Archive: January, 2022

Growing up roller coaster nerd

posted by Jeff | Saturday, January 29, 2022, 1:10 PM | comments: 0

CoasterBuzz turns 22 tomorrow, which means PointBuzz is closing in on 24. That's like a hundred years in Internet time. In that time, I've had the opportunity to go to a lot of media previews for attractions. The first one I ever brought Simon to was Cedar Point's animatronic dinosaurs, and he seemed to really love it. The next year, I brought him to the opening of GateKeeper. Of course, he wasn't tall enough to ride, but he still enjoyed being there. He was also there for the opening of Banshee at Kings Island, and he's been to a bunch of the SeaWorld Christmas events, too. But yesterday, he finally got to do one where he was tall enough, and we had our first ride ever on IceBreaker recorded.

Even though he's 11, and tall enough for everything, he's still a little apprehensive about a great many rides. Launches, height and inversions concern him, as he's not sure what to expect. He's even regressed on certain rides, and won't do Tower of Terror for reasons I don't entirely understand. Still, he's fascinated by how the rides work, how the control systems go, and even the operational angles as far as queues and loading and such. He's had some breakout favorites, like Hagrid's Motorbikes and Expedition Everest. Between those two rides, that covers launches and backward stuff, but I haven't been able to talk him into Mako or Rock-n-Rollercoaster. So leading up to this event, I wasn't sure if he would actually do IceBreaker. It's being a marketed as a family ride, which I think it is, but it has a pretty high thrill factor. It starts with a back-and-forth launch, and there are out-of-your-seat airtime moments.

The interesting thing about this event is that they had it set up so literally everyone could record a reverse point-of-view video of their ride. They had a pretty good system down to make it happen, too, though I was kind of bummed there wasn't time to do it a second time. What it meant was that I could see how he reacted, in a genuine first-time way. During the last backward launch, I was a little worried he was going to spew, but by the time it was over, he loved it. You couldn't tell by looking, but he was pretty excited about it. I was super proud of him, because trying new things and being uncomfortable is not his thing (and it wasn't when I was his age).

I'm not sure how long I'll get to do this sort of thing, but I'm so happy that I got to spend this time with him and experience it as we did. I hope I get to do it with him for a "big" ride at some point.

Google's free ride is over, and it's chaotic

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, January 25, 2022, 4:05 PM | comments: 0

After 15 years, Google is ending free access to its G Suite, which started out as "Google Apps For Your Domain." In practical terms for people like me, it was just Gmail using my own domain. This is a pretty serious bummer, because if I want to continue using it, it's $6 per user per month. In addition to me, Diana and Simon, a number of friends and family members are using it, one of which is my mom, and I can't easily expect her to switch to something else.

First off, this seems cosmically stupid to me because, again, in real terms, I'm just using Gmail with a custom domain. That doesn't really cost them anything extra. Second, and this is the part that's far worse for a great many people, that account is basically the core of your identity, on every Google service. For whatever reason, I instinctively have always used a Gmail account for that sort of thing (my Android phone, apps from the Play Store, etc.), but a great many people have not. Now, in order to just keep access to whatever they bought, they need to pay for the G Suite account forever because there's no way to transfer those purchases. That's messed up. I imagine people also use it for third-party authentication on any number of services that allow you to do so. Again, the footprint can be enormous.

My suspicion is that they'll push out the end date, because almost everything that Google has ended (like the shitty end to Google Music) ended up lingering. I don't think they've fully thought any of this through, and the identity issue in particular is at the very least troublesome, and potentially the kind of thing that will result in a class action by some enterprising lawyer. Google has never said, "Don't use your free G Suite identity to buy this, because it might not be free forever." This is the entire problem with DRM. Admittedly, it's a little better with movies now that Movies Anywhere acts as a synchronization bridge between all the services, but I don't really know if those hundreds of dollars of movies will really be "mine" forever.

This is pretty shitty overall, because as you know, Google's business is to make you the product. In return for being the product, it's assumed that you're gonna get some things in return for that. I get enterprises paying for G Suite, with more storage and retention and security features, but for a family using their own domain name, none of this is otherwise functionally different from having a Gmail account. And the thing is, if there was some kind of family option at $100 a year or something, I would pay for that, but it doesn't exist. They have Google One, which I already pay for to augment photo storage, but it can't do custom domains.

So what about competing services? Microsoft has its 365 service, which is similar, but it's the same price starting in March, so I'm not sure there's much of a win there. They do have a family offering, and it's only $20 for six people through employee friend channels. Unfortunately, it doesn't do custom domain names, so that's not an option.

Way back in the day, when I started running my own server in 2001, I doubled it as a mail server. I spent $150 on the software, but it was a pretty great arrangement. I switched to the Google in 2006 and was happy to not have to mess with it anymore.

We'll see if Google changes its mind, but I doubt it. My love-hate relationship with Google is definitely slanting toward the hate again, after they just made up some ground with the outstanding Pixel 6 phone.

We don't need to be protected against "white fragility"

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 20, 2022, 5:36 PM | comments: 0

From the party that brought you "fuck your feelings" T-shirts at Trump rallies comes a Florida bill designed to keep white people from feeling guilty or uncomfortable about America's history of racism. This is actually a thing. I can't believe it, but this is why I call it "Flori-duh."

If you haven't been paying attention, the white grievance movement (that's really a thing, too) has been fixated on something call "critical race theory." If you've never heard of that, it's because it's not really at thing. Or at least, it's not a thing outside of a specific area of law school education that deals with identifying systemic racism and reversing it by way of the courts. It isn't a part of K-12 curriculums anywhere. What you will find, everywhere, is at least some history around the fact that there was a civil war, and it was around the issue of slavery. It also likely includes history about the civil rights movement, Jim Crow laws and the like. It was part of my public school education nearly 40 years ago, and it's not new or novel in any way.

