Time to think about phones again

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, September 17, 2014, 9:19 PM | comments: 0

Diana dropped her phone the other night, and the screen bit the dust hard. The outer glass was fine, it was the LCD inside that broke. Of course, the timing is horrible, because we're about two months away from the end of our typical two-year contract. And don't be fooled by AT&T's early upgrade... what it really means is that you can pay full price on a phone and make payments. No thanks! I ended up getting her a Nokia 520, no-contract phone for a little under $50. The camera sucks, but it's not bad for a totally unsubsidized phone.

Diana had a Nokia Lumina 820, and it was a damn good phone. It's guts were the same as my 920, only with a lesser camera and not a high-resolution screen. We're pretty sold on Windows Phone still, at least to the extent that we've been happy with the operating system and the specific hardware we've had. The 920 has been fantastic, in part because of the great camera, arguably one of the best of any phones ever, and the high res screen.

Still, it's good to look around, so I've had my eye open. I'm really impressed with all of the Android hardware out there. The OS is getting better, but while the widgets are getting more robust, it's still a weird mix of that with the icon grid that doesn't tell you anything. The carrier reluctance to push updates quickly also is a bummer.

I was encouraged to see that Apple finally made the iPhone bigger. That was long overdue. I'm also glad to see they made a nice curved edge phone. That said, they're still making it unnecessarily tall with that extra bevel space at the top. It also reveals two OS issues. The first is the convention of putting buttons at the top, which are now out of thumb reach. The "reachability" feature is kind of a hack to address that, and it seems awkward. The other thing is that the OS has no "responsive" conventions, where stuff lays out in a natural and flowing way (like HTML or XAML), meaning they end up scaling stuff. My frustration with the iPhone is mostly that it still doesn't really tell you anything on the home screen beyond some count badges. No calendar items, no weather forecast, status from my wife.

I think it's pretty much a 90% certainty that we'll get Windows phones again. My hope is that the 830 hits AT&T soon, because that would be a suitable replacement for Diana. For me, well, it's hard to say. The HTC M8 that they just put out in a WP version is pretty amazing, but I need to see some photo samples. It's hard to beat the good Nokia cameras. There's a 925 that's aging, and the 1020 has been out for awhile. The closest replacement is the Icon or 930, depending on which carrier it's on, but neither is available on AT&T. We're staying put there, because the share plan with the corporate discount is too good to leave.

Truthfully, I don't need to really upgrade. The battery is still in pretty good shape, getting me through a long day without issue. Diana needs a new one, because that camera is terrible in the cheap no-contract unit. We do have a 4-year-old who does cute things, after all!

Theater vs. theatre

posted by Jeff | Sunday, September 14, 2014, 12:16 AM | comments: 0

One of the parts of my life that I often forget about or don't make room for is my love of theater. See, the problem is, I started to get interested in high school, and I wasn't even cool enough to mix with the theatre crowd. I was always less interested in the academic angle, where people got knee deep in interpreting the text and studying the finer points of acting. I was more about sound and lighting than anything else.

But in college, I went in with theater declared as a minor right away. It kind of made sense, because radio/TV majors had to do a semester or two of stagecraft anyway. In that year, I had a really good time getting involved in a number of shows and getting to really dive into lighting as both a theoretical topic and a technical one. Heck, I was the only one in R/TV who cared about lighting. One of my instructors thought I was crazy for bringing the only light kit we had out on shoots for my sophomore documentary. I got a lot out of that year.

But after that first year, the theater department's technical professor got canned (rumor was he slept with a student or something), and I just didn't feel like it was something that would make any difference professionally. In the summer before my senior year, I did get involved with community theater in my home town, and that was a lot of fun. It appealed to my need to contribute, because they never really had anyone who thought about lighting beyond, "Can you see the actors?"

Fast forward to 2007, and I meet this woman who was a union stage manager with off-Broadway experience as well as work in the many Cleveland theaters. (Believe it or not, Cleveland is one of the top cities in the country as far as the breadth of professional theater in one place.) By that time, she was working a more manageable job with a bank, but she still cared a great deal about it. That woman was Diana, and obviously I married her.

I've always enjoyed hearing her stories (she has a good one about riding in an elevator with Alec Baldwin before a show), but I've always been hesitant to bother her with my own interest, I guess because it seems insignificant compared to hers.

Today I think we made a minor step toward sharing the interest, in that we've talked about getting involved at the new performing arts center here in town. She's exploring work and volunteering, and I'm searching for a way in the general sense to get involved. I know that they're using some of the space at times for community theater too, so I need to look deeper into that. At the very least, we know we're going to buy some tickets to some shows. I hope people realize what they have here in that awesome facility.

So I'm not much of a theatre geek, but I do like theater. I don't remember where I first saw someone make the distinction, or insist upon it, but it was probably high school. I don't have much in the way of street cred, and I won't apologize for liking a popular show, but I do enjoy the art. It's still something that is vastly different from any other kind of entertainment, especially musicals.

That missing fall tradition

posted by Jeff | Saturday, September 13, 2014, 11:19 PM | comments: 0

This was the weekend that Halloweekends started at Cedar Point. I'm not going to lie, this is one of the last few things about living in Cleveland that was awesome and that I will always miss.

For the unfamiliar, this is the time of year where the amusement park is only open weekends, through the end of October, and they open up haunted houses, scare zones, and place "fall stuff" all over the place like pumpkins and corn stalks and what not. Throw in the cooler jacket weather, the leaves changing color and that scent that goes with that time of year, and it's a pretty magical thing. Sure, they have some extra ticketed stuff that goes on at WDW, but that's not even remotely the same thing. In this case, the location and tradition matters.

I had a tradition spanning several relationships where I would get a room up there for closing weekend. So many friends and romantic relationships and awesome times, it's hard to capture it in words. In the general sense, the park has been an integral part of my life for most of it, and particularly in the last 18 years or so. The thing I didn't really expect was that so many good friends would end up working there, so it can be hard to see them having a good time (at their jobs no less) and I'm not there. Our disaster of a trip earlier this year, when the water main broke and we spent two days looking for something else to do, makes it sting a little more.

Fall is a little tricky here in Orlando, because it doesn't really start until November in terms of temperature, and by that time you're fully engaged in holiday mode from Thanksgiving to the new year. But there is something to be said for that. We do get our jacket weather during the most festive time of year, and we don't see snow. The holiday stuff at the Disney parks is pretty intense too. Seeing the Candlelight Processional, the lighting of Cinderella Castle or the Osborne Family Lights just doesn't get old.

I hope that next year we can get back up there in the fall. It's definitely a trip worth making.

Vacation anxiety

posted by Jeff | Saturday, September 6, 2014, 10:43 PM | comments: 0

I have vacation anxiety. I'm anxious because I don't have a single vacation planned. That's entirely weird.

A year ago, we had just set up shop in Orange County, and honestly, it was a long time before we felt like we were not on vacation. I mean, when you first start to live in the place you spent so much time traveling to for leisure, it's an adjustment. If that weren't enough, we were in uber-saver mode so we could buy a house. We were free of any mortgage obligations from our previous houses, but had nothing to show for it, so I banked literally a third of my income. That meant we pretty much weren't traveling anywhere.

As we got close to buying the house, and were comfortable with what we saved, we took a sort of last minute cruise. At the same time, we booked a second one to take with our friends from Chicago in the late spring. We also planned two trips to Cincinnati and one to Cleveland. Last weekend we even did a child-free overnight locally. Basically, we've tried to make up a little for the non-travel of last year.

