Archive: March, 2021

Patio furniture, and other home purchases

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 7:03 PM | comments: 0

After more than three years in our house, and seven of Florida home ownership overall, we finally bought some patio furniture.

That probably sounds wholly unremarkable, but we spend so much patio time, all year. We previously had a not that comfortable love seat that a neighbor gave us, where two out of three of us could sit. For some reason we were OK with that for years. Now we have an L-shaped couch and a rocker thing, and it's glorious.

I don't know why we're cheap about buying stuff for home. It's sparsely decorated, though basically functional. In seven years, we replaced a mattress and bought a dining room table, but that's it. I mean, Diana cobbled together a makeup table from spare parts last year (and then mostly stopped wearing makeup because pandemic), instead of buying something. Today we ordered a little end table to put between the couch and the chair, after years of putting drinks on the floor next to the chair.

I think this year we'll replace the carpet. The stuff the builder used is total shit, and it's a matted mess after just three years, with three people living here. That's gonna suck. I don't wanna do the Florida thing and do tile either (first thing the buyers of our last home did).

One more scary and uncomfortable thing behind us

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 29, 2021, 11:15 PM | comments: 0

Diana had surgery on her other foot today to repair or remove a nerve wrapped in benign tissue that was making it painful for her to walk. I don't entirely understand the science, I just know that being on her feet, especially without shoes, hasn't been going well for months. The surgery went pretty fast, about a half-hour or so, and she's home and resting.

Certainly this is scary and difficult for her, but I've largely pretended to be Zen about it, because that's what you do when your life partner is experiencing something scary and difficult. I feel like we've had more than our share of these kinds of things (including immediate family and friends), so I'm hoping that's it for awhile. We've got an ongoing series of important decisions to make in the next two months, then boom, hopefully we can resume the party.

I generally resist finding patterns where there is only coincidence, and I loathe when people say "everything happens for a reason," to suggest that it's some cosmic process and not a series of obvious and real reasons. But the four-year cycle of awesome things is once again due this year. 2017 was the big move to our current house, 2013 was the move to Florida, 2009 (and change) was getting married, moving to Seattle and procreating (that was a bit much for one year), 2005 was my forced life reboot. 2021 has enormous potential, as long as a few things continue on their current path.

It sounds like Diana's recovery should be pretty smooth and not take months the way that it did when they had to reconstruct her other foot with the bone cutting and screws and what not. That's good, because we are both fully vaccinated with waiting period as of April 28, and hopefully the rest of the adults get their shit together so we can beat this thing. I think we're all due for a solid year.

Dost thou wallow?

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 28, 2021, 7:04 PM | comments: 0

Everyone knows someone who can't sit still and has to have all time planned and accounted for. In my super judgy way, I find this a convenient way to avoid thinking about life or engaging in self-reflection. But in the last year, I think I have the opposite problem, because I wallow in thought. At times it interferes with me doing, well, anything. In my defense, sometimes I don't have a lot to do. (And you don't either... you just make different choices.)

I was having a day like this today. Allergy meds were already taking a toll on my general alertness, but what would normally be a half hour of quiet reflection turned into two hours of wallowing in my thoughts. I covered it all... health, mortality, parenting, career, finances. Mercifully I skipped over the parts about "why am I me?" because that topic has been beaten to death in the last few years.

I've said before that my variation on meditation is often to find a quiet place to lie down, where I can feel a good breeze or listen to good music, and let my brain be quiet and present. When that isn't coming to me easily, I get into that wallowing. I often confuse the two, and often go into one or the other in an indeliberate fashion. Thinking about all the things can be a serious rabbit hole, and it's hard to break out of that cycle.

That's the funny thing about comparing your personal life to your career. As a manager, I've learned and developed habits that lead me to process things quickly so I can move on and go to the next thing. (Sidebar: Like many things in work, this is absolutely learned and practiced, which is why I tend to agree with folks who believe that education is not a skip-the-line entitlement in business.) But when it comes to real life, it's exceptionally difficult to do the thing and move on, because the things are never simple and discreet tasks. As a 40-something who never gave much thought to retirement and is making up for it now, I couldn't when I was 25 just open an IRA, fund it, and then contribute to it twice a month for the next 40 years. Setting yourself up to do something 1,000 times over 40 years isn't simple or immediate. As a parent, I can't teach Simon to make a sandwich for himself once and consider him ready for college. Big life things are not like taking out the garbage or buying groceries or filling out a TPS report.

If wallowing in my thoughts has caused me to arrive at any conclusions, it's that you can't manage life at all. You can set up some broad targets, but they're moving. I didn't plan to change careers or get divorced or even move to Central Florida, but here I am. Ultimately, I think returning to that reality is the way to not get too lost in thought, and that's what I hope I can do going forward. You can only type so many words on the keyboard of life.

Quarterly decompress

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 24, 2021, 2:30 PM | comments: 0

I'm fortunate enough to have four weeks off per year (plus holidays), and for a long time I've been in that boat. Typically I try to take a week off about every quarter instead of breaking it down into smaller pieces. I'm almost to another week off from work, and I find myself right at the place of being mentally spent.

To be clear, I love the work, but it is challenging, and I work pretty hard. I've never been a workaholic, but I've never been great at really creating boundaries when working remotely, which is to say that I'll roll into the office between 8 and 8:30, and not really take any meaningful break until I end at 5:30 or 6. Being that plugged in for that long everyday I think has a cost, which becomes obvious on Friday nights when I turn into an intellectual blob.

I'm sure the decompression need is compounded in similar ways that it is for everyone. The pandemic has challenged everyone, and the relative stability of a good job doesn't isolate you from it. Like anyone, we have some serious challenges at home, too.

Am I doing it wrong by waiting three months to take time off? Maybe, but I think the pandemic context is why it feels harder. In "normal" times, we get out and go bowling, or to theme parks, and we have parties, and we travel to places. We're even pretty good at hacking around having a child in school, with our wonderful Epcot lunches, or even local hotel stays while Simon is still in class. Some of that will come back as soon as the next few months, fortunately. By the end of April, Diana and I, and our parents, will all be fully vaccinated plus the two weeks. Simon obviously won't be, but he's the least vulnerable.

