Archive: November, 2016

Gigantic Lego sets

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, November 30, 2016, 9:31 PM | comments: 0

This was a big year for Lego binge building. I've been pretty good about not buying "stuff" this year, but I let myself have a little fun in the last few months with some "grown up" Lego sets. It's fun to build some of the others, like the Fairground Mixer and Ferris Wheel, a couple of times per year. I'm pretty careful about disassembly, putting the parts into the bag numbers they came from so you can easily rebuild. I know, that may imply I have some problem. Along with the trains, I have eight sets acquired over the last six years.

First up was the Disney Castle, weighing in at 4,080 pieces. It's a really interesting build with very little repetition. The amount of architectural detail is stunning. I can't help but wonder what it's like to be the designer who did it. The interior of the castle pays homage to various Disney stories with the magic mirror, a rose under glass, a magic carpet, etc. Living so close to the real thing, it's neat to see such a great recreation.

Next up was the Excavator, which has 3,929 pieces. It's massive. I've never had a Lego Technic set before, even though the cooler Creator sets have various gears and motors and stuff. This is a completely different beast, because it's all gears and rods and couplers. It's fun to build, but not always as straight forward. Stuff has to be wiggled and almost forced to get together at times. Most of the time, what you're building doesn't really look like anything. Disassembly is going to be hard. But you should see this thing. One big motor moves two conveyors, the tractors and rotates the whole thing. It's really brilliant.

You never see enough of the possibilities to fully commit

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 25, 2016, 11:17 PM | comments: 0

I've seen some combination of movies and read stories that are really big on the whole following your dreams thing, choosing a life, and whatever. I'm always left with the feeling of, "Yeah, that's cute, but a little naive and, uh, dumb." No, I'm not a hater, and feeling inspired to do something or be someone is not a bad thing. It's just that you can't really fully commit to whatever it is you're after, because you never have enough information.

While this is certainly a variation on what I wrote a few months ago, about embracing chaos and stopping the attempt to check all of the boxes about what you're supposed to do in life, it occurs to me that there's more to it. Early in life, we tend to form a lot of ideals, and worst of all, there's an expectation that we need to figure out what to do with the rest of our lives. Really think about that for a moment. When you graduate from high school, it's expected that you either learn a trade or go to college and study something related to what you want to do... for the next 45 years or so. I can say for certain that what I do today wasn't really even a thing when I started college. Indeed, that's why I decided I was going to make television shows or be a famous DJ or maybe own a radio station.

Fine, some people decide early on that they're going to be a doctor, and that's what they do. I would say that's still the exception and not the rule. For the rest of us, we can't commit to a precise future because we just don't have enough information. It's not constructive to look at deviation from our path as some kind of character flaw or an inability to commit to something. I know that Diana and I could never have foreseen our current situation at age 18, but we did make choices along the way that got us here, far from where we thought we were going. It's probably better, definitely not worse, but more precisely it's just different. Indeed, sticking to a chosen path is a sign of stubbornness, immaturity and total disregard to the possibilities we can't yet see.

Lego trains: Our minor Christmas tradition

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 25, 2016, 4:00 PM | comments: 0

In 2011, I decided to buy a Lego train to put around the Christmas tree. I've always liked the idea of having a toy train, but I liked the idea of one you would build even better. That this one had a motor (the cargo train from some years ago, #3677) was also a plus. This was largely a solo endeavor, building the train, but it's a quick build and satisfying to knock out in an hour or two.

Later, a year or two ago, I bought the high speed passenger train (#60051), but that was mostly relegated to my office. I even bought the neat little station to go next to it (#60050). This year, for Christmas, I decided we would build both trains, and throw the track switches in there. Why not?

This was a great year, because it was the year that Simon started to demonstrate his ability to understand and follow the instructions for Lego sets, and his motor skills are (mostly) able to roll with the construction as well. I had Simon build the simpler cars while I did the engines, and we knocked them out in record time.

