Archive: May, 2020

School is out for summer

posted by Jeff | Saturday, May 30, 2020, 12:15 AM | comments: 0

Weird times indeed for school. Simon's spring break this year started on Friday, March 13. That was also supposed to be the day we would take a weekend cruise to celebrate the break and my new job, but with uncertainty about being able to return into the country, we opted out. As it turns out, Simon never went back to school.

The school-from-home scene started a week after the end of spring break, when the county district decided to give it a whirl. All things considered, they did an OK job given the circumstances, when not every kid had a device to connect. They'll resolve that next year regardless of the situation. If there was a blessing in this mess, it's that the state decided to abandon standardized testing, which was amazing. (That reminds me, Simon's previous psycho principal I'm sure was devastated, as testing was everything to her. I have her emails, from a FOIA request, that show this.)

Diana was out of work at this point, since she works the front-of-house for our local performing arts center. I started a new job, so she took on the role of home teaching liaison. It's important to point out that this was not "home schooling" in the traditional sense. What it really was, was assignments created by the teachers that essentially became homework. The teachers did some online video stuff with them almost daily, but it wasn't quite the same as in-person instruction. There was a lot of burden on parents to make sure they did the work and learned the material, and this was assuming that each family had robust Internet access and a computer. With Simon's school, being in an affluent suburb, I'm sure this worked out, but in inner-city areas, I suspect it was not the same.

If anything could be said about this arrangement, it's that Diana deserves to be mother of the year, and I'm sure that millions of other parents could be given the same distinction. She saw first hand how hard it was for Simon to engage or just give up. It was clear why so much work was coming home. As he continues to develop and grow up, she could see that his meds for ADHD were not particularly effective. Over the two months, we abandoned the primary drug he was using, and used only the 3-4 hour booster that he was getting midday. That was, surprisingly, more effective.

It ended this week, which is a blessing and a curse. School at least provided some structure, but now we're on our own, and summer camps are not a thing right now, as you would expect. Diana has already committed to at least some math practice throughout the summer.

Presidential response to crisis

posted by Jeff | Friday, May 29, 2020, 11:00 AM | comments: 0

The first big national crisis that I can remember was the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. I was 12 at the time, in grade seven. I remember that night seeing Ronald Reagan's speech from the Oval Office, and there would be clips of it on the nightly news and special reports for days afterward. (There was no cable news or Internet, just the big three TV broadcast networks.) As sad as that day was, there was comfort in Reagan's words, that we shared this experience to "mourn seven heroes."

When Operation Desert Storm began, George H. W. Bush got on TV and explained the action. Regardless of the controversy over our involvement in Kuwait, the president clearly understood the gravity of the situation and did his best to reassure the nation that it was the right thing to do.

Bill Clinton saw the Oklahoma City bombing on his watch, and while the initial reporting speculated a wide range of intent, the president cautioned against speculation and committed law enforcement to finding who did this. He called attention to the humanity of the people lost, their families and the deep need to heal after the tragedy.

George W. Bush, prior to this year, had the single most difficult job of any president in my lifetime, leading us through 9/11. The psychological sting to the nation was brutal, but he was steadfast in his message of resilience and cooperation among Americans, always careful to deescalate suspicion of Muslims and foreign nationals. He knew that division was the last thing the country needed.

During the Barack Obama administration, a gradual recovery from a recession was one of many challenges, but his empathetic and genuine response to tragedies like those at Sandy Hook and Charleston were the responses the nation needed. It takes a man of conviction and humility to sing "Amazing Grace" in front of the world.

American presidents are, among other things, consolers-in-chief. They have impossibly difficult jobs where at least half of the nation probably won't agree with them, and on top of it all, we look to them to assure us that everything is going to be OK, and it will get better when things are off the rails.

You know where I'm going with this as it relates to Donald J. Trump. Now we have a president incapable of exercising any kind of empathy. He's an autocrat who selfishly only thinks of himself. In just a few months, 100,000 Americans have died from a disease that has been dealt with absent of any real strategy, and nearly a third of the people who have died are Americans despite having only 4.5% of the world population. There is no reassurance for the families who have lost people. Racial injustice has spiraled out of control while he stokes the flames, threatening violence against protesters. There are no calls for unity and meaningful reform stop the cycle. One in four people are now out of work, but there is no leadership or way forward, or even a hollow politician promise to make it better.

No, in this time of crisis, we have a president who is completely focused on a ridiculous conspiracy theory that a TV show host committed murder decades ago, and a war against private companies who are now unwilling to publish his lies and calls for violence unchecked. It's the same man who downplayed the disease that has killed 100,000 people and since deflected that failure to others.

We should expect better of our presidents. This behavior is not defensible.

The day we declined our Walt Disney World passes

posted by Jeff | Thursday, May 28, 2020, 1:15 PM | comments: 0

I didn't know it at the time, but my solo trip to Epcot for a little lunch on March 5 was the last time I would be in a Disney park for a while. It was Simon's birthday, but he and Diana were on a field trip to St. Augustine. The impending seriousness of the pandemic was already obvious at that point. I remember going in to the temporary location for Mouse Gear (weird I know, but I like the shampoo they use in the resorts and on the cruise line), and it was pretty crowded with people from all over the world. I quickly turned around and got out of there. A few days later we went to Universal to see Blue Man Group, then on Sunday, to Splitsville for the annual tradition of bowling for Simon's birthday.