There have been some "discoveries" certainly over the last year that have made up for our routines. A combination of much carry-out food, socially distant fire pits, berry picking, routine Zoom meetings, etc., have all helped things out. I think the limitation is less about the availability of things to do and more about how spontaneous you can be. It seems like you have to plan more to do stuff.

Diana and I had a two-year running tradition of visiting New York in early April, and I hope we can resume that next year. With any luck, maybe I'll get to our office in One World Trade Center before the end of the year. This year, I'll just be hanging out, shuttling Simon to and from school and maybe catching up on my crafting.

Where do I wanna live when I grow up?

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, March 23, 2021, 9:29 PM | comments: 0

I finally figured out my midlife crisis, and it's fortunately not prostitutes and cocaine. I won't rule out a Porsche just yet, but mostly in trying to game out retirement. As I often say, I'm half way between wearing diapers and wearing diapers, so now's a good time to think about this.

I think I've got a fighting chance at making up for the dipshittery of my 20's and early 30's (not saving). But wow, all of the financial outcomes are tied pretty hard to property. We reset the clock yet again refinancing the house late last year, because the rates dropped our payment several hundred dollars. We're 30 years out again, but have way more equity in a house we'll leave before paying off. What will the next place look like? Downsized? Same area? Coastal living? Mountains? Overseas? Private island?

The usual caveats apply... I couldn't have predicted where I am now ten years ago, and the crazy thing is that's exciting to me now instead of terrifying.

What I'm struggling with right now is an obsession with the ocean. The sound of the waves brings me great peace, whether it's on a ship or on the beach. Logically I follow that I should live on the beach, much as I realized getting away from Midwest gray skies would feel better. I just don't know if that's a transient sentiment or something fundamentally me, and in either case, I don't know if Diana would really dig it.

If it really is our permanent vacation, how does it look? I'm not interested in condos. Maybe townhomes are OK, but the bottom line is that it has to be a single-family house, and I'm not sure if we could really afford that. And what of the timing? Try to buy now and rent it out (hopefully covering an expensive mortgage and insurance)? Buy an empty lot while they still exist? Find a shit hole that needs rehab? Keep saving and buy in our 60's? There's no playbook for this.

All of these outcomes are also contingent on economic prosperity, which frankly seems fragile. I might have a new sense of adventure, but I have no faith in "the system."

Of course, the beach is just one idea. I don't want to really deal in winter in old age, so that limits me to tropical and desert locales. Also Hawaii, but that seems out of reach because it's so expensive.

This is what a year spent 95% at home will do to you.

Long naps and first kisses

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 22, 2021, 9:22 PM | comments: 0

I read a couple of things recently that got me to thinking about the metaphors one might use relative to the pandemic and mental health, and what is hopefully its turning point.

We're dealing with the third straight day of cold and gray weather, which is exceptionally rare around here. It's no secret that I'm seriously impacted by Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it was a major factor in moving to Central Florida. I'm tired, low energy and it feeds into a feeling that I've had a lot in recent months. (Allergy meds are making this worse.) Maybe I can just sleep a bit longer, until I have both shots, and there's more of a sense of normalcy. I'm not sure what that even means, but it probably means Simon seeing his grandparents, having people inside of our house, open cruise lines, TV news anchors not sitting 10 feet apart, etc. It's not far away. Mentally, wondering when we would see it comes with a certain exhaustion, but now I equate it a little to what flying is like for me. It's not really comfortable or enjoyable, but there's usually something fun after the flight, so if you can just turn your brain off for a little bit, you'll get there.

Then I was thinking about what it will be like when we do stuff that we couldn't do for the last year. Will it be intoxicating, like the rush of a first kiss? I think about seeing friends from out-of-town, meeting up with them at a resort for drinks, or boarding a ship, or even going to an otherwise boring kid birthday party. We'll have all of these "first times" that are really just first times in a long time, and that's kind of exciting. I'd like to think that I have been reasonably appreciative of life's seemingly unremarkable moments, but I predict new levels of appreciation going forward for the most mundane of activities.

And if I'm being really honest, the last year has been difficult, but working remotely in the first place in a great job, being able to afford delivery of things and essentially private rentals on the beach for vacations, we haven't had the worst by any measure. We're weeks away from getting to full vaccination without any of us getting sick, or worse, losing friends, family or coworkers to the disease, as many of our friends have. While all of this is true, we're definitely ready to get beyond the long naps and look forward to the first kisses.

You want Gen-X to save the culture? For real?

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 21, 2021, 1:21 PM | comments: 0

Apparently some blowhard on Fox "News" declared that Generation X, my generation, must rise up and fight this "cancel culture" that is aggrieving entitled white Boomers all over the country. Now, to be clear, no such thing is actually happening. Sure, Disney is throwing up some warnings about culturally icky things in its classic Muppet Show, the Dr. Seuss estate has chosen to stop publishing some less popular books with some equally icky racial stereotypes, and Hasbro has dropped the "Mr." from the Potato Head brand for reasons I don't even care about. And I'm confident enough in my own identity to say that, yeah, you bet I put a little lipstick on Mr. Potato Head as a kid, because he deserved to be pretty too. We all do.

Now, let's pretend for a moment that any of this shit matters, when there are actual problems like a dramatic rise in hate crime against Asians, Black folks are still getting disproportionately shot by police, women still don't make as much as men for the same jobs, and you risk bankruptcy and can't get proper healthcare in the middle of a global pandemic unless you have a job with excellent benefits. How does anyone really have the balls to ask my generation to help you with these non-issues? Do y'all remember what you put us through?

In the 80's, you vilified everything that we liked to do. You came after Dungeons & Dragons because it was "Satanic." You flipped out when boys wore earrings. You claimed without data that video games were ruining us, and our music, especially metal and rap music, were rotting our brains. To fight this danger, you made sure that all of our art was labeled, and that stores wouldn't sell us stuff that was "harmful," in part because you were too busy to get involved in our lives. (And we later swung the other way and invented helicopter parenting and participation trophies, so, sorry, we're not great at this either.)

