling Bros. Circus. I had no contact with anyone who worked directly on the show. I also worked as a contract employee for a year at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment at the corporate level, and naturally I had exposure to many parts of the enterprise. While this doesn't form the basis of my opinion, it certainly contributes to it.)

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was in town this weekend, so I thought it would be fun to see the show with my little family. I imagine the last time I saw it was probably more than 30 years ago, as I was pretty young. What we did see appeared to be pretty much the same show from my childhood, with the globe of steel, the elephants, the lions and tigers, the fire jugglers, the people loading up on bicycles, etc. Unfortunately, Simon just wasn't that into it, and after falling into the row in front of us, we bailed at the intermission. Kind of sad we missed the trapeze folks, but it is what it is. I'm 0 for 2 on arena events with him.

The circus has been in the news lately because they're going to retire the elephants from the show about 18 months sooner than they originally announced. They're done in May. Naturally, there were people outside protesting, with signs about "slavery" and mistreatment and such. As you would also expect, they weren't changing any minds about people coming to see the show (and I happen to find the use of "slavery" offensive because it trivializes the greatest civil rights travesty in our history).

Here's the problem with the activists that protest the circus and SeaWorld: They confuse the moral issues of keeping animals in captivity with allegations of mistreatment. Rather, they back up the former with the latter, because naturally they can evoke more of an emotional response. In the case of SeaWorld, any allegations brought up by Blackfish, a propaganda film, not a documentary, have been pretty thoroughly discredited. As for the circus, the ASPCA ended up paying out more than $9 million to the circus owners for their false allegations about the treatment of the elephants.

So once you take treatment out of the conversation, you're left with the moral argument about whether or not the animals should be held captive, with the additional nuance about whether or not it's OK to do so for profit. It's the nuance about profit that a lot of people express concern. Animals have been captive for profit motives for all of human history, sometimes to do work for us, and most often because we eat them. No one protests grocery stores or restaurants. Or the Amish, who still use horses for farm work. Perhaps there is something about the entertainment angle that people take issue with.

I'll be honest, I understand the argument against captive animals performing. I'm just not sure that equate it with something nefarious going on. They get extraordinary medical care, consistent diets and zero threat from predators. I haven't met the people caring for the circus animals, but I have met those that care for SeaWorld's and they are amazing people. I had a chance to do a backstage tour at Disney's Animal Kingdom as well, and they're equally committed to the animals. In fact, both theme park organizations here in Florida are deeply involved in rescue scenarios ranging from turtles to foxes to manatees. They're the only entities qualified or well funded enough to do this work.

When you take away the question of whether or not they're well cared for, I'm even less inclined to take the side of activists. I'm more inclined to look at the role of conservation in the bigger picture, because it can only occur in one of two ways: With government or with corporations. Conservation has never really been a something a non-profit can achieve on a large scale, so while it might be an inconvenient truth, corporations are better able to act on those efforts. As someone who grew up near a SeaWorld park (the one that used to exist in Ohio), I would go as far as to say that "save the whales" wouldn't even be a thing were it not for SeaWorld. There's a lot of irony in that.

A former coworker of mine really let me have it for taking the side of zoos and aquariums in an online discussion. He made it very personal, suggesting that I simply had not evolved. Quite the contrary, I think this is yet another issue where taking an extreme, one-sided view is intellectually dishonest and does not land anyone in a land of moral truth. Even if you believe that it comes at the "expense" of animals in captivity, I think it's a reasonable trade for the conservation and awareness that comes with it.

Teaching your child humility

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 17, 2016, 10:45 AM | comments: 0

There was a discussion I was reading online about how humility is almost completely absent from politics. In fact, it seems to be somewhat absent from American culture in general. We have a tendency to wave flags and boast, while McMansions, cars and designer handbags become a point for the status obsessed and materialistic. I don't know how things got that way, but I don't care for it.

Why is this on my mind? In part because I don't want my kid to learn this behavior. I know he doesn't realize it yet, but he's pretty well off. He gets to visit Walt Disney World all of the time, and cost is no object when it comes to getting him the therapy he needs. He's got a good thing going. There have been some discussions lately on CoasterBuzz about whether or not Disney caters to the well-off, or who can afford to go, which made me think even more about Simon's sense of reality. (Sidebar: I never thought about it, but annual passes for the three of us are cheaper than the total cost of a us coming from out of town to stay and eat there for a week. It's not even close.)

Being kind and looking out for other people, to me, is what makes a good human being. It's not easy to be like that all of the time, but it's definitely something that has to be learned early in life. We're trying our best to keep that sort of thing on his radar. We explain to him our involvement in charity work, though giving time is easier than explaining money donation to him. Of course there's the whole sharing thing that you try to get every kid to do. We also explain to him that toys he no longer plays with should be given to other children, though we haven't been consistent about that. He likes to talk a lot about our car, but fortunately I think he does it because technology is interesting to him (same reason we bought it).

