Archive: January, 2021

If you're feeling it, I see you

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 28, 2021, 11:47 PM | comments: 0

Last week's beach retreat was awesome, even though I didn't get in the ocean much beyond my ankles. It reminded us about how hard remote school is for Simon, but otherwise, it was a fantastic change of scenery. We should have done it sooner. What has surprised me since is that the feeling of depressurization, release and relief seems short-lived.

I felt the same way after taking the holidays off, and that was only a few weeks earlier. Within a week, I felt like I was often moments away from losing my shit. I was impatient with Simon, short with Diana and generally agitated by unimportant things. Why? It's definitely not work, where I feel like I'm doing some of my best work, and challenges are exciting instead of being struggles. Heck, during the work day, I'm mostly in the zone. But it's like, when the day is almost over, or it's the weekend, I'm kind of left with my thoughts, and there's anxiety and non-specific fear.

Obviously, a lot of it is just missing out on the unrestricted movement in the world, and the close social contact that it involves. I'm not even talking about close friends... I'm even talking about interacting with the server with the blue hair at Bento or actually talking to a neighbor and seeing their newborn-ish child up close. Live music and theater, observed with a crowd. And yeah, meeting up with friends from out-of-town at a Disney resort.

But it's also the uncertainty of when we'll get all that back. It feels so close with vaccinations rolling out, but the feds and the state have done a pretty shitty job of distribution so far, neglecting to use the last ten months to actually form a plan. And with the spread completely out of control, the virus is likely to mutate more quickly, giving rise to potentially more dangerous variations, possibly even those that are resistant to vaccines. That certainly doesn't inspire optimism.

Parenting feels like a constant struggle. He's headed for "the change," and he's already socially awkward, and he can't have the unrestricted social interaction at school that he desperately needs (some of the neighborhood kids are dicks toward him, so that doesn't help either). At home, he just wants to be seen and share the things that he's interested in with us, and I feel like the worst parent when I just can't give him that because I just want to hibernate. It feels so terrible because no one gave a shit about anything I cared about growing up, and I'm falling into the same pattern with him. He's so lonely. That's heartbreaking.

There's also the feeling like we need to be preparing at all times for the worst financially, like you could lose your job, go broke trying to pay for healthcare, that sort of thing. Having a good job isn't enough, it turns out, to free you of financial stress, especially when you have the damage of being intermittently employed during the great recession and the post 9/11 time period.

Oh, and there's also things like your wife barely avoiding being hurt in a car accident that totaled the car, various health crises in the family, self-loathing from slug-like movement behavior, fascists in government and the domestic terrorists they align with, etc.

So if you're mentally exhausted all of the time, I see you. I may not have the same circumstances, but I get it. We're all trying to keep our shit together, if not for ourselves, for the people we care about. It's exhausting.

Social media companies and user accountability

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 28, 2021, 8:00 PM | comments: 0

The great social media banhammer against Donald Trump was understandably met with concern, because it raises all kinds of questions about the power of these companies relative to public discourse. (And for the record, I'm not talking about aggrieved Fox News commentators who are worried about their follower counts, because, you know, there are actual newsworthy things happening in the world.) I wrote previously about how free speech works on the Internet, and the executive summary is that anyone can put something on the Internet, but the platforms you use are owned by private companies and you have to play by their rules. Remember: The First Amendment is about government restricting your speech, and that has nothing to do with what a business that facilitates Internet discussion does.

Online services have since the start had terms of service that they expected users to live by. Back in the day when the Internet was more of a curiosity than an essential tool, the stakes for these terms were higher. If someone posted something on your service that caused harm to others, you could be held liable for that. That's what Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act addressed, shielding the service operators from getting sued for something someone else posted. The reason that's important is that, without that provision in the law, the surface exposure for liability was too high to operate. I can tell you for sure that it was discussed a great deal when small publishers like me were trying to figure out if we needed some kind of general liability insurance. Still, it doesn't mean that you can knowingly host harmful or illegal things without consequence. You can't be a haven for child porn or copyrighted material, for example.

It's puzzling that Trump wanted that section of the law repealed, because it has nothing to do with the alleged bias against "conservative" voices. Section 230 is the reason he had a voice at all on Twitter for as long as he did, because Twitter couldn't be held responsible if, for example, the president incited insurrection. But then, he clearly hasn't read the Constitution, so a specific law like this didn't have a chance of being read. And again, the courts have said repeatedly that the First Amendment is not applied to a service not run by government, and, in fact, forcing any kind of neutrality in moderation of these services using the law would be unconstitutional.

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have always had rules against hate speech, illegal activity, threatening others, etc. These companies have banned users for far less severe reasons than anything Trump has posted, but they decided it was in the public interest to not enforce those rules for national leaders. Think about the message this sends, and how paradoxically it aligns with the actions and words of aggrieved Trump allies: It says that Trump isn't subject to the same rules as everyone else.

Ultimately, the world of social interaction on the Internet, the people running these companies, decided that it was better to not hold users, all users, including Trump, to the same accountability standards, largely in fear of being perceived as unfair arbiters of truth and free expression. So concerned were these business leaders about that perception that it took insurrection of the US government to get them to act. And what I find so crazy about this is that, since the ban, even Twitter seems to be less of a shitshow than it usually is. (YouTube comments are still, unsurprisingly, a dumpster fire for other reasons.) If "big tech" wants to be "neutral," it has to start with applying the same standards to all people, and frankly if online communities won't hold each other to high moral standards for truth and honesty, I don't care if the Twitter steps in. It's their company, to do as they see fit, and if conservatives are all about "letting the market decide," then Twitter is free to do as it wishes. If the market disagrees, cool, it can move on or someone can build something else. But as we saw with Parler, it's not that simple. You might be shielded from civil suits if you allow posts threatening violence to live on your system, but the people who own the pipes may not be so willing to do so, not out of political bias, but out of a desire to not be associated with that as it would be bad for the rest of their business.