So what is this law for? Beats me. The text of it is onerous at best, and I don't know how you could possibly enforce it if it's about people's feelings, which you can't control. Take this gem:

“An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex... An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”

You can't prove intent to make people feel bad. This bill literally says no one should get their feelings hurt. As someone who has been accused of being a "snowflake" by people aligned with the folks that wrote this bill, I would find it ironic and hilarious, if it weren't for the fact that it's probably going to be the law until it's challenged in court. This part is the worst:

...classroom instruction and curriculum may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view...

That there was racism and slavery is not a point of view. It actually happened, and it happened because of the white people in power at the time.

It's worse than that though, because it also requires that "patriotic" historical wins be taught. For example:

Members of the instructional staff of the public schools... shall teach efficiently and faithfully... The history and content of the Declaration of Independence, including national sovereignty, natural law, self evident truth, equality of all persons, limited government, popular sovereignty, and inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property, and how they form the philosophical foundation of our government.

This should ring a bell, because it's one of the core tenets of fascism, to emphasize only the glory of a perfect nation, never its flaws.

To be clear, we should learn all of these things, but a real part of our history is our inability to deliver on the founding ideals. I often recall the Mark Twain line in the Epcot attraction The American Experience, who says, "We still had some things to learn the hard way. It seems a whole bunch of folks found out 'We the people' didn't yet mean all the people." American history is intertwined with its original sin.

As a white heterosexual male raised Christian and born late in the 20th century, it's true that I had nothing to do with slavery. It's also true that I am not necessarily racist at heart. That said, the people on the wrong end of racism, which is objectively embedded in our institutions, can't fix the problem alone. It isn't enough to not be racist, we have to be anti-racist. I realize that may make white people uncomfortable. That's OK. The BLM protests of 2020 put a bright light on the topic, and I spent a fair amount of time reflecting on whether or not I was helping fix the problems or allowing them to persist.

So here we are, in 2021 in Florida, with a legislature and governor, led by conservative Republicans, who are trying to make not hurting your feelings the law. It's completely absurd. Here's the thing: There is no moral equivalence between the actual continued discrimination against people of color and white people who feel uncomfortable because that discrimination exists. If it makes you uncomfortable, then get on board to change it. This should be a solved problem, but to deny that it isn't is to invalidate the legitimate call for change.

The civics of an unremarkable and disappointing Biden presidency

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 20, 2022, 3:53 PM | comments: 0

A year ago, my little family unit was spending the week at a rental house on the beach in Melbourne. The weather was chilly but sunny, and it was a great chance to recharge, even while working and schooling remotely. In the middle of that week was the inauguration, which felt like someone flipped a switch and we went from batshit crazy to, well nothing, really.

A year later, Biden hasn't instigated any real scandals, though some understandably don't agree with his policy. His biggest legislative accomplishment so far is the big infrastructure law, though he's struggling to get anywhere with voting rights and climate change. I'm not sure that's really his fault, because the agenda of his opposition isn't really to create or do anything as much as it is avoid letting him succeed. What he didn't do seems like the win. He hasn't been racist or misogynist, markets aren't fluctuating on reckless tweets, he recognizes foreign dictators for what they are, he respects the press and the courts.

The funny thing about presidents is that they generally have two levers to pull in ways that directly affect people. The first is that they can have legislative agendas that they have to sell to Congress, and few presidents get more than one big thing passed. Biden got his infrastructure, Trump got his tax cut, Obama got the ACA, Bush got his war. The other big thing is that they can set the "tone" for how we move forward. I might argue that this second thing is the most important. Trump failed horribly here, Obama did OK, and even Bush did OK, despite being generally unpopular by the end of his term. Biden has been too quiet and isn't using this lever much at all.

The electorate is generally unenthused, despite Biden at least brining a quiet normalcy back to the White House. It's unenthused because we're still dealing with Covid, and there are perceptions that the "economy" is in bad shape, in part because of inflation. Let's look at the two parts of that, but through the lens of whether or not any president would have a different effect here.

First off, the reality is that economy is mostly trending in the right direction. Unemployment continues to fall, wages are rising (especially at the low end), the US GDP had its best gains since the 80's. Inflation is exceeding 6%, but the low-end wages are up 8%. There's a lot of nuance here, but if you adjust for the pandemic stall of 2020, the trend line actually balances out to where it's been going since the end of the recession 2009. We're also looking at a year where people weren't spending money, and accumulating record savings, followed by a year of cash-rich people desperate to spend and do stuff emerging from the pandemic. This is absolutely basic economics, the concept of supply and demand, as taught in any fifth grade class room. When demand for stuff goes up, so do prices. When a pandemic makes it harder to get goods to people, that makes it worse. This is obvious math.

A lot of people further complain about gas prices, but despite the cries of politicians for my entire lifetime, there isn't much we can do about it other than use less gas. Oil is a global commodity. No one nation can do anything about the cost of it, whether it's being produced in your country or not. Do you think with China's insane growth that you can decrease demand? The answer is no.

Now, what can a president do about any of this? The truth is, not much. Again, the global economics are part of the reason. I would argue that a president can be somewhat influential, but Americans in particular don't care to look at the underlying causes or acknowledge the basic economics. We're mostly immune to oil prices, because we have electric cars. Our energy cost is heavily regulated, and on a per-kWh basis, is lower than it was five years ago. If that weren't enough, almost two-thirds of our energy comes from the sun, which is "free" to generate, forever. If you want "energy independence," look to the sky. The technology exists, today, and it works. We haven't had a gas tank in seven years.

The global supply chain will presumably stabilize as Covid recedes, we just don't know how long that will take. Can a president do much about that? Well, they can make it worse, but they can't speed it along. Undercutting local authority to mitigate the disease, or spreading bullshit information, has undoubtedly caused this to drag on longer than it had to, so it's safe to say that Trump made that worse. Biden is all-in on testing and mask distribution as of this week, but he should have been on it a year ago. I suppose you can credit him with pushing his administration to create an actual vaccine distribution plan, but he dropped the ball in selling it, to some degree.

