Where do you see yourself in ten years?

posted by Jeff | Friday, April 17, 2015, 6:47 PM | comments: 0

I was celebrating a birthday with a friend the other day, which inevitably when you've known someone in excess of a decade, led to a lot of conversations about how much things have changed. When you're 20, you see someone at the age of 30 with a house, a spouse and a good job, and you think, "Hey, they've got it all together." When you actually get to 30, you realize that these, along with having children, are not exactly criteria for having a successful and fantastic life.

It was about ten years ago for me that life became... less than excellent. My book was just released, but I was working some crappy (but well paying) contract jobs, my marriage was falling apart, I had way more credit card debt than anyone should have, and against my better judgment, I would agree to coach the varsity volleyball team of a small private school (one of the most rewarding and difficult things I've ever done).

So little of my life today has anything to do with those days, save for a small group of closer friends, and a wider network of people I would consider more acquaintances. The work and my role in it has changed dramatically, I'm financially in a quasi-positive place (I'm behind on retirement saving), I've moved five times, and of course, I remarried and procreated. Oh, and getting involved in juniors volleyball is nearly impossible down here.

I could not have predicted any of it.

It makes me wonder... does anyone ask that silly question in interviews? I can't easily predict the next two years, let alone ten. I think with age you start to embrace the chaos a little. You certainly may have some ideals in mind, but you realize that rigidity in your goals doesn't make for strong character, it makes you immature. The more data you have, the more you adapt. Compromise stops being a negative thing, and it becomes a necessary thing.

The dinner friend hit some of that reality pretty early in adulthood. Within her first year out of college, she achieved what she wanted to do. I'm sure part of it was a sense of "now what?" and perhaps mismatched expectations about what the career would entail. Since then, her career has evolved into something unanticipated, but likely far more rewarding. Indeed, compromise isn't what happens in cases like this, it's exploration.

It kind of reminds me of being in a bad relationship. We all know someone like this... they stay in a relationship that's abusive or difficult, because they've accepted that it's the way things are. They're miserable, finally split, and start something new and discover a jar of awesomesauce that they didn't know was possible. That's what exploration, in all parts of your life, can reward you with.

Having the discipline to explore life is hard. We've been brought up in a world where we ask to see ourselves in ten years (just ask the Millennials who were suckered into thinking that college graduate equals great job). I didn't intend to endeavor in the exploration that I have, particularly in the last ten years, but it sure did make a difference in my life. The exploration has rewarded me with a great little family, a comfortable place to live, and hopefully a relatively stable career path for some number of years.


Avoid drama by avoiding dramatic people

posted by Jeff | Sunday, April 12, 2015, 10:54 PM | comments: 0

There were a number of points in my life, most well after college, where I realized that most of the drama that I encountered was caused by specific people. I know this sounds like common sense, but the easiest way to avoid drama in your life is to avoid people who bring it to you. I'm sure that can be hard at times, because sometimes they're people you work with, or consider your friends, or perhaps they're even family. Still, it pays to keep dramatic people at arm's length.

This is probably something I should have learned in college. I had a close friend that turned out to be a total psycho and pathological liar. Things seemed all good when you hung out with her, but she would let little bits of (alleged) drama about her life kind of creep in at times. (I think this may in part be because she wanted the attention of a mutual friend, but that's mostly unimportant to the story.) She couldn't keep up her grades, and would show up to class sometimes with a bruise or a black eye or something, from an old boyfriend she said. It was weird, but I guess my naive 20-year-old self felt bad for her.

Eventually the mutual friend left town, and she dropped out of school (or was kicked out, I don't know). That was pretty much the last I saw of her. I would later find out that she had implied, or maybe outright told people, that I hit her. That might have been her undoing, because some of those people at least started to see that things didn't add up when I was very obviously somewhere else, like on the radio or on duty as a resident assistant.

It was crazy how different that next summer was when she was gone. There really wasn't any drama to be had, and it would be a few years before I realized that it was likely because she was no longer around. Since then, I've had a ton of interactions with people that involved drama or misery, and I've made the very conscious choice to simply avoid them. I know some people have suggested that I think I'm too good for them or something equally absurd, but no, I just don't want to go where the misery is. Drama is a time suck.

I'm not suggesting you need to avoid all conflict or ditch your BFF because you had a disagreement. That's certainly a part of real life, and you have to deal with it. But if you encounter people who display a pattern of drama, steer clear. You have better, more positive things to do in the world.


Do I need a midlife crisis, and if so, what does it look like?

posted by Jeff | Sunday, April 12, 2015, 7:14 PM | comments: 0

I've been having a lot of anxiety lately, and I can't exactly pin down why. I assume it's either because I'm not getting something that I want or need, or I'm doing things that I don't want to do. I get a little of that every spring, even though I now live where spring is basically indiscernible from half of the year. It feels different this time though... like there's high potential for a midlife crisis.

Really though, I don't think it's what one would classically define as said crisis. It implies that one is unhappy or depressed, and generally I am not those things, and I don't expect that I will be. If there's one thing that I've become a lot better at in the last decade, it's becoming self-aware perhaps to a fault. My crisis, I think, settles more around the idea that I've not taken substantial risks or lived life to some arbitrary potential or something.

In the context of the first half of my life, there's some truth to that. I married into my first serious adult relationship. I never moved far from home or explored professional opportunity elsewhere. Heck, those two things together were one of the issues with my first marriage, and it was definitely not fair to Steph. Even when I switched careers, I stuck to what was safe and easy.