So for the sixth year, Lego trains are a part of our holiday season, and now I get help. I love the little things like that, where we can do something together.

I still need to diversify my hobbies

posted by Jeff | Monday, November 21, 2016, 6:48 PM | comments: 0

As much as I try to be self-aware, I think I've done a good job ignoring the fact that my hobbies are not exactly diverse. When I graduated from college, I spent about four years doing the broadcast stuff for a living, and in my spare time I played video games, engaged in photography and even started some web sites. After that, I shifted into making software, and it seems like I spent all of my spare time... making software.

This can be a little problematic at times, because I go through periods of time where I'm very hands-on with software in my day job, and that's definitely the case right now. When it gets dark or the weekend rolls in, I don't really want to do that as much. In these cases, I find myself wondering what the hell to do with myself. So let's look at what I used to do.

I still play video games, but I have to admit that I rarely get into anything that isn't a Lego game, Tomb Raider or Halo. That's pretty lame, I know. A gamer I am not. I have an Xbox account full of games that came with my Live account that I have never even downloaded, so it's not like I have nothing to try. I can't quite explain what it is that draws me into games, but I suppose part of the problem is that I don't really pay attention to what's out. The Xbox One came with one of the Bioshock games, and I loved it. If I were to distill the problem, it would be that my discovery mechanism doesn't really exist.

I still enjoy photography... sometimes. I have nice lenses and stuff. At some point after Simon was born, I decided I was tired of being behind the lens, and I just wanted to be there in the moment. Every once in awhile, I get inspired and suggest that we do a little photo shoot, and I even did some portrait photography that I didn't hate this year, but I'm not shooting as much as I used to. I'm shooting even less video, which makes me sad, but my mind block there is that I really want to shoot something scripted, and I don't have anything.

Coaching volleyball is a non-starter in a place with so few high schools (giant schools, few kids play). Theme parks are fun, but I wouldn't really call visiting them a hobby. I'm fascinated by EV's and solar and all of that, but that isn't really a hobby either. Maybe I could call cruising a hobby, but vacationing isn't something you do for a few hours after dinner. Again, I do like writing software, but I can't do it when I'm doing it 40 hours per week. I'll burn out.

I'm jealous of Diana... her primary hobby is quilting, and she's crazy good at it. She has a nice blog audience, too.

I have taken a renewed interest in Lego, but that's kind of an expensive hobby. These "grown up" sets they have now are amazing, and I've accumulated quite a few over the last few years. This week, we'll bust out the train to put around the Christmas tree, but for the first time, Simon is able to help with most of the cars. A few weeks ago, I scored the Disney Castle, and it's an amazing build, if a little hard to get right now. I also ordered the gigantic excavator.

Whatever it is, I hope I figure it out soon. I'm not far away from midlife now. I need hobbies!

Rocket launches

posted by Jeff | Sunday, November 20, 2016, 11:48 AM | comments: 0

I witnessed my third rocket launch from the Cape Canaveral area last night, which puts me at 3 for 5 on overall attempts. They're often delayed because of weather or technical issues, and this one just made its hour-long window because of some unspecified problem, and then a range issue (someone or something was in the ocean below the flight path). Of course, we've seen at least a dozen other launches from home, but it's always fun to get up close because of the insanely wonderful sound that comes a few seconds after you see the rocket take flight.

This one was sent up by ULA, carrying an advanced weather satellite, the GOES-R. This was an Atlas V configured with external boosters, so it sounded fantastic. It's crazy how the sound takes so long to get to you after the rocket ignites, but consider we're about 10 miles from the pad. That's something of a testament to the flatness of Florida, especially on the coast, because you can still see the 200-foot rocket from that distance when it's night and there are lights on it.