But now, I don't know when our next time in a Disney park will be. Yesterday, Disney announced its opening plan, which would have set the new expiration date for our passes as about three months after our original expiration. Today, we cancelled the passes and requested a prorated refund. There are a lot of reasons:

  • Diana is particularly vulnerable to respiratory disease, which I saw at its worst when bronchitis visited her again last summer. Simon is potentially in a tough spot as well. He's had pneumonia and another nasty illness a few years ago, both times requiring a few weeks of nebulizer treatments. All that to say, the infection rate of Covid-19 is already headed back up in Florida, and now we're going to attract people from all over. That's not a great risk profile for our family, no matter how safe-ish Disney tries to be. In a best case scenario, we have to see where this tracks for the next two months.
  • The product that Disney is now offering is substantially changed. Reservations are required, which is not practical in summer when you don't know day to day what the weather will be like. It's likely many attractions won't even operate. Mickey will not be taking hugs.
  • I don't see any world where the Food & Wine Festival, our biggest time of year, is fun or even possible in the new world. I doubt they can do concerts, and the whole point is to put food and drink in your mouth.
  • At $720 per person annually, all of this is the opposite of compelling. Plus there's that whole thing where the economy is headed to uncharted territory of ugliness. I'd rather get some of that money back.

I applaud Disney for doing their best, and maybe (hopefully?) that will be good enough for the tourists, but it's not great for us. We'll buy in again as soon as it seems like a good idea, but in the five months we've got left, I don't see it. There's no evidence that things will be better, and actually the evidence points the other way. We've got a cruise line reservation to use as well, and I can't tell you when that's going to happen for all the same reasons.

It's a bummer, but on the bright side, Epcot will be like a new park once we're able to go back.

We must not be complicit in America's greatest failure

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, May 27, 2020, 11:00 PM | comments: 0

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis is upsetting in large part because we've seen this movie over and over again, and it sucks.

I've resisted writing about this for the last few years, because I've felt like I'm just another white guy with an opinion. But every time something like this happens, I realize more and more than not speaking up is to be complicit in America's greatest failure. For two and a half centuries, we can't seem to shake racism from our culture. If we don't demand more from the members of our communities, our elected leaders and the institutions of our nation, there's no incentive for change.

I didn't speak up because it's exhausting to talk about racism. Having a racist president who has further normalized racism, when I hoped that we had started to move in the other direction, is also exhausting. The problem is that I have the luxury of caving to that exhaustion as a white guy. I won't get pulled over for driving while black, or assaulted and killed for going for a run through a primarily white neighborhood. I literally don't have skin in the game in the same way that people of color do.

This is something we fix largely by local civic engagement, in all areas of discrimination. We don't get fast food from companies that fund homophobic charities. We don't shop at big box stores that exploit minorities and the poor. We don't vote for local leaders unwilling to admit that there are really two criminal justice systems. We hold law enforcement accountable through technology and strict policy and training (and protect those officers who uphold those ideals). We speak up at work when we observe sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. It starts locally.

So let's start with something local and timely. Texas: Get your shit together. Black and Latino people are disproportionately getting sick and dying from Covid-19, and part of the reason is that testing availability leans heavily toward white neighborhoods in many cities. Similar scenarios are playing out in pockets all over the south, mostly where minorities live. We have to speak up.

The optimist in me really does believe that we as a nation can get better at this, but I naively thought that my generation would be the one to break cycle. We can't go around saying that we don't see color, because that means we don't see the inequity associated with it. Speak up. Get involved.

Putting that energy into... something

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, May 26, 2020, 10:30 PM | comments: 0

Despite a great deal of optimism that's, well, rooted in something I can't explain, I think we're going to be in this world of suboptimal global health for probably the rest of the year. I hope I'm wrong, but hope is not a strategy, and there isn't a lot of evidence to believe otherwise. Accepting this means that I also have to accept that so much of what I enjoy in my spare time is rooted in the Orlando tourist economy, which essentially stopped. I appreciate more than ever the convenience that we enjoy, that there's always live entertainment and food and drink just minutes away, all year.

If I look back to my pre-Central Florida life, I spent a lot more time creating things. I'm not entirely sure why I don't do that with the same frequency that I used to. I was creative as a child in all kinds of goofy ways. I remember coloring strips of paper with orange stripes and taping them into loops to make orange barrels (because I grew up in Ohio, duh), and building out entire road construction sites for my Hot Wheels cars to navigate. I built amusement rides and pinball machines out of Erector sets and cardboard boxes. In high school, I drew up Dungeons & Dragons scenarios in high school, and wrote software on my Apple II to store character profiles. In college I made some really bad TV and radio, and wrote even worse opinion columns. After college I made better TV and transitioned to making software.

I think the change started to happen as I started making the long transition from maker to manager in my professional life, while having a child. I don't know if there's causation there, but I know that those two things do require more of me mentally. The counterintuitive thing going on now is that peeling off the fun things, my source of release that was certainly not a mental drain, has caused me to want to engage my creative side again. That should be fun to unpack with my therapist.

Often I find myself being envious of artists, the people who make movies, music and live theater. They're completely brutal ways to make a living, if you can at all, but they sure do seem to derive a great deal of happiness from what they do. I have no fantasies about doing any of those for a living, but it doesn't mean I can't do them for fun. I admire that so many of them have devoted so much time to creating things and sharing them online the last two months.

Here's where my head is:

  • Keep doing the radio show. Sure, no one really listens to it other than a handful of friends, and it requires no particular skills, but it's fun.
  • Keep writing software. I'm at 72 straight weeks I think of making public commits. I still enjoy working on this project after all of these years. I wish I were more interested in selling the commercial version, but especially in this economy, that's an exercise in frustration.
  • I want to make some video. I'm not even sure what that means. YouTube doesn't likely need more sillynonsense, but I literally own the domain name.
  • I like making food and drink. Interestingly, I don't like eating or drinking excessively, which I suppose is good.
  • The urge to decorate or conduct some kind of home improvement isn't strictly creative, but working remotely anyway makes me want to upgrade my office.
  • I want to write for the screen again. That notebook of ideas really has to have something to make a story.