For the record, I think that the Google-Facebook advertising duopoly is bad for consumers and the world. I've stated that countless times. But if you want me to get onboard to agree that they're complicit of bias or something else, no, that's not going to happen. They're definitely at fault for something, but it's mostly for not holding elected people to the same accountability that all of their users are.

Retail therapy at scale

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 25, 2021, 7:22 PM | comments: 0

Like a lot of people, assuming they're not enduring financial hardship, I've had a lot of strong urges to buy something to compensate for the half-functional pandemic world. It's an urge that I haven't had in any meaningful way in a very long time. In my 20's I wasted so much money on stupid shit that I didn't need that had no long-term value (and I didn't save or pay into a retirement account, which causes a fair amount of anxiety now). When I got to the point of rebooting life, post-divorce, I mostly spent money on doing stuff.

The experiences-not-stuff philosophy really took hold when I invited my girlfriend at the time, in 2006, on a trip to Las Vegas. We had not been dating for very long really, and despite being naive about early stage relationships, it seemed like a really good idea. As it turns out, we dated for a long time, and I think the success of that trip was honestly predictive of the length of our relationship. The memories of that trip are enduring and amazing, and since that time I've focused (successfully) on having experiences like that.

Having experiences typically involves other people and travel, and obviously in the pandemic there are limitations to that. The routine stuff that we would do is definitely off the table, like cruises and theme parks (Disney isn't even selling passes at this point). The revolving door of friends and families who crash at our house can't do that. No big parties. The bigger things, like big travel and bona fide tourism to places we haven't been are indefinitely on hold.

I remember the hits of dopamine from buying stuff, and getting it home and unwrapping it. Buying CD's was the most economical, certainly. I'd roll in to a Best Buy and talk out with two or three discs, without really knowing if the music on them was any good. The endless string of computer parts were like that too... a little more RAM, another hard drive, or a really special moment, a new video card. Less frequently, there were big ticket things, like a new laptop or a video camera. Of course, the dopamine was erased when my credit card bills came, because I didn't buy any of that stuff on cash. I had significant revolving debt until I was 39, though it was generally manageable by the time I was 33. I didn't make good choices.

These days, retail therapy doesn't even make sense. Even pre-Covid, I didn't really buy stuff in stores that often, unless there was a special or sale or something (last one was this laptop, three years ago). Things like music and movies don't even exist in physical packaging now. I went on a Lego buying binge this year, but all of the sets involved waiting for stock and then shipping time.

Only the really major purchases deliver "the feeling" now, and those are infrequent. Buying a new camera last summer definitely sparked joy, but the pace for buying those is every eight years. There aren't really things that I want the way that I did back in the day. Except maybe a pinball machine, but that seems so superficial. Maybe I don't know how to have fun anymore.

Well, sooner or later, we have to buy another car since Diana's was totaled, but those purchases, even when it was the electric space cars, usually start with purchase regret, not dopamine.

Transitions and contrast from inauguration day

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 25, 2021, 6:00 PM | comments: 0

Joe Biden took the oath of office as the 46th president of the United States under extraordinary circumstances unlike anything we've seen in my lifetime. I can't say that I was particularly excited about his nomination, but his choice for VP in Kamala Harris felt like it balanced out having another ancient white guy in the Oval Office. More to the point though, Biden may be snooze-inducing, but he's a functional adult who has devoted his entire professional life to the service of his country. I might give the old man static about his age, but I do respect people who devote their lives to public service, regardless of their political orientation. This is an unfortunately stark contrast to the outgoing president whose intent was about power, and retaining it even when it wasn't earned. We'll get to the score card in a bit.

Frustrated with the daily nonsense that Trump induced, I started to wonder what I would do if I were president. Between Bush's and Obama's books, I don't think I could survive the campaign process, but as the top manager of the federal government, you have a luxury you almost never have in business: You get to pick your team and drive toward outcomes that have nothing to do with profit. Governing is not like a business at all, but all of the management wisdom that I've gained over the years would most certainly apply to the job of president. My m.o. has always centered around the humility of understanding that I do not have all the answers, and that you must surround yourself with people who fill in all of your blind spots. The more complex and large your organization is, the more you must delegate, trust and enable others to follow through to your desired outcomes.

Biden started to build out a team of experts the moment it was clear that he won the election. The appointees have almost universally been experts in their fields, including a lot of people who have experience governing. Experts and experience are inherently valuable to reach desired outcomes, and there are not shortcuts to this. Contrast this to the Trump administration, which was a revolving door of cabinet members, many of whom had no experience in the relevant departments that they led. Close advisors were family members and associates with no experience in anything relevant. Furthermore, 7 advisors or staff were indicted or convicted from Trump's inner circle, and 34 indictments came out of the Mueller Report, which investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump drained the swamp and filled it with criminals and sycophants that pledged loyalty.

Biden's inauguration speech was predictably about unity and addressing the crises of the pandemic, racial injustice, the economy and climate change. He was not antagonistic toward political adversaries, only hopeful about meeting these challenges. Notably absent, he didn't list grievances or blame scapegoats, let alone declare that we've all been the victims of "carnage," as Trump did in his inaugural speech. Words matter.

The inauguration ceremony itself was weird. Covid alone would have made it weird enough, but then add in the fact that DC was essentially an occupied city, with 25,000 military troops from various agencies and services. It happened just two weeks after a bunch of delusional people followed the previous president's directive to challenge the election, with no evidence of it being fraudulent. It's the kind of thing that you're used to seeing in other countries, where dictators ascend to power by fascist means, discrediting elections, the free press and anything that causes them to appear weak. And of course, Trump was one of a handful of presidents ever to skip out on the swearing in of his predecessor, which I feel is petty and pathetic.

There was good weirdness that first evening though, when a perfectly capable press secretary answered questions as honestly as possible, wasn't really stumped by anything, and was willing to get back to reporters on things she couldn't answer. This is one of the many reasons that I hate moral equivalence arguments about "sides:" this side tends to hold its own accountable and understands the role of the press in this system of democracy.

