That cliche about needing pain for pleasure might be true

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 21, 2014, 11:20 PM | comments: 0

With Thanksgiving this coming week, I think it's safe to say we're in "the holidays" for this year. With that season comes the inevitable flood of nostalgia, and probably some things you'd rather forget.

I've always had a complicated relationship with the season, to say the least. While there are many great feelings recalling childhood, there's a whole lot in the middle that wasn't so great. I try not to dwell on the worst parts, but they're there. I've had a great many triumphs as well, and when I take stock, believe me when I say that I've had an amazing life thus far.

But it does beg the question, is the old cliche about needing exceptional pain as a frame of reference to appreciate the good times true? In other words, do I think my life is amazing because at times it was total shit?

I think pain and suffering is overrated, but I can see how this arrangement might be a real thing. I often tell people that I've managed to have four truly great love stories in my life (well, maybe five, but I'm still not sure if the first one counts), but I can see how that might be in part because of the heartbreak and pain I've felt in other situations.

No matter what though, I think the pain can serve as a reminder for how durable you've managed to be in life. It can be hard to have that perspective, but it's a lot like my philosophy where you have to take loss as a chance to see how good something was, and smile and be happy you had those times.

It's probably OK to quietly revel in your own awesomeness for a bit. You probably earned it.

The great Azure outage of 2014

posted by Jeff | Thursday, November 20, 2014, 1:46 PM | comments: 3

We had some downtime on Tuesday night for our sites, about two hours or so. On one hand, November is the slowest month for the sites anyway, but on the flip side, we pushed a new version of PointBuzz that I wanted to monitor, and I did post a few photos from IAAPA that were worthy of discussion. It doesn't matter either way, because the sites were down and there was nothing I can do about it because of a serious failure in protocol with Microsoft's Azure platform.

I'm going to try and be constructive here. I'll start by talking about the old days of dedicated hardware. Back in the day, if you wanted to have software running on the Internet, you rented servers. Maybe you had virtual networks between machines, but you still had physical and specific hardware you were running stuff on. If you wanted redundancy, you paid a lot more for it.

I switched to the cloud last summer, after about 16 years in different hosting situations. At one point I had a T-1 and servers at my house (at a grand per month, believe it or not that was the cheapest solution). Big data centers and cheap bandwidth eventually became normal, and most of that time I was spending $200 or less per month. Still, as a developer, it still required me to spend a lot of time on things that I didn't care about, like patching software, maintaining backups, configuration tasks, etc. It also meant that I would encounter some very vanilla failures, like hard disks going bad or some routing problem.

Indeed, for many years I was at SoftLayer, which is now owned by IBM and was formerly called The Planet. There was usually one instance of downtime every other year. I had a hard drive failure once, a router's configuration broke in a big way, and one time there was even a fire in the data center. Oh, and one time I was down about five hours as they physically moved my aging server between locations (I didn't feel like upgrading... I was getting a good deal). In every case, either support tickets were automatically generated by their monitoring system, or I initiated them (in the case of the drive failure). There was a human I could contact and I knew someone was looking into it.

I don't like downtime, but I accept that it will happen sometimes. I'm cool with that. In the case of SoftLayer, I was always in the loop and understood what was going on. With this week's Azure outage, that was so far from the case that it was inexcusable. They eventually wrote up an explanation about what happened. Basically they did a widespread rollout of an "improvement" that had a bug, even though they insist that their own protocol prohibits this.

But it was really the communication failure that frustrated most people. Like I said, I think most people can get over a technical failure, not liking it, but dealing with it. What we got was vague Twitter posts about what "may" affect customers, and a dashboard that was completely useless. It said "it's all good" when it clearly wasn't. Not only that, but if you then describe that there's a problem with blob storage but declare websites and VM's as all green, even though they depend on storage, you're doing it wrong. Not all customers would know that. If a dependency is down, then that service is down too.

The support situation is also frustrating. Basically, there is no support unless you have a billing issue or you pay for it. Think about that for a minute. If something bad happens beyond your control, you have no recourse unless you pay for it. Even cable companies have better support than that (though not by much).

Microsoft has to do better. I think what people really wanted to hear was, "Yeah, we messed up really bad, not just in service delivery, but in the way we communicated." The support situation has to change too. I have two friends now that had VM's more or less disappear, and they couldn't get them back. They had to buy support, which then failed to "find" them. Talk about insult to injury.

Hopefully this is just a growing pain, but a significant problem can't go down like this again, from a communication standpoint.

Old houses that aren't old

posted by Jeff | Sunday, November 16, 2014, 9:04 PM | comments: 0

We've been addicted lately to watching Rehab Addict on HGTV. Sure, part of it is because Nicole Curtis is extraordinarily charming and legit, but also because the show is more like a documentary than a reality show. I think it might be perceived that I'm a hater of old stuff, but that isn't the case.

Yes, we bought a completely new house, a "McMansion" if you will. It's completely non-extraordinary, aside from the fact that it's ours and no one else ever lived there. There are some details in certain places that certainly required some craftsmanship (where we spent extra), but otherwise it's pretty much a production house. It's not like the million-dollar place down the street with stairs carved out of reclaimed wood from an old castle in Germany.

