Archive: December, 2019

2019 Review

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 31, 2019, 2:22 PM | comments: 0

It's time for my annual blog therapy/review. This has been an unusual year with a lot of intense highs and lows. Sorting it all out has been an adventure itself. Again this year, we'll start with the boring work stuff.

Career

Last year at this time, I was six months into this gig, and mentally exhausted. I questioned myself every single day. While I liked the people, I wasn't really sure if I had the support I needed to be successful. But by the time I hit my anniversary mid-year, things had changed quite a bit. I went into my review armed with data and felt pretty good about the outcomes of the first year, despite a healthy amount of self-awareness about what had to be better. As I said then, the challenge of the job is all scale. I know what good looks like, it's just different to apply it to 30+ people.

By the middle of the year, I realized that the greatest part of the success was in QA, because my first hire was a QA expert. Thinking back to successful organizations I worked in previously, the best had leaders in each of the various engineering and product disciplines. We already split out product, so we hired a peer to handle that, and it immediately brought focus and priority to what we worked on, so I could look at technical concerns. It was so obvious at that point that hiring leaders for development and operations would round out distribution of that workload, and I was able to get the support for it. Just a few months in, that has made a huge difference. I'm really optimistic about the future. I feel like I have time to think strategically at a high level in a way I couldn't before, and I'm enjoying working with these new leaders.

The last few years, even at my previous job, have been a real swing for me in terms of my mental and emotional investment in work. When I decided I wanted to get back to product work, I was right that it would ultimately cause me to be more engaged. That has the kind of risk that you associate with having a close relationship. The more into it you are, the more intense the pain and joy that comes with it. Balancing that against parenting means that there are frequently times where I'm just spent, and I have to back off from one or the other, or both. It's really hard. But more risk can yield more reward, and I think that's worth it at the moment.

The hobby business

It felt good at the end of 2018 to say that ad revenue had finally gone up after years of decline, and this year tells a more weird story. It starts with the fact that overall ad revenue was back down 14% after a 24% increase. This is actually still "good" because the weirdness lies in the very strange changes in usage patterns and ad formats. On one hand, Google now inserts ads all over the place, so there are more opportunities to generate revenue, but on the other hand, changes I made again to the forums alter how things load, so "page views" don't really mean the same thing year to year. PointBuzz actually saw a rise in users of 3.5%, but they're looking at a third less pages. CoasterBuzz had a more uniform drop in users and page views of 16%. So take all of this into account, and it's safe to say that ad revenue relative to traffic has actually stabilized.

There are two problems with CoasterBuzz. The first is that I simply don't have time to post stuff. I get to work at 8 and I'm doing stuff. At home I'm doing stuff with my family. It's hard to make time to look for news and post it. The second problem is that people aren't writing about the industry like they used to. There used to be a lot of great content out there from local news outlets. But local news can't afford to exist anymore, so I'm lucky to find even half the stuff I did ten years ago. What's worse, even the independent niche publishers who cover the major theme parks are posting link bait crap that I won't link to. It's like the Fox News of theme parks, where I find stuff like, "Disney's new attraction will kill Universal," or some such crap. All of the fake conflict and hyperbole is right out of the playbook of cable news and talking head punditry.

All that said, I have been working on and off on some non-fiction narrative pieces that I think I'll post as part of CoasterBuzz's 20th anniversary, coming up in a few weeks. Initially I thought that maybe this would be book material, but I think it's too niche. I'll write the stuff for me though, and if people are into it, cool.

Some years ago, it became pretty obvious that being in the content business was a losing proposition. Just ask the aforementioned local papers. But I like having the sizable slush fund, and asking people for money beats relying on ad revenue, so I decided that I would try to do a commercially hosted version of the forums. There are a few existing players out there already for this, but not many. This isn't some arbitrary thing that might make money, either, because it's something I'm interested in and care about. It's a better fit for my interests. If it can keep ten customers per month, I'd be perfectly content. My hope is to launch it in a few weeks, if I can get enough heads-down time on it.

Sort of connected to all of this is my prior commitment to make commits every week to the open source forum project. I wanted a little green square in every week for my GitHub profile, and I did it! I optimized the shit out of the project, and even spawned a little mini-library this year. The commits slowed down in the last quarter of the year, in part because I shifted attention to the hosted product, but I did it. That's important to me, because as I've shifted from maker to manager in my day job, I want to stay in the technology in some meaningful way. I want to maintain a little street credibility.

Health

My physical health hasn't changed much this year, but I did gain weight. On top of that, there's an algorithm my doctor uses now that produces odds of you having a heart attack, and those numbers aren't great. My minimum distance on eyesight moved out a few inches and I'm slower to focus. On the plus side, my prostate is working as it should, and I show no signs of developing diabetes or insulin resistance. But those odds... those mess with my mental health. I have to drop some pounds and increase activity to hopefully get the cholesterol under control, or at the very least, understand if it's a hereditary issue or not. The somewhat discouraging thing is that my step count has been up for a few years in a row, 1.8 million in 2017, 2.1 million in 2018 and 2.2 million this year. My eating is up too, I'm sure, since I eat out for lunch most days.

That anxiety though. A year ago, I think I attributed a lot of it to work, but I'm actually rolling with that pretty well these days. The parenting is a bigger trigger these days. I also think there's an underlying, continuous freak-out in progress with regard to aging. I haven't seen my own therapist lately because we've been devoting a lot of time and effort toward Simon's in the short-term, but I imagine it's time to have a meaningful discussion about classic midlife crisis. I don't think I'm going to pursue a Porsche or hookers and blow, but clearly being roughly equidistant between birth and death is weighing on me. Having what seems like a panic attack not triggered by any specific thing in the moment is alarming.