Given all of that, Biden has been wholly unremarkable in his first year. The prediction of the collapse of society-by-Biden of course hasn't materialized. But I think we're ready for someone who is truly transformational. I don't know if that's possible though when a significant wing of the minority party (and they are the minority party in terms of population representation) cares only about power, and little for democracy itself. That's a real problem. A positive cult of personality, one not based on fear and white fragility, is unlikely because people are less motivated by puppies and rainbows compared to fear. We've lost our imagination for a possible better world and replaced it with only the prospect of the worst possible outcomes. I don't know how you solve that problem.

Indeed, I stick to what I've said for decades: We get the government that we deserve. I'm just more concerned now that the reason for that is because "we" aren't actually represented.

Unlocking the learning

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, January 19, 2022, 1:21 PM | comments: 0

We had a meeting today with school district people with the results of Simon's various diagnostic evaluations, almost a year late. This is the stuff that his IEP (individual education plan) would be based on if he were in the public school. The results are encouraging, actually, because they layout exactly what's challenging him, and maybe offer a way forward.

The standout metrics were around intelligence, which suggest that he probably has above-average overall intelligence, but his ability to construct a narrative about what's in his head and write it down is impaired. Furthermore, the impairment may in part be rooted in anxiety, which is getting in the way of improving those skills. This is not that surprising given the way a piece of paper with blank lines causes him to freak out a bit. The new information is the confirmation of what I hoped for, but didn't know, that there's a smart kid in there.

So on one hand, it's reassuring that he doesn't suffer from some kind of intrinsic deficit in his intelligence, but on the other, learning is impeded by the inability to translate what's in his head to coherent storytelling. Those skills can presumably be developed, but the anxiety might be getting in the way. This is still me and my bias trying to be optimistic, yes, but it also seems like we have a target: work the anxiety.

Meanwhile, our anxiety is high because we're not impressed with the private school and how they actually measure progress. It's like their intent is to keep kids happy until they're 18 and send them into the world. They can't objectively measure progress because they don't establish any real baseline. So we're like, what level is he actually working at? I mean, we could help him out if we knew, but we don't. We're not sure what he's going to do next year. His social development has been extraordinary, but academically we literally have no idea. If he goes back to public, they would do a new IEP immediately, and based on the assessments just completed, he would likely get extra services targeting the areas that he's behind, but otherwise be in mainstream classes with certain accommodations.

We're getting some other opinions...

Finishing Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 17, 2022, 12:11 AM | comments: 0

Friday was a really exciting day. It was the official opening of Steinmetz Hall, the third theater in the Dr. Phillips Center complex here in Orlando. The building initially opened with the Walt Disney and Alexis & Jim Pugh theaters, with an empty lot where Steinmetz would eventually go. Whatever amount of OCD I might have, it was definitely triggered by the fact that the façade of the building was asymmetrical. It wasn't terrible in the public view, and you had to really look hard to see where the building was meant to continue. There were some spots backstage and around the dock where it was more obvious, but again, you had to look.

I had my first look inside in late August, 2014. I had just started working mostly remotely for a Tampa company that had a small office across the street from the center in downtown Orlando. To this point, I didn't now much about what was going on, and I was quite frankly shocked by the whole thing. I was surprised even to see that downtown was actually a fairly vibrant place. With Diana's work history, I was like, you need to get in on the action! We were visiting the building for an open house when conversations about volunteering turned into conversations about working there, and she landed a front-of-house role that eventually promoted her up to part-time house manager. Meanwhile, I got in touch with their in-house creative guy and did some volunteer video work for him. That led me to an opportunity where he put a staff T-shirt on me and I roamed all over that building, through any door that wasn't locked. I explored most of the Disney and Pugh theaters during a subscriber preview, where people found their seats for the Broadway series. It is surprisingly not straight forward navigating through that building, and I never did find my way into the pit.

The first grand opening happened in December 2014, and I got a bunch of photos then. A couple of weeks later I saw the first Broadway series show, the reboot of Phantom of The Opera. We also saw Book of Mormon that year, but didn't become subscribers until the second season.

The planners and philanthropists that have been behind this effort, which is an interesting mix of private and public funding involving the county and city, decided to take a phased approach in construction, in part because they didn't have enough money to build out the entire vision up front. They started in 2011 and when the first phase opened in late 2014, they were still in the process of tearing down an old building on the front lawn. Fundraising continued for the concert hall, for which they resumed construction in 2017. The new hall cost around $240 million, with the total building cost over $600 million.

The Walt Disney Theater is built for the typical stage spectacle that you would expect, and the touring shows apparently find it pretty easy to work there. In addition to the Broadway series, we've seen the Orlando ballet there, some kid shows, the Orlando Philharmonic performing live movie scores and even Bill Nye. It's a fantastic venue. In the smaller Pugh, I've only seen Jane Lynch and the Christmas musical variety show she does with Kate Flannery and some other dude and a band.

Steinmetz Hall is a classic concert hall. The sightlines aren't entirely ideal for something like a Broadway show, but it is acoustically tuned like no building on earth. It literally sits on rubber blocks and is so isolated from the outside world that you can't hear it. No sirens or trucks rumbling down the street, no airplanes flying over. You can sit in the back row on the highest level and hear people speak on stage without amplification. The configuration can be changed spectacularly, too. In its near perfect sound state, there are seats all the way around, including behind the stage, as you've likely seen in other concert halls. This back wall, which is called the cassette, weighs many tons but sits on a track, and it can be moved back (in about four hours), at which point they fly in a proscenium and curtains and such for a more traditional setup. If that weren't cool enough, all of the seats in the orchestra section can actually be flipped over and create a flat surface where you can set things up any way you want, including in the round. Diana got to see the seats flip in training and said it was pretty awesome.