Biden wasted no time undoing much of what Trump "accomplished" in his term, which is to say that he countered or rolled back executive orders (the ones that weren't already struck down by the courts, and there were a ton of those). Presidents rarely achieve any lasting legacy without passing legislation through Congress. Just ask Obama, as his major achievements included the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, tax relief acts in 2010 and 2012, repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Matthew Shepard Act and some reform of the Patriot Act to reduce domestic surveillance. Not to take anything away from Obama, but basically he got one big win per year in office. (And hey, remember "death panels" and socialism and the destruction of "traditional marriage" by Obama? None of that happened.)

Trump did none of that, despite having party alignment for half of this term. Trump signed a lot of bills, but his administration didn't initiate any significant legislation. The tax cuts in 2017 were a big win for him, but they came from the GOP leadership in Congress. Two years later, the Congressional Research Service reported that the law mostly benefited high earners and corporations, with negligible impact on everyone else. It also added trillions of dollars to the deficit over a ten-year period. 

And if you consider those "wins" at all, was it worth it? There's a pretty long list of negatives that came with it, not the least of which is the complete break of decorum and respect for the dignity of the office. If people had little trust in government before, now they have even less reason for that trust. This is a man who made the argument that the election was fraudulent, even though it was the same election that allowed the GOP to gain seats in the house, even in states he lost. It was then litigated in 50 cases he lost, often with judges he appointed.

Biden is a moderate, old school politician with decades of experience in government, working with seven presidents as a senator, then as a VP. There are a lot of talking points by the willfully ignorant about him being a socialist boogeyman (or more ridiculous, a communist), and the usual batch of fear mongering, but I don't think the Democrats could have picked a more benign candidate. I expect that during this year he'll get the vaccine supply chain under control, propose economic relief as appropriate, and next year, if things stabilize, address racial justice and climate issues.

I am concerned about the wave of white supremacy and fascism that adheres to Trumpism, because even if it is forced into some dark corner of the Internet, it doesn't mean it ceases to exist. I'm also concerned about all of the people who believe that such an association is OK, if only to hope that their "side" is winning. As I've said before, you can engage in right-leaning or "conservative" politics and still disavow the racists. Racism is not a difference in opinion. This is the definitive issue of our national identity, and it's one we've been failing to fix for centuries.

For now, I just revel in the fact that I can wake up and there are no news alerts. No one was fired or called a name on Twitter by the leader of the free world. Another executive order wasn't struck down by the courts. There are no inappropriate phone calls with foreign leaders or domestic officials. No former officials are getting indicted or convicted. Racists aren't being called fine people. The world feels a little more sane.

Maker break

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 24, 2021, 7:18 PM | comments: 0

I seem to have unintentionally taken a "maker break." In the last few weeks, I haven't made very much stuff, after generating a crazy amount of things last year, especially in the last couple of months. I let my GitHub 100-week contribution streak end. I've written very little. No video projects shot or edited. Last week on the beach, I was generally feeling relaxed and peaceful, with no desire to do anything after work other than hear the ocean.

I'm reminded of the fact that I somewhat abruptly stopped doing the radio show last summer (although a college station in Maryland just picked up literally all of them), and that really felt OK. Many of the things that I like to do for fun tend to be projects, so they're not things that I can do in one sitting. Others, like the radio show or the Silly Nonsense videos, are recurring endeavors. Sometimes, finishing things feels a little like work.

To that end, I've been in couch slug consumption mode lately, unapologetically. I watch movies, binge TV, play solitaire on my phone, read from my Kindle. It's satisfying to do nothing at times. I'm also getting the itch to make stuff again, but I'm not rushing into it. I did cut another video, this time a time-lapse of the LEGO Star Wars Mos Eisley Cantina.

Allure of the Seas

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 21, 2021, 10:35 PM | comments: 0

I love that Royal Caribbean has a ship called Allure of the Seas. The name of that ship describes something that has been in my blood for a long time, even if I didn't really understand it. I always enjoyed staying on my dad's sailboat when I was a kid, and I've obviously always liked spending time at Cedar Point, surrounded by Lake Erie and Sandusky Bay. But being around the ocean has intensified those feelings a hundred times over. When we took our first cruise in 2013, I was shocked at how much I loved it. A year later, taking the second one as a Florida resident, I loved it even more. To date, we've taken 19 cruises. In between all of that, we've had days at the beach, both on the Atlantic and gulf coasts.

This week, we rented a beach house via Vrbo down in Melbourne. It was super clean, with what I call "beach appropriate furniture" and a garage full of beach toys. Not luxurious the way that I typically want in accommodations, but perfectly adequate for families with kids. It was a little pricey, sure, but it satisfied two conditions: The endless sound of surf outside, and a hot tub because it won't likely be warm enough to hang out in the ocean. We made our meals, watched the presidential inauguration, grilled chicken, chased down sand crabs at night and empties six bottles of wine. It was everything that I hoped for. And for the middle three days, I worked remotely while Simon schooled remotely (I was more successful than he was). I didn't even take the time off, but when I took breaks for lunch and retired for the day, I touched sand and listened to that glorious surf.

This partial week near the ocean made me realize that the great peace that I feel when we cruise has a lot to do with just being near the ocean. In the Covid era, not spending much money and wondering what I want to do with life, I wonder if I am meant to live by the ocean. Looking into it, it's not an inexpensive endeavor. If you want to live with the ocean literally in your back yard, prepare to drop a cool million (unless it's a condo tower filled with spring breakers). You can even buy some undeveloped land for around $350k, if you have the cash. I don't see any way that we can afford that any time soon, and I'm not sure that the story gets better even in ten years. That's a bummer.

But we could still be cruising quarterly if that were in fact a thing right now. Watching Captain Kate on IG makes me even want to consider cruising with someone not Disney. Seriously, get me the vaccine, and I'll lick the handrails clean if it means we can cruise.

I dunno, I have this strong realization that the sea makes me feel so present and calm, but it doesn't seem like it's easy for me to reach a place where being near it is my standard operating procedure. That troubles me.