I will try not to overthink it, but our boy is at the age now where he's smart enough to observe and adopt behavior. Man, it was easier, if more tiresome, in the days when you just had to feed him and wipe his butt!

Autism diagnosis plus two years

posted by Jeff | Friday, January 15, 2016, 10:27 PM | comments: 0

It was just about two years ago that we received an official autism spectrum disorder diagnosis for Simon. As I said then, it wasn't surprising or alarming, but it was a starting point to make sure that he was getting what he needed in terms of therapy. We're lucky that there was never any suggestion that he was likely to suffer from significantly reduced function.

So far, things have panned out better than I expected. He was able to start kindergarten on time, and academically he is thriving. Socially, he's having a difficult time making friends, but he's a sweet kid and is getting better at expressing his emotions. It's some of the social contracts, especially around hierarchy and responsibility, that can be a struggle, but I think those will come around as well.

I credit Diana with his progress more than anyone, because she has always been so proactive around making sure he gets what he needs. Second, I credit his amazing teachers. The double pre-K might have been a big time commitment for him, but the results have been fantastic. The ABA therapist he had the first time around was great. The OT therapy we send him to now has been excellent as well. A lot of experts have made an extraordinary difference in his life.

ASD doesn't go away, and it's never "cured," but you hope to train the kid in the coping strategies that allow him to coexist with the "neurotypicals." I have little doubt that he'll get there, but I can see through my own experience that he will probably struggle a little. There's no question in my mind that child me living today would have had the same diagnosis, because I see so much of myself in him.

I'm proud of my little man. He's a charming little boy, very smart, and very kind. He's got this.

Nurse me

posted by Jeff | Friday, January 15, 2016, 9:56 PM | comments: 0

It was a rough week at Puzzoni World Headquarters. Diana started the week with probably her worst BPPV attack ever. You know it's bad news when you find your wife crawling around and trying to stop the world from moving, when it's actually still. This flavor of vertigo is entirely mechanical (and we've attempted the Epley Maneuver to right it), and it's not like the symptoms she was battling a few months ago caused by a combination of headaches, hormones and muscle pain. A few years ago we learned all about vertigo and the many ways it can affect her, and this was very plainly the BPPV version.

She started to feel relatively human by Wednesday, after a whole lot of going nowhere, but even today, she wasn't comfortable enough to drive to a hair appointment. I saw a lot of the inside of Publix this week, assumed bus stop duty, etc. Somehow I managed to still bill 40 hours at work, and put in extra time for my mentoring responsibilities. Go me.

Simon woke up early complaining about hurting ears, and by early afternoon it was clear that he wasn't well. I don't recall any time since he had pneumonia, shortly after turning 2, that he has been so lethargic, quiet and generally disinterested in the world. It's kind of heartbreaking to see that. If that weren't bad enough, anxiety about the doctor, and some kind of connection that medicine causes throwing up, has had him heaving up mostly water starting at the doctor. In any case, he's rolling with an ear infection, and he's miserable.

I'm not used to taking care of everyone, but you've gotta get it done. I just want my little unit to be feeling like themselves again. Hopefully tomorrow is better. My biggest concern now is that I feel suboptimal, so here's hoping that's short-lived. I got through December without so much as a cold, and that's pretty unusual.

That time seasonal affective disorder crushed my soul

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 14, 2016, 11:15 PM | comments: 0

As someone who often dismisses social contracts that seem stupid or pointless, I'm guilty as anyone for making small talk about the weather. However, perhaps it's not entirely unreasonable to engage in such chit chat, because it really does tend to affect our lives in very fundamental ways, every single day.

I strongly believe that I suffered from seasonal affective disorder, probably for the 30-something years I lived in Cleveland. I didn't really start to think about it until I was seeing a therapist post-divorce. I made jokes about it for years prior, but as I was thinking about my life and what I wanted it to be, it started to occur to me that maybe I had a legitimate problem. I spent a lot of winter being lethargic and feeling crappy, with the short days and weeks of uninterrupted, flat gray cloudy skies. What should have tipped me off was the extraordinary energy I felt on a sunny day in January, no matter how cold it was.

Believe it or not, moving to Seattle pretty much confirmed it for me. The summers there are pretty much sunny and 76 every day, while the early parts of winter are very rainy (let's call it misty) on a consistent basis. But there is a fundamental difference in the two winters I lived there. One, the world doesn't appear dead because of the dominance of evergreen trees everywhere. Two, the flat gray sky was never a thing, and it seemed like we would see the sun most days living in the slightly higher elevation closer to the Cascades. It seemed like I would frequently find more clouds in Redmond and come home to sun in Snoqualmie. I guess what I'm getting at is that the Seattle weather stereotype is nonsense, and me getting all lethargic there was rare.