This is an extraordinary venue, and in terms of sound, may be one of the best ever built. The people who have spent 20 years pursuing this wanted to do it right, to build something special, and they did it. I remember as a kid piling in on the school bus for a field trip to Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland, seeing some theatrical performance for the first time. Kids all over Orange County will have those same opportunities. Diana has been there for those, and I happened to meet her there once as they were winding down. It's a big deal. With things like that, plus shows like Wicked or Hamilton, the orchestra, comedians, bands, and an arts school (still ramping back up), we have an amazing building here that will outlast us all. That's something for Orlando to be proud of.

Late last year, we decided to become founding donors, for a lot of different reasons. Obviously we care a lot about the arts, given our professional and personal interests, and this institution engages hundreds of thousands of people every year. But I've also come to realize that philanthropy has different flavors. We typically donate to organizations that need help on a continuing operational basis, and I'm sure we'll continue to do so. I felt like it was important to contribute to something that's durable as well, something that will outlast us. This was obviously that kind of opportunity, to be a part of the "arts for every life" mission.

I can't wait to see, or more importantly hear a performance in Steinmetz Hall. What an amazing thing to have here.

The promise of a new season as a coach or athlete

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 16, 2022, 2:12 PM | comments: 0

My friends have a good laugh when I tell them, "Go, sportsball!" in reference to whatever it is that they follow. My appetite for professional sports isn't high, and instead of doubling down on always failing sports teams like most native Clevelanders, I went the other way. My superbowl is getting to see the women's national volleyball team play in the Olympics every four years. And yeah, 2021 (technically 2020) was a great year.

Volleyball is a sport that I know and understand well. It really is a sport of predictable outcomes, and if you can teach people how to react to what's happening and anticipate the outcomes, you can build a great team. I coached high school girls for years prior to marrying Diana and moving to Seattle, and I had what I would consider a lot of success. As much as I would like to credit that to adapting a system that used speed to compensate for size and athleticism, the biggest factor was that I mostly had really motivated kids. My teams consistently punched above their weight class, so to speak, and we won a lot of tournaments.

As a coach, you're usually one of the first people in the gym. Most memories of any gym for any coach or athlete consist of the shouting and cheering and sneaker squeaks on the floor. But just as important to me were those moments of walking into that wide open space, turning on the lights, with no sounds other than the HVAC blowing. Sometimes it included those old lights that made a 60-hertz hum. The reason that these memories are just as vivid for me is because my mind would fill in the blanks about what was possible in that space. Kids could do things they couldn't do before. Teams would form bonds that would last a lifetime. In that dark gym, the future was unwritten, uncertain and exciting.

That potential was limitless, but of course not inevitable. There were always difficult things, like injuries, conflicts, entitled parents (raising entitled kids), days where nothing clicked. But there were perfect plays, new skills being mastered, tournaments won and happy memories made. The range of emotions felt in the drive home was wide, but intense at both ends.

I don't think that there are many things we can do in life that have quite that amount of intensity. There are some close approximations, smaller in scope that I've experienced. Setting up for a big TV shoot, putting up a community theater show, putting together a large presentation with others... those are exciting. But there may never be anything with quite the same reward as leading a team of young athletes for me. And intense as that process was, I'm not sure if I could handle it with everything else, especially parenting and work. It takes a lot out of you.

That moment in the quiet gym though... few things have ever caused greater optimism in me.

Covid made the restaurant plastic problem worse

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 16, 2022, 1:44 PM | comments: 0

One of the things that fundamentally changed in the pandemic is how often we started getting take-out or delivered food. There are trade-offs to doing so, because it's often not has hot as it could be (or not hot at all), and you generally pay extra for delivery unless there's some promotion. The bummer is that for many restaurants, they're give you food in stuff that is plastic and not biodegradable. Worse yet, a lot of people live in places where, if there is recycling, the types of plastic that they'll recycle are so narrow that it's going to end up in a landfill, or maybe the ocean. But even as we return to eat in restaurants, I've noticed that many are creating plastic waste unnecessarily.

Among the brands that I enjoy the most, Pei Wei is easily the biggest offender. I love me some Asian fusion, but the way they're operating isn't great. Entrees all come in big old plastic bowls, and they're sending out plasticware that is in turn individually wrapped in plastic, even if you didn't ask for it. What's worse is that even on-premise, they're serving with all of this plastic, when they used to serve in actual bowls and with silverware that was washed. I actually wrote them about this, and they insisted that it was for reasons related to Covid, even though there is no science that suggests that real bowls and silverware are a transmission vector. I mean, were we at risk for colds and other pathogens before? Of course not. Safe handling standards for washed dishware is a long solved problem. But they're still making all of that garbage.

Chipotle does a mostly better job. At the very least, most of their packaging is sourced from recycled materials and much of it is biodegradable. In the restaurant, there's even less disposable content. More importantly though, Chipotle takes environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues seriously. That's why they're reporting on it annually, to show that they have milestones that they want to reach, and they measure their progress. This is starting to become standard practice around many companies, because their employees, customers and investors demand it. This is a great opportunity. As people recognize that money moves politics, and corporations are essentially people in the eyes of government, pressuring the companies who in turn pressure government can move along the necessary change. (I have a lot of thoughts about this, for another blog post.)

The places that we frequent mostly sit somewhere in between. I'm impressed with the Florida Tex-Mex chain Tijuana Flats because they've made some solid strides in recent years. It's not just paper straws, but they've experimented with biodegradable foam as well. I don't know if these are the right tactics, but I like that they're trying stuff.

We can all influence better outcomes by making informed choices when we buy stuff. There are way too many things you buy in the grocery store that are the worst kind of convenience packaging: bulky packages with very little product that you'll probably throw away in a place that isn't recycling.

Introducing Remy

posted by Jeff | Saturday, January 15, 2022, 3:25 PM | comments: 0

Back in August, we fostered a slightly older cat for a week or so, and it didn't go particularly well. The biggest issue is that he seemed to fundamentally change the personalities of Finn and Poe, our practically perfect ragdolls that are now closing in on 2-years-old. They really are extraordinary animals, and we didn't want them to become anti-social or mean, but the visitor in their midst seemed to do just that.