I'm sure I'll read this in ten years and think, wow, there's some midlife chaos. Unless of course, I actually do the stuff.

Lego Haunted House

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, May 26, 2020, 5:30 PM | comments: 0

Well, they got me again. Last week, Lego announced a new set, the Haunted House, and I ordered it within two minutes of receiving the email. It came on Saturday. Why? Because the tower of the haunted house had a free-fall drop tower ride in the middle of it. In what universe does a theme park and Lego enthusiast not buy something like that?

It might be my favorite set ever. The roller coaster and Disney Castle are pretty great, but this one combines an architecturally lovely design with some elegant mechanical bits to create the drop tower. And it's all premium: There are no decals.

The drop tower uses a chain to lift a container car up through the shaft. Naturally there's an insert that pulls out so you can put a couple of minifigs in there. Think of it as the carts in the real life Tower of Terror rides at Disney parks, where the people and the seats slide into the mechanism that actually moves up and down through the shaft. At the top, a number of pieces on the car push open a couple of doors, so the minifigs can see out, an obvious nod to the Tower of Terror. At that point, the hook on the chain pulls over the top gear and the car goes crashing down.

Making this a soft landing is what was so interesting to me, and it's brilliantly simple. The car is squeezed between several rubber wheels that are geared toward larger fly wheels on the back of the building, so the force of the car has to turn a bunch of rotating mass inefficiently. It's crazy how much resistance this creates. When that part was done, pretty early in the build, I couldn't believe how "heavy" it felt to turn those brake wheels. Even with rubber bumpers at the bottom of the shaft, there's no bounce. It's a quick, but smooth landing. I did a slow-motion video with my phone, and to scale, it's so smooth. Hats off to the Lego designers who did this.

The rest of the model has a lot of cute details. I think it might be the first one that's ADA compliant, as there's a ramp into the house for the minifig that has a wheelchair. The instructions detail the various artifacts around the house collected by Baron von Barron, which reference previous sets. There's a painting with a small light that, when illuminated, shows a creepy mummy haunting the Baron.

It's also not a difficult build, despite the 18+ age rating. The mechanical bits are fairly straight forward, with only a few gears. You can optionally add a couple of motors for app-based control, but it's one of those things where they abstract the motor control and you couldn't do something different with the electronics if you wanted to. (This is my complaint about the Disney Train, as well... I prefer the old school motors with infrared controllers.)

They refer to this as a part of the "fairground collection," though I'm not sure what other sets that is supposed to include. Perhaps it's the Roller Coaster, Fairground Mixer (a scrambler) and the Ferris Wheel, which are pretty great. I'd love to see more rides.

Lego Rough Terrain Crane is full of gears

posted by Jeff | Friday, May 22, 2020, 4:30 PM | comments: 0

I'm a big fan of the biggest Lego sets. The Disney Castle and Technic Bucket Wheel Excavator were amazing, and then a few years later they put out the collector's version of the Millennium Falcon, which still holds the record as largest. The roller coaster is really cool, too. These are "toys" because they're made of Lego, but certainly not the kind of toys you buy for your kid because they're expensive. And so I buy them for me, because they're an incredibly therapeutic experience for me. It's an activity where I work with my hands, and with the help of a good playlist and a cocktail, let me escape a little. I've built four bigger sets in the last three months, if that tells you anything.

I was really excited about the release of the Rough Terrain Crane, the biggest Technic set to date, and I pulled the trigger on that a few weeks ago. I only have one other Technic set, the aforementioned excavator. They're a very different experience from building typical Lego sets, because they're assembled largely as a set of beams joined by pins, instead of interlocking bricks. The most exciting ones have motors and a ton of mechanical innards connected by rods and gears. The coolest part is that all of that movement is driven by one motor, with lots of switches and gears to engage different movement.

The crane motor drives the winding of the rope, the extension of the boom, the angle of the boom, the rotation of the boom and the lowering/raising of the stabilizer feet. Geared, but not by the motor, is a steering linkage that can be turned from a wheel on the back (four-wheel steering), and the wheels themselves are connected so that they all go in the same direction, but also have differentials so they can turn at different rates when you move it and steer. As someone who appreciates how that works in a car, it's really neat to be able to move the wheels by hand and watch the gear movement. It's one of the coolest simple machines in the toolbox.

Building it is really satisfying. You start with the core of the vehicle, which eventually takes input for the boom rotation and stabilization feet, but also the steering linkage and wheel gearing. I made a mistake in this part, with one of the differentials going in backward. That means that, yeah, the front and rear wheels couldn't roll in the same direction. It wasn't a huge problem to correct, I just had to look at where the front third attached to the core, separate it and fix. I lost an hour, but learned a lot. The gear box behind the boom is oddly a lot simpler, despite having a sliding three-way switch. The boom extension is mechanically elegant.

My 10-year-old loves the finished product. There are so many things to move around, and he enjoys that part of it. He really notices the details, like the door on the cab, the storage cubbies for tools and chains, etc.

I imagine that I'll have this one together for a bit, because disassembling to the 13 component bags will be a little time consuming. The Technic sets typically don't have clean and obvious lines between building phases. But as I've said before, you don't spend a lot of coin on something that you're only going to build once.

Quarantine projects

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, May 19, 2020, 5:00 PM | comments: 0

Remember in mid-March, when it hits you that you're not going to be going out a bunch, and you're definitely not going to be traveling? What a perfect time for projects, right? You finally have more time!