If MLK Day makes you uncomfortable, that's a good thing

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 18, 2021, 7:00 PM | comments: 0

I remember in 2010, shortly before Simon was born, thinking on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, how remarkable it was that we had a Black president. The normal that I knew, growing up in the age of desegregation bussing, had effects going all the way to the White House. The gaps in equality that I even a child could observe, in the late 70's and early 80's was slowly closing. Nothing was "solved," per se, but there was measurable progress.

What was less obvious at the time was that the election of Barack Obama would, in many ways, instigate a "last stand" of sorts among the people not content to see the American order involve the inclusion of people of color. For many years, especially during the Obama administration, I thought that the opposition toward anything he did was simple partisanship. While it certainly was that, it was deeper than that, as we now understand famously that the "base" that Republican politicians cater to, themselves now a minority, root their opposition not in conservative policy in the name of Ronald Reagan, but in the old order of white supremacy. That's not some divisive plotline on my part, it's observing the most ardent Trump supporters: If the goal is to "make America great again," they can only be referring to the time prior to the civil rights era. America wasn't that great then. Even when it achieved prosperity and leadership on the world stage, in the decades immediately following World War II, it certainly didn't include women and minorities.

I'm always stirred by MLK's quote from his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."

White Americans have always had the power to realize change that would result in a just and equal society among races. It's a power that was abdicated by its founders, kicking the can down the road for future generations to deal with. Wise as they were, I'm sure they never expected it go as many generations as it has. They could not have predicted that in 2021, white people would still hold the cards. There was a particularly striking infographic in The New York Times last fall, showing that in various corridors of power, from police chiefs to senators, those with the power were overwhelmingly white, and did not reflect the population of the United States. One of the annoying things about this is the people who suggest that, "The most qualified people should hold those positions, not those who fit a racial profile." Yeah? Then why do those same people insist they be Republicans, who are overwhelmingly white and male?

We objectively live in a country where, on a per capita basis, you're at greater risk of being singled out by police with cause, being denied access to financial instruments, denied the chance to interview for a better job, etc., if your skin is not white. It's mathematically a fact, and no amount of mental gymnastics can invalidate that fact. As a moral and decent human being, there's little opportunity to be ambiguous about your position in this reality. It's not divisive to say you're for changing this, it just makes you a person who believes in the most basic tenets of human respect.

Don't be the white person who dismisses the presence of injustice.

The time you have left

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 18, 2021, 5:20 PM | comments: 0

I probably have quite a bit of time left in my life. Forty, maybe 50 years in front of me. There are always these things that I think about that seem like time has gone by fast, or slow, and in the last year, both. But as Mr. Keating reminds the boys in Dead Poets Society, we're all "food for worms," and for that reason, he encourages the kids to make the most out of the time they have. That's a weighty subject when you're a teenager, one you largely disregard, and honestly, I didn't even think much about it in my 30's, a time of particular crisis and identity for me.

Even at a young age, sometimes we do think deeply about what it is we're going to do. As in, with our lives, with our time. In that discussion that we have with ourselves, the consideration of time, and the rather temporary condition that is life, we consider the meaning of it all. There are two ways that you can go: The brevity of life can make you ask if there's any real point to any of it, but it could also incentivize you to make the most of what you have. A humble person can acknowledge that no one is going to care who they were beyond a generation, or two at best, but it doesn't mean that you can't leave the world better than you found it. I would also factor in that whatever animal instincts we have left drive us to contribute to society as a survival tactic, and for the survival of our children.

Let's be honest, there's a lot of struggle in life. Even when you have advantages, whether it be money or some other socioeconomic condition that you were born into, the challenges combined with the ephemeral nature of life make you wonder why you should fight the struggle. Hope and optimism don't come easy to everyone, but those are the things we rely on to keep moving. I think it's a good idea to help others find it, too.

Like most people, I have certain gifts and abilities. I don't know where they came from, or why I have them when others don't. I can't write a song (or sing one), or inspire anyone with athletic achievements, but I'm pretty good at other things that have a measurable impact on the world. I'm pretty good at helping others find those attributes, too. The scope of impact as it relates to my abilities is unimportant, and chances are that most people have impact, and it's just a question of whether or not it's positive.

I think that there are some basics to strive for when it comes to our time left. The blanket goal I'm after is to leave the world in a better state than I found it. This means reversing hundreds of years of structural discrimination against minorities, women and other marginalized people. I want to do my best to have a light touch on resources I consume, and show others what is possible with sustainable energy, waste reduction and the exploitation of science. I hope to show people that autism isn't a disability, but a different perspective.

What will you do with your time?

The accident "caught on tape"

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 14, 2021, 10:40 PM | comments: 0

The car accident that Diana suffered three weeks ago, as it turned out, was caught on the dash cam of the guy who helped her out of the car and made a statement to OCSO. The short story is that Diana did in fact have a green light, and the other driver turned in front of not just her, but another car as well. FHP apparently cited the other driver.

Obviously this is a relief to Diana, because like any driver, one tends to question if there was something they did to contribute to the accident, or could have done to avoid it. You can see from the video below that the other driver hit her rear quarter on the driver's side, causing the car to spin 180 degrees, then roll backward until it hit the median. (You can also see the driver in the left lane just drive away, which doesn't say a lot for humanity.) It's pretty obvious why the side curtain airbags deployed, that's for sure. The contact was pretty brutal. We watched it frame by frame, looking at the timing of it and making all kinds of observations about the time it took for the car to spin around (2/3 of a second), the time from the start of the other driver's turn to impact (1.2 seconds), etc. I think the unfortunate thing is that the driver in the left lane saw it coming, and by braking blocked Diana's sight line, so there was nothing that she could do to avoid it. Quarter-second variations in any of these factors could have led to drastically different outcomes. Had the driver been going faster or earlier, she might have T-boned Diana, probably sending her into the crosswalk sign, or worse, the signal pole or brick wall. A little sooner than that, and Diana or the left lane driver would have T-boned the other driver, which I imagine would have been worse for everyone.