Diana has a thing about having a black cat, and while I don't really understand it, cats are very much part of the picture and I've always understood that. So when a young black kitten came into the rotation where she volunteers, she wanted to give him a shot. This little guy came in weighing barely four pounds about two and a half weeks ago. He's been a "little shit" to some degree, or at least to the degree that it's what we've been calling him, but the ragdolls have mostly tolerated him. It's the little guy who has been moaning and hissing at the big boys, but they're generally unmoved by his tiny aggression. To me, that was the biggest hurdle to clear. As I've said, those boys have wonderful personalities that involve flopping down at your feet for belly rubs, and I love it. Junior doesn't seem to change that.

He has some behavior issues that we're working through, not the least of which is clawing at a particular chair, and showing up on the counter from time to time, but we're working on that. The volume of energy for such a tiny creature seems impossible. But he's also a lap cat, which is a plus, so he knows how to connect with his humans. So Remy, as he will be forever known, is going to remain with us.

Remy is still learning that he doesn't have favored nation status, so when he's a dick to the ragdolls, he might be sprayed by the water bottle. Finn is unapologetically my favorite, because of our morning ritual where he follows me around after a shower and flops at my feet until I spend some quality time rubbing his belly. That fundamentally changes how my day goes. Poe has his moments of sweetness as well, but he's more moody. Remy has to prove himself, and I kind of hope he gets fat and lazy because tiny and hyper is exhausting.

Toe nails and gender identity

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, January 12, 2022, 7:11 PM | comments: 0

One of my consistent go-to's when we cruise it getting a massage. It's never a cheap endeavor, but it always feels like vacation. On our triumphant return to cruising before Christmas, I decided to try something new, especially given Covid and the idea of being in a small room with a stranger for 90 minutes, and Diana and I agreed that we should do his-and-hers pedicures. I've never done that before, but it was very much like the thing I'm looking for on every cruise: I want someone to just look after me and take care of me in a way that I wouldn't encounter in regular life. I'm kind of ticklish when it comes to feet, but whatever, I thought I'd give it a try.

I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. When I plopped my feet on the stand, I was surprised that the manicurist said I have "really beautiful feet." Strangest compliment that I've ever had, for sure. Going into it, I thought, you know, I don't get a discount for not having any nail polish applied, so I'm going to go goth and get the black nail polish. It reminded me of some interview I read more than a decade ago, where Shirley Manson, singer of my favorite band Garbage, and a decade junior to the boys in the band, talked about painting their fingernails as a tour ritual. I thought, you know, if it's good enough for dudes 20 years older than me, it's good enough for me. I fancy myself a little as a wannabe rock star anyway.

I wasn't trying to make a statement or anything, and honestly I spent much of the cruise amused at my funny toes. I'm still amused by it, especially now that I can see precisely how much my toenails have grown in three weeks. But as we were in concierge for that cruise, and hanging out a lot in the concierge lounge (where the drinks are included), I did wonder if the fancy people noticed. Not the young woman with piercings and tattoos vacationing with her mom, but definitely the woman bragging about her 14 Christmas trees in her 6,000 square foot house. Yes, as it turns out, I was judging while wondering if I was being judged.

Whatever, I didn't think much about it until Christmas, when a family member, who had seen my Instagram post about my feet but clearly didn't swipe to the second photo (below), was somewhat appalled by what I had done. She made some comments about how she was raised, and I called her out: Her definitions about what constitutes gender norms was not her choice, as she learned them and never questioned them. It was not my intention to make her uncomfortable, but clearly I did. It goes back to something I wrote about last July, that we adhere to cultural norms that we certainly did not choose. She expressed outrage about something she saw on Fox News about some school asking a child about what gender they thought they were, but this isn't even about that.

The objective reality is that boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls because that's a cultural standard that most people never really opt-in to. It was just there. The same is true on any number of stereotypes, whether it be trivial things about who uses cosmetics or who assumes the primary roles in raising children or providing income. These are all arbitrary.

I'm not trying to be some kind of woke-monster here. I never really thought about it until I had a child and started working through the possibilities of who he might be. For the whole range of identity possibilities, including sexuality, gender identity and just making choices about what's comfortable, I don't know what he'll arrive at. I just want to make sure that if he has any feelings that don't align with any of the conventional things that have to do with having testicles, that he feels like he can come to us with those feelings.

Thinking through it, it's kind of odd that women in our culture do all of the pretty things. History seems to indicate that the Egyptians took the opposite approach, with men being made pretty, and even colonial America had men wearing wigs with big hair. Other animals, especially birds, think peacocks, make the boys pretty. And us humans, look at us. Men get the pot bellies, the receding hairlines, body hair everywhere, while women get the curves and keep the hair on their head mostly. Doesn't it seem like men should be using cosmetics more than women? And don't even get me started about dresses. Men have the dangly parts and yet we're expected to wear pants. The gender norms are arbitrary, at best.

As for me, if I get another pedicure at some point, sure, I'll get the black polish again, because 🤘. I don't think I would actively try to keep it up myself, because it seems like a lot of work, and I wouldn't say I "feel pretty." I think my bigger point is that, it shouldn't matter. I'm not going to be bound by arbitrary norms.

Remembering GregLeg

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, January 11, 2022, 8:01 PM | comments: 0

I was saddened to learn that a long-time member of the online coaster enthusiast community passed away last week. I first met Greg more than 20 years ago at a coaster event, but we kept in touch virtually during much of that time. He's one of the people that the Internet made possible as an acquaintance. It has been many years since I've seen him in person (I'm sure it was a coaster thingy), but he was present at all kinds of interesting points in time. I remember we were chatting on AOL Instant Messenger during the 9/11 attacks, as the company he worked for observed Internet traffic, and it spiked a lot, as one of the Internet's first big news events. He helped me figure out the right regular expressions to parse things in my forum project around 2000, and it's code that's still in use today. We've had countless discussions about career, as he was far more advanced than I was in terms of software engineering. We also found interesting similarities in the way advocates approach issues for diabetes and autism. He even did quite a few episodes of our old podcast, though he often complained that he didn't like the sound of his voice. In recent years, we enjoyed comparing notes about the touring musicals we saw.