Well, except that you don't. Your parenting obligations probably increased if you have kids, because they're not going to school. You're not going out to eat because you can't (but I sure have ordered a lot of takeout!), so there's more cooking now. But think of all the socks that you don't have to wash, because you've spent 30 minutes tops in the last two months with any kind of foot covering. (#floridalife)

But there are intentions, and I can finally say that I've checked some boxes. After at least three years of good intentions, I finally repaired our KitchenAid stand mixer. One of the billion times we moved, they packed it weird and the grease sat in the gearbox in such a way to leak out and saturate the gasket. Initially this covered the circuit board with oil and it stopped working, but I used a hair dryer to blow out the oil and it lived. Unfortunately, it was also very, very noisy. There were plenty of videos online showing the innards, so it would be a simple enough fix to just replace the gasket and repack the grease, if the gears weren't damaged. Turns out they were in good shape, so the repack was a success, and it runs way quieter. Of course, the motivator was to use the ice cream maker bowl and buy some commercial Dolewhip® mix. I'm sure some coconut rum will make its way into the cup as well.

Simon spends a ton of time in the front room, designated as the playroom. He has Lego all over the place, and watches Captain Underpants there, too. And it gets a little warm on that corner of the house, so after two and a half years, I finally installed a fan there. The wiring was, of course, wrong at the switches, so once I figured that out, we were in a good spot. Now that I realize how it was wired incorrectly, I need to go back and fix the guest room, which was also wired wrong, but I didn't care as much because I'm not a guest.

I've had a bunch of things I intended to do with my forum app, and I made some solid commits there. I think I'm over 70 straight weeks of commits, so go me. I may scale down the scope that I planned for this release and get another out there. It's already running on the sites, so I know the QA is solid.

I've been doing my silly little radio show now for nine straight weeks. Some weeks, a station picks it up, other weeks, a few friends listen to it. I don't care who hears it, really, it's mostly for me. The idea of even doing something like that "live to tape" is absurd in the digital era, because most people would just edit it and be done in 15 minutes. But I want to hear the music, like it's 1996 (the last time I was on the radio for money). It's a horrible business, but it's a fun hobby.

Since the day we moved in, we've been thinking about building an extension to our patio with a screen enclosure, because that's what you do in Florida. We have a covered patio now, but the shape is weird, so you can't really do anything like put a table there, or an outdoor ping pong table, or a hot tub. You get the idea. Since we had to cancel two cruises, we're in the unusual place of having a little extra money not being saved for anything else. The problem is, how comfortable is anyone making a major purchase in the midst of a global health crisis and economic meltdown? There's even survivor guilt because I'm still working, and a lot of people we know are not. That's a problem too, because spending the money would help a local business, but when you're gun shy, you're just holding on to it.

The daily project I should be working on is exercise, but I'd rather eat, or at least get a good night of sleep. It's a miracle that I haven't actually gained any weight, though I certainly haven't lost any.

I read a book, non-fiction of course, which is a big deal because it usually takes me forever to read anything. I just don't stick with it long enough. I've also been watching a couple of Masterclass classes, including Spike Lee's independent filmmaking, and we just started watching the mixology class together. I subscribed a little over two years ago, and only watched two classes. This time, we're getting a ton of value out of it. I've watched three so far, plus the two we're working on, and we've still got 8 months to go!

I'm trying to be at peace with the lack of travel, including having a bona fide reason to go to NYC several times a year. Trying to stay engaged with other things.

The intersection of expertise and critical thinking

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, May 19, 2020, 9:00 AM | comments: 0

I've consumed two things recently that have challenged me a great deal. The first was Neil deGrasse Tyson's Masterclass, which is somewhat shorter than other classes but incredibly concise. (Masterclass, by the way, is expensive but completely worth it for a great many subjects you might be interested in.) The second is the book The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols. What I have learned from these two things is pretty simple: My ability to Google something does not make me an expert, and my opinions are not necessarily any more valuable than those of experts. I can do my best to arrive at a conclusion about a particular topic, but I have to consider the possibility that I am likely wrong if I'm opposing the conclusions of experts. Conversely, the experts that I rely on, are probably right.

I'm sure in the midst of a global pandemic, you can understand why these are important things. Everyone you encounter on the social media is pretty sure that thing that they like and share is correct, experts are suspect and they've Googled enough one-off anecdotes from people with blogs that they're most certainly experts and qualified to have an opinion about things both simple and complex.

Of course, we know that this isn't how knowledge works. We don't ignore our doctors and self-diagnose from WebMD, because we'd all have cancer and be nearly dead. We don't file lawsuits on our own just because we watch Law & Order. Most of us don't even do work in the trades, because frankly the experience of a qualified electrician or plumber matters. This doesn't make us inadequate people, it just means that we know our limits and trust others to help us out with things we're not trained for. In Nichols' book, he distills it down to this:

"To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other."


We've been seeing this with climate change for a long time, but seeing it in the Covid-19 pandemic is far scarier because people are dying and there are no good outcomes. A significant portion of the population believes we need to open up everything and take our chances, even though epidemiologists say that's a bad idea, and oddly enough, economists agree because they believe the financial carnage may be worse. We've seen it in the White House, as non-experts are appointed to cabinet positions and career civil servant experts are systematically pushed out of government. We've seen it in celebrity brands like Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop, where women are putting things in their vaginas for completely non-scientific reasons.