My objection to older houses is a combination of the energy efficiency (or the lack thereof) and the drafty nature of them. I grew up in a house that was a hundred years old, and it was always cold, even with space heaters upstairs. I recall Diana's house was just freezing for reasons I couldn't even explain. You could feel cold air blowing on you.

But the show has demonstrated that a combination of restoration and some clever design can make an old house special. It often requires stripping it down to the studs, mind you, but it can obviously be done. I'm amazed at how much stuff she can repurpose. That process can in some cases result in wins like modern insulation. Certainly the geography matters in those cases. I guess the point is that an old house isn't that old when it has been renovated.

The biggest difference in old versus new really does come down to craftsmanship. It's very obvious to me after building two houses that you get what you pay for. I think the biggest issue in the production house business is that the skill of the guys doing the rough trades is almost always suspect, and that you have to serve as the QA department for the builder is ridiculous. On the plus side, much of the framing is done by machines off-site, which you can trust to get the math right.

A hundred years ago, things like wood detail and tile were done with great care. Now, not so much, unless you pay more for something nicer. When I look at our house, the only things that feel "nicer" are the things that were extra (the frameless shower door and some molding on the cabinets is all we really did outside of flooring).

The long and short of it is that an old house doesn't have to suck if you're willing to put some time, love and money into it. Lots of money, I think.

The gradual reinvention of PointBuzz

posted by Jeff | Saturday, November 15, 2014, 10:46 PM | comments: 0

PointBuzz has been with me since 1998, only then it was called Guide To The Point. Eventually I connected with Walt, who started Virtual Midway in 2000. On May 12, 2004, we launched the joint effort that is PointBuzz. It was a good match, because he's a great designer and enjoys creating content, while I love the process of writing software for online community.

You would think that splitting the duties would mean it was easier to maintain the site, but sadly that's not the case. You know, day jobs, families and stuff. We didn't launch the second version of the site until December 16, 2007. The new version we're kind of calling v2.5, because it's mostly just a port to new tools with a new skin. It's not so much new features. But yikes... November 15, 2014, almost seven years.

From a professional standpoint, the most striking thing about this reinvention is how much things have changed in that seven years. These days we're using Git, and the use of MVC is making it exceptionally easy to collaborate on our respective parts. Instead of going for a big bang moment, we just wanted to get it out there and start iterating over it.

From a geek standpoint, consider that the old site was built on WebForms, the forum version was v8 (I'm on the v13 now), and it was really hard to change. Now we're using MVC as the presentation framework, really simple Entity Framework for data, and most importantly, we're using Bootstrap as the front end framework. I wrote before about why I hated all the frameworks that came before, but having completely overhauled the forums with it, I'm sold. It's not too heavy (though not light). That you can realistically do a responsive design without a lot of extra work is the win.

Next up at my end is to finish the Q&A functionality for the forum. There is a bunch of back-end stuff I'd like to do as well, but I've gotta ship v13 eventually. It has been awhile.

Bring on the holidays!

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 14, 2014, 12:53 PM | comments: 0

I'm ready. I don't care if it's mid-November, I'm ready to start celebrating, because I've earned it. Let me get this out of the way, I'm referring to "the holidays" because that includes Thanksgiving and the New Year. So before you get your Christmas panties in a bunch, know that I'm referring to the entire season. That, and just because I celebrate Christmas doesn't mean everyone else does.

We've had quite a bit of holiday travel and festivities in the rotation for the last several years. We've spent days up with my in-laws in the mountains of North Carolina, hosted and went to various dinners, assembled Lego trains around trees, witnessed epic light displays... we get our merry on. This year we'll put up a tree in the fifth house in as many years. We'll also add a quick Christmas cruise into the mix, because that's how we roll down here.

Yes, the retail blitz is absurd, and gets longer every year. Honestly we don't buy much stuff anyway. Experiences not stuff is our thing. But still, I don't see anything wrong with six weeks of awesome. We need it this year. I wouldn't characterize it as an unhappy time, but it certainly has had its challenges.

Bring it, holiday cheer.

Snow and moving

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 14, 2014, 10:53 AM | comments: 0

Every single year, the news (and everyone on Facebook) announces the first snow fall as if it were completely unexpected.

Every. Single. Year.

I thought snow was pretty cool when I was a kid. My fascination with it was lessened when I had to start walking to class through it, and when I started driving to work in it. By the time I had my own driveway and sidewalk, I was done with it completely, even with a snowblower.

Snow was one of the many reasons I was ready to move in 2009. Cleveland was generally in the shitter in terms of economy and jobs in my line of work. Seeing so many friends move and find bigger and better things heavily influenced me. Diana had lived in a number of places as well. It was just time.

Seattle was awesome. I miss it every day. It really opened my eyes in a way that I desperately needed, and should have had years before that. Way back in 1998 I went to Portland for a conference, and it was my first time out west. All I could think was, "Wow, these are my people, and this place is awesome." It took a lot of life shaking things up, 11 years, before I actually lived in the Pacific Northwest. Today I talk with friends who have moved around, and we're amazed that we ever lived in Brunswick, Ohio. It's not that we're judgmental in those discussions, but wonder more if people realize that there might be something more out there.