For the two winters we spent back in Cleveland, this only confirmed how shitty it was, and what it did to me. Regretting the move back there likely didn't help, but it was clear by the second winter that we had to get the hell out of that area before the next year. In that context, it shouldn't be surprising that we ended up in Florida.

What got me to thinking about this was the unusual series of days with Cleveland-like skies in the last two weeks. The cooler weather is to be expected (although we had some silly 80+ days around Christmas), but it usually isn't so cloudy for so long. It hasn't brought me down exactly, but I do find myself wanting to hibernate and sit around more. I'm thankful that it will be more sunny over the next week. I don't know how I "survived" for so many years up north.

Mini-review: 5K iMac

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 14, 2016, 6:38 PM | comments: 0

After having a 2009 iMac for six years or so, the last of which was relegating it to Simon's domain, I finally replaced it with one of the new 5K versions. In my case, this is the second generation with the crazy high resolution screen, and wanting this one to last a very long time, I did an online custom order with the best i7 CPU at 4 GHz, and the second-best GPU option with a Radeon M395. I also optioned a 512 gb SSD (to match my laptop for easy migration), and added an extra 16 gigs of RAM ($60 on Amazon) for a total of 24. Surprisingly, it was still several hundred dollars cheaper than the 2009 computer. I toyed with building my own PC, but the fact is that there is no other way to get a display with that resolution.

I spent the last year in kind of a goofy state with my desktop. I plugged in my laptop (a 2014 MacBook Pro, 13") to the Thunderbolt Display I've had since early 2012, which in turn was connected to a 1 gig Thunderbolt hard drive. This was weird because I kept all of the files I didn't want to be carrying around on that external drive, as well as my entire photo collection since I didn't have the drive space on the laptop. It worked, but sometimes it meant closing stuff down so I could disconnect it all and take the laptop with me. Also, on the rare times I wanted to play games or work with video, the heat would cause the fan to spin up to jet engine mode, as is often the case with laptops.

So it was time, I put it off for a year. As expected, the speed is insane with the fast CPU, fast graphics, fast SSD and fast memory. Sometimes it's little things, like the in-browser animations of the Fitbit web site. Best of all though, the Windows 10 VM that I use for development (in Parallels) boots fast, and runs Visual Studio like a dream. You don't wait for Resharper. Being able to throw 16 gigs at a VM is also convenient. While I'm going to ditch it soon in favor of Lightroom, my Aperture collection is so quick to cycle through, even with the photos still on the external drive. Photoshop and Premier Pro are snappy in a way I've never known, and these are older versions that aren't optimized for the newer CPU's and GPU's. I can run the alpha builds of Parkitect, full screen, at the highest resolution and quality with no frame rate issues.

What is most amazing though is that screen. Most people have been living in a world without visible pixels on their phones and tablets for awhile, and to some degree on their computers, but to have that on 27 inches of desktop screen is something to behold. In fact, that's one of the things that makes the newer system font choices in both OS X and Windows a lot more logical. They look way better on high resolution screens. The letters look painted on in both operating systems.

I have not even taken the new keyboard and mouse out of the packaging. I can't not use the classic Natural Keyboard 4000 at a desk, and the Magic Mouse is still too damn small to use comfortably. Still using the Explorer Mouse I bought in 2009 as my first thing ever in the employee store. Honestly, I almost want to protest the mouse on principle, one for using a Lightning cable for charging, and two for putting the port under the mouse so you can't use it while charging. Completely asinine.

Overall though, I'm thrilled with the computer and expect to get many years out of it, as I did the last one (which now Simon will get many years out of). I need to start a video project, and see how that goes. The laptop was pretty slow rendering, but this should be super fast for regular 1080/24p. While I can't really justify the full Adobe suite subscription (though I won't rule it out), I may get the photographer sub (Photoshop + Lightroom) because it's a steal at $10 per month.

Now I just need to prop up the Thunderbolt display by an inch, because it's still lower than the damn iMac.

Art makes us feel

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 10, 2016, 9:59 PM | comments: 0

We got to see The Sound of Music yesterday, and took my mom along since it's one of her favorite things ever. I'm not particularly well-versed in musical theater, though I've always loved it, flirted with it in college, and did lighting design for my community theater back in the day. Then I married a woman who left the biz, but still had her Actor's Equity card from her days working as a stage manager.