A lot of this comes down to the fact that people rely heavily on their beliefs, something Tyson talks about quite a bit. Belief systems are largely based on faith. You can't prove that there's a god, but you can't really disprove it either, so you take it on faith that there is a god. That's certainly OK, but for most everything else, there are observable facts that you can make about the world. With critical thinking, and even without a lot of formal training, you can take the conclusions and evidence provided by experts and reasonably arrive at the same conclusions as experts. There will always be some things that you have to take on trust of experts, but remember that experts are fundamentally incentivized to get things right. It doesn't mean that they always do, but getting it wrong is not good for their reputations or employability, especially if they act intentionally fraudulently. Unlike politicians, who have to be popular to retain their jobs, experts have to be more right than wrong.

There are a lot of things at play in our culture that make this distrust of experts a problem. Some of it is the strange phenomenon where people are not only willingly ignorant, but they pride themselves on it as if it's a mark of independent thinking and autonomy. That's bizarre. I imagine that the technology that makes it so easy to assimilate what we want to believe and share it, as opposed to what we need to believe, plays a large role in this.

But at the end of the day, the suggestion that "I've done my research!" makes you right demonstrates all kinds of ugly character attributes, not the least of which is entitlement, narcissism and a lack of humility. In the context of this pandemic, your "research" and lack of training do not compare to the billions of dollars spent by career scientists and researchers who have spent decades learning about their field. In fact, that's one of the biggest things that make them more qualified than you: They have committed to a lifetime of learning, while you believe Internet access is a shortcut that makes you as qualified as them to have an opinion. You're not qualified. Your opinion does not have equal value.

These are difficult times. Many of us struggle to keep our shit together at home with our families and our jobs. You aren't going to achieve greater control over this chaos by insisting that you know better than experts. There is no great conspiracy intended to keep you down, it's just nature's way of reminding you of who is in charge. Listen to the experts... they're our way out.

A quarter-century after college

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, May 13, 2020, 3:00 PM | comments: 0

I graduated from Ashland University 25 years ago today. Yikes. Of all the things that one can count in years, this one for some reason stings a lot. I've been thinking a lot about the general usefulness of college and how it relates to our culture and society, but that's probably a different post. What I want to capture here is what that experience meant to me.

It took a lot of years for me to realize that I spent a third of college depressed. I suspect that had a lot to do with my expectations about what college would do for me. I realized after high school that I hated that experience because I just didn't know where I fit in to the world. I thought college would change that. My freshman year, I definitely identified with a few people, but didn't really develop any deep friendships. My sophomore year that improved a bit, but even in the groups I was most connected to, particularly radio/TV and residence life, I wasn't sure what I was doing there. As time went on, I realized that a huge part of this was just the fact that the campus was a ghost town on the weekends. The number of people who went home was staggering. I did the 10 to 2 radio shift on Saturday nights because there wasn't anything socially going on anyway. Being lonely was a symptom of staying on campus. My junior year, something changed. I developed a strong friendship with a woman who would be my roommate the next year, I learned another friend was a compulsive liar, I had a series of interesting romantic encounters, and I came to realize that college was far too temporary to worry about where I fit. I was there for the outcome of getting a degree. By the time my senior year started, I looked at life from the angle of understanding where the world fit in to my life, instead of where I fit into the world. There's a freedom that comes from that change in perspective, because changing the world is a lot harder than changing you.

I had a bunch of missed romantic opportunities that I really kick myself for. The first one happened before the start of my sophomore year, during RA training. I met someone who was very interested in a long-term and very physical relationship, and I had no experience in what to do with that. All I really had to do was respond with "count me in" and I didn't do that, so it ended as quickly as it started. Over the next two years I had a bunch of false starts like that, or worse, year-end things that were obviously poorly timed. I started my senior year with the intention of being a dating machine, but met my first wife instead, and we had many adventures that year. I didn't really learn about dating until after we split a decade later.

Academically, I was mostly bored with school. I had most of my radio/TV courses done inside the first two and a half years, and then realized I could double major in journalism by adding two or three more classes over the minor requirement, so I did that. Having to take French was torture, and some of the other liberal arts check boxes like psychology and philosophy were brutally boring. I D-ed my way through many of those. Even some of the major classes I did the minimum and got C's. Surprisingly, I did better in the various literature and composition classes, probably with a B average, even though they came in the last few semesters, when I was really, really ready to be done with school. I also aced notoriously "hard" things like broadcast law, for reasons I don't entirely understand. As a grownup with a child who has ADHD, I think it's possible that I might have it too, now that I know what to look for, as it would explain a lot of my lack of productivity and focus.

When it was all said and done, I think I had a 2.7-ish GPA, which literally no one has ever asked me about in 25 years. And despite my mediocre grades, I did finish a double major. When I view the academic experience now, I sometimes contemplate the value of it. Most of the hands-on practical stuff from radio/TV is of little to no value now. It's not just because the technology changed, it's because most of it could have been easily learned on the job. My first commercial radio job came with the instruction to "forget what you think you know." The liberal arts courses were naturally all intro courses that amounted more to trivia recitation than anything else. The exception was the general physical science course, which taught the scientific method and the process of building experiments. All of the writing courses were extremely valuable, and as much as I didn't like them at the time, the literature courses were helpful because they forced you to think analytically about completely subjective art.

Was college for job training, or the often stated goal of teaching people to learn, be curious and engage in critical thinking? I have to answer that question to really figure out what the value of college was. The practical stuff in the broadcast program was not useful. On the radio side, I learned what I needed on the job, and on the TV side, I learned most of what I needed to know working part-time in high school and then on the job. I wish the broadcast curriculum would have been more purely academic, with more writing, more law and ethics, etc. Giving grades for the ability to thread 1/4" audio tape machines was a waste of time and money. Instructors who fancied themselves as station managers, instead of deferring that to students, wasn't great either.