We went back to Cleveland and didn't last even two years, and most of that was because of winter. It's not just the cold winters keeping you stuck inside, it's the flat, gray, featureless sky that dominates your vision for weeks at a time. Say what you will about Seattle's perpetual winter mist, the sun still comes out almost every day for a little while, there are evergreens everywhere, and there are goddamn mountains with snow on them everywhere you look.

Central Florida is not as pretty as the Pacific Northwest, but what it lacks in scenery it makes up for in sun and blue skies. My mom told me when she moved here that she was amazed at how much better she felt in the general sense. Given the fact that depression is an issue on that side of the family, I totally get what she meant. Seasonal affective disorder kicked my ass every year of my life living in the Midwest. It's just awful. I never had it in Seattle, and I certainly don't in Florida.

I'm always reminded of the movie Orange County, where the main character spends his senior year plotting how to get the hell out of town (and dating Schuyler Fisk, lucky bastard). An author that he admires and finally meets talks about the conflict that people have with the place they're born. That's me. I don't hate Cleveland, I just don't want to live there right now. I certainly don't want to deal with snow.

You don't know Orlando

posted by Jeff | Thursday, November 13, 2014, 5:30 PM | comments: 0

We've had a couple members of our leadership team from Tampa in the Orlando office in the last few weeks, which inevitably leads to lunch out. Today, again, I the conversation turned to how fantastic Orlando is for all of the reasons most people don't know. When I landed here a little over a year ago, I was oblivious as well. Now I feel like it's a little secret that should be kept, maybe.

If you come to town as a tourist, you probably know 528, a few miles of I-4 and I-Drive. If you're really adventurous, maybe you know a few miles of the coast (Kennedy and the cruise lines), and maybe Legoland or Busch Gardens Tampa. That was probably my limitation as well when I moved here, and working for a theme park company may have even reinforced that. But I did obviously land in a place to live that was away from all that, and you have to branch out if you're going to live in any area. Don't get me wrong, I love me some theme parks, and it was a consideration for moving here, but it's a fraction of what Orlando is about.

This job opened my eyes quite a bit, in part because our office (where I got twice a week) is right in the middle of everything, downtown. Yes, Orlando has a downtown. The arena is two blocks away, the mixed-development revival of Church St. is a block, across the street is the amazing new Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts, Lake Eola is diagonally a few blocks... it's really fantastic. I'm told it's not a great place to live yet, because you need to actually get out of downtown for regular retail needs, but as a place to work and play, it's really fantastic.

In fact, you'd never know that the area was so in the same city as the attractions. There's a sense of an up-and-coming city when you're downtown, with a mix of start-ups and technology companies, as well as the typical big financial firms and such. Of course, a world-class performing arts facility is important to us, but I look at how those places benefit Cleveland and Seattle and I see how important it is to the general atmosphere and vibe in a downtown area.

There are a lot of areas that are uniquely "old Florida," as a friend calls them. I'm not entirely sure how you describe that... it's kind of a mix of old south, 60's modern, but not tacky. You find a lot of great old houses, family businesses and restaurants that have survived for decades, and a whole lot of money. Not sure what these folks do for a living, but they're well-off.

It's all a nice surprise to me. I've enjoyed getting more involved with local business and non-profits, as well as our local software development community. I'm guilty of seeing the area as one-dimensional, and in some ways relieved that it's not.

A fun day to be a developer

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, November 12, 2014, 10:25 PM | comments: 0

Today was a great day to be in my line of work, especially with the tools and the stack that I work with.

At a personal level, we reached a spot with my project at work where we're nearly ready to ship, and by most objective accounts, it has been a successful project. Being my first with this company, it's a bit of a relief to get that done. While I am in that place that technical leaders like to wallow in a bit, looking for the things I could have done better, it feels good to get 'er done. I had an amazing team to work with, and that makes a huge difference.

My partner for PointBuzz made the suggestion last week that we should just bang out a minimum viable port of the site to all of the latest frameworks and tools so we're not stuck forever in 2007. I was already pushing the forum app in that direction, and as it turns out, I had done a bunch of groundwork on the technical side. He checked in a bunch of code today, I did more backend stuff, and what do you know... we're in an enormously good place. I can't even put into words how great that feels.

If that weren't enough, Microsoft went into detail on its vision for the next version of everything, and it's awesome. At the top of the excitement is that pretty much everything will be open source. That matters because it opens more doors to using skills on more platforms. Not only that, but things will be more modular and easier to maintain (hopefully).

Of course, all of this new stuff means I need to find time to play with it, which is pretty scarce, but I'll get there. In the mean time, I need to put the wraps on v13 of POP Forums, which will add Q&A style forums. I need to get those up and running on a real site so I can validate they work as expected.

When I was a kid, we played with dirt

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, November 11, 2014, 11:07 PM | comments: 0

We were out for dinner the other day, and we busted out a phone to keep Simon busy with a number-matching game. Ordinarily, we're pretty good about device-appropriate time. We believe that it's shitty to see a family at dinner or at a theme park all heads-down staring at a screen. Talk to each other, dammit! In this case though, on a non-therapy night and after he was getting restless, we relented if only to selfishly allow us to have a conversation.

Our waiter was dropping off some bread, and Simon looked up and told him, "I did it!" He had finished a set of numbers and was pretty proud of himself. The waiter turned as he was leaving and said, "When I was a kid, we played with... dirt."

