Archive: February, 2022

A perfect theme park day

posted by Jeff | Monday, February 28, 2022, 4:12 PM | comments: 0

My dear friend Catherine proposed that we combine our families for a VIP tour at Walt Disney World many months ago, and of course I said we were game. We last vacationed together on a cruise many years ago, prior to the birth of her youngest, and had a great time. And of course, with the pandemic, we're anxious to reconnect with people.

It was very much a perfect day, with 17 attractions in 7 hours. It was worth every penny. It was fun to compare parenting notes and similar challenges, catch up on careers, and indulge in pure escapism for a day. It felt like seeing the park for the first time despite living next to it for years, because the context was so different.

This day could not have come at a more perfect time. I'm grateful for the relationships that have come along over the years, and even more thankful for the opportunities to pick them up where we left off.

Spam cleanup

posted by Jeff | Thursday, February 24, 2022, 10:36 PM | comments: 0

After 20+ years with CoasterBuzz and PointBuzz, it shouldn't be surprising to hear that I've had to deal with a lot of spam over the years. I've never understood why anyone would bother with trying to drop spam there because the communities are busy enough that there's always someone there to take it down relatively quickly, but not so big that it can go unnoticed. Well I missed a ton that landed last year, and I removed over 10,000 accounts generated in the same two weeks.

Let me dial it back to the start though. Since I rolled my own forum, and it's still around today, I learned some things the hard way early on. The first was to introduce a time delay between posts, because someone quite easily scripted a pounding that flooded the forum with thousands of posts. By introducing a delay, they could only do damage very slowly. Around the same time, I implemented ban lists for IP addresses, as well as email addresses. From the start I required email verification, so you couldn't do anything until you clicked a link in email.

Later on, there were things like Google's reCAPTCHA to detect bots, which I adopted for the sign-up process. This all worked pretty well, but eventually someone figured out that you could pay people on the other side of the world next to nothing to start putting stuff on the Internets manually. I discovered this was going on a few years ago by doing some forensic analysis of the stuff that I log. Even anonymous users have their session recorded by IP. You could ascertain by looking at the events, a sign-up, an email verification, that it was in fact humans doing the work. They would often create a number of accounts in a row.

The actual things people would post was the usual spamming posts, but they got tricky. Sometimes they would place a link on a period so you couldn't tell it was there. Even better, they would actually act like a new member, and when their post was back far enough, they would return and edit a link into the text. But the big thing they started doing was not posting at all, and filling their profiles with spam. This is kind of stupid for a few reasons. First, putting text in the post signature field is only seen if you post, and they weren't doing that. Then they would put a link in the web site field, but without text around it, it has little to no value for search engines, and that's what they want, not random people to click links. There's also the issue that profiles are only indexed if they happen to appear in the "currently online" list, which changes all of the time. They could manually submit the URL of the profile, but again, without context, it's of little value to search engines.

So basically, there's just a lot of annoying data that no one will ever see. It was easy enough to sniff it out, because they do silly things that makes the spam stand out as abnormal. I added a feature to look at recent accounts in the admin, which includes email and IP, and I've gotten to know the blocks that are based in India and other places where there are few roller coasters. Again, what they signup with is often a dead giveaway.

Wordle is mostly easy, and that's OK

posted by Jeff | Thursday, February 24, 2022, 10:05 PM | comments: 0

I didn't really get into the whole Wordle craze, because you only get one puzzle a day. In fact, most days I didn't think of it, and I've shared my result only once. As I said before, I mostly paid attention to it as a fantastic example of why we don't need apps for everything.

Still, I've been playing the same two time wasters, Solitaire and Wordament, for years. I can turn on music and just mindlessly tap away at those. I was all for a new one, so I downloaded one of the many Wordle clones available, settling on one called Worde in the Google Play Store. My ADHD hyperfocus kicked in and I figured out pretty quickly the optimal way to play it.

First I found someone who did a statistical analysis of the word library, which if you didn't know, you can see plainly in the source code for Wordle. That analysis calculated the frequency of letters as well as placement to determine the optimal first word. I understand statistics well enough to separate real things from nonsense (useful in the last two years), but that's as far as it goes. The analysis put AROSE as the best first word. This isn't far from AISLE, which was instinctively the first word I was using. It seems strange to have A as a first letter, but even if it isn't the first letter, it does appear more than the other vowels among five-letter words.

From there, I largely went on instinct in looking for the best way to use the rest of the letters as efficiently as possible. What I learned was that you could use almost everything over the next three words, THING, PLUMB and WACKY. You rarely need all of them, and they are interchangeable based on what you see after AROSE. Some of it is just testing letter grouping, like TH, PL, CK, as well as TR, ST, LT and vowel combinations.