Post-divorce (or during), my risk taking ability changed to some degree, but probably only in certain areas. Socially, I had no issue dating younger women, and I was done with living in my home town and state. I experimented with body piercing and hair color. I looked for more challenging work. I lived in five places in four years, too, so I shook that problem as well.

These days, I'm mature enough to know that risk for the sake of risk is, well, immature. Still, I find myself thinking a lot about whether or not I'm missing out on something bigger. Don't worry, hookers and blow are not my style. Ditto for sports cars. (Now a Tesla Model S... well, OK, I can't logically rationalize that.) My travel bug is pretty ridiculous, but there are some practical limitations around that because of Simon.

I didn't really have time to notice that I crossed the 40 mark, but I can tell you that I'm not suddenly more aware of my eventual mortality. I think my anxiety is rooted more in the idea that I squandered some of my earlier years, and I don't want to miss out on "something" in my able-bodied years. I just can't define what that is.

Maybe this is just another level of self-awareness. If you can be happy in life, and you can still identify the potential for it being "better," there is definitely some value in that. I know it doesn't involve "stuff," but what experiences would improve my life? What does my non-depressed version of a midlife crisis look like?


Why Singles might be my favorite movie ever

posted by Jeff | Saturday, April 11, 2015, 10:30 PM | comments: 2

They finally published Cameron Crowe's Singles on Bluray. I first saw the movie in 1993, on VHS tape, and I happened to get the soundtrack for free from my college radio station because we got three copies of it. It's the perfect compilation of music from that time period. There are a hundred reasons why I love the movie, and I'm not sure I can easily organize all of the reasons.

The fashion is of course a great time capsule. Grunge fashion is funny, but also in some ways it was just practical for living in Seattle. It's cool there most of the year! But it was an interesting transitional time too. Kyra Sedgwick has this fantastic big curly hair, but not the teased look that dominated the late 80's and early 90's. Lots of straight hair too.

There are some great technological things going on there too. There are pay phones, answering machines, cordless phones with huge antennae, big TV's, newspapers, monochrome computers ("Whoa, do you jog?"), no Internet, a miracle watch that can store 20 phone numbers!

And what about the actors? Jeremy Piven as the grocery store clerk, Eric Stoltz as the mime (and drug dealer in Pulp Fiction), Bill Pullman as the plastic surgeon, Paul Giamatti as the guy sucking face with the woman at the restaurant, Tim Burton as a dating video director, Victor Garber, not even credited, Tom Skerritt as the mayor, Peter Horton as the bicycle guy. It's just funny to see these folks in minor roles.

The leads all really came to be loved in many different roles on TV and in film. I'm not sure why Bridget Fonda wasn't someone we saw more of. She's completely adorable, and I love the scene she has with Bill Pullman, who tells her she doesn't need a boob job (this is very extended in the new special features). Of course, Sedgwick is The Closer, and Campbell Scott has been in a hundred things. Matt Dillon has made a career, mostly of comedy.

The music, as is the case with all of Crowe's movies, is fantastic. As much as the grunge bands play center stage in the movie, and important as they are to the period in terms of music history, it's not quite hero worship. I mean, they kind of make fun of grunge bands, using real life Pearl Jam no less. The soundtrack is a perfect playlist though, and the tracks they use in the movie are well placed. Paul Westerberg actually wrote much of the music, and it works so well. Smashing Pumpkins' "Drown" is probably their best song ever... 4 minutes building up, then 4 minutes of fabulous guitar noise. Love it.

I wouldn't live in Seattle until 16 years after seeing the movie, which only made the movie more interesting. When we moved to Seattle, I thought it would be fun to pick out locations from the movie and find them. We only really made it to Pike Place (duh), the Virginia Inn (and also the hill next to it is the one Debbie Hunt climbs on her bike... I have a photo of Diana climbing it on foot, pregnant), I suppose the SODO area, where we went to Showbox for a show (SODO, for the record, is "south of the dome," where the King Dome used to be, not "downtown"), and the water front. We never did go find the actual apartment building.

It's a love letter to Seattle in terms of the setting. It's like a character in the story. I was actually surprised at how little it had changed. It's such a beautiful place, and dammit I miss it.

Oh, the thing about the garage door openers became kind of funny, because Diana symbolically gave me one of hers when we started dating more seriously. Fortunately, I've never thought about Xavier McDaniel while getting busy.


One year with sites in Azure

posted by Jeff | Friday, April 10, 2015, 8:59 PM | comments: 0

My sites (CoasterBuzz and PointBuzz) have now been in Azure for about a year. It has been interesting, for sure. From a high altitude perspective, I can tell you that I've saved money when compared to renting a dedicated server, but there have been challenges in terms of reliability.

Because of my early work using Azure when I was working at Microsoft (MSDN stuff), I looked forward to the day when I could move my apps there. Back then, in 2010, all we had were worker/web roles, storage and SQL Azure was, uh, not what I'd call robust. A year ago, the economics made sense, the feature set amazing, and here I am.

In terms of cost, the combination of resources I use have been 25% cheaper that the dedicated server (which I paid $167 for each month at SoftLayer). Mind you, I'm talking only about monthly consumption, because the dedicated server involved licensing for different things over the years, most notably a SQL license. So that makes me generally happy, especially because ad revenue has really sucked for the last year.

Performance has been a mixed bag, but appears to be getting better for a number of reasons. Both of the big sites are now running on the newest everything, including POP Forums, which makes a difference in terms of computing performance. But I also think that they've changed some things in the background, or some magic has happened where I'm on less stressed hardware... who knows. Pages are now being served in less than 50 ms in some cases, as viewed from Azure's Virginia monitoring point. More importantly, Google is now fetching pages in around 100 ms, which is good for search juice. I had fast rendering on the dedicated hardware, but SoftLayer's connectivity seemed to have more latency.

