Archive: November, 2023

Does anyone like their software?

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, November 28, 2023, 9:25 PM | comments: 0

I was talking to a couple of different people about the software they use in their industries, and the sentiment ranged from "meh" to "ugh." The complaints were pretty common stuff... it's too slow, doing this is awkward, doing that is a workaround, it's too hard to adopt something else... the usual. As someone who has made a (somewhat lucrative) career out of making software, it kind of hurts to hear this. What is my profession doing? Does anyone like their software?

This calls into doubt my own self-evaluation over what I think I've delivered over the years. For the most part, I think the stuff that I've touched and/or managed has mostly resulted in things being better than they were. I've been bullied into work that shouldn't have been done, with suboptimal results, sure, but I'd like to think that anything I've believed in was better. To really unpack that, I think I have to consider how software gets crappy.

The most obvious thing is that time passes. As time passes, a number of things change. The number of users goes up, the available technology changes and improves, experts leave (or worse, are let go for not-great reasons), documentation is poor, different systems are glued together in hacky ways, features no one wanted are built and never evaluated, new parts come in via acquisition... and I could go on all day about these. I had a pretty long list as I started to write this, but the theme is the same. Over time, people don't react to the symptoms of the passage of time.

As a business leader, I completely understand this. Heck, even as a technical manager, I will push back on things that have little obvious immediate value, or a long time until value is realized. In fact, this might have been the hardest nerd thing to unlearn as a leader, that just because it's technically interesting doesn't mean we should do it. But you do have to be an oracle of sorts. Assuming that you can have the kind of clarity necessary to understand what your customer needs the most, you have to look at your software and look for things that enable the delivery of customer needs.

What I've learned over time is that trying to separate different problem domains, making them so they can do work independently of each other, and change without breaking each other, makes it a lot easier to maintain and improve. Not coincidentally, this is referred to as domain-driven design, and it can get as serious as religion in some circles. These days we think of this naturally, because of the way that cloud resources can be used, but even 20 years ago, in the world of monolithic applications with a single database, you could build things this way. The thing is though, most projects start out as these tightly-coupled, monolithic things because that's how you prove that the software is valuable in the first place, and do it quickly.

For example, say your system has a customer record, and it has their name and address. Now you want to know how much they've spent this year, so you keep a running total and just keep it with the customer's other information. But then the year changes, you want to split out their widget purchases from their wheel purchases, etc. It seemed like a quick win to conflate the customer's information with their spending habits, but that turns out to be a bad idea. I've seen this countless times, where an aging system has a hundred different data points attached to the customer that have nothing to do with who they are.

The problem is that it's hard to go back and re-do stuff. Again, if you're that business leader, or mature technical manager, "It's working today, so it's not valuable to revisit that." And that's always true, until it's not. You try to add this thing, and the blast radius of doing so makes things more complicated and even harder to change. This ultimately affects the end users, who now hate their software.

It's not purely a technical problem. Product leaders and designers do the same thing by bolting on a button here or there. Have you ever seen some of the interfaces on "enterprise" software? You can't figure it out.

So do I like any software? I've written a bunch of times about how much I like the cloud music player that I built. A lot of the video games that I've liked over the years are certainly software. The home automation software seems like it barely works together, but I love telling a speaker "Merry Christmas" and the whole house lights up. As I get more familiar with MA Lighting, I'm starting to like it more and appreciate what it can do. I like JetBrains Rider, the app I use to write code. I really like DaVinci Resolve for video editing, even though I still don't know it super well. I like Quicken Simplifi, which I started using this year to track my personal finances.

But virtually all of the corporate enterprise software that I've used over the years is kind of garbage. I'm talking about the HR stuff, expense reporting, CRM, that sort of thing. Google's G-Suite isn't bad, I suppose. My purest, most refined hatred is for Jira, which unfortunately seems to have become a de facto standard for software project organization. I feel like it has to be tolerated.

The outcome of all of this is that I end up talking to my fellow software buddies and we get to talking about how we could do so much better. And the truth is, I'm sure we could, but we are not good at selling things.

Review: Lenovo Legion Go

posted by Jeff | Monday, November 20, 2023, 11:59 PM | comments: 0

I've been dissatisfied with my gaming situation much of this year, but I've wanted to play more because I feel like it balances out my free time endeavors. The current wave of games don't run on an Xbox One, I'd like to give my old Windows desktop to Simon, and there isn't a ton of stuff that runs on Apple ARM computers yet (but there are some). I was intrigued when the Steam Deck came out last year, and then the Asus ROG Ally this year. What really got my attention was Lenovo's Legion Go, because it has a bigger, higher resolution screen. The appeal of these, being mobile, is that they can play stuff on all of the platforms... Xbox, Steam and GOG. The Xbox side is particularly exciting because I have Game Pass Ultimate, and there are a whole lot of good games included with that. I also wondered if it could double as a "console" hooked up to my TV. That, as it turns out, is complicated.

Gaming on computers is always inconsistent. Consoles are a lot more straight forward. They're all the same, over years, so the game developers have one target to meet in terms of performance. On a computer, there are infinite combinations of CPU's and GPU's, and on laptops and mobile devices, throw in the variability around batteries, thermal management and power draw. Just as you can control photography exposure in three ways (aperture, shutter and film speed), gaming performance has three levers as well. Screen resolution (the number of dots on the screen), graphic rendering settings (these are always adjustable individually in-game, even though most people just use low, medium, high) and power (how fast and hot you can push the hardware).