I think there's a lot of focus on the negatives of the big social platforms, and these are definitely valid, but certainly the Internet has been good to bring people together as well. In coaster enthusiast circles, Greg was an OG, dating back to Usenet's rec.roller-coaster group, before the web caught on. In more recent years, maybe the coaster scene wasn't as much his thing, but if you've been able to maintain those connections, they can evolve, thus the talk of musicals.

Greg isn't the only one. We lost Pete about three years ago, and I can only describe him as everyone's drinking buddy at Cedar Point. On the CoasterBuzz/PointBuzz sites, we've also lost several people to cancer and other illnesses. Some let us know it was coming, others kind of faded into the background, and for some it was sudden.

As I slide into middle-age, I don't really think all that much about my own eventual demise, or even measure how much time I might have left. But not knowing how much time others have, people who impact your community in positive ways, that causes sadness. Greg was only 51, and I figured we had plenty more shows to talk about. It doesn't feel fair to his wife, family and friends.

I remember Greg telling me about his days at Microsoft, around the time I started there, and how he wired up one of the basic features of Excel, the spreadsheet software. Most people will never know the guy who wrote the code behind that button they pushed everyday, and I suspect that's just the kind of anonymous impact that he enjoyed having.

What does it mean to "make it count?"

posted by Jeff | Sunday, January 9, 2022, 5:00 PM | comments: 0

A friend of mine, reflecting on entering the 40-something part of his life, made a social media post about not wasting time, and making it all count. This guy is one of my favorite people that I've ever worked with (in part because I hired him and he required very little direction), and he's just all around awesome. His wife is quite charming, and he loves his kids. But his declaration still caused me to pause, because it sounded like one of those New Year's kind of things that doesn't leave a lot of room for inevitable failure.

As I've said before, I like being 40-something, aside from the miles on the body, because of the wisdom and experience I've acquired. I don't feel any real time pressure. What I have done a lot of lately is try to understand where this "make it count" and "do all the things to be awesome" thing comes from. I don't know if it's a uniquely American thing, but I do know that it's not realistic, and the inability to deliver on the "counting" does not make you an asshole.

We're culturally obsessed with achievement. Worse, we diminish the human value of people who don't meet our narrow definition of achievement. I'm not even sure what it means to achieve or why it matters at this point. Sure, I can come up with a lot of negative use cases. Breaking the law, going to jail, exploiting others or treating them poorly, yeah, those are anti-achievements. But what's the bar at the other end? Money? Scope of positive impact? Material acquisition? These seem more like score keeping mechanisms than achievement.

Getting back to the original question, what counts? I think this is a simpler consideration, and I tend to land somewhere around "contributes to my contentment." The second layer of that is, everything doesn't have to count. There are so many mundane non-interesting things we have to do in life. There are a great many things that we also will fail at, because that's how we learn. "Make it count" is one of those New Year's slogans that we adopt that creates a lot of potential for toxic feelings toward ourselves when we don't deliver. I'm not saying you shouldn't make goals, but don't cheerlead yourself into an expectation of being "on" all of the time. That's exhausting, and not realistic.

Fun with QR codes and websockets

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 6, 2022, 11:07 PM | comments: 0

Ugh, this is one of those posts that no one will ever read unless maybe they're software engineers, but whatever. I had some fun tonight.

I've had CoasterBuzz Club as a thing now for 21 years, founded when ad revenue took a dump post-9/11 and it was costing me a grand a month just to keep the site on the air. I don't miss those days. In any case, I've printed thousands of membership cards over the years using a laser printer and card stock with a pre-punched hole. For a long time, I had a Microsoft Access form (remember Access?) that would connect directly to the database and pull the record so I could print it. Some years later I changed it so the site itself would generate a PDF, and I just printed that. This was literally the reason that I bought my first color laser printer back in 2001 (I'm on my third in that time).

I don't know how many years ago it was now, but I was flying somewhere, when I thought about how I used this piece of paper that I printed out at home to clear security and get on the plane. Even more recently I did that on my phone. I thought, "Why am I still printing these cards, which are probably easy enough to counterfeit if you really want to?" But then I went about my day and didn't think about it.

Today, I thought about it. Actually, I thought about it a few months ago, but today I acted on it. Between watching delivery people scan stuff with their phones, and more recently someone use an event app to validate a ticket, I thought, it's time. Diana gave me some context about the way various ticketing systems are now being used at the theater, with one-time use scanning, and I thought, hey, I can do that.

So my requirements were simple enough, show the details of your membership, with expiration date, on the screen, and a QR code that anyone can scan with their phone to validate that it isn't fake. To make it harder to fake, make sure the code can only be scanned once. To make it even cooler, refresh the code in real-time on the user's phone if it gets scanned.

It took me about two hours to get it all wired up, but it totally works. There's nothing remarkable about the QR code itself. There's a code associated with your membership record, and an open source .NET library generates the code. When someone views the verification URL embedded in the code, the system overwrites the code with a new one. The fun part is that I used a websocket connection, using SignalR, to let the client page know to refresh the QR code, and I think that's super cool. I scan it with my phone, and poof, the other screen updates.

Now, I'm not sure yet how the parks will react to this, but I'll ask a few that I'm friendly with. I mean, they accept print-at-home tickets and phone screens now to get in to their parks, so I don't imagine it will be an issue.

This has been stupid programmer tricks.