Then in the 90's, having survived puberty, we called you out on all of the bullshit, and you didn't listen to us. No offense to younger folks, but being "woke" isn't calling out bad behavior on the Twitter. We didn't even have Twitter. We had to show up to stuff and write letters to newspapers and legislators. Our music got darker, its heroes committed suicide. We were dragged into a war over oil. Rodney King got the shit beat out of him and you did nothing about the systemic racism. We tried to explain why AIDS was a crisis, and you championed abstinence while proclaiming it's just a "gay disease." Shit, you're still casting aside gay people as inferior, and rejecting pandemic science. When we advocated for women and called out the blatant sexism built into our culture, you doubled down and said a woman's place is in the home. We normalized recycling as a first step to respecting the environment, and you dismissed it as virtue signaling.

I have to admit, we're partially at fault for the fact that so little has changed in the last two or three decades. If I were to generalize, we tend to be artists, dreamers, nerds and technologists, and those are not attributes well suited to politics. We have few impactful politicians among us (technically we could claim Obama, but he's a little old for Gen-X), in part because we might be too smart to want those positions. My hope is that we've made up for it by commercializing the Internet, making software a part of our daily lives, quietly developing sustainable energy, making our communities and workplaces more inclusive and, on average, not complaining about how disadvantaged we are. You sent us to school with keys on strings around our necks and we came home to empty houses. We can take care of ourselves.

So if you're in the camp looking for Gen-X to help maintain the status quo in some kind of culture war, you might be out of your fucking mind. We've seen this movie before, and I'll repeat what we were saying decades ago: What you say and do has consequences, and you're not victims. Don't mistake "cancel culture," which you used to call "political correctness," for just not wanting people to say and do reprehensible shit. As someone now dealing with the discomfort of middle age, it doesn't seem like you should be spending your remaining time worrying about whether or not Disney warns you about Fozzie Bear making a sexist wife joke. Is that how you want to spend your golden years? Maybe it is, because your priorities weren't much better in the 80's and 90's.

On Wednesdays, we go public

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 17, 2021, 6:28 PM | comments: 0

I'm not going to spend a ton of time talking about this, because I don't even know what to talk about (or what I can talk about in situations like these), but Olo, the company I work for went public today and I wanted to record the event.

I've worked for a lot of companies that wanted to grow, and perhaps go public, but the pattern early on that I observed was that it didn't happen very often. But then, sometimes it does.

How parenting helps me roll

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 17, 2021, 4:46 PM | comments: 0

I famously declared in my first year of parenthood that having a child may in fact change you, but that the change tends to be more additive than transformative. Among my friends who I knew pre-parenthood, I would probably generalize that most haven't changed, exactly, but they're definitely more than they were. Does that difference make sense?

Simon had his 11-year doctor visit, and yeah, he's at the age for the HPV vaccine, which is crazy. Shots aside, he's generally pretty healthy, but a little high in weight percentiles, because aren't we all right now. Of course this makes me contemplative of those early visits, not to mention the ER trip when he dislocated his elbow (and the face he made when the doctor popped it back in). But how did I develop?

Obviously, I learned I had to just roll with all the shit, literally and figuratively. I don't even think this is related to the autism or ADHD challenges, because early on, kids barf, they're hungry when they just ate and even though they have few opinions, they also have no fucks about your schedule or needs. I can't think of anything in my life more chaotic and unpredictable, whether it be the typical teenage experience, buying a house or even getting divorced. Kids force you to adapt, because you don't have another option.

So here's to giving in to chaos, losing control and not trying to manage everything. Life is definitely easier this way.

The validation of simple achievement

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 14, 2021, 12:51 AM | comments: 0

Today I finished fixing a series of problems related to our washing machine, and it felt good. At some point recently, one of the intake valves started leaking. The laundry room has a drain pan connected to a pipe, and that pan had a big crack in it and it wasn't firmly connected to the pipe, which is to say the water was leaking all over the floor. Fortunately that wasn't serious, because the tiles on the floor don't allow the water to go anywhere.

Popping the top off of the washer, it wasn't hard to find the leaking intake valve, and two minutes of research on the Internets revealed this was a common problem. (Also surprising, this same part appears to be used in most washers under several brands for much of the last decade and a half, and I have to wonder why some of them cost a grand and others don't.) I found the part online for $20, and it took 15 minutes to replace. The new drain pan took some messing with, because the pipe sits kind of high, and I had to Dremel off the lip of the pan so the pipe would be flush. As it is, it has to angle a little since the orientation of the pipe isn't straight. But I think I got a good seal with some large washers.

None of this was particularly complicated, but in terms of achievements, it felt good and validating to fix these, instead of having to pay someone else to do it. I have to solve complex problems every day at work, involving many people and over weeks and months, but that kind of thing never has the same satisfaction as the quick home improvement thing. Parenting problems are even harder, and frankly no one is ever there to thank you or high five you when you work through those problems.

Similarly, a couple of weeks ago, I rotated the tires on one of our cars, and replaced the cabin air filters and cleaned the AC coil. While not particularly complex, it did require pulling off some panels, and it's great that even after sitting in the sun, the car doesn't stink when the air conditioning starts spinning up. And who doesn't love saying that they have activated charcoal HEPA filters in their car?

I don't do stuff like that very often, and when I do, it usually involves buying tools that I don't really need. Rotating the tires properly means having a torque wrench, which cost $50, even though Tesla will literally come to my house and swap wheels around for $35. But doing it yourself is satisfying, like installing ceiling fans in every room when you move into a new house.

Go me.

One year into the pandemic

posted by Jeff | Saturday, March 13, 2021, 12:51 PM | comments: 0

A year ago this week, we ate inside a restaurant for the last time, cancelled a cruise and stocked up on liquor for the spring break that didn't end. The last year caused a lot of chaos, and the dark anniversary causes a lot of reflection for me. For some it results in a lot of entitlement and righteous politics, but I'll get to that later.