Much of what I did learn happened between classes and in the dorms, and living on campus was essential to that. It would have been better if people were actually around on the weekend, but learning to live with others, and being an RA two years was valuable. Learning about the right and wrong ways to interact with instructors and administrators I didn't agree with (mostly the wrong way) was valuable. Included therapy sure was nice too.

Ultimately, I don't think the point of undergraduate college should be job training. There are trade schools, apprenticeships and other means to do that, and they're far less expensive. College should be about setting you up for a lifetime of learning and exercising your curiosity, teaching you how to think critically and move forward through the world. Most fields of expertise evolve and change, and college can't predict that. In my case I wholly changed careers, and while I still see value in learning about ethics and intellectual property law as subjects that require critical thinking, teaching me to vocally punch call letters was silly. I graduated with about $40k in student loans (2019 dollars) with an interest rate of 8%. (Interesting note about that... average undergrad left school with $30k of debt and rates of 4.5% in 2018, which makes me wonder how this became a "crisis.")

With all of that in mind, I think for me the value of college could be graded about the same as my grades, with a solid C+. I'm glad that I had the experience, and grateful for the virtual friendships that have endured from that brief period in my life. I don't regret any of it, but I sure would have been more thoughtful about what I expected to get out of school if I did it over again, and definitely would not have gone to a private school.

I still can't believe that it's been 25 years.

Dealing with pandemic anxiety

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, May 12, 2020, 10:30 PM | comments: 0

If there's a universal symptom of the Covid-19 pandemic among the non-infected, it's anxiety. There's a disease out there that has no vaccine, and no particularly good treatment options. It's super contagious, and just as soon as you're convinced that it's just something old people die of, there's enough data to demonstrate that isn't the case. And now there's even the bizarre related syndrome causing inflammation of internal organs in healthy kids, and it's not an isolated thing. Oh, and probably 1 in 4 adults aren't working, with entirely industries themselves subject to death. Good times, right? I wish this was just exaggeration and hyperbole, but it's clearly not.

I'm lucky enough to be working, so my anxiety isn't rooted in that, though in the back of my mind I know there are no guarantees. My anxiety comes down to two things: One, the way out from all of this is not even remotely clear, because a vaccine is at best six months out, and probably longer. Two, the actions of people in general lately are not those you would expect given the reality of the first problem. Being that cavalier about it will make things worse, not just in terms of body count, but also in terms of the economy. What a strange idea that more sick and dying people won't also cause economic damage, as if there's a trade-off. Yeah, when economists and scientists get together, they collectively agree that there are no good outcomes.

To that end, I've resigned myself to listening more than trying to reach my own conclusions. Not all voices are equal. Politicians and talking heads on cable "news" are not experts, and they clearly don't seem to care what the experts say. For example, in today's briefing by the feds' top health officials today:

Sen. Rand Paul: "With all due respect, Dr. Fauci, I don't think you're the end all, I don't think you're the one person who gets to make the decision..."

Dr. Anthony Fauci: "I've never made myself out to be the end all. I'm a scientist, a physician and a public health official. I give advice according to the best scientific evidence. I don't give advice about economic things, I don't give advice about anything other than public health."

That's what causes me anxiety. We've seen this before, with climate change, but the outcomes of disregard are far more immediate, coming within weeks. In some rural areas, community spread is already on the rise, and you can bet we'll be seeing how those rural, under-equipped hospitals will be overrun. (And as usual, the poor and minorities will bear the worst of it.)

I'm disappointed that we're not smarter than this. American life has become so entitled and we're so used to convenience that anything reducing it is not culturally acceptable. I don't like it, at all, but if I had to do it for another year, I'd figure out how to make it work. I hope the experts are wrong, but there isn't any evidence that they are. It's not even that things are going to get worse, it's that they haven't gotten better in the first place, and nobody seems to care. No state met the weak restart standards of the White House even, so people are acting as they did mid-March.

I miss frozen margaritas at Epcot and cruises and beach days and just a simple lunch out by myself. The actions of the general public are not going to get us back to that any faster.

Let's not confuse free speech, truth and the bill

posted by Jeff | Sunday, May 10, 2020, 10:10 AM | comments: 0

If there's anything we can observe about the pandemic, it's that there are an endless number of non-expert opinions about it (including my own). I want to write more about expertise and critical thinking, but today I want to talk about free speech and truth, and who pays for it.

Americans generally value free speech, which often requires that you take the good with the bad. That means tolerating truth that you find inconvenient, or perhaps flag burning in protest. It should be noted that the ability to express things does not mean that it's all truthful. People can say whatever they want, and they can lie, deceive or make things up as they see fit. What's unfortunate is that a lot of people think that because you can do this, all things said hold equal weight in the marketplace of ideas. That is wholly absurd.

Like any important right, free speech comes with responsibility. Even in the US, you can say whatever you want, but it doesn't mean that it's not without consequence. You can be sued for defamation, and metaphorically shouting fire in a theater can get you into trouble with the law as well. Some democracies even limit free speech to exclude things like racism and hate.

The Internet is a vast platform for free speech, but it's important to understand that it isn't "free" in the sense of cost. Those bits you're reading cost someone, somewhere, some money. The blog post that you're reading came to you by way of a service that I pay for. The company that hosts it in turn has to pay the telcos for the connectivity, and the hardware vendors for the equipment.

This brings us to a reality that most don't appreciate: Much of the speech happening, some of it ripe with untruth, happens on the services of private companies. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, they are not exactly the public square you think they are. They're under no obligation to allow all speech to be distributed via their platforms. In fact, we've seen Facebook's Zuckerburg take a lot of heat for selling political ads that are total lies.