The insurrection didn't end on January 6

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 6, 2022, 6:05 PM | comments: 0

By January 6, 2021, the American system of democracy, electing a president, worked as intended. We can have debates about the usefulness or legitimacy of the electoral college, but at the end of the day, everything worked as designed. Joe Biden won, Donald Trump lost. Those interested in helping Trump consolidate power challenged the results in courts all over the country, alleging fraud, but the courts rejected every single one of these challenges since they lacked evidence. Trump's own attorney general rejected the claims. If there really was any fraud, why would it have only been applied in the presidential election? Remember, the same ballots are used for every office from president down to dog catcher. There was no fraud, and pointless recounts actually favored Biden more in some cases, not less.

But the former president insisted that the same system that got him elected in the first place was ripe with fraud, and there are still people who believe that, again, without a shred of evidence, and little more than a mountain of butthurt that their guy lost. What resulted a year ago was not a peaceful protest, it was a violent mob where police were attacked and ultimately five people died. The peaceful transfer of power was delayed for the first time in all of American history. Let's not pretend that it wasn't a serious and dark point in our history.

I think we're all maybe a little more relaxed because there isn't any daily outrage or a new scandal (Biden is, apparently, "Sleepy Joe" in that respect). But the desire to acquire power at all costs is still happening. Most of the Republican party pretends that January 6 didn't happen. Many protested the certification of the election, which itself is counter to the oath to defend the Constitution. State legislatures are taking the administration of elections out of the hands of civil servants and handing that control to partisans. They're instituting laws that make it harder to vote, in the name of solving a security problem that didn't exist, but to use their own parlance regarding gun control laws, it only interferes with law-abiding citizens.

A year has passed, but the threat is still there. It's not about fairness or some flag-waving patriotism, it's about power.

Microsoft's Xbox strategy is really getting it right

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, January 5, 2022, 11:00 PM | comments: 0

I've only intermittently subscribed to the Xbox Live service, because I don't really play online with others. For a long time I subscribed just because I stocked up on codes when I could get them cheap as a Microsoft employee, and then through friends. When they started doing Game Pass, I groaned at first, but now that I've had it, I think it's totally the right strategy.

I think it's worth it because they've also backed away from the console being the center of the universe. New games that they're publishing run on the aging Xbox One as well as the new boxes, and many also run on Windows. The big franchise games, Halo and Forza, are included in the subscription, as well as a bunch of EA titles and entire series that I haven't played, like Gears of War, Elder Scrolls, Fallout and such. If you pay full price, and you shouldn't because there are periodic deals, it's $15 a month, or $180 a year. You can access over a hundred games, and it includes Windows games. Heck, it makes Solitaire on my phone ad-free. I figure, one big franchise game typically costs $60, so if I play through three of them a year, I'm getting my money's worth. There are great time wasters in there too, like Tetris. On the PC they have huge games like Flight Simulator.

The other exciting thing, which is currently beta, is that you can play cloud-based games. The video resolution isn't great, but that means the game fires up virtually on an Xbox in a data center somewhere and you don't have to install anything. Some stuff even works on the phone! Again, the device itself has become less important. I didn't need the new machine to play the new Halo, and that's awesome.

I'm honestly not crazy about subscription services, especially for music, but I think this is really fantastic. It would be nice if it included some of the Lego titles, but it's still a really good deal. With a Christmas gift, we're hooked up until March 2023 now. I've played through Halo Infinite campaign, and I'm still going through and collecting stuff in the optional missions. I started to play Psychonauts 2, widely praised by critics, but I waited too long and don't remember how to play, so I have to restart. I've been playing Forza Horizon 5 and having fun with that.

I totally need to get off the couch, but I haven't played many video games in recent years because I'm not adventurous enough to spend $60+ on something that might not be good. I'm sure I'll have to buy LEGO Star Wars: Skywalker Saga in the next few months, but that's a sure thing. We love those games.

On creation and content

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, January 4, 2022, 11:17 PM | comments: 0

I have a somewhat classic education when it comes to the creation of what people today broadly refer to as "content." In high school I worked part-time for the city's government cable access channel, and we made civic minded talk shows and did live city council meetings. In college, I earned a degree in journalism, and double-majored in radio/TV. The latter was more trade school stuff than academic, but it was still formal education. Mixed in with all of that, I got bits and pieces of photography, including one formal college class, and even a class on theatrical lighting. I used all of that for a few years professionally, and certainly the writing is something that has served me all of my life, regardless of occupation. All of it was useful to me, and it certainly influences how I view the creation of media.

The Internet reduced the barrier to entry for distribution of all of these media forms. At first, this was mostly words and pictures, and it was largely self-published a hundred different ways. Finding it was mostly word of mouth, even if they were digital words between people online. It was like the wild west. I benefitted from this by creating a few sites that are still around today. I was already publishing little bits of video by then, and bought my first pro-ish HD camera in 2006. I published video myself, on my own sites, back then using players made with Flash, mostly. The bandwidth was expensive, but I owned the whole process.

Around the same time, YouTube was celebrating its first year, and there was some really great stuff posted there, and also some really terrible things. As you can imagine, someone with my background sees a jump cut and it's like the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I was skeptical that this was sustainable as a free thing, because of bandwidth costs, but then Google bought it. A few years later, I started hosting video on Vimeo, at my expense, because it seemed like it would be a better sustainable option, but I also shifted some stuff to YouTube because I could link it to my AdSense account (which fuels ads on my sites). I made a few hundred bucks a year off of not that many views, but like the ad serving, I hated relying on Google for it. Sure enough, eventually Google stopped paying out unless you met a certain threshold of view hours and subscribers. They show ads and make money on your stuff regardless.

I think that there are two problems right now, but I think there's potential for them to sort some things out. The first is that platforms have become gatekeepers for stuff people make, and no one is more guilty of that than Google. Contrary to the snowflakes in politics who think they're against anyone, it's all algorithmic gatekeeping. I keep seeing more and more frustrations from people who make really great stuff about that. Some of the complaints are that changes are causing radical alterations in how they get noticed, which can certainly be an issue if they generally get enough traction to make a living at it. The other is that the algorithm seems to favor the channels that are already popular, presumably because they likely bring more engagement.