The driver was young, just turned 18, so presumably still in high school. To that end, I can't fault her inexperience and hold no ill will because the only long-term problem we're aware of is the end of the car (injuries, I guess you never know). But in the moment, for the three hours we waited for FHP (which never did show), she made this strange comment about being "cool" about it and not a "hit and run" driver. Her mom, who came to the scene, was also kind of toxic toward her. At the time, I was just trying to get Simon to relax in the backseat of our other car, after I dragged him out of bed. But as I looked at the car, where it landed, and watched the traffic light sequence several times, I couldn't see any likely scenarios where Diana was at fault. The force to get the car to spin like that had to be non-trivial, so my assumption is that she came in pretty hot for some reason. I can't tell from the video if she was turning from a stop, but Diana had to be going at least 30 (speed limit is 40), getting back up to speed when the light turned green, for the car to roll several car lengths past the start of the median. The rear wheel took the brunt of the impact, and I think she's fortunate that the low center of gravity from the battery kept the car upright. This is why most EV's have solid crash ratings, because they have a low, heavy thing that makes up most of the floor.

So thank you, Nissan, for keeping my special lady safe. Cars may not survive this sort of thing, but they do a remarkably good job of protecting the people inside.

How free speech works on the Internet

posted by Jeff | Saturday, January 9, 2021, 4:50 PM | comments: 0

The big social media companies kicked Donald Trump to the curb this week (about six years too late), and with that, the Internet is now full of self-appointed experts on free speech. Honestly, the First Amendment is not particularly complex, and there have certainly been plenty of cases that test its limits and set precedent, but it isn't fundamentally difficult to understand:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The subsequent case law that likely matters most is that "Congress" is interpreted to mean government at all levels.

When the Internet was starting to expand beyond the niche of nerds like me, the question about what this meant in terms of free speech on the Internet went through a fairly quick cycle of refinement. The thing that was settled early was that Internet services, which is to say Web sites and apps, as opposed to the service providers that have a wire to your house or radio signals to your phone, are not subject to any particular special regulation when it comes to free speech. Indeed, as someone who has operated online communities for over two decades, when Mark Zuckerberg was just entering puberty, I can assure you that we've bounced countless racists, homophobes and xenophobes over the years. The fact is, I pay the bill for hosting the service, and I'm under no obligation to allow anything I don't want there. Twitter, Facebook, Google are no different. Well, except that they make money and I mostly don't.

The First Amendment has nothing to do with these services. Those services are not government operated, and as such, not subject to the First. Is there a moral argument about the power these companies have to potentially censor people? Maybe, but isn't it a "conservative" value to be hands off and let the market decide if the product and behavior of these companies is not appropriate? Apparently, only when it's convenient for some. The fact remains that anyone can access the Internet and build their own thing to facilitate whatever speech that you want.

The president recently kept calling for the repeal of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which the dipshit doesn't really understand is probably the only reason that he was able to post the nonsense that he did. This bit of law says:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

In other words, if someone posts some incendiary shit on your service, you aren't responsible for the content of it. This is the only reason that Twitter, et al., can safely allow someone to post things that are potentially dangerous or likely to incite harm, because they can't be held liable for it. But the question about whether or not they should allow it is an entirely moral question, and it's the one that the social media services have been beat up for a lot in the last few years. Crazy assholes like Alex Jones eventually pushed them to ban the right-wing conspiracy nuts, in the same way that they would ban jihadists or anyone trying to radicalize people toward violence. Unfortunately, the president became one of those assholes, and for the longest time they gave him a pass because, as a world leader, he was a person of particular consequence. They were under no obligation to do this, and I suspect after last week, they regretted doing nothing for as long as they did.

Now, the party of victimhood and constant grievance (and the people that follow them) insist that it isn't fair, or whatever, even though they are the party who champions free market capitalism (which they understand about as well as free speech, it seems). If you're a "real" conservative, you don't try to regulate these companies, you let the market sort it out. What I love about this is that the right-wing conspiracy nuts could certainly have their own social networks, but they are niche in interest and hard to fund with advertising, since advertisers mostly don't like to support the white nationalists and insurrectionists that the niche has been hijacked by.

It's also important to recognize that free speech doesn't mean that speech has no consequences. Sure, you're free to shout fire in a theater, but it's still a crime. Defamation law has a pretty clear test where you will lose if you knowingly say things about someone or some company that isn't true, and their reputation is harmed in the process. It seems like there's a lot of entitlement around saying whatever you want, and so you have professional lives ruined because people get online and say racist things or support racist politicians. This seems like a pretty horrible time to commit to doubling down in support of Trump, as the Internet doesn't forget, and your words are one search away from some future employer.

The faithless at the direction of the aggrieved failures

posted by Jeff | Friday, January 8, 2021, 5:30 PM | comments: 0

This has certainly been the most bizarre week in my lifetime when it comes to the operational integrity of our democracy. But what's increasingly obvious about it is that it's an entirely manufactured problem. It comes down to two fundamental issues: The leaders who do not accept responsibility for their failure, and those who stoke faithlessness that they created. Let's dive deeper.

I've been in leadership positions for a very long time. Most of my professional career, I've had to "manage" something or someone, and I've had to deliver things. I can say with almost universal certainty that at no time was it possible for me to attribute my failures to others. I mean, that's what being a leader is fundamentally about... it's your position to reach an outcome as charged by the nature of that position. I've dropped a lot of balls, to use the sportsball metaphor, and while there have certainly been times where I was not easily positioned for success, it doesn't change the fact that it was on me to deliver it, and I didn't. Sure, I've had legitimate reasons, not the least of which is not having the right resources to get the job done.

The GOP has been cultivating a world of scapgoating back to the Reagan days. On one side (theirs), you had people who were pulling up their bootstraps or whatever and doing the hard work to maintain a quality of life and deliver on the American dream. Even two decades ago, the people who were getting in your way of that were mostly politicians spending money on things that the "lazy" took advantage of, especially the entitlement programs that intended to lift the disadvantaged out of poverty. They rarely acknowledged the causes of the poverty, and usually attributed it to character flaws. As you might expect, these were mostly, but not all, people of color and minorities who were living a world of systemic racism that persists today.