Just before Covid-19 started to spread in the states, the thing that already concerned me was the middling nature of the threat. The early science, which panned out even if the "right" mitigation strategy was a moving target, suggested that this was a disease that was frighteningly easy to transmit, but the odds of dying from it if you were hospitalized was 1 in 4. It took six months to get that down to 1 in 10, mostly by changing the drug treatments and getting people off of their backs. But just looking at general odds of dying of the disease painted a picture that disadvantaged those over 50, because if you were under, the odds of you dying were very low, but in the process you became a transmission vector that was a real threat to lives over 50. We also know now that "long Covid" is a thing that knows no limits. Regardless, the disease was going to be bad, but not bad enough that people would take it seriously. Catastrophic consequences for relatively few from a disease easily transmitted is a recipe for apathy.

So far, 530,000 Americans have died from the disease, and it didn't have to be that way. Some of my friends lost parents, coworkers and friends, but my immediate circle has been spared.

I work remotely, so nothing really changed in my day job capacity, except that I've not had the chance to meet any of my team in real life. Well, the importance of the job changed, I suppose, when your company handles online ordering for major restaurant brands. We've obviously done a lot of take-out and delivery in the last year, and we're not alone in that.

For a good portion of the summer, our sunny Friday evenings involved making drinks, watching Suzy & Alex play covers and lots of neighborhood walks. That was the crazy thing, that I had never seen so much of my neighbors in the 300 or so units that make up our subdivision. Diana bought her first new bicycle in her life. There was a comfortable rhythm to life, though it sucked not having the theme parks, where we went not just for our own amusement, but to meet our friends.

Then came the Zoom calls... so many Zoom calls. Diana had a regular cadence with her work friends, we did calls with family and friends. I had virtual happy hours with my coworkers. On Christmas day, we just left a call open, posted the link online, and people dropped in whenever they felt like it. We had our Seattle counterparts on for about six hours. It wasn't ideal, but it was nice to catch up.

Diana was able to go back to work late in the year for outdoor shows, in an industry otherwise destroyed by this thing. No sooner did that begin that she was hit by a careless driver, totaling the car. I spent some time talking to the deputy as we waited for FHP to write up the accident, and I asked him how the pandemic affected his job. He told me he lost three friends to the disease, likely exposed from a public that was apathetic about the pandemic. Knowing a few nurses and doctors, I know it had been pretty terrible for them, but framing the problem in the context of a non-medical, first responder, that frustrated me. It still does.

We've been careful not to be shut-ins, but at the same time tried to avoid obvious risk. Diana and Simon have had their share of bronchitis and pneumonia, so there's some elevated risk there. We've all had our share of time in retail establishments and outdoor activities. Simon went back in to school once their mitigation strategy was validated. We've avoided grandparents since they're the most vulnerable, especially with surgeries and cancer treatments.

The end of this is in sight though. I've had my first vaccination, and April 19 I'm two weeks after the second, and protected. Diana could get her first maybe as soon as next week if the state or county decides it's time. Simon may not be eligible until later in the year, but if adults are doing their thing, they become extremely low risk for infection, let alone serious illness.

We may have to wear masks in many public indoor places for awhile, but I don't think that's a huge deal. The mask thing is the single most frustrating aspect of the pandemic though, because this relatively simple and effective thing has been made political to an insane degree. Americans have demonstrated a willingness to be entitled and selfish in a way that made the pandemic far worse than it had to be. People (usually white, well-off people) say things like, "I should be able to choose what's right for me and my family," not grasping that defeating disease is not something that comes down to individuals, but collective effort. One's actions affect everyone else. So explain your grasp of freedom to someone who lost a parent or coworker or friend, I'm sure that will be reassuring for them. Explain it to people in New Zealand or Australia, where they have concerts and don't have to wear masks anymore.

American reaction in general seems typical of our culture: Think about right now and disregard the future. What we've learned from other nations that mitigated hard up front is that the short-term economic damage was worth it in the long run, because it led to better economic and health outcomes in the long run. We collectively have ignored this, and we've had more deaths per capita and the economic carnage to go with it, because all of that death isn't free.

Having wholly incompetent leadership at many levels didn't help, especially those that thought it prudent to hide or question the scientists. A friend of mine who leads a municipal government in Florida has repeatedly over the last year expressed his frustration with the fact that no one at the federal and state level was really doing anything to help. Even fundamental and honest communication based in reality would have been a great start. To that end, the clarity we've seen in the last two months, with a CDC enabled to do its job, things are getting better. Vaccine distribution and manufacturing has ramped up and has clearer outcomes.

The biggest question for me is, how do we move forward? The investment to plan for this sort of thing isn't large compared to the possible outcomes, and it was on the Bush administration's radar almost 20 years ago. Furthermore, the pandemic has demonstrated how broken our healthcare system is, how vulnerable we are to hunger and homelessness and the cultural destructiveness of those inequities. We can't just sweep that under the rug and pretend it's OK. After two hundred years of American exceptionalism, it's time to own up to the fact that we're not all we're cracked up to be, but a little self-awareness could lead to action that would give us something to really boast about.

Psychologically, yes, this has been a challenging year, though in my case, much of that had to do with other factors outside of the pandemic. But realistically, my societal rank allowed me to coast through the year with minimal risk or difficulty. I'm not going to insult anyone who had to stand in line for food by complaining I had to have my wine delivered to me. I'm definitely not going to claim entitlement to freedom of masks when the FedEx delivery woman has to enter a crowded warehouse and then go door to door dropping things off to uppity suburbanites who get to work from home. We might all have our struggles, but they're not the same.

As we emerge from this, we need to do a better job at being a functional society. I don't think that's political, it's about basic human respect.

When I met seven strangers in 1992: The Real World

posted by Jeff | Thursday, March 11, 2021, 10:24 PM | comments: 0

When I got home from my freshman year of college, in 1992, I almost immediately fell into a routine of watching MTV, which was not available on the cable system in Ashland, Ohio. Back then, it really was Music Television, but they had a few shows, including something new called The Real World. The premise was simple enough: Throw seven people into a loft, living together, document their interactions, and see what happens when "people stop being polite, and start getting real."