There are a couple of launches I want to be there for over the next year. When SpaceX finally test launches its Falcon Heavy, I want to see and hear it, because that's a whole lot of thrust. And if they attempt to land all three of those boosters on land, I definitely need to be there. Otherwise, if they land another Falcon 9 at the cape, I want to be there. They only land the boosters on land if they're shooting for a low-earth orbit, otherwise, by the time they can turn it around and send it home, they're too far over the ocean with too little fuel. That's when they land it on an autonomous drone ship at sea. It's crazy that they can do that.

I love living in Florida for stuff like this. The landscape if mostly flat and uninteresting, and people aren't as nice as they are in other places, but we get rockets, theme parks and no winter. Those are pretty solid trades.


posted by Jeff | Friday, November 18, 2016, 9:04 PM | comments: 0

The first time I went to the IAAPA Attractions Expo was 2000, just a few weeks after my first honeymoon. It was in Atlanta that year. I went the whole week, and it rained most of that time. Beyond the show, I did the CNN tour. I very quickly learned that four days is way too much time to spend at the show.

There have been 17 shows since then, including that one, and I've been to more than I haven't. I know I didn't go the year it was in Las Vegas, or the years it returned to Atlanta. Also not years I lived in Seattle or after returning to Cleveland. I'll go with 10 or 11. I've been to the last four straight because, living in Orlando, why not? I even took Simon to one, and Diana to her second.

A lot has changed since that first time in 2000. CoasterBuzz was still in its first year, and I was working for a media company at the time, even though I was working in software. I was still anxious to exercise my education and first love in those days, so I generated a lot of content. I had big interviews with CEO's of theme park companies and manufacturers and anyone who would talk to me. I was adamant about going beyond the photo porn and writing interesting stuff. There was something fascinating about the fact that you could reach so many people and build an audience in those days. With a little coding, you could make it awesome.

In 2007 and 2008, I spoke in the education part of the conference about social media. I don't think the term "social media" had been coined yet, but I knew I had been doing it with the industry's biggest fans at that point for nine years. I was surprised at how few people were interested, but enjoyed the experience.

After a four-year absence, I returned in 2013, because we lived in Orlando, and also because I somehow ended up working an industry job. This was an exceptionally weird situation for me, because I already by working at SeaWorld Entertainment knew more about what was going on throughout the industry. That was the year that I pretty much wouldn't run with anything on CoasterBuzz unless it was reported in mainstream media. Even since then, my connectivity is higher, so I can't really "go there" from a journalistic sense without risking relationships. And even though I don't imagine going to back to work in the biz (it doesn't pay very well, and it's a very small industry), I don't want to burn any bridges.

The bigger issue though is that making content and putting it on the Internet isn't as profitable as it used to be. It's not an issue of traffic, it's just that eyeballs aren't worth what they used to be. It's a disincentive. When put against the priorities of a solid day job and a family I adore, it's harder to commit time to a lot of content generation. It's not that I don't enjoy doing it now and then (I've enjoyed cutting the occasional mini-doc), it's the ROI.

The biggest incentive to visiting IAAPA for me though is the chance to catch up with friends. I do enjoy it for that, if only to talk about our kids and families and the little things about life that co-located friends get to talk about on a more frequent basis.

My growing boy

posted by Jeff | Thursday, November 17, 2016, 9:28 PM | comments: 0

Simon finally lost one of his front teeth this morning, after having it loose since last Friday. Unfortunately, he swallowed it at breakfast. The other immediately went loose, and he swallowed that at dinner. That makes him 1 for 4 in the last year of losing teeth and not swallowing them. Hopefully this doesn't cause a ton of gastric distress.

Now I have a 6-year-old flirting with 48 inches of height and no top front teeth. It's yet another indication that my little boy isn't really little anymore. He's one-third the way to legal adulthood. This wears on me lately. It's not that I feel like I haven't spent enough time with him, it's that I have and time still seems to be racing by. I want it to slow down in the worst way. It's particularly troubling when he's not having a good day, and I'm not patient with him. It feels less constructive.