This has in many ways led to a different kind of anxiety, because we haven't really recovered from that savings purge with the house. And the funny thing is, we're paying significantly less than we did in the rental. However, while our monthly expenses are lower, there have been all of the little house things to buy that have added up, Simon's therapy bills, and obviously, the travel expenses. I have to remind myself that going to a regular salary job means I'm doing the 401k thing again, so I shouldn't be freaked out by the small savings.

Yes, I'm sure some people wish they had these kinds of problems. However, the financial makeover I've tried very hard to achieve over the last five or six years led me to the realization that I'm way behind for any kind of retirement, and having cash around is critical for emergencies when you're a one-income household and have a child. These rules would apply regardless of my level of income.

But getting out and seeing the world is also part of the life that I want. I spent too much time in my 20's buying crap instead of traveling, and that was stupid. The "where" in terms of travel isn't that important at this stage (largely because of Simon's age), as long as I'm making memories and enjoying myself with my little family and my highly distributed friends.

I have the anxiety until something is on the calendar. Some people look forward to weekends, but I look forward to the next trip.

Awesome is right there in front of us

posted by Jeff | Thursday, September 4, 2014, 11:41 PM | comments: 0

One of the things I've been very vocal about in recent years is my frustration with the fact that we have unprecedented knowledge at our fingertips, and we largely squander it. Our culture even seems to prefer living in ignorance. Maybe it's largely an American phenomenon, but I don't really know.

Tonight I watched Episode 12 of the new Cosmos series that aired this year: "The World Set Free." Among other things, it explains climate change in scientific terms. If it seems like the science is so easy to understand that Al Gore can present it, that's because it really is that easy to understand. It's just known physics, and it was theorized even before the industrial revolution brought us into a mode of CO2 emission. I can't explain why people make it a political issue or insist that it isn't real, given the fact that few things in science are so agreed upon. I suppose it's the need to feel that we as a species are too above nature, or maybe it's just good old fashioned defense of capitalism.

One of the neat sidebars on that show included the history of solar energy. It had many significant false starts, the first in the later part of the 19th century. The idea that all of this free energy was there for the taking was, not surprisingly, usurped by the cheapness of fossil fuels. It's a mistake we continue to make over and over.

But despite our cultural issues that prevent us from moving forward, we have the technology today to reverse climate change and embrace energy that won't bake us in the process. In fact, we have the ability to solve a great many of the world's problems, if only we will ourselves to do so. Think about that sincerely for a moment, beyond the obvious cheerleading for humanity angle. How can you not be excited about that? Awesome is right there in front of us, if we choose to embrace it.

This doesn't mean we all need to get PhD's and become uber-scientists. It does mean that each of us has to use our energy on less of the things that take up a lot of our bandwidth. We have to stop hating and fearing each other, for one. It's the root of everything that has gone wrong throughout human history. Of course we need to enjoy our lives with some things that we might consider meaningless (like reality TV), but it can't consume us. Above all, we each need to take more time to understand the world around us. That isn't going to happen watching cable "news" networks. I think we're generally pretty good at helping each other out, but it seems we only do it when things are at their worst. I hope that can change.

I'm naively more optimistic about what we're capable of than I ever have been. I want to be a part of that capability. I don't know if I can play a leadership role in that process, and honestly it doesn't matter if it's me or someone else. I want Simon to see that awesome is possible. It's right there.

What's my next big thing?

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, September 2, 2014, 10:06 PM | comments: 0

I was talking with one of my peers the other day about the kind of work I was generally doing with my team. In my role, it can vary a bit from one project to the next. For this project, I'm not doing much in the way of in-the-weeds development, but instead doing a lot of design and code reviews, build process maintenance, some pairing, and even a little BA work. And mind you, that's not a complaint at all, because having more administrative responsibility is something I've actually been craving for awhile. It plays to the skills I think I have and want to develop further.

Still, it's easy to get disconnected and out of the loop if you're not careful, and that hurts your street cred. Worse, it leads to a path where you could end up just another level of management somewhere, which isn't really very interesting. This is why I'm always happy to have spare-time pursuits where I'm free to engage in whatever I'm interested in. I've complained in the past about POP Forums being my curse, but to be honest, it has been a great playground for me for a long time where I could experiment and do anything.

But it also begs the question, what's my next big thing? What can I really put some effort into that will be satisfying outside of my day job? This is what happens when you work with good people. You see them doing great work and you're inspired to up your game.

I think one of the natural things to do is take the forum app to a new level in terms of performance. I always maintained it as this thing that someone could drop into their application and run it in a shared hosting environment, but maybe it's time to build it as something intended to scale. I've already started to go down that route, where the next version can run in a multi-instance scenario with a shared caching layer. It's something I started to think about way back in 2010, when I was still working on the MSDN forums at Microsoft. I think I secretly wanted my humble app to be the MSDN forums. I think with a little work, it could probably be up to that task.

I have no idea what the criteria for success is in that case, but my thing is that I just get excited about the tool box that's out there. I mean, there all these great platforms with queues and service buses and search indexes... there's no limit to how awesome it could be.

Then there's my reluctant fascination with mobile stuff. I've made my dislike for the app-tastic world pretty clear, but it doesn't mean that I don't see any need at all for apps over the web. I have a lot of ideas there, too, to the point that it's hard to pick one.

I often think about what I could do with CoasterBuzz, but mostly because there's already an audience there. The reboot in 2012 was a bit of an undertaking, but it's been easy to make a ton of incremental, largely unnoticed updates to it since then. No one will ever care that the home page renders in less than 100 ms, but I love knowing that it does. Funny how your motivation changes over time. A dozen years ago I just wanted it to be popular, now I just want it to be fast. I do wish there was a way to better monetize it (traffic isn't worth what it used to be), but money isn't much of an intrinsic motivator.

The last year and change has been good for me in terms of career. I think I have clearer goals around what I want out of a job (more responsibility and constant opportunity to refine my leadership skills), but I don't want to miss out on the technical ability, even if it isn't core to my daily responsibilities. My complaint about the business landscape is that there it lacks technical leadership, so there's definitely a gap to fill there. I wonder why my next big thing will be, realized on evenings and weekends.

Mini-holiday without our boy

posted by Jeff | Monday, September 1, 2014, 8:59 PM | comments: 0

Finally, for the first time since late 2012, Diana and I had an overnight without Simon. My dear friend Kara offered to watch him while we did adult stuff. I think she offered because of some combination of us watching her dog or her love for hanging out with Simon, but whatever the case, I'm incredibly grateful. I trust her completely, and she engages him at a level that I can't possibly sustain. She always ends up cooking with him or taking him to interesting places or something, and this weekend was no exception.

Meanwhile, the Puzzoni leadership team started our 27-ish hours of fun by driving out to Port Canaveral to do a Segway tour. I think we scored a Groupon for around $50 for two of us, on a 75-minute tour. Considering we've paid nearly a hundred each for Segway outings at Epcot, this was a no-brainer. There really isn't a ton of stuff to see out at the port, but it is fun. Obviously you can see the cruise ships there (the Disney Fantasy was in port), and there are also a bunch of little restaurants there that cater mostly to the marina folk, I assume. There's a big observation tower museum thing, but we passed on that. We did a lot of off-roading on the Segway, which was super fun. Plus, they're not governed like those that Disney used back in the day. We did go over to the Army Corps of Engineers lock between the port and the river, where a couple of manatees were humping.