I was completely infatuated with the show, in part because documentary filmmaking was interesting to me even then, but also because it involved people my age who were passionate. They were people I wanted to be around. Everything going on in the world then, and the focus in the show on race, was a conversation not being had anywhere else. There was no reality TV back then, so we were seeing a genuine experiment at the time, which of course the critics hated. Even then, us Gen-X'ers were pretty skeptical of everything, and to avoid being called naive, I think we all felt like it was a little contrived. I mean, what could possibly happen when you put a Black activist and a southern white girl who never left home together, right?

But going back and seeing clips of the show now, I don't believe it was contrived at all. Sure, the producers had to expect some level of conflict, but what they captured was raw and I think very real. The casting brilliance wasn't the diversity as much as it was the fact that every last one of them were artists and performers. They were deep feelers, naive themselves, and vulnerable by nature. The intense arguments were memorable, but even with the immaturity of that age, they had real, important conversations about race. It's literally everything coming back to the forefront in the last year, but the difference I think is that they were willing to go there back then, whereas now, people don't. In fact, that context, seeing history repeat itself, makes me feel like my generation really dropped the ball. Many of us were pretty "woke" in those days, but as life happened, we didn't do much with it. Talk about white privilege.

Paramount+ (not sure why all streaming services have to end in "+") is doing a short series putting the roommates back in that loft for a few days, and they put the first episode for free on YouTube. Maybe if there's a free trial I'll binge it, because I'm super curious. Every one of those people were flawed in different ways, but I really did like them all. Like everyone my age, we're at that spot where we are contemplative about the choices we made then, and how we choose to proceed. There's more past than future, and fucking around without consequence isn't a thing anymore.

I had a lot of feelings that summer, and it was lonely. But I had the roommates on The Real World. It was the right thing at the right time. And because there was no blueprint for that sort of thing, it was probably the only time that a reality show was real, not a mess of attention whoring. Subsequent seasons never had the integrity or authenticity of that one, perhaps with the exception of half the San Francisco cast, as Pedro Zamora really put a face to the AIDS crisis.

There are two NASA's

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 7, 2021, 10:49 PM | comments: 0

The landing of Perseverance on Mars was super exciting, in a weird, it-happened-12-minutes ago sort of way. The entire process of dropping the thing on the planet was clever, but seemed strangely complex. Putting a rover on Mars has a great many specific scientific missions. It's there to look for signs of life, a precursor to understanding our own origins, and set up humanity as a potential interplanetary species.

I believe there is also symbolic value in what we can achieve as humans, and putting a machine on another planet that can autonomously land there is not a small achievement. This is the part of NASA that we celebrate, that we can be proud of.

There's another part of NASA that isn't so great. Right now, that part is the program driving the Space Launch System, the SLS, and Orion, the crewed vessel that is supposed to sit on top of it. It hasn't really had a durable mission, other than to vaguely put humans "further" in space, meaning the moon and perhaps Mars. After spending $20 billion on SLS alone, it has yet to leave the ground. When and if it finally does, it will be used once, and thrown away. It's essentially made of Space Shuttle parts, which were designed in the 1970's. If SLS has a mission, it's to fulfill its Congressional mandate to be built. Science is not driving the program.

The weird thing is that we've seen this movie before. It crushes me to admit this, as someone who loved the Space Shuttle dearly as a child, but the Shuttle program was an enormous failure. Its core design goal was to create an inexpensive vehicle that could be quickly turned around and reused. It was never that. And as we learned after losing two crews, the normalization of deviance, as this essay explains, became normal. The booster O-rings were allowed to deteriorate a little, even though they weren't designed to fail at all.

The Space Shuttle was certainly a useful vehicle, responsible for a great many payloads, including much of the International Space Station, but one can argue it involved unnecessary risk and extraordinary cost, at $1.5 billion average per launch. The mission of the Shuttle wasn't clear until there was a market for hauling military payloads, the IIS and carrying Hubble (and later fixing it).

While JPL, the Jet Propulsion Lab, has had a focused mission of exploration and expanding our scientific knowledge of the universe, the flying rocket mission was for most of NASA's history to do stuff before the Soviets/Russians did. That's certainly a patriotic goal, but especially during Apollo, the optics weren't great in the context of the civil rights struggle. Many believed the government could be spending money on more important, terrestrial things.

SpaceX and a number of other smaller players have made hauling stuff into orbit a legitimate business, greatly pushing the cost down. (United Launch Alliance, a co-op between Lockheed and Boeing, has made it a business as well, but not with shrinking costs.) The Falcon 9 is on pace to outnumber Shuttle launches this year, and exceed its success rate (while it too is now carrying humans). What's interesting about these commercial endeavors is that they're not the mess of subcontractors patching together a system the way Shuttle was and SLS is. They don't have to check boxes to satisfy a mandate from Congress. There is clarity in their missions.

I'm still a fan of NASA, and believe it's an important part of the American story. But the spaceflight side of it needs vision and purpose, and it shouldn't be led by a rotating group of political appointees that changes with every presidential administration. At this point, leaving the lift to the commercial entities might just be the best thing to do. Let NASA concentrate on the science.

So what did 25-year-old me buy?

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 7, 2021, 5:09 PM | comments: 0

In my recent letter to my 25-year-old self, I lectured me about buying crap and not saving anything, because it's going to make getting to a comfortable retirement spot harder. That got me to thinking, what did I actually spend money on? Since I still track my spending in a piece of software called Money '97, yeah, from 24 years ago, it turns out I know because I'm a digital hoarder.

What's useful about this? It compares how a young professional lived financially to someone today. It's not particularly useful to compare to my own finances today, in part because I have a child, electric space cars and a McMansion in suburban Orange County, Florida, so the circumstances are pretty different. There were a few surprises though, because adjusted for inflation, I spent less on eating out in 2020 than in 1998, which is not entirely surprising given the pandemic. I also spent less on auto insurance. I spent less on power (electricity, natural gas, gasoline), which is super interesting when you're comparing a small 2-bedroom apartment to 4,200 square feet of difficult to cool in summer house, but that's because we now have electric cars and a solar plant.