There are some practical implications here. First off, you're dealing with an 8.8" screen, which is big by handheld gaming standards, but even a small laptop has a screen that's at least 50% larger. This guy can natively go up to 2560x1600, which is pretty high. On top of that, it has a refresh rate of up to 144Hz. Gamers are always trying to squeeze as high a rate as possible out of their machines, and the research about what human eyes/brains can actually see isn't entirely clear. The consensus seems to be as low as 30, but as high as 90 frames per second. In doing a bunch of benchmarking on the Go, I can see a difference between 40 and 50, but higher than 50, I stop seeing meaningful improvement. So the point is that even if you run this thing at 1920x1200, and you're getting 50fps, that's probably good enough. To make it even more interesting, some games support an upscaling algorithm in the hardware, where it renders at a lower resolution but then uses math to display it at a higher resolution. Again, on a screen this size, the results are better than good.

The quality settings just depend from one game to the next. An older game like Portal 2 you can crank up all of the settings at full resolution and still get 70fps on this thing, easily. But if I throw Forza Horizon 5 at it, 1920x1200 on low quality will get me around 54fps. The quality settings have to do with texture details, lighting effects and other things I don't entirely understand, but I do know that I don't see a huge difference on this 8.8" screen. Again, we're not pushing a 27" 4K monitor here. The "compromises" aren't compromises at all on a screen that size.

Then there's the battery life. More power results in better performance. On the "balanced" setting, I can pretty easily get two hours and change, and the performance is pretty good on most games if you're keeping resolution and quality down. The low power mode makes even old games choppy, so not recommended. The performance mode does some pretty great work, but it'll suck the battery dry in 90 minutes or less. It's easy enough to enable though, so when you're plugged in, why not? That's the only legitimate limitation, in my opinion, the time on battery. It's kind of par for the course for handheld PC's. In my 10 days with it, I've only been away from a plug (not to say I'm always plugged in) once, in the car, waiting to pick Simon up at school. It probably wouldn't be great on a long flight without being able to plug-in.

Does stuff generally work? Well, mostly. I scored the first Tomb Raider reboot on GOG awhile ago for a few bucks, and it looked completely remarkable, even at native resolution and medium quality. On the other hand, I couldn't get the old Prince of Persia to start, because it appears to not like the wide 16:10 resolution. The only Steam games I really own and want to play on a console format controller is Portal and Portal 2, and I ran through both. They also can run at full native resolution, high quality, and get ridiculous frame rates. Xbox Game Pass games mostly tend to work great, though you have to fiddle with the resolution and quality to find a spot you can work with. Frustratingly, the recent Jusant runs horribly and looks like 8-bit color, and there's no obvious reason why. It runs fine on my desktop, so that was disappointing.

As for connecting it to my TV, meh, it's not a great experience. Obviously trying to push 4K from this little machine is futile, but the bigger problem is that the mode shifting and what not is all intended to work on the internal screen. It gets super confused about what settings to use in any game, since you change the hardware on it. Using an external controller gets awkward in this case as well, because while you can disconnect the included controllers, a feature I'm not really interested in, you have to turn off the included ones to use an Xbox controller. Had to Google that one. You can also pop the right controller into a magnetic stand, flip a switch, and it becomes "FPS mode," and works like a mouse. Sort of. I think it's awkward and not something I would use. So the reality is that it's not ideal for using on a TV, and I'm better off just upgrading the Xbox for that use. Using an external Xbox controller is however pretty easy on a table, since the machine has a kickstand.

Overall, my intention was to be able to play games in places that do not monopolize the living room and its TV, and this delivers. Fiddling with settings is annoying, but not the end of the world. I've been playing the new Starfield and Dungeons 4, and they both run pretty well, as does the aforementioned Forza Horizons 5. I played through all of TR, and the Portals. I've played in my office, in bed, on the patio and in the car. I'm really enjoying it quite a bit. I've used it more in 10 days than I did total on the Nintendo Switch, probably. Lenovo did a good job with well thought out hardware and just the right amount of performance necessary for today's games (and excessive perf for old games).

Two years after my autism diagnosis

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 17, 2023, 11:44 PM | comments: 0

It was two years ago yesterday that I walked out of a grueling evaluation with a psychiatrist with an official diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, as well as ADHD. I wrote a ton about it at the time, and generally everything there still tracks. Again, it was not surprising, but something about having it on paper vastly changed the way that I look at myself and my life to that point. It's as if I somehow had permission and justification to reframe my past life, and be free to define it as I wish going forward.

I'll start with the basics. I'm happy to talk about it, and it frequently comes up in conversation, often by extension of talking about Simon. Usually this goes one of two ways. The first is that the other person talks about someone they know with autism, and they either immediately acknowledge that it has little in common with my story, or they need to be reminded that if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. The second scenario is that it just makes them uncomfortable, and they want to change the subject. I was already in a place where I wanted to talk about it, going back to Simon's diagnosis when he was 3. Now I just happen to advocate for him and myself, and greater awareness of what it all means. To the best of my ability, at least.