In the Trump era, the gloves came off and he went right for the people that were always the intended scapegoats, among them, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants and Black "welfare moms." The thinly veiled racism was gone at that point. And now, as Donald Trump, in four years went from a Republican majority in both houses of Congress and the White House, to losing it all on his watch, he blames the system. This is the system that was largely uninhibited for the first half of his term, during which the only meaningful thing he did was get a tax cut passed that benefitted primarily the wealthy and people who made six figures or more. There is no objective fact behind this failure. No one cheated, the voting public just wasn't having it.

Then, in November, about 7 million more people voted for Joe Biden than did for Donald Trump, and the next president was chosen. After a run-off election in Georgia, it also came to the point where Senate control flipped to Democrats. The election was litigated in the courts, often by the judgment of Trump-appointed judges. Not a single case brought by the Trump campaign won. The Supreme Court wouldn't even hear a case brought by Texas, which wanted to sue Pennsylvania for the way it ran its election. The facts are that the election was secure and fair, something that the appropriate agencies even in the federal government confirmed.

But the sycophants that supported Trump with blind loyalty, including a nontrivial number of congresscritters, insisted that the election was ripe with fraud. They beat this drum daily, for two months. Now they insist that a significant portion of Americans, almost two-thirds of self-identifying Republicans (which equates to around 15% of the population) believe that the election was not free and fair. But let's think about that for a moment... who has asserted that the election was not fair? The very people who now assert that a 15%-ish of Americans say it wasn't fair. What a nutty, cyclical predicament! It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy. This assertion has no evidence. The dipshit lawyer who keeps blaming the voting machine company is now getting sued by the voting machine company, because free speech is free, but it has consequences.

To review, people charged with leadership failed, and blamed everyone but themselves. Then the failed leaders stoked feelings of unfairness, without evidence, and cited the very feelings of unfairness that they created to attempt to legitimize their failure. That's sad.

The assault on the Capitol

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 7, 2021, 11:00 AM | comments: 0

I watched more continuous TV yesterday than on any day since 9/11. It was the second time in my life that I didn't recognize the nation that I've always lived in.

I'm often frustrated with America's inability to shake its original sin, the one where it declared that "all men are created equal," but didn't really mean it. It still doesn't really mean it. But it has been trying hard for almost 250 years to correct that, to varying degrees of success. It eventually relented and allowed women to vote, then Blacks and other minorities, though it regionally did its best to stifle that, and that practice continues today. Elections are the process by which we improve things. It's a slow process, but it has been consistent.

In November, we engaged in this process as we do every four years to elect a president. It was a little different this time in certain places, as the pandemic shifted voting to mail. I've been voting by mail for most of the last 30 years, so it's certainly not novel to me. When I lived in Washington state, I didn't even have to do anything other than get a driver's license. In those 30 years, I've only missed one election (in 2011 when I moved, and I missed voting on a local road tax that unfortunately failed due to the short-sightedness of other city residents). I take this civic duty very seriously.

The election was close in certain states, but it ultimately named Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. Donald Trump mounted legal challenges, and he lost all of them, often in courts with judges that he appointed. His campaign continued to fabricate the lie that the election was "stolen," and the president himself went so far as to call the Georgia Secretary of State and suggest he "find" more votes. A relatively small number of congressional Republicans insist there was widespread fraud without evidence, too, despite the fact that it had been litigated, legitimately, in the courts, and now former members of the administration have declared publicly that the election was secure and fair. The outcome of the election, objectively, and without much need for critical thinking, is legitimate.

But Trump wasn't having it. He encouraged his fans (I'm not sure what to call them, but being particularly attached to any politician seems odd to me) to protest and riot, repeatedly, finally suggesting they march right up to the Capitol. Then when people asked him to make a statement to calm them down, he threw more gas on the fire, suggesting they were righteous in their pursuit (but don't hurt the police!).

It was disturbing to see a guy wrapped in a Trump flag taking selfies in the Senate president's chair, along with the countless other images made yesterday. Worse, it further demonstrated that there are two Americas, that our original sin is prevalent as ever. We just ended a year where we deeply understood the role that race plays in determining not only your fate, but the consequence of your actions. In Louisville, police emptied 32 bullets into the apartment of a woman, Breonna Taylor, in what might be charitably described as a botched raid in the wrong place by poorly trained officers. No one was truly held accountable for that. And yet, thousands of entitled white people broke into the Capitol, while both chambers were in session, seemingly without consequence. And for what? Because their guy fairly lost an election? The saddest part of this is that, like the morons they were, all they could do once inside was take self-incriminating selfies and post them on the Internet. They had no demands, or plan. They're just common criminals. The cowards were driven out and largely dispersed shortly after nightfall, and the Congress returned to finish its work.

Some members of Congress were clearly shaken by the incident, and realized that they had gone too far. Some reversed their position to object to the electoral count, which was little more than a symbolic time waster anyway. Those sticking to their position insisted that there were "irregularities" and acts by the states that were "unconstitutional," even though those issues had their days in court, and again, were struck down in part by appointees of the aggrieved president. The process worked as it has for hundreds of years. This year was no different.

The Internet has made the division more obvious than ever, as a small number of white people insist that there's a double standard: It's OK to endorse the Black Lives Matter movement, but not... whatever the MAGA people want. These moral equivalence arguments are the core issue that plagues us right now. Black and brown people do not enjoy the same safety and opportunity as white people, for complex reasons rooted in hundreds of years of systemic discrimination. We can observe this, objectively, in a hundred different ways. To draw some parallel between the a centuries-old struggle for civil rights and aggrieved white people butt-hurt about their candidate losing is wholly absurd.

At the end of the day, Joe Biden will still be president, and now he will have a congress to work with that is friendly to his agenda. In four years, Trump ruined the GOP's dominance. I'm not sure what they'll get done, but America has spoken up, and no amount of lies about the election will ever change that. Congress did its job, exercising the will of the people. It's time to move on.