I was talking with a friend today that I don't get to see very often, and he now has three kids. The first was born around the same time as Simon, so he has +2'd since then. He had great stories about the evolving approach to parenthood with more kids, and here I was thinking about how I can barely handle having one some days.

There are days where I just wish that Diana and I could get away by ourselves for a few days, but then there are times where Simon has crashed on the couch next to me, sleepy, and I want that time to last forever. An acquaintance of mine, a CEO for a billion-dollar company, is fond of ending his professional advice by reminding you that much of what stresses you out is "just rounding errors" compared to your spouse and children. He's so right.

All I want for Christmas

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, November 16, 2016, 8:08 PM | comments: 0

While your average retail outlet probably insists that Christmas is already upon us, I think most people have not yet engaged in the gift shopping. So with that in mind, I wanted to put in one place on the Interwebs what Diana and I want this year. We would like you to give to one of the charities below instead of buying us gifts. Of course, Simon is gonna want stuff, and that's OK, but for the grownups at Puzzoni World Headquarters, please consider giving to one of the following organizations. (I'd like to recommend an environmental non-profit, but I can't find one that isn't deep into the anti-GMO nonsense.)

Give Kids The World -

As many of our friends know, GKTW has been one of our favorite non-profits for a long time. We continue to believe in their mission of offering kids with life threatening illness and their families the chance to create memories at the village and the surrounding attractions.

United Against Poverty -

My best friend works for this organization, often explaining that they "give a hand up, instead of a hand out." I like their mission because it concentrates on enabling people to become self-sufficient.

Come Out With Pride Orlando -

Another friend volunteers for this org, and they've been at the heart of a very difficult year for the community. Their events are part of what makes Orlando a special place to live.

Southern Poverty Law Center -

Civil rights have become a pretty big issue, and one that admittedly I took for granted. SPLC is a non-profit that looks out for those who often don't have a voice.

Contemplating America's original sin

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, November 15, 2016, 8:30 PM | comments: 0

Living next door to Walt Disney World for more than three years, you can imagine that I've seen The American Adventure at Epcot more than a few dozen times. I've always enjoyed it, for a show performed by audio-animatronic robots, because it's relatively honest about how ugly and triumphant American history has been. I wouldn't expect that for an attraction intended to entertain, but the balance is stark in a way that is very flag-waving but encourages humility as well (something sorely lacking when it comes to American patriotism). Robo-Mark Twain quotes John Steinbeck near the end:

"We now face the danger, which in the past has been the most destructive to the humans: Success, plenty, comfort and ever-increasing leisure. No dynamic people has ever survived these dangers."

I'm no Steinbeck, but I might revise that to say it's the expectation of success, plenty and comfort that is the real danger, but either way, it makes a good point. Earlier in the show, they take on slavery, persecution of Native Americans and war head-on, and they kind of footnote the suffragist movement with Robo-Susan B. Anthony. But it's the slavery and civil war challenge that gets the most time, as Robo-Twain says to Robo-Ben Franklin:

Yes sir, Dr. Franklin, you founding fathers gave us a pretty good start, don't ya know. We still had some things to learn the hard way. It seems a whole bunch of folks found out "We the people" didn't yet mean all the people. Folks like Frederick Douglas.

Yes, racism is a deeply rooted problem in our history, that goes back to the founding fathers themselves, most of whom owned slaves. (Sidebar: This is another challenge in modern patriotism, where people consider the founding fathers infallible. The reality is that they knew they were not, and that's why they framed our founding documents to allow for change.) Racism is something that many consider to be America's "original sin," which I recently learned is also the name of a book about exactly this legacy (haven't read it).

Racism has been with us a long time, and frankly, bigotry of all kinds has been an ugly thing that we can't seem to shake. There are any number of reasons why I perceived that we were at least mostly over it by now. Perhaps it was electing a black president. Maybe it was working in technology, which isn't entirely unlike working in the United Nations in terms of diversity. Or maybe it was having attended my first wedding between two dudes (the best I've been to period, outside of my own). This year, it became clear that we have so much more work to do.