I've never been that fond of the movie, but I really enjoyed the show, in part because the cast was top notch. They plucked their Maria right out of college, in fact. It was honestly like hearing some of those songs for the first time. Aside from the end, where the family actually "climbed every mountain" (it's supposed to be a metaphor, dammit, and this reminded Diana of the Price Is Right mountain climber), I really enjoyed it.

Every time I get to see something live on stage, it tends to move me in some way. I love that Diana gets to work in that environment. Even with my limited college and community experience, and Diana's professional experience, we've talked about the intense feelings that come with being a part of live theater. Sure, there are some people, the professionals themselves and the unfortunate hipsters that watch them, that hate what they do and see, but I think it's safe to generalize that people love to be a part of it.

It isn't just theater. Movies, the good ones at least, can be intensely amazing. Being in the audience of a good film really stirs me up (which is probably why I need to make one of my own, some day). Books exercise the mind like nothing else (thanks, Dad, for sending The Martian for Christmas!). Music can do it in the most portable of ways, as you can hear it anywhere. Seeing it performed live is still one of my favorite things. (I resisted making a Sound of Music joke there). I've never been a student of other forms of art, but paintings, sculpture and photography fascinate me to no end.

Art makes us feel.

I'd like to think that art is even the thing that makes us distinctly human. Diana is the artist I know best, and her current art efforts are obviously quilting. I love to see her nerd out on it. I think it suits her well because she's the kind of personality that loves to organize and make lists, and that seems to pair well with the precision and planning required for a good quilt. At the same time, it requires a great deal of creativity. And quilts can literally and figuratively make you feel warm.

I wish I was more of an artist. I've dabbled in it all, it seems... music in middle school, performance in radio and TV, the technical side of theater in college and beyond, video and "film" professionally and for fun, writing in a number of forms... but I've never really developed any of it long-term. I want to play a part in making people feel something. I just haven't figured out how yet.

Keeping in mind that financial makeover

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 10, 2016, 9:18 PM | comments: 0

A friend of mine was blogging about her family effort to be more frugal, as they set their sights on home ownership and other financial goals. I realized then, that this was the first year in awhile that I didn't really talk about money in my yearly retrospective. That's pretty weird, because the transition we had from 2009 to 2013 was pretty dramatic, and not by accident. To be burdened in credit card debt and go to zero, with savings, was a big deal for us.

Indeed, 2015 was a year where money didn't really come up beyond the purchase of our absurd car. We were saving a ton of money, and blew that on the down payment. Our monthly cash flow is essentially close to the same, since Diana works part-time and it covers probably 75% of that difference. I mean, we still "lost" all kinds of money sinking it into the car, but that didn't materially alter our lifestyle. Still, I find myself not really paying attention like I did, and that realization has brought some minor anxiety with it.

Our m.o. is still mostly "experiences not things," though I suppose I'm a little more flexible on that definition than I used to be, in no small part because of the influence of my friends. Our single largest expense last year (other than the mortgage) was travel. In fact, this was so much the case that some of that was money spent for travel next year. We like to do stuff.

I think this was also a year where, toward the end, we realized that maybe this strategy was distracting us from some other things. We both lost some weight this year (Diana more than me), and we were wearing clothes that didn't fit well, or were just entirely too old. I look at a hundred bucks for a few new pairs of pants and shorts and think, "Gosh, that's a few nights out or a lot of drinks in our next cruise." I would get an email ad from Ikea and think, "Nah, that living room TV unit is two out of three plane tickets." That's kind of screwed up. Fortunately, we now have pants that fit, and the living room feels a little more "finished" (and hey, we've only been here almost two years). It isn't that we're cheap, it's that our priorities are probably not the most conventional.

It's not all reckless abandon with our dollars, mind you. We're starting to save again (counting on a significant tax refund this year, too). While I'm the one that reconciles the bank statements, Diana is really the heart of our financial well-being in terms of domestic expense. That's not surprising, since before she met me she lived comfortably in her own house and made things work. She doesn't go overboard with comparative shopping and coupons, but she knows where to buy food across Target, Publix, Aldi and BJ's. Heck, she even allows the BJ's to lapse until we really need another crate of mac-n-cheese for Simon. Her ability to control the cost of Simon's clothes, and even some toys, has been remarkable over the years.

I suppose the most important thing is that we've never reverted to that idea that, "Well, we can just put that on the credit card and we'll figure out how to pay for it later." I did that for almost 15 years, and it was a financially miserable experience. That's the mistake that's hardest to overcome.

What does the ideal third party look like in American politics?

posted by Jeff | Friday, January 8, 2016, 7:25 PM | comments: 0

I'm sure it will continue for a very long time, but I hate both sides of American politics. One side is hell bent on not doing anything while vilifying everyone and everything, spreading fear, while the other side wants to spend money on everything you can think of in the name of a big group hug. I like the latter group only slightly more because at least they don't hate everyone. They still suck. I can't understand how people will rally behind any of them.