Car stress

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, January 5, 2021, 9:51 PM | comments: 0

Progressive declared the car a total loss, so now we're trying to figure out what we do next. We finally got a rental as part of our insurance last weekend, which took longer than expected because apparently even during a Covid Christmas, cars were hard to come by in Central Florida. We'll have that for 30 days, and then I'm not sure.

I'm surprised by the basic anxiety that I have now when Diana leaves the house. With Simon returning to school, she has to drive him everyday, not because buses are high risk (though I wouldn't want him on one), but because technically he was supposed to switch schools again this year, so the bus doesn't go to his. We've got new buildings here practically every year. But even when she goes out for groceries or some other appointment, it makes me nervous because of the accident. It's an irrational fear, yes, but it's one I've been feeling really since the great crash in Bristol, Tennessee. I believe every drive has some inherent risk to it.

As Diana's arm and belt line return to a normal color, now the new stress is figuring out what to do next. The Leaf was a leased car, so we fully expected to replace it in August. Part of that expectation was that we had another six months to save for a reasonable down payment on the next car. In fact, we've been trying hard to figure out a way to get down to just one car payment, because financial makeover me would very much prefer that. That's not as easy since our choices after going electric are more limited (and we're never going back to gas).

To be clear, mostly this amounts to inconvenience more than anything else, but the uncertainty about how this year and the economic recovery will go makes me cautious about everything because we really don't know. I don't want to do anything that will undo a decade of discipline, because I only have so many keystrokes left on the keyboard of life and I can't make up the time. Our "out" in this case is probably that we're going to get a little money back from the refinance of the house, basically a month's payment, just because of when in the month it closed.

Realistically, we could probably go without a second car, for awhile at least. And since I'm being irrational, you know what the down side of that is? Not having a second car to run out and pick up the other if one of us is in a car accident, as we did two weeks ago. That's the weird place my head is at. Sure, you can Uber, they say, but they didn't hear about the nightmare of getting a 10-year-old with ASD out of bed in the middle of the night to drive by a wrecked car and pickup mom.

I have to remind myself that the worst part of this was really a bruised wife, and we had a nice Christmas anyway.

The art of hiring software people

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, January 5, 2021, 9:05 PM | comments: 0

A friend of mine recently asked for advice about hiring, suggesting that I had a "pretty successful record" of hiring. I suppose that he's partially correct, but he isn't familiar with the times I crashed and burned back in the day. I haven't really thought about it deliberately, not in recent years at least, because early in my career I treated it more like a technological problem where I just had to match the right keywords and like magic have an awesome team.

Mercifully, this year I only had to hire two people, but the search was pretty long. Being able to use the pool of an entire nation as a remote organization sure helped, but in some ways it also made it harder because you attract more noise that way. By sheer coincidence, I hired two people out of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, so not local to me or the mothership.

My last hire fail was a few jobs ago. It was a remote person who ended up having the mistaken impression that being remote meant you didn't have to collaborate with the team. He lasted two days before he quit voluntarily. My biggest mistake ever was a in the midst of a consulting contract many years ago, where I had to put together a small team for a three-month project. I hired a guy who would bill 10 hours a day, but his output volume was terrible. It was technically correct, but we weren't going to deliver anything useful on the budget we had, and I let that go for weeks. Lesson learned.

So what's the real "secret?" I would narrow it down to a few simple things:

  • Do the gap analysis. What can't your team do that you need it to do? Now plus it a bit. If you need someone with deep experience in a certain framework, look for that person, but with extras. The soft skills are the best extras, and peripheral tech skills help too. It's OK to aim high here.
  • Always ask in the phone screen about their learning process. You'll sniff out the fakers quickly this way. Anyone who can't describe how they learn a new thing isn't evolving. Learning is the first stage in problem solving, and if they can't convince you that they're good at that, run the other way.
  • Understand their mentoring relationships. If you're hiring a newbie, find out how they have taken advantage of people willing to teach them. If you're hiring an expert, find out how they make people around them better. What you really don't want is the person who goes heads-down and just churns through assignments without interaction.
  • Value business and customer empathy. I know that the stereotypes of technical people imply all kinds of nerdy constructs that lack social skills, but that's nonsense. The best software people want the "why" in what they do, and want to connect to it. This makes for better outcomes every time.
  • Be thorough in the technical assessment process. Most medium to larger companies have a process for this, but if it's small or a startup, you'll have to design that process. Don't do the bullshit brainteaser dotcom nonsense, because you're not a psychologist qualified to see "how people think" in a way that usefully improves outcomes.
  • Above all, the most important advice ever given to me was, "Don't settle." If I look honestly at my bad hires, this is where I really failed. Look, I realize the market favors the workers, but you need to work harder to sell your team to the people who will really improve it.

I don't think that any of those points are unusual, controversial or difficult to arrive at. The environment that you work in definitely makes a difference though. Companies that are not software companies (well, a lot of the time they are and they don't realize it) tend to look at people as interchangeable cogs, which of course they're not. At a company that nerds hard, you don't have the pressure of simply filling seats.

This is my art, yours may vary. Be patient, don't cut off your ear.

(Disclaimer: These are my opinions, and not any kind of official platform of any employer, past or present.)

What I did for Christmas vacation

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 3, 2021, 10:16 PM | comments: 0

I took off starting Christmas Eve for 11 straight days of not working. It's the most continuous time I've taken off of work in more than four years. Ordinarily I wouldn't take off that much time unless I was traveling somewhere cool, but I had to use some days or lose them, and that wouldn't be OK. This year I took off a week in July, but only a few long weekends since that time. It seems a little easier to go that long when you like your job, but you need to get away from it from time to time. I can quite honestly say that I go back to work tomorrow feeling refreshed.

What did I do? I guess the biggest thing is that I finally got SillyNonsense on the air. I'm not sure if what we put together is any good, and I'm even less sure that I care, because it just feels good to make things. And the YouTube channel only needs 995 more subscribers before I can start making tens of dollars! I've got video to edit for another 11 episodes, and some ideas for others. I think I want to commit to making 26 for the year, and see where that leads.