That was admittedly a little silly, but he reminded me of something that has been on my mind a lot lately. We live in the future, and we completely take it for granted. I always bring up my little spiel about how, "We carry super computers in our pockets connected to all of the knowledge of the world." Seriously, that's not over-stating it. Think about that, and put yourself back in 1994 for a moment. Shit, put yourself in 2006.

Similarly, Diana was reading a book on her Kindle. This tiny, thin little thing holds countless books and sucks more out of the air. It's a goddamn miracle. All I can think about is the heavy, $100 books I had to buy in college, carrying them around. Now you could have a tablet weighing a few ounces (that you can "write" on no less) that holds all of those books, and also let you send email to the professor, order a pizza and watch last night's Tonight Show.

My kid will have no idea about life 20 years ago. When he's a teenager, I'm going to drag his ass on the Carousel of Progress at Magic Kingdom (partly as payback for dragging us on it) so I can beat it into him how slow progress was in the 80 years prior to the last 20.

It's almost infuriating to read about how some 24-year-old hipster was being dramatic about losing his shiny new iPhone at the club. Oh no, you can't take a selfie with a beer in your hand at 3 a.m.? I'd be more impressed if you expressed dismay over your inability to cite analyst predictions on whether or not Tesla can really meet Model III price points given expected battery production and costs in 2017. I'm not saying people can't have fun, but come on... look at what you have!

I don't expect that Simon will play with dirt, and I'm not going to prevent him from playing video games or listening to heavy metal of whatever the equivalent of Baby Boomer fears end up being. Hopefully he'll still ride bikes, catch frogs and do all of that stuff. But I won't let him squander the sheer amazingness that technology enables.

Political clarity resulting in apathy

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, November 11, 2014, 10:21 PM | comments: 0

I can't tell you how often I see something political, realize that I have a pretty clear opinion about it, and decide to completely disregard it. My life is full enough right now between home life and work that I just don't have the mental bandwidth to write about it.

I think there are a lot of other reasons, too, for my apathy, chief among them being the divisive shits on the Internet that insist on picking a side. It's completely infuriating. People treat real issues like sports, where the only thing that matters is that you're against the other team. Then if you try to interject something vaguely intelligent into the conversation, about how both sides have it wrong, you're viewed as some kind of uppity freak show. I mean, we have a president who hasn't really done anything, and an opposition that opposes his inaction with their own inaction. How is anyone satisfied with that?

Apparently pretty satisfied, because only 36% of voters actually showed up this month. That's pathetic.

The weird thing is that, if you really look at American life objectively, things are going a lot better than they were a half-dozen years ago. Unemployment is at its lowest rate since 2008, inflation is relatively stable, domestic energy production is high and our gas prices are way down, the NASDAQ index has doubled in five years, home values have been headed up for a few years, and even the domestic auto industry has made a comeback. Things aren't perfect, mind you, but despite government's inability to do anything, things are certainly improving. I do think that things are different, but instead of complaining about it, we should be focusing on how we adapt and thrive in an evolving economic landscape. The service economy isn't going to just revert to a manufacturing economy, for example. College alone isn't going to score you six figures. The lottery still won't make you rich.

Despite this, I remain optimistic. I still think we have unprecedented opportunity, in many ways enabled by technology. I fully intend to be a part of that. Part of that means staying involved and engaged, no matter how difficult it can be at times.

We're due for new phones

posted by Jeff | Sunday, November 9, 2014, 1:32 PM | comments: 0

Our two years are up on the contract for our current phones, so we're free to get something else. We'll stay on AT&T because I'm still getting a significant corporate discount, and on top of that we have a friend in our plan that further reduces the cost.

Let me first stay that it's completely strange how people already take it for granted that they can carry a computer in their pocket connected to the knowledge of the world. When the first iPhone came out in 2007, arguably the first smart phone that demonstrated the potential and ubiquity of this connectivity, we were just taking for granted the Internet on laptops over WiFi. I do feel like the potential is enormously squandered over stupid shit like selfies and food porn, but I certainly understand how it has enabled entirely new ways of doing practically everything.

Right now, I'm using a Lumia 920, and Diana is using a cheap, $50 no-contract Lumia 520 because her 820 took a dive a few months ago and the screen broke. (It wasn't the outer glass, it was the LCD screen under it, believe it or not.) We're still enormously happy with Windows Phone as a platform. The "app gap" has mostly closed in the last two years, but it really doesn't matter because we're not really app people beyond perhaps Facebook (Diana also uses Instagram). I think the reason we find it most useful is live tiles. When we turn on the phone, we can quickly see everything that interests us, like the current temperature, what's on the calendar, and who triggered a notification for messaging or FB or whatever. I just can't see going back to the icon grid that is iOS (and to a lesser degree, Android).

Cameras are still a priority for us. The 920 has been completely fantastic in that respect. Exterior photos are generally amazing, and interior are solid if you take a little care in how you expose. The only thing that keeps it from being as good as my little (aging) Canon S95 is the lack of a physical zoom, but being on a phone it kind of makes up for that. The competition has come a long way in terms of cameras, and iPhone in particular (the big one at least) has finally come to a place that doesn't suck. Ditto for many of the high end Samsung phones.