I suppose the idea is to get the word in as few tries as possible, and even with this path, I think my average is somewhere between 3 and 4, but closer to 3. The Worde app doesn't have those stats like the official game, so that's a guess. After 200 games my win percentage was 96%, but those I lost were early on when I got trapped into having too many choices. That's where you have something like STA*E, and you can put an R, T, G, K, L or V in that spot. I learned after getting burned a few times to just use a guess to test as many letters as possible with a word that isn't the solution, like GRAIL.

This doesn't mean that it's easy, because sometimes I get all the letters and the word still isn't obvious to me. Pattern recognition is a weird thing because what's obvious to one person isn't to another. So for that reason, it's a solid time waster, and it feels good to succeed at something.

A brief feeling of normalcy in a chaotic world

posted by Jeff | Thursday, February 24, 2022, 9:09 PM | comments: 0

The Seattle division of my family was in town last weekend, and it was the first time Simon has seen his cousins in person in two years. It's only the second time in two years (the other being around Christmas) that we've had anyone stay overnight at our house. Then we spent an entire day with them at a theme park. It was busy, so it wasn't ideal, but it was open and our tourist economy was buzzing. Few people were wearing masks, and they were no longer required. (Some people feel it's too soon, I get that, but the science makes a ton of sense, especially if you're vaccinated.) Simon struggled with his impulsivity, especially for talking out of turn, but overall the weekend was the most "normal" thing that I've experienced in a long time.

I'm not sure what normal looks like though. On a positive note, we're no longer led by an anti-democracy fascist, but things are not right. Russia has invaded Ukraine. Healthcare is still tied to employment. Three states are not only targeting the LGBTQ community with discrimination, but they're specifically targeting children. Gerrymandering is consolidating power for the minority. Climate change is not just causing inconvenient weather, but destabilizing entire nations.

At least for a little while, things felt comfortable and familiar. I may be naive, but I really believe that most humans want to do right by each other, and for the world. So why is it so damn hard to get there?

Observations two years into the pandemic

posted by Jeff | Thursday, February 17, 2022, 11:01 PM | comments: 0

Two years ago, we were hearing the word "coronavirus" on the news pretty frequently, but I don't think any American or European person really appreciated what we were about to endure. In my circles, we were already talking about how Shanghai Disneyland had closed almost a month prior, with no plan at all to reopen. It was going to be serious, but we didn't know how serious.

I didn't write about our experience until well into March, and I would say it was more weird than scary. Simon had just come off of an extended two-week spring break that went right into virtual learning, and that was terrible and lasted until the end of the year, largely by choice. Diana's work at the theater obviously stopped, and I was back to remote working. With lovely spring weather, we were getting outside quite a bit, and our whole neighborhood was active after work. Every Friday seemed like another chance to make drinks. I started a radio show that aired in Alaska and Guam, before making it to the mainland near Baltimore. The first two months were intensely terrible.

By May, shit just kept getting more weird. The federal government's response was a total shit show devoid of leadership, which wasn't exactly surprising with Trump in the White House. George Floyd was murdered, and we weren't sure at the time if the officer who killed him would be charged with the crime. Racial injustice was amplified by the pandemic as it disproportionately affected people of color. Walt Disney World announced it would reopen with all kinds of dystopian measures in place that included queue barriers and marks on the ground for social distancing, and we opted-out of our passes. Meanwhile, Covid testing was still pretty hard to come by.

Like everyone, by summer we were craving something that felt normal, so we rented a place on the beach for a few nights. Our cat Emma died, and we gained the two ragdolls. Oliver, the other cat, started getting sick on and off, and we lost him before the end of the year. Remote school was still terrible and he didn't return to in-person until the start of 2021. The election was stressful. Every asshole with a smartphone believed that they could do "research" leading to opinions that exceeded the value of experts. It wasn't a great year.

That first year was also interesting for the science around Covid, which changed quite a bit. Again, the incompetence of government, at the federal and state level, meant that there was no consistent communication. First don't buy masks because hospitals are running out, then buy them. Indoor transmission is certain, but you're probably fine outside. Math nerds got really into the statistics. There was absurd behavior at first, like people washing packages on their porch, or retail workers washing credit cards when handling them. Fortunately we learned early on that surface transmission wasn't really a thing. And as the year went on, vaccine trials were showing remarkable results, when the first people started getting shots in November.