I still have a hard time associating neurodiversity with identity, and avoid any online groups of people who have strong opinions about it. Someone once told me that "we" self-identify as "autistic," and I was like, really? I don't recall taking a vote or delegating that to anyone. There are sentiments that I have some feelings about, and in the classic autism sense, I can't reconcile some of those. For example, I hate that it's referred to as a "disorder," or worse, a "disability," because I don't think I'm broken or less-than. But I have to acknowledge that there are people across the spectrum who can't function autonomously, or even speak. It's really hard for me to even distill ASD down to things that people have in common.

What I've noticed more than ever is my weird physical... things. Some of them have always been around, but now I understand them. The picky eating thing is front and center, because Simon is the same. Only we're not traumatizing him for life and making it worse by forcing him to eat things he doesn't like. (He's still better off than me, because he does eat more fruits and vegetables.) Now, I accept that I like certain things, and I don't hate myself for it.

But there are so many tactile, sensory things that I'm acutely aware of. I can tolerate noisy environments, but I realize now how hard it is for me to do so, and how it causes fatigue. Crowded places are the same. I relentlessly thumb the corner of my phone case, and in the car I find myself trying to rub the cuticles of my fingers on the outside of the steering wheel. That's some weird shit. I find myself stretching weird muscles in my face when I'm trying to sleep. My aversion to body hair is stronger than ever, but I'm selective in its removal (I deal with the chest hair since I'm generally wearing a shirt). I've managed to stop picking my toenails by getting a pedicure now and then. How weird that I put a minor financial incentive, paying for toenail care, between me and the bad habit. At least I don't end up with bloody toes anymore.

I find that I'm constantly weighing my past interpersonal experiences against the awareness of current interactions. Looking back at my teen and college years, it was crazy how I especially approached romantic endeavors with the maturity of a middle schooler. I was just so oblivious to social cues, unable to take inventory of all the reasons I ended up in so many friend zones, but also the now-obvious times I could have engaged in fairly meaningless sexual encounters. But I've developed the ability to look at myself in those days and understand why I may have been perceived as weird to some. I'm not justifying any bullying or cruelty, and I'm not apologizing for who I was, but I get it. These days, especially at work, I'm hyper-vigilant about looking for missed cues. I can't always read the room. In social situations, this is less of an issue, because I just am who I am, and if I'm not offending or harming others, I don't feel like I should have to edit.

Then there's the parenting angle. Having autism in common with Simon means that I am deeply empathetic to what he's going through. As I've said, I've seen this movie before, and it's going to include a lot of heartbreak. But despite that empathy, I struggle to connect with him. His obnoxious teen behaviors in particular, the loud and boisterous stuff, is like nails on a chalkboard to me. It triggers the fight or flight instinct, and I don't want that. But I also project a lot of things on to him, which isn't fair, because he's not me. His indifference toward school is coming a few years earlier than mine did, and that's not helping him. So I'm always laying into him, and it's for everything from his inability to keep thoughts internal (he's impossible to watch TV with), to constant questions about everything and automatic protest of anything we ask him to do. Fortunately, we have some pretty chill nights on the weekend when Diana is working, and we at least have video games and limited music in common.

The hardest thing is the bits I talked about two years ago, about getting over all of the things that I didn't like about myself. That tends to be more about the ADHD, and how difficult it is to focus on a thing, develop good habits, start and finish things. I'm not a shitty procrastinator or devoid of responsibility. It's just the way that my brain is wired. I know a lot of people think that it has "super power" aspects, but triggering that sort of thing requires a deep self-awareness of when you're not focused, or too focused. It's funny how I find myself realizing that hours have passed and I either didn't do the thing, or I haven't done anything but the thing.

It feels complete bizarre to be navigating this sort of thing at my age, but here I am.

Home bar renovation

posted by Jeff | Thursday, November 16, 2023, 5:00 PM | comments: 0

When we built our house in 2017, there was a nook between the kitchen and the dining room they referred to as a butler pantry. We don't have a butler, but I guess fancy people that do sometimes have an in between room as a place to stage food or dirty dishes. The builder gave two options for this spot: Nothing at all, or a sink, wine fridge and wine rack. We chose the latter because it seemed weird to have nothing at all there. I mean, at the very least, it meant that there would always be plumbing there.

We don't collect wine. We don't really drink it that often either. Diana and I both have a favorite, and we don't branch out much from there. (Dry Riesling for me, pinot noir for her, if you were wondering.) Having a wine rack, for us, was just wasted space. But we have developed a taste for mixology because of our cruises, and since I do not appear to have much instinct at all for cooking, "cooking" drinks seems manageable. It turns out that, as a hobby, it definitely isn't any cheaper than collecting wine, because it's like having the right seasoning to make the thing that you want. And at a rate of two or three drinks on a weekend, you tend to acquire a whole lot of bottles. So what has happened is that these bottles were all packed under the sink, with some relegated to the adjacent food pantry. It feels pretty weird when we have someone over, and to make someone a beverage, I'm digging it out from under the sink.

So while I've acquired the accoutrement to prepare beverages for guests efficiently, I've always had to dig around for the bottles. When I want to try something original, it also helps to visually see things in front of me, which isn't possible under the sink. We decided then to rip out the cabinet and put up some floating shelves. Like, solid walnut, expertly made shelves. There are a ton of businesses large and small doing this on the Internets, but I settled on this guy Ben in the Carolinas and his company Shelf Expression. I like the idea of a solo craftsman doing the work, and the cost is mostly the same anyway among vendors. I bought three 10"x50" walnut shelves from him. They're absolutely beautiful. In fact, I hate the fact that I still have the builder basic crap below the sink.