As you might expect, this is relevant to the election of Donald Trump as president. His populist campaign was surprisingly racist. That's not some subjective assessment based on my politics, either. The things he said were blatantly racist, xenophobic or misogynistic. There isn't a lot of room for interpretation on that. A lot of people will respond to this with, "But Hillary..." arguments, largely based on innuendo, but even if everything you argue about her were true, none of it was racist. Again, I believe that can be objectively agreed upon.

There are a lot of legitimate reasons that the white middle class, and particularly blue collar workers, have to be angry. The economy has changed dramatically, and the composition of the work available for this workforce has also changed. However, directing this anger toward people of color, or people of non-Christian religions, is not warranted or intellectually valid. But that's exactly what Trump chose to do. Sometimes it was blatant, other times it was more subtle, but his message was clear: The people not like you are ruining America. If you do not believe this to be the case, look carefully at the human composition of his rallies and the RNC itself. These did not reflect the racial and socioeconomic mix of our nation.

This brings us to the aftermath of the election. Only 50% of eligible voters actually adhered to their responsibility, and of those, less than half voted for Trump (keeping in mind that he did not win the popular vote). That means that fewer than one in four eligible Americans actually voted for Trump. That's unfortunate in so many ways. Regardless, the end result is that there are a whole lot of people who feel that they no longer have a voice, and that the nation is now led by a racist.

The bigger implication is that the people who are genuinely racist now feel empowered. This was a segment of the population that was largely marginalized, or so I thought. In fact, they were relatively quiet before the election (which would account for the extraordinary polling errors), but they aren't quiet now. While I certainly don't think that everyone that voted for Trump is a racist, it's really hard to understand how they don't see this empowerment, or the general disconnect about how electing a man that, by his own actions, is racist, misogynist and xenophobic, empowers a wider group of people who feel that way. Are these things really a moral gray area? I certainly don't think so. There's a great moral disconnect here, because assuming that the "worst" implication and risk of a Clinton presidency, assuming she could get congressional cooperation, is that you would have more background checks to obtain guns, more health care options and even lower cost higher education (a long shot at best), I would invite you to compare that to what's at stake for minorities in a Trump presidency: the actual right to participate in society. There is no comparison or moral equivalency.

If you're having a hard time understanding why the outrage is so visceral this election, think about America's original sin. "We the people," after two centuries and then some, still doesn't mean all of the people. We can have differing opinions about fiscal, foreign and domestic policy, but the one thing we simply can't accept, collectively, is the idea that some people are worth more than others. You can't expect any minority to take a back seat to the majority, especially for reasons related to their ethnicity, race, religion or sexual orientation. That's as Unamerican as it gets. Our history may struggle with this, but despite many setbacks, it's clear that the only just and moral outcome is equality.

If any good has come of this, it's that there is a renewed sense of urgency around the need to preserve and defend civil rights. As I said, there will always be opposing views around fiscal, domestic and foreign policy, and that's to be expected. However, fostering a dislike and hatred for people that are different is not acceptable, and it is not American. It must not be rationalized by suggesting that tolerance is an acceptable response to racism. This issue does not have a moral equivalency to other matters of policy.

Look out for each other. Race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation... these vary greatly, but they all compose "we the people."

Arrival was amazing

posted by Jeff | Saturday, November 12, 2016, 11:46 PM | comments: 0

Friday I saw the film Arrival, which is based on a short story by Ted Chiang. It's the first science fiction movie that I've seen in a very long time that deeply affected me. It really is that good.

The worst thing is that I can't really talk too much about it because I feel like it'll give too much away. Science fiction, as a genre, has become too dependent on special effects, and it detracts from the storytelling. The two aren't mutually exclusive, but the balance isn't great. Arrival challenges that, and Amy Adams in particular is extraordinary in conveying the emotion of a plot that isn't entirely clear until the end. You can't help but leave the theater thinking deeply about what you just saw, which is a striking change from the blockbuster nonsense of late. (For example, the Independence Day sequel was largely forgettable, despite its box office take.)