We lunched at a place called Milliken's Reef, which I could only describe as uniquely coastal Florida. Live entertainment every day, tiki bar in the sand, waitresses with tiny shorts... there are probably hundreds of places like this on both coasts. Fortunately, this one had pretty good food, and we would totally go there again if we were in the neighborhood. I would be fun to watch the ships leave in the late afternoon, I'm sure. I need to watch for it the next time we're actually departing from port.

Our bigger picture goal was to relax and take it easy. While there are certainly a billion things to do around Florida, we didn't want to spend a bunch of time driving either. Even the trip to the port approached three hours total. I did look at some of the usual places on the gulf coast, but they were crazy expensive, including the spot we got married down near Ft. Myers. But as it would turn out, Disney had a crazy good Florida resident rate on everything for the weekend, and the calendar implied (correctly) that the parks would not be busy.

We scored a room at the Yacht Club for $250, on a room that's normally at least $400. Score. They also have a spa there, which was the other goal... couples massage. They had a 15% passholder discount. This quickly shaped up to a deal that appealed to my inner "benefit oriented consumer," meaning you are willing to pay to be well taken care of.

Yacht Club and Beach Club are essentially the same resort, even if they do have separate lobbies. They still share the same pool, spa, food places and such. The only significant difference is that Beach Club is a little closer to the rear entrance of Epcot. We picked it because we wanted alone time, a great pool and that Epcot proximity for dinner and dessert. I really do think that these are the best two hotels in all of Walt Disney World. If you have kids, and expect to spend a lot of time at Magic Kingdom, sure, a monorail hotel may be a better choice, but you'll pay dearly for it.

We checked in just after 4. Let me get out a rant here about Disney, and understand that I'm super critical because software is what I do (and did it for a year at a theme park company, no less). On one hand, they seemed to get the Magic Band situation right. Since I booked online, logged in with my Disney account, they shipped us new Magic Bands (now we have two each), and figured out to associate them with our annual passes. The system wasn't smart enough to see our passes as additional room keys, but whatever, that would have just been extra awesome. What they did fail at is getting the room folio to work. You can associate a credit card with your reservation online, and they even confirmed it at the desk when we checked in. When we went to use it, however, it didn't work. The whole point of the system is to easily use it to spend money freely. In any case, I went to guest services, and after being on the phone with the resort for about five minutes, they got it straightened out, gave us some Fastpasses, and I was on my way. Additionally, we encountered "server too busy" messages on the WDW sites, and it's pretty typical that using the mobile app fails at least once every time you attempt to use it. I'm probably too "inside baseball" on this topic, because you can't work in software without knowing people who worked on these projects, but it's amazing how fragile their system is, and that's unacceptable. It leaves people on the front line having to bat cleanup for them.

In any case, we had a 6 p.m. reservation at the Rose & Crown in the UK part of Epcot. While we've had many beverages there, including Pimm's and the non-American Strongbow (they recently changed it to a sweeter formula for us American fatties), we have never actually had food there. I'm sorry we waited. I had the Indian-style chicken masala, and it rocked my world. Diana had salmon, and she also loved it. If that weren't enough, we had the best nerdy and adorable waitress ever who was all geeked out about finding good Indian food in Orlando. She said "indeed" a few times, and we decided that we needed to use that in every day speech more. We really enjoyed ourselves, even at an outdoor table, though it was very breezy and they have many fans. We'll absolutely go back.

After dinner, and with a few pints of cider in me, we used our Fastpasses on Test Track. Even though we can generally get a pass on any day we expect to go, by booking in the morning, we don't because Simon just refuses to try it. Diana had not been on the "Tron-ified" version of the ride yet, so it was new for her. It's fun. I know Simon would love it, with the touch screen car designing and such.

We happened to hear Off Kilter playing during dinner, by the way, and we need to make sure we see them a few times in their remaining four weeks. They've been playing Epcot for something like 15 years, and while I don't know the reason for their departure, Canada won't be the same without them.

The other big grown-up splurge for the night was doing the Illuminations Sparkling Dessert Party. They have an area split roped off on the north side of the World Showcase Lagoon, where you'll find many delicious desserts and sparkling wines from Washington and Italy. Have you ever seen doughnuts and churros flambéd? I haven't either, but pouring 151 rum on it, lighting it on fire and then putting chocolate, ice cream and whip cream on it, as it turns out, is pretty much the most awesome idea ever. It was fantastic. It's a little pricey at $49 a person, but it's not difficult to get your alcohol's worth, and the desserts are top notch. And hey, you get to view Illuminations from the absolute best spot. That show never gets old. Totally worth it.

By this time I was probably feeling a little too good, and we considered going over to do the fairway course at Fantasia Gardens mini-golf. Instead, we opted to do the pool. This is the only pool I know of that has sand in it. It's a very coarse, and yet very soft sand, and frankly it's completely awesome. What is less awesome is that the very short little lazy river they have is something like 8 feet deep at one point. I can't understand that at all. Since I couldn't easily climb out, I had to pull myself out, and that's when I had a wardrobe malfunction. I believe the lifeguard had to see my naked ass, if only briefly. Apparently I didn't think to tie up the drawstring in my shorts ahead of time. As they say, with alcohol, all things are possible.

One minor complaint: It's really hard to get snacks around there late. The kitchen at the outdoor bar and grill must close pretty early, because just before 10, there was no food to be had. I certainly didn't need more to drink! I had to go all the way to the little store and snack bar over in Beach Club, where I settled for Cheetos.

We slept in. In fact, we slept much later than we intended, but without our small human crawling into bed with us at 7-something, we stayed in bed until almost 9:30. The negative of this is that there was no chance we were going to get any kind of counter service breakfast (the nearest was at The Land in Epcot), but it was a small price to pay for sleeping in. We did have a Fastpass that we booked a few weeks ago for Test Track, so we did it again, and shot some video inside of it to show Simon what goes on. Shortly thereafter, we acquired a cronut. Sidebar: the stands for Food & Wine are already out of hibernation.

Our massage appointment was for noon. The last time we did this was 2008, at the Portofino at Universal. I must never wait that long again. The spa facility at Yacht/Beach Club is pretty nice, though not anywhere near the level of what they have at the Portofino. But with the passholder discount and such, it's still worth it. I walked around relaxed and feeling awesome the rest of the day, which is something to be said after the gluttony and alcohol of the previous night.

We grabbed lunch at Pei Wei on the way home, taking half of it home. Simon was excited to see us, and we were excited to see him too. Our philosophy has been to never worry about traveling with him, and generally that strategy has worked well. It's unfortunately expensive to fly three people around, but it's worth it. Kara took him to the science center and they had a blast.

Kara hung out at our house for the afternoon, and I think I dozed off for a bit. All four of us went back to the Beach Club to meet our friends Jeff and David, who were down here planning their wedding for this winter. They haven't revealed everything, but it sounds like they're going to make a huge impression. Disney can apparently do pretty much anything, so it should be interesting to see what they come up with.

And finally, for Labor Day, the reunited Team Puzzoni spent the morning at Magic Kingdom. I still had not been on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, so we made the attempt by getting to the park when it opened. The sign said 60, but we only waited 30 minutes. It's a cute little ride, and the animatronics are amazing. All told, I got to ride three roller coasters with my little family, plus Splash Mountain, the People Mover, Peter Pan and the train. We thought about doing more stuff, but all three of us were kinda tired. We had a nice lunch and packed it in. Who knew, but Labor Day is about the most non-busy day we've ever seen there. Bummer for the vacationers that it was a short day because the Halloween Party extra-admission stuff is underway.