I took photos of everything in the house before the drywall went up, so they had to be floating shelves because there's plumbing in the side wall. The placement of the furring strips was apparently random, so I'd have to put at least one set of anchors through the air gap left there. Not ideal, but 2-1/2" concrete anchors through the furring strips and into the block aren't going anywhere. I was fairly confident. I mounted some Ikea media cabinets into the block wall at our previous house, and they didn't fall down (they're in wood studs in the current place). The old cabinet came down without much of a fight. Being that cheap particle board stuff, it wasn't heavy, just awkward. Once it was down, I found that there were about 32 different holes in the wall for what was ultimately just nine screws holding it up. About 20 of those holes were just along the bottom. Another quality job by the Pulte subcontractors!

The new shelves had Hovr brackets preinstalled. It's a really smart system that has an aluminum rail that uses the weight of the shelf to lock it in and keep it upright. It's really impressive. And it works great... if your wall is flat.

Getting these in was a learning experience, when it should have been easy. The first stupid think that I did was drill holes in the wall first instead of in the bracket. The alignment was not ideal. Then between the first and second shelves, I learned that the good drill bit I bought wasn't actually large enough for that size screw, so they struggled to go in, and I even broke a few. I used the previous bit I had (came with the last batch of screws) to widen the holes. I also learned that my impact wrench is frankly too aggressive for this application, which is probably why I broke the screws. Now, I would imagine that two screws on the top side of the rail would be enough to hold the shelves, relative to the weight of the original cabinets and contents, so six was likely overkill. The problem came when I tried to mount the first shelf, and it would only go on at one end. I could eyeball that the rail was bending just slightly at one end, away from the shelf. Using a laser from above, I could see the ever so slight bend. This was at the end with the air gap behind the drywall. Once I loosened that end just a little, the shelf dropped into place.

Putting the longest level I had across the wall, I could see that the problem wasn't just the lack of a furring strip at that end, the drywall just wasn't flat across the 50 inches. That meant that the other two shelves were just as difficult to get on. The trick is that the system requires the rail to be firm against the wall to make the amazing horizontalness. Too loose, and there's a little play and it sags a degree or two. Too tight on this wall, and the rail is not straight enough for the shelf to sit on. The middle shelf sags just a hair, while the top one, where the wall is warpiest, I seemed to have gotten just right. Of course, that's the one that's mostly for decoration, display or storage, because you need a step stool to reach it. (Edit: I couldn't deal with the middle shelf's slight sag. Tightened it up, tried again, and boom, it locked into place, level to the floor.) 

I'm not entirely happy with the position of the middle shelf, but I'm confident that it's not going anywhere. The end result is so much better and functional. In June, I installed a glass washer, and this silly thing brings me the greatest joy. I really enjoy making stuff for people, which is why I'm always inviting people over. I'd like to concentrate on garnishes and presentation as far as skill development, because I feel like that's the thing that further elevates what you serve. I'm feeling confident about mix ratios and getting to a certain taste, though I am still biased toward "boozyness" over sweetness, but I'm getting better about asking people what they prefer.

Routine is accelerating time, and I don't like it

posted by Jeff | Thursday, November 9, 2023, 5:00 PM | comments: 0

I have been struggling with anxiety a lot the last few weeks. It's bad. It's keeping me up at night, I look tired, I feel tired and I'm generally just spent from the constant worry about everything. Sure, the world is a lot, so everyone has that. But I'm also feeling anxiety from the fact that it seems like time is flying by. Weeks are now days, quarters feel like a single month. I mean, it feels like we just did Thanksgiving. It's alarming, unnerving, unsettling.

As any otherwise scientific mind might do, I wanted to understand why age seems to accelerate time. After all, when you're in high school, elementary school feels like it's decades ago by adult standards. You can kind of explain that away by the human developmental process, as you become fully formed. But then you get to be an adult, and you think, "A year seemed to last forever, and now it's over quickly."

Research, which is weird because it's about human perceptions, something that seems like a hard thing to sample and measure, indicates that the brain seems to perceive time relative to the uniqueness of its stimuli. In other words, as you age, you see and do more things, and the more you see and do, the less likely that it's something that you have not seen before. Sameness blends together, and without the uniqueness to associate with moments in time, the less distinct each day is.

This completely tracks with me, and maybe I even instinctively understood it. I've been desperately thinking about how we can get back to Europe. That two weeks seemed to last much longer than any two weeks since. The reason is obvious, because we visited five countries (six if you count a layover in Frankfurt) that I had never been to. All of that sensory input was new, whether it was places, people, culture, sights, smells, etc. Every one of those days seemed impossibly long, in a good way. Crawling into bed was satisfying because of all that we had seen.