I suspect I'll get the Lumia 830 as my next phone. It's a slight upgrade in terms of the camera, and similar hardware otherwise. It's not expensive, and I can put an SD card into it so I can just dump all music on to it instead of having to decide what to put on there. It still does wireless charging as well, which seemed like a silly feature, but now I'd hate to not have it. It doesn't appear that anything higher end is coming to AT&T, and honestly I'm not even sure that it matters. It's funny how outside of the cameras, phone specs are mostly unimportant to me.

As for Diana, that's hard to say. The 830 would be a logical upgrade for her, but she's not a fan of the larger size. They don't really make smaller phones anymore, so that puts her in a weird place. The camera on her "burner" phone is awful, so I don't think she wants to hold on to that one for the distance.

Florida cold owns you

posted by Jeff | Sunday, November 2, 2014, 3:50 PM | comments: 0

As you might expect, I was defiant when we moved to Florida. "I'm gonna wear shorts every single day no matter what!" Last winter, I more or less did that, except for the day we had in the 30's. That was freakish.

Something happened over the summer though. Granted, it was a pretty brutal summer. Normally there are little breaks from the super heat, and you rarely see anything higher than 92, but July and September were tough. So when we started to finally see some reprieve toward the end of October, "jacket weather" was anything under 72.

Yesterday we skipped the open window weather and last night went to the turn on heat weather. The overnight low was mid-40's. During the day, it barely made it over 60 and it felt downright chilly with pants, a long-sleeve T-shirt and a hoodie on. It's true, Florida has turned us soft.

Compared this to Cleveland, where you bust out shorts every spring when it gets over 50. Or in Seattle, you just kind of wing it year-round because the total range of temperature isn't very large anyway.

Revisiting auto energy costs

posted by Jeff | Friday, October 31, 2014, 9:43 PM | comments: 0

With a couple of months in the books since replacing Diana's Hyundai Elantra with a Nissan Leaf, we have better data about the energy costs. We're driving each car about 1,000 miles per month. That struck me as insane, but it went up after school started since Diana has to do two round trips. Additionally, I'm generally going to Tampa twice a month for work. Next year, Simon will presumably take the bus both ways with no mid-day break, but Diana is also ramping up on part-time work. I go into the office downtown twice a week, but do lunch out some days as well.

The Hyundai was reasonably fuel efficient (around 30 mpg), but compared to the Prius V (generally 46 mpg) used more gas. The last few months, the spend was averaging $100 vs. $62. I never realized that we were spending that much on gas! Obviously the $100 expense has gone away and has been replaced with electricity.

How much juice? Most of our charging happens at the parking garage at work, or at GKTW where Diana volunteers. The charge station at GKTW is free. After two months we have averaged $16 each month, and the prices are .13/kWh. Or a crazy .35 and minimum $1.50 at Epcot, but we only used that once. Charging at home is a little more tricky to calculate, especially with overall consumption going down with the temperatures. That said, I kind of kept track in my head, and guestimate about 40 kWh at home, and that's at .135/kWh or $5.40.

In other words, our energy cost went from $100 per month to just $21. That works out to almost a grand over the course of the year. Not too shabby.

Growing up isn't good for your imagination

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, October 29, 2014, 9:55 PM | comments: 0

In watching Simon grow up, it has been fun to watch him start to engage in imaginative play. Sure, it's coming a little later due to his ASD, but it's there, and it's fascinating to watch. I suppose most of your imagination is derivative in your earlier years, but there comes a time when you start to come up with more stuff on your own. Sure, it's always colored by life experience, but the "spark" can still conjure some pretty crazy stuff.

I think it peaks in your late high school or college years. It's a great time of your life because you don't really know constraints. Anything is possible because life hasn't really taught you otherwise. As the years pass, inhibition starts to grow due to failure, social contracts, perception of risk, knowledge of consequences, etc. I suspect your brain continues to imagine things, but we might not notice as much because we quickly cast aside those ideas that pop up as impractical.

Simon gets ideas and wants to try them out, because he doesn't know any better. He sees a box of Duplo, and he wants me to build a bunch of stuff because he doesn't realize there aren't that many blocks, and that they only fit together in limited ways. Even the fact that he can't himself manifest the things he imagines does not deter him. That's fascinating to think about... a child at that age is not deterred by little details like reality.

I hate that we lose that. With the Internet making it possible to reconnect with people after decades, sometimes I'm disappointed when it seems like, well, they settled into a comfortable routine and they're happy. I can't judge, certainly, as I've had more ups and downs than I can count in every aspect of my life. But I wonder if they can even imagine something happier, more awesome or world changing.

Does it matter? It might. I think a lot of people see the world as an awful and dark place. Imagination combined with the will to make something happen is an inspiring force that lifts people up. Whether it's philanthropy, our work, our role as parents or as elected officials, putting aside our constraints and letting our minds run wild can only lead to great things. When it's time to add the constraints back in over the things we imagine, then we're forced to be even more creative and solve problems. The constraints shouldn't make our imagination irrelevant, they should only make it work harder.

Inflexibility and meltdowns

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, October 28, 2014, 8:34 PM | comments: 0

It's certainly not a game that you keep score in, but all things considered, we've been somewhat lucky with Simon's ASD symptoms. A lot of the struggles that you read about, with lack of eye contact and speech, a lack of articulated emotion, etc., are not his issues. He's very social, if gravitating toward adults, and polite almost to a fault. He's pretty good at queueing too, which is a good thing given his already intense love for familiar roller coasters.