Simon seems to be on a decent med for ADHD at the moment, but that will be an ongoing adjustment. He's obsessively picking his feet now, but his hands and arms aren't bleeding, so that's a plus. The aforementioned focused therapy I think is helping with some of the maturity issues and coping mechanisms, and that will be a long game. Diana's headache calendars this year are getting a little better, in that the doctor can see that naps make a huge difference in that cycle.

Parenting and family

One of my dear friends had a baby this year, and it brought me back to the simplicity, if somewhat offset by frequent physical exhaustion, of having a baby. You might be tired, but it's a simple arrangement overall: Babies need to eat, sleep and have their diaper changed. At some point, they become mobile, and after that, they have opinions about everything, and then you realize how easy wiping butts and feeding mushy food into that little person really was.

We had a lot less experimentation with ADHD meds this year, other than some dosage changes, and for now we're in a good rhythm. The biggest win however was changing schools through yet another redistricting for another new building. The previous school had a principal who was a Type-A micro-manager obsessed with test scores and homework. (I got an email dump of her email on the subject via a records request... you bet I'm gonna share that shit eventually.) Right at the end of March, we saw Simon completely meltdown under the pressure of the goddamn FSA testing, because they emphasize it and scare the shit out of the kids to do well on it, not to mention reduce actual instruction time for test taking strategy. You ever see a person so emotionally drained that you don't recognize them? That was my kid, and it was infuriating.

The principle at the new school avoids talking about the FSA unless she has to, and has no arbitrary homework requirement. Simon has stuff to do that's largely optional, or stuff he can't finish in school (his IEP gives him extra time), but there isn't a ton. Not only is it nice that he can be a kid and do kid stuff after school, but the meds tend to wear off and he's not as focused. It's a night-and-day difference.

Socially, we're always in that place where we want him to work out problems with kids himself, which is hard because kids are dicks at that age, but I struggle with it because I see how unhappy he is a lot of the time. He's probably a year or two behind in terms of maturity, which doesn't help, and he has the stereotypical ASD condition of not understanding social contracts the way other kids do. In fact, that's a problem even with his relationships with us. Cause and effect, understanding consequences, those are still difficult for him. For example, if he talks back and you send his neighbor friend home, he doesn't understand that the talking back was the problem, he only sees that he's lonely and I've taken a friend away from him. And when he can't reconcile that, you certainly can't make it a teachable moment in a meltdown.

We went deep into weekly therapy for a couple of months toward the end of the year, and I think we're understanding him a little better. We know now that what he expresses as a feeling might not be the actual feeling. He's uncomfortable socially and believes that being funny is how other kids like you. Belonging is so important to him, which is hard when he's not athletic and is admittedly the weird kid a lot of the time (he's me as a kid, which is why it's so heartbreaking). I'm trying harder to be a life coach when I can, and when I can understand him, which isn't as often as I'd like. We like Lego, video games and amusement rides, so we bond over those when we can, but it can be demanding to keep up.

Diana is the one who holds it together, managing the doctors and teachers and therapy and swim lessons. I probably call this out all of the time, but I never feel like I have to "manage" our relationship, and it just happens. I don't take that for granted. She looks out for us constantly, and I think she gives more than she takes. All the while she manages to stay funny and interesting and beautiful. We celebrated our 10th anniversary this year, and at this point she now has the honor of having my longest relationship.

Vacations

This was a pretty great year for vacations. Unlike the previous year, I've tried very hard to make sure I'm taking time off quarterly. My goal was to take off four weeks, as if I was accruing time, and I was short by two days. Still, we had some excellent times.

For our tenth anniversary, we went to New York and did a tear on Broadway shows. We stayed in a really nice, new boutique hotel near Bryant Park, met up with more of Diana's theater friends, had a lovely walk through Central Park, visited B&H Photo, frequented the Red Flame Diner. We did it right, too, getting a private car to and from the airport. Didn't get as many subway miles this time, but we did walk from the hotel to Hudson Yards, which was a hike. There is so much to explore in that city, and we've barely made it out of Midtown in our two trips thus far (got downtown to Trinity Church and the 9/11 Memorial last year). I've enjoyed these trips in part because of the amazing shows, but also it's so great to connect with Diana, one-on-one, and connect to her past, when she lived there.

Of course we cruised. We started the new year on a Caribbean itinerary, which was overpriced and frankly the tropics don't feel that different from each other. We really want to get to Puerto Rico. Even more, we want to go to Europe, but don't want to bring Simon just yet, so that's a barrier. We did a long weekend in the spring once we knew Simon was good on missed days of school. We did our annual 5-night with the double hit at Castaway Cay, which wasn't great because Diana had bronchitis. We squeezed out a long weekend as a make-good later in the year, but three nights is too little. On the positive side, Simon has become fairly independent, checking himself in and out of the kids club himself, and using a cheap phone to message us through the onboard app. That means we can sit in a bar and talk to adults or do other adult stuff. We really want to cruise again with friends, because that's always more fun, but haven't been able to align those interests this year.