But it's clear to me that there are people who think along the lines of a true third party. I would say, "thinks more like me," but that isn't necessarily always the case. What do those people look like? How would I describe them? Can it be done in a bulleted list?

  • They believe in personal responsibility, but understand the impact of socioeconomic factors. In other words, they aren't into the naive perspective that everyone has an equal shot, because they don't. A kid growing up in a poor, racially segregated neighborhood, with crappy schools, high crime and poor representation does not have the hope and perspective of an affluent white kid in the suburbs. Stubborn ideology doesn't change that.
  • They are fiscally responsible, and willing to slaughter sacred cows. That means they don't want to subsidize huge new programs (social or otherwise), but also dig into the expensive things we already buy on credit, like a military that is bigger than it needs to be. They don't budget for planes that the joint chiefs don't want. They close the loopholes that protect the wealthy. Responsibility isn't just about the spending, it's about the taxation.
  • They reject war mongering, but value the military and its veterans. So many Americans seem to think these are incompatible ideas. The VA has to be better than it is, and we need to take care of the soldiers and their families that have seen the worst of humanity up close. At the same time, they can't be so cavalier with the lives of future Americans, and the civilians worldwide. The only reasonable judgment is restraint.
  • They understand that foreign policy is not best achieved by chest thumping. Arrogance makes America feel good, but humility is what serves it as a part of the global village.
  • They give more than lip service to civil liberties. You can't wave the flag and rally against gay marriage (I'm surprised some of these idiots have finally let that go), force your religious ideology on women's health, or try to enact voting deterrents. You can't want everyone to gun up while opposing these other liberties. It's the worst hypocrisy.
  • They believe in free market capitalism, but also understand that there is a time and place to regulate it. The market can sometimes make really bad decisions: see the last recession and the ridiculous housing lending. On the other hand, messing with the minimum wage is something that has to be carefully considered, because the consequences are serious. This is another area that you can't naively apply an absolute ideology.
  • They are scientifically literate and embrace science as a part of a forward moving society. So they don't bring a snowball into Congress and assert that it's proof that climate change isn't a thing. They understand the value of space travel and experimentation around really big ideas.
  • They believe that healthcare is a right. This is probably the most left-leaning thing I believe, but sticking to the system that we have is not in our best interest, because it doesn't work. You should not face financial ruin because you lose a job and have cancer, or can't work because of the cancer. Knowing you have healthcare also removes one of the greatest barriers from entrepreneurship, which is good for America.
  • They absolutely reject xenophobia, embrace logical immigration. People coming here are not hurting our future, they're making it better. Whether they're the guy from Mexico in my neighborhood building houses, or Elon Musk from South Africa changing the automobile and power industries, they're paying taxes and moving us forward. That isn't something to fear.
  • They respect the intelligence of their constituents. I realize that this might be a problem with the constituents, but imagine politicians that talked policy instead of sound bites, and news media covered that for people to actually think about. It's a hard problem. Ask someone what they don't like about [your politician here], and their best answer is probably that they're "ruining the country."
  • They don't accept money from corporations. This is probably the hardest problem.

The current crop of presidential candidates don't fit into this at all. The GOP is so extreme to the right (and pandering to a ridiculous minority) and gives only lip service to fiscal responsibility. Meanwhile, some Democrats are leaning too far left, believing they can solve many problems with more government (and they do a fair amount of pandering as well).

I know a surprising number of people who see eye to eye with me on these points, and I bet 10 years ago they would have squarely fit into the red or blue category. Not so much anymore. I suppose this is partly because of the extreme left/right pandering, the divisiveness that has been pervasive for the last decade. I'm curious to know how many people agree with this mix that samples the former values of both parties.

Video games as developmental therapy

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 7, 2016, 11:01 PM | comments: 0

I feel lucky in some ways that I grew up with home video games, starting with the Atari 2600. I had few physical skills as a child (as in, sucked at sports), and I credit games with helping those fine motor skills.

Now, as a dad with a kid having some developmental challenges, I'm seeing the same opportunity with Simon. Diana has been playing an older puzzle game with him called ilomilo, where two characters must meet across a 3D landscape by getting around obstacles. I've been playing Lego Jurassic Park with him.

It's a good news, bad news thing. The good news is that his control is getting better very quickly, and his problem solving with virtual spacial perception is surprisingly robust. The bad news is that you can see the delays in muscle development, as his tired little hands start to grasp the controller in strange ways.

All of this still seems strange in the context of my childhood, when some people argued that video games were a worthless scourge on society. Screens are second nature to kids now, and in the right proportions, an essential tool.

Does your career happen to you?