In my case, I'm running the sites on a standard small instance (1 core, 1.75 gigs of RAM), at $74 per month. My apps can't do multi-instance, because they use in-memory cache (HttpRuntime.Cache, for the nerds). I have done some experimentation with Redis cache, and I could probably set it up in production if I had to because the caching code is easily swapped out (use your dependency injection, kids). I just don't want to spend twice as much. Yet. I would love to have the simple redundancy.

Here's the problem though... I'm always battling memory pressure. The two apps together only consumer about 600 MB on average, but apparently there can be a good gig of overhead from the OS running the VM. And those nifty diagnostic bits (the Kudu stuff on the "scm" subdomains) can be a big memory hog as well. Probably most importantly, you should turn off your other deployment slots if you're not using them. As such, I only keep my staging sites running when I'm in the process of deploying new code.

Frustratingly, the monitoring for websites, er, Web Apps now, doesn't look at the underlying virtual machine as a unit. Well, they sort of do. If you're willing to use the "preview" portal, which has been preview for more than a year now, you can take an awkward path to the instance via one of the individual sites, er, apps, and see the memory and CPU graphs. It's not at all contextual, because it appears in a box called "quotas" but unless you know better, you don't know that it's for the sum total of all apps on the VM. And that's all assuming the preview portal works at all. Over the last year I've seen enough stuff not work, and click in vain, to just leave it alone.

That frustration was at its worst in the first few months, when I couldn't understand the memory pressure problem because of the lack of context. I get it now, and outside of the outages, things are pretty stable.

SQL Azure performance has been totally predictable from the start. I'm running standard S0 databases for both sites, and my DTU percentage has rarely gone higher than 20%. Since switching their pricing model to this, and not driving it by size, this has been a huge value. Each database is costing $15 per month.

Of course, I can't not talk about The Great Azure Outage of 2014, or the little one that happened just a few weeks ago in the East region. The sites were off the air for about two hours in November due to the deployment of some storage related updates. Since everything uses storage, obviously that was bad news. It wasn't the down time that bothered me in that case, but rather the awful communication around it. When the status page says everything is green, and your stuff is still down, that's not good. They eventually published a big post-mortem about what happened, but in the moment, it was a terrible experience.

Then just a few weeks ago, something went down in the east region. It was again a storage issue, more limited in scope, but the communication was far worse. In fact, there was no public disclosure about what went down, but in the comments of an official Azure blog post, they said you could request the RCA (which after some searching I learned stood for "root cause analysis"). That struck me as completely absurd. In any case, with both outages, I did get service credits.

Support is an issue as well. I've run into a lot of issues with the platform itself, I suppose because my apps were being memory hogs, but with no way to diagnose that during those times, I was stuck. I'm not going to lie, since support only comes if it's paid for (unless it's for billing), I email people I've had contact with in the organization and hope they'll forward me to the right people. For example, I recently had an issue with phantom metrics in my monitoring dashboard for one of the apps that caused an error. I wouldn't have had any recourse through standard support means to get that fixed, and that has to change.

It sounds a little negative, but outside of the two outages, I can't say that things have been unstable on average. I would say the first four or five months were not smooth, because of the memory pressure, but now that I can manage it, it has been super stable if you don't count the two outages. The value for what I'm paying is outstanding (all of the redundancy alone is more or less "free"), and performance is what I expect. I never have to upgrade software or install patches or truncate logs or any of that IT nonsense. There's a lot of value in that as well. Plus I can spin up and tear down stuff on the fly that would have been a pain in the ass before. Table storage, queues, CDN's, service buses, caches and the like are fantastic to have outside of the context of specific server hardware, or even VM's. As a software nerd, it's like being at Walt Disney World. (And I would know... I live next door to Magic Kingdom.)


When your child is a part of everything, sometimes you need to get away

posted by Jeff | Thursday, April 9, 2015, 7:50 PM | comments: 0

I'm not sure why we decided this, but before Simon was even born we made up our minds that having him wouldn't prevent us from doing stuff. I suppose we came to that decision because we had encountered a lot of people who basically never went anywhere for the first several years of their kids' lives, and that seemed like an awful way to live. Regardless, I can say that Simon has been well traveled, and most of the time we have loved having him along for the ride.

Maybe we've been lucky, but it has been rare that we have felt he got in the way. However, in the last six to 12 months, I think we're getting to a point where we need a little away time. Now that Diana is working part-time she's getting that for the first time in almost five years. Of course I've been getting that during the work day, but evenings away are pretty rare. We don't get out enough together, without Simon, and that's starting to feel a little like a problem.

Diana and I, assuming you count the time from the day we met, were together less than three years before Simon was born. I think we're starting to feel like that wasn't enough time, but the hurry to procreate was driven in part by our ages, so it was the right decision. At this point, we just don't get out enough for grown-up time, and it's probably not a coincidence that we're feeling this way because he's in a personality phase that involves a lot of defiance and authority challenging.

That said, we've been pretty lucky to have a couple of people, friends and neighbors, who have watched Simon gratis many times. After awhile though, you don't feel good about asking for those favors. I'm not sure why, it just feels cheap. Lately I'm also not sure how to feel about people we don't know (or who don't know Simon) about watching him.

In any case, we need to take more Simon breaks. I love him like crazy, but I never want things to get to a point where I start resenting him. Gotta work harder to balance it out.