I'm emphasizing something like new countries here, but I don't want to make it totally about places. Sometimes it's the context, and if that varies, it provides the variability that slows things down. For example, you'd think that after doing three cruises a year for the last decade, that each voyage would go by quickly. While the places are the same, the variability comes in from all of the different people involved. You encounter new sets of people, repeatedly, whether it's at dinner, in the bar, activities, and people are as different as anything can be. That's what I get most out of those trips, and I crave it, even though that level of social interaction is a little exhausting. Heck, just feeling like I belong in a group of people, at times, feels like a new, unique experience. You can apply the same thing to a local resort stay, or having friends over, or whatever. This sort of thing breaks the routine, even if the places seem routine.

It seems like every Friday, when I step away from my desk, I'm excited to be at the weekend, but simultaneously distressed that I've already arrived at another one. Work can be somewhat repetitive in nature, which is why I was so glad to visit the mothership back in August. Also, shit, that was three months ago. See what I mean?

I don't want to add more planning and structure to life, but I do feel like I need to find ways to break up the routines in a positive way. This year seemed to be going at a slower pace up until recently, because there are so many things that we have done, places we've gone, people we've met. Of course, I don't want anything to be super disruptive in a negative way either (I'm looking at you, 2020 and 2021).

As a sidebar, maybe this is why I crave new music all of the time.

Crossword puzzles

posted by Jeff | Thursday, November 9, 2023, 4:00 PM | comments: 0

I remember finding the crossword puzzle in the Cleveland Plain Dealer when I was a kid. The PD was a "newspaper," a big wad of folded paper that smelled like ink because news was printed on it just hours before you got it. Tucked away between the headlines was a crossword puzzle. What was staggering about it is that, I thought I was pretty clever when I was 9 or 10, but the words and cultural references in it were not things I had any chance of knowing. I thought crosswords were stupid.

Now I understand that they're kind of intended for old people, or at the very least, not kids. They're a mix of trivia and vocabulary and clever interpretation of clues. Recently, Diana started using some random app with crosswords, and I followed. Then I realized that The New York Times, which is also a "newspaper," though I don't imagine many people get it in print anymore, published daily crosswords. Along with a wider series of games and crossword archives, you can play all of that for an extra five bucks a month. It also unlocks their Cooking and Wirecutter content, which I was always kind of annoyed wasn't included in the regular subscription. But whatever, it's a few bucks.

So now I've been devoting much of my time wasting to crossword puzzles. It helps fill the gap in which I don't spend much time messing around on the Internets. Social media for me has become a mostly a publish-only affair, though I'll scroll a little now and then. The time tracker on the phone shows that I'm generally spending less than 20 minutes a day on Instagram, which still seems like a lot, but it's undoubtedly far less than I used to do.

The digital format for crosswords is much better. You can brute-force your way to answers that you don't know when you turn on the auto checking. I know some people engage in some "purist" bullshit about how you're supposed to solve them, but whatever. This brings me joy. And I'm amused at how frequently I see the clue "Singer Bareilles" or "Personal identifier, for short." I'll let you figure those out.

Music obsessed teen

posted by Jeff | Monday, November 6, 2023, 6:30 PM | comments: 0

I imagine that it's pretty typical for teenagers to be obsessed with music. I don't know how typical it is for them to narrowly focus on one specific thing for long periods of time though. I know I did that, and I attribute it to all of the things that are autism now that I understand it. In the last few weeks, I see Simon doing it as well.

After we saw Cirque du Soliel's Drawn To Life a few weeks ago, I introduced Simon to the music from Delirium, the 2006 arena tour. I was really into it at the time, and I didn't think anything of it in terms of his interest. Some combination of associating it with the show he saw live, the content of the music, and his age, has sucked him in and he listens to it constantly. I pick him up from school, he's listening. He's playing video games, he's listening. He's studying or doing homework, he's listening. It's constant, and it's always that album. He has access to 9,000+ tracks I own, and he comes back to that over and over.

My first instinct is, well, I'm glad it's this and not some crappy, ephemeral pop music. Ugh, it's so forgettable these days. But I feel good about introducing him to something that has what I consider some artistic value, and that it appears to affect him emotionally. He hasn't shown a lot of interest in the alt rock that I've exposed him to, new or old, but he's forming his tastes now, so who knows what he's going to like. He seems to like some of the Sofi Tukker we've listened to over the years, and certain tracks from our annual playlists.

I was exactly like him at that age. I remember ruthlessly listening to Genesis' Invisible Touch on cassette, to the point that hearing it, I can smell the ink in the liner notes and on the tape itself. Once I got into high school, there were others, including the first three Tears For Fears albums, Depeche Mode's 101 and Violator, Def Leppard's Hysteria. Oh, and Information Society's self-titled album. I never did replace that with a CD, but I know that one got a ton of play.

I was recently listening to a podcast with Paul Simon, where he talked about how so much of our musical taste is formed and set in our teen years. I suppose that's true for most people, judging by the shows that people my age go to. It hasn't been true for me. I'm decidedly not nostalgic. There might be a few albums that I go back to now and then, more from college than high school, but I listen once and then shelve it for another year. I desperately want or need the next thing that turns me on.

Diana probably has more influence on Simon, since she's in the car with him more. She has good taste in music, though there are some things that she's into that I'm not. And that's fine, because she doesn't get why I like Grouplove.

Standard time puts me in a dark place

posted by Jeff | Monday, November 6, 2023, 5:57 PM | comments: 0

We're two days into the return to Eastern Standard Time, and I'm already hating it. For all the good that Florida sunshine has done for my mental health, specifically as it relates to seasonal affective disorder, I struggle a little this time of year. It doesn't seem like it lasts long, but it's definitely a thing.