In the fall, I begrudgingly scheduled a quasi-staycation, where we stayed at Disney's Coronado Springs just a few miles from us, and even closer to Simon's school. Basically, we could be on vacation without him missing school. This trick mostly worked. We had some great adult time, enjoyed the new Star Wars stuff, enjoyed the bus system, had epic eats. A friend was even in town and we did a drink-around-the-world lap at Epcot, for the last viewing of Illuminations, the classic fireworks show. Despite the close proximity to home, it felt like a vacation, and that resort is actually really nice, as it turns out. We want to do a date night back at one of the restaurants there.

I find myself harboring a little resentment about travel, because we can't easily do a long trip without Simon. There are many continents we want to see, or even US cities for that matter, that we can't do just yet. I imagine it's only four or five more years, but we're not getting any younger.

Energy watch

After years of waiting, we finally got our Tesla Powerwall installed. That whole process was a shitshow that I've written about before. Tesla Energy is just terrible to work with, even though the products are awesome. But we now have backup power for all of our standard stuff in the house, so in the event we lose power, we'll still be able to keep the lights and the fridge on, we just can't use the water heater, stove, oven or AC. That's a solid compromise in the event there's a long-term outage due to a hurricane. The trick here is that the battery came with switching equipment that disconnects you from the grid in an outage, which is necessary because you don't want to accidentally back-feed electricity into the grid and electrocute a line worker. So in theory, we could sustain ourselves indefinitely (with cold water) and keep the beverages cold, over-producing solar during the day, then using it overnight.

We've got a whole year of data now, too, and as I expected, spring is the highest producing time of year relative to usage. We got close to net-zero in a few months (production vs. consumption), but we use about 5,000 kWh per year just on the cars, and this silly-large house is hard to keep cool. Still, at almost 14,000 kWh of juice produced per year, our return on investment period is about 9 years and 2 months, as we produce more than $1,800 of power per year, and that's more than 14 tons of CO2 we didn't create by using utility power. Driving EV's 20,000 miles saved another 8 tons, and that's after subtracting for the amount of grid power used to drive them. Americans account for an average of 16 tons per capita, so I feel pretty good that, assuming we're otherwise average, we reduced our 48 tons by almost half.

Finance

What a strange year this has been. Despite making a decent salary, we haven't had a ton of money left over month to month, sometimes for good reason. After last year's difficult timing around car replacement and solar, we finally recast our mortgage early this year, decreasing the monthly payment by $300. We always planned to do that, but those big expenses, combined with the previous house sale taking four months longer than intended, made it difficult to catch up. So that was the first savings drain, but it's obviously good long-term. I immediately offset the lower mortgage payment with larger retirement account contributions, because we're way behind on that (see, midlife awareness runs pretty hot these days). Then there was a big investment opportunity that could potentially make up for the deficient retirement, so I drained the savings again for that, and even borrowed a little. These are all good problems to have, and I know and appreciate that, but it's uncomfortable because I'm not confident about the unbridled optimism toward the economy. The leading indicators don't add up, and there has to be a correction coming.

Where we get dinged a lot is in healthcare costs. The co-pays and prescription costs keep getting worse every year, and I don't know how someone making $15/hour survives. Actually, I know they don't, because there are Type-1 diabetics trying to ration insulin, which will eventually kill them. Our average this year, between co-pays, prescriptions and therapy for Simon, has averaged almost $400 per month, and that's after $380 every two weeks deducted from payroll for insurance. If you're putting $760 monthly into the system (not counting the part the employer pays), it seems like you shouldn't be sinking an additional $400 into the system. But let's keep pretending that this is all fine and normal.

Our biggest single line item is still vacations, as it should be. I don't need fancy things I won't remember, but the memories of our trips, those last. It's the one thing I would emphasize to my 20-something self if I could talk to him, that experiences are better than stuff.

It has been eight years since we left Seattle, and as much as I wonder what might have been if we stayed, I can't argue with the financial outcome of that decision. It was a lot of years of strict discipline, but it was worth it. I can't imagine having all of that financial anxiety on top of the other anxiety.

World outlook

It doesn't seem like there's reason to be optimistic about the world in recent years. Racism seems to be getting worse, people are more tribal than ever, and worst of all, a lack of critical thinking and the rejection of objective truth seems to be a normal thing now. When you have an autocrat who doesn't even try to disguise lies leading the free world, one could easily place the blame there. But I've said for a very long time, we get the democracy that we deserve. It's not a chicken-and-egg problem. People put the guy there.

Despite this, I've found myself defaulting to optimism, because really I don't think I have a choice. I see glimmers of humanity at its best here and there. I see philanthropic effort on the part of people at work, especially the younger folks. I see an energy future that's amazing, and happening faster than I expected. We launch rockets and land them on boats that nobody drives. In my line of work, I see people actively contributing to open source software for the benefit of others. I see my neighbors working to make the community better.

Being present is the way to improve your view of the world. When you look around, and not by way of social media, you can see it. The human race isn't hopeless, it's just a little lost because the loudest voices are not the wisest. We can change that.

Am I happy?

Asking this every year, I think I can say that for much of the year the answer was "yes," and I tend to ask myself more, "Are you anxious?" The answer to that is unfortunately "yes" much of the time as well, but I feel good about the ability to work through that and cope. In the last two months, I've had these extreme moments of peace, sitting on a park bench downtown, or on my patio staring at the sky, or even at my desk in my comfortable office looking at this screen. When I can nail down those moments, they're almost always followed by more happy moments with my wife and child greeting me at the door, and that never gets old.