My electric car problem

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, April 8, 2015, 11:39 PM | comments: 0

I know I've said this before, but I am so not a car guy. Cars as status symbols are super stupid, but I do respect that some people are into cars more for the technology, engineering and design. The former people annoy me, but the latter I get, even if I don't share their enthusiasm. I mean, I'm so utilitarian about cars, that the first thing I did when I first scored a contract gig over $50/hr. is buy a Toyota Corolla (which lasted a good six years, and certainly could have gone longer).

But electric cars have totally sucked me in. As is the case with hybrids, part of it is certainly the energy efficiency. That much of our electricity is generated by fossil fuels is still a bummer, but the cost in dollars and carbon emission is still way lower than using gas. The other part of course is the technology itself. Electric motors are hardly exotic, but the evolution of batteries sure is interesting. If you've driven an electric car, you also know that the pure torque is addictive. The Nissan Leaf is no Tesla P85D, but I dare you to not love the feeling of jumping off a line in that little car when the light turns green.

Tesla announced a new Model S today, replacing the 60 with the 70D. Its base price is higher at $75k, but it's a higher capacity battery (240 miles) and includes the dual-motor setup for all-wheel drive. With certain necessary options, I price it around $81k, which is still a lot better than the near $100k that I used to dream about.

I'm not gonna lie, it's the first car I've ever been truly excited about in a totally irrational way. I actually looked at the 3-year lease math and figured that if I put a huge amount down, money that's in the bank, it would only change monthly cash flow by a little compared to our current car payment. Fortunately, my rational self kicks in and sees that the total cost is still absurd, at the cost of four family cruises each year (that's 12 cruises over the life of the lease). That doesn't exactly work with my "experiences not stuff" theme, but it would be a fairly suitable midlife crisis, and hopefully not a destructive one.

We're really enjoying the Leaf that we started leasing back in September. Putting the trade and a little cash down kept the payment at a $100 per month, so it's reasonable. It's super fun to drive, quiet, and smooth. It doesn't feel cramped for a small car at all. Despite the 80-100 mile range limitation, we've never had any range anxiety, and Diana and I both charge at work. So in other words, the electric car experiment is a huge success. (The only problem: We've been talking with my brother-in-law's family about doing a cruise together, and with one range-limited car, we can't all drive to the port.)

So unless I come into some unexpected money, I don't think I'll have a Model S. But 2017 should be interesting. That's the year that Tesla's Model 3 is supposed to come out, and at a $35k target, that's supposed to be the "every man's" electric car. It's still expensive by my car standards, but not awful if they still have the $7,500 federal tax credit. The next generation Nissan Leaf is supposed to come out that year as well, if not sooner, though they're saying almost nothing about it because obviously they sell a shit load of cars and they don't want to cannibalize those sales. It's supposed to easily do 125 miles. GM announced the Chevy Bolt, which should be similar in range to the next gen Leaf, so we'll see how that goes. And who knows what BMW will do with the i3. That car has brought all kinds of people who never thought about BMW into their fold.

The only problem? The lease for our Leaf ends September 2016. The next Leaf might be out by then (their model years are about 5 months early), but it's hard to say. The finance guy at the dealer said you could just continue the lease month-to-month, but I didn't ask if that was a lease provision or a state regulation or something. I need to read the lease, but that would buy us some time. Meanwhile, our Prius V, which has been a completely awesome car for us, will be about 4.5 years old, and I fully expect we can get six or seven years out of it.

I'm still not a car guy, but electric cars fascinate me. I just have to keep in mind that I only drive about 3 days a week because I work from home more than half of the time!


I beat the CoasterBuzz 3-year-crusty deadline!

posted by Jeff | Monday, April 6, 2015, 9:04 PM | comments: 1

Over the 15-year history of CoasterBuzz, I'm very guilty of letting it age without any updates. The Internets have a weird fashion cycle that tends to be pretty short, and stuff gets dated even if you thought you were ahead. I suppose it doesn't entirely matter (no other way I could explain Craigslist), but I didn't want to go another three years without updating the site.

So I beat that deadline by nine days, and got the "new" site up last night. I say "new" because, if I'm being honest, it's not really new. The forums are a new version, finally, but that's it in terms of new features, really. I ditched all of the mobile views and consolidated it into one responsive design, mostly because the new forum version used it. I think most of the site looks much better, and it's super fast for club members in particular (because the ads go away). The home page, however, is a disaster. It looks pretty terrible.

That was kind of the m.o. for this release. I just wanted to get it out there even if it's a little broken. People have opinions and aren't afraid to share them, so why bother trying to predict what they'll like? This was a pretty low risk update, because the only schema changes involved a couple of forum tables. With things being that easy, there was no reason not to just get it up and start evolving it.

In previous major releases, I've gone on feature streaks and made new stuff, so hopefully I'll be motivated enough to do the same thing this time around. At the very least I need to do something with that home page in the short term.

From a nerd standpoint, I'm happy to see that rendering times for the home page are well under 100ms now, and the forum pages have been in that neighborhood as well. It has been a little inconsistent, probably because I should be running in a bigger VM with more RAM. I'm just too cheap to spend the extra $74 per month when ad revenue is so completely shitty. Google is averaging pages at 149ms, so that's pretty solid. I'm also not entirely sure if there's a latency issue with the database, but it seems to have plenty of overhead if I'm to believe the metrics there.

I would still like to get out to doing multiple instances, mostly for redundancy. That will cost twice as much as well, but I haven't yet thoroughly tested the Redis cache that will sit in between. I have a bit to do if I want to make this stuff scale out, but the fundamentals are there.

I can say it didn't take three years for a re-do, and I can sleep at night knowing that's partially true.