Here's the scene: In 1998 I'm entering my third year in my first real, non-retail, non-radio job, working for the City of Medina, Ohio, as their cable TV coordinator. I run a department of 2.5 people and an annual budget of about $110,000. My salary is $28,468, or about $13.68 an hour. In 2020 dollars, that's $45,548, or $21.89. My not-yet-first-wife Stephanie is a full-time graduate student, and working part-time retail. Our finances are mostly mixed, except for her car payment, and she contributes an additional $4,269 that year. The apartment is your typical third floor walk-up built in the late 80's, 1,090 square feet, and at the end of the year, $615, or about $970 in today's dollars (amazingly, the same place is available today for $950, so right in line with inflation). I drove a leased Toyota Corolla, and then replaced it with another one mid-year, purchasing by loan.

Here's what we spent, in 1998 and 2020 dollars, and the monthly cost in 2020 dollars:

Category 1998 dollars 2020 dollars 2020 monthly
Gross salary $28,468.00 $45,548.80 $3,795.73
Net salary $22,937.00 $36,699.20 $3,058.27
Partner income $4,269.00 $6,830.40 $569.20
Gasoline $362.00 $579.20 $48.27
Car payments (lease $223) $1,337.00 $2,139.20 $178.27
Car payments (loan $352) $2,112.00 $3,379.20 $281.60
License plate $53.00 $84.80 $7.07
Maintenance $36.00 $57.60 $4.80
Insurance $1,095.00 $1,752.00 $146.00
Student loans ($273) $3,276.00 $5,241.60 $436.80
Credit card interest $639.00 $1,022.40 $85.20
Cable TV & Internet $426.00 $681.60 $56.80
Phones (2 cell lines: $323, land: $463) $786.00 $1,257.60 $104.80
Pager $192.00 $307.20 $25.60
Electricity $749.00 $1,198.40 $99.87
Natural gas $167.00 $267.20 $22.27
Rent $7,310.00 $11,696.00 $974.67
Healthcare (out of pocket) $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
Clothing $367.00 $587.20 $48.93
Dining out $1,894.00 $3,030.40 $252.53
Groceries $1,502.00 $2,403.20 $200.27
Books/magazines $250.00 $400.00 $33.33
Concert/theater tickets $144.00 $230.40 $19.20
"Entertaining" - cash $395.00 $632.00 $52.67
Movies/rentals $151.00 $241.60 $20.13
CD's/DVD's $236.00 $377.60 $31.47
Toys/Video games $256.00 $409.60 $34.13
Computer $2,220.00 $3,552.00 $296.00
Photo (lens and film processing) $599.00 $958.40 $79.87
Postage $80.00 $128.00 $10.67
Misc./cash $238.00 $380.80 $31.73
Hotels $260.00 $416.00 $34.67
Airfare $492.00 $787.20 $65.60
Car rentals/cab $340.00 $544.00 $45.33
Misc. vacation, theme parks $431.00 $689.60 $57.47
TOTAL INCOME $27,206.00 $43,529.60 $3,627.47
TOTAL EXPENSE $28,395.00 $45,432.00 $3,786.00


You'll note the total expense is greater than the income, which should come as no surprise given the expense of credit card interest. Where was the spending unreasonable? It's some combination of the "dining out" and "entertaining" lines, since I didn't spend cash on much of anything beyond going out. Over $300 a month for two people eating out seems like an awful lot relative to our income. We don't spend that much for three of us right now, though even in non-pandemic days, going out for lunch much of the week and going to theme parks, we top out at $390/month for three of us. I also spent a ton on computer parts, in a state of continual upgrade, like an addict to computer performance. Actually talking on a cell phone in those days was expensive, sitting in my car more for emergencies than anything else, so I still paid for a pager in those days, also probably unnecessary. People had land lines in those days.

Notably, 14% of my net income (11% of my gross) went to paying student loans. The Federal Reserve said last year that today's average payments are $393, so I was higher than average relative to today, and certainly paid a higher interest rate at 8%, compared to today's 2.75% for an undergrad loan. (Actually, due to Covid-19, the rates are 0% and forbearance goes through September.) I'm just an anecdote of course, but I went to a private school that was more expensive and had to borrow more. My dad pitched in the last few grand each year. According to the averages, my circumstances were not materially different from those found today, which is why I struggle with the debt problem (not to mention graduate school mania and borrowing for living expenses). Maybe someone will convince me the problem is that serious.

Going back to my original self-loathing over not saving for retirement, what the numbers don't show is that as a government employee in Ohio, I didn't pay into social security, I paid into the Public Employees Retirement System, which is like SS only you actually get back what you put in at 10% of your salary, plus 14% contributed from your employer, plus the market growth of the fund. And like a moron, I cashed it out when I left government, paying the taxes on the whole thing and getting none of the employer match. So that total of 24% of my salary, $6,832, using market indices as a guide, would be worth about $39,400. So yeah, had I left PERS alone from those three years, it would be worth more than $100k today. I am a big box of stupid.

And I could have put away another 5% if I wasn't paying all of that credit card interest. I could have found a way, and not materially lived less comfortably. Granted, I don't know how any of that would have played out in the divorce, because in Ohio you generally split all of your assets, and at the time, all I had was a (very) little house equity.

Steph and I had a lot of fun that year, and the excess spending on the computer stuff had nothing to do with that. Backing off of that, we would have had the same experiences, for the most part. Still, if I made better choices, I wouldn't be eyeing retirement with concern that I can't afford it.

Lessons on capitalism, socialism, communism and fascism

posted by Jeff | Saturday, March 6, 2021, 12:08 PM | comments: 0

One of the problems with the Internet and those attracted to ideologues is that they tend to view the world in a binary fashion, or they simply don't go deep enough to understand the basis of their opinions. Too often, they're hooked on something, sometimes willingly, without a complete picture.