I'm half-way through life. The first few chapters weren't ideal, but every one gets a little better than the last. If you view that as a path of continuous improvement, how could you not be excited about what's next?


Remembering Y2K, and listening to scientists

posted by Jeff | Sunday, December 29, 2019, 11:55 AM | comments: 0

Hopefully everyone realizes that technically we're not at a decade transition, because there is no year 0 in the Christian calendar. 2020 is the last year of the decade, not the first, just as 2000 was the last year of the millennium. But that aside, remember Y2K? For those of you too young (or not born), a great many computer systems were written in a way that they stored dates as two digits, like "91" instead of "1991." As you could imagine, that means some systems, on January 1, 2000, would calculate time incorrectly, since the difference between 00 and 99 is 99, not 1. This sounds like the result of lazy programming, but remember that memory and storage was expensive back then. My first PC in 1995 had 4 MB or memory, which is not even enough to hold a single MP3 today. My current phone has 64 GB of storage, 16,384 times that PC. Storing two digits versus four made a difference.

But there was this great Twitter thread I happened to see that illustrates how soon we forget, and how people default to ignorant observations over critical thinking:

Y2K, from a software perspective, was a non-event, but only because we identified the problem and worked very hard to make sure we solved it. That skeptics were (and apparently are) going on about how nothing bad happened demonstrates a serious lack of understanding about cause and effect. To be clear, there were some systems that failed here and there, but none of it was for critical things like monitoring nuclear power or banking. It also shows what happens when technical people, who by nature have to use the scientific method every day, can solve problems when they see them.

It feels like we've stopped listening to scientists. The bizarre anti-vaccination people are some of the worst of it, but so are the people who deny that client change is a thing (most of whom will be dead anyway when it gets worse). I can't fundamentally understand people who reject objective truth. American politics have made their way into science and fact, as if it were a sports rivalry. And it doesn't matter how much you love Cleveland, because the Browns will always suck. That's an objective fact. (I kid, that's not an objective fact, but it was too funny in the context of sports metaphors not to use.)

I wonder what it will take to get past this. I imagine that some of it is just getting younger people into power and decision making positions. Defaulting to nonsense conspiracy theories, rejecting critical thinking, ignoring that the sky is in fact blue when you can see it... this has to change.


The 2019 Playlist

posted by Jeff | Sunday, December 22, 2019, 11:40 PM | comments: 0

Take cover, here are the tunes that defined my 2019. This is the weakest playlist I've had in years. It's really short, and that's even with a bunch of songs from musicals in it. It's totally disappointing.

Actual albums that weren't musical were in short supply this year. There were only two that stuck out: Solutions by K.Flay, and How Do You Love by The Regrettes. I really dig both of them. Other album candidates were Young The Giant and Billie Eilish, but listening to the previews of the songs that weren't singles did not motivate me.

So I'm thankful for the musicals. We did another Broadway run in New York for our 10th anniversary, while having the best season yet at Dr. Phillips Center here in Orlando. Our spontaneous win in New York was The Prom, which is brilliant in every way, but was robbed of any Tony's despite a bunch of nominations. But whatever, count it as another show where we saw the original cast, and they were awesome. Can't wait for it to tour (and maybe the Netflix version, which is loaded with stars that aren't the original cast). Back in Orlando, we saw the tours for Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away, both of which were completely awesome. I was especially surprised at how good Come From Away was. As a quasi-musical, the full body of work for the film Frozen 2 is thematically complete in a way the first wasn't (until they turned it into a stage show), provided you add back in the songs cut but included on the deluxe soundtrack. "I Seek The Truth" in particular is so good.

There were some great singles here and there. AJR, Portugal The Man, Mallrat, Red Hearse, Lana Del Rey covering Sublime, Shaed, Sofi Tukker... some very catchy tunes.

There just weren't many of them. Hopefully next year will be better, starting with high hopes for Green Day and my second favorite band of all time, The Naked And Famous.


A year of parenting challenge

posted by Jeff | Friday, December 20, 2019, 11:21 PM | comments: 0

The Christmas break started today for Simon, so naturally we'll let him stay up later since he doesn't have to get up at the ass-crack of dawn. Tonight I put him down, and I think I was next to him for three minutes before he crashed. In some strange way, it feels even better when he falls asleep and you don't get to tell him goodnight and I love you. That peacefulness is a joyous occasion.

As I mentioned before, I've been enduring a fair amount of anxiety around parenting. As any parent would, you want to help him be happy and successful, but at the same time, you don't want to protect him so much that he'll grow up without the coping and adaptation skills that will never develop in adversity. This is even harder when you throw ASD and ADHD in the mix, because this different wiring means you often chase the wrong conclusions when reacting to the challenge of the day. The striking feeling of defeat isn't about the moment, it's about the series of moments and the long-term outcomes they may lead to. That's certainly where my anxiety comes from.

For example, the neighbor kids have what apparently is an epic tree swing. Simon has had a number of full-on meltdowns about getting a turn on this swing. At first glance, you kind of expect that maybe the kids are just being dicks, because that's what kids do. You don't want to come to his rescue, because he needs to learn to navigate those social contracts for himself. But then you learn that maybe he just has unrealistic expectations about shared time on the swing, and he's incessantly ringing the parent's doorbell in meltdown mode until someone answers. So then you're dealing with his expectations and the fact that your neighbors, as decent people as they are, have to deal with your child in a way that frankly they shouldn't have to. It's not even clear what you should do at that point.