The second year started with the insurrection, followed shortly thereafter by the inauguration. Maybe it's because we rented a beach house that week, but everything seemed to be more calm after that, to some extent. At the very least, there weren't daily assaults on the Constitution. Simon went back to school in-person. The old folks were getting their shots. On March 8, I got my first shot and it felt like a turning point. By mid-April, the adults were fully vaccinated. We resumed our theme park visits, and even stayed on-property for my birthday in July. Infection rates were bottoming out and it seemed like it was working. Simon was finally eligible for his vaccine in November, though after getting Covid from a classmate's family that failed to disclose their non-vaccinated status. We took a cruise. On a boat.

Then the omicron variant showed up, and mostly nothing changed beyond indoor mask requirements coming back, but only in some places. Hospitals became overwhelmed again, mostly with people who were still not vaccinated. The variant managed to beat vaccination without boosters, and sometimes even with, but mostly caused less severe disease. It moved so quickly that we actually understood this within weeks of its discovery. Now the combination of vaccinated people and those recently infected is causing the virus to burn out quickly. The theme parks have dropped their mask requirements.

These have easily been two of the most exhausting years of my life, and Covid was only half of it. Work and parenting were exceptionally difficult, and I learned I really do have ASD and ADHD. Oh, and I'm at midlife now, so pile that on. It seems everyone can give you a similarly intense summary of their life.

What do we do going forward? Right now, it seems like we'll keep getting vaccines now and then, and hope that future variants become even less likely to harm people. What doesn't seem to be happening is the broader reckoning that looks at how we exist in the world. I thought for sure that we would more actively pursue equality and a better healthcare system, but instead, half the politicians are focusing on legislation to pretend gay people don't exist and to protect white people from feeling uncomfortable about race. It's insane. We're coming out of two years of shit and that's all you've got?

I'm still trying to reconcile the last two years. Heck, even the last few months produced data I haven't processed. We've got a lot of things to change, and we're getting to work on that. I hope the bigger world will do the same.

Human curated music is still better

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, February 16, 2022, 7:56 PM | comments: 0

Commercial radio has largely been rendered obsolete by streaming music services, but like other things driven by algorithms, it has mostly resulted in a discovery problem for "good" content. I realize that this is largely subjective, but that's mostly my point. Algorithms have pushed an emphasis on singles that are maybe three minutes long and completely forgettable beyond the current moment.

In September, I broke up with SiriusXM and my beloved AltNation channel. My issue at the time was that the playlists became far too homogenous and boring, with way too much emo. In retrospect, that was particularly weird because they follow the old classic rock radio "image" pattern of keeping some old songs in rotation because they identify with the image they're trying to convey for the target audience. And if that was the case, why would they be neglecting newer things by those "older" artists?

February rolled around, and I realized that I had zero new songs to start a new yearly playlist. My 2021 list was already anemic. In the cars, Tesla uses Slacker (or LiveOne or whatever they're calling it this week) to stream music. It has a number of "channels" that it calls "alternative," but what I noticed was that it was mostly the safest possible things, and clearly it was influenced by algorithms to make the discovery of new things hard. I was giving it a chance because the way it works in the car, you can search for an artist and it makes a "station" based on that artist. I tried SofiTukker and was getting other stuff I liked like Halsey, K-Flay, Muse, Young The Giant and others. But whatever they seeded their category channels with seemed to degrade into a tired mix.

Reluctantly, I signed back up for SiriusXM. They're still being a big box of stupid in terms of their pricing, because there's no good deal for streaming, which I imagine is their real future. So I signed up with a new account using the radio ID from our Nissan Leaf which was totaled in an accident more than a year ago to get a $5/month deal (with a free Echo Dot!). I did this because I was still on their mailing list for their AltNation "music director" survey, and the one I got had a ton of songs I had never heard, none of them emo.

AltNation has a real set of humans who are curating the playlist, and I believe that makes all of the difference. I acknowledge my bias as someone who started his career in radio, but taste-making is an art form and it works better than algorithms. So much of what I like today wasn't an instant hit in my mind. I'm obsessed with The Naked And Famous, for example, but it took a few weeks of listening to their first album before I really "got it." It was a similar situation for Wolf Alice, though I could tell that Blue Weekend, their third album, was perfect after one listen. Now that AltNation has gotten over their emo phase, they're taking a chance on a lot of unknowns, but they even put Avril Lavigne in rotation, a darling on alt rock radio in the early aughts. They haven't warmed up to the new Tears For Fears single, but we'll see. I also wonder if they'll consider someone like Halsey who is amazing. There's a spirit to the radio format that seems to have been lost from the 90's and aughts, but it's not impossible to recreate it.