The back up plan should be that these folks should spend as much time promoting their own, durable domain as they do begging for "like and subscribe!" There are so many ways that an amateur publisher can create a site these days, and they're independent of any corporate platform. If what you're making is valuable, people will continue to seek it out. If not, then it reveals an uncomfortable truth about what you make, that it isn't that special, it's just a means for the platforms to make money from what you do.

The second problem is that people have taken "creator" to mean something that maybe it isn't. Oddly enough, the algorithm has presented me with a number of examples from self-labeled creators questioning if what they're doing is worth it or how fair it is for them to not be noticed and the like. What these folks are making, usually young people, is little more than self-documentation. Showing other people what you do in everyday life is not "content," it's a non-private diary. It's hard enough to be popular in school, the odds of doing it on a global level are not high. I feel like this misunderstanding is going to lead to an entirely new reason for a generation to have low self-esteem. Put it up there with becoming a professional athlete, movie star or famous musician.

This problem, I suspect could burn itself out. I'm surprised at how quickly platforms get popular and then certain cohorts of people get bored with them. I saw an article some weeks ago about the new version of high school hipsters, who don't use social media at all.

Let me explain that I'm excited about the things I might never have seen were it not for platforms. The science folks, and some of the video gear people, I only know because of YouTube. But there are others I know because they wrote stuff to go with their video, and that's why I think owning your own site is key. But all of this ephemeral stuff of no particular importance is barely content, let alone entertainment.

Certainly one of the things that fuels all of this is marketers who want to reach people. I don't think that they actually care about who is making stuff, they just care about reaching the people that they want. When the landscape changes again, they'll move to where ever the people are.

It's interesting to watch, but I am continually astounded at how much time the people making really good stuff spend thinking about how to optimize for algorithms. Their video or articles or whatever should stand on their own for what they are. I can't take anyone seriously who does click-baity things. See: pretty much all of the theme park sites. The journalist in me cringes to read things like, "This Disney attraction was down again today." Cool, just say what it is, because there's no thrill in clicking through to find it was a drinking fountain.

Mini-SAD and maxi-peace

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, January 4, 2022, 4:50 PM | comments: 0

One of the biggest reasons I felt I had to move out of Cleveland was the seasonal affective disorder that I had living there. That last winter, 2012-2013, I just remember feeling like nothing about my mood was right. It took moving from Seattle, which has drizzly weather through much of the winter, but reasonably frequent peeks of sun and rich greenery, to make me see it. Cleveland can go for weeks where there is a flat gray sky and everything looks dead.

Central Florida doesn't have that problem, obviously, but it still has short days starting late in November, and the time change makes it completely worse. By the end of January, sunset is after 6 again and I notice it less. The difference is that I don't go into full on want-to-hibernate mode here, but I definitely don't feel as "up" as I do other parts of the year. I've learned that it's important to make sure I get out for lunch at least twice a week, and work on the patio if possible.

There's a glorious peace this time of year when I'm on the patio. Most of the year, there's a steady sound of air conditioners running. If it gets cold, you hear them then too, since in most cases they're heat pump systems (they pull energy out of the outside air and put it in your house). But when you get into that perfect place in the middle, it's quiet during the day. Kids are at school, the sky is blue, the wind gently taps the chimes and you can hear the Liberty Belle's whistle in the distance (and hopefully the trains again, soon). It's a pretty great feeling to just sit there and take in that feeling.

Environment matters so much to the way we exist. I'm still not really tied to the idea of home as a specific place, especially after all that moving, but being able to be in a place that gives you peace definitely improves your quality of life.

I think I see how ADHD affects me

posted by Jeff | Saturday, January 1, 2022, 3:41 PM | comments: 0

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was not something really on my radar when I sought confirmation that I had ASD, but I know from parenting that the comorbidity of the two conditions is super common. It made a lot of sense almost instantly, especially in the context of high school and college academics. It perfectly explains exceptionally high scores for standardized tests and IQ but super average to low grades and difficulty getting assignments done in a timely way. It also explained why I suspect I'm a better manager than maker, because the constant context switching comes naturally, and as long as I'm organized, I can always circle back to complete things.

Today I'm facing the unusual situation where I'm home alone. Diana is at work, Simon is at a play date. I thought, "I've had this coding idea for months, I should work that out." So I sat down on the patio, busted out the laptop... and did little more than open Visual Studio. I can't do it right now. I want to, but I can't. There are a hundred other things on my mind ranging from the death of Betty White to this itchy scratch that the kitten made on my leg. I'm watching the birds (and hilariously, squirrels) on the bird feeder, having memories triggered by music I'm listening to, wondering what I'll have for dinner, texting people I realize I haven't talked to in awhile, congratulating myself at the decision to paint the house because the patio is brighter... and that's all just in the few minutes before I started writing this.

This is all kinds of new self-awareness for me. Using Simon for reference, I know that his biggest challenge is impulsivity, especially when his meds wear off. I don't suffer from impulsivity, I don't think, but focus comes in waves. I built a career on writing code, and even have the open source projects to show for it. I'm capable of doing it, but when and in what circumstances? Friends that have ADHD say they can't adult very well without medications, but I'm wholly terrified about taking any drug that changes the way my brain works. Like I said, I think there are benefits to being wired this way, and it kinds of pisses me off that it's a "disorder" (ditto for some flavors of autism).

Considering ADHD a "super power" is obviously applying bias to one's situation, and I get that, but there is some truth to it. The most counterintuitive ability is hyperfocus, which is the reason that Simon can play a video game for hours without interruption, and it's probably the reason that I have said open source projects with tens of thousands of lines of code. If something is super interesting and I very much want an outcome, I can stick to it.

Is it too early for dinner? Squirrel!