Homework is also difficult, and Diana takes the brunt of that. Mind you, at this school, he doesn't even have very much homework, and what he does have is stuff he could be doing in school. Part of the problem there is that the amphetamines wear off by the time school is over, so he simply can't focus after six hours of school. Mix in a lack of self-confidence, and our non-understanding of Common Core methods of teaching math, and you can imagine how that goes. The other problem that I've noticed is that the accommodations that he rightfully gets as part of his IEP give him an out and an entitlement where he knows he's not held accountable to creating work. All of this adds up to some difficult scenarios for all of us.

We've spent a ton of money on therapy the last few months, which I think is helping. My expectations are unrealistic, because therapy for me is focused and directed, getting the most out of my time, and you certainly can't expect a 9-year-old to operate like that. But we've had some good takeaways from that, where we can see progress that he's trying to identify the emotions he feels, but he might be identifying the wrong emotions. We can see that some things are rooted in self-esteem, others in his own anxiety. We definitely get that we have to work with him to get back to the "green zone" when he's uncomfortable or in an irreconcilable situation.

The surprises come in unexpected ways, too. The autism stereotype often centers on a lack of empathy (which is total bullshit, by the way... it's not a lack of empathy, it's an incapability to use it). Simon is greatly saddened when he sees the president calling people names on TV, or someone gets hurt in a movie. He came home from school today inconsolable because he's going to miss his teachers for the next two weeks. Also, he seems to struggle to compose a sentence for an essay synthesized from things he reads, but he can compose an email to his teachers like it's his job. It's a constant puzzle.

All things considered, he may drive my anxiety, but I'm also optimistic about his future. The social challenges of his childhood will undoubtedly affect him, but if he can plug into the things he cares about, he can overcome those things. I did, but it took a lot of soul searching in college and total disregard for the past in my adulthood to get there.


The national tragedy of impeachment

posted by Jeff | Friday, December 20, 2019, 12:15 PM | comments: 0

Early in 1999, as we just started to endure Y2K hysteria, a trial started in the United States Senate to put President Bill Clinton on trial for the impeachment articles passed by the House at the very end of the previous year. The evidence was pretty clear: Clinton had an affair with a young intern, lied about it in a deposition for a civil sexual harassment suit, and then obstructed justice by trying to influence people involved to lie.

Much of the debate was about whether or not these crimes were "bad enough" to justify removing a sitting president, and in the end, the senate chose not to. It wasn't quite a straight party vote. I remember thinking at the time that this was all about his personal life, not the business of the country, and that the only guy to get a balanced budget passed in my lifetime should probably get a pass. Since that time, I've come to realize that what he did perhaps didn't merit removal from office, but he should have disappeared and never been heard from again when he left the White House. He absolutely abused his powerful position to get laid with a woman half his age. It's immoral and terrible in every way.

Before Donald Trump was elected, we already knew he was immoral. He bragged about how he could move on women "like a bitch," disparaged veterans and gold star families, mocked the disabled, said racist things... nothing outright illegal, but certainly immoral. Only 27% of eligible voters voted for him anyway, and only slightly more for Hillary Clinton, though we know how the electoral college landed. The disappointment of the election wasn't about Donald Trump, it was about the electorate that was indifferent enough to let him be elected. The "but Hillary" narrative made it as if there was some real moral equivalence there.

There has never been a point in which Trump acquired a better-than-half approval rating, but there wasn't any obvious wrongdoing that would require his removal. Where he ran afoul of the Constitution, the courts blocked his actions (I believe he's lost 70 times already). Speaker Pelosi wouldn't entertain impeachment, even after the 2018 flip of the House to Democratic control. But then this whole Ukraine thing landed, where he asked a foreign government to investigate a political rival, then blocked Congress from investigating it by preventing witnesses from testifying. The Constitution's system of checks and balances requires Congress to act, and here we are. The president has been impeached, for only the third time in American history.

What makes this a tragedy is that the tribalism that Trump so successfully stokes will protect him in the end. No one should be surprised about what he did (and to be clear, he did what he was accused of... the facts are unambiguous). Senators, charged with being jurors in the forthcoming trial, haven't heard arguments yet, but have already committed to verdicts. Facts be damned, and they don't even care to see that Christian and Republican constituencies are starting to come around. The disappointment isn't in Trump, it's in those that defend him. For them, they put party over country. I believe that most people who oppose him, myself included, do so not because of his party affiliation, but his moral character.

If you truly stand for human integrity, you can't defend this scope of immorality. Just last night, he disparaged another dead veteran and congressman, whose life was committed to public service. It just doesn't seem like you can talk your way into supporting an autocratic draft dodger, but people do it every day, and it's frustrating and sad.

The Senate will acquit the president, sending the message that he can do whatever it takes to accept foreign influence to give him an advantage. You know, without question, if Obama asked a foreign leader to investigate a political rival, Trump advocates would accept nothing less than impeachment, but here we are. Ultimately, we'll have to hope that whomever gets the Democratic nomination in the spring inspires enough voters to show up in November. Bush and Obama were, at best, mediocre to poor presidents, but they maintained the dignity of the office. It's the least we can hope for next year.


Health follow-up

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 17, 2019, 6:55 PM | comments: 0

I had my follow-up appointment with my doctor, after getting back some labs around cholesterol that weren't good. As I said then, when you start putting odds on your health, frankly that's something that my mind understands in more certain terms, and it comes with a fair amount of freak out.