The first thing I did on vacation was pick up Diana from a car accident, and that wasn't a fun start to things. Still haven't heard back about whether or not the car is totaled, but it took a few nights before I could sleep continuously, not thinking about what would have happened if it was more serious. Diana is what keeps shit together around here, and Simon and I love her very much, as one would expect.

I did a ton of reading. I bought a Javascript reference book, actually on paper and to replace the edition I had from 15 years ago, so I could catch up on all of the stuff I fake my way through. I've got a new hire starting this week who is fantastic and a front-end expert, and I don't want to be a total ignoramus around him. I read a few papers on Keynesian economics, believe it or not, because I'm fascinated by the theories around the government's role in stabilizing economic systems. I also started plowing through Obama's most recent book. Unlike the memoirs published by his predecessors (Clinton's rambles aimlessly, Bush's is a bit of an indulgent sorry-not-sorry interpreted by a ghost writer), Obama is a surprisingly good storyteller. He's very self-aware and confident at the same time.

I wrote very little code, just enough to keep up my weekly contribution streak. I have some ideas for my next big project, but it probably won't be another open source thing. We'll see.

I finally built the Lego Star Wars Mos Eisley Cantina. It's very cool, and has a ton of mini-figures. Of course I time-lapsed it, so I'll post that eventually on the new channel. Maybe I'll try to bang that out this week.

We had a strange Christmas, where we put up a Zoom link and kept it open all day, inviting anyone who wanted to drop in to do so. Our Seattle counterparts were on with us pretty much for five straight hours, and my friend from DC dropped in for a long bit as well. On a different day, we opened Zoom while playing a four-way Halo slayer session, with me and Simon here in the OC and my BIL and nephew in Seattle. Microsoft had a sale on Xbox Game Pass for $1 for three months, so I actually spent some time playing a few different games. Forza Horizon is a lot of fun, in fact.

Maybe most importantly, I took some naps, and several times, put on the noise-cancelling headphones and just closed by eyes and got lost in music. Those are such great ways to relax and recharge.

Last night, we went out to Give Kids The World Village to check out their holiday lighting, the weirdest fundraiser in the weirdest times. They had to close the village earlier in the year because with the theme parks closed and not having any idea how to safely host families, many of whom have immunocompromised kids, they really couldn't operate. So Disney donated lights and their furloughed employees donated time to dress up the central buildings and villas with 3 million lights, and they invited people to buy tickets and see the place. Think about it, the public generally can't just stream into the place when families are staying there, so it was a unique situation. They're going to resume partial operations, with tons of consultation from our local children's hospital and the safety advice of the parks, in a few weeks.

It was a solid week and a half, if you don't count the accident. We're going to do a "working" vacation at a beach house soon, meaning Simon will remote school and I'll still work, but with an ocean view. In the April time frame, I hope we can do something similar. In the summer, if the vaccine rollout makes significant progress, maybe we can finally do something resembling normal travel. Wouldn't that be nice?

Canon lens mount change

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 3, 2021, 5:19 PM | comments: 0

I can't even tell you how much computer stuff I've cycled through in the last 25 years, and technology stuff in general. What has lasted for more time than I ever could have expected though is my Canon camera lenses. The trusty EF mount has been around since 1987.

And it might soon be obsolete.

I bought my first Canon camera, the Elan IIe, a film body, around 1998-ish, I think, and it had an EF mount. I had two different digital bodies with crop sensors until I bought the full-frame 5D in 2008, and the crop 7D the year after (because it makes video). I still have both of those cameras, and with them I've shot thousands of photos. I've done vacations, landscapes, engagements, 5K's, parties, babies and even my own wedding (well, a friend did the shooting with my gear). Now, 12 years later, I still have those cameras and I still use them. What other technology lasts that long?

Back to the lenses... Canon's best lenses, the faster ones that are sharper and more versatile, they designate with an "L" in the name. I bought by first L lens, the 70-200mm f/4L, in 2006. In retrospect, it was a steal for $600. I bought the 5D body in a kit with the 24-105mm f/4L IS, easily the most versatile and awesome lens ever made, in my opinion. It has spent more time on my cameras than the other lenses combined. Again, what else can I get great use out of after 12 years?

In 2013, I bought the 17-40mm f/4L as a gift to myself for working a ridiculous contract job as long as I could stand it, but also so I could experiment more with wide-angle video and landscape photos. It's just extraordinary when used with the 5D. It's neat to stand in front of a tall building and photograph the whole thing so close.

My least-credited lens is my trusty 50mm f/1.4, which is not an L lens (it feels kinda cheap, in fact), but it makes those pretty portrait photos with short depth-of-field in a way that still looks far better than the algorithmic simulation of that look by Google and Apple on phones. You can't quite fake it accurately.

All of that gear definitely appears a little weathered, but it all still works. In fact, I bought my video camera in part because it works with those lenses. My old video camera even works with those lenses (with a mount adapter). But after a 33-year run, it looks like Canon will not be introducing any new EF lenses, as they appear to be transitioning to the RF lens mount for use with their new mirrorless cameras. The flagship of that line is the R5, a body that has a crazy 45 megapixel sensor and can shoot 8K video 10-bit video (until it overheats, at least).

If I ever flip to an RF camera, and I don't think there's a lot of hurry for that, there are adapters that let you use your EF lenses, official and made by Canon. My aging lenses can easily go another decade! But it definitely is something of a new era, that's for sure. It also makes me wonder, OK, what would I buy going forward?

This is where the Internet gets in the way of opinions since I'm only a hobbyist. I deeply admire Philip Bloom, because the dude can make great video from almost any tool. I mean, he made a short film with a Barbie doll camera. But because he does this for a living, he doesn't really have to choose between his Canon, Sony, Fuji and whatever gear, because he has it all. He's gone all-in with the new Canon gear, and he has a whole lot of EF lenses. I don't have that luxury, because I can't easily justify spending on a bunch of gear that's just for the hobby.