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 7, 2016, 8:59 PM | comments: 0

I've had a lot of conversations with people lately about how their careers develop, and, comparing notes with people, it's interesting how a lot of that development happens to a person, instead of the result of deliberate action.

What do I mean? A lot of it is just stumbling into something that it turns out they're good at. Certainly I get that, going to school for radio/TV (with a double major in journalism!), only to spend most of my adult life in software. It was never my intention, and the path actually made a lot of sense, but it wasn't really any deliberate choice that got me here.

That said, I have never been consistent about setting goals and pursuing a specific direction since the major shift. When started to meltdown, only eight years ago, I started to think a lot more about my "destiny" in the field. While I loved working with those people, there wasn't a lot of room to be what I think I wanted to be because of the size of the organization, so I probably should have been looking anyway. It was around that time that I realized that leading development efforts, a combination of technical oversight and design, focus on process and execution and a whole lot of solving the "people problems," is what I was best at. Contract work before that put me in those positions, and I thrived. It wasn't what I was hired for at Microsoft, but once there I could certainly see it as a long-term path. Everything since then has built on that.

The SeaWorld Parks gig really made things clear for me, because I realized that I could be confident in my ability. Now I get to bring that to all kinds of clients, and it's satisfying work. As I check in with myself, I still ask, am I letting my career happen to me? Again working at a 120+ company, you start to ask yourself about what it means to "advance," and if that's even an important thing. In my case, I know I'm getting to do the things that I'm really good at, but I'm fortunate also to be in a place where I can make suggestions, be heard, and have additional opportunities to grow. For me that means I'm getting to spend a little time mentoring people who will do the same things I do. It's funny how charged up I get about that, because it fills a hole left by a serious lack of opportunity to coach volleyball.

When you're just starting out, there is definitely a tendency to sketch out a path that leads to a title, a dollar amount or some other measurement of achievement. Then when you get out there, you realize that you have to be flexible, not because you're willing to compromise, but because the variables that life and work throw at you make a specific path silly and impractical. Knowing that is a sign of wisdom, not weakness. Could I see myself occupying some kind of VP or CTO title at some point? In the right kind of organization, sure. Do I want that to happen? I don't know. I have to think about entrepreneurial efforts, too. How's that for making things complicated?

At the end of the day, I can say with confidence that my career hasn't happened to me, and it has been a series of choices. I could not have predicted the outcomes, but at least for eight years I haven't let it be a series of accidents. Some people make that leap early in life, some never make it at all. I think it came for me in a reasonably ideal time.

You get what you pay for, there is no entitlement

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 4, 2016, 10:50 PM | comments: 0

One of the subjects that comes up on CoasterBuzz frequently is the rising cost of the Orlando theme parks, with much of the focus on Disney in particular. We could argue all day about how many people are actually buying one-day tickets at a $100 and not multi-day tickets, but I'm not sure it matters. As far as theme parks go, Disney owns the gold standard, and I would argue that they more or less deliver on it. After two and a half years living next door, and I assume over 100 visits by now, I can count our suboptimal experiences on two fingers (and I don't even remember what the first time was).

Those online discussions, especially under newspaper comments and certain other places, almost always devolve into exchanges about "greed," a strange concept when talking about for-profit businesses, and people being priced out of a Disney vacation. I'm not sure what it is about Disney that evokes this sentiment, because there are a hundred different things one can buy that range from cheap and generic to super premium. Why would theme parks be different? You start at the county fair, and go up to regional parks like Six Flags, then the big Orlando parks. I'm not entitled to be able to buy an affordably priced luxury car or home, so why are the parks different?

And that got me to thinking about what we often refer to as the "Walmarting" of America, where we want stuff to be as cheap as possible. We'll accept crappy stores, crappy service and mediocre merchandise if we can save a few bucks. What I don't get is when our culture stopped realizing that you get what you pay for. If you're willing to accept some Sam's Choice stuff and a hundred-dollar, no-name Bluray player, your expectations about the quality should be pretty clear.

I do find it interesting that a lot of companies have decided to not play in that race to the bottom. Apple has always been a premium brand with high margins, and people will pay for their stuff. The product is generally better (not always), and the service before and after the sale is top notch. Chipotle makes a killing with expensive burritos, but it's clear that you aren't getting Taco Bell crap (you get E. coli as a bonus, zing!). Pei Wei, Noodles and other "fast casual" restaurants do the same. People even pay 500% markup for headphones for better perceived quality. If you want excellent service on a plane, you'll have to pay for first class. Better seats at an NBA game? Yep, they cost more. It's clear that some people are willing to pay more when they want something better.