The banter about capitalism versus socialism is probably the worst of it, in part because they believe the two ideas can not coexist, or they don't see that they've been a product of both since the day they were born. Every modern democracy has embraced both of these systems to varying degrees and balance. Ideologues will tell you that they're incompatible opposites because, well, because they're ideologues. They are not mutually exclusive, and societies have developed social contracts that describe the balance of the two.

First off, capitalism describes a system where private ownership of for-profit businesses do stuff, as opposed to the state. Socialism suggests that some portion of the system is controlled by the broader population, which in a democracy is the state. (It's worth noting that Marxism takes socialism to an extreme that suggests all production should be state controlled to eliminate capitalism and embrace communism, which is not the same thing. I'll get to that.) We can look at American society today and draw pretty clear lines about what fits into each of these buckets today.

From the day an American is born, there's a chance they were born in a subsidized hospital. From that hospital, you drove home on roads built by the government. You grow up eating food from farms that were subsidized. Most people go to public schools, and if they didn't, their parents paid taxes to fund public schools. Police and fire are also provided by the government that you pay taxes for. National defense happens because of the military operated by the federal government, and in fact, no one spends as much on military as the US. Medicare and Social Security help to take care of us when we're old.

So why would we embrace socialism at all, in many of those cases? I believe at a fundamental level that there are things that capitalism is not inherently intended to do because there is no profit or motivation to embrace it without creating the kind of destructive inequity that brings down a society. History is littered with this kind of carnage. One of the reasons often cited for the fall of Rome was the gross inequity of the rich and the poor, which weakened the whole system. England saw it in the 15th Century, France in the 17th Century. The strange thing is that the modern democracies that have recognized this risk, especially the Nordic nations, have on average happier people and there are still rich people.

Public school is a great example of why we partially embrace socialism. A purely capitalist approach would not favor making sure that every person has a basic education. However, this basic education entitlement provides for a better chance to become a contributing member of society, and certainly contributes to a broad outcome of a society that can compete well with others.

This is one of the reasons that I happen to believe healthcare should be in that bucket. The current system is not inherently built to create better outcomes because it tends to limit and in some cases prevent healthcare instead of pay for it. People who want to keep the existing system in favor of a single-payer system seem to completely ignore this.

Ideologues and their fans tend not to acknowledge that we enjoy a hybrid system of capitalism and socialism, and right-leaning and "conservative" factions tend to be just as willing to ignore that they embrace socialism and government spending on things they deem worthy. Where they go really wrong is in two areas: One, they regularly compose slippery slope arguments about the effects of socialism, and two, they confuse socialism with communism and exhibit a total disregard for what is actually fascism. Healthcare exemplifies this.

On the first point, they're quick to say that, "Socialized medicine will lead to decline and government control of everything, just look at Venezuela!" Hugo Chavez rose to power by adopting a populist theme around providing for everyone, including on the issue of healthcare, but intent matters. He seized control of everything through his popularity, and brought fascism to his government, silencing his opponents and anyone who questioned his authority. When the oil demand dried up, the thing making the nation temporarily rich, people stopped tolerating fascism because they were suffering. Fascism destroyed Venezuela, not socialism, and definitely not socialized medicine.

In fact, if that's your slippery slope argument, it's pretty poor when you leave out the success of Canada, Japan, UK, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, The Netherlands, Ireland, France, Germany... basically all of Europe and western civilization but not the US. Not only that, but our rates of disease, infant mortality and longevity are worse than almost all of those nations. Look it up, these are facts. There's a whole lot of correlation between outcomes and the system. You can't make a slippery slope argument when literally all of the developed nations in the world are successfully doing what you fear.

Another problem is that people seem to confuse socialism with communism. They're not the same thing. Democratic societies using some principles of socialism tend to use government as the means to produce certain mutually beneficial enterprises. Infrastructure is of course one of the largest components, but so is public education, public safety, the military and already in the US some parts of healthcare, mostly for older folks and those with disabilities. No American says, "I don't want to pay for the fire department just because my neighbor's house burns down!" Individuals still own property in this system. Communism, on the other hand, means the government owns everything and there is no private property. Sure, Marx believed that communism was amped up and ultimate socialism, but in practice, people don't want that.

Demonstrating America's poor history education, and the silliness of people on the Internet, some will equate socialism with the Nazis. If they cracked a book, they would discover that Hitler ran the socialists out of Germany or had them killed, because that's what fascists do. Fascism is an interesting thing in history, as it's possible for it to arise from the left and the right.

If you were able to drive on a plowed road in a blizzard this year, that's socialism. Does it feel like a dirty word in that context? I'm all about making my own economic destiny, provided it's fair and equal for all, but it doesn't mean there aren't certain moral obligations like public safety, infrastructure and healthcare that aren't well suited for taxpayer-funded operation. There are important debates to have about things like subsidized college and other progressive causes, for sure, and I'm still not sure where I stand on those, but I'm not going to avoid the debate because of some misunderstanding around the "S word" that is already an important component to our society.

Simon, 11

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

Like everything in every part of life, it's both hard to believe a year has passed and completely obvious. The challenges were a lot like last year, amplified by the remote learning last year, and not greatly improved since going back. He's basically missed out on a year of social interaction.

Despite the challenges, therapy has been helpful, we're navigating behavior, and at least part of the year we seemed to do OK with ADHD meds. Simon has gone all-in with video games, and we've tried to balance that with other activities to varying degrees of success. What makes me happy is that he continues to develop his creative muscles, gravitating toward games that he has to build stuff. Except when we play Halo and blow each other up, and his twitchy little fingers are getting better than my own.

Parenting has not been a picnic, but we've had some good picnics as parents. Simon is remarkable at times in unexpected ways, and he's an extraordinarily emotional and feeling little person with a lot of love to give. I love that about him, the way he reacts sometimes to a song or a movie. I can't wait for the time when we can all have adventures again, out in the world.

We took a lot of selfies this year. As one does.

Lego was a big part of our year, more than in previous years. He got this sweet Millennium Falcon for Christmas, and I don't think there are any sets he can't build on his own at this point.

At the start of the pandemic, we started riding bikes more, and decided to try frisbee. He's not the most athletic kid, but he's starting to get better at it.