My 10-year-old book

posted by Jeff | Monday, April 6, 2015, 5:11 PM | comments: 0

I got a royalty check this week for my book, which is always a surprise because I forget that I ever wrote it. Maximizing ASP.NET is ten years old now, and as is the case with most computer books, it's totally obsolete and terrible.

People generally seem interested in the idea that I wrote a book, and also falsely assume that it made me rich. That's not what happened. It sold about 1,800 copies, and I made about $5,600 on it. Considering the time that I put into it, those results are pretty poor. I mostly blame the publisher, Addison-Wesley (Pearson is the parent company), though I've never really let out a good rant about it.

Poor sales aside, the important thing is that it opened a whole lot of doors. Considering I was pretty green as a software developer in those days, that anyone would consider publishing a book I wrote was pretty awesome. When I had the contract signed, in practical terms, I had only been doing it for about five years. It was pretty strange that the guy who wrote one of the first programming books that I owned was one of the editorial reviewers of my book.

So from a career standpoint, I always get to say that I'm a published author, and I suspect it helped me get the job I had at Insurance.com back in 2006. That was a top-notch group, with almost no turn-over for the 2.5 years before the layoffs began.

My original pitch for the book was pretty straight forward: Get people who were familiar with writing spaghetti code for the old ASP scripting platform up to speed with this new ASP.NET thing, and object oriented programming. I wasn't even particularly good at OOP at the time, but I could see the light, and I was walking toward it. My friend Walt, who has been my partner on PointBuzz for a long time, suggested the concept of the book. It was a big audience of people having to make the transition.

But the marketing folks at A-W were fully engaged in dipshittery from the start. The first back cover they wrote was so full of meaningless bullshit that I flipped out at the editor and asked if there were other people who could write this stuff. All of the initial discussions with the publisher showed they understood who the target audience was, and they switched off after that. I don't like what shipped at all.

If that weren't bad enough, they were showing the book at high-level conferences and sending it to senior developers for review, and these were pretty much the last people who needed to be reading that book. It was really disappointing.

While the sales weren't great, I did get quite a bit of email from readers who bought the book and had the kind of "a ha" moments I was hoping for. That was a relief. It's kind of like coaching kids... you don't expect any of them to go pro, but if even one tells you about the enormous impact you've had on their life, it's worth it. I feel that way about the book.


On autism awareness

posted by Jeff | Thursday, April 2, 2015, 5:00 PM | comments: 2

There are days and months for awareness about almost everything. Autism gets its day/month right now, and it's actually cool to see how many people I'm still in touch with via Facebook (from high school, college and various jobs) that have also had challenges with a child on the spectrum.

We got the official ASD diagnosis for Simon a little over a year ago. In retrospect, it's kind of funny to think that it was just a passing thing, and not the start of something. It was already clear that he had certain developmental issues, and this just tied it all together in a way that made it easier to get the right services and education for him. It has been an interesting year to say the least.

I don't really consider his "flavor" of ASD to be a disability. He has challenges around certain things, and behaviors that are difficult to manage, but to me these don't indicate some inability to exist in the world, but rather a need to adapt. In the short term, some of it is a need for the people teaching him to adapt, and he's getting that.

What do we specifically struggle with? His fine motor skills, mostly writing, are a little behind, but the kid can use a computer mouse like he was born with it. Simon also hits a lot, not because he's trying to be violent, but because his sensory processing delays cause his brain to overcompensate for input in order to develop the responses to the input. I've been hit in the balls more times than I can count. Lately he also struggles with adapting outside of his routine, which is surprising given how well he travels. If he has a substitute teacher, or Diana isn't home when he gets off of the bus, there are issues. He also has a visceral reaction to not being able to sit in the front or first car of amusement rides sometimes, resulting in total meltdown, but that could be a coaster enthusiast gene.

You know what's crazy though? The more I learn about autism, the more I see that I'm likely on the spectrum as well. Simon teaches me a lot about the way I was as a child, and even certain characteristics I have as an adult. Sometimes my disregard for convention isn't disrespect for authority, I'm just wired to reject things that seem illogical or pointless to me. I always knew that having a child would likely cause you to learn a lot about yourself, but I didn't expect it would be something like this.

There is a longer term thing that I hope autism awareness will do for me. I used to be very judgmental about other parents, and while the behavior of spoiled brats is still a lot different from a kid struggling to reconcile his world with that of the neurotypical, the truth is that I don't know what's going on there. While I see older generations, and even some people in my own, closing their minds to people who are different as they get older, I hope that this understanding continues to push me in the other direction.

As I said when I posted this photo online, Simon brings a lot of love into our lives. He's one charming kid. We're lucky to have him, and I think he'll grow up to be an incredible human being.


I love Orlando, just not for the reasons you think

posted by Jeff | Thursday, April 2, 2015, 12:32 PM | comments: 0

I really dig living here. I've been thinking about that a lot since our friends from Seattle were here a few weeks ago. They asked if we missed Seattle, and the answer was absolutely, every day. But I think it's like having two children, in that if you have a second one, it's not like you love the first one less.

The longer I live in Orlando, the more I love it, just not for the obvious reasons. Most people think of theme parks first, which is pretty reasonable. I can't imagine many other things that would have caused the growth of the area to that extent. I totally love living next door to Walt Disney World, and it pains me to say that we haven't been there nearly as much in the last six months because of Simon's long school days. What surprises me is how much there is to love in the center of Orange County.

I didn't really start to appreciate it until I started working at AgileThought, where we have an office downtown, right next door to City Hall. Yes, I work remote about half of the time, but those of us based in Orlando tend to go into the office at least twice a week. The opportunity to collaborate and generally be social is a fantastic way to balance against the sometimes isolating feel of remote work.