But that Disney thing... that's a head scratcher. Theme parks are a leisure expense to begin with. There's no obligation to make them affordable to everyone. I can't see getting mad about that. Granted, as locals with annual passes, we easily get a great deal over the course of a year, but it wasn't that long ago that we would do a five-day trip every other year. I felt like it was worth it. Indeed, you get what you pay for. It's not a moral issue.


Capitalism, aristocracy and politics

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 3, 2016, 11:49 PM | comments: 0

One of the things that I find so fascinating about the TV show Downton Abbey is the look at the historical context that would ultimately be the beginning of the end of the British aristocracy in the early part of the 20th century. The characters themselves mostly embrace the change, or are at least aware that it's happening. While a work of fiction, it's interesting to see the way people, "upstairs" and "downstairs," see their place in society.

Growing up as an American, I'm no stranger to capitalism and a free market, though our current state is... weird. The concentration of wealth bothers a lot of people, and over longer periods of time, history has shown that concentration isn't sustainable and leads to a destabilization of a society. That has nothing to do with whether or not I think it's right; history is what it is. I've seen it argued that we have a new, developing aristocracy. I'm not sure I entirely buy that. What's interesting about free market capitalism is the way it succeeds and fails.

In the failure category, we need only look a few years back to the "great recession" (apparently some call it this now). The free market was responsible for that mess, with plenty of blame to go around. The banks took on stupid risks, consumers took those stupid risks, and the government let it all happen after a decade or two of deregulation. The crazy consumption economy got out of whack, specifically around buying houses. That leads to a strange moral question: Can the market be "trusted" to do the right thing without oversight? I think the answer is, "Of course not," but like everything in life there's a continuum of options and it isn't clear what the "right" amount of regulation is.

On the other hand, you can see where the market does figure things out. Maybe these are just anecdotes, but as we've shifted so heavily toward a service economy, I find it interesting when a company like Costco starts paying their people more, independent of any government say-so, and reports that it has made them wildly successful in terms of retention and satisfied customers (presumably because of the satisfied employees), which positively affect the bottom line. One could argue that warehouse retail is not a high skill job area, but yet we have an example of spending more to attract and retain the right people. That's the market figuring it out, without intervention.

These issues do create a class system, even if it's not to the extreme of an aristocratic society. What I find completely messed up is how this plays into politics. Let's be clear, both sides operate on fear principles to get you on board. The right wants you to believe that the government wants all your money and people are trying to kill you. The left wants you to believe that more social programs, including more education, will save you from being poor. I can't explain it, but the folks so keen on the right seem overwhelmingly to be people who would benefit from a little socialism and don't make enough to be heavily taxed, while the left leaning people need the money and less taxes. The influence of money on politics sucks, because at the end of the day, both sides can essentially be bought and sold by corporations and the wealthy.

Capitalism and macroeconomics are complicated, and I wish I would have studied them more in college. As much as I believe that capitalism is the right thing, I don't believe it can go completely unregulated. Despite my lack of strong faith, I also find the focus on consumption as the ultimate measure of our national success to be somewhat alarming (especially coming from the flag-waving, self-described Christians, who of all people should understand the value of charity and compassion).

Why I'm better than you

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 3, 2016, 5:55 PM | comments: 0

Just kidding. That's total headline link bait. I don't really think that I'm fundamentally better than anyone. I do claim, however, that while I don't have it all figured out, I do have an outlook that is relatively positive, and I strive for the right amount of perspective. That doesn't make me better than anyone, but I bet it does make me a lot happier.

I was just looking at the social media and the typical politically charged nonsense on the Internets, and it's clear that already, a week after Christmas, people have shifted their view of the world from one of wonder back to one of fear. It reminds me of that time Louis CK was on Conan and talked about how, "Everything is amazing, and nobody is happy." It's so true. Americans are hell bent on being scared of violent crime, even though it has been generally on the decline for decades (invalidating both sides, the "gun up" and "gun control" factions). People worry about terrorism, something that at best has a 1 in 20,000,000 chance of killing you in your lifetime, when there is zero chance of terrorists ever materially bringing down the western world. It's not like nuclear annihilation is likely, or we'll see something like World War II with 56,000,000 deaths. We're the most mobile we've ever been, and turning a corner toward doing it in a more sustainable and clean way. In my lifetime, we've gone from playing black-and-white video games in arcades to connected, high resolution games that we carry in our pockets. Most of the world's knowledge is at your fingertips, if you're willing to engage your fucking brain and sort out facts from fiction. We're landing rockets now that sent up a dozen satellites. We live twice as long as we did a hundred years ago, and we can replace body parts and beat diseases into submission.

Listen up, poopy pants, because the Renaissance has got nothing on us.

So the way I see it, you can be a part of all of this awesomeness, and contribute to it in any way you'd like, or you can be scared of the world. That bad things happen is not reason enough to do the latter. We still have a lot of work to do in the US, but the opportunity is unprecedented. Don't squander it.