The good news is that I have something to seed a playlist now. It's very possible that I'm atypical, since most Gen-X'ers are still holding on to some combination of hair bands, grunge and maybe some 90's alt rock one-hit-wonders. While I appreciate some of that stuff, I'll be bored out of my mind not to find new things.

"Outdoor living is where it's at"

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, February 16, 2022, 7:20 PM | comments: 0

One of my favorite house flipping shows on HGTV was Desert Flippers, where Lindsey, the wife of the married couple flipping houses, said in the opener (with hand gestures) that, "Outdoor living is where it's at." I liked the show because the couple seemed like people I would want to hang out with, but they also made their properties in Palm Springs very outdoor friendly. As one does in a locale like that. This really translates to life in Florida.

It's a little different here because you need to screen in your outdoor living, because bugs, but since moving here I find myself sitting outside as much as humanly possible. I even do it in the height of swamp-ass season, when it's hot and humid. I like driving with the windows open, too. It's the most fundamental difference between living here and in Cleveland. Not that Ohio stopped me from grilling in December, but I don't have to push the grill out of the garage into the snow to do it.

There are a lot of different ways that you can measure quality of life. Being outdoors isn't for everyone, but I've never heard anyone say, "Oh no, I don't prefer fresh air." We spend a lot of time inside with air conditioning, mostly in July and August, but the rest of the time it's glorious to feel that sun on your face. My seasonal affective disorder was no joke until I moved to Seattle, which because of the variation of weather, even if much of it is that misty rain in the winter, I experienced relief. There's a reason that Walt built his theme parks here, obviously.

Last year we finally scored some decent patio furniture, and it fundamentally changed how we lived in our house. We were thinking also about building out our patio, extending it out another 15 feet or so, but eventually decided against it. The cost seemed a little high, and when I thought it through, it would likely prevent the sun from shining on the existing part, let alone into the living room. Even when it isn't sunny, it's wonderful to sit and enjoy one of those wrath-of-God thunderstorms we get in the summer.

This really calls into question where we might land once we're retired. I think it would be hard to go back to a world where this isn't the scene all year. There aren't many places that really qualify though, other than Florida, the southwest (which I don't like because it's not near water), SoCal and Hawaii. I would love nothing more than to get a nice little single-family house on the Atlantic coast, but I'm not sure we can make that happen without a lot of risk now on real estate.

So tonight I'm hanging out with two of the cats who are relieved to have the patio open. We had an unusual few weeks of cold-ish weather, as our uncharacteristically high electricity usage shows. It's a good feeling out here.

Wordle makes my point about the app problem

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, February 15, 2022, 9:10 PM | comments: 0

While I haven't developed a Wordle habit, because I don't get around to it most days, I admire it for its simplicity. But I also admire it because a dude made it for fun, then sold it to the New York Times for the "low seven figures." That's bad ass, and also kind of lucky. But what I like most about it is that it's something insanely popular that is entirely web-based. There is no app. The browser is the app.

I've been complaining for years that there is too much crap out there that doesn't have to be an app. I install as little as possible on my phone. Apps suck for a great many reasons. First, they have to be installed, and that means that they're updated constantly, sucking bandwidth and battery. There's nothing instant about installing an app, when compared to going to a URL in your browser. They have to be built at least twice, for iOS and Android, and maybe Windows or MacOS if you want it to also run on the desktop. As someone who makes software, this is something that's more expensive, and the only part of the user experience that is "better" is that it puts an icon on your home screen. Even that's not a convincing win, because you can put web sites (or web apps, if you will) with links on your home screen.

Wordle is totally self-contained, which is why it was so easy for The Times to move it. Compressed, on a fresh load it comes down the pipe in 220k. On a cached load, it's 116k. For comparison, the Android version of Instagram is 98MB. Wordament is 167MB. The Chipotle app is 64MB, and the experience is virtually identical to the web (it might just be a container for the web, which illustrates my point as well). In fact, no app really adds anything to ordering food. It's completely unnecessary.

Fortunately, most everything that I use regularly works in a mobile browser or on my desktop browser. Mostly it's restaurants, the Publix pharmacy. The thing that doesn't work well without an app is the mess that is the Walt Disney World app, which will suck your battery dry and has location on constantly unless you deny it. With web assembly working well on Android (not sure about iOS), I feel like there's even less reason for native apps.

A lot of people disagree with me, and I find that those who do tend to either be primarily native developers, or too young to remember the glory of a web that wasn't dominated with platforms and walled gardens. That probably makes me a little naive, but if the underlying issue is really about discovery and launching, that seems like a solvable problem. I mean, Wordle shows why it can work. It spread without an app, or an app store, and it worked just by wordle of mouth.