But in the past few weeks, Simon has exhibited a great deal of inflexibility over things that don't seem that important. It's the behavior that falls into the stereotypical repetitive and mundane bucket. To the casual observer, he seems like he gets upset just because he isn't getting his way. In reality, the issue is that his brain can't reconcile the variation on established routine and protocol. The reaction is intense.

On Sunday, I took Simon to Magic Kingdom while Diana was working, because one of my old friends from a previous job was in town with his family. The theme of issues at the park is that he needs to be in "number 1" for whatever we're getting on. It starts with the monorail: He needs to sit in the first car. Similarly, he wants to sit in the front seat of rides that have several rows. A lot of parks are not flexible, in the interest of capacity, but unfortunately Disney wants to blow pixie dust up your you-know-what at every turn. Simon is bold enough to just ask for a front seat, and they give it to him before we can ask them not to.

Sometimes things go so quickly that there isn't time for him to even react. We were rushed into the 4th row of a Barnstormer train, for example, so he never had a chance to freak out. On the other hand, he got to a ride op for Pooh and they put us in the front at his request. At the end of our three-hour tour, however, things fell apart when we went back to the parking tram. We refuse to sit in the front because of the noise in close proximity to the tractor. We often sit in the back so he can talk to the spieler though, and he enjoys that. When we got back to the transportation center, there was a nearly full tram about ready to leave, so we jumped into the middle just in time.

The meltdown came fast and without any possibility of consolation. All I could really do is offer comfort, but he wasn't having it. You can't yell at him because in his mind, he isn't doing anything wrong. The only thing he understands is that a routine or convention isn't being followed, and he doesn't know what to do with that.

This isn't the first time I've dealt with this kind of situation, and Simon's therapist says that essentially he needs to work though it so he can "practice" flexibility away from the familiar pattern.

Diana had a similar episode with him today. This one isn't new either. Because Simon essentially goes to school twice, she has to take him out for a bit for lunch. One of the places in the rotation is a Subway, where he has his sights on a specific table. Today that table was occupied, and it was a throw-down meltdown scene to behold. Similarly, she did her best to help him but be firm, to give him the "practice" to adjust. These situations are emotionally exhausting for us as well, because no one likes to see their kid suffer like that.

Oh, and Diana had her first encounter with an asshole third party observer. A woman in the Subway told her that if it was her she'd hit Simon or some such nonsense. I can't fucking stand people like that. They have no context about the situation, and it's none of their business.

The day the elevator was parked between floors

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 26, 2014, 11:36 PM | comments: 0

A very long time ago, the radio/TV department at Ashland University did a televised auction every other year. If you've ever watched a local PBS station, you probably know what this is. Donors send in all kinds of stuff, from small items to big ticket items like cars, and people call in bids. Some items go in brief, hour-long auctions, others go the length of the event. I don't know if they all do it, but ours was based largely on what they do at WVIZ in Cleveland.

The last auction, ever, was sadly in 1993. I couldn't tell you how much money we raised, but we scored a lot of shiny new and awesome equipment because of it. In fact, for my senior year, we had a digital "cart" system that stored audio on a hard disk and played it back instantly. Trust me, that was a big deal in 1994, and a lot of commercial stations didn't even have that yet.

For us, as students, it was a huge undertaking. All of our departmental classes were cancelled that week, and even some professors outside of the department gave us a break. The fraternities and sororities chipped in, some of the sports teams... it was really fascinating to see so much of the campus come together. An entire hallway was blocked off and locked up as our "warehouse." Most of my duties were fulfilled prior to the start, so I would just pick up shifts directing, running camera or whatever. I think I did phones once, too.

All of those long hours led to a lot of shenanigans. Like any good college campus, this one also had its legends. One of ours was that the ghost of Hugo Young, for which the theater in the building was named for, haunted the building. I don't know if the guy was even dead, or what his significance was, but whatever, it was a good story. It was also a great excuse to do some immature things.

So a friend of mine had an idea, and I was game. Would it be possible to park the freight elevator between floors, and get out of it? She wasn't drunk or anything, and neither was I, but by that point we sure as hell were tired. I can't imagine the building was any older than 30 years at the time, but that elevator was scary as hell.

We went the slow route between the first and second floor, and pulled the e-stop. It stopped with an enormous thud. The rest is fuzzy. I think we had something to stand on in the elevator, and we popped the hatch. Clearly both of us got out, and we exited the shaft on the second floor. At this point we had many good laughs and enjoyed the camaraderie of the situation.

The problem with a prank like this is that you can't really tell anyone about it, but at least we could tell each other. The elevator stayed there for a few days. In retrospect, I hope we didn't have any classmates with accessibility issues, because that building was not ADA friendly, and there was no other way to get to the third floor.

We had our secret, and there was a lot of gossip about it the next week. I suggested it must have been the ghost of Hugo Young, and that stuck for awhile with a few people, until it became just another meaningless and forgotten college prank.

The "Jenny" situation

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 26, 2014, 11:11 PM | comments: 0

OK, time to share one of those college stories. This one is about a girl, who was not actually named Jenny. I choose the name more because it's very common among women my age. Oddly enough, I've had many friends named Jennifer, maybe close to a dozen, but I have not ever seen any of them naked. I don't think I've even kissed a Jennifer.