Granted, the world is... a lot right now, but the disdain for this among the general population is probably one of the few things that people can agree on. Unfortunately, it seems the legislators who prevent government from actually functioning are rarely interested in sponsoring bills that could end this madness, so here we are.

In past years I've managed to shift my waking time a little earlier, which helps, but it's so hard to do that when Diana works late. Her accident a couple of years ago makes it hard for me to relax, and sleep is already hard because of my inability to cope with anxiety. So I stay up late, and then when I try to get up in the morning, I'm just finally getting good quality sleep and I don't get up.

Rolling with stuff should be easier at my age.

Ugh... "at my age."

Programmable lighting fetish update, late 2023

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 3, 2023, 11:30 PM | comments: 0

Last year I realized that I had enough disposable income to at least mess around with programmable, moving head lighting. Of course, I bounce around to a bunch of different interests, from day to day, or sometimes even hour to hour. #ADHD or whatever. This year I made a solid deal to buy two more automated lights, to bring my total to four. In July, I revisited writing code myself to manipulate the lights. It's kinda what I do. Then in August, I decided I was going to make a bona fide effort toward learning the things, maybe to make a second post-retirement career, or pre-retirement. I dunno.

Those August thoughts were reinforced on our last cruise, when I kind of obnoxiously forced conversation on to techies aboard the Disney Wish, to see what they were using to control lights, where I couldn't just obviously see them. As I understood, yes, they're all using MA3 consoles at this point. Then we randomly encountered the corporate director of live entertainment that we had seen previously in our summer Norther European cruise, and her enthusiasm was pretty infectious. I spoke to her technical counterpart on that previous cruise, who suggested I was going down the right path if I was interested even in a part-time career in lighting.

For Halloween, I tried to figure out what I could do with just four lights and free software, and came up with the "police light" cue shown in the video below. I loved how it looked (the video doesn't really capture it). Jack White said in It Might Get Loud how constraints force creativity, and I felt that in trying to make that happen with four lights.

So I'm still saving my pennies to hopefully get a "real" Grand MA3 console in March or April, which is to say the cheapest possible "onPC" version, meaning you need to connect it to a computer. That will give me the control surface for "real" programming and busking, which I hope will translate to something real and marketable. I'll still have to work the local network to find ways to do it for something beyond a hobby, but it's a start.

Even if it were not to lead to any practical wins, there's no price that I can put on the joy of discovery and creation that comes with this. For real, that's legit and satisfying. That's the thing that has kept me into software for so long, and almost no users will ever have any knowledge or understanding of my role in the process of making that stuff.

The Cedar Fair and Six Flags merger

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 3, 2023, 8:45 PM | comments: 0

Thursday, Six Flags and Cedar Fair announced a merger agreement. I've had a few folks ask me about it since then, and what I think. I've been kind of doing drive-by posts about it on CoasterBuzz and PointBuzz, but I haven't really offered any fully formed opinion, maybe because I don't have one. But let me put something together here, and see if it makes sense.

It's helpful to talk about the two companies individually first. Six Flags, under the leadership of Selim Bassoul, has been a constant train wreck. He eliminated huge parts of the corporate staff, and I've heard he micromanages the GM's at the parks. It's absurd how many direct reports that he has. He has pursued a race to the bottom for gate pricing when there was no one else in the race. He said he wanted to upgrade the customer base from "Wal-Mart" to "Target," but the long-term pricing around annual passes has not really embraced that idea. Attendance, income, revenue and margin has been in free fall. I don't think he knows what the fuck he's doing.

On the Cedar Fair side, the observations are more nuanced. They're not completely bad, but they're not good either. Richard Zimmerman as the successor to Matt Ouimet has been a mixed bag. Admittedly, I've always had a professional crush on Ouimet, in no small part because I had an unusual amount of access to him for a few years. A lengthy conversation that we had in the middle of Cedar Point's Gatekeeper media day had a profound effect on how I look at career, money and goal setting. Almost no one, professionally, has had that kind of impact, and that's not even counting the half-day I spent interviewing him, or his invitation to a roller coaster factory, or random interactions on the midway.

Matt resigned from the board a few months ago, shortly after renewing his three-year term. It's not hard to imagine why that happened (and to be clear, I have zero first-hand understanding why). I don't think he was a fan of this merger. If he was, unless there was some personal reason we'll never know about, he would have stuck around. But there are other clues there too. Operations at the parks, the process of servicing guests by way of fast ride loading, "streetmosphere," and peripheral soft touches that improve the experience, have all disappeared since his departure as CEO. I visited Cedar Point spring last year, and it was disappointing, especially in ride operations. On the flip side, the entire culinary operation was next level, so it's reasonable to assume that the good parts are where the strongest personalities lie. No joke, they're killing it in a way that's akin to the Busch (SeaWorld) parks in the early aughts. The summary judgment is that the trust and empowerment that Ouimet instilled has diminished, and the park GM's are largely order takers from the corporate level. They've also sort of pursued an unnecessarily cheap run at annual passes in the hope of making it up on in-park spending. The real result has been a drop in both attendance and per capita spending. It's not as bad as Six Flags, but it ain't good. The reason that's so disappointing is that we've seen this movie before, in the pre-bankruptcy Six Flags under Dan Snyder. The Kieran Burke era of Six Flags was great by comparison.