Disney Wish is floating

posted by Jeff | Saturday, February 12, 2022, 11:20 PM | comments: 0

We recently found out that the inaugural sailing of the Disney Wish got moved back a few weeks. We're going to be on that sailing, which is kind of neat, but the construction has been delayed because of the omicron surge in Germany.

We finally had our 20th cruise in December on the Disney Dream. We've been on all four of the existing ships, but the Dream was the first. Prior to having any interest in cruising, and my step-mother-in-law's plan to do our first one to surprise my father-in-law, Disney released some videos about the construction of the Dream. I was completely fascinated by the idea that humans could build something so enormous, that floated in the water and moved around the world. Not only that, but these vessels are like completely self-sufficient cities that need their own utilities and ability to feed thousands of people everyday. Oh, and they're made with mostly non-flammable things, so the nicer places are filled with materials like marble and granite and such. They have the excess of Vegas, but they float.

Being the environmentalist that I am, yes, I acknowledge that these aren't the most eco-friendly machines in the world. Most of the new ships being built now, including the Wish, are running on liquified natural gas. LNG still produces carbon dioxide, but it's anywhere from a third less to half compared to diesel or coal, and none of the toxic substances that come from diesel. So it's better, at least. And the cool thing about these ship systems is that there's less waste, since the excess heat is what purifies the sea water, heats water and can be used for a number of things.

One of the things that make cruising so wonderful is that it allows us to completely disconnect, and even better, we can let Simon do his thing. He can wander the ship, and at his age, go to both the kids' club as well as the tween club, independently. He can't get off the ship without us. That's a big deal, because it's like going on vacation but only having your child some of the time. In general though, cruises are great because they're the kind of vacation that allows you to turn off your brain. There is always food available, someone makes your bed and you aren't accountable for anything. When you go to familiar ports, there's no adventure there, everything is taken care of for you. That's why we keep doing them. Even when we eventually do European cruises, there's no real logistics to work with. You sleep in the same "hotel" every night.

The fact that I can be a quasi-involved parent has a lot to do with why I love cruising, and there are a great many itineraries that are appealing in that sense:

  • Anything from New York: One of my friends has some amazing photos aboard the Disney Magic departing New York Harbor. That's amazing. I love New York as a visitor but would never want to live there. I love Broadway. I want Simon to see New York and all of its enormous city chaos. I imagine that visiting New York with a cruise in the middle would be the ideal way of visiting with him.
  • Panama Canal: Every year, the Wonder traverses the Panama Canal so it can do itineraries in the Pacific going to Alaska and/or Hawaii. It's a long cruise, and mostly full of old people. But I want to see one of the greatest engineering marvels ever created by man.
  • Northern Europe: I'm actually embarrassed that in middle age I've never been to Europe. What the fuck is wrong with me? The longer European itineraries often include everything from Iceland to St. Petersburg, Russia, and that would be awesome. My thinking is that it starts in the UK, so we could start visiting there, and then sample all of the places in between so we know what we like enough to come back to for extended stays.
  • The Mediterranean: This is more obvious, because it includes many of the places already obvious for this body of water, including France, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Again, it's not so much that I want to cruise to these places, but it makes up for lost time by seeing many places I might not get to see in any specific trip.
  • Hawaii: They used to do a trip from California to Oahu, and then back, but haven't lately because of the pandemic and requirements for a certain number of Polynesian folks onboard (so other crew have told me). But I think that doing some island hopping followed by a long Pacific cruise would be fantastic.
  • Alaska: My favorite cruise to date was to Alaska, originating from Vancouver. We had one booked for Alaska for 2020, but Simon was going to stay with his cousins in Seattle. It would have been the longest vacation that Diana and I had without him. I still want to do this.

The fun thing with cruise #20 was that it was a fairly standard 4-night affair from Port Canaveral, but because we used credit from a cancelled Covid cruise, we decided to go big and do it in concierge. It's an awful lot extra, but we did enjoy the private hot tub once, the "free" drinks about twice a day, and a fairly elaborate scheme that one of the concierge hosts executed to make Simon feel like he bought Diana something for Christmas. I don't mind paying for VIP treatment now and then.

Disney cruises have become an integral part of how we vacation, and it's crazy convenient when you live in Orlando. I would say that the only other line that has attracted my attention is Celebrity, but if we do that, it will be without Simon. Those aren't really kid-friendly cruises. Me and the sea, we are definitely connected. I love being near and on the ocean. It's the place that I find the most peace.