I feel like art, in the commercial sense, doesn't always challenge us very well. I don't entirely think that's bad, because sometimes we just want to be entertained. Movies, music, books don't always have to take us there. But there are times that you want it to help you gain new perspective. This is one of those movies.

Go see it.

The coming critical mass of sustainable energy

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 11, 2016, 12:08 AM | comments: 0

The presidential election may have been a big disappointment (I'm still processing what I want to write about), but Flori-duh actually got something right for a change. It voted down a proposed constitutional amendment that was written by the electric utilities to "guarantee" the right to install solar at home. Obviously, that's pretty stupid because we already have that. The fine print was nonsense about not being required, as an electrical customer, to "subsidize" the installation of solar for others. What this really means is that the utilities might be able to charge solar customers more, and wouldn't be obligated to engage in net metering, the process where a solar user puts power into the grid and gets credit for it.

Net metering is a core concept in distributed generation. Distributed generation means that power on the grid can literally come from anywhere. In some ways, it already does, and in some states (including, unbelievably, Ohio) you can even choose who provides the actual electricity and pay their rates while the utility charges you for the transmission of the power. Solar will likely be one component of your future power generation, because in a distributed system, the power may be a combination of your own solar, neighborhood substations filled with batteries, wind turbines in the next county, or large scale plants in the next state. In the developed world, of course this is awesome because it's cleaner. In the rest of the world, distributed generation means you don't have to run huge power lines to areas at great expense. They're doing this in rural and poor parts of India already.

Electric cars are, technologically, a solved problem. We have a long way to go on the economic side of it, but Tesla is clearly leading the way and (slowly) delivering. Even GM has an EV now, and it doesn't appear to be terrible. Well, it's ugly, but it's functional and under $40k, which is a step in the right direction. Education is slowly coming around to the point that people are understanding that home is your "gas station," and public charging is mostly for road trips. The charging keeps getting faster.

Our journey started when I rented an EV more than three years ago, and got very real when we leased our Nissan Leaf a year after that. Another year and we bought a Tesla Model S, which admittedly was fiscally suspect, but it has proven that the technology works and does not inhibit us in any way. I imagine that our next step is solar, but I'm not sure when. My point is that we came a long way in a short time, and I didn't see it coming.

The journey to sustainable energy will be political, which is unfortunate, because the economic opportunity is enormous. Sometimes you see something that looks proactive, like Duke Energy's deal with Walt Disney World to build and operate a solar plant on their land and sell that power to them, but Duke also contributed to the campaign for the Florida amendment. It can be maddening when big companies defend their status quo instead of going where the future is.

I'm excited about this. There's an inevitability now that I didn't see even three years ago. I think it's important that we don't let lobbying efforts and politicians get in the way.

Home automation and mood lighting

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, November 9, 2016, 6:38 PM | comments: 1

It has been interesting to see all of the action on home automation in the last few years, from learning thermostats like the Nest, to wi-fi light switches and plugs. It's particularly neat to see a lot of this stuff coming together through common devices like Amazon's Echo. When they dropped the price of the Echo Dot to fifty bucks, I figured that I had to try it.

It wasn't just that I wanted a machine that I could talk to and make it do stuff. This particular machine can also play music from a number of services, chief among them Amazon's, where I keep all of my music. The little Dot doesn't have a big speaker, but it does have Bluetooth, which my cheap-ass audio receiver has, and my 20-year-old speakers are still OK. Sure enough, I can say, "Alexa, play album Simple Forms," and it does it. That's pretty cool. Of course, you can ask it all kinds of questions about stuff and sometimes it has answers. It has a cool feature where it will play a daily briefing of whatever stuff you configure it for (news, weather and such).