We're in the middle of everything, including great restaurants, the arena, and the beautiful new Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts. In fact, that happens to be where Diana works now. Downtown feels really vibrant, and it never snows. It's about the most right-sized downtown area I've ever spent time in. Most of it is walkable, and there are free bus loops too.

And back to the professional side, my talks at Orlando Code Camp last weekend reminded me that there is a whole lot going on here. It's obviously not as big of a technology scene as Seattle, and it's hard to hire great people here, but seeing well over 600 people show up for an event is pretty amazing. You would certainly never see that in Cleveland.

The area definitely has its issues, like overcrowded schools and a serious socioeconomic divide caused by the tourism and service economy, but things are pretty good here. The theme parks are starting to seem more like the icing than the cake.


The online ad thing is really discouraging

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 30, 2015, 8:15 PM | comments: 2

As March wraps up, I was looking deeper into the ad revenue for the sites. Specifically, I compared the dollars to March of last year, and discovered it was down by about two-thirds. Naturally, my next move was to compare the traffic, which was essentially the same. That's a little demoralizing.

When I started the first site back in 1998, I thought it was amazing that I could make $20 in a month because I published a site on the web. The next month, I covered the $50 that it was costing me. In 2001, the expenses were ridiculous, but I was able to cover the $1k per month to cover the costs (in no small part because I asked people for money).

The last six years have been incredibly unstable. The problem is that we (as in, most of the Internet) have largely been dependent on how Google's AdSense performs. The inconsistency is crazy. The way we work it is to set a minimum effective value (revenue per thousand page views), and anything they can't fill at that rate falls through to other ad providers that we've used for years with varying success. However, Google doesn't always respect the minimums we prescribe, and no one is paying the rates we saw years ago.

On the positive side, yes, the costs for hosting these sites has gone down considerably. On the other hand, software isn't any less expensive, and some of it has gone to subscription models which make it a lot harder to skip upgrades every three years or so (I'm looking at you, Adobe!).

Even though income was never the reason I got into these, it sure has helped me stay in them. It's a lot of work to keep it up and feed these things, and keep them fresh. I mean, it took us I don't know how many years to update PointBuzz, and that's a team effort! I'm looking at how CoasterBuzz needs another refresh too, after three years. My point is that it's nice to get a little something for the work you put into it.

Maybe the thing that bothers me the most is that I don't have any obvious plan of action to fix the problem. Shitty linkbait sites BuzzFeed and the like have devalued the page view to historic lows, so revenue by ads is not the model that it used to be. It's super frustrating.


People aren't empowered to add value

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 30, 2015, 7:00 PM | comments: 0

I did a talk last weekend at Orlando Code Camp (which was completely awesome, by the way... ditto for everything I said last year), which was largely about anti-patterns. I had a couple of questions during the last talk, and in the hallway after, about the fact that people in our profession, developers and managers alike, often fail to question anything about process. Specifically, people never stop to ask if what they're doing is adding value.

I had brought it up in the context of testing code, that people will often test the most uninteresting thing that can't fail because there is no logic to test, just so they can say that it's covered. In the further chats we had, there was a broader point made about spending time on things that don't add value. Endless requirements, forms no one looks at... there is a pretty long list you could make.

So what is the problem? I've made the case before that software developers aren't the best at taking a vested interest in the problem. I suppose you could chalk it up to certain personality types that just want instructions and will go off and do the work, but I think that's an increasingly small percentage of developers. I think many want to understand the business that they're serving on a deeper level. It's a cultural shift that I've seen happening slowly the last ten years.

The thing is, narrowing the context to software developers probably doesn't do the problem justice. I think this is a widespread problem across all industries. It's not just that individuals don't bother to ask if they're adding value, it's that in many cases, they simply aren't permitted to. Managers and policy makers are in the same rut. They continue to check boxes because "we always did it this way," or some other silly position. Because they want to maintain order in a command-and-control hierarchy, they don't ask if what they or their people are doing are adding value either. It's not just an issue of efficiency, as this cultural establishment also stifles innovation and creativity.

In our line of work, there are certainly places that are changing the value questions (or lack thereof). Flat organizations, empowered, self-organizing teams and trust make it a lot easier to ask, "Is what I'm doing right now adding value?"

For all of the talk about whether or not theme park employees deserve higher pay, I'm often surprised at how often I see examples at Disney where people can ask the value adding question. For example, I've seen cast members get a dessert for an unhappy kid, or sacrifice ride loading efficiency to give an ASD kid the front seat. They're trusted to make a decision, even if it does mean breaking from convention. I dig that.


I hate feeling bad for feeling bad about my child

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 25, 2015, 7:40 PM | comments: 0

It's certainly not news to any parent that you have days where you just wish you could walk away for awhile. It's those days where your little saint seems more like satan. That's enough to enrage you, but then you find all kinds of reasons to invalidate your own feelings. That leads to resentment toward your kid and yourself.

Simon is one of the greatest things to happen in my life (though I won't call it an accomplishment, as reproducing is not generally complicated, health issues not withstanding). Every morning I make sure I see him before he goes to school, and I peek in to his room every night before going to bed. There's a whole lot of love in my life because of him.

Like any kid, he has his moments, but then throw in the ASD related stuff on top of it, and sometimes I just can't react logically anymore. As soon as I cross that threshold, I feel like a shitty parent. I start to think, well, at least he's physically healthy, and I know parents who have to deal with far greater issues like having a non-verbal kid. My problems aren't that bad, after all, right?