Now, they've suddenly opted to enforce "community standards," and engaged in what some call censorship. There are real questions there about whether or not there is any moral obligation for these services to do this, and I'm not here to say one way or the other. What I am saying is that they can do whatever they want, because they're paying the bills. Pretending to be an "activist" and posting something on Facebook isn't the same as standing on a street corner with a sign, and Facebook is under no obligation to allow it. And for the record, we were dispelling racists on web-based forums 20 years ago, and we continue to do so today.

Internet service providers are under no obligation to host lies, conspiracy theories or the dangerous spread of misinformation. Yes, I can see why that might make you uncomfortable, that a company can yield that power (though seriously, with regard to corporations buying influence, where have you been when it comes to challenging Citizens United v. FEC?). I might be inclined to share your concern, but I've never been OK with the concentration of online social interaction on a few gigantic services. If the market decides this isn't OK, and I suspect it will, you can go off and build your echo chamber of misinformation yourself. For now though, don't pretend that you're entitled to say whatever you want on a platform you don't pay for. You're the product, not the customer.

Explaining hate crimes to a 10-year-old with autism

posted by Jeff | Friday, May 8, 2020, 8:26 PM | comments: 0

The Ahmaud Arbery shooting story is sad and strange. A black man jogging was targeted as a criminal for the color of his skin, and killed.  We have tried to explain that story to Simon, and it's difficult for him to understand.

Racism, throughout American history, has been a force diluted a generation at a time. It's a pace that's entirely too slow. But the sheer diversity of the nation, generation by generation gives me hope. I was born into the time of desegregation of the Cleveland school district. Starting second grade, I was bused to a school on the other side of town, so the composition of the class was roughly half white, half African-American. Being introduced to diversity at that age, certainly I noticed a difference in skin color between me and the other kids, but I cared for exactly two or three days.

Simon only knows school in Central Florida, which is nearly half Latino, but also composed of people of African, South Asian and East Asian descent. This is his normal.

There are still white people in the world who see a person of color and perceive them as a threat. I'm personally and admittedly naive to believe that this can't be possible in 2020, but it most certainly is. Like a lot of people, I think I was drawn into a false sense of progress just because we elected Obama. But hate crimes, white supremacists, they're still a thing.

If there's anything strange about being a parent, it's trying to explain and rationalize this to a child. There's nothing rational about it.

Pressure valve

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, May 6, 2020, 5:00 PM | comments: 0

Working from home has been a familiar and comfortable thing for me for years. I like it, because it's efficient, convenient and for me more focused. It's a drag that we can't go have a beer after work in person, but we do it virtually now and then. The trap though is that you have to set boundaries and unplug, otherwise work is home, and I feel pretty strongly that they're not the same thing. The whole thing about, "If you like it, it's not work," is nonsense. Work has nothing to do with the interaction I have with my family and they shouldn't compete.

For me, my pressure valves, the things that I use to get away from work, or the daily routines of parenthood, generally involve getting away. Going out for lunch is incredibly helpful, to the point that you return to work refreshed much of the time. And every now and then, you just get away from home for a few days. The venerable three-night cruise has been instrumental and perfect for this: It requires no plan, there is no Internet, and you can largely turn your brain off. It's a fantastic means of lazy escapism, which is why we've done it so many times.

But getting away right now is obviously not possible, so I'm finding that I have no pressure valve. I've built much of my mental relief system on changing my surroundings, largely because of remote work. I love our house, it's comfortable with lots of room, but if you're anything but a recluse, psychologically you need to get out and about.

Naturally, you have to get creative. Friday evenings are getting festive around here. The sun is out later, which really transforms our living room and kitchen, and we break out the beverages and music and have a little weekend party. Diana is working in mid-day outdoor activity. We might even put on nice clothes for dinner just because. And of course, there's plenty of Zoom meetings and Facetime.

One thing that does help is just doing nothing. I know some people can't do this, but it works for me. Last weekend, I was lying in the chair on the patio, eyes closed, warm breeze blowing, and completely in the moment. Some people do this with yoga or meditation, but this is how I do it. I think about the breeze and happy things, and always walk away feeling better.

Still, I miss doing stuff, and I'm trying to get my brain to that place it often gets to when flying. You know it's uncomfortable, you can't move around, so you find a way to shut down the parts of your brain that make you twitch, knowing you'll get off the plane in a few hours (and running across f'ing CLT because your connection is never near by). There is no normal in our near future, and it is what it is.

Random pandemic thoughts, high frustration edition

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, May 5, 2020, 10:20 PM | comments: 0

Everything is better! Open the bars, lick door knobs, it'll be fine!

Nothing has actually changed in the last two months, other than a lot of people are dead or infected. While I get that people are frustrated, stir crazy and enduring financial hardship, this weird optimism will lead to a lot of bad decisions. Look, I don't know what the answer is, and I'm frustrated that we have zero national leadership capable of honest assessment or action. I'm worried about the 80 million people not visiting my neighborhood, and the impact it has on our economy, but I'm not gonna sure here and pretend they should all start coming back.

Anyway, some random thoughts about random things...