This is where talking to a good doctor, and mine is pretty great, offers a bit of humanity that you don't get when researching things on the Internet. He will go deep on the science and lay out cause and effect in pretty plain terms, while exhibiting some real humanity. He's concerned about the cholesterol, and feels pretty good about taking six months to address weight, along with diet and exercise, to see if we can move that needle. In the event that I can do that, if the labs aren't improved, then it stands to reason that genetic factors are at play, and we can start going the medication route. This is a long game... it's not likely to kill me today, but that long-term percentage odds of having an "event" of 46% isn't good.

He referred me to a dermatologist as well, not because anything on me is super concerning, but I'm just at the age, living in Florida, where a good once-over is a good idea. Like I have this dry thing on my jaw that wasn't there a few years ago, and something else on my leg that's something "people get with age and probably not a thing to worry about." Welcome to midlife!

He pointed out that the rest of the blood work actually shows a lot of good news. My prostate is actually getting younger (exaggerating) based on a particular marker that came in lower than last year. Importantly, despite my weight, which he reminds me is not morbidly obese, I have virtually no current risk of diabetes. My pancreas seems to be doing a great job and fasting blood sugar is excellent. Liver and kidney function seems to be good too.

My mental health probably needs some work. Since my check-up, I had what he says likely qualifies as a panic attack, the physical manifestation of stress and anxiety. This is new territory for me. What's different about life that would cause this? You can often group anxiety causes into work, romantic relationships, parenting, and the thing newest to me, hyper-awareness of the time I am in for life. Work can certainly be stressful, but I've learned to roll with that more effectively. Relationship status: easy. I don't think I could have a better partner at home. The parenting is the incrementally difficult part, and that's a blog post for another day. The summary is that I find it difficult to work with him in the moment, but I get intense feelings of despair that if I can't help him in the moment, I'm setting him up for failure at life. It's irrational when I describe it, but feels pretty terrible.

So the doc wants me to try lorazepam in the event that I have physical symptoms of anxiety. As much as I've come to accept the use of drugs for mental health use, given that Simon needs takes an amphetamine for ADHD, this one makes me uncomfortable. But the intention actually makes a lot of sense. A panic attack can seem like a heart attack, so if you take the drug and the symptoms don't stop, you're having a more serious problem.

I think that, psychologically, all of this stings in part because dealing with it is admitting that there's a problem. I'm not sure why that's so hard, seeing as how I'll be the first to tout the benefits of seeing a therapist. Mostly, it's because spending the next six months getting my shit together is going to be really hard.


Cynicism is a cop out

posted by Jeff | Thursday, December 12, 2019, 10:38 PM | comments: 0

I think there's reason enough to be cynical about, well, everything, given the current political climate. We have a president who asks a foreign government to influence the election and people who defend it, people treat science as if it were something to believe in and seemingly everyone who aligns with a faction is a victim. It's exhausting.

But I think that cynicism is the easy way out. It requires no commitment, no action, no accountability, no further conversation. It's a cop out.

Professionally, I've seen this more times than I can count. One gig in particular, I remember a guy who was cynical about everything we asked him to do, as a means to improve the quality of his work and the team's as a whole. He didn't try it, had no alternative suggestions. It's easy to write something off when you don't participate. It's like people who believe that voting doesn't matter. When enough people are apathetic, assholes get elected.

Or look at the completely bizarre backlash by full grown adults against the 16-year-old climate activist, Greta Thunberg. Even if for a moment you think that judging a teenage girl on the autism spectrum is constructive or OK, it's fairly insane to write her off as a self-serving attention whore. I don't even know how you get to be that cynical, let alone forget how everything is a high alert emotional issue when you're 16.

There aren't many personality traits that really put me off, but cynics are the worst. Mind you, there's a difference between cynicism and healthy skepticism. The latter likely means that you're willing to at least consider a scenario, not blow it off and refuse to engage.

I think it's reasonable with age to become more pragmatic, but also self-aware enough to see that everything is subject to nuance. Most people, it seems, instead get more ingrained in their thinking and shut off themselves to new input. Cynicism is where your open mind goes to die.


My job is hard, but it ain't show business

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 10, 2019, 6:25 PM | comments: 0

There are definitely days and weeks where I feel like my job is difficult to the point of mental exhaustion. But as I've gotten to know some of Diana's friends still working in theater, and indeed social media stalking (figuratively) various performers from shows we've seen, it's clear to me that my job is a piece of cake by comparison. The fundamental difference is that I don't have to continually convince others of my worth just to work.

I'm talking about auditioning. Few jobs, if any, are really permanent in show business. Even if you land a gig in a long-running Broadway show, you have a contract that will not last forever. Maybe you get in early on a show, and you get to workshop it and do an out-of-town preview, and then the show runs nine months and ends because it's not making enough money. And as Diana will tell you, that's not just the on-stage performers, that's everyone, including those Equity stage managers and IATSE guys back stage.

As each gig ends, you have to then fight for the next. Yeah, the technical jobs are hard enough, but performers need to stand in front of people, look their best, convey a personality, potentially sing and/or dance, and hope to be "better" than a hundred other people that they see. And some of it might be on totally superficial attributes, like your weight, your abs or how pretty you are. Most of the time you don't get the job, which probably hurts more than usual, especially if you imagine it had something to do with your appearance.