It's such an awful, self-destructive line of thinking, because it's not like there's a contest where the parent who has it hardest wins something. If it feels shitty in the moment, then it feels shitty in the moment. Sometimes it outright hurts. (Simon hits a lot, not to injure, but because of his related sensory issues. My nuts have taken the impact more times than I can count.) I just don't feel like I'm allowed to complain about the situation.

I'm getting better at this, because I'm starting to learn when to keep perspective, and when to allow myself to react and process anger and distress. Aside from a few brief issues last weekend on our cruise, Simon was awesome. I felt like we had a really special weekend. I have to allow myself to be frustrated with the moments that aren't like that.


There's something about putting on a show

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, March 24, 2015, 7:34 PM | comments: 0

Diana and I were talking the other day, finding something we surprisingly had in common about our previous careers in theater and TV. Neither one of us spent a lot of time in a performance capacity in our jobs, but with her as a stage manager and me directing a lot of live production, the fact is that we were essential to making our respective shows happen. There was a pretty serious high associated with that.

I won't speak to her experience, but her calling a show reminds me a lot of directing, so I totally get the rush that's involved with the gig. I did a lot of public meetings, which were totally uninteresting most of the time, but several times a month I had talking heads shows, and winter was filled with what I called "PBS orchestra concerts" at the high school, and my favorite thing, basketball games.

The games felt really rock-and-roll, because I had all of the gear in anvil cases. I was particularly proud of the racks, which were super clean in terms of all the internal cabling. Everything was cut to length and labeled. The two racks had an umbilical cord in between, connected by breakout panels. The cameras traveled in an obnoxiously padded trunk, and I had an ever bigger one to chuck in the tripods and camera cables. I loved the process of setting up before a game, running cables and stuff.

The funny thing is, I generally had volunteers operating the cameras for me, usually high school kids, but they did a pretty good job. We weren't shooting in HD in those days, so we could get away with a little bit of soft focus. I was always particularly impressed with the kids who could use the shoulder camera down on the floor, and not bitch about how much it weighed. My commentators were my one employee and a teacher (the latter of which eventually got busted for propositioning a student, eww).

Alas, while those were good times, the pay was terrible, and the hours made it a bit of a lifestyle job. I don't think I could do it now. I know Diana feels similarly, in that even a part-time commitment would be rough on family life. Right now she only works one or two nights a week as an usher, and that actually works out pretty well as far as not interfering with home life.


Yes, we did another cruise, and it was awesome

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 23, 2015, 7:15 PM | comments: 0

We finished our fifth cruise today, setting our Disney Castaway Club status to gold. That mostly doesn't mean anything, but we can book a little earlier for some itineraries and certain other things like port adventures (and cabanas). Oh, there's a reception with the crew as well for 4-night and longer trips, which we've yet to do.

So why have we done the 3-night Bahamian trip five times? The first was part of a plot to surprise my father-in-law, and having not done a cruise, we were surprised at how much fun we had. The other four were all booked once we lived in Orlando, and while not what I would describe as inexpensive, there are many reasons we like these short trips:

  • There is no travel stress. We get in the car, and in about an hour, we get on the ship. No air travel to worry about.
  • Sometimes they're about the price per night of a 5-diamond hotel, only the hotel moves around, and it includes as much food as you can eat, fantastic entertainment, and a day at the most beautiful beach you may ever see. Even at more expensive rates it's worth it to me.
  • Because the Dream does 3-night trips departing Fridays most of the year, it means taking only one day off. We're home around 9 a.m. on Monday morning. I can bank those vacation days for longer trips.
  • The disconnection is fantastic. I love getting away from computers, email, my sites and the heap of toxicity that the Internet can often be. Seriously, I don't know why it's so hard to do.
  • There is no other circumstance where I've felt as looked after as I have on these cruises. With the pressure of being a provider, even if it's self-imposed, I need that now and then.

It's not boring or repetitive. This time in particular, we mixed up quite a bit of our activity. I do look forward to doing it with friends again, and that is on the radar. We very much want to do longer itineraries, we're just waiting for the right time and circumstances in relation to Simon.

This time, we had a particularly good waiter, and had some different food options. In fact, he pretty much threw the menu out the window to get dishes from the other restaurants (I'm a big fan of the tomato basil soup from Enchanted Garden, which you can get any night if you know to ask). He was also really good with Simon, which we needed given some of his recent behavior issues.

We also saw quite a few movies. The Buena Vista Theater is a really first-class movie theater. We finally saw Big Hero 6, and we loved it. Diana saw Into The Woods, and I saw Cinderella. On the last night we did see the stage show Believe, which is the best of the three. Also in the live-E category, I did the presentation about the making of the ship. Simon took to the mini-golf and foosball.

This was a big trip for us, because Simon has been challenging lately, and I was worried that this was going to affect our ability to travel. While there were a few instances of him being "hangry," he was a good boy most of the time. It's so good to see him interacting with other kids, and grownups. Those sweet moments with us don't hurt either.

 


Don't drink the water

posted by Jeff | Thursday, March 19, 2015, 10:58 PM | comments: 1

There are about a million things that I love about living in Central Florida, but the water is not one of them. It isn't heavily treated because the soil it passes through before being pumped out of the ground does a pretty good job of filtering out the stuff that's really bad for you. It's not so much the hydrogen sulfide smell that bothers me (like a lot of things Orlando, it reminds me of vacation), but rather it's the hardness of it. Bathroom surfaces get filmy, and I swear my skin has reverted to having issues as if I was in college again.