As for home automation, I'm not ready to commit to a Nest thermostat because it's $250, and that seems like a lot. I get the whole learning stuff and knowing when you're home, but since I work at home and Diana works part-time, we're pretty much always home. There really isn't a time to power down the air conditioning.

But lighting, there's something we could have fun with, and it's getting cheaper. I bought some smart bulbs and put them in the living room. Now I can tell the machine to turn them on, set a color scene, and even dim them. It's not super consistent about understanding "turn on lights," which is frustrating, but maybe I need to look harder at why that is. It's kind of neat to play with. Really looking forward to plugging in the Christmas tree and not have to climb around it to turn it off. Yes, these are the problems of our times.

In defense of truck drivers

posted by Jeff | Monday, November 7, 2016, 2:47 PM | comments: 0

One of the big issues in every presidential election in my lifetime has been about jobs, or the lack thereof. As I've tried to understand macroeconomics, what I've learned is that the United States has struggled with manufacturing jobs, while doubling its output in the last few decades. The politically convenient thing to say is that the jobs are gone because of Mexico and China (because a lot of people seem to really hate foreigners), but the reality isn't that simple. The jobs didn't simply leave the country, they were replaced by machines. Automation and technology will continue reduce the number of jobs in the world, which is pretty scary when you think about how the population is not going to decline.

The next big thing is autonomous transportation, and we should be thinking hard about that. The science and statistics even with semi-autonomous vehicles is very much in favor of this change, because it's far safer than having humans drive. The big issue, however, is that around 3.5 million people in the US alone make their living driving trucks. At some point in the future, those jobs are going to go away. It's obvious and virtually assured.

So I have to ask... what are we going to do about this? I don't really know if there is any significant historical precedence for this, but it seems like an instance where we can predict the future and start thinking about how to address it. I don't know how fast it will happen, but there is little doubt that it will. I don't know if the answer is retraining, more training or what, but it sure is a lot of people to just ignore it.

Attack of the stims

posted by Jeff | Sunday, November 6, 2016, 6:51 PM | comments: 0

I've written about it before, but few things bother me more than when someone indicates that Simon "seems normal to me." I know that people don't intend to be offensive or toxic in any way, but they don't see how loaded that statement seems. It implies that: Kids on the autism spectrum are not normal, that he has no challenges, that it's not really a thing. Annoyed as I may be by that statement, Simon has generally managed to adopt a lot of coping strategies that largely hide a lot of his challenges. This is exactly what his earliest therapists said would be the desired outcome.

That said, one of the things common among kids on the spectrum is a sensory mismatch. Some kids are easily over-stimulated, others don't get enough input. With Simon, it just depends. Fire alarms, automatic flushing toilets, air hand dryers, all freak him out. But while audible input can at times overwhelm him, physical input is never adequate for him, so he's very physical with people. If that weren't enough, he has engaged in various forms of self-stimulation at times, which appear as tics, or "stims" as some call them. None of them tend to last very long, because he's done things like a quiet double clap, or something more annoying like a throat clear.

Right now, he's engaging in several that are, to an observer, probably pretty weird. To compliment the cold he can't shake, he's making slurping noises with his mouth, engaging in rapid blinking and stretching his neck and mouth in visibly odd ways. I imagine these will pass too, but what worries me is that other kids are going to see this and make fun of him. I've resisted trying to protect him from stuff, because I want him to understand how to function in a world of adversity. I don't want him to be miserable, but I do want him to learn how to cope. This is a hard one.

Like I said, I'm sure these will pass, but kids are dicks, and they're going to see him doing "weird" things. This could be a rough year for the kid.