  • Team Puzzoni is getting a little fluffy. I already tend to eat my feelings, and we've had wonderful fresh bread and some pretty enormous takeout portions, which doesn't help. We're doing laps around the neighborhood on foot or bicycle some days, but it's going to get harder when the humidity starts.
  • How much has the federal government done to assist in vaccine and treatment research, relative to throwing a trillion dollars at everything else?
  • I though there would be more drinking during these times, but the reality is that my body can't take it. We're reliably pouring on Friday nights, but usually it's two or three drinks spread out, which is enough for me to feel less great on Saturday. Our favorite liquor is getting low, but fortunately there are a ton of stores doing curb-side. Delivery too, but you'll pay an extra $20 at least.
  • My work hours have been pretty long, which is to say that I've flirted with some 50-hour weeks. I'm really enjoying the work and the people, but some days I feel spent. I've forgotten how to set some boundaries there, but I'm not answering emails late or on weekends. It's the daily duration that I'm not getting up and moving around at lunch, and some days cutting into dinner.
  • I don't like to talk about work, because it's for a growing company and that induces "survivor guilt," which my therapist assures me is bullshit I need to let go of.
  • Emma, our eldest cat, is not well. After two vet visits, she doesn't have anything obviously wrong other than a treated ear infection and some weight loss, but she's not right. At 17+, it's expected, but it's kind of sad. We also weren't able to locate a couple of kittens before the pandemic, as we were trying to get Birmans or Ragdolls because of their typical temperament and theoretical less allergy aggravating qualities (there's no such thing as a hypoallergenic cat, it turns out, but there are varying degrees).
  • My radio show got picked up in Guam and West Virginia, for a week at least. I don't care of it's any good, it's one of the best hours of the week.
  • I'm watching Spike Lee's Masterclass on independent film making. I really need to see Black Klansman.
  • There's a Facebook group for Ashland University radio/TV alumni, and it stirs an interesting set of feelings about my experience, and where college fits in life. My views have completely changed in the last 20 years. I'll have to write about that.
  • All of this being at home makes me wish that we would have expanded our patio and provisioned a hot tub. We've chosen to travel though in the last few years, both in our cruise habit and road trips north and south to visit the in-laws, plus two really epic, spare-no-expense anniversary runs to NYC. I don't regret that at all, especially last year's. I may largely be leaning on the feelings of zen from the Cleveland hot tub years, but it always, always made me feel at peace.
  • I want a slightly bigger, higher quality TV to replace the one I've had for 10 years. I don't need one, I'm just bored. Although to be fair, the TV in Simon's playroom is 4K, and some things on Netflix are definitely sharper. This feeling will probably pass.
  • I'm reading The Death of Expertise, which is equally useful in demonstrating how full of shit most people with more influence than me are, but also how full of shit I am.
  • All of the hand washing and cleaning on Disney cruises doesn't seem excessive anymore.
  • As I try to navigate what keeps me on edge about entering middle age, a lot of it is the stupidity I exhibited in not saving anything in my 20's. What was I thinking, not contributing to a retirement account until I was 33? All of my excuses were bullshit, and I see that now. As you know, the uncertainty of the world agitates these kinds of observations and feelings.
  • That new microphone I bought, suspended from a boom on my desk, it's connected with an XLR cable. There's something beautiful and enduring about the XLR.
  • I'm surprised by the way I flip flop between joy and appreciation of my darling son, and guilty contempt for him when his behavior is suboptimal. I'm endlessly thankful for the patience and love of Diana. I don't have to worry about us.
  • These photos of Walt Disney World, empty, make me really sad.

The gift-scourge of the Internet

posted by Jeff | Monday, May 4, 2020, 9:00 PM | comments: 0

I was catching up with someone the other day about life and career, and talked a bit about how I left the broadcast world for the Internet, observing at the time that "it might catch on." Of course I knew it would, I was just being sarcastic. The late 90's were really exciting when it came to the potential for the Internet, even with the promise of ubiquitous connectivity still a decade away. The Internet has changed my life and given me an opportunity to self-publish media, produced as a hobby, while lighting up a career path I literally could not have imagined in college because it didn't exist.

That optimism around the turn of the century was electric. Entirely new markets and opportunities were being created. You could create software and media and theoretically be on equal footing with giant companies. For the most part, all of this potential was realized, and the ubiquitous connectivity fundamentally changed how we viewed software.

The optimist in me assumed that humans were curious and anxious to learn, and that having the world's information available at your fingertips was a big deal. So much of what was out there in the late 90's was already academic and scientific. Unfortunately, this ability to equalize the distribution of information had a side effect: It showed that many people aren't interested in deeper understanding of anything, and the more accessible a medium is, the more noise there is. Think about how the bar moved for the quality and distribution of information with each technology:

  • The printing press: Type setting started out slow, and pressing a book was laborious. Only the most important things were prioritized for publication, and the reach was still limited.
  • Automated printing presses: Distribution improved, but there was a still a limitation to the volume of information.
  • Radio: Distribution is suddenly instantaneous, wide and free to anyone with a radio. While there are 24 hours to broadcast, listening habits are centered on evenings, and the limits to spectrum means there are only so many radio stations. There is still a limitation on information volume, but it's better than print alone.
  • Television: TV has the same limitations as radio, but the engagement rate gets higher as a prominent part of most families' evening. There are only three major networks though, and again, broadcast licenses are limited.
  • Cable TV: The number of accessible channels increases at first to a few dozen, and over time rises to hundreds of choices. Now there are networks for every niche. Quality of content, and respect for facts, starts to go down, though broadcast news at least holds on as an authority of information, limited as it might be.
  • The commercial Internet: All bets are off. There is literally no limit or restriction to the volume or quality of information, and it's even more difficult to qualify fact from fiction. In fact, people are willing to just seek what they agree with, and the transition from getting information that you need to information that you want, essentially entertainment, is complete.

It's one of those things I suppose, where you take the good with the bad. The net improvement I think is positive, I just wish people wouldn't take it for granted, and think more critically.