In July, we stayed at a beach place for a few days. This kid loves the ocean, and getting beat up by the waves.

August brought the ragdoll kittens, Finn and Poe, into our lives, with a great deal of love. Poe showed how much he loves belly rubs early on.

Remote learning in the fall was rough, but Poe did his best to help.

Night time rituals were difficult, but one of the things that we should probably do more of is writing things down at night. Purging his mind before bed proved to be useful, and anything to get him writing is good.

He still falls asleep in the weirdest positions. I'm pretty sure he was picking the callus on his foot when he passed out.

Finn is a very patient cat when it comes to a small human that wants to pick him up in awkward ways and get all up in his grill.

January brought an opportunity to go back to the beach, where we crashed in a private rental for five nights. It could sleep 10, but it was just the three of us, and it was glorious.

Hey 25-year-old me, stop buying all that shit!

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 3, 2021, 12:44 AM | comments: 0

It took me years, but I eventually got over the poor decision to move back to the Cleveland from Seattle. Oddly enough, letting go of that regret in part became easier by taking on a different regret, which was spending money I didn't have on pointless shit in my 20's. The pandemic and middle age only make this worse.

While we certainly could have made Seattle work in terms of home ownership eventually, there's no question it would have taken many years more to get there. And with many more years having actually occurred since then, boy am I glad we're living in Central Florida, where the McMansions are cheap and appreciating quickly. A fair amount of our net worth, on paper, is tied up in our house now, which is an extraordinary change from being underwater eight years ago.

But the last few years I've been in a state of background anxiety over the fact that retirement is now closer than college graduation, and that's horrifying. Not only did I piss away money on things in my 20's for which I have nothing to show for, but I didn't even start a retirement account until I was 33, and didn't really even put anything in it until the next year. By conventional wisdom, I should have accumulated around $140,000 when I was 35. I had exactly $1,000. Getting divorced in that period of time had some positive long-term outcomes, among them being that taking care of yourself wasn't just about being healthy, it was thinking about your future.

When I got to Microsoft in 2009, they were known for great compensation, and at coastal wages. Being a newlywed with a child on the way, I got my shit together and participated in the 401k. Over that two years, I contributed about 5% of my salary, and the company would match half of that. In other words, I made an extra 2.5% just for getting my part in. It was tight, for sure, because we were still paying for both Cleveland houses and the Seattle rental. But note to 25-year-old me: That contribution multiplied by 6 in less than 10 years. And I can't touch it until I'm 59.5 without the feds taxing the shit out of me.

Could I afford to save like that in my 20's? Well, I balanced my checking account with Microsoft Money '97, which I still use, so I know what I spent money on. The answer is, yes, I could have saved probably 5% of the $25,000 I made in 1997. That would have been $104 per month, which apparently was what I spent going out to eat (and drinking beer) every two weeks. (By the way... the bills I had then included long distance phone service, a pager and rent of $615.) If I would have invested just that much every month for all 23 years, I would have $71,000 today. Time does extraordinary things to the money you save.

I'm not sure I would call my lack of discipline a regret, but it doesn't feel good in my 40's. If social security survives the next 20 years, we'll be comfortable. If it doesn't, we'll have to be disciplined until that time, which will be less fun given our desire to do stuff. Invest, my friends, especially if you're young. Put something into an IRA. It'll be worth more than the used beer you evacuate every weekend.

Considering a video camera trade

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 1, 2021, 11:55 PM | comments: 0

About three months after I bought my Canon C200 video camera last summer, Canon released the C70. At the time, I rationalized that the trade-offs between the two models made it kind of a toss-up about which one was "better." With time and experience with the C200, and reading the observations of others and their experiences with the C70, I'm starting to feel like I should trade mine in.

If I'm going to do that, it might be urgent, for a few reasons. First, the C70 adopts the new RF lens mount, which is obviously the future when Canon is not likely to introduce new EF mount lenses. I imagine that they'll be available for a very long time, but their line of still cameras make it pretty clear where the future is. The C200 is also four years old, with no update, and if they do stop making it, I imagine its value will plummet. Even when I bought it, the price was a couple of grand less than when it was introduced.

The first thing that I rationalized was that because the C200 had raw recording, it didn't matter if the non-raw codec was recording 8-bit 4:2:0 (meaning it sees 16 million colors instead of a billion, and sub-samples the color resolution). As it turns out, raw isn't great because the file sizes are enormous, and an hour of video at 24 fps requires half a terrabyte of storage. I learned almost immediately how impractical that is. While you can transcode to a more manageable codec, that's another step and you still need to fit the original at least for a little while on your disks. Furthermore, the less color information seems to be the source of things getting ugly when I attempt to adjust for my sometimes poor exposure or color tweaking. This might be me and my weak skills, but I've seen color banding by the time I upload online, and a lot of softness around the edges of punchy colors.

The image quality is pretty great, provided I expose correctly. That's the case when I'm lighting a room, but I often get it wrong outdoors or daylight lit interiors (yeah, I'm talking cat videos). As others have described, the C200 is a little more forgiving if you over expose a stop or two, but not so much if you under expose. You get a lot of noise in the shadows, and I've seen plenty of that. Again, that's me not using the tool effectively, but many tests on the Internets show how much the C70 let's you get away with, well, inexperience. And yes, you can get away with it shooting raw, but as I said, that's often impractical.

There are some little things that add up, too. The C70 can do auto ISO, which I've learned from the R6 still camera (I need to do a review of that) is a surprisingly useful feature when you want to achieve a certain depth of field by way of aperture and sharpness by shutter speed. It's another creative option. It also runs longer on the same batteries, can do glorious 120 fps slow motion in 4K, all-I recording up to 30 fps, and the EF mount adapter is actually a speed booster, meaning you'll see nearly the entire frame of what your lens sees, focused on that super-35 sensor with more light and sharpness.

I'm trying to learn from buying into aging or unpopular technology, as I did with my old Panasonic AF100. The Micro Four-Thirds mount appears to have no future (glad I only bought two lenses for it). It feels like there's a shift happening.