So really we're left with speculation about what the future might look like. If there's a positive, it's that the Cedar Fair people are going to lead the new company. Bassoul will be executive chair, but he's not going to have real influence on day-to-day. Some other Six Flags guy will be the "chief integration officer," but he doesn't know shit about what CF has in place (generally solid ERP, retail and ticketing systems), so he'll be more nuisance than anything for a year or two before he's tossed out. I don't imagine that he can do too much damage when Zimmerman is his boss.

The potential negatives, and what I suspect are the reason that enthusiasts are not enthusiastic about, are as follows:

  • The CF execs might be in charge, but they've been looking at the world as transactional. I mean, the press release about the merger refers to guests as "consumers." If you don't see them as "guests" in the context of a hospitality business, you're already doing it wrong.
  • The gate integrity thing hasn't been as bad on the CF side as it was in SF, but I'm not sure if they've actually learned anything from it. In the history of amusement parks and theme parks, giving away the gate and hoping to make it up on per cap spending never works. And why would it? If you're looking for people who want a break on getting in, why do you think they'd spend more once inside? The big themers, Disney, Universal and SeaWorld are certainly not operating this way. Don't race to the bottom when no one else is even in the fucking race.
  • The soft "experiential" parts to operating amusement parks are the things that make you love them. This means adequate staffing operations to get people on and off attractions quickly. It's the random street performers, resort experiences and entertainment that you're not expecting, but enjoy. It's the random employee that makes your visit better when you don't expect it. The cost cutting of existing Cedar Fair execs kills all of that, and the press release suggests that there's an absurd billion and a half to realize by combining the companies. Mark my words, because I will say "I told you so," that savings does not exist.
  • My contacts in the company suggest that Cedar Fair has reverted to a world of micromanagement. The empowerment that Ouimet enabled is gone. GM's are order takers. It might be a billion-dollar corporation, but the markets that each park operate in are different in terms of culture, demographics, income, etc. You can't simply apply one paradigm from a park to others. Former CEO Dick Kinzel did this to disastrous effect after the Paramount acquistion. Furthermore, you don't want to chase out the people who "get it" and can make day to day decisions on the fly, in context to their market. The Zimmerman tenure appears to have done just that.

On the surface, what I'm really saying is that the overall Cedar Fair operation is superior to the Six Flags operation, and it's clear from the press release that it's the CF side that's really going to run things in the combined company. But the foundations of that Cedar Fair management are not where they should be.

Here's my overall take on the hospitality business, specifically with theme parks. There is no direct, same-industry competition, for the most part. But you will absolutely compete with a hundred other things, whether it be sports events, Taylor Swift, movies, mini-golf... whatever. To that end, it's your product that attracts people, and more importantly, keeps them coming back every year for the important recurring revenue. (ARR is clearly not a consideration in this industry.) If the product does not instill happy happy joy joy feelings, there is no recurring revenue. You lose to the non-industry competition. It doesn't come for free. You may take a hit to your margin to staff the things that instill those feelings, but you don't actually have a choice. Demanding a premium price requires delivering a premium experience that you can't get elsewhere. And let's be clear... your total addressable market doesn't change. Heck, in most markets it's shrinking, not expanding, as people move to warmer climates.

Disclosure: I own 10 shares of Six Flags, which are down 46% since I bought them. I bought them in the emergence of the pandemic, feeling they would likely improve (same for some cruise stocks and Disney, but they're all under by about the same amount... buy index and mutual funds, kids!). Disney, NBCUniversal and SeaWorld Parks seem to have all done the right things post-Covid, but the two biggest regionals, Six Flags and Cedar Fair, have not.

Miscellaneous October things

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 3, 2023, 7:01 PM | comments: 0

Last month was eventful, to say the least. I feel like I should write about some stuff not deserving single posts. So here we go...

Early in the month, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra did a week-long residency at our beloved Dr. Phillips Center. What made it so great was that they were pairing up with a bunch of different artists. Sometimes I worry that I fetishize British things, but admittedly I was very charmed by London, during the 24-ish hours I got to spend there. I desperately want to go back. This also isn't the only orchestra to grace Steinmetz Hall, which I adore because of its extraordinary acoustic properties and engineering. (For real, I don't think Orlando people appreciate just how amazing it is to have something that's this great here. It's top tier in the world.) The Cleveland Orchestra, which I obviously love and have seen countless times from my time living up there, was also here but we couldn't get tickets because it was a subscription series. Fortunately, we'll be able to see them next time, in February. One of our first dates was to see the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by John Williams at Blossom. You don't forget that kind of thing. Oh, and we got to see our very own Orlando Philharmonic perform Carmina Burana with a UCF choir last year, which was every bit as mind blowing as it sounds. This venue has kind of reminded me how amazing orchestral music is. We've also had a few great party events in the space.