I admire the people who can do it and stick with it, because constantly feeling kicked in the balls, seeing a therapist and trying not to take it all personally would be exhausting. On the flip side, as difficult as it is, I'm always taken by the way the folks in that industry express all of the feels that come with collaborating with people and doing something that can deeply move others. Heck, sometimes that feeling is at its most intense around the time that it ends. You don't get that in most jobs, and it sounds amazing.

I deeply appreciate the people in performing arts who are able to share their gifts with others. I just hope that the constant rejection is worth the eventual pay off for those who make it and are a part of something amazing.


Building out a new product

posted by Jeff | Sunday, December 8, 2019, 11:17 PM | comments: 0

About two months ago I wrote that I was working on a hosted version of my forum app, for fun and profit. Naturally I hate on myself a little because I haven't made huge progress on moving it forward, but when I look at the commit history, I've actually done quite a bit. The recurring charge stuff is working, and it's sending email about purchases, too. I got an email last night for a test forum that I "bought" a month ago, and the test charge was logged with the payment processor. Neat!

As I've written a hundred times, my hobby business happened by accident, and ad-sponsored content doesn't pay anymore. Heck, PointBuzz has slightly more users than last year, but they look at less stuff and what they do look at is mostly on mobile devices, which doesn't pay. But I like having a side hustle, I just liked it better when it could pay my mortgage with it! So I've dusted off the experience from a number of different jobs over the last two decades and started applying it. The product side of any business has always been something that I've kind of half-assed in terms of my role, with varying degrees of success. Even in my current job, there were some obvious structural things I could see that needed to change when I started, but I was relieved when there were people dedicated to the cause of product development. The fun part for me is still nerding on technology and building teams.

This hosted forum app has gone largely as I expected. The 80/20 rule is as present as ever, where 80% of the work goes toward 20% of the value, and vice versa. Indeed, that first fifth of work lit up most of what I needed to make the project a product. Now I'm trying to be ruthless in deciding what parts are really necessary to ship, and what can wait. As I look at my backlog, there is a ton of stuff that definitely adds polish and shine, but I don't need it. I can already take money and automate the provisioning for customers. I can even prove they'll get charged monthly.

The rules are different for where you are in the lifecycle of the product, too. Seeing as how I currently have zero customers, I'm a long way from even proving that anyone wants this. Later on, when I have a few and they can tell me what they need, I can respond to that and have a great deal more focus. If I can score 75 customers, I can bring on help. At that point, I can also generate large data sets to really understand how people use it, and be even more focused on what is working and what isn't.

For now though, I'm starting from nothing, and that's kind of fun. It's also simple, which makes it ideal for a hobby. There are plenty of hard things to tackle in my day job.

Next up on my agenda, I need to cancel recurring payments, allow users to update credit card info, and allow the customers to choose a theme or insert their own style. None of these are terribly hard, they just require time. It feels like a legitimate thing though that I can bring to market. I don't have expectations for it, which might be a mistake, but if a dozen customers sign up, at least I can cover the car payments. That's not a bad hustle.


Our energy consumption in the last year

posted by Jeff | Thursday, December 5, 2019, 11:15 PM | comments: 0

I think about energy a lot. In most of the world, energy consumption is connected to carbon emission, which is causing climate change at a frightening rate. Science gives no fucks about whether or not you believe this. Facts are still facts. If you trust politicians over scientists, I question your judgment. We've been on something of a quest to see if we could change our own contribution to this mess, and unintentionally have done so in the context of not significantly changing our lifestyle.

This experiment is largely attached to the bigger things in our immediate control. For example, I can control decisions about having solar and electric cars, but I can't control the carbon impact of the supply chain that gets groceries to Publix. I'm not convinced that it's possible for individuals to have massive impact in this way, and that it takes a wider effort with a carbon tax or other disincentive to do things in a non-sustainable way. (If you don't believe that would be effective, tell me about how tobacco use has gone the last half-century.)

Our first change began more than five years ago when we leased our first EV. We fully committed nine months after that, and we bought our last gallon of gas about four and a half years ago. The price of electric vehicles has decreased continually in this time. Looking at it strictly from a range perspective, our first Nissan Leaf in 2014 cost about $642 per mile (if you were buying outright and there was no tax incentive). In 2018, the Tesla Model 3 cost about $161 per mile. That's fairly radical change in a short period of time. Economy of scale will keep forcing that down. I've written elsewhere about why driving an EV is something we can all do if cost was not a factor.

In the summer of 2018, we installed solar on our roof. We felt this was pretty necessary because it's an unnecessarily large house for three people. Mind you, it's very lived in, I work from home some percentage of the time, Diana has her quilting studio and Simon spreads out because he's 9. But still, we could live in less. All that space requires a lot of air conditioning, and we use as much as 2,500 kWh during the hottest months (about 400 of that is for the cars). It's a 10kW system, which isn't enough to cover our usage over the course of a year, factoring in net metering. (What that means is that the excess we generate during the day feeds back into the grid, and we're charged for what we pull minus what we push.) We have a good snapshot now of what our yearly cycle looks like. The red is net pull from the grid, the blue is the solar part.

This works out to about 57% solar. If you removed the car component, which is about 5,000 kWh per year, we would cover 75% of our usage per year. Realistically, we could have spent more on a 12 or 14 kW system, but our roof angles aren't ideal enough for that. Buying a smaller house would have been the better play! Still, given current electric rates, our return-on-investment period, basically the time required to recoup the cost of the solar system itself by the power it generates, is about 9 years and 4 months, after which the power is "free."