Autism and The Curious Incident

posted by Jeff | Thursday, November 3, 2016, 8:23 PM | comments: 0

Diana and I saw the tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time last night here in Orlando. Initially I thought I would write a review of it, but after having a day to think about it, the play (and specifically this production) tends to create a lot of other things to think about. The show was brilliant, I thought, and the lead's performance of a 15-year-old that presumably is on the autism spectrum was solid in every way. It's written and directed in a way that is not offensive. The visual and audio effects work surprisingly well in trying to convey to the audience the sensory experience of a person who can't process the noise and overload of our society. We did wonder if people who have little or no knowledge about autism would get the show. There were so many times that we kind of looked at each other and thought, yeah, we've been there, even if not in such extreme conditions.

Simon was diagnosed almost three years ago, and I feel like we've been lucky that there hasn't been any serious regression or extreme challenges similar to those that the protagonist faced in the play. More than anything, we're thankful that he isn't averse to touch, and in fact he's a serious cuddler. He's a lover, not a fighter. He definitely has little use for certain social contracts, is challenged by inflexibility and change in routine, takes things literally and can't reconcile sarcasm, and he cycles through various self-stimulation patterns likely perceived as weird (a topic for another day), but he's learning with us how to cope with those things. Sometimes we're just completely confused by things that conflict. He actively seeks physical sensory input and loves amusement rides, but I took him to an NBA game and he literally crawled under his seat and covered his ears in the arena. Academically and socially, school is going well for him in some ways, but also challenging in other ways.

The most striking thing about the experience these last few years is how Simon's story is so intertwined with my own. The play made me realize this even more. There's little doubt in my mind that I fall somewhere on the spectrum, and I talked to a therapist that said it's likely the case when you look at the challenges I had growing up. To that end, I feel like I have empathy for Simon and what he goes through at times. There were scenes in the play where the father lost his cool over something the boy did and then felt terrible about it... I've been there and it feels awful. I'm just lucky that my kid will let you hug it out later.

Sure, there are some kids and adults who simply aren't functional, but there's a huge part of humanity that is fully functional and simply wired differently. I wish we didn't think of these people as weird, because honestly they're capable of amazing things. That was really the takeaway from the show, that someone with alternate wiring can likely still achieve great things. It's an incredibly optimistic and necessary way to view the world.

Seeing the things that are hard to see

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, November 1, 2016, 11:33 AM | comments: 0

I recently finished reading Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull, the guy who runs Pixar and Disney Animation. It's a solid book full of interesting anecdotes about how Pixar was run, with some lessons that are probably applicable to various types of businesses. Yeah, the title is a little flowery, but the summary is that he believes that much of his success has come by trying to identify the things that are hard to see. He says that you get there in part by exercising candor, self-awareness and an ability to move beyond fear. That's a pretty tall order to fill for any one individual, let alone an organization. I'm pretty good at self-awareness, and sometimes candor, but there are times that fear gets in the way. Organizations are often not good at any of those things, especially the self-awareness.

The book resonated with me, because I think that seeing the things that are hard to see has been a critical part of my own professional success. When I'm guiding a group of people, whether it be a software development group or a volleyball team, I'm always looking for the things that will get in the way, and do my best to prevent the roadblocks. But I'm here to say that I'm not Ed Catmull, and I have to almost continually remind myself to look for the roadblocks.

I do like the idea that self-awareness is a central key to this special flavor of vision. Self-awareness can serve you well in almost every way, professionally, socially and in maintenance of your own well-being. I'm not even suggesting that you need to process or react to anything that you're self-aware about, it just acts as the basis for deeper understanding about your motivations. When you understand what motivates you, it's easier to follow the trail and change things. I don't see this as running from things you don't like or aren't good at, necessarily, but often it's a chance to run toward the things that you're good at and make you happy.

Institutional self-awareness is harder, because there are a lot of disincentives to have it. Candor can be perceived as criticism, which people don't like to receive. Suggesting change can cause fear. It takes a lot of leadership ability to sell the idea that self-awareness is not the precursor to negative criticism, but rather the mechanism that allows for course correction and success. Who doesn't want success? It's all in how you sell it.