Anyway, Beck was the first of the two RPO shows we went to. I've always enjoyed his music, even if I've only bought it periodically. I think he's brilliant, and the idea of him playing with an orchestra was irresistible. He totally delivered, even though I only knew maybe a third of the songs that he did. There were multiple shows going on at the center that day, so the donor room overflow used the Pugh Theater, and after the show, Beck, his two band mates and lady friend showed up. I wanted to say hello, just to thank him for sharing his gifts and making radio more interesting when I worked in that field. Unfortunately, people who donated more than us kind of leveraged their way ahead of me, and I was salty about it. I could have bugged him when he was alone eating with his lady friend, but that's a dick move. He's a human, too, and I want to respect boundaries.

The next person we got to see was Sutton Foster, who was splitting the time with Brian Stokes Mitchell. No offense to the latter, but I've always had kind of a nerd crush on Sutton. I first saw her on Sesame Street, when she declared her love for levers, but really loved her in the series Younger, where she played a Gen-X'er trying to make it by faking her age in a Millennial world. Diana and I hoped to see her in Music Man before Covid, with Hugh Jackman, but when things opened up we just couldn't realistically make it happen. Still, she is legit, obviously. What a set of pipes. And on top of that, she seems fairly down to earth. She gave away her craft/memoir book to a guy in the front row, and did some crocheting while singing, something she does to remind her of her voyage. She's so f'ing cool.

It's worth noting that the rest of the residency was filled out with names you might now, like Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Ross. It doesn't sound like the shows sold that well, but they announced so late, and I don't think they had enough time to market them.

In other news, the family and I saw a Cirque du Soleil show together. Drawn To Life is their show at Disney Springs, replacing whatever ran there forever. It was literally two nights before, that we were sitting around the table, I building Lego, Diana doing a puzzle, Simon observing my work, that I played the album from Cirque's Delirium, an arena show that toured in 2006. We still mourn the loss of Blue Man Group here (owned by Cirque, oddly enough), so I thought, why don't we just go see the show that's here?

My biggest concern was that it was going to lean deep into Disney IP in a gratuitous way, but that wasn't the case at all. Given that they have a show with Beatles music, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. The narrative was straight forward... a young girl has dreams involving her dead father animator, and the dream has a bunch of human circus freaks. It was the expected kind of gymnastics and trapeze stunts that you would expect from a Cirque show, but it was artistically grounded. I loved it, much more than I expected. No one was more impressed than Simon though, who has been asking to go back every since. There are no bad seats, so mercifully, if we do, it doesn't matter if we're in the back row. They also under-sell so much that I imagine we could have gone to closer seats and no one would have cared. The interesting sidebar is that I introduced Simon to Delirium, and he's been listening to that album non-stop ever since. I feel like he's getting a good music education, and he's a lot like I was at that age in terms of obsession over very specific music.

Speaking of obsessions, it's hardly a secret that I enjoy buying the big, giant Lego sets, and collecting them. They recently introduced a Harry Potter Gringott's Bank set, that I was thinking I'd pass on, being "only" 4,803 pieces, but I relented. It has a bunch of coaster track for the underground bits, and I couldn't resist. It's really like two sets, the underground and above ground, but it's pretty cool. It also fits with the previously released Diagon Alley set. So I built that one finally, for the second time, and for a brief moment, had them all together. I've also, in recent months, built the Titanic and Millennium Falcon (the huge collector edition) for the second time. Since then I've also built the looping roller coaster for the second time, and the Haunted House with drop tower ride for the third time. It's such a Zen activity for me. I can listen to music, build, and maybe have some cocktails, and just kind of lose myself in that process. Diana often puzzle builds at the other end of the dining room table. I do wonder if I should sell some of the older sets that I'm no longer interested in, but I don't have the energy to get what they're actually worth.

And finally, Simon has been asking for ways to make a few bucks for months. Back in March, when I replaced my Windows, self-built PC with a stacked Mac Mini, I told him that I would let him have that computer, which is still competent for gaming, even after five-ish years, if he'd save to buy a new monitor. I even put a super fast new SSD drive in it, at my expense (the old one lives in an enclosure for data on the new Mac). Frustratingly, eight months later, he hasn't really made much progress toward that. But realizing it, he keeps asking for ways to make some money.

The driveway was starting to get moldy, because Florida. It has to be power washed once every year or two. So I asked if he wanted to do it, and he was surprisingly enthusiastic. He didn't do a great job at first, but I showed him what he missed, and he enthusiastically went back to it the next day. I gave him $20, which he promptly spent $10 on for Roblox currency. I'm only asking him to save $150 for the monitor, but he's still not there.

Oh, I power-washed my Weber grill, caked with five years of sludge, and it was super gross. I replaced the "flavorizer bars" over the burners that rusted, and now it's sort of like new again.

And finally, as an epilogue to the Model 3 saga, before the service, it was already throwing errors about one of the side cameras. Service asked if they should look into it, and I was like, no, you're already asking for too much money. So when we got it back, I first took apart the B pillar to make sure it was connected right. They had to remove it for the body work after the crowbar incident, so I was suspect. The connections seemed OK, but I wasn't sure. I also read online that sometimes you just need to push the "recalibrate cameras" button in one of the menus on the touch screen. I took a test drive, and it was still showing the problem, so I pushed the button. Next test out, the error went away, and Diana hasn't seen it since. Glad I didn't pay Tesla to look at it, because button. That was easy enough, but the aforementioned bad pyro fuse was certainly not something I could replace myself.

Current foster cats

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 3, 2023, 5:32 PM | comments: 0

This is the current foster cat situation. I can't even.