We packed in a ton of action this weekend. Sure, some of it was stuff we've done before, or at the very least in places we've been before, but that's partly why we moved here. We're not pin-trading uber-nerds, but we do enjoy what Disney has to offer. It was really great to do some of the stuff we just don't get to do when Simon is with us. I don't think a lot of people realize how much grown-up stuff there is to do at the parks and on their ships.

It was one to remember, for sure. We need to schedule these kinds of short getaways more often. We love Simon and all, but we need couple time now and then, without it being parent time.

All of those parental moments are coming fast

posted by Jeff | Friday, August 29, 2014, 7:53 PM | comments: 0

One of the best things about having friends with kids that are older than Simon is that they kind of offer a preview of what our future looks like. Thanks to Facebook, we get a play-by-play.

For example, our dear friends and cruise-mates in Chicago have two little girls, the oldest of which is reading in front of her class for the first time. Another friend that I went to school has a teenager now going to football games. Sure, these are moments that every parent will have, but these are friends of mine, my peers. It means we're next.

I have a lot of anxiety around Simon's developmental delays, if that wasn't completely obvious. But it still seems pretty inevitable that he's going to read to a class and go to a football game too. It's just weird to think about it. Right now he's a preschooler, and he just today, for the first time, went upstairs and got his pajamas on without either one of us being there. They seem like such minor milestones, but they're not.

This morning, Simon crawled up into our bed when his clock turned green (it's an alarm clock in that sense). Diana was already in the shower, but he cuddled under the covers with me. When Mom came out of the bathroom, he said, "Sorry Mom, I'm sleepin'!" That was pretty cute. Those moments won't happen for very much longer.

I moved my Web sites to Azure. You won't believe what happened next!

posted by Jeff | Thursday, August 28, 2014, 9:47 PM | comments: 0

TL;DR: I eventually saved money.

I wrote about the migration of my sites, which is mostly CoasterBuzz and PointBuzz, from a dedicated server to the various Azure services. I also wrote about the daily operation of the sites after the move. I reluctantly wrote about the pain I was experiencing, too. What I haven't really talked about is the cost. Certainly moving to managed services and getting out of the business of feeding and caring for hardware is a plus, but the economics didn't work out for the longest time. That frustrated me, because when I worked at Microsoft in 2010 and 2011, I loved the platform despite its quirks.

The history of hosting started with a site on a shared service that I paid nearly $50/month for back in 1998. It went up to a dedicated server at more than $650, and then they threatened to boot me for bandwidth, so I started paying a grand a month for a T-1 to my house, plus the cost of hardware. Eventually the dedicated servers came down again, and for years were right around $200. The one I had the last three years was $167. That was the target.

Let me first say that there is some benefit to paying a little more. While you won't get the same amount of hardware (or the equivalent virtual resources) and bandwidth, you are getting a ton of redundancy for "free," and I think that's a hugely overlooked part of the value proposition. For example, your databases in SQL Azure exist physically in three places, and the cost of maintaining and setting that up yourself is enormous. Still, I wanted to spend less instead of more, because market forces being what they are, it can only get cheaper.

Here's my service mix:

  • Azure Web Sites, 1 small standard instance
  • Several SQL Azure databases, two of which are well over 2 gigs in size (both on the new Standard S1 service tier)
  • Miscellaneous blob storage accounts and queues
  • A free SendGrid account

My spend went like this:

  • Month 1: $204
  • Month 2: $176
  • Month 3: $143

So after two and a half months of messing around and making mistakes, I'm finally to a place where I'm beating the dedicated server spend. Combined with the stability after all of the issues I wrote about previously, this makes me happy. I don't expect the spend to increase going forward, but you might be curious to know how it went down.

During the first month and a half, only the old web/business tiers were available for SQL Azure. The pricing on these didn't make a lot of sense, because they were based on database size instead of performance. Think about that for a minute... a tiny database that had massive use cost less than a big one that was used very little. The CoasterBuzz database, around 9 gigs, was going to cost around $40. Under the new pricing, it was only $20. That was preview pricing, but as it turns out, the final pricing will be $30 for the same performance, or $15 for a little less performance.

There ended up being another complication when I moved to the new pricing tiers. They were priced that any instance of a database, spun up for even a minute, incurred a full day's charge. I don't know if it was a technical limitation or what, but it was a terrible idea. You see, when you do an automated export of the database, which I was doing periodically (this was before the self-service restore came along), you incurred the cost of an entire day's charge for that database. Fortunately, starting next week, they're going to hourly pricing starting next month.

I also believe there were some price reductions on the Web sites instances, but I'm not sure. There was a reduction in storage costs, but they're not a big component of the cost anyway. Honestly, I always thought bandwidth was my biggest concern, but that's because much of what I used on dedicated hardware was exporting backups. On Azure, I'm using less than 300 gigs out.

So now that things have evened out and I've understood how to deal with all of the unknowns from previous months, coupled with a lot of enhancements the Azure team has been working in, I'm in a good place. It feels like it should not have been so difficult, but Azure has been having an enormous growth and maturity spurt in the last six months or so. It's really been an impressive thing to see.

I toured the new Walt Disney Theater in downtown Orlando

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, August 27, 2014, 12:28 AM | comments: 0

Last Friday, I had a very unique opportunity to tour the Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts. It's supposed to open later this year, and so far it includes the main theater, a black box theater and an arts school. After additional fundraising, they'll build a third theater as a concert hall. It's an enormously ambitious project, and the Walt Disney Theater in particular is likely to rival most theaters built anywhere in the last few decades. The mayor's office reached out to local businesses to invite people to see inside (my work office, which I go to twice a week) is next door to city hall and across from the center. I got lucky, as no one else from the office could be there.

I'm sure I've mentioned that I minored in theater for about three semesters, and while I never had the experience or street cred that Diana has (with her fancy degrees and union card and all!), I have always enjoyed it. In particular, I always loved lighting, and I got to do some shows for the community theater back in Cleveland. I've also seen a few shows, so I'm practically an expert. (Kidding.)

To put it simply, the theater is absolutely beautiful. It's both intimate and enormous. The furthest seat in the balcony of the 2,700-seat theater is apparently just over 100 feet from the end of the stage. I mean, it's amazing to stand in there and see the scope of it all, while simultaneously feeling that it's "cozy."

The black box is also interesting because it's so configurable. They can do anything in there. Apparently even local community theater will be able to use the space, which is very exciting.

I'm hoping I can find some way to see it again before they load-in their first show, which I believe will be the touring Phantom company. I'm curious to see some of the technology. While I never worked in the field professionally, I admit that I would have loved being part of a team doing a show every night. Even without being on the stage, there's a high that comes from doing that.

I suspect we'll consider a season subscription, as there are a number of shows we would like to see. It might be something we also donate to, as we certainly feel that the arts are a very important component of a thriving community.

The cost of getting from point A to point B

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, August 26, 2014, 5:29 PM | comments: 0

We're having a lot of fun driving our shiny new Leaf. If you've ever driven an electric go-kart, it's a lot like that, only bigger and with satellite radio. The 80 to 100 mile range hasn't really caused any anxiety, and even doing the slow-ass charge from a 110 outlet at home has been adequate. I mean, in four days we've already put 200+ miles on it. Gotta remember we only get 1,000 per month on this lease!

Today I drove it to work for the first time, and I plugged it into one of the four stations in the parking garage that mostly go unused. The local utility has gone apeshit installing these things all over town, which is a huge win. I could drive to and from work, maybe twice, on a single charge, but it's actually slightly cheaper at these stations. They generally charge 13 cents per kWh, while the cost at home after the first 1,000 is a little over 13.5 cents. (The math works better at home when we're not running the air conditioning all of the time and using less than 1,000 kWh per month. The first 1,000 are about 11.3 cents.)