Teaching Simon about drink selfies

posted by Jeff | Friday, February 11, 2022, 6:09 PM | comments: 0

Your bliss and your paycheck

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, February 9, 2022, 6:00 PM | comments: 0

I saw a recent social media post from a celebrity that indicated that one of the things that made the last year better for them was concentrating on doing the things they liked, just to do them. It wasn't intended to be a hustle or a job or whatever, it was just for the joy of it. That's certainly possible if you're a celebrity, you have the freedom to make choices like that.

The rest of us have a romanticized view of this, but I don't think that most people are actually living it. A lot of self-help posters and Internet memes talk about following your bliss and doing what you love. It's not that easy, of course. Someone has to do the crappy jobs. I've had a lot of jobs that I would consider pretty good, but I wouldn't describe most of them as bliss. Usually what I can remember about them is the time spent with the people, but the work itself is often forgettable.

This is also an interesting topic for entrepreneurs. Businesses are often started for the potential joy and satisfaction they might bring the founder, like restaurants and tattoo shops, for example, but is the guy who starts a company that makes rubber pipe gaskets passionate about rubber pipe gaskets? I mean, I guess it's possible, but I would be skeptical. The things you do that are fun or bring you joy tend to be hobbies, not jobs. The intersection of the two is possible, but I wouldn't say it's typical.

I enjoy what I do for a living, leading software development efforts. That means I don't write code, which I enjoy, but never particularly cared for doing it as my primary job function. I do that a lot in my spare time, and the level of passion comes in fits. For example, in late 2020, I was laser focused to build my cloud music player. I didn't really know I had ADHD then, but the whole hyperfocus thing toward an outcome, that was it. Over the years, I've had similar things toward the forums or the sites. All of that effort is just for the joy of it, and having something useful at the end.

Where things got blurry was the fact that the sites have made money almost from the start. I still have the naïve idea in my head that I can put something on the Internet and it equals profit. That might have been true to some degree in 2000, but it's not true now. So when I think about new projects I would like to try to build, I'm approaching it entirely from the point of, "How can I make a buck with this?" Because when you start making bucks the way you want to, you're closer to that celebrity freedom. Sort of. You get to make the choices, but you have to keep it up indefinitely if that's how you intend to live. Again, when the bliss becomes the paycheck, it's more complicated.

I suppose where I'm going with this is that conflating what you love to do and what you do to make a living is a toxic exercise in impossible expectations. I like work, and during periods that I haven't worked, I've been kinda bored. But work isn't typically euphoric, and I don't think it has to be. Hanging out with Diana and Simon makes me happy, and working on hobbies and playing games and building LEGO makes me happy. Work provides satisfaction of accomplishing things, a big intrinsic motivator, which is a flavor of joy, but it's not in the same category as the other stuff.

I had a lot of house anxiety back in the day

posted by Jeff | Monday, February 7, 2022, 2:00 PM | comments: 0

Twelve years ago today, still not really knowing my away around Seattle, I wrote a blog post talking about how anxious I was to figure out home ownership. The context was that we had just moved there, Diana and I had been married less than a year, and we both had houses in Cleveland that we couldn't sell. It was not a good scene. It got worse when someone broke into her vacant house and stole all of the copper plumbing they could reach in the basement. Recall that the recession starting in 2008 was tied to the subprime lending mess and subsequent housing market crash. At that point, I had owned my house for about nine years, and I wasn't adjusting well to apartment life, especially with a baby on the way. As the story goes, we sold Diana's house by short sale, and I still owned mine when my frustration peaked in 2011 and we moved back into my house.

As much as I still harbor resentment toward that situation, those 21 months we lived in Cleveland completely turned around our financial outlook (though it probably set me back in terms of career). It's a weird thing, that the place you live, and whether or not you own it, has a ridiculous impact on your long-term financial health. Renters are seriously disadvantaged, because they're throwing money at it and only getting a place to live. An owner gets that and, 2008 recession aside, is generally building equity toward something. And with mortgage rates being what they are the last few years, there's a good chance that their cash flow will actually be better than it was renting. That was certainly the case for us when we moved to Orange County in 2013, and moved into our own place in 2014. And the rates are so good now that, at the end of 2020, we refinanced to 2.875%, a rate so low that I didn't see any good reason to get a shorter loan.

I lost money on my house in 2013, after owning it 12 years, so we basically started from scratch. But finally, the timing worked in my favor, because of the cheap financing and the ridiculous rise in home values. If I'm to estimate our house value based on the neighborhood comps, we half-own our house after trading up from the first one we built, in just eight years. That's nuts.