It's a little tricky to figure out the impact of driving the EV's relative to the electric generation, but consider this. An EV already reduces the yearly carbon output by 3 or 4 metric tons per car, and we have two of them. Now, a little less than half of the electrons going into the cars comes from the electric utility, which is at least 85% powered by fossil fuels. However, as I've written previously, economy of scale for that electricity generation results in at least two-thirds less carbon emissions per mile, so accounting for our solar generation in that, we're looking at a reduction of emission by at minimum 85% by driving EV's that get more than half of their power from the sun. That's huge.

The biggest takeaway from all of this is that the technology exists today to live our lives on sustainable energy, and the cost difference to do so is closing so fast that the only thing preventing us from getting to 100% is the utility and fossil fuel lobby. Our next door neighbor, Walt Disney World, is now 50% powered by solar. Kauai gets 90% of its daytime power from utility scale and individual solar, and with battery power and more installations, improves every year. The change will happen, it's just a question of whether it will happen fast enough to change the path of climate change that will put Miami under water and Europe into longer winters.

Distributed generation is such an obvious future. I wish states would incentivize developers to do solar and battery plots in each new subdivision. Can you imagine how robust power could be if it didn't require thousands of miles of wires to get power to you? We've got the transportation thing figured out, even if it isn't widely adopted yet, so widespread renewable generation is next. Costa Rica gets nearly all of its electricity from renewables, but unfortunately hasn't cracked the oil consumption from transportation.


Cameras haven't changed much in two years

posted by Jeff | Sunday, December 1, 2019, 11:35 PM | comments: 0

I spent a good portion of the holiday weekend working on my hosted forum project. With my recent anxiety issues, it was nice to dive into something that I enjoy, and something that felt like a new chapter in my hobby business instead of the same thing I've been messing with for 20 years. It made me realize though that I haven't done much of anything with my old video hobby in a really long time. The last time I really geared up my camera was more than two years ago. One of the big problems is that my lens mount adapter stopped working (a Redrock Micro thing that was never that reliable), so I'm limited to just one lens.

Earlier in the year I was looking at the gear out there, and circling back, I'm surprised to find that nothing much has really changed. The cameras I liked are cheaper now, but they've been around for two years now and nothing has replaced them. There are some expensive 6K and 8K cameras available, but right now there's no realistic reason someone like me would ever need that many pixels. I'm still pretty in love with the Canon C200, which I got to touch and play with at B&H when we were in New York in April. I just don't see any opportunity to buy one. It seems like there are always big expenses we're incurring the last few years, or I'm intent on saving.

My old Panasonic AF100 is over seven-years-old now. I think it can make pretty pictures, but a new lens adapter would cost $650 and I don't think I want to sink money into something that old. I think they stopped making it four or five years ago. Maybe we'll see another price drop in the near future.


The anxiety is serious

posted by Jeff | Sunday, December 1, 2019, 2:30 PM | comments: 0

One of the great realizations of my life came to me after my divorce, when I realized that my career, and really life in general, had generally just happened to me without much in the way of deliberate action on my part. The reason that this felt problematic at the time seemed pretty obvious. I had not accounted for any future financially, I bought a house and got married because it seemed like the next things to do, I wandered into a career somewhat accidentally, and I certainly had not taken very good care of myself physically.

Over the next few years, I could see how the passive approach to life was not ideal. I worked in a job that had limited opportunity for growth, impulsive spending in my 20's put me in a fragile position and I dated ambitious women who had goals. I was limited only by myself, and that wasn't a good feeling. It was a turning point where I tried to be more intentional about things. There were definitely some mistakes here and there, but none of them were permanent.

The funny thing about being intentional about your life is that, unlike letting it happen to you, anxiety comes easier. Keep in mind, I'm about as far from a Type-A over-achiever as possible. I'm not a box checker or obsessed with winning or even the appearance of winning. But becoming a parent in particular changes your priorities, since it isn't just you that you have to look out for. Then age creeps up on you, and you have to consider how much time you have left. The age also changes you physically, starting with annoying ear hair and then messing with your cholesterol and blood pressure. Oh, and staying healthy isn't just for you, it's for your family. Work gets interesting if you've gone from maker to manager, because then you're responsible for others. I add an additional layer to it all by wanting to create things in my spare time that have value.

In the last two years, I've found that the anxiety that I've been experience is taking a toll. I don't recognize myself sometimes. I don't allow myself to indulge in many things strictly for me, and I worry about a hundred things that are not in my immediate sphere of influence. The worst thing is that I will beat myself up over taking a nap on the weekend, that most glorious 30 (or 40) minutes where I actually can turn my brain off and relax, because I'm not doing something more "productive."

I've had enough therapy over the years to know that the best way to combat this is to be present in the moment (there's a whole future post about that). Heck, that's even the focus of Simon's therapy right now. This used to come so easy to me, where I could just sit somewhere and tune out. Now I have to pull myself out of the usual environment to make that happen (cruises are good for this), or enter one so over-stimulating that I have to pay attention (theme parks, especially with friends). All I know is that I'm often in the midst of a non-remarkable day and my body and brain is on high alert, and that's exhausting.

The long Thanksgiving weekend has given me a little perspective that was sorely needed. Mental health is a product of environment, chemistry, genetics and choices. Some of those are easier to change than others, but importantly, you have to know that you can act on them. I resolve to spend more time being present, which by sheer math leaves less time to be anxious about things.