This gives me a real price of electricity on the spot, and I could compare it to miles. What it came down to was 3.5 cents per mile. And keep in mind I was driving like a dick, mashing the pedal from a stop or through turns because that's what makes it so much fun.

So how much does this energy cost compare to gas? That's pretty straight forward to figure out since we know mpg, and gas around here is currently about $3.20 per gallon:

  • 3.5 cents/mile - 2015 Nissan Leaf S
  • 7 cents/mile - 2012 Toyota Prius V Three (our other car, averaging just under 46 mpg lately)
  • 10.7 cents/mile - 2008 Hyundai Elantra (the car the Leaf replaces, which averaged around 30 mpg)
  • 17.8 cents/mile - 2015 Chevy Suburban (random large SUV at 18 mpg combined)

Assuming we put 12,000 miles on the car, that means the Leaf saves $864 per year in energy costs over Diana's old car. That's not too shabby. Granted, you're talking about a car that was $18,500 (adjusted for inflation) versus one that was around $23,000 (after credits, rebates and haggling), so it's not strictly a win. But hey, if you were coming down from a Chevy Suburban, then you save about $23k on the price of the car and $1,716 per year on fuel costs.

People don't like to have those debates, suggesting you can only compare to a car of similar size, but I tend to think mostly in terms of cost. The Elantra will cost you less if you keep it for six years (assuming constant energy costs), but only just barely. I think in terms of cost because 95% of what I do in a car is tool around town, and any vehicle can do that. If I need to road trip or carry cargo, the Prius V is exceptional at that.

The numbers are fun to think about, and while I enjoy the hippy tree hugger zero-emission story, I was attracted to the car because it's so damn fun to drive. I've been interested since I rented one last year. Now the challenge is to remember it's a leased car. I did OK with the 2010 Prius that was totaled in an accident, so hopefully it'll be OK on this one.

The hardest lesson

posted by Jeff | Monday, August 25, 2014, 8:22 PM | comments: 1

Simon is a theme park nerd. When we moved back to Cleveland, and stared bringing him to Cedar Point at the age of 2, he was totally engaged in the place. Large as that park is, he was also very content to walk all over it without the stroller. It was probably where his love of trains began, and he loved to watch the rides. A couple of years later, living next door to Walt Disney World, he not only enjoys walking around and observing, but he's taking a close look at the mechanical devices and the procedures, to the point where it's a big component of his imaginative play. That's a relief because, prior to the last nine months, there wasn't much in the way of imagination with him.

Of course he's all about trains and monorails, but the thing he loves the most, anywhere, is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. He rarely asks about Magic Kingdom in the general sense, as it tends to be about specifically riding Thunder Mountain. He even refers to his wooden trains as Thunder Mountain. Before yesterday, we hadn't been to any Disney park in more than two weeks, since before we went to Cincinnati. With school starting, therapy and I think a general desire to just chill out (and maybe a little August heat), it hasn't been a priority. Plus, the People Mover had been down for rehab, and that's a favorite too. We were overdue.

Things started out a little rough, with Simon being defiant about where to sit on the parking tram. Then inside the park, he tried to insist sitting on the outside on Dumbo, which isn't allowed because adults have to sit on the outside. He was generally being cranky and ready to flip out unless we were doing exactly what he wanted, and that was a hint of things to come.

When we got to Thunder Mountain, we used our Fastpasses to board pretty quickly. It isn't a rule, but we prefer he sits between us, because he is still kind of little, and we just feel like it's safer. However, this time, he wouldn't get in the train unless we both got in first. Not being one to hang up a dispatch, I picked him up and put him in, where he tried to keep me from sitting down on the outside. Diana warned him, he shouted no, and that was it. I picked him up and carried him, kicking and screaming, off of the platform. It was a scene for sure, but hopefully brief.

What followed was a true meltdown. Tantrums are where a kid looks for a reaction and stops when he gets his way or is ignored. This was not a tantrum. It was intense rage, and nothing we did was going to help. It just had to run its course. The interesting thing about Simon is that he's somewhat self-aware about the situation. From there we got on the train as an express route to get to the front of the park to leave (cut short at the Fantasyland station due to the parade). On the train, he asked for help because he couldn't stop crying.

The parenting fail is obviously that we've been letting him get away with not following directions. This was the worst time to have that realization, but it's certainly a lesson he needed to learn. The problem is that it's hard for him to learn these kinds of lessons because he doesn't always understand the underlying reasons for us to demand his compliance. It's another one of those social contract issues that some kids on the autism spectrum have. "Because it's a rule" doesn't really mean anything. Not only that, but as I can see so much of myself in him, I understand that in a lot of cases he wants to do the less safe thing, ignoring instructions, because there is something he wants to more closely observe.

We're very fortunate that these are rare occurrences, and that he tends to not have the issues that a lot of other kids have. For example, he's exceptionally polite, and doesn't toss manners aside because he doesn't get that social norm. Heck, he queues like a champ in theme parks, which is one of the classic autism social rejections. But there are arrangements that he simply rejects, not out of defiance, but because they don't meet some rational standard in his head. Defiance is fairly easy to respond to and discipline. Stuff like this is harder, and it's still not clear if the discussions you have with him later, when he's calm, are things that he understands.

While I'm happy he's in six hours of school every day, I hate that he can't continue to see the same therapist, because she's awesome for him, and very helpful for us. She would be able to tell us exactly how we deal with situations like this.

As necessary as these "teaching moments" care, they sure can suck. This is especially true because he has been a very sweet boy lately, full of personality. It's fascinating to watch him use his theme park experiences in imaginative play. Today he was methodically swinging a Little People toy swing (without the people), indicating they had to hold on and wait for the ride to come to a complete stop, then exit carefully and watch their step. It's pretty adorable. He was obviously empowered by the ride ops at Kings Island who let him push the button in the Eiffel Tower elevator.

It's electric

posted by Jeff | Sunday, August 24, 2014, 12:32 AM | comments: 0

After some test driving and other considerations, we ended up replacing Diana's car with a Nissan Leaf. It's the first non-Toyota new car I've ever had.

Our intentions were basically to try on all-electric for two years, and by the time the lease is over, we can explore other options as battery life and range continue to improve. The motivation was not any kind of green street cred or an idea that we would save on fuel costs, but the economics are still pretty good, as is the green story. Based on some industry study, even using electricity generated heavily by fossil fuels, and the manufacture of the car, it ranks first as having the lowest carbon footprint. And the cost per mile for energy is about a third of the Prius, a fifth of the car it replaces, a Hyundai Elantra. With the federal tax credit being passed to you from Nissan ($7,500), this particular trim gets you from $32k sticker to $24.5k, so your starting point is already below a Prius. Mind you, it's a smaller car, and people want to compare it to its gas using Versa cousin, but I've never been one to compare cars on size.

I don't remember what our net cap cost was after the trade and cash, but the residual wasn't great and the money factor was very nearly free. You do pay a little extra for a short lease. We got the payment down to $106, which I can live with. Other than going off of what other people pay, it's hard to know exactly what you can get away with because of the subsidies and rebates. But based on some of the research tools, I think I did OK. I might have been able to squeak out a few extra dollars.

Our sales rep was solid. He was a total "Leaf geek," as we put it. He owned one, he knew everything about it, was up on EV's in general, and could nerd about everything. And good for the dealer putting a guy with a bunch of tattoos in that position, too. His appearance was not typical for the usually squirrely car sales jerk. He wasn't condescending or patronizing either, and spoke to both of us as equals.

Unfortunately, the sales manager was a total asshat. Not only did he not understand why I wanted all of the lease numbers (cap cost, residual, money factor), but he didn't even know that Nissan basically took the tax credit off the top for leases (if you buy outright, you get that $7,500 back when you file). When he suggested I put more down to reduce the payment, we walked. I felt bad because the rep spent a good two hours with us, but that last hour was wasted. You absolutely have to be willing to leave the dealer if you feel you're being fucked with or not getting what you want.

I emailed the rep as we had lunch (I was really "hangry" at that point), and told him if he could get the numbers where we wanted, we could work it. He got back to me later in the afternoon, and he made the deal I wanted. Basically they reduced the sale value of the car by about $2,200, a little under their invoice and the top number before the manufacturer rebates and incentives, which totaled around $8k. Our real cost, the trade plus cash plus monthly payments, comes out to $356/month for 24 months. Being a lease, of course you have nothing to show for it when you're done, but our conventionally financed Prius V comes out to $450/month over five years and will be worth around perhaps $9k if values hold. Purchasing works out better for you if you intend to keep the car longer than it's financed, but again, we didn't want to commit too hard to electric.

Mini-rant: Why do car dealers suck at getting you out the door once you have a deal? We ended up spending a little over two hours there again before we signed and left. Or rather, Diana did, as we kept this one in her name to keep the license plate transfer simple and keep some credit in her name.

It's worth mentioning that I did drive a BMW i3, and it was awesome. It corners like it's on rails, and the motor is much more aggressive and "torquey," which is saying something because frankly the Leaf torques like a boss as well. Electric motors are awesome like that. I nearly fell in love with the BMW, but I just couldn't justify spending around $450/month on a car. I just couldn't do it. That's three cruises a year, in the concierge rooms at at that. The one thing I did not like about it was that the regenerative braking is super aggressive, to the point where you don't need to brake much in city driving. It's weird, and probably even more weird for other drivers because they don't see brake lights. The Leaf has this feature, but it's not on by default. It's a setting on the Tesla Model S as well.

I'm glad that's over. Buying cars is an awful experience, especially since no one around here would negotiate via email except the BMW guy, and ultimately the "Leaf geek." I'll write some more after we've had it a few months, and see how we do with range anxiety and charging configurations.

End of transmission... how about no transmission?

posted by Jeff | Thursday, August 21, 2014, 9:21 PM | comments: 0

Last Friday, just as Diana was approaching our house, her car (a 2008 Hyundai Elantra) was spinning high RPM's and not going anywhere. We were in separate cars, coming back from dinner. She pulled up and suggested I drive. Sure enough, it was struggling to accelerate or shift out of first gear, and I immediately assumed there was a transmission fluid problem. The burning fluid, with it dripping all over made that pretty obvious.

My first car had all kinds of problems, and a leaky gasket on the transmission pan was one of them. It was a pretty easy fix though, so I assumed it had to be something like that for this car. Wanting to assert my manhood or something, I checked with an auto parts store to find a gasket, and they said the car didn't have one. Meh, whatever, let's pay for the tow, because this to me sure sounds like it fits under the drive train warranty.

As it turns out, this car circulates transmission fluid through the radiator, another surprise as I've replaced two radiators that did not do this. (Is it obvious my car repair experiences are all almost 20 years ago?) The dealer found that the hose was simply not there, thus the very fast emptying of transmission fluid. On top of that, the car told a computer that the transmission gears were messed up. The diagnosis was a new transmission, and fortunately it was covered under that 10-year, 100,000 mile drive train warranty. Phew. Parts alone were about $1,300.

I'm disappointed that the car has under 60k miles and had this kind of catastrophic failure. Ditto for the fuel line problems we had in the first few months, a weird defect that required two overnight stays. The plastic plate under the car came off in the first year too, and we dragged that along the PA Turnpike. I suppose it has been a solid car otherwise, but with some Cleveland weather corrosion under the hood, tires in need of replacement and what not, I'm not comfortable nursing the car anymore. We were already considering a replacement this year, but now it feels more urgent.

Right now we're considering four options. None of them are a Tesla, because as amazing as that is, we could take 30 cruises for the cost of that car, or 10 ten-day cruises around Europe. Experiences, not stuff, you know? The zero option is simply to do nothing, but that means buying tires and hoping nothing else breaks. Otherwise, we would like to lease because in two years, we suspect there will be better options for electric cars, which we're very interested in.

The first and safest option is to get a regular Prius. The fourth generation models are apparently delayed, supplies are a little higher than demand, and it's a known quantity. We easily get 46 to 48 mpg out of the V, so we know the regular will do mid-50's in flat Florida. It's totally unsexy, and we'd be that family with two hybrids, but we like our Prii.

Next there's the electric Nissan Leaf, which has been something of a great curiosity for me ever since I rented one on my interview trip to Orlando last year. It was so flipping fun to drive, and an 80 mile range is perfectly adequate for commuting. It's a poor man's tiny Tesla, full of gadgetry and wonder for a nerd like me. There was a lease deal last year, in the midst of our "financial quiet period" prior to buying the house, where we could probably have traded the Hyundai and have no payment and get money back. We might still be able to get such a deal if we can get enough for the trade, or at least get close.

And finally, at the completely unlikely end but still curious, we could look at a BMW i3. It too is all electric, fairly ugly, and apparently the kind of engineering you expect from BMW. It gets good reviews, but it's fairly expensive in typical option packages, so it's hard to convey value I think to someone who thinks the Nissan is pretty cool.. I'm not a car guy, but I could see how something like this would make me an electric car guy, with carbon fiber body parts and all. I just can't get over the price, as it would be an expensive indulgence. Again, I'll check it out, but I doubt it's a real option.

It would be neat to have a car that doesn't actually have a transmission.

You have a people problem, not a technology problem

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, August 20, 2014, 2:22 PM | comments: 0

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Things are going poorly in your world of software development, and someone makes a suggestion.

"If we just use [framework or technology here], everything will be awesome and we'll cure cancer!"

I like new and shiny things, and I like to experiment with stuff. I really do. But every time I hear something like the above statement, it's like nails on a chalkboard. You know, most of the NoSQL arguments over the last few years sound like that. It's not that the technology isn't useful or doesn't have a place, but when I'm looking at it from a business standpoint, I have a perfectly good database system, that happens to be relational, that could do the same thing, is installed on my servers, will scale just fine for the use case, and I employ people who already know how to use it. Maybe I have something in production that uses it wrong, but that isn't a technology problem.

I'm sure we're all guilty of this at various points in our career. We've all walked into situations where there is an existing code base, and we're eager to rewrite it all using the new hotness. It's true, there are often great new alternatives that you could use, but I find it very rare that the technologies in play are inadequate, they're just poorly used. That kind of thing happens because of inexperience, poor process, transient consultants or some combination of all of those things.

The poor implementation is only a part of the people problem. There is a big layer of failure often caused by process, which is, you know, implemented by people. For example (this is real life, from a previous job), you've come up with this idea of processing events in almost-real-time by queuing them and then handing them off to various arbitrary pieces of code to process, a service bus of sorts. So you look at your toolbox and say, "Well, our servers all run Windows, so MSMQ will be adequate for the queue job." Shortly thereafter, your infrastructure people are like, "No, we can't install that, sorry." And then your release people are like, "Oh, this is a big change, we can't do this." You bang your head against the wall, because all of this kingdom building, throw-it-over-the-wall, lack of collaboration is 100% people problems, not technology. Suggesting some other technology doesn't solve the problem, because it will manifest itself again in some other way.

What do you do about this? Change itself isn't that hard (if you really believe in the Agile Manifesto), but people changing is hard. If you have the authority, you remove the people who can't change. If you don't, then you have to endure a slower process of politicking to get your way. It's slow, but it works. You convince people, one at a time, to see things in a way that removes friction. Get enough people on board, and momentum carries you along so that everyone has to follow (or get off the boat). I knew a manager at Microsoft who was exceptionally good at this, and his career since has largely been to convince teams that there was a better way.

At a more in-the-weeds level, you get people engaged beyond code. One of the weakest skills people in the software development profession have is connection with the underlying business. Mentor them so that they understand. Explain why the tool you use is adequate when used in the right context and will save the business time and money, compared to a different technology that has more cost associated with learning new skills, licenses or whatever. It's like the urge to buy a new phone every year to have the new hotness... It's fine when it's your money, but not so much when it comes at the cost of your employer.

As technologists, yes, we want to solve problems with technology. Just don't let that desire obscure the fact that the biggest problems in our line of work are rarely technological in nature.

Back to school

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, August 19, 2014, 8:07 PM | comments: 0

Simon went back to school this week, and it occurs to me that I haven't really written about him in awhile. So here's the update.

About the time Simon's "special" preschool ended in the spring, he started to see an ABA therapist who came to our house twice a week, for two hours each time. This was entirely out of pocket (and the bills somehow haven't been making it here, so now, ouch), but it was worth every penny. It's not just Simon who benefits, but us as well. We're better equipped to understand how to relate to him, how to discipline him effectively and we've seen that he can focus on tasks. His wonderful therapist also saw a lot of things that indicated something I was hoping for, that despite the developmental delays, there's very obviously an intelligent little boy in there.

Simon also spent some time in a Montessori school, for three hours a session, a few times a week. He really enjoyed that, which doesn't surprise me, because the method is a combination of structure and self-directed learning. That's something I see in him that is very much me, that he often has no desire to do something just because someone expects it of him. It's a social contract he has little use for, and I know it made me a miserable child in school at times. If that carries over into grade school for him, I feel bad for what he's in for.

Now that the school year is back, he's actually going to school twice. In the morning, he goes to regular preschool, with 17 other kids. In the afternoon, he goes to the smaller (8 kids or less, I think it was) class with kids who have similar developmental issues. It's a little inconvenient, because Diana has to go out and get him in between for about 70 minutes. He's also tired out of his mind by the end of the day, and sometimes a hot mess. Still, the afternoon gets him the individual attention that certainly helps him, but the morning puts him in a much bigger social context, which I think he desperately needs.

Where is he? It's hard to say, because all I can do is compare to other kids, because I'm not a professional. On gross motor skills, he seems to have come along, but lacks confidence sometimes in things like jumping off of a two-foot platform. For fine motor, he's much better at using eating utensils, iPad games and dressing, but he clearly has a long way to go for writing. He knows his alphabet and a few words, but I don't think he's connecting them to what he can speak. His speech is the thing that seems the most behind, despite a ton of progress. That's the hardest thing for me... seeing the progress, but knowing he's not where his peers are.

Ultimately, my hope is that he can start kindergarten on time next year. My largely uninformed opinion is that it could go either way. I can see the reasoning to hold him back a year, but I also think that could backfire because the smart kid inside with the extreme pattern recognition and memory will get bored when he does catch up. Again, I can certainly relate to that.

Mobile ain't so great when you're small

posted by Jeff | Monday, August 18, 2014, 11:08 PM | comments: 0

I was doing one of my periodic check-ins last week, looking at traffic and ad revenue and all of that for the sites. There was a time that I did it almost daily, but obviously my priorities have changed a great deal over the years. I should probably look harder, because the story isn't great.

At the end of last year, the story was that traffic was up, but revenue was flat. That's not a great story to tell because it means more people doesn't equal more money. That's important to me this year because I've replaced equipment and I'm spending a little more on hosting as I've moved to a cloud provider (though this month should be less after optimizing some things). Sure, I do this stuff because I enjoy it, but as a technologist and someone who enjoys extra income, I certainly don't want to move in reverse.

I looked at the data more critically, and I'm finding that the reason for the slide isn't because of ad rates. Actually, for the ads being displayed, they're paying more than they did last year. The problem is that not as many people are seeing them. That's because many are viewing on mobile devices which don't display the ads, and others (on CoasterBuzz at least) are viewing the mobile interface, which has crappy mobile ads that don't pay much. If all things remained constant, and everyone was going to the site on a browser on their computer, ad revenue would likely be 80% higher. That's frustrating.

There are several things outside of my control. I can't stop people from using mobile devices, and I wouldn't want to. I can't control what the ad providers do either. This doesn't leave me with a lot of choices, so honestly I haven't thought much about what I can do. The irony is that I had a lot of pride around just how fast I was able to make the mobile version of the site. If your connection is solid, you can barely tell you're connecting to anything.

This is the point where I start to rant. I don't enjoy the app culture. I mean, do you remember the old days on your desktop computer (when you didn't have a laptop), when you had to buy software, install it, and when you finally had the Internet, you could install updates to the software that was broken. But when the Internet did come a long, so much of what you could do didn't require downloading anything at all. You just opened your browser and you did stuff. In fact, this is largely true today. Most of the "apps" you use are just Web sites. You never have to update them, you can share links to various points inside of them, and it's awesome.

But the phones (and tablets) are the old desktop model. You don't need CD-ROM's, but you do need to install stuff. Then when they realize it's broken the next day, there's an update and you have to get that before you can use it. And if you want to use it but don't have it, you have to go to an app store and download it first. You can't just type in a URL and go. You certainly can't share that "page" in the IMDB app with your friends either. This experience completely sucks, but it's mostly embraced by everyone. It's totally bizarre to me.

From a development standpoint, it's a mixed bag. I mean, professionally, if you can crank out mobile apps, it's an enormous career opportunity. But if you're largely independent or small, as is the case for me and these little sites, forget it. I don't have the time or money to build this stuff, to support two (or three) different platforms, plus the site. Even if you go hybrid with HTML-based apps, the last 10% of the effort ends up being specific to each platform, and takes the longest.

Businesses go there anyway, because it's where the people are, unfortunately. But I can tell you from experience that getting something on to a mobile platform is so much more expensive than the straight Web.

In a lot of ways, this is just further proof of what I've seen happening the last few years, that ad-supported content and community is not a very good game to be in. I just don't have any clear ideas about how to address the problem. Of course, if The New York Times doesn't know what to do, I think I get a pass.


posted by Jeff | Friday, August 15, 2014, 10:12 PM | comments: 0

I've been reading Roger Ebert's memoir Life Itself on and off for the past few months. While some parts are interesting, others seem like lots of extraneous detail that no one would care about. So while on a plane last weekend, I wondered how this flavor of narrative would go if I was writing it. The results are below. I don't know if it's something someone would read in a book or not. -J


I never quite knew how much my step-father made, and had even less context about how much that would be in context with other people. I never felt like we didn’t have “stuff” that we needed, but I do remember there being mentions of value when it came to camping. Ohio had quite a state park system, and many of them had campgrounds where we could land for a few bucks a day. In fact, I remember hearing David complain about it when one of the parks hit $10 per night. Whatever our income bracket was, it’s clear that camping made for a really economical vacation.

I remember going with my parents once before they divorced (before Jason was born, so I couldn’t have been older than 3). The standout memory of that trip was my dad comforting me because I thought I was in trouble for waking them up in the small tent. I remember playing with one of those toddler toys with the magnetic letters in that tent.

We started camping again after David and my mom were married. I’m certain that our first trip was to Alleghany State Park in Western New York. The massive park was actually divided into two parts, and the Red House Area was the better part for a number of reasons. The campground was hilly and heavily wooded, the road around the lake was designated as one-way, so you could freely bike around the inside lane. There was also a beautiful old lodge that had a little museum in it and a restaurant.

We only camped in site C-4. When you entered from the main road, you passed over a little concrete bridge and by the check-in station. Then it was up the hill slightly right. C-4 was great because there was so much room there. We didn’t start with a camper, but we soon had a pop-up, which didn’t take up a lot of room in the average campsite. We would always move the picnic table perpendicular to the camper, under the roll-out awning. That left room for us to put up a tent, a smelly old canvas thing, where we could hang out and put our toys. There was a tree toward the back, beyond the fire pit, ideal for chaining up the bikes at night and stringing up a line for hanging beach towels.

The real action was down toward the main road and the creek. Creeks there were not like those in Ohio, because they were so rocky. It was no trouble to find salamanders and other critters, and the water was so incredibly clear. There was also a big playground there, the best anywhere. They built playgrounds with big logs and old, giant truck tires. Again, the Ohio parks couldn’t touch such amenities. Even the signage fascinated me, because they used the big Century 21-style signs, with one slat of wood hanging for each item on the sign, and chain links in between.

When it rained, you could go into the nearby Salamanca, and maybe catch a movie. There wasn’t much to the town, but it had a museum for the Seneca Indians.

Camping was a bit of a routine, once the picnic table was in place. The cooler, stocked with generic soda cans of every flavor you can imagine, was positioned under one of the pull-out beds of the camper. Wood, usually purchased at the camp store for that campground, was piled neatly near the fire pit and covered with a tarp. The second camper we had required a hand crank to raise the roof, and I would help with that after getting the bikes off of the roof. Mom had a specific menu planned out, and it generally included packaged food side dishes that were easy to cook in boiled water. That water had to come from a tap somewhere in the campground and into our container. That was another perk of C-4: The tap was right there.

Arriving was not a relaxing process. David would be kind of crabby, and he would generally sweat a lot (sweatband around his mostly bald head), and he would be breathing heavy to the point where I worried that he was genuinely at risk of a heart attack. Generally Jason and I would be dismissed soon enough and not be seen again until dinner. We would either take off on the bikes, or take my boom box down to the playground to hang out.

The Ohio State Parks had a junior naturalist program back in the days when they were well funded. The naturalists did all kinds of programs to teach kids (and adults) about the environment and the plants and critters that lived there. The program involved completing a number of different sessions, and they gave you little patches, four of them to match the big round one, and I remember getting them all. I still have them, in fact. By the time I got the last one, I remember having a bit of a crush on the very young naturalist at that last park.

My change in camping agenda was, not surprisingly, well aligned with my age. In the early days, it was all about those playgrounds, or exploring the woods. There were no shortages of trails to follow. By the time I was in middle school, the emphasis had shifted a bit to meeting girls. I had no idea what the outcome was supposed to be, I just know that I liked pretty girls and wanted to be around them. I remember once, on a trip to a park near Zanesville, meeting Rachael and Jennifer and hanging out with them for a few days, after grade 9, I think. We wrote letters back and forth for a year or two after that.

One of the things that annoyed my parents is that Jason and I liked to be inside of the camper. Think about it though, a pop-up camper was like a blanket fort that you towed with your car, and that’s awesome. One of my favorite things was unzipping all of the windows around the end bed, and taking an afternoon nap there. It was so peaceful and the breeze felt wonderful. Sometimes I would put headphones on and listen to some crappy local radio station, or maybe cassettes, and soak in nature without it biting me. That was a great feeling.

In high school, I got into bicycling in a meaningful way, in part because my dad encouraged it. He was doing it as well, and we would do organized rides of varying lengths (some of which I did not finish). This meant that for camping trips, I would take it upon myself to ride where ever I could, even if it was outside of the park. There was one in particular that had a lake, and it was about 20 miles around. I got into the habit of time trialing myself, to see how fast I could get around. It was the first time I really managed to challenge myself in some kind of athletic endeavor.

By the time I got to college, I wasn’t much a part of the camping trips. I do remember one to the nearby park, Findley State Park, where I helped mom out to the park one morning (to get a good site), and followed behind in my car. David would come out after work. Mom decided to go through a beverage drive through to pick a few things up, and turning into it, she completely nailed the corner of the camper on the entry way to the drive through. It was not pretty. That day was the first day I drove the car with the camper attached, and because my stepdad wasn’t a great driver, I took it upon myself to back the thing in to the site. I think it was the first time I really thought about my parents getting older, and me being a grown up.

Pissing excellence

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, August 13, 2014, 7:43 PM | comments: 0

I don't remember where or when, but I recall seeing a guy with a T-shirt that said quite plainly, "I piss excellence." I giggled at the time because, well, it's funny to me. Juvenile humor has its place in the spectrum of giggles.

I'm not perfect, but I try to be excellent to the best of my ability. I try to be a part of a way forward, not be intellectually lazy, give as much as I can, stand up against oppression... you know, all of the things that are "good." I'm lucky enough to work with people who are good at what they do, and that makes me particularly happy. I have friends and acquaintances that are changing the world.

Unfortunately, while the Internet does in theory show great promise for making the world better and spreading knowledge (and I do believe to an extent it has), it's also full of stupidity, or anti-excellence, if you will. It's no secret that this frustrates the shit out of me. People don't want to understand science, hear differing opinions, gain a deeper understanding of history and politics or otherwise soak up knowledge, even though it's all readily available.

The go-to reaction to this is to bitch and moan about it. I don't think that I'm better than the people practicing anti-excellence, but it's also ridiculous that wanting to piss excellence is somehow being elitist or something. To me it's just wanting to be a part of a functioning society that can get past blowing itself up.

Complaining isn't excellent, and that's the thing I find that I have to work on the most. It's not easy because I'm completely impatient. Some people don't want to be excellent, and I suppose those people can't be helped. But I believe, perhaps naively, that people want to be better. I just don't know how to approach them. I don't want them to simply accept my word for anything, I want them to learn and make learning a priority. Being excellent isn't about being the smartest person in the room, it's about figuring out stuff you don't know and using that to better the world. The scope is unimportant, whether you're giving a high-five to a kid who did some simple task for the first time or curing cancer.

Keeping the deadly secret

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, August 13, 2014, 10:45 AM | comments: 0

Much has been written about the suicidal death of Robin Williams. I don't need to be another talking head in the noise, but it makes me sad as anyone to see someone who deeply impacted our culture pass like that. By most accounts, he was a good man.

What frustrates me the most is that our society is more concerned with curing baldness or getting unnaturally white teeth than it is recognizing and talking about issues of depression and mental health. We seek help for aches and pains, but not for problems within our heads.

I still think about my friend Mary, who took her own life a little over two years ago. If it weren't for the candid conversation we had more than a decade before that about her struggle with eating disorder and mental health, I would have never known she had a problem. That's really the trick though... people need to be willing to seek help, but you can't force them. To that end, I do think it's important that we culturally change the conversation so it's OK to talk about mental health, just as it is OK to talk about cancer or heart disease.