As good as the news is for me, it's not good for people who are looking to be first-time homeowners. There aren't a lot of affordable houses available close to where the jobs are. The demand is too high. That leaves a lot of people in a bad situation, not only forced to rent, but rent expensive places because demand is high for rentals too. That bothers me, because it makes it more than just an act of will to get into a better situation.

These days, I'm happy about where we live. I'm still fighting the builder on some stuff (Pulte sucks hard), but I like the place. It's the longest that Diana and I have stayed in one place, too. I'm hoping we can stay here until we're empty nesting and can retire, which with any luck will be about the same time. At that point, I'm not sure what's next.

Love for all the zoos

posted by Jeff | Sunday, February 6, 2022, 8:19 PM | comments: 0

Right around the start of the pandemic, with Disney+ still fairly new, we discovered the series Secrets of The Zoo. It's a behind-the-scenes documentary series (I wish people wouldn't call it "reality," which is generally contrived) that takes place at the Columbus Zoo and its companion range The Wilds. The stories told are what you would expect, with the animals, the keepers and the veterinarians (including Dr. Priya ❤️). They also have a number of similar shows from Tampa, North Carolina and Down Under, as well as the show based at Animal Kingdom following the same formula. Discovery+ and Animal Planet have their more simply named The Zoo, which is based in the Bronx Zoo and the sister parks around New York City. They too have additional shows, for San Diego and one in the UK.

All of these shows demonstrate the dedication of the staffs, as animals are born, some die, some have health problems, and much of the time, they're trying to get the animals to breed. Conservation of the species is the core mission of all zoological institutions now. Most are non-profit, but even those that are not have some of the most skilled care professionals. I realize that there are a lot of people that look at these institutions as some kind of immoral and cruel places for humans to get their jollies looking at animals, but that's a very outdated way to look at it. The animals are typically bred, not captured, and these breeding programs are usually to help counter the loss of natural habitats. Many are also temporary homes for animals that are rehabilitated and released back into the wild. 

Zoos and aquariums, those accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, play a vital role in preserving the animals that human manipulation of the environment are killing off. People don't care about things that they can't see. Zoos offer an opportunity for people to see species they would never otherwise see, and learn about them. It's remarkable how much the keepers and vets learn, too.

Autism isn't just a spectrum, it's its own universe

posted by Jeff | Saturday, February 5, 2022, 4:39 PM | comments: 0

The funny thing about autism, as a spectrum disorder, is that it means such a broad set of things. I saw someone recently say, "If you know someone with autism, you know one person with autism." That's true, because it includes geniuses who change the world like Einstein or Newton, and it includes non-verbal adults that require lifetime care. It also includes me and my son, who are not at either extreme. I've known about my son for about eight years, and it first came up in therapy for me a few years after that. Despite all of the time that has passed, I feel like I don't fully understand it. How am I supposed to explain it to anyone else? How can the world we operate in understand it? Throw in ADHD as a typical comorbidity, and it gets even harder to figure out.

Being diagnosed myself, in midlife, is complicated. I'm sure that someone looks at me, or even knows me well, and thinks, "He's so normal," and aside from the fact that this feels like an "N-word" of a different kind (pro tip: the word you're looking for is neurotypical), they don't understand that I have decades of work that allow me to operate in the world quite successfully. For example, I loathe talking about the weather with strangers, but I do it anyway because I know it's a useful social convention. The diagnosis also changes the lens with which I look at my entire life. Every interpersonal relationship, professional situation, how I approached school or hobbies... it all looks different now because of how I understand my brain.

The part I'm very new to is the identity part. There are a whole lot of rabbit holes to go down with that, and to be honest I'm not that interested. I decided some years ago that I wasn't going to deny it, and there are a great many people who knew among friends and coworkers. I know I've been discriminated against, and I know it has been used against me. Some people don't want to understand it. When I finally got the official diagnosis, I decided that I wasn't going to hide it, because it needs to be talked about.

I'm not sure what that means yet, because as I said, I don't understand it all myself just yet. I just know that I want to be an advocate for others and raise awareness among the neurotypical to understand that being different doesn't make us broken or less valuable. That's admittedly self-serving, because as I said, I've started to look at my entire life now through a completely different lens. That I ate lunch alone in a conference room when I moved in ninth grade wasn't because I was broken. That I struggled to date in college wasn't my fault. That I struggled to understand the intent of others in my first real job wasn't immaturity. I didn't make those choices, and it wasn't personality flaws. The world around me just didn't understand the way that I in turn perceived it, and it took a long time to be able to correct for that.