Christmas break retrospective

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 3, 2016, 12:46 PM | comments: 0

Today is the last day of 11 straight days of not working, and it was glorious. I could use another week, honestly, but generally, I feel pretty refreshed. I did most of what I hoped to do, without any real structure to the agenda (didn't do a Simon photo shoot).

I had an unexpected project: We re-did our living room with some Ikea BESTÅ stuff around the TV. The unit we bought four plus years ago had doors on the front of it to keep Simon out, but had the unintended consequence of baking the electronics inside. We toasted one cable box (not my problem, technically), and sometimes the Xbox would sound like a jet engine with its fans and freeze up. I also never liked that it put the TV just a bit higher than it should be. The ideal viewing height should put the middle of the screen at eye level. (Aside: I'm not sure how people can tolerate putting their TV above a fireplace... it's so high! We had that in one of our places and I hated it.) The new thing is lower, the Xbox can breathe, and we decided to also get a couple of wall-mounted units as well to put... something. It just frames up the wall and adds texture. I like it.

Simon was, at times, challenging, because he would get a little stir crazy when we weren't engaging in some kind of activity, but I really had a good time hanging out with him. We went out to eat, went shopping (he was really helpful at Ikea), we played tennis, saw Star Wars, did a nice morning at Epcot, played video games... we had some really nice family times. I think we may have even made some progress with him learning to listen to what we ask him to do.

Orlando has been unseasonably warm the last few weeks, which is a bummer, because you really have to try a little harder to make it "feel" like Christmas when you grew up in the Midwest. Fortunately, folks in the neighborhood go all out decorating, and there are countless wonderful traditions at the theme parks. Will be sad that the Osborne Family light show ends this year, as they make room for Star Wars and Toy Story.

Blog app re-do

posted by Jeff | Saturday, January 2, 2016, 8:35 PM | comments: 0

I decided to finally do some updating to the blog app running this very blog. As a guy who builds stuff like this for a living, it's kind of embarrassing to have something hanging around after six years, because the technology changes so fast. I was actually slightly horrified when I busted open the source code, as it was based on MVC v1, using the old webforms views (instead of Razor), and it used LINQ to SQL, an ORM mapping technology that has long since been abandoned. Ouch.

One may question why anyone would write their own blog software, but I think that's kind of missing the point. There aren't many things that you can build that are that simple. I originally did it because I needed to make something "real" with the then-new MVC framework. Here we are at v6, and it's being changed radically, along with ASP.NET under it. That's a perfect opportunity to get my learning on, again with a relatively simple project.

I'm not going to lie, I think the transition to ASP.NET "vNext" is going to be a little brutal for a lot of folks. I get the desire and benefits of going open source, and I'll be the first to champion that, but at the RC stage, with something that is expected to be used so widely, having placeholders in your documentation isn't good. The tooling is pretty rough too. It's cool that you can do all kinds of neat things from the command line and run it on many platforms, but I'm not sure that many people were really asking for that. There's a perception out there that the CLI and "run anywhere" motive has trumped making a great platform that cuts the legacy cruft. I don't think that's actually the case, but perceptions are reality for a lot of folks.

In any case, I've been recreationally moving the forums to MVC6 for the last few months, with some level of success. It was a bit of a moving target during the betas, so I didn't go all-in. At the release candidate phase, it seemed like a good idea to do an end-to-end port. That's what the blog is now running on. There is still a list of where I want it to go. It isn't "done." Specifically:

  • Actually design something. Hey, I loved my yellow stickies on a monitor design. Six years was a long time for it, however. What's here now is just a placeholder.
  • Combine my tech blog and personal blog, have a "switch" of some kind so you can filter and choose which you want to read and/or subscribe to.

A few observations about the port (which also helps me for the talk I'm giving to the Orlando .NET User Group next month):

  • I <3 Bootstrap. It makes the scaffolding of your layout so easy, and the responsive design comes for free.
  • I used Entity Framework 7, because it's the new hotness. Some odd choices here and there.
  • Doing async is easier than ever, across the whole stack.
  • I really like the new middleware pipeline, way better than the system of modules and handlers.
  • There's no way in hell that the forums will run on the core CLR any time soon, but the blog actually can. You know, because I totally want to run it on Linux and a Mac (not really).
  • All of the build orchestration is pretty solid if you take the time to understand it all. Minifcation and cache busting is fantastic.
  • Configuration is infinitely, uh, configurable, but it also feels a little half-baked. The deployment scenarios for user secrets are also half-baked.

There is a lot more to think about, and I still have work to do regarding those earlier points. But whatever, I got something into "production" before the bits shipped. I'll still miss the stickies...