As far as drinking water goes, like any other modern fridge that has a water tap, there's a filter. It does a remarkably good job of even getting out the hydrogen sulfide smell. But the problem is that I don't know that you can really install a whole-house filter or softener. People don't have basements here, so it's not like a single pipe comes in from underground and then distributes water around the house. A pipe comes in and enters your foundation, where it splits out. If you wanted to install one thing into the line, I assume you would have to do it in your front yard, between the house and the valve (which I think is somewhere in the lawn).

I guess that's the price of sun and palm trees.


It's time for another CoasterBuzz

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 18, 2015, 11:47 PM | comments: 0

It's crazy hard to believe that I launched v5 of CoasterBuzz almost three years ago. It still feels sort of new to me. I think I'm finally on the up swing of paying attention to it. My coaster enthusiasm admittedly waned a bit the last year and a half. Life has been busy, and there is definitely a cycle. It's time for a refresh.

That last update did quite a bit for traffic. The long-tail organic search traffic was crazy good after that. People aren't really making it a habit to hang around and contribute much, but even with declining ad revenue, those short and infrequent visitors are strangely more valuable (on a per-page basis) than frequent visitors. Go figure.

Some of the reason I'm interested in overhauling it is so I can start using the newer version of the forums, which is already in play on PointBuzz. To do that, I need to redo all of the markup to use Bootstrap. That's probably a good thing, because it gets to the responsive design that I should be using. Three years ago I went the route of different views for mobile, which I still think is a good idea in certain circumstances (way less markup and CSS), but for stuff that's more content than form UI, as this site is, responsive makes more sense.

So I'm not after anything new, just "roughly equivalent." It's mostly tedious and uninteresting work, but there will be some efficiencies for sure. I'm not going to go nuts on a new look, though I do want to try some new typography (which I hate doing).

One of the things that I always encounter in these redesigns is the square logo. Square logos are a pain in the ass. I know everyone hates Buzzy, but he's been with me for 15 years. I think I'll keep him, but I need something inspired by it that's horizontal.

There is one other motivating factor here: ASP.NET 5 is going to be radically different in terms of project layout and convention. Getting the forums there, and then a real site, is going to take some time to get right. I don't want to get too far behind on that. I feel like that's pretty important in terms of professional development.

It's not lost on me that all of this effort doesn't really consider the audience much, and I totally realize that. The problem is that I go through these long three or more year cycles, during which time frameworks and tools change enough that there is a ton of work just to stay current on that. Feature work almost becomes secondary. But I am still thinking about features... I just haven't decided what to work on first.


My features form with a change in the weather

posted by Jeff | Friday, March 13, 2015, 8:54 PM | comments: 0

The weather comes up in conversation constantly. It's the basis of small talk with strangers, and the source of headlines in the news. (This just in: It snows in the Midwest and Northeast in winter!) I think people might spend more time talking about it than politics.

I have to come clean. I admit that I talk shit on Facebook about how awesome the weather is where I live. And why shouldn't I? It's just the opposite extreme of car dashboard photos with negative temperature numbers, or driveways full of snow.

But closing in on two years already in Central Florida, a deliberate choice in places to live because of the weather, I have to say that my general existence is made better by all of that sun. By January 2013, just a little more than a year after we moved back to Cleveland, we were done. The gray and the snow was so negatively impacting us that we had to get out. Seattle, by comparison, was tough in November and December, but the rest of the year was fine. And no part of the year locked you inside.

When my mom moved down here, I remember her saying how much better she physically felt after the move. Psychologically she felt better too. This all made sense to me, because summers in Cleveland are fantastic. Seattle isn't as warm, but there's considerably more sun than in Ohio (it's true... look it up).

The OC is not perfect. But let me tell you, the weather has an amazing way of making you feel more positive and filled with energy. I regret not moving and figuring this stuff out at least 10 years sooner.


Vacations

posted by Jeff | Thursday, March 12, 2015, 10:30 PM | comments: 0

One of the things that was rough about our first six months or so in Florida is that I took almost no time off. It's the trap you fall into when you work a contract job, because you don't get paid when you don't work. If that weren't enough, I was marathon saving for the house down payment. I was pretty burned out at that point.

There are some people who do nothing but work, neglecting most everything else in life that matters. Those people generally strike me as miserable. Even if you like what you do, you need to disconnect and take time off. American culture seems so against this for some reason. I used to bank a ton of time at my first "real" job, and I don't think I really understood the value of unplugging until I had no choice (when I was first laid-off, after about five years of post-college work). While that was a difficult time, at first it wasn't so much scary as it was a relief.

A vacation doesn't have to be a trip, though if you can afford it, you certainly should get away. There's something to be said for breaking your routine. Nothing exercises your mind like thinking about something different, or nothing at all. It restores perspective.

The problem I have is that I live where I took countless vacations, and I make the mistake that I feel like I am taking little vacations. This week, for example, some of our friends from Seattle were in town, visiting Walt Disney World. We went out to meet them for a few hours on Sunday, then again on Wednesday after work. We had such a good time, and my focus was entirely in the moment, enjoying their company. (They were part of our parents group, and Simon hasn't seen his friend in a little over three years.) We have days like this at least once a month, and they kind of push off the fact that we haven't had any extended time to engage in recreation.

And by the way, it's not just for me in my day job, but Diana's general household operation and supervision of Simon, along with her part-time job, is every bit as much work as my job.

We do have something on the books this summer that will go four or five days, and I welcome that. It should be a lot of fun, and we can mostly unplug and relax. We're still parents, but we're not engaged in our daily routine for trips like that. And by the way, that's why I like the cruises, even if they're not particularly original at this point. We show up, they float around and feed us, and you don't really need to think about anything. No usable Internet access either.

Use your vacation time, folks.