That correction, or the acquisition of coping skills, as it's often termed in psychology literature, is something that I'm struggling with at the moment because it feels so unfair that I had to adjust and the world didn't have any part in adjusting to me. But then there are stories where I feel like I have to congratulate myself for battling through something difficult and succeeding. (I've never really talked through getting my first and only full-time radio job, but it's extreme, and definitely benefitted from ASD and ADHD.) I don't feel like I can call it a disability when there are clearly ways that it has helped me.

Right now, I find myself thinking a lot about my college experience. I wouldn't call it a bad experience, but it was difficult at times. That's something I'll probably write about.

"Just asking questions" and uncomfortable art

posted by Jeff | Friday, February 4, 2022, 4:15 PM | comments: 0

There are two topics in the news right now that seem to be related, but upon closer inspection, they're actually not. As has been often the case in the last decade in particular, I think a lot of folks are anxious to draw some false moral equivalence between two things that they believe unfairly targets them or what they believe. I believe most of this is rooted in the idea that opinions are somehow the same as objective truth.

I'm talking of course about the Joe Rogan Covid misinformation blowback, and the strange and growing concern over banned books in school libraries. These sound like they're both censorship, but that's not exactly what's going on. The two situations are different in a more than nuanced way.

Joe Rogan, Gwyneth Paltrow and Tucker Carlson all have something in common. They're all selling their brands with the insistence that they're "just asking questions," and wanting to "have a conversation." On the surface, this sounds like the right, intellectually correct thing to do. The problem arises when you're willing to give equal weight to that which is observably true or right, and that which is merely opinion, or not right. This is like asking a guy who believes the earth is flat for their view. It doesn't matter, because we can use critical thinking to see that he's wrong. This isn't "having a conversation," it's giving weight to bullshit.

"Do your own research" doesn't yield correct results if you're only looking to confirm what you want to be true, and you ignore experts in the process. These folks say they seek truth, but that's not what they're doing when they accept and redistribute things that are objectively false. That's the opposite of critical thinking. Opinions don't hold the same weight as facts that can be objectively verified.

Selling snake oil is lucrative. Worse, it's presented as this self-righteous effort to share enlightenment and gain knowledge. It isn't that at all.

So what do you do with the people who oppose the content? In this case, what you distribute has stakeholders that directly affect your bottom line, and for Spotify, this is subscribers and advertisers. Together, these groups will influence what you provide because they're the ones influencing that bottom line. It just so happens that these groups mostly expect that misinformation, things objectively not true, are harmful. They reject the "just asking questions" angle for all the reasons above. There is no equivalence between objective truth and bullshit.

(There's a big sidebar here, too. When you take gobs of money from a platform like Spotify, whatever freedom you had as a podcaster goes away. Just as any TV network is responsible for what it airs, so too is Spotify now. Rogan has to be a special kind of stupid to be naïve enough to think otherwise. But surrendering to content platforms is a post for another day.)

Meanwhile, in school districts all over the place, parents are pressuring school boards to ban certain books. For the most part, these books, whether fiction or not, involve people of color, minorities, LGBTQ people, or other people or situations that make some people feel uncomfortable. It's not just classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, as it includes more recent books like All Boys Aren't Blue. There are two strange things going on here, starting with the (frankly ignorant) notion that any of this influences who you are. That's as silly as the 80's notion that metal music made you worship Satan or whatever. The other thing is this white fragility phenomenon, where apparently some white folks want to be protected from feeling uncomfortable about the fact that racism is still a thing.

In a historical context, banning books is best equated with fascism. In more benign terms, I call this the "Footloose phenomenon," where Kevin Bacon's rock music could lead to dancing, and we don't want that! Joking aside though, the Nazis were pretty famous for burning books, and I think we can generally agree that the Nazis were not good people. This whole thing where for some reason people think that kids need to be protected from knowing that Kendrick has two moms, or that white people perpetuated discrimination, none of that prepares kids for the reality of the people that will be a part of their communities for life. But also, fascism is bad, and it's intended to stifle conversations about deep cultural issues that need to be discussed.

So, how are these situations different? In Rogan's case, he's playing a part in disseminating misinformation that is objectively wrong, and that has wider consequences. His critics also happen to be stakeholders in the platform from which he operates, and money talks. Rogan isn't being oppressed. He has to put on his big boy pants and realize that words have consequences. In contrast, the book banning is most certainly about oppressing art that makes some people uncomfortable. To make it even more straightforward, Rogan is getting called out for conversations about things that aren't true, the book banning prevents important cultural discussions from happening at all. These are not morally equivalent phenomenon.