The start to my sophomore year was kind of rough. Actually, the whole year was rough, for a lot of reasons I'm sure I'll write about eventually. It started about two weeks before classes, as I arrived for residence life training. I was going to be an RA in a building that had a poor reputation (which is relative, as Ashland University is hardly known as a party school), and as a sophomore no less. The circle of people I knew my first year wasn't one I was really tight with, so in some ways I felt like I was starting over. About that time I also learned that my upstairs neighbor, who was something of a best friend, announced she wasn't coming back. It was just a pile of uncertainty that my highly emotional self wasn't ready for.

During RA training, we went off to a camp for an overnight. The residence directors and ARD's got to do a bunch of cool ropes courses and stuff, but the rest of us were doing the usual emotionally intense team trust building exercises. As you probably know, some of that stuff is nonsense in the first place, so I was not interested and not feeling it. I had a mini-breakdown because I didn't feel like I was up for this. I ended up having a confessional of sorts with the director of res life. He was kind of a tool, as I recall, but he gave me a pep talk and I moved on.

As that day began to wind down, I started talking to one of the RA's from an all-women dorm. She was a senior, and for whatever reason, we hit it off. She was extraordinarily driven academically, and I was honestly a little intimidated by her. If that weren't enough, she was also a serious distance runner with all kinds of school records. She was in amazing shape.

My fellow staff all kind of dispersed to the cabins, but I continued to hang out with "Jenny" under a clear starry sky. As you might expect, this led to a great deal of making out. At this point in my life, I was not particularly experienced with women, and I don't know if I was keeping up. Truth be told, I've only been that jacked up on hormones a half-dozen times in my life. I didn't get back to the cabin until around 3 a.m., and I had "the pain."

Back on campus, the next few days, we spent some evening down time together, mostly in her room. I remember watching Arsenio Hall on her TV in her dark room. This was very much a trial by fire affair for me. I hadn't spent a lot of horizontal time with any girls, and there I was. I had no idea what I was doing, or perhaps should be doing. All I knew is that I was making out with this beautiful woman who, the way I remember it, would likely be someone that any heterosexual male would enjoy being with in this situation.

The school year started, and this continued for a few days. We had even settled into something of a serious dating routine even, eating together when possible. Then there was a pivotal event that I was completely oblivious to. In one of our late night make-out sessions, one of her breasts "accidentally" came out of the tank top she was wearing. I was completely clueless. I didn't think it was intentional, but she wasn't in any hurry to correct the situation. It's embarrassing to even think about how oblivious I was. She was coming on to me in a significant way, and I didn't respond.

I don't remember if it was that night, or the next night, but she was a little more direct about my intentions. For reasons not entirely clear to me at the time (and completely regrettable), I told her that I wanted to wait for the "right situation," something that I would later learn did not exist. At that point, she figured that it wasn't going to work out, and she was probably right.

It's easy to see now that I had my head up my ass. I don't think negatively about her intentions or character, because she really was in to me. But given her driven personality, and a lot more experience, she also had pretty clear expectations for a relationship, and wasn't willing to settle for anything less. I respect that.

I would later learn from a friend who had dated her at length that she was essentially a good person, and her sex drive was a component of who she was. It made sense that my hangups were not going to appeal to that part of her requirements. For me, I can't believe how silly I was. There's no question that she would have caught me up on years of inexperience, and I might have been better off for it. It wasn't even the only opportunity I would have like that during that year.

The "Jenny" situation was not one of my stronger college moments, to say the least. The things I learned from the encounter wouldn't actually be obvious to me until many years later, after my divorce and during my dating years. Put simply, everyone has a certain view on how they integrate sexuality into relationships. No one is right or wrong (though one could legitimately argue that some people exhibit unhealthy behavior), but it's critical to communicate those standards and decide whether or not they're compatible for you. Building a relationship can be hard, so why make it complicated by requiring a lot of guess work? "Jenny" did the right thing, even if her efficiency sounded a little cold.

Mental exhaustion: I haz it

posted by Jeff | Sunday, October 26, 2014, 8:17 PM | comments: 0

My brain is like goo right now. I have to admit, I've only felt that a few times in my life. It's a little like physical exhaustion, in that it slows you down, but more than anything I find it makes you seek out experiences that require no intelligence. Wow, that sounds a lot like being a 13-year-old boy.

Part of it is my job, and I'm not complaining. It challenges me, and staying plugged-in at a high level most of the time leads to pretty satisfying results. Given my long history of struggling with job satisfaction, that's a good thing. Surprisingly, a lot of that plugged-in-ness comes from constant evaluation over whether or not I'm distributing my time effectively. My job combines a lot of things that I've had to do independent of each other in various gigs, but now I have them all. That's awesome, but it requires practice. Plus, you know, making software requires a lot of mental gymnastics regardless of role.

We're in the home stretch right now for the project, and the client is super happy, so we just need to deliver. Being the "new guy" of sorts, after almost five months and on my first project, obviously I don't wanna screw that up. It has been hard to switch off at the end of each day.

Outside of work, there are challenges at home with Simon. Some of them are familiar, and some are new. In every case, I spend a lot of time trying to separate my desire to respond emotionally from a more clinical and analytical response. Nothing is harder than not responding emotionally to the actions of this little human that you made, because you care so much. As he gets older, ASD manifests itself in different ways, and his extreme responses to things he can't process are harder to contain. Sometimes the best you can do is let these reactions run their course. It's hard to let him suffer and constantly wonder if he's able to learn from negative experiences. I give a world of credit to the parents who deal with a wider range of challenges, and can't really judge anything they do.

When I say I'm mentally exhausted, it's not that I'm complaining, exactly, but more that I need to acknowledge that I desperately need to unplug. Being that engaged all of the time can take a toll on you, and burn you out, and that makes you less effective in your job and as a parent (your other job).

Relive those college days

posted by Jeff | Saturday, October 25, 2014, 10:10 PM | comments: 0

I was thinking the other day how the lack of a widely used Internet in my college days means I didn't write much in those days. Well, I did, but that was my weekly newspaper column. Those are fun to read, because they remind me about how I was naive and sometimes a little overly idealistic.

I certainly never wrote about my personal life in the newspaper, which in retrospect was something of a train wreck. I really sucked at relationships. I had a habit of making girls my best friends, was oblivious to those that outright wanted to fuck me, and my first love was about as immature a relationship as you could have (long distance, no less). Oh, and one of my female friends ended up being a psycho who stalked herself and apparently blamed it on me, I later learned. Those were strange times.

My professional ambitions were also a little nuts. I wouldn't go as far as to say they were impractical or unrealistic, but more that they were desires not fueled by anything other than fantasy. It's hard to say if that's good or bad, because we certainly have a bell curve we follow in terms of risk over time.

I need to write about some of those stories. They're a staggering 20 years in the past now. They're fun to think about because in some ways they make me think more about my present life. I don't know how I could have been so clueless about so many things then, but certainly some of it was that I just wasn't willing to take anyone's advice as the gospel. I'm still that way, though now it's more of an issue of consideration and not disregard.

Now where do I start...

The quest for the die-cast monorail toy

posted by Jeff | Monday, October 20, 2014, 10:41 PM | comments: 0

I don't know if it's parental influence or intrinsic motivation, but Simon does not generally desire toys. Even at 4, while he understands the process of purchasing things, he doesn't really ask for them. Many of his toys are hand-me-downs or used, and he tends to lock in on certain things for awhile and then defers them to standby status.

He really likes vehicles on tracks, but he kind of does the same thing with the variations he has (and there are several). He lines up the included or native vehicles, then adds cars trains or whatever to them, lines them up, and that's his "play." Honestly it was one of the earliest signs of ASD, before he was even 2, when he "parked" cars in size order against the wall. He doesn't have much of a history of imaginative play, which is something that has deeply concerned me.

A funny thing happened though, when we moved to Orlando. As we traded Cedar Point for Walt Disney World, Simon was now exposed to a world of transportation that included trains, buses, boats and of course, the iconic monorail. He eventually figured out who Mickey Mouse was, but it was the transportation that seemed to capture his obsession. Before too long, he was reciting cast members and recorded spiels. Even though he was struggling with language, he was moving toy cars around and talking about them coming to "a 'plete stop."

A friend of mine generously gave us his toy monorail, the thing that's $80 in the gift shops. While probably not an ideal toy for a kid Simon's age, he was completely enamored with it. More importantly, he wanted to accessorize it with a place for people to get out. The Duplo platform was born with some help from us, and it was followed by other things like a "hotel" that was sort of inspired by the Contemporary. Sure, we put him up to it originally, but more spiels came, and he started to tell us about how things were supposed to work.

At about the same time, we were struggling a bit with potty training. The kid wouldn't drop a deuce in the toilet, even though he knew how. He preferred to get a diaper on and go there instead. We happened to be in a gift shop at WDW, when we saw they had die-cast parking lot trams. One of his favorite things is to sit in the back row and talk to the spielers, so one of us came up with the idea that we would incentivize pooping on the potty with the tram. He earned the requisite number of stickers in almost no time flat. It worked like a charm.

Like I said, this isn't a kid with strong desire for "stuff," but his borderline obsession with Disney transportation and our desire to get this done were a good match. We repeated this with autonomous butt wiping, which he needed for school (Disney buses), and in the last few weeks, peeing standing up (a smaller, die-cast monorail). The monorail train was really hard to find, and the kid was crushed when we couldn't find it on Saturday for our first family visit to Magic Kingdom in many weeks. Diana went the distance, and found a number that pointed her to the gift shop at the Swan hotel of all things. She brought it home today, and we kept our end of the bargain.

Simon still does his parking exercise with the transportation vehicles, but I feel like we hit another milestone for imaginative play. He kept the box, and he's parking the new monorail in it as if it were a hotel. He explains it has to stop just so, that way the people can get on. It's a step in the right direction. I understand now that he's wired to think about doors, elevators and the order and alignment of objects, and we can't change that about him. But we also see that we can help him develop the imaginative play in addition to those stereotypical behaviors.

We have a new therapist starting with Simon, and it will be interested to see what she can bring out of him. He seems like he's on the edge of a major and rapid breakthrough on language skills, which is a huge relief. We're definitely dealing with some severe sensory issues (he's pushing his head or chin into us in very painful ways lately), but clearly two sessions of school per day are